Now it's time to turn our attention to the top 40 wide receivers. The most obvious takeaway from this exercise is the depth at the position. Elite young slot receivers such as Victor Cruz and Randall Cobb barely cracked the top 20. Sidney Rice and Anquan Boldin were squeezed in at the end of the list.
This is not meant to be a mere reflection of raw 2012 statistics. These rankings are based purely on projected impact for the 2013 season. As such, aging players might have been demoted to reflect the possibility of a sharp decline while breakout candidates have been bumped a few spots as they threaten to reach the next level.
On to the list.
Gil Brandt's opinion notwithstanding, Johnson is the king of the hill after breaking Jerry Rice's single-season receiving yards record. There's no tougher matchup at the position. ... Fitzgerald is a probable first-ballot Hall of Famer one year removed from a 1,400-yard season with John Skelton as his quarterback. I can't blame anyone for preferring a young stud such as Green or Jones, but I think Fitzgerald has earned the benefit of the doubt. ... Green and Percy Harvin were the best receivers in the NFL for the first two months of last season. Green's production tailed off down the stretch due to bracket coverage and Andy Dalton's regression in the pocket.
Brooks: Bryant vs. Thomas
Jones' numbers would be off the charts if not for the Falcons' share-the-wealth passing game in which Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are heavily featured. He's about to embark on a half-decade stretch straight out of Terrell Owens' prime. ... Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson is still checking under his bed and in his closet for Bryant before he turns off the lights. The final eight games of Bryant's 2012 breakout campaign project to 1,758 yards and 20 touchdowns across a full season. ...
Marshall has been a ticking time bomb for the majority of his career, but he appears finally to have gained some sense of inner peace and maturity. His numbers will go down in 2013 if only because he was targeted on roughly 40 percent of Jay Cutler's passes last season -- nearly eight percentage points more than the next-closest receiver. ... Thomas does everything Jones does, but with a more checkered injury history. He's electric after the catch.
I wanted to leave Smith in the first tier, but he wasn't quite as explosive (early season knee injury?) after the catch or separating from coverage as he was in 2011. Now 34 years old, Smith could be entering the slow fade. ... Speaking of slow fades, Reggie Wayne's might already have begun. He took a backseat to T.Y. Hilton down the stretch after a running series of highlight-reel catches in the first half of the season. ... White continues to crank out 1,300-yard seasons. ... Nicks would be in the first tier as a well-rounded playmaker if he could stay healthy. Alas, he can't.
Not quite true No. 1s
The Green Bay Packers realized prior to last season that Nelson had overtaken Jennings as the best receiver on the roster. ... Wallace is the most lethal deep threat in the game. He has to prove that he's not one-dimensional after a disappointing 2012 season. ... Bowe might be the garbage-time king at the position, but he has No. 1 receiver skills. He should benefit from the quarterback upgrade.
Cruz and Cobb have strong arguments for higher rankings, but slot receivers don't typically take on the task of beating double coverage. If NFL teams don't place a high value on slot receivers, why should we? ... We know what we're getting from Colston year-in and year-out: Not quite Pro Bowl-level, but awfully close. My efforts to stick him with the "Catch-Radius" Colston moniker have been in vain.
The Ravens are counting on Smith to graduate from vertical threat to go-to receiver this season. He has the talent to pull it off. ... Shorts' game tape looks like 90 to 95 percent of Victor Cruz. ... Garcon was the engine that made the Redskins' passing offense go last season. Can he stay healthy? ... I might have underrated Eagles Maclin and Jackson on this list. They both have top-20 talent, but they spend too much time in the trainers' room.
Brown has feasted off the single-coverage provided by Mike Wallace the past two years. Can he succeed as the focus of the opposing secondary? ... I'll take Decker over Welker at this stage of their respective careers, and I think their 2013 stats will reflect that. ... Johnson has been stretched as the Bills' No. 1 receiver. ... Austin took a clear backseat to Dez Bryant in the second half of the season.
Trick or treat
Rice and Britt have the No. 1 receiver skill set, but Rice isn't targeted as such and Britt's knees were a season-long issue in 2012. ... If more people saw Amendola play last season, they wouldn't be asking why the New England Patriots preferred him to Welker. ... Williams and Jones are among the game's best second fiddles. ... Moore and Gordon are obscenely talented breakout candidates. ... Boldin wins with physicality, but has been known to disappear against superior cornerbacks due to his inability to separate. ... Alexander is a top-20 talent with the game's most fragile legs.