Time to take a look at the offensive side of the ball. This was easily the toughest list to compile so far, as I believe the top 15 NFL receivers are extremely close together in both talent and value. I only have two tiers in the top 10, and I was tempted to scrap them altogether.
Tier 1: Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green
1. Calvin Johnson: It’s not surprising that this guy has been dubbed “Megatron,” as he is pretty much unstoppable against any cornerback in the league. Very few have had any success limiting him, with the exceptions being Darrelle Revis and Charles Tillman. He regularly faces double teams from every team in the league, with a corner up in his face and a safety over the top on nearly every play. There have been some defenses who have chosen to triple team him on the goal line, something that has never been seen before against any receiver in the history of the league. Despite all the extra attention, Johnson still beats the coverages and draws plenty of targets from his QB Matt Stafford. At 6’5” 239 lbs with 4.35 40 speed, he scares the living hell out of defensive coordinators regardless of what coverage they choose to run against him. As if running past defenders and through them wasn’t enough, Johnson has no problem skying over the top of corners and safeties to catch passes at a height that the defenders have no chance to contest. He’s still only 28 years old, and should continue to be the best receiver in the NFL for another few years.
2. Green: He may lack Calvin’s freakish speed, but at 6’4” 207 lbs Green is still a physically imposing target. His overall athleticism is extremely impressive, showcased by nice adjustments to frequently off-target throws from QB Andy Dalton. Despite the lack of a great QB, and an underwhelming supporting cast of receiving threats, Green has put up impressive numbers all three years in the league. Watching him make tough plays look routine over and over, I often find myself fantasizing about the gaudy numbers he would put up with a top 10 QB and/or some quality supporting receivers. Without Green, I feel fairly confident that Dalton would not have gotten the nice contract extension the Bengals just gave him. Unfortunately, Green is still under team control for at least another two years, so he is stuck with the underwhelming Dalton for the foreseeable future.
Tier 2: Josh Gordon, Andre Johnson, Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall, Jordy Nelson, Demaryius Thomas, Larry Fitzgerald
3. Gordon: I might be a little biased, but Josh Gordon is one of my favorite receivers in the league. He is the only player I’ve seen whose physical freakishness rivals that of Calvin Johnson; at 6’3” 225 lbs, he towers over defensive backs and is very tough to bring down, averaging 7.3 yards after the catch. He has incredible speed for his height and weight, and has routinely gotten behind corners his two years in the league thus far. As if that’s not enough, he has great hands, with just 9 drops on 148 targets last year. Despite getting poor QB play most of the season, and having three different players throwing to him over the course of 2013, Gordon was still able to put up 87 catches for a league leading 1646 yards and 9 touchdowns. Unfortunately the NFL has ridiculous punishments for getting caught smoking marijuana, and Gordon is currently suspended for the year. Hopefully he will win his appeal and get that sentence reduced, as the game will be less fun to watch without him.
4. Andre Johnson: This guy is the staple of consistency. Year in year out, AJ displays a great all-around game that results in 100+ catches. He is a great route runner, has great hands (10 drops on 179 targets) and is capable of getting open deep. He is getting up there in age, and it’s not hard to understand why he wants out of Houston when they seem to be rebuilding again. It would be nice to see him paired with an impressive QB before he starts regressing, but for now he is tasked with making Ryan Fitzpatrick look good.
5. Antonio Brown: 159 targets, 8 drops. People were skeptical about the Steelers receiver situation when Mike Wallace left last year, but those skeptics were silenced when Brown put up a 110 catch year. He doesn’t look like a #1 receiver at 5’10” 186 lbs, but his short area quickness is unmatched by almost everyone in this league. While he won’t be running through anyone, Brown can juke any defender out of their shoes, and was good for third in the league forcing 16 missed tackles. Couple that with extremely reliable hands and impressive route running, and you have one of the NFL’s top receivers.
6. Bryant: Dez might be the strongest receiver in the game right now, which makes it scary to think about the level he will be at in the future. Very few receivers in the history of the game can boast the physicality that Dez brings to the field on every play, resulting in 15 broken tackles last year. At the moment he stands to improve his consistency and route running. Thanks to his fiery personality, I expect that he will continue to get better and rise on this list.
7. Julio Jones: It’s tough to put Jones all the way down here, but considering he is coming off a serious injury and might not be back to full speed yet, I have to bump him down a little bit. That said, he is yet another physical freak on a list of physical freaks. He still has to improve his route running, but his short area quickness is explosive, making many routes a simple chore. Once he sharpens his entire route tree, he will jump into the #1 tier and challenge for the title of #1 WR in the game.
8. Brandon Marshall: It’s incredible that a guy like Marshall is all the way down here at 8, but that’s just a result of how good the NFL’s top receivers are. Marshall often seems to me like a tight end who was fast enough to run routes on the edge, as he is just incredibly physically imposing. He is easily the best blocking wide receiver in the game, making him a huge asset on running plays. With his best buddy Jay Cutler resigning in Chicago, you can pencil Marshall in for another 100 catches this year.
9. Jordy Nelson: In the past I had never thought of Nelson as a top 10 receiver, but this past season opened my eyes. His ability as a possession receiver was rivaled only by Reggie Wayne, but Nelson is king when it comes to making boundary catches. He repeatedly made sideline catches that required him to be falling out of bounds with nothing but his tip toes in bounds. He may not be much of a threat to beat anyone deep, but he is always open thanks to his strength and extremely reliable hands (6 drops on 120 targets).
10. Demaryius Thomas: Playing with one of the greatest QB’s of all time and a stacked offense can really boost your stats. While I do believe his stats are inflated, I can’t take anything away from Thomas’ game. He has very reliable hands, runs good routes, and is tough to bring down with the ball in his hands (7.7 yards after the catch and 13 missed tackles last year).
11. Larry Fitzgerald: I know its a ‘Top 10’ list, but I just can’t leave Fitz off this list. He is too good of a player to not be considered equal or better than the last few players on this ranking. It’s easy to think that he might be regressing when you look at his lower stat totals the past couple years, but that would be foolish. Fitz is still capable of skying over defenders for high passes, and he might have the best hands in the league; just ONE drop last year on 129 targets! With some improved chemistry in year 2 with Carson Palmer, and some better blindside protection thanks to Jared Veldheer, I expect Fitz to see a nice uptick in statistical production this year.
Just Missed: Anquan Boldin
On the rise: Keenan Allen, Kendall Wright
Hurt but could bounce back: Reggie Wayne