Analysis

Dez Bryant, Julio Jones among most valuable pass catchers

During my 11-year NFL career as a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions, I complemented two of the most valuable receivers in NFL history: Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson. These two guys made their respective teams significantly better, showcasing their game-changing talent every week. They helped alleviate the pressure on the rest of the offense, stretching the field to open up running lanes and making splash plays when we needed them most.

Knowing first-hand how valuable a premier pass catcher can be on an offense, I was a bit surprised to see Dez Bryant rank 51st -- making him the ninth-best receiver -- in the "Top 100 Players of 2016."

Although Dez didn't put up lofty numbers last year -- due in larger part to a foot injury, as well as injuries to quarterback Tony Romo -- he remains one of the elite wideouts in the game, one you have to account for on every play. When Dez gets going, so does the rest of the Cowboys' offense.

So that got me thinking. Along with No. 88, who are today's most valued pass catchers to their respective teams? Here's my top five:

NOTE: The list below is not necessarily the five best receivers in the NFL, but rather, the guys who I think are the most valuable in terms of what they mean to the rest of the offense.

5) Doug Baldwin, wide receiver, Seattle Seahawks

In the final eight games of the 2015 regular season, Russell Wilson had one of the best spans for a quarterback that we've seen in a while, throwing 25 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Baldwin had 12 of those scoring grabs and tied for the league lead in TD receptions last season -- making him one of the best receivers in the game in my opinion. He's growing into a huge playmaker for the offense, but his numbers aren't the reason why he made my list. Baldwin has a gritty attitude, leads by example and is someone who his teammates can trust. This is how many people describe Marshawn Lynch, who was the heart and soul of the Seahawks. And now that Beast Mode hung up his cleats, I believe Baldwin will fall into that role. It's evident Baldwin's value will only escalate in Lynch's absence.

4) Dez Bryant, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys

Looking back at 2015, it's no secret that the production of the Dallas Cowboys' offense was down when Bryant was in street clothes. When Dez did play, it was clear that the Cowboys were a completely different team, playing better, harder and faster, even when their star receiver was limited. Tony Romo needs a player like Dez on the field on every play. With Dez's explosiveness and ability to get open right away, Romo can get the ball out quickly instead of sitting in the pocket. The Cowboys have other solid pass catchers, including Jason Witten, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley, but no one can replicate what Dez can do. With this offense, it's a night and day difference when Dez is out there and when he's not.

3) Julio Jones, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons

A lot of people question if Matt Ryan is an elite quarterback, but I don't think this question will ever be answered as long as he's throwing the rock to Julio. This guy is not just good, he's great. For me, this pick is purely based on statistics, which I don't typically care about, but there aren't many players who can compare in productivity. Julio was targeted 203 times and had just six drops in 2015. He led the NFL in receiving yards and tied with Antonio Brown for first in receptions with 136. On top of that, he averaged 116.9 yards per game last season. Some teams don't need a star wide receiver to put up monster numbers to be successful. However, the Atlanta Falcons need every bit of Julio ... plus more.

2) Rob Gronkowski, tight end, New England Patriots

I can't name another receiver or tight end who can line up in so many different areas on the field and still get open like Gronk can. He can put up big numbers, but it's his impact on the Patriots' offense that makes him so valuable. Every team knows he is Tom Brady's top target, so he's constantly getting double- or triple-teamed. But again, he's consistently able to get open to make plays. Even when Gronk doesn't get the ball, his presence allows his teammates to have big days because the defense is so focused on him. In one play, Gronk can pull a linebacker, cornerback and safety all toward him, opening up the field for guys like Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and backfield tandem of LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. I believe we've only begun to see what this guy is capable of.

1) DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver, Houston Texans

Hopkins is still in the infancy of his career, but he doesn't play that way. When you listen to him talk, watch him play or look at his body language, he is the J.J. Watt of the Texans' offense. He is the offensive leader, who played with four different quarterbacks and still helped his team win the AFC South and make the playoffs in 2015. Going forward, he's going to be a huge catalyst for new starting quarterback Brock Osweiler. As an inexperienced signal caller, there's nothing better than having a confident and cocky wide receiver to help you. Osweiler knows that when he drops back or throws a bad pass or if his receiver isn't open, Hopkins is going to give the ultimate effort to come down with the ball, which we've seen time and time again. Hopkins keeps getting better with every passing season, and he's going to continue to make huge plays and put up massive numbers in years to come.

Follow Nate Burleson on Twitter @Nate13Burleson.

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