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Cardinals, Bengals, Steelers boast ideal pass-catching diversity

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If you want to make money, investors say, buy into those things that surround and support the top businesses. In the quarterback-driven NFL, one of the top investments you can make is pouring resources into your receiving corps.

And at a time when offenses are increasingly reliant on spreading out defenses to open up the passing game, it is not enough to have only one top-flight receiver -- or even to have only one type of top-flight receiver. You need an arsenal of weapons in the modern game.

When I was putting together a receiving corps in my coaching days, I had a mindset that I wanted to assemble a group that could go out onto a basketball court and beat any other five guys in the NFL. That meant ball skills and athleticism, of course, but almost equally important was diversity in talent, with each receiver providing a different distinct skill and filling a particular role. No team is going to win an NBA title with five starting guards, or just five big men. By the same token, teams in the NFL that have too many pass catchers with the same set of skills (see: Tampa Bay, with Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins) make it easier on opposing defenses.

Diversity in a receiving corps has long been a critical component. When Bill Walsh took Dwight Clark -- a slow-footed guy from Clemson -- in the 10th round back in 1979 (the days of the 12-round draft), he did so with a very specific role in mind. Walsh said, "Clark is a guy people don't even know they need."

When it comes to this criteria of diversity and defined roles, three teams boast receiving corps that jump out to me as units I'd love to take onto a basketball court: Arizona, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. All of those teams have both depth and diversity in their receiving corps, and it makes their quarterbacks -- Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton and Ben Roethlisberger, respectively -- more potent, because they have more ways to hurt you.

Pro Bowl ballot

One other team that comes to mind is New England. While the overall talent can't quite compare to that of the trio mentioned above, the Patriots' group deserves some ink here. New England is one of just four teams with four receivers in the top 80 in the league in receptions, so the Pats obviously are spreading it out. Yes, they have the All-Pro bell cow in Rob Gronkowski, but the rest of the group that fills out the No. 1 passing offense in the league is built from role-playing castoffs like former third-round draft pick Brandon LaFell, seventh-round pick Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who went undrafted in 2008. All of which proves what we already know: Tom Brady is really good.

But back to the big three of the Cardinals, Bengals and Steelers. Let's take a closer look at what makes these teams' receiving corps so good, and how it relates to another sport that's in season right now:

» Like any good basketball team, you have to begin with a star, a stud, a go-to guy who can be the anchor and catalyst of your starting five. The LeBron James, if you will. Antonio Brown, A.J. Green and Larry Fitzgerald certainly fit that role. Each is in the top 11 in receiving yards, while Brown ranks second in yards after catch among wideouts and third in explosive plays (20-plus yards). Fitzgerald is sixth in explosive plays and eighth in touchdowns.

» No matter how good of a stud you have, defenses can stop any aspect or player they want, depending on what price they're willing to pay for doing so. Thus, your receiving corps has to have a guy (or guys) to make that defense pay when it rolls coverages to account for the alpha dog. To extend the basketball comparison, the Kevin Love to LeBron James or Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant. In Pittsburgh, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are those guys (both rank in the top five in the NFL in yards per catch). In Cincinnati, Marvin Jones is having a fine year opposite Green with 42 caches and 520 yards, while Tyler Eifert leads the NFL with 12 receiving touchdowns and feasts on single coverage when teams sell out to stop Green. In Arizona, Michael Floyd -- when healthy -- can be the complement to Fitzgerald's menacingly precise routes with his rare combination of size, speed and athleticism.

» But that's not enough. You also want a legitimate burner in your arsenal, a player whose top-end speed will prevent defenses from squatting in underneath zones to take away the five- and seven-yard curls that have become the bread-and-butter of many modern offenses. In the basketball analogy, these are your 3-point shooters, the guys who stretch the floor. The reigning champion Golden State Warriors obviously have a plethora of these types, guys who open up space in the paint and lanes to the hoop. John Brown in Arizona, Jones in Cincinnati and Darrius Heyward-Bey (along with Bryant) in Pittsburgh can all take the top off any zone defense by stretching the 11 defenders vertically, decongesting underneath traffic in the process. Or better yet? Cleaning out the box for the running game. The Steelers, Bengals and Cardinals all rank in the top 12 in rushing, averaging better than 115 yards per game on the ground.

» If you have seen the Los Angeles Clippers play, you know that they truly live up to their "Lob City" moniker. Often times, Chris Paul will drive the lane and draw in the defense before throwing the ball anywhere near the rim for Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan to dunk home. Having an "above the rim" player in the NFL can have a similar impact. You have to have a big man who you can toss a fade to with the confidence that he probably will come down with it, a player who's going to win most of those 50-50 balls. While Green certainly can do that for the Bengals, it's Eifert who really has become that guy for Cincy in 2015 (particularly in the red zone). Meanwhile, Floyd averages a healthy 15.9 yards per catch for Arizona and routinely wins jump balls thrown his way. The Steelers were looking for this type of player to support Roethlisberger for quite some time -- remember when they drafted Limas Sweed in the second round back in 2008? -- and finally found one in Bryant. In 16 NFL games (and just five starts), the second-year pro has averaged 20 yards per catch and scored 13 touchdowns.

» If you need muscle in the middle to grind out the tough shot or just eat up space in the paint -- like Serge Ibaka does for the Oklahoma City Thunder -- enter Heath Miller in Pittsburgh or the sneaky-good combo of Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham in Arizona. And in those third-and-short situations, where teams are playing press coverage and stacking the box, you need a receiver who can, like a rebounder, establish position and box out the defender. Eifert does this quite well in Cincy.

» You need your guy off the bench, the sixth man in the NBA. The guy people aren't particularly focused on but can suddenly change the tenor of the game. The change-of-pace guy, like J.R. Smith for the Cleveland Cavaliers or Jon Leuer for the Phoenix Suns, can be instant offense for a team that needs a quick jump-start. In the NFL, Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu has 25 receptions (at 13.1 ypc), including six of 20 yards or more. Wheaton might be the ultimate change-of-pace guy; after totaling 273 yards in the first 10 games of the season, the Pittsburgh wideout just exploded for 201 on Sunday. Meanwhile, Fells -- Arizona's backup tight end who, by the way, is also a former pro basketball player -- averages 14.2 yards per reception and has three TDs. None of these guys are going to keep defensive coordinators awake at night, but each has the ability to make a major impact.

» Finally, these three teams have running backs who can come out of the backfield and significantly enhance the passing game. These guys are the ultimate swingmen, if you will. With his 36 receptions for 377 yards, Giovani Bernard is the prototypical situational back. Andre Ellington was supposed to play this role for the Cardinals, but injuries limited his impact early and left the door open for rookie David Johnson. Combined, Ellington's and Johnson's impact is nearly identical to Bernard's: 32 catches for 377 yards. For the Steelers, Le'Veon Bell was the most talented pass-catching running back in the NFL before his season-ending injury, but that hasn't stopped Pittsburgh. In his stead, DeAngelo Williams has 20 catches for 255 yards despite logging just five starts so far this season.

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While investing in pass-catching talent can be expensive -- as is evidenced by the first-round selections of A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Heath Miller -- there is a great deal of value in filling out your "starting five" with lower-round guys. Among receivers, Antonio Brown is the Tom Brady of low-round gold mines, having been drafted in the sixth round in 2010. John Brown, Mohamed Sanu and Markus Wheaton were third-round selections. Martavis Bryant was an absolute steal in the fourth round, as was Marvin Jones in the fifth.

But the thing to remember is that teams that have this kind of diversity in their receiving corps have more resources at the quarterback's disposal, more ways to pierce a defense. And in the modern game, that kind of flexibility can be particularly hard to handle.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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