Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant lead list of NFL's best receivers
There's no question that the NFL is a passing league these days, making No. 1 receivers more valuable than ever. Though teams are using three- and four-receiver sets more than ever before, those big, fast, tough targets who can go up against any cornerback and win battles consistently remain irreplaceable.
And these days, top receivers are tasked with doing more than ever. Not only must they go deep outside against the opponents' best pass defenders; they must also excel in the slot, run screens and block effectively. These types of players used to be specialists; now, they're generalists. And they must do all these things at a very high level to crack anyone's list of the best at their position. Here are the guys we believe do it all better than everyone else.
Boldin will be 34 in October, and as such, he's the oldest player on our list. He's also a player whose skillset shouldn't really be affected by age. Though he does have some field speed, Boldin's primary attribute is his ridiculous ability to beat defenders in short areas for contested catches. When he moved from Baltimore to San Francisco before the 2013 season in a trade, he improved the 49ers' passing attack as much as he hurt the Ravens' aerial game. His 85 catches last year were his most since 2008, and his 1,179 receiving yards were his most since 2006 -- and all this for the team that threw the fewest passes in the league last season. He's not a burner, but few receivers bring more consistent productivity to their team -- especially in key situations.
The Packers recently agreed to give Nelson a $39 million contract extension, and that could prove to be a relative bargain. Even with Aaron Rodgers out for seven games in 2013, Nelson set career-highs in targets (126), receptions (85) and receiving yards (1,314). His catch rate with Rodgers was about 70 percent, but he attained a 64 percent rate when catching passes from guys like Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien. Nelson is one of the better deep receivers in the league, and when the Packers put him in the slot after Randall Cobb's injury, he excelled in that role, as well. This is a complete receiver who deserves to be mentioned among the NFL's best.
Lost in Nick Foles' impressive statistical season was the number of times the Eagles' new franchise quarterback threw the ball high and deep with a prayer, and Jackson went up to make contested catches. Chip Kelly had no issue releasing Jackson because he wants receivers who better deal with press man coverage, and he may have an estimable replacement in rookie Jordan Matthews, but what Jackson could do for Washington's passing game ... well, let's put it this way: Pierre Garcon led all Redskins receivers in targets in 2013 with 181, and he ranked 45th in Football Outsiders' metrics. Jackson ranked sixth in those same metrics, and a healthy Robert Griffin III throws a pretty nice deep ball. Jackson runs deep routes as well as anyone in the league, and he's better at fighting for the ball than people may think.
7. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Jones has proven to be just as valuable in his absence as with his presence -- when he missed 11 games with a fractured foot, Atlanta's offense went downhill quickly. With Jones last season, the Falcons had an average offensive DVOA (Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metric) of 15.4 percent. Without Jones, that plummeted to minus-1.5 percent. He's now had two foot surgeries in the last three years, which is worrisome for a player who relies heavily on starting, stopping and cutting, and he's only had one 16-game season since the Falcons traded a whole lot of draft capital to take him with the sixth overall pick in 2011. But that one 16-game season in 2012, when Jones caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns, proved that he's got what it takes to be one of the NFL's best. Now, the Falcons just have to hope that injuries don't keep him from realizing that full potential.
6. Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears
One of the more interesting aspects with Marshall is that after years as one of the league's best outside receivers, he's now redefining how teams can use big guys in the slot. In 2013, in Marc Trestman's offense, Marshall has 22.9 percent of his targets in the slot, and he caught 39 passes on 61 targets for 566 yards and five touchdowns. It's great for Jay Cutler that Alshon Jeffery is coming along so well, but Marshall is still the main receiver in this offense. He, Wes Welker and Andre Johnson are the only players in NFL history with five or more seasons with 100 receptions, and he'll be prolific for years to come.
Were it not for Gordon's off-field transgressions, which could have him missing the entire 2014 season, he might be right behind Megatron on our list. In 2013, his second year in the NFL, Gordon caught 87 passes for a league-leading 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in just 14 games (he missed the first two due to another suspension), and he did so with a quarterback "rotation" that included Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer. Gordon can beat any defender downfield, and he's got as much talent as any young player in the league. It appears, to use the cliché, that the only player who can stop Josh Gordon is Josh Gordon.
You can say that Thomas is a product of Peyton Manning's greatness, but you'd be only partially right. Yes, his stats have improved exponentially since Manning came to Denver before the 2012 season, but Thomas had two NFL seasons before that, and he was a first-round draft pick for a reason. He fits the profile of a No. 1 receiver in that he's big and fast and strong, and he's got a special way with receiver screens -- he led the league in yards per play on screens -- and he's just as adept at going deep and beating cornerbacks downfield. Lest we forget: Thomas was also the guy who caught the pass from Tim Tebow that beat the Steelers in the 2011 wild-card round, and it was Thomas who made the most of that play. You could put him in any system, and he'd excel; it's just that now, Thomas is in an ideal environment.
When he's on point and paying attention. Bryant is a completely dominant target -- big, fast, physical and tremendously flexible. And in 2013, the Cowboys turned him into a rare red-zone target. Bryant set a single-season record last year with nine touchdown catches from one to five yards out, and his 41.8 percent career touchdown catch rate in the red zone (23 touchdowns on 35 catches) is the highest in the history of Football Outsiders' metrics. Bryant has shown remarkable consistency in the last two seasons, but his hidden value is in his matchless efficiency when it's time to score touchdowns. If the Cowboys are smart, Bryant will have many more opportunities to do so in the seasons to come.
In a recent article on catch radius, Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar detailed the receivers who do the most on behalf of their relatively inaccurate quarterbacks. And Green may be doing more with less than any elite receiver in the league. Last season, according to Kacsmar's tape study, Andy Dalton hit Green in the chest (the optimal area) less than 45 percent of the time, when the Mendoza Line for quarterbacks is 50 percent. He caught 37.8 percent of the passes above the neck, which is pretty interesting for a guy standing 6-foot-4. (19.4 is the league average catch rate among receivers on passes above the neck.) Thus, when you review the Bengals' season in your mind, and you recall a large number of Dalton passes in which Green is diving all over the place to catch those passes, you're right on the money. Green caught 98 passes for 1,426 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, and it's worth wondering if he'd enter Jerry Rice or Calvin Johnson territory with a more accurate quarterback. To be sure, Green is the best young receiver in the league, and we hope Dalton buys him a lot of expensive dinners.
Megatron didn't quite match his record-setting 2012 season last year, but the Lions threw fewer passes, as well. Other than that, there are really no holes to poke in Johnson's game. At 6-5 and 240 pounds, he still has sub-4.5 speed off the line, burns defenders with his cuts, is physical enough to dominate double and triple coverage in the paint and he's an absolute nightmare after the catch. One thing to note: The oddity of his 2012 campaign, when he scored just five touchdowns on 122 catches and had several near-misses in the red zone, went away in 2013 when he caught 12 touchdown passes on 84 receptions. With new head coach Jim Caldwell set to improve the efficiency of the Lions' passing game, there's no telling how Johnson's 2014 season will go, but one thing's for sure: There are a handful of athletes in any sport who appear truly limitless, and Johnson's one of them.