When I stepped into the NFL as a rookie receiver with the Buffalo Bills in 1994, I had the opportunity to watch Andre Reed put on a daily clinic with his exceptional skills as a pass catcher.
Observing the future Hall of Famer refine his craft on the practice field, I developed a greater appreciation for the timing and precision needed to be an effective route runner. Additionally, I learned how significantly a dynamic runner at the position could enhance the passing game. While those traits certainly were essential to Reed's success as the primary option in the 1990s Bills' high-octane attack, his strong hands and superb ball skills left the biggest impression on me, shaping the way I evaluated receivers when I eventually became an NFL scout.
Whereas many evaluators place tremendous emphasis on speed, athleticism and agility when assessing pass catchers, to me, the elite guys are those who exhibit extraordinary hands and ball skills. They are natural pass catchers, extremely comfortable plucking the ball out of the air as well as cradling it against their body in traffic. Most importantly, they are aggressive pass catchers who attack the ball at the highest point instead of waiting for it to land in their hands.
With that in mind, I decided to use the first installment in a recurring "Bucky's Best" series to take a stab at ranking the game's top 10 pass catchers, based on hands and ball skills. While I expect a strong reaction from readers outraged by the omission of some familiar names, I compiled this list based on recent dependability.
Without further ado, here are the pass catchers with the best hands in the NFL:
10) Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers: It's rare for a rookie to enter the discussion as an elite receiver, but this third-round pick was so sensational in Year 1 that he deserves consideration. Allen not only posted a 1,000-yard season in 2013 as the Chargers' WR1, but he did so without displaying the concentration lapses and drops that plague most rookie wideouts. Given his overall consistency as a pass catcher and playmaker, I made the tough decision to include Allen on this list over some noteworthy veterans.
9) Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego Chargers: It's only right to pay homage to one of the game changers at the tight end position. Gates showed NFL executives that college basketball players have transferrable skills that can help them shine on the football field. The wily veteran continues to produce in the twilight of his career by displaying strong hands and exceptional body control, snagging passes all over the field. With 87 touchdown grabs to his name, Gates has always been a terror in the red zone, where a condensed field and explosive defenders force tight-window throws -- and strong-handed catches.
8) Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys: It's easy to lose sight of Bryant's raw talent when so much is made of his emotional outbursts, but savvy evaluators marvel at his phenomenal skills as a playmaker on the perimeter. While most will point to his well-documented catch-and-run skills, it is his ability to make the impossible catch look routine that stands out the most to me. Just look at the video clip to the right, which is a testament to his athleticism, ball skills and body control. He also consistently comes through on 50-50 balls, leading quarterback Tony Romo to ride him in key, end-of-game moments.
7) Jordan Cameron, TE, Cleveland Browns: Cameron began his collegiate athletic career as a basketball player at BYU, but then he transferred to USC and hit the gridiron. The fourth-year pro displays all of the core traits (athleticism, agility and strength) to excel between the hashes, but he has become a Pro Bowler because of his sticky hands and remarkable ball skills. Cameron has mastered the art of winning contested balls in the red zone while also displaying the ability to vacuum in errant throws. Extensive experience on the hardwood certainly gave this 6-foot-5, 245-pounder enviable body control and coordination, and it shows on Sundays.
6) Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers: Nelson is rarely mentioned as one of the top receivers in the NFL, but astute observers definitely appreciate the Packers' primary option in the passing game. The veteran receiver has quietly terrorized the NFC North with his skills as an explosive playmaker while also displaying the toughness and physicality to excel between the hashes. Concentration, focus and hand-eye coordination are the key traits to survival in the middle of the field, and Nelson doesn't just survive -- he thrives. Nelson's production, which includes 30 touchdown grabs over the past three seasons, is a testament to his hands, ball skills and dependability.
5) Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints: Yes, another former college hoopster. This first-team All-Pro stud excels at snatching the ball at the highest point, a skill that harkens back to his former life as a rebounder/shot-blocker on the University of Miami basketball team. A spectacular athlete at 6-7, Graham's rise to prominence has been fueled by his ability to make circus catches with relative ease. With post-up ability transferred from the hardwood, Graham's a red-zone monster who led the NFL with 16 touchdown catches in 2013.
4) Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons: Injuries have prevented Jones from securing a permanent spot among the NFL elite, but there's no denying his status as one of the best pure pass catchers in the game today. Jones attacks the ball in flight and routinely wards off defenders with his imposing frame to secure the catch. With Jones also capable of expanding the strike zone thanks to his size, speed and leaping ability, the 25-year-old deserves recognition as one of the premier receiving talents in football.
3) Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears: It's hard for some observers to pencil Jeffery in as Chicago's No. 1 receiver with perennial Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall on the opposite side of the field, but there's no doubt the Bears increasingly relied on the sophomore sensation to deliver big plays as last season wore on. Jeffery's uncanny ability to come down with acrobatic catches in the back corner of the end zone has made him one of the NFL's most dangerous red-zone weapons. Fresh off a 1,421-yard season, Jeffery has thrust himself into discussions about the top pass catchers in the game.
2) A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: It's no coincidence that this guy has a background in juggling. The three-time Pro Bowl receiver -- who has just three seasons of experience, mind you -- has a flair for the dramatic, while also possessing an unrivaled combination of hand-eye coordination, concentration and athleticism. Green already boasts a highlight reel full of jaw-dropping catches -- and he's only played 50 NFL games.
1) Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals: Despite his production declining in recent years -- spotty QB play hasn't helped -- Fitzgerald remains the gold standard on this list. He is a natural pass catcher with strong hands and outstanding ball skills. Most crucially, Fitzgerald remains a sticky-fingered target with a knack for wrestling 50-50 balls away from defenders in big moments. Given the importance of consistency and reliability in the passing game, Fitzgerald's long history of snagging key receptions all over the field makes him the clear-cut winner in this debate.