The NFL certainly has shifted to a pass-happy approach over the past decade. With each passing year, teams are putting the ball in the air more and more, and a host of explosive playmakers are dominating the game from the perimeter. Thus, having a top-tier group of pass catchers is more advantageous than ever.
So who has this luxury? Now that the bulk of free agency is over and the 2015 NFL Draft is in the rearview, it's a great time to re-assess which NFL teams boast the top groups in this area.
After thinking about how rookies will fit into their new teams and reviewing All-22 Coaches Film from last season, I've come up with five receiving units (tight ends included) that stand out above the rest. Here's how I would rank them heading into training camp:
1) Green Bay Packers
Credit general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy for taking a homegrown approach to assembling the most complete aerial attack in the NFL. The Packers have systematically drafted and developed each of the key contributors to the passing game, a fact that is essential to maintaining long-term consistency in the salary-cap era. The team has transformed a pair of exceptional return specialists (Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, both second-round picks) into a dynamic WR tandem that racked up 2,806 combined receiving yards and 25 touchdowns in 2014. Granted, the spectacular performance of the NFL's MVP (quarterback Aaron Rodgers) fueled the jaw-dropping production. Still, astute observers recognize the special traits that Nelson (a precise route runner with big-play ability) and Cobb (a super-quick slot receiver with electric running skills) bring to the field. In the Packers' highly efficient dink-and-dunk system, Nelson and Cobb terrorize opponents on a variety of catch-and-run plays on the perimeter.
With Nelson and Cobb -- who each earned Pro Bowl recognition as Green Bay's top two wideouts -- producing like that, it's easy to overlook the supporting cast of receiver Davante Adams and tight ends Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless. But those three add athleticism and versatility to the lineup, allowing the Packers to use a variety of personnel groupings and exotic formations to exploit mismatches on the perimeter. Rookie Ty Montgomery is a wild card for Green Bay as a receiver/return specialist. Taken in the third round earlier this month, the Stanford product is dynamic with the ball in his hands, but he must show better consistency to crack a spot in this deep rotation.
2) Denver Broncos
Despite the losses of Eric Decker, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker over the past two offseasons, the Broncos still field one of the most explosive receiving units in the NFL. Led by Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos attack opponents with a variety of bubble screens, short crossers and vertical routes on the perimeter. New head coach Gary Kubiak will tweak the heavy reliance on "now" throws in the game plan, but the shift to a play action-based vertical passing game should allow Thomas and Sanders to continue to put up big numbers. Denver's dynamic duo likely will run more deep overs, comebacks and stutter routes on the perimeter, which will lead to fewer touches (Thomas and Sanders accounted for 212 receptions for 3,023 receiving yards and 20 TDs in 2014) but a higher yield (increased yards-per-catch figures) in a passing game built on run-action deception in the backfield. Lastly, Cody Latimer, the Broncos' second-round pick in 2014, could be in for a breakthrough sophomore campaign.
With Kubiak poised to feature more tight end-friendly concepts to work the middle of the field, don't sleep on Virgil Green and Owen Daniels. Daniels, in particular, could form a nice connection with Peyton Manning. The two-time Pro Bowler is adept at finding creases between the hashes and is fresh off a solid season as the TE1 in Baltimore. He should join Green in the Broncos' "12" personnel package to create an effective inside-outside attack in the passing game.
3) Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have assembled a solid nucleus in the passing game that ranks among the best in the NFL. After snatching Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in 2012, GM Ryan Grigson wisely selected Coby Fleener (Round 2), Dwayne Allen (Round 3) and T.Y. Hilton (Round 3) in that same draft, to grow along with the franchise quarterback in his developmental years. And of course, this group has played a big part in Indy's three straight playoff berths and two straight AFC South titles.
Hilton has blossomed into one of the NFL's most explosive playmakers on the perimeter, with a total of 17 catches of 40-plus yards in his brief career. Moreover, he has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and assumed the role of WR1 in the offense. Meanwhile, Fleener and Allen quietly have become one of the league's most effective tight end tandems. They each scored eight touchdowns in 2014, terrorizing opponents with their contrasting styles (Fleener is the athletic "move" tight end adept at vertical routes; Allen is the big-bodied playmaker ideally suited to win in third-down/red-zone situations). There are few defenses capable of shutting down a dominant 1-2 punch between the hashes.
And the challenge of defending the Colts' passing game will be made even tougher by the addition of Andre Johnson and the continued development of Donte Moncrief. Johnson gives the Colts a big-bodied pass catcher with a Pro Bowl pedigree on the perimeter. Although he has lost a step, Johnson remains a viable threat and should alleviate the pressure on Hilton to carry the load as the WR1. First-round pick Phillip Dorsett could be the ultimate X-factor for Indy. As an explosive deep threat with speed to burn, he could make a number of plays down the field.
Long story short, the Colts seemingly have an answer for every defensive tactic an opponent can throw at their diverse aerial attack.
4) Detroit Lions
Whenever a team trots out one of the most dominant pass catchers in football, defensive coordinators around the NFL can't help but sweat -- especially when that explosive playmaker is a 6-foot-5, 236-pound freak with a rare combination of size, speed and ball skills.
Thus, it shouldn't come as a surprise to see the Lions ranked on this list, largely due to Calvin Johnson. The perennial Pro Bowler can single-handedly take over a game with his overwhelming physical stature -- and he's also become a more complete playmaker throughout his career. He's significantly improved as a route runner, yet remains a jump-ball specialist capable of wrestling 50-50 balls away from multiple defenders in the red zone. Johnson's mere presence on the perimeter commands double coverage, freeing up the field for his supporting cast.
Golden Tate showed with he could do in his first season with Detroit, posting team highs in catches (99) and yards (1,331). The slick pass catcher is arguably one of the best playmakers in football, exhibiting exceptional running ability and ball skills. He carried the Lions during Johnson's three-game absence due to injury (Tate amassed two of his five 100-yard games during that stretch) and anchored the passing game until Megatron was ready to resume duties as the WR1. Most importantly, Tate emerged as an effective complement to Johnson, giving the Lions a dominant 1-2 punch.
Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron failed to post big numbers in 2014, but the tight end position should play a bigger role in coordinator Joe Lombardi's offense this season. I'm particularly intrigued by Ebron, who could make a substantial jump in Year 2 of his career. Honestly, that's a big part of why Detroit got a spot on this list -- I expect big-time growth from the sophomore TE.
5) New York Giants
Considering Big Blue's blue-collar reputation, it feels a little weird to include this team on a list of the most dynamic aerial attacks in football. But GM Jerry Reese has assembled a cast of pass catchers that could take the league by storm in 2015.
Led by 2014 Offensive Rookie of the Year Odell Beckham Jr., the G-Men have the firepower to overwhelm opponents with a high-flying passing game this fall. The 5-11, 198-pound playmaker is arguably the most spectacular young receiver in the NFL, with a game that is polished well beyond his experience. From his superb route-running ability to his unbelievable ball skills, Beckham is a legitimate WR1 with extraordinary big-play ability. He is a rare pass catcher capable of stretching the field on vertical routes or delivering home runs on an assortment of catch-and-run plays.
Victor Cruz is coming back from a torn patellar tendon. Before the injury, he was the most explosive slot receiver in the game. Here's hoping he can return to form in 2015. When healthy, he exhibits rare stop-start quickness between the hashes, which makes him nearly indefensible in one-on-one matchups. In the Giants' quick-rhythm offense, which features a host of slants from the slot, Cruz wears out nickel corners, linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field. Cruz is also capable of racking up big yardage on the outside as a traditional "Z" or "X", but the Giants can put opponents in quite a bind when aligning their top receivers on the same side. If Cruz returns to Pro Bowl form this season, New York's passing game could be downright scary to defend.
Receiver Rueben Randle and tight end Larry Donnell round out the unit as complementary players. Each is capable of winning one-on-one matchups against CB3s and CB4s, which makes the Giants' offense problematic to defend when offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo elects to open up the formation with three-receiver sets. Donnell just enjoyed a breakout season with 63 catches for 623 yards and six touchdowns. He could emerge as a dominant red-zone weapon in 2015 and beyond.