To maintain a championship-caliber roster, NFL executives and coaches must routinely evaluate their personnel and establish a hierarchy at each position. These determinations impact which guys are re-signed in free agency and how teams feature players in game plans.
With that in mind, I examine three of the NFL's most notable positional tandems, pondering a simple question: Which teammate reigns supreme?
Roddy White vs. Julio Jones: Who is Matt Ryan's No. 1 wide receiver?
The Atlanta Falcons are one of the few teams in the NFL with two different receivers capable of serving as the No. 1 option in the passing game. In White and Jones, the Falcons have a set of big, physical receivers who can run every route in the book. Additionally, both are excellent catch-and-run playmakers with the ability to turn short passes into big gains in the open field.
White, a ninth-year pro, boasts six straight 1,000-yard seasons and 52 career touchdowns. Although he has gradually morphed into a possession receiver who primarily does his damage inside the hash marks, White remains a big-play threat on the outside. He finished 2012 with 18 receptions of 20-plus yards, including four catches of at least 40 yards. Most impressively, White accumulated those numbers on a variety of deep balls and spectacular catch-and-run plays. The video just above showcases his versatility as a home-run threat.
Meanwhile, Jones has lived up to the lofty expectations that accompanied his arrival in Atlanta following a blockbuster draft-day trade in 2011. In two NFL seasons, he has tallied 18 touchdowns in 29 career starts, while averaging a robust 16.2 yards per catch on 133 receptions. Those numbers reflect Jones' dominance as a big-play weapon in Atlanta. Looking at the tape, Jones is a dynamic, big-bodied receiver with a polished all-around game. He capably runs the short and intermediate routes, while also displaying the burst and acceleration to be a factor on vertical patterns. Jones' ability to run past defenders on go-routes (see video above) prompted Ryan to take more downfield shots in 2012, making the Falcons' offense tougher to defend.
THE PICK: Jones. White remains one of the game's elite receivers, but the Falcons would be wise to make Jones the focal point of the passing game. The third-year pro is a difficult matchup for defenders with his rare combination of size, speed and skills. Additionally, Jones is the home-run threat that defensive coordinators fear in big games. Given the dramatic improvement of the Falcons' passing game, particularly in the big-play category, I believe Jones should be the priority in the game plan.
The San Francisco 49ers' ascension to the top of the NFC has been fueled by the defense's stellar play. Led by Willis and Bowman, the 49ers ranked fourth and third in total defense in 2011 and '12, respectively. The dynamic duo has been chiefly responsible for the unit's success, with a collective ability to control the middle of the field against the run or pass.
Heading into his seventh NFL season, Willis is the heart and soul of the 49ers' defense. He is an instinctive run stopper with a strong nose for the ball. Willis hits the point of attack with a vengeance, showcasing the toughness and physicality that have become hallmarks of this San Francisco defense. In pass coverage, Willis displays superb vision, awareness and anticipation. He is at his best dropping in zone, reacting quickly to passes thrown in front of him. Of Willis' seven career interceptions, most have resulted from tips or overthrows to short crossers and check-downs in his area.
If I had to point out a flaw in Willis' game, I would cite his occasional struggles in man coverage. While he certainly possesses the speed and quickness to run with most tight ends and running backs, he labors in turns and transitions, leading to problems maintaining leverage on pass catchers in crossing routes.
Bowman, a fourth-year pro, has quickly emerged as one of the top linebackers in the NFL. He is a tenacious defender with terrific instincts and diagnostic skills. Bowman flies to the ball on running plays, flashing heavy hands and impressive disengaging skills while shedding blockers in the hole. He is equally impressive as a pass defender, showing superb read-and-recognition ability in man and zone coverage. Additionally, Bowman displays a knack for getting around the ball, resulting in a number of breakups in space.
In the pass rush, Bowman is a crafty blitzer with the quickness and agility to avoid blockers in the pocket. He complements finesse rush moves with a power game that overwhelms blockers in the hole. As a result, Bowman is a valuable weapon as a pass rusher in the 49ers' dime package (four defensive linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs).
THE PICK: Bowman. Willis is the marquee player of the 49ers' defense, but Bowman is a better overall linebacker on tape. Bowman is as fundamentally sound as they come at the position, with a skill set that allows him to stay on the field in any situation. While Willis remains one of the best at his position, the All-22 footage backs my assertion that Bowman is the superior player.
The New York Giants could face the possibility of having to choose between Cruz and Nicks at season's end (if neither is signed to a contract extension during the season). Splitting up one of the league's top receiving tandems would diffuse the Giants' explosive passing game and limit Eli Manning's options in critical situations.
Nicks, a 2009 first-round pick, has shown Pro Bowl-caliber ability in totaling 255 receptions for 3,726 yards and 27 touchdowns. He is a classic No. 1 receiver with a polished all-around game built on precise route running and superb ball skills. Nicks is masterful at setting up defenders with clever stutter steps and fakes throughout the route, creating ample separation for Manning to exploit. Most importantly, he understands how to use body positioning to fend off defenders from the ball (check out the video just above). Additionally, Nicks is a clutch performer with a knack for stepping up his game in key moments. On the downside, Nicks has yet to play a full NFL season due to an assortment of injuries, leading to major concerns about his durability as a franchise playmaker.
Cruz, who went undrafted in 2010, has developed into the premier slot receiver in the NFL after posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He is a crafty route runner with an exceptional combination of speed, quickness and explosiveness. Cruz is a rare interior receiver with the ability to thrive between the hashes and on vertical routes. In two seasons, he has totaled 37 receptions of 20-plus yards, with seven touchdowns of at least 70 yards. Those numbers are remarkable for any wideout, particularly a slot receiver primarily instructed to run routes within the 5-to-10-yard range. Cruz also is impressive with the ball in his hands as a runner after the catch. He has the potential to turn short passes into big gains in the open field. Of course, the critics would point out that Cruz is ideally a No. 2 receiver for most teams, diminishing his value as a potential franchise player in the minds of evaluators.
Brooks: Welker vs. Cruz
THE PICK: Cruz. Selecting a slot receiver over a classic No. 1 pass catcher certainly goes against conventional wisdom, but Cruz is the premier player at his position. He is indefensible on short/intermediate routes, while also possessing the speed to blow the top off the coverage. While Nicks is a more naturally talented player, the value of having a dominant pass catcher in the middle is invaluable for a franchise quarterback.