When I played with the Green Bay Packers in the mid-1990s, I watched Brett Favre take the NFL by storm with a receiving corps that featured several playmakers on the perimeter (Robert Brooks, Antonio Freeman and Andre Rison), including a dynamic 1-2 punch (Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson) at tight end that made it nearly impossible to defend the aerial attack.
The diversity created chaos for the Packers' opponents -- and it shaped my view of how elite receiving corps should be constructed to win a championship. The NFL of today is a pass-centric league, and the top squads feature a deep stable of pass-catchers with the kind of depth and versatility that brings to mind a quality basketball team.
Ideally, there should be a classic No. 1 receiver capable of running the entire route tree. This receiver excels at defeating double coverage while also displaying the toughness and clutch ability to deliver when the game is on the line. The complementary receiver, meanwhile, should be a speedster with the acceleration and burst to blow the top off of coverage; he should be great at running the vertical routes while also being a legitimate "catch-and-run" threat on quick throws and bubble screens. As he'll face a lot of one-on-one coverage, it's imperative that he has the playmaking skills to be able to punish the defense for overloading to stop the No. 1 receiver.
The slot receiver doesn't need to be a blazer, but he should be quick enough to run away from nickel corners and linebackers between the hashes. Additionally, he must display the toughness to withstand the punishment that comes with venturing over the middle. Either a big-bodied pass-catcher or a jitterbug with remarkable stop-start quickness and exceptional hands will work in this role.
At tight end, I prefer a sizable athlete with exceptional length and ball skills. He should excel at the "post-up" game (the act of using his body to create space from defenders over the middle of the field); it makes sense that former basketball players are thriving between the hashes in the NFL. If the tight end is capable of playing away from the line, it's an added bonus, because it allows the offensive coordinator to incorporate some exotic formations to exploit mismatches on the edge. The presence of two tight ends with complementary skills makes an offense tough to stop with base and nickel defenses.
Given some time to study the tape and depth charts of every team in the NFL, I thought I would rank my top five receiving corps based on overall talent and diversity. While plenty of teams boast one elite receiver, just a handful of squads have multiple threats good enough to take over the game. Here is how my list shakes out:
1) Washington Redskins
Heading into the 2014 season, the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of new coach Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III to maximize a talent-laden unit. The Redskins have assembled a group of pass-catchers with the size (Reed checks in at 6-foot-2 and 243 pounds), speed (Jackson), explosiveness (Garcon) and quickness (Roberts) to torment defensive coordinators around the NFL. While most rosters feature a number of playmakers on the perimeter, few teams can rival the production delivered by the crew in Washington.
Garcon, a seventh-year pro, amassed 1,346 receiving yards on 113 receptions last season -- the highest total in the NFL. Garcon is not a classic No. 1 receiver in terms of size and route-running ability, but he is a "catch-and-run" playmaker with exceptional running skills. He excels at shaking free from defenders in traffic, which makes him a dangerous threat in the quick-screen game.
Jackson put together a career year with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, posting 82 catches for 1,332 yards -- the ninth-best yardage total in the NFL, one spot behind Garcon -- and nine touchdowns, and when he was released this offseason, it didn't take long for the Redskinsto add him. Jackson is one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL. In his six-year career, he's posted 35 receptions of 40 yards or more -- including eight last season, when he also averaged 16.2 yards per catch. The speedster has the burst and acceleration to blow past defenders on vertical routes; opposing defensive coordinators are forced to account for him on every play.
Reed and Roberts, meanwhile, are dangerous options between the hashes. Each is a capable route-runner over the middle, possessing the quickness and burst to separate from defenders on option routes. Reed in particular is a dependable chain-mover at tight end; last season, 66.7 percent of his receptions resulted in a first down. That's significant production for a playmaker assigned to do damage between the hashes.
It's hard to find a more complete receiving corps in the NFL. Thus, the Redskins earn the top ranking on my list.
2) Chicago Bears
For all of the praise heaped on Bears coach Marc Trestman for his mastery of the passing game, it was his clever utilization of a physically imposing receiving corps that made Chicago's offense so good in 2013. Trestman deftly moved around his big, athletic pass-catchers to isolate and exploit defenders in coverage while keeping things simple for his quarterbacks. While many offensive coordinators can come up with unique strategies and tactical plans to produce big plays, few have the weaponry to pull it off.
In Marshall and Jeffery, the Bears have a pair of big-bodied receivers with exceptional athleticism, length and ball skills. Each presents problems in one-on-one situations, with smallish defenders unable to handle their size, strength and physicality on the perimeter.
Marshall, a ninth-year pro who has notched seven straight 1,000-yard seasons, overwhelms defenders, exhibiting outstanding balance and body control for a receiver with his dimensions; the 6-4, 230-pound veteran is a smooth route-runner with sneaky stop-start quickness. This standout No. 1 receiver is capable of dominating against single or double coverage on the perimeter. Additionally, he is a dangerous red-zone weapon, as evidenced by his 23 touchdown receptions over the past two seasons.
Jeffery, a third-year pro coming off an 89-reception, 1,421-yard campaign, is a talented playmaker with an extraordinary catch radius. He excels at coming down with 50-50 balls, able to wrestle the football away from defenders in traffic. The 6-3, 216-pound Jeffery is also an underrated deep threat who had seven receptions of 40-plus yards in 2013. He routinely wins in the red zone and has emerged as the perfect complement to Marshall on the perimeter.
Though Bennett is rarely mentioned as one of the NFL's elite tight ends, he's put together a two-year run (120 receptions for 1,385 yards and 10 touchdowns with the Bears and New York Giants) that suggests he's an upper-echelon talent on the cusp of earning Pro Bowl consideration. The former standout high school basketball player shines as a big-bodied target between the hashes, using the skills he honed on the hardwood to post up defenders in the middle; his presence there prevents defensive coordinators from using the Cover 2 to slow down Marshall and Jeffery on the outside.
Wilson, meanwhile, has just two career receptions, but I've heard from team sources that the second-year pro could be a significant upgrade as the No. 3 receiver. If he comes close to matching ex-Bear Earl Bennett's production at that position, Chicago's aerial attack will create headaches for opponents everywhere.
3) Denver Broncos
It might be easy to call the Broncos' receivers "system players," based on Peyton Manning's role in their success, but that would mean minimizing the individual and collective talent of the group. Consider that last season, four Denver receivers scored at least 10 touchdowns (Demaryius Thomas had 14, Julius Thomas had 12, Eric Decker had 11 and Welker had 10), with Demaryius Thomas finishing behind only the Saints' Jimmy Graham in total touchdown receptions.
The Broncos' receiving corps features a mix of talented playmakers that reminds me of a basketball team on turf. Demaryius Thomas capably fills the role of No. 1 receiver, using his rare combination of size (6-3, 229), speed and strength to overpower defenders on the perimeter. He has improved dramatically as a route-runner since Manning's arrival in 2012, exhibiting better patience, balance and body control at the tops of routes. In addition, Thomas has shown excellent running skills, routinely turning short passes into big gains in space.
Welker, an 11th-year pro, is still a terror in the slot despite having lost some of his trademark quickness and burst at his relatively advanced age (33). Rather than relying on speed, Welker uses savvy, guile and creativity to get open. He simply outfoxes his opponents in the Broncos' system -- he's especially tough to guard when given the freedom to work the middle of the field on option routes. Although Welker is no longer the elite player that tormented defenders for years from the slot with the New England Patriots, he did produce first downs on 67.1 percent of his receptions in 2013, and that says a lot about his impact for the Broncos.
Julius Thomas is a hybrid tight end with the athleticism, speed and quickness to exploit matchups on the perimeter. The former college hoops player uses his size (6-5, 250) and length to outmuscle defensive backs, while his burst and acceleration let him blow past linebackers. The Broncos have deployed Thomas in a variety of spots to take advantage of mismatches; he's become one of Manning's top targets in critical situations, as evidenced by his stellar work in the red zone.
Decker left for the New York Jets as a free agent this offseason, and Emmanuel Sanders (a free-agent signee himself) and rookie Cody Latimer (a second-round draft pick) will duke it out to replace Decker's production on the outside. Sanders is a jitterbug with tremendous stop-start quickness, while Latimer is an athletic freak in the mold of Cleveland Browns standout Josh Gordon. If either player develops into a consistent contributor, the Broncos' receiving corps could vault to the top of this list by season's end.
4) San Francisco 49ers
Though the 49ers do most of their damage on the ground, observers shouldn't overlook a talented receiving corps that features a number of sticky-fingered pass-catchers with exceptional ball skills. San Francisco's big, physical receivers have some of the best hands in the NFL -- and, more importantly, a diverse set of skills that mesh perfectly on the field.
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Boldin is the backbone of the 49ers' passing game, a versatile playmaker capable of dominating from the perimeter or in the slot; he's topped 1,000 yards in six of his 11 seasons. Measuring 6-1 and 220 pounds and possessing a powerful frame, Boldin bullies defenders with his strength on the perimeter. He initiates contact at the tops of routes yet also displays the balance and body control to work away from coverage using his quickness. Boldin's combination of physicality and toughness makes him tough to defend in the slot, particularly near the red zone.
Crabtree has become one of the NFL's top receivers since Colin Kaepernick took over as the 49ers' signal-caller in 2012; in 12 regular-season starts with Kaepernick, Crabtree has 60 total receptions for 879 yards and six scores. More impressively, Crabtree has been a monster in the postseason, posting 35 receptions for 488 yards (a yards-per-catch average of 13.9) with three scores in his past six playoff games. Moving beyond the numbers, the sixth-year pro is a classic No. 1 receiver who has outstanding balance, body control and hands. Not only does he grab up passes thrown within the strike zone, he routinely snatches balls that are seemingly uncatchable on the perimeter. As a result, he has emerged as the 49ers' top option in critical moments.
Davis, who is firmly established as one of the premier tight ends in the game, cemented his status as a top playmaker in 2013, averaging a ridiculous 16.3 yards per catch (52 receptions for 850 yards) and scoring 13 touchdowns. Those numbers are not only indicative of his big-play ability, but they reflect the challenges opponents face in defending a 6-3, 250-pound pass-catcher with sub-4.4 speed.
Johnson and Lloyd could wage a training-camp battle for the third receiver spot. Johnson spent the past four years acting as the Buffalo Bills' No. 1 receiver, posting three straight 1,000-yard seasons from 2010 to 2012. He is an unorthodox route-runner, but his crafty game makes him tough to guard on the perimeter. Lloyd is likely considered a wild card at the position after sitting out the 2013 season, but he is a polished playmaker with strong hands and extraordinary ball skills.
5) Indianapolis Colts
The inclusion of the Colts on this list might surprise some, but a closer look at the roster reveals a diverse collection of pass-catchers with tremendous talent and potential.
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Wayne, who is coming off a torn ACL, has been an exceptional No. 1 receiver in Indianapolis throughout his 13-year career. If the veteran playmaker can simply fill a role as a complementary receiver on the back side, he'll enable Nicks and Hilton to thrive on the perimeter in the Colts' three-receiver sets.
Nicks, a sixth-year pro with 311 career receptions, is an underrated No. 1 receiver with strong hands and exceptional ball skills. He quietly averaged 16 yards per catch with the Giants in 2013 on the strength of four receptions of 40-plus yards. Critics frequently point out that he failed to score a single touchdown in 2013, but his ability to deliver so many explosive plays indicates the free-agent signee's value as a top option in the passing game.
Hilton is a big-play specialist with exceptional speed, quickness and acceleration. He blows past defenders on vertical routes, which is why he finished 2013 -- his first 1,000-yard campaign -- with six receptions of 40-plus yards. The dynamic runner excels at taking "catch-and-run" plays to the house. With Hilton capable of stretching the field vertically and horizontally, the Colts will be able to feature a multi-dimensional passing game that creates big gains on the perimeter.
Fleener and Allen are poised to become the NFL's most dangerous 1-2 combination at tight end. Each has the ability to work the vertical portion of the field while also doing the dirty work between the hashes. Fleener in particular has grown into his role as the "move-the-chains" guy in Indy, having produced first downs on 61.5 percent of his receptions in 2013. Although Fleener, who did most of his damage down the middle, is at his best playing as a "slot" receiver, he can also play as a traditional tight end, which creates problems for defenders when the Colts trot their "12" personnel (one back, two tight ends and two receivers) package onto the field.
Allen missed 15 games with a hip injury last year, but he flashed potential as a rookie in 2012, snagging 45 receptions for 521 yards and three touchdowns. He is a hard-nosed physical playmaker with the strength and toughness to dominate as a blocker and receiver on the edge. If he fully recovers from his injury, the Allen-Fleener combination could be a potent one in 2014.