Dez Bryant staked his claim to the title of the league's best receiver in 2014, and it was a compelling case.
Ahead of the 2015 season, SI.com is ranking the top 10 starters at every position group. You can read our quarterback rankings here, and our running back rankings here. Next up: The NFL's top 10 receivers.
1. Dez Bryant, Cowboys: Bryant staked his claim to the title of the league's best receiver in 2014, and it was a compelling case. He led the league in receiving touchdowns with 16, caught 51 more passes than any other receiver on his team (Cole Beasley, who finished fourth on the team in catches behind tight end Jason Witten and running back DeMarco Murray, finished the season with 37 catches to Bryant's 88), and there's no receiver in the league right now who's more dangerous when making contested catches.
When you think you have Bryant covered (or double-covered), he'll use his timing, strength and leaping ability to bring the ball in anyway. And his ability to move through defenders after the catch is unparalleled in the NFL today. Teammate Reggie Dunn recently said that Bryant is “Marshawn Lynch at the receiver position,” and the comparison holds true. Like Lynch, Bryant plays with unusual passion and physicality that sets the tone for the offense around him. The five-year, $70 million contract extension he signed this month could turn out to be a bargain in the long run.
2. Antonio Brown, Steelers: In the 2014 season, no receiver was more productive than Brown: He led the league in catches (128) and receiving yards (1,698) and was targeted 181 times in the regular season alone. Brown stands 5'10" and weighs 185 pounds, but don't mistake him for a speedy slot guy—he can do that, too, but this is a fully-developed receiver with all the skills you want in a No. 1 player at the position. His route awareness has expanded exponentially over the last couple of years; he's not afraid to fight and win battles with bigger defenders; he's great after the catch on short stuff, and he's always a threat on deep vertical routes. Brown overcomes his size limitations with timing and leverage, jumping to the ball at exactly the right time, and he's developed an uncanny sense of timing with Ben Roethlisberger. No current receiver packs more into a smaller package.
3. Jordy Nelson, Packers: A bastion of consistency over the last two seasons, Nelson made his first Pro Bowl in 2014 with a 98-catch, 1,519-yard campaign that firmly put him on the map as one of the league's best at what he does. Since he came out of Kansas State in 2008, Nelson has been quietly fighting the war of perception regarding his quickness on the field. You'll still hear people refer to him as a big possession receiver, which is ridiculous.
In each of the last two seasons, he's averaged 15.5 yards per catch, and he tied for fifth in the league in 2014 with 12 receptions in which the ball traveled 20 yards in the air or more. But sure, if you want to throw him a seven-yard slant and watch him blow through safeties, he'll do that, too. Nelson's most impressive recent development is his full-field versatility. He became a star for the Packers in the slot in 2013 after Randall Cobb was hurt. Nelson has grown into the rare receiver with no obvious liabilities.
4. Odell Beckham Jr., Giants: Honestly, we could have put Beckham fourth overall just for this Week 12 touchdown catch against the Cowboys, and we'd have a case ...
... but there was a lot more to the rookie's season than one of the best catches in NFL history. The LSU product got a delayed start to his rookie season due to a hamstring injury but wasted no time making a huge impact on Big Blue's passing game once he got on the field. He ended 2014 with 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns—in just 12 games. He became the slam-dunk choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year by putting up some great performances against some of the NFL's best secondaries, too: seven catches for 108 yards against the Seahawks, eight catches for 156 yards against the Colts and eight catches for 148 yards against the Rams. His season-ending thrashing of the Eagles' sub-par defense (12 catches for 185 yards and a touchdown) might be an indication of what we'll see from Beckham as he continues his remarkable ascent. Put simply, the sky is the limit here.
5. Calvin Johnson, Lions: Megatron is still a big deal, even after an injury-plagued 2014 season in which he caught “only” 71 passes for 1,077 yards and eight touchdowns. As the Lions move into their second season under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, everyone in Detroit is optimistic that this offense is ready to reach a higher plane.
“I feel good, man, I'm in a good place right now,” Johnson said in mid-June, according to the Detroit News. “I had a whole off-season to heal up. The biggest difference from last year is we know the offense way better, simply because it's the second year in. I can almost say we're 100% better than last year at this time.”
Yes, Megatron will turn 30 this season. And yes, this is the time when you have to start watching out for the age/injury curve with all players,even the best ones. But in Detroit's high-volume passing attack, Johnson at full power can still be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
6. A.J. Green, Bengals: Green had a few setbacks during the 2014 season. He dealt with arm and foot injuries as well as concussions, and he had to expand his catch radius with Andy Dalton as his quarterback. The ailments that caused him to miss three games last fall shouldn't be major issues in the new season. He played in every game each of his two prior seasons, and he still amassed 69 catches for 1,041 yards and six touchdowns in a shortened 2014 campaign.
It will be an interesting season for Green in a couple of ways. With Jeremy Hill firmly established as a franchise-level running back, defenses will have to respect that part of Cincinnati's offense on a more consistent basis, and Green will be playing in a contract year in 2015. Odds are that the Bengals will rectify that situation with a lucrative contract extension sooner than later, because their offense won't go far without him.
7. Julio Jones, Falcons: If Jones could stay healthy, he'd rise a few notches up this list. There's no question that when he's on the field, he's got as many physical gifts: speed, agility, catch radius and ridiculous strength after the catch. He missed one game in 2014 and still came down with 104 catches for 1,593 yards and six touchdowns. From the moment they arrived, new head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have said that getting Jones signed to a new long-term contract is a major priority. Shanahan plans to use Jones like he used Andre Johnson in Houston, as the heavily targeted X-iso receiver. If Jones can withstand that workload, he could approach even gaudier stats in 2015.
8. Demaryius Thomas, Broncos: Thomas had everything going for him in 2014: Peyton Manning was at his best for most of the season, tight end Julius Thomas was a superior red zone threat and slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders proved to be one of the off-season's best free-agent signings, so Thomas could roam free with a lot of single coverage within a high-volume passing game. 2015 could look a lot different. Sanders is still on the roster (and just missed this top 10 list), but Julius Thomas took big money from the Jaguars, and there are questions about how well Manning will recover from the quadriceps injuries that clearly affected him down the stretch.
With new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak on board, you can expect more rushing attempts and fewer advanced route concepts. Nobody doubts Thomas's status as an elite receiver—the Broncos rewarded him accordingly with a five-year, $70 million contract with $43.5 million guaranteed in mid-July—but his reception totals over the last three seasons (94, 92, 111) may be a thing of the past. Thomas will have to make the most of the targets he gets.
9. Randall Cobb, Packers: Green Bay is the only team with two receivers on this list, and while that's a testimony in part to Aaron Rodgers's greatness, it's also about Cobb's game-breaking ability and the creativity of the Packers' coaching staff. You'll see him as an outside receiver and a sweep/fake guy in certain packages, but where Cobb has really established himself is as the most productive slot receiver in the NFL today—and it's not really close.
According to Pro Football Focus metrics, Cobb caught 75 passes on 106 targets for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014. To put that in perspective, Tennessee's Kendall Wright led the league in 2013 with 63 catches and 694 yards from the slot, while Eddie Royal and Wes Welker tied for the lead in touchdowns from the slot with seven. If you're looking to make the argument that slot receivers are no longer second-class citizens, Cobb is a good place to start.
10. T.Y. Hilton, Colts: Bruce Arians has always liked to have a smaller speed target in his passing offenses. There was Mike Wallace in Pittsburgh, now John Brown in Arizona, and between those two stops, there was Hilton when Arians was the Colts' offensive coordinator and interim head coach in 2012. Hilton was more strictly a slot guy in 2012 (his rookie year) and 2013, but in 2014, he became Andrew Luck's primary weapon on the outside, catching 82 passes for 1,345 yards and seven touchdowns. Hilton has a contract year in 2016, and the drastically underpaid receiver ($665,000 base salary in 2015) will be looking for big money. Some may argue that at 5'9" and 180 pounds, he doesn't have the size to be a No. 1 receiver throughout his career, but it's very hard to tackle what you can't catch, and there are few players who can consistently take the top off a defense like Hilton can.