Top 10 receiving corps: Chiefs, Bucs, Saints well-built

Print

It's a long-held pro football axiom, particularly among descendants of the Bill Walsh coaching tree, that a receiving corps should resemble a starting five on the basketball court. A quarterback doesn't want to be handed a collection of power forwards, strong in the paint but lacking quickness and ball skills on the perimeter.

The key is to compile a host of weapons with diversity in talent, providing distinct but complementary skill sets while filling particular roles. A top-notch NFL aerial attack should have a big, physical "X" receiver such as Julio Jones or A.J. Green complemented by a tough, run-after-catch flanker (Z) along the lines of JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Beginning just over a decade ago, that duo was regularly joined by an elusive slot receiver, offering sure hands, a mind meld with the quarterback on option routes and the quickness to beat coverage in and out of his breaks in heavy traffic. If you can recruit an additional speedy downfield target to threaten defenses over the top as a fourth option, all the better.

Don't forget about the front line. There's only one Rob Gronkowski, a throwback to former Giants star Mark Bavaro -- equally proficient as a blocker and receiver. The trick is to find a pair of complementary tight ends, as the Patriots did early this decade with Gronkowski and receiving specialist Aaron Hernandez.

No modern passing attack is complete, however, minus a pass-catching specialist out of the backfield. Essentially operating as an instant-offense sixth man in hoops, a satellite back such as James White or Duke Johnson gives the quarterback a mismatch against linebackers as well as a bail-out option against pressure.

Taken as a whole, the platonic ideal might be found in Tampa. Trotting out an impressive starting five with a wide array of complementary skills, the Buccaneers decimated the Saints' secondary in the season opener.

Mike Evans is a stretch forward in football cleats. DeSean Jackson is a scary deep threat with Allen Iverson-like speed and quickness. Chris Godwin is a physical flanker with run-after-catch skills, perhaps akin to Joe Dumars in his prime. That trio of receivers is bolstered by the tight end tandem of behemoth center O.J. Howard and small forward Cameron Brate. Adam Humphries is no slouch himself, coming off of a 61-catch season as a slippery slot receiver offering firepower off the bench.

No matter who's under center in Tampa Bay, this roundball rank-and-file is here to stay as a top receiving corps. But the Bucs' group falls just short of the No. 1 spot ...

1) Kansas City Chiefs

Why would Andy Reid trade Alex Smith on the heels of a career year that propelled the veteran quarterback into the MVP discussion? It was time to take the training wheels off of 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes, sure. But it was also because Reid understood that the real MVP candidate was Tyreek Hill, who might have been the best player in the NFL in Week 1. Like the early-career version of former Panthers star Steve Smith, Hill is not just the league's most dangerous kick-return ace but an All Pro-caliber receiver, as well. With the imaginative Chiefs coaching staff dialing up trick plays, he's also a threat out of the backfield with constant pre-snap motion designed to deceive defenses. Robbed of AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors (which went to teammate Mahomes), Hill dominated the Chargers to the extent that we rarely see.

While Hill was essentially a one-man wrecking crew in Week 1, that won't be the case going forward. Travis Kelce might not be on Gronkowski's level, but who is? He's still the best run-after-catch tight end in football. Sammy Watkins was signed away from the Rams to operate as the second receiver and draw attention away from Hill and Kelce. Even as a rookie, Kareem Hunt proved to be a threat out of the backfield, allowing Reid to isolate him against linebackers in coverage. Good luck keeping this offense under 30 points per game.

2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs aren't going to score 48 points every week, but their offensive explosion versus the Saints wasn't a fluke. Tampa Bay finished fifth in Football Outsiders' Drive Success Rate last season, placing higher than powerhouses such as the Eagles, Rams and Chiefs. As referenced above, Tampa Bay's depth and variety stand with those of any collection in the league. It's a shame the 2015 version of scatback Charles Sims is no longer healthy enough to round out the receiving corps.

3) New Orleans Saints

Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley might be superior talents, but the Saints' Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara hold the title of backfield-wideout receiving champions. Thomas has set an NFL record for most receptions through two seasons. With apologies to Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, David Johnson and a collection of scatbacks, Kamara is simply the most sublime receiving threat at his position, running wideout routes and consistently shaking free of tacklers for big yardage after the catch.

Written off as a first-round draft bust early in his career, Ted Ginn Jr. has been the second fiddle on some of the best offenses in the league over the past three years. Signed away from the Bears, Cameron Meredith was a healthy scratch in the season opener. Absent a legitimate receiving threat at tight end, Drew Brees needs third-round rookie Tre'Quan Smith to overtake Austin Carr as the No. 3 receiver behind Thomas and Ginn.

4) Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons' trio of Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and first-round rookie Calvin Ridley looks as impressive as any group in the league -- on paper. Not to be overlooked, tight end Austin Hooper and tailbacks Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman comprise an excellent supporting cast. As we witnessed in the NFL Kickoff Game, though, 2016 MVP Matt Ryan and embattled play-caller Steve Sarkisian have yet to find a way to wring consistent results out of this passel of playmakers. Now that Deion Jones and Keanu Neal -- the heart of Atlanta's defense -- have been felled by injuries, the pressure is on the aerial attack to start clicking on all cylinders and carry the load for the next few months.

5) Pittsburgh Steelers

Antonio Brown has been the premier wide receiver in football since Calvin Johnson retired after the 2015 season. Although he and JuJu Smith-Schuster stand toe-to-toe with any starting wideouts in the league, questions loom beyond that dynamic duo. When will talented second-round rookie James Washington displace Justin Hunter and Ryan Switzer as the third receiver? Is tight end Vance McDonald healthy enough to make good on the potential he flashed down the stretch last season? Will All-Pro RB Le'Veon Bell report to the club and force James Conner back into a supporting role?

6) New York Giants

After an injury-ravaged 2017 followed by a Week 1 bout with the ferocious Jaguars defense, it's fair to say this unit is long on potential but short on results. That should change going forward, as Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie Saquon Barkley stand as the most physically gifted receiver-running back tandem in football, each offering Hall of Fame potential. Tight end Evan Engram and No. 2 receiver Sterling Shepard are breakout candidates in their own right, giving Eli Manning a four-pack of uber-talented weapons that would leave most veteran quarterbacks green with envy.

7) Minnesota Vikings

Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were two of the league's best at reeling in contested catches last season, forming one of the most potent combos in the league. Is this the year that former first-round pick Laquon Treadwell finally shakes the bust label to emerge as a capable third option? Former high school power forward Kyle Rudolph is a jump-ball specialist in the end zone, registering 15 touchdowns over the past two seasons. The return of Dalvin Cook gives new franchise savior Kirk Cousins a dangerous checkdown threat out of the backfield.

8) Los Angeles Chargers

Week 1 drops aside, this is one of the deepest units in the league -- even without injured tight end Hunter Henry. Keenan Allen is a legitimate top-five wideout, doubling as possession receiver and reliable red-zone weapon. While Tyrell Williams has a 1,000-yard season under his belt and Travis Benjamin is a speedy deep threat, don't forget about 2017 first-round pick Mike Williams -- a 6-foot-4 monster who calls to mind previous Philip Rivers favorites such as Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. The backfield duo of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler combined for an eye-opening 189 receiving yards against the Chiefs in the opener.

9) Los Angeles Rams

Reigning Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley is the engine that makes precocious play-caller Sean McVay's offense go, stressing defenses as a runner as well as a receiver. Deep threat Brandin Cooks is an upgrade on the departed Sammy Watkins, allowing chain-mover Robert Woods and slot receiver Cooper Kupp to make plays underneath coverage. The Rams need more from second-year tight end Gerald Everett, who flashed downfield playmaking potential as a rookie.

10) Denver Broncos

What a difference a year makes! This team has been reinvigorated by a rookie class that has a real chance to be the league's most productive this year. While new No. 3 receiver Courtland Sutton and starting running back Royce Freeman are the headliners on offense, undrafted dual-purpose back Phillip Lindsay was the surprising star in Week 1. He's here to stay as an elusive playmaker out of the backfield.

Not to be outdone by the newcomers, veteran tandem  Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas apparently spent the offseason in the rejuvenation machine. After battling a nagging ankle sprain throughout a disappointing 2017 campaign, Sanders has followed a promising preseason with a standout performance in the win over Seattle. How many 31-year-old wideouts are doing flips into the end zone?

On the verge: Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

Print