Colts, Seahawks head teams with most improved receiving corps


As we head into the 2015 NFL campaign, Bucky Brooks is identifying which teams have improved the most in particular position groupings since the end of last season. Today's focus: receiving corps.

5) Kansas City Chiefs

After going through an entire season without a single touchdown from a wide receiver, Andy Reid made a concerted effort to upgrade the pass-catching unit during the offseason. The veteran coach picked up one of his former pupils (Jeremy Maclin) to man the WR1 position on the perimeter. The seventh-year pro is fresh off his first 1,000-yard campaign in the NFL, having flashed electric running skills and big-play ability in Chip Kelly's high-octane offense in Philly. Most importantly, Maclin shined as a deep-ball specialist, averaging 15.5 yards per catch on the strength of seven receptions of 40-plus yards. Although Kelly's system undoubtedly created plenty of vertical opportunities for Maclin, the crafty playmaker should continue to shine in a catch-and-run scheme designed to feature a host of shallow crossers and quick-rhythm throws that accentuate Alex Smith's strengths as a dink-and-dunk passer.

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The move to make De'Anthony Thomas a full-time receiver should also help the Chiefs' passing game make a substantial leap in 2015. The zippy return specialist has shown big-play potential as a gadget player for the Chiefs, but he should make a greater impact as a dynamic slot receiver. Reid can quickly get the ball into the hands of his most explosive athlete on the perimeter on a variety of screens that allow him to maximize his electric running skills in space. With Thomas beginning to master the nuances of route running, the Chiefs have added another scoring option to the mix.

Travis Kelce is coming off a breakout season (67 catches for 862 yards and five touchdowns), but the tight end could still make a major leap in his development as a third-year pro. Kelce is more comfortable with his role as a "MOF" (middle of the field) playmaker; Reid will feature him on a number of Y-stick and seam routes to take advantage of his speed and athleticism. Given Reid's track record of developing tight ends (see: Mark Chmura, Keith Jackson, Chad Lewis and Brent Celek), Kelce could become the focal point of the Chiefs' high-percentage passing game.

4) Miami Dolphins

Despite Ryan Tannehill's rise as one of the top young passers in the NFL, the Dolphins' aerial attack lacked sizzle in 2014. The team averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt (26th in NFL) and produced a grand total of four passing plays of 40-plus yards (30th). Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson and Charles Clay were supposed to deliver fireworks in coordinator Bill Lazor's scheme, but the lack of explosive plays led Joe Philbin to seek some alternatives during the offseason.

Tight end Jordan Cameron steps into the role of primary playmaker between the hashes. The ex-Pro Bowler creates a mismatch with his combination of speed, athleticism and quickness. He should quickly develop into Tannehill's favorite target in key situations, particularly in the red zone. If the Dolphins are able to establish the Tannehill-Cameron connection early in the season, the team's supporting cast should thrive on the perimeter, with opponents focused on shutting down the middle of the field.

To that point, first-round pick DeVante Parker and trade acquisition Kenny Stills are poised to post big numbers in Miami's quick-rhythm offense. Parker is a classic WR1 with a long, rangy build and sticky hands that make him an ideal option on passes thrown outside the numbers. If he can quickly pick up the Dolphins' scheme once he returns from foot surgery, Parker could torch opponents as a sneaky possession receiver on the outside.

Stills should become the designated deep threat in the lineup. The third-year pro is not only a spectacular route runner with exceptional speed and burst, but he is a proven playmaker with 11 receptions of 40-plus yards in just two years. If opponents attempt to condense the field with tight coverage, Stills can deliver fireworks on a series of double moves and vertical routes.

Keep an eye on Jarvis Landry's continued development as a slot receiver. He settled into the role as a rookie and should have a significant impact on the offense as a rugged catch-and-run specialist between the hashes. If Landry takes another step forward in Year 2, Miami could field a passing game devoid of any weaknesses.

3) New York Jets

For all of the criticism thrown in Geno Smith's direction over the past two years, the Jets' lack of offensive production was largely due to the lack of playmakers on the perimeter. Without an established or respected WR1 on the roster, opponents routinely forced Smith to make pinpoint throws against tight coverage, leading to a rash of turnovers from the young passer. Of course, Ryan Fitzpatrick looks to be at the helm at the start of this season, as Smith will miss the next six to 10 weeks after having his jaw broken by a teammate's sucker punch. Fortunately, Gang Green will provide Fitzpatrick with a vastly upgraded group of pass catchers.

The arrival of Brandon Marshall should alter opponents' plans against the Jets and allow the team's complementary receivers to settle into more comfortable roles. A five-time Pro Bowler, Marshall has logged seven 1,000-yard campaigns, five of which also included 100 catches. He expands the strike zone for his quarterback with size, length and leaping ability -- this makes the receiver a true red-zone weapon in key situations. With 65 career touchdown receptions and a stellar reputation as a "chain mover," Marshall should become the focal point of the Jets' offense in 2015.

Eric Decker should benefit significantly from Marshall's arrival. The sixth-year pro is an ideal WR2, exhibiting exceptional hands, ball skills and route-running ability on the back side. When Decker has played with a dominant playmaker on the other side (see: his production opposite Demaryius Thomas in Denver), he has delivered big numbers against CB2s. He could surpass Marshall's overall production despite filling a role as a complementary pass catcher.

Devin Smith's rib injury could impact his early-season production, but the Jets are counting on the ex-Ohio State star to add an explosive element to the passing game. He shined as a vertical playmaker in Columbus (Smith averaged 28.2 yards per catch and scored 12 touchdowns during his final season at OSU) and should see plenty of deep balls head in his direction with opponents focused on slowing down Marshall and Decker. If Smith can add a big-play dimension to the Jets' attack, Todd Bowles' squad could create problems for opposing defenses with a diverse approach in the passing game.

2) Seattle Seahawks

When Seattle acquired Jimmy Graham, the team significantly upgraded a unit that lacked a premier playmaker. Although Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse would certainly dispute that notion, opponents' increased utilization of bump-and-run and tight coverage with a single-high safety showed a lack of respect for the explosiveness of the team's passing game.

That approach will change with Graham in the fold. The 6-foot-7, 265-pounder is a nightmare matchup with his extraordinary size, athleticism and leaping ability. He overwhelms defensive backs and linebackers in one-on-one situations, particularly down in the red zone, where back-shoulder fades and jump balls become a big part of the game plan. Considering his 51 career touchdown receptions and knack for delivering big plays in key moments, Graham will set the table for the Seahawks' passing game and create opportunities for his teammates to make plays on the perimeter.

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Rookie Tyler Lockett could play a major role as a rookie as the team's WR3. The two-time first-team All-Big 12 receiver is an electric playmaker with spectacular instincts, awareness and running skills. He is dynamite with the ball in his hands, which makes him a perfect fit for the catch-and-run plays in Seattle's offense. With Lockett also showcasing impressive skills as a route runner on the outside, the rookie could team with Graham to upgrade the Seahawks' passing game in spread formations.

Seattle's receiving corps has been effective in recent years without a lot of star power in the lineup, but the arrivals of Graham and Lockett should allow Baldwin (possession/slot receiver) and Kearse (designated deep threat) to occupy roles better suited for their respective talents.

1) Indianapolis Colts

It is hard to imagine how the NFL's top-ranked passing offense could significantly improve, but the Colts have added a number of weapons to the receiving corps that should make the aerial attack nearly impossible to defend in 2015. From adding a classic WR1 (Andre Johnson) to inserting another dynamic playmaker on the perimeter (Phillip Dorsett), general manager Ryan Grigson has surrounded Andrew Luck with enough weapons to allow the young gunslinger to throw the ball all over the yard.

Johnson, a 13th-year pro with seven 1,000-yard seasons and 64 career touchdown grabs, gives Luck a big-bodied receiver to target in key situations. Although he is no longer a top-five wideout at this stage of his career, Johnson remains a tough guard on the perimeter due to his combination of size, strength and route-running ability. He still has the capacity to overpower defensive backs with his physicality, yet exhibits soft hands and exceptional ball skills in big spots. If opponents elect to focus their efforts on slowing down T.Y. Hilton with double-coverage, Johnson gives Luck a reliable option to target on the back side.

Dorsett was a surprising first-round selection for the Colts, given their wealth of talent in the pass-catching department, but his explosiveness adds another element to Indy's passing attack. The speedster will blow the top off coverages, creating huge windows for Hilton and Johnson running intermediate routes underneath him. If Luck can routinely hook up with Dorsett on vertical routes, the Colts will force opponents to back off their aggressive coverage tactics, allowing Indianapolis to take advantage of open windows available in conservative schemes.

The continued development of Donte Moncrief could create additional headaches for opponents. The second-year pro is a big-bodied playmaker with explosive speed, quickness and burst. With Moncrief having flashed big-play ability (three receptions of 40-plus yards) in limited action last season, the Colts can attack the most favorable one-on-one matchup in spread formations.

Considering the bold moves to upgrade the personnel around a blossoming top-tier receiver (Hilton), it is hard to dispute that the Colts have the most improved receiving corps heading into the season.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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