NFL 2017: Ranking the 30 best wide receivers
Let’s take a look at the top 30 wide receivers heading into the 2017 NFL season.
The 2017 NFL season may still be a few months away, but there are still plenty of ways to help pass the time until training camp rolls around, such as a ranking of the top receivers heading into next year. From Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers to Dez Bryant with the Dallas Cowboys, there are plenty of talented receivers in the league who could make a strong case for being the No. 1 wideout, but there can only be one.
As much as running backs don’t want to hear it, the NFL has become a pass-friendly league over the last couple of years after seeing some of the numbers displayed by some of the game’s top quarterbacks. For example, one of the reasons why Drew Brees has found a way to throw for more than 5,000 passing yards in three of the last five seasons is due to the fact he can always count on his strong group of receivers, like he did with Michael Thomas and Brandin Cooks last year.
Obviously, most wideouts in the NFL tend to benefit from having an elite quarterback like Brees to work with, but unfortunately it’s not always as easy for some players, including some of the ones who happened to make this list. Kicking off with Rishard Matthews, it’s time to rank the top 30 wide receivers in the NFL heading into the 2017 season.
30. Rishard Matthews, Tennessee Titans
After spending the first four years of his career with the Miami Dolphins, Rishard Matthews spent the 2016 season as a member of the Tennessee Titans, and based off his first year with his new team, the future seems to be bright for the former Nevada wideout. Building a reliable offense around Marcus Mariota has been a top priority for the Titans over the last two years, and the team was thrilled to see their beloved quarterback develop the quick chemistry with Matthews.
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The fact that Matthews set career highs of 65 receptions for 945 yards to go along with nine touchdowns shows the type of impact he made during his first season in Tennessee, and hopefully he finds a way to top those statistics in 2017. Assuming Mariota doesn’t suffer any serious setbacks following a devastating leg injury towards the end of last year, Matthews could find himself in position to break the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career this upcoming season.
What gives Matthews even more of an advantage is the amazing job the Titans did at bringing two more playmakers on board in this year’s NFL Draft with Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor. With these rookies hoping to make an impact right away, Matthews could find himself in position to receive less pressure from defenders concerned over his whereabouts on the football field.
29. Terrelle Pryor, Washington Redskins
Terrelle Pryor made the transition to being a full-time wideout with the Cleveland Browns last year after spending the beginning of his career as a quarterback, and to be honest, he wasn’t all that bad. Sure, it’s tough to figure out just how effective Pryor truly is as an NFL wide receiver since he was basically one of limited options the Browns had to work with on offense, but at least it was enough to earn him a one-year deal with the Washington Redskins.
One might ask why the Redskins were hesitant towards giving Pryor a hefty contract instead of a one-year deal for $8 million. All things considered, this was a wise move by the organization. The last thing Washington can afford to see happen is Pryor end up being a one-hit wonder after last year, so at least this trial run will hopefully motivate the wideout to prove himself worthy of a potential hefty deal down the road.
At least for Pryor, the one factor he has to be thrilled over is the upgrade at quarterback with Kirk Cousins after seeing all of the issues he witnessed with the Browns in 2016. In fact, if all goes well for this new hopeful duo, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Washington make a push to keeping Pryor and Cousins together beyond the 2017 season, especially after the team recently lost DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon in free agency.
28. Pierre Garcon, San Francisco 49ers
Speaking of Pierre Garcon leaving the Washington Redskins in free agency, the wideout will look for a fresh start as a member of the San Francisco 49ers during Kyle Shanahan‘s first year as head coach. When looking at Shanahan’s success over the years as an offensive genius, the 49ers hope to see Garcon quickly develop into a No. 1 wide receiver to help take some of the pressure off Brian Hoyer running the offense.
Garcon may be entering his 10th NFL season, but the veteran doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon when looking at the numbers displayed over the last few seasons. Watching Garcon haul in 151 passes on 225 targets during his final two years in Washington is the perfect example of why he was considered one of the most sought-after wide receivers in free agency, and hopefully he continues playing this way in San Francisco.
Then again, a big part of Garcon’s success over the last two seasons with the Redskins was due to the rise of Kirk Cousins running the offense at quarterback. But if Hoyer’s style of play over the last couple of years is any indication of what’s in store for 2017, Garcon should have no trouble picking up where he left off.
27. Michael Crabtree, Oakland Raiders
Michael Crabtree made a bold decision back in 2015 when he decided to jump ship from the San Francisco 49ers to join the Oakland Raiders, and based off his numbers, it seems to be paying off for the wideout. Not only has Crabtree managed to stay healthy by appearing in all 32 games for the Raiders over the last two seasons, but also he’s taken advantage of playing with quarterback on the rise in Derek Carr.
Since coming to Oakland two years ago, Crabtree has recorded 174 receptions for 1,925 yards with 17 touchdowns, and even played a big role in helping the team put an end to their disastrous playoff drought last season. Heading into the 2017 season, there’s no reason why Crabtree shouldn’t be able to post similar numbers to the previous two years, as the Raiders hope to make another statement when it comes to being one of the teams to beat in the AFC.
Who would have thought coming to Oakland would have been the best thing Crabtree could have done for his career, and what makes his situation even more beneficial is the fact that he gets to play alongside another great wideout in Amari Cooper, who will be featured later on this list. Between Crabtree and Cooper, the Raiders realize how lucky they are to have one of the top wide receiving duos in the league to give them a major advantage on offense.
26. Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings
In just two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, Stefon Diggs has already proven how dangerous of a target he can be in the passing game, although the team wouldn’t be mad if he found a way to increase his number of trips into the end zone. One year after exploding as an unexpected offensive weapon as a rookie, Diggs wasted no time proving his level of talent was for real after catching 84 of 112 targets for 903 receiving yards during his sophomore campaign.
These kind of numbers have made Diggs a favorite in fantasy football over the last two years, and with Sam Bradford looking for a new contract at season’s end, expect the Vikings quarterback to rely heavily on one of his favorite targets in 2017. Between Diggs and Adam Thielen at wideout along with Kyle Rudolph at tight end, it’s going to be tough for Bradford to come up with excuses if Minnesota struggles to put up consistent numbers through the air.
One of the greatest features about Diggs is his blazing speed that gives him the ability to turn a quick little pass into a monster game. If all goes well in year three for Diggs with the Vikings, don’t be surprised if the wideout finds himself in consideration for earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl
25. Tyrell Williams, Los Angeles Chargers
It’s been devastating to see the Los Angeles Chargers adjust to playing without Keenan Allen over the last two seasons after the wideout has been limited to playing in just nine games (only one last year) due to injuries. While the Chargers hope to eventually see Allen return to full strength to prove Philip Rivers with another weapon to work with on offense, at least the team was able to receive production from Tyrell Williams last season in his absence.
Originally, Williams signed with Los Angeles (back when they were in San Diego) as an undrafted rookie in 2015, and after back and fourth stints on the active roster, last year was enough proof the Chargers made the right decision to have him on board at the beginning of last season. For a team that was unfortunately dealing with numerous injuries on both sides of the football, the impact of Williams turned out to be an unexpected surprise for Rivers in the passing game, and the two hope to see that success carry over into the 2017 season.
By catching 69 passes for 1,059 yards to go along with seven trips into the end zone, Williams finds himself in a much better position this offseason since he no longer has to worry about fighting for a roster spot. And with all of the uncertainty surrounding the health of Allen and rookie Mike Williams, Williams should expect to receive a heavy workload from Rivers for the second year in a row.
24. Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
On a team where defenders focus most of their attention on the whereabouts of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb most of the time on offense, it was Davante Adams that emerged out of nowhere during his third season with the Green Bay Packers to become one of the top wideouts in the NFL. After combining for 88 catches with four touchdowns during his first two seasons with the Packers, Adams played a key role for the Packers’ offense last year by setting career highs of 75 catches for 997 yards with 12 touchdowns.
Playing behind two elite receivers in Nelson and Cobb can make it difficult for some players to find enough passes thrown in their direction, but one of the reasons why Aaron Rodgers is so great at what he does is his ability to spread the football around, which Adams took advantage of. Thanks to Eddie Lacy signing with the Seattle Seahawks a few months ago, Rodgers may find himself relying even more on his wide receivers when it comes to finding ways to put up points on offense, and Adams could be in for his best season to date.
Adams realizes he could potentially have a larger role on a different team, but he can’t complain too much when looking at his current situation in Green Bay. Topping his total of 12 touchdowns may seem difficult, but Adams seems up for the challenge, especially if it helps the Packers make another strong run at reaching the Super Bowl.
23. Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos
Emmanuel Sanders has spent the last three years of his career playing for the Denver Broncos, and despite being a No. 2 option behind Demaryius Thomas, the wideout realizes he could easily be a top option on most other teams around the league. But seeing Sanders happy in his role with the Broncos is the perfect example of what type of team player he is since the reward of being part of a dominant duo alongside Thomas seems to be worth it.
From his blazing speed to being a reliable threat in the slot, Sanders continues to prove that Denver made a wise choice bringing him on prior to the start of the 2014 season after spending the first four years of his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even when the Broncos were making the transition at quarterback last year during their first season without Peyton Manning, Sanders still found a way to be productive in the passing game.
Seeing Sanders receive at least 136 targets in each of the last three seasons is the perfect example of the type of skills he has as a wideout, and that trend should continue this upcoming season now that Trevor Siemian has a year of experience under his belt. And if that does happen, Denver should have no trouble becoming serious contenders in the AFC thanks to a much-improved offense.
22. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
Isn’t it amazing after all of these years, Larry Fitzgerald continues to be an effective leader on offense for the Arizona Cardinals? Despite rumors surrounding the possibility of his retirement being within reach, Fitzgerald has made it clear he still has a few good years left in him, and there’s nothing he would love more than to earn a Super Bowl before that time comes.
With that being said, it’s easy to understand why there were so many rumors surrounding the possibility of Fitzgerald calling it a career since his production seemed to be on the decline in 2014 after only recording 63 receptions. But thanks to his 216 catches over the last two seasons, it’s clear that Fitzgerald is still going strong at the age of 33, and should continue to be the main factor behind the success of the passing game for the Cardinals in 2017.
Around this time last offseason, Arizona was considered one of the early favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, which obviously never happened since the unit failed to even earn a playoff spot. Fitzgerald and the Cardinals realize this current roster may be their best chance of making a Super Bowl run before the rebuilding phase begins on offense, so here’s to hoping for better results this time around.
21. Brandon Marshall, New York Giants
The best thing that could have happened to Brandon Marshall this offseason was the New York Jets deciding to go through rebuilding mode by parting ways with numerous veterans, including the wideout. To go from a team expected to finish near the bottom of the league like the Jets to a strong contender in the NFC like the New York Giants was a major upgrade for Marshall since his chances of possibly winning a Super Bowl just skyrocketed to a whole new level.
It was one thing for Marshall to now have the chance to play alongside an elite quarterback like Eli Manning, but the veteran finds himself playing with one of the most explosive receivers the NFL has to offer in Odell Beckham Jr. Luckily, Marshall finds himself in one of those positions where he should see plenty of extra passes thrown in his direction from Manning since most defenders will be focusing their attention on Beckham.
Then again, everybody knows Marshall doesn’t really need someone like Beckham to be successful on offense, although it certainly helps. Who knows, maybe with a fresh start on a new team in the Giants, Marshall will figure out a way to return to his 2015 form in which he was a touchdown machine, finishing the year with 14 trips into the end zone.
20. Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
In 2015, Allen Robinson emerged out of nowhere as an elite weapon for the Jacksonville Jaguars after hauling in 80 passes for 1,400 yards to go along with 14 touchdowns. Even if the Jaguars offense has established a habit for putting together a majority of their points during garbage time, it still doesn’t takeaway from the potential surrounding Robinson working his way up to becoming one of the top wideouts in the NFL.
Unfortunately for Robinson, the former Penn State star’s production took a hit last year after a statistics standpoint, but it was no secret that a poor season by Blake Bortles was one of the main reasons for Robinson’s struggles. Now that Bortles is on a short leash since he’s basically fighting for his starting job beyond the 2017 season, Robinson realizes what’s at stake if he wants to keep his quarterback around for the long run.
With a new head coach in Doug Marrone, a bounce-back season by Bortles will hopefully result in Robinson putting up Pro Bowl numbers again like he did in 2015. And if that does end up happening, maybe the Jaguars will have an actual shot at competing in the AFC, but let’s not jump the gun quite yet.
19. Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
Forget all of the negativity that’s been surrounding Kelvin Benjamin looking out of shape this offseason since Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers know deep down, the wideout is going to be just fine. If anything, all of those reports trying to bring Benjamin down may end up motivating the wideout even more to prove his doubters wrong during the 2017 season.
After missing all of 2015 due to a torn ACL, the Panthers knew they had to be cautious with Benjamin entering his third year with the team, but luckily the former first-round game was able to appear in all 16 games. Even if the numbers could have been better, the important factor for Benjamin was being able to remain on the football field without any setbacks following the serious injury.
A player with the size and strength of Benjamin can always be a nightmare for opponents to defend, but Cam Newton hopes to see one of his favorite targets hit a whole new level this year. Carolina was considered one of the biggest disappointments of 2016 after only winning six games one year after reaching the Super Bowl, and how successful this offense ends up being could easily come down on the play of Benjamin.
18. Golden Tate, Detroit Lions
For just the second time in his career, Golden Tate crossed the 1,000-yard mark during the 2016 season after catching 91 passes for 1,077 yards with four touchdowns. While many will question why Tate would deserve to be this high on the list with numbers like that, it’s the consistency behind the wideout for the Detroit Lions that makes him a headache for opponents.
Since joining the Lions in 2014 following a controversial finish to his career with the Seattle Seahawks, Tate has been one of the most consistent receivers for Matthew Stafford to work with in the Lions offense, and played a big part in the unit earning a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. Not only has Tate started every game for Detroit over the previous three seasons, but also he’s managed to haul in at least 90 catches each year, which doesn’t happen often at the NFL level.
Many expected the Lions to take a major step back last year following the surprise retirement of Calvin Johnson, and while Stafford certainly misses having such a huge target, at least Tate helped make the transition process a little easier. As long as everyone can stay healthy, don’t be surprised if Tate increases that impressive streak of 90+ catches to four when it’s all said and done.
17. Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
It’s always exciting to see a rookie wide receiver make an immediate impact during their first season in the NFL, and for the New Orleans Saints, that was exactly the case for former Ohio State standout Michael Thomas. Obviously, the Saints had their expectations since they were willing to use a second-round pick on Thomas in 2016, but nobody predicted him to display the numbers he did as a rookie.
Thomas looked like anything but a first-year wideout for New Orleans last season after catching 92 passes for 1,137 yards to go along with nine touchdowns. While the pressure will certainly be on Thomas entering his sophomore year with the team since Brandin Cooks is no longer in the picture, that shouldn’t stop him from continuing to produce since Drew Brees will still be calling the shots under center.
Most young players would love to be in the position Thomas finds himself in by being fortunate to play with a future Hall of Famer in Brees, and the quarterback’s presence will only continue to improve the wide receiver’s game. With a year of experience under his belt, Thomas should be able to pick up where he left off during his rookie campaign with the Saints to help the offense rank near the top of the league once again.
16. Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
Just like the previous wide receiver on this list in Michael Thomas, Julian Edelman is another star who has benefitted from playing one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Tom Brady, and one can only imagine how quickly a career can change in a matter of a few seasons. For a former seventh-round pick like Edelman go from making little impact over his first four years with the Patriots to arguably becoming Brady’s favorite target since 2013 is simply incredible when taking a closer look at the numbers.
Prior to 2013, the most catches Edelman ever had in the regular season was 37, so to see him record at least 92 receptions in three of the last four seasons shows how valuable he’s become for Brady in the passing game. In fact, if it wasn’t for the emergence of Edelman over the years, there’s a good chance that New England wouldn’t have been able to win those two recent Super Bowls.
Even if his touchdown total never seems to be that high, it doesn’t matter as much since Brady has always done an amazing job with spreading the football around, and the Patriots are fine with Edelman focusing on helping move the chains. And to think there was once a time when New England drew criticism for moving on from Wes Welker before the rise of Edelman came along.
15. Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks
After a quiet first couple of years in the NFL, Doug Baldwin has quickly become one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL, and the Seattle Seahawks love the fact he could explode for a monster game at any given week. Just look at the numbers from his previous three seasons with the Seahawks, and it’s clear that Baldwin is the type of wideout who only gets better with experience, which means Russell Wilson has another reason to be excited about what’s in store for 2017.
From his 13-catch performance against the Arizona Cardinals to finding the end zone three times against the New England Patriots, Baldwin put on quite the show on numerous occasions throughout the 2016 season. And with Seattle improving their offensive line in the offseason to hopefully provide Wilson with some extra time in the pocket, there’s no reason why Baldwin shouldn’t continue to improve like he has in previous years.
As much as the defense of the Seahawks deserves credit for the team’s impressive streak of five playoff appearances in a row, the argument can be made this never would have happened without key contributions on offense from Baldwin. A defense can only do so much on their own without the proper help from the offensive side of the football, and luckily Seattle is in good shape with players like Baldwin and Wilson.
14. Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins
Believe it or not, there was another star wide receiver coming out of LSU during the 2014 NFL Draft not named Odell Beckham Jr., and his name happens to be Jarvis Landry. Unlike Beckham though, the Miami Dolphins waited until the second round to land Landry, and if the last three years are any indication, it’s safe to say the other 31 NFL teams regret passing on the wideout.
Even though he’s only caught a total of 13 touchdown passes, Landry has proven to be one of the most consistent weapons of Miami’s passing game after recording 288 receptions during his first three NFL seasons. And with Ryan Tannehill showing signs of returning to full strength, it looks like Landry should be in for another monster year, as he continues to show why he deserves consideration for being a top wideout in the league.
To see a team like the Dolphins still find a way to make the playoffs after a frustrating 1-4 start to the year was simply amazing, and hopefully they have what it takes to compete in the AFC once again. If that does happen, chances are Landry is going to be one of the main reasons as to why.
13. Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles
At the beginning of the free agency, Alshon Jeffery was arguably the most sought-after wide receiver, and rightfully so when looking at how effective he was during some of his best seasons with the Chicago Bears. Jeffery may have received some criticism for his production being on the decline each of the last two seasons, but when looking at all of the struggles surrounding the Bears on the offense, it’s easy to see why the numbers were down.
Now that Jeffery has earned a fresh start with the Philadelphia Eagles, there’s plenty of excitement surrounding the wideout returning to his old self by becoming Carson Wentz‘s new favorite target. After starting every game as a rookie in 2015, the Eagles realized the importance of building the offense around Wentz this offseason if they wanted to help him reach his true potential, and with Jeffery in the mix, give the organization credit for keeping their promise.
There’s nothing Philadelphia would love to see more than Jeffery return to his form from 2013-14 in which he caught 174 passes for 2,554 yards to go along with 17 touchdowns. And if that does happen, there’s a good chance the Eagles and Jeffery won’t hesitate with attempting to agree on new deal.
12. Brandin Cooks, New England Patriots
There’s a popular saying about how the rich get richer, and when it comes to the New England Patriots, that’s what happened this offseason after pulling off a deal with the New Orleans Saints to acquire Brandin Cooks. For whatever reason, Cooks seemed unhappy with his role at the Saints, which is ridiculous when considering he was part of one of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL.
With that being said, Cooks can’t be too disappointed over receiving the opportunity to now play with another future Hall of Fame quarterback in Tom Brady while providing the Patriots with one of the league’s top deep threats. New England was already stacked at the wide receiver position thanks to players like Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan, but someone like Brady certainly isn’t going to complain over having too many toys to play with on offense.
By catching 162 passes to go along with 17 trips into the end zone over the last two years, one can only imagine the amount of points the Patriots are going to put up now that Cooks is part of the picture. With his blazing speed combined with defenders worrying about the whereabouts of Edelman and Hogan, Cooks is going to love being in New England, that’s for sure.
11. Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders
Give the Oakland Raiders credit for landing two top wide receivers on this list when considering how long it took them to finally become serious contenders in the AFC once again after years filled with plenty of struggles. Watching the Raiders put an end to their disastrous playoff drought was beyond exciting for the fan base, and if that’s going to happen for the second year in a row, Amari Cooper will need to playing at the same level he’s been on during his first two seasons in the league.
There’s a reason why Oakland was willing to use the fourth overall pick on the former Alabama standout back in 2015 when looking at all of the potential surrounding Cooper in college, and so far, it seems to be working out well for the Raiders. Not to mention one of the reasons behind Cooper’s success from his first two years in the league has been from the emergence of Derek Carr at quarterback.
Despite his injury towards the end of the regular season, Carr was playing at an MVP level before going down, and should be able to pickup where he left off, assuming there are no setbacks during his recovery. But in order for that to happen, Cooper will need to continue to prove he was worth the first-round selection two years ago by the Raiders.
10. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Don’t judge DeAndre Hopkins over what happened last year with the Houston Texans since it’s easy to blame his disappointing season on Brock Osweiler. Take a look at the rest of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL, and it’s easy to make the assumption that anyone would be able to find success with a No. 1 wideout like Hopkins, unless that quarterback is Osweiler.
At least for the Texans, the team was able to ship Osweiler off to the Cleveland Browns this offseason to get that ridiculous contract off their plates, and hopefully help Hopkins return to the breakout level displayed in 2015. That was the year Hopkins set career highs for the three major categories at wide receiver, and even though Houston is still trying to determine their quarterback, anything will be better than what the wideout and the rest of the offense dealt with last season.
If the regular season were to end today, it looks like Tom Savage would be the one calling the shots under center, and there’s no question he would be doing whatever it takes to get the football in the hands of Hopkins. Even if things don’t workout with Savage, and the Texans end up going with rookie Deshaun Watson, Hopkins should still see his production go up from a year ago.
9. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
How great has Demaryius Thomas been for the Denver Broncos throughout his career? For starters, the Broncos wideout has earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in each of the last five seasons, and if that’s not impressive enough, but each of those seasons have consisted of Thomas catching at least 90 passes to make it an easy choice to be sitting at No. 9 on this list.
Denver has established a reputation over the last few years for having a stellar defense, but unfortunately the team was going through a bit of transition with Trevor Siemian taking over the duties at quarterback. And while Siemian’s numbers weren’t all that bad, it’s clear the Broncos need him to grow in year two under center if he plans on holding on to the starting job down the road while playing a role in helping this team make a return to the postseason.
At least for Siemian, the development process is always easier with two of the best receivers the league has seen over the last few years in Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. It should also be noted that Thomas finds himself in position to record his sixth season in a row of 1,000 yards, which is quite impressive for any wideout.
8. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts may have fallen short of reaching the postseason for the second year in a row, but at least the team had a reason to be excited over T.Y. Hilton leading in the league in receiving yards (1,448) in 2016. When considering he always seems to be near the top of the league for targets, Hilton finishing with the most receiving yards shouldn’t really come as a surprise, and all signs point to the wideout competing to defend his title.
Up until two years ago, Indianapolis was always considered one of the top teams to beat in the AFC, and while the potential is certainly there heading into 2017, they still have plenty to prove. Andrew Luck is arguably facing the most pressure when looking at all of the money the Colts have invested into their franchise quarterback, but it’s up to Hilton to help take some of that pressure off in the passing game.
Seeing the only time Hilton failed to record a 1,000-yard season came during his rookie year in 2012 says a lot about the type of receiver he’s been for Indianapolis, and the best thing is he’s only going to be 27 at the start of Week 1. Basically, Hilton still has plenty of good years left in him at wideout, and has the chance to rank as one of the best for years to come.
7. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
On paper, it’s easy to place blame on Dez Bryant for having a down year with the Dallas Cowboys since he was limited to just 50 catches in the 13 games he played in. But instead of focusing on Bryant’s numbers, let’s take a look at the bigger pictures, which is the Cowboys finished with the best record in the NFC during the regular season at 13-3.
Dallas may have seen their Super Bowl dreams come crashing down after an early exit in the Divisional Round to the Green Bay Packers, but the good thing is last year’s success should help them once again be a top contender in the NFC. And if that does in fact happen, Bryant most likely will have played a big role.
Last year’s numbers don’t even come close to reflecting on the type of skills Bryant has since the truth is, Dallas just had so many different weapons for Dak Prescott to work with, especially when it came to Ezekiel Elliott at running back. If there are any doubters who truly want to question Bryant’s ability as a receiver, take a look at the 41 touchdown catches he had in a three-year span from 2012-14.
6. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
Nobody really knew what to expect from Jordy Nelson during his first season back following a torn ACL, but the Green Bay Packers wideout shattered all expectations by looking like the effective weapon from before. After catching 97 passes for 1,257 yards with 14 touchdowns during the 2016 season, Nelson looks to continue being a fantasy monster for owners this upcoming season by being one of the favorite targets for Aaron Rodgers.
On paper, Green Bay seems like they’re going to have one of the most high-powered offenses once again, and even with a crowded receiving corps, that shouldn’t stop Nelson from producing high numbers. Even with other elite receivers such as Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, the Packers are expected to see Rodgers relay heavily on the passing game due to a lack of ground support, which means Nelson will see plenty of passes thrown in his direction.
To say Nelson is the best slot receiver in the NFL would be a huge understatement after seeing the type of numbers he put together during his 2016 campaign. For a player coming off that serious of an injury, it’s unbelievable Nelson was able to have the type of season he did last year, and it was certainly a huge relief on the Packers end.
5. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Absolute freak doesn’t even begin to describe the style of play by Mike Evans when seeing how he uses his size and strength to his advantage against opponents. Watching Evans catch 96 passes on 173 targets shows how much the Tampa Bay Buccaneers try to make him involved with the offense as much as possible, and the scary thing is he’s just scratching the surface of what should be a promising NFL career.
The fact that Evans will be 24 heading into Week 1, and is going to be entering his fourth NFL season shows how quickly he’s developed into one of the best in the league at what he does. Plus, the Buccaneers have to be thrilled with the chemistry their beloved wideout is developing with Jameis Winston this early on.
After finishing with a 9-7 record in 2016, many predict Tampa Bay to be one of the teams expected to make the leap to serious contenders in the NFC this upcoming season. As if already having one of the league’s top wideouts in Evans wasn’t enough, the offense should also receive an extra boost with the addition of a dangerous deep threat in DeSean Jackson through free agency.
4. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Last year marked the first time in A.J. Green‘s career he failed to break the 1,000-yard mark, but obviously there’s no reason to make a big deal since it would have happened if he wasn’t limited to playing in just 10 games. Not to mention, Green was close enough to keeping his impressive streak alive since he did finish the year with 964 receiving yards.
The good news for Green is, thanks to the Cincinnati Bengals using a first-round pick on John Ross in April, the wideout should benefit from having another playmaker for opponents to worry about in the passing game. Over the years, Green has been the unfortunate victim of receiving extra coverage from opponents, but now that Ross is in the picture, it should help take some of that extra pressure off.
Cincinnati knew they were taking a risk on Green when they used a first-round pick on the former Georgia wideout back in 2011, but nobody could have expected him to be this successful. And now that he’s going to be back at full strength, expect Green to return to his old ways of putting up big numbers on a weekly basis for the Bengals in 2017.
3. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
First off, give Odell Beckham Jr. credit for his battle over a new contract from the New York Giants when seeing the lack of money he’s making when compared to some of the other wide receivers across the league. Even as a rookie back in 2014, Beckham wasted no time bursting on to the NFL scene by quickly becoming one of the most difficult receivers to cover after catching 91 passes for 1,305 yards to go along with 12 touchdowns.
The best part is, Beckham hasn’t slowed down at all since then, as he continues to put up similar numbers each year, and has even recorded double-digit touchdowns every season. Controversy aside from his hot-headed moments over the years, the Giants realize how rare of a talent Beckham is, and hopefully the organization doesn’t take too long with finally rewarding their wideout with the type of contract he clearly deserves.
What’s even more terrifying to think about is the potential surrounding New York’s offense this upcoming season not just with Beckham, but with the addition of Brandon Marshall as another weapon for Eli Manning to work with. Two wideouts with histories of being hot heads may seem like a terrible idea, but it could work wonders for Beckham and the rest of the Giants on offense.
2. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Let’s take a trip down memory lane back in 2011 when everyone couldn’t believe all of the draft picks surrendered by the Atlanta Falcons to the Cleveland Browns just so they could move up in the NFL Draft to land Julio Jones. By having one of the league’s top quarterbacks on the rise at the time in Matt Ryan, the Falcons realized the importance of finding that elite wide receiver to help get the best from their quarterback.
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With that being said, it’s safe to say not even Atlanta could have predicted Jones would turn out to be this much of a star, and some of his individual performances from last season show just how far he’s come along in the NFL. Whether it was his performance against the Carolina Panthers during the regular season (12 catches for 300 yards with a touchdown) or the playoff game against the Green Bay Packers (nine catches for 180 yards with two touchdowns), Jones was clearly worth the investment.
The only way the Falcons are going to get over what went down last February during their historical collapse against the New England Patriots will be if Jones can help his teammates make another Super Bowl appearance in Minnesota. Thanks to Atlanta’s high-powered offense led by Jones and Ryan, this could actually happen.
1. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
The case could have been made to have Julio Jones finish at No. 1 on this list, but as great as the wideout has been for the Atlanta Falcons, the numbers from the last few seasons alone make Antonio Brown worthy of taking the crown. Who would have thought a former sixth-round pick out of Central Michigan would eventually work his way to arguably becoming the top receiver in the NFL, and the best part is Brown seems capable of continuing to post monster numbers for at least another five or six years.
Take a closer look at Brown’s numbers from the last four years (481 catches for 6,315 yards with 43 touchdowns), and it’s easy to understand why he stands out from the rest of the competition. Time after time, Brown has shown he can single handedly take over a game on his own, and it’s hard to imagine Pittsburgh being as successful over the last couple of seasons without the speedy wideout to contribute on offense.
Once again, Brown should be in for another big year with the Steelers, and there’s a good chance he’ll be playing with an extra bit of motivation since Father Time is quickly catching up with the wideout’s quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. There’s nothing Pittsburgh would love more than to see Big Ben earn one last Super Bowl title before he does decide to call it a career, especially Brown after all of the success the two have had together over the years.