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Most improved receiving corps: Pack's leader returns

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Immediately after the new league year's free agency and draft period, Around The NFL handed out awards for the best performances by scouts and general managers during the roster-reconstruction phase of March and April. Three months later, offseason practices and training camp reports have advanced our understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each team.

Now that camps are wrapping up, it's the perfect time to study which position groups across the NFL appear to be significantly improved heading into the 2016 season. Today, we shift our attention to the receiving corps, as numerous teams loaded up on pass catchers in this year's NFL draft.

1) Green Bay Packers

When playmaking field-stretcher Jordy Nelson and premier slot threat Randall Cobb were fully healthy and complemented by promising rookie Davante Adams in 2014, the Packers' wide receiver corps was the envy of the entire league. But in 2015, after a plodding James Jones replaced the injured Nelson -- Aaron Rodgers' security blanket -- Green Bay's speed-challenged collection of receivers and tight ends held the offense hostage.

Playing through a season-long shoulder injury, Cobb was incapable of fending off double-teams. Battling through a season-long high-ankle sprain, Adams turned in one of the most ineffective seasons in recent memory. Rookie Ty Montgomery went down with a high-ankle sprain of his own just when his role was set to expand. An athletically proficient but technically deficient Jeff Janis had yet to earn the trust of Rodgers and the coaching staff.

"Last year, you had one guy [Cobb] for Aaron to throw it to," one NFL assistant coach explained this offseason. "It was, OK, cover that guy, and after that, [Rodgers] had to make everything up."

Nelson is the linchpin. Now that pro football's preeminent boundary receiver is off the PUP list, Cobb can feast on single coverage in the slot while Adams and Montgomery fall in line as secondary options and former Rams tight end Jared Cook adds a much-needed speed element down the seam. It was just a summer ago that Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy were raving about Adams' potential as a future No. 1 receiver and sure-fire star. Last time his receiving corps was intact, Rodgers took home the MVP award.

2) Cleveland Browns

The Browns imported Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline to upgrade the receiver group last offseason, only to see the former spend the entire season in the doghouse and the latter fail to make plays as one of the league's least productive starters. To the surprise of no one, both veterans are gone, replaced by a four-pack of draft picks in Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Jordan Payton and Rashard Higgins. Already drawing comparisons to Steve Smith, Coleman has been the picture of compact explosiveness in camp.

Coleman will soon have company in suspended game-breaker Josh Gordon, whose 117.6 receiving yards per game in a magical 2013 season were the sixth-most in NFL history. Converted quarterback Terrelle Pryor looms as an intriguing wild card after burning cornerbacks for deep balls in each of the Browns' first two preseason games. On pure physical gifts alone, Cleveland's top three receivers can hang with any group in the league. That sentence would have been unthinkable in January.

3) New England Patriots

The Pats' 2011 tight-end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez was the best the NFL has seen. As Bill Belichick alluded to earlier this month, this year's tight end room has even more potential with 2014 Pro Bowler Martellus Bennett and preseason sensation A.J. Derby teaming with the most dominant force ever to play the position.

While the matchup potential of twin skyscrapers Gronkowski and Bennett is giving defensive coordinators nightmares, the wide receiver corps has been reinforced, as well. Belichick noted that this year's competition at the position is as strong as ever, with rookie Malcolm Mitchell and former Bills wideout Chris Hogan joining waterbugs Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in the rotation.

Tom Brady's offense was a juggernaut before attrition took its toll in mid-November of last season. On paper, the unit is even more dangerous this year. The Patriots are built to adjust their personnel alignment and playing style to suit their opponent. Brady specializes in short, quick throws near the line of scrimmage and in the intermediate area 10-to-25 yards downfield. Depending on the down, distance and opponent, he can choose among three precise possession receivers (Edelman, Amendola, Hogan), a wild card outside the numbers (Mitchell), a pair of stretch forwards in football cleats (Gronkowski, Bennett) and one of the NFL's most elusive pass-catching backs (Dion Lewis). Good luck stopping this loaded aerial attack once Brady returns from suspension in October to slice and dice defensive backfields.

4) New Orleans Saints

With Jimmy Graham banished to Seattle and Marques Colston on a steep decline, Drew Brees entered last season crossing his fingers and hoping for the best out of a 34-year-old Ben Watson, an unproven Brandin Cooks and an unknown in Willie Snead. A year later, Cooks is established as a top-20 receiver, while Snead has emerged as a viable second option.

To that promising duo, the Saints have added former Colts tight end Coby Fleener and Ohio State star Michael Thomas. Considering Brees' prodigious collaboration with tight ends, Fleener is a popular choice to produce a career year in New Orleans. After turning heads throughout offseason practices, Thomas has been the talk of training camp.

"That kid's an absolute stud," backup quarterback Garrett Grayson raved after the preseason opener.

Fighting off a bruised rotator cuff and a torn plantar fascia, Brees was stellar down the stretch last year. Does he have one more brilliant 5,000-yard, 40-touchdown season left in his 37-year-old body?

5) Houston Texans

DeAndre Hopkins became the first player in NFL history to break the 100-yard barrier with four different starting quarterbacks in the same season. The rest of the roster combined to produce just two 100-yard performances, as the running backs, tight ends and secondary receivers were noticeably lacking in speed and playmaking ability.

The draft brought three home run hitters with the wheels to stretch opposing defenses. First-round speedster Will Fuller was the clear-cut No. 2 receiver in the preseason opener, while multi-dimensional converted quarterback Braxton Miller lined up as the first-team slot receiver. The backfield figures to boost the passing game, too, with Lamar Miller and fourth-round rookie Tyler Ervin adding elusive run-after-catch ability. This offense should take on a high-octane look in stark contrast to last year's slow-motion attack.

Honorable mention: Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers.

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