The absurd number of playmakers at receiver around the league is one of myriad reasons teams have trended toward more pass-happy approaches.
Lest anyone worry that Calvin Johnson’s retirement left a dent in the NFL’s receiver talent ... nah. Sure, the overall level at that position may have taken a tiny dip when Megatron hung ’em up, but his career was on a slight downslope as it was. Even if he had come back for the 2016 season, Johnson would have had a difficult time climbing too high on the list of the league’s best outside receivers.
The absurd number of playmakers at receiver around the league is one of myriad reasons teams have trended toward more pass-happy approaches. If you have an elite gamebreaking weapon, why bury him in a moribund offense? The NFL is ripe with outside receiver talent, so much so that cropping this list where we did was a difficult task. Here’s how the players who made it stack up.
Just missed the cut
Mike Evans, Bucs: The only factor preventing Evans from being included in the top tier (and it’s a razon-thin margin keeping him out) is his search for consistency. After scoring 12 times during his outstanding rookie season, Evans found paydirt just three times last season despite 1,200 yards in 2015.
Next big thing
DeVante Parker, Dolphins: It took until late November last season, but Parker finally started to show why he was a top-15 pick in 2015. He can go up and get it on the outside and is a tough runner to bring down after the catch.
The hulking Jeffery (6' 4", 230 lbs.) will head into the season with the prospect of free agency looming next spring. The Bears used the franchise tag on their 26-year-old star but did not extend him long-term. Jeffery’s inability to stay healthy last season could have played into Chicago’s decision—Jeffery missed seven games with a mix of hamstring, calf, knee, shoulder and groin issues. He maintained his status as a burgeoning star when active, though, topping 100 yards four times and averaging 141 yards per outing during a three-game stretch against Minnesota, Detroit and San Diego.
The effects of Nelson’s preseason ACL injury on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ passing attack were obvious throughout the 2015 season. Rodgers never looked wholly comfortable without his safety blanket. Nelson is fighting the odds a bit in dealing with a post-injury comeback in his 30s (he turned 31 in May), but he was a 1,500-yard, 13-TD receiver two years ago. He is a body-control extraordinaire, which is why Rodgers often looks his direction in tight spots. Nelson can win at every level of the field, but he is at his best finding space while Rodgers keeps plays alive.
Will Watkins stay healthy in his third NFL season? He is currently working his way back from a foot injury that ended his 2015 prematurely and has put the start of his 2016 in jeopardy. In the 13 games he did play a year ago, Watkins topped 1,000 yards receiving and found the end zone nine times, building upon a solid rookie performance to cement himself as Buffalo’s go-to receiver. All that despite the Bills’ staff working throughout the schedule to find Watkins more touches, be it outside or in the slot. He is on the brink of a massive breakthrough, so hopefully that foot heals.
A lifetime achievement award for Smith, who eschewed his expected retirement to return for a 16th NFL season. How well he comes back, at age 37, from the Achilles tear that ended his 15th season remains to be seen. The injury was a huge blow to Baltimore because Smith was en route to one of his best years when it happened. In a mere seven games, Smith posted 630 yards receiving and scored three times. His competitive fire is unparalleled, and that includes players at all the other positions on the field. That might have been enough to give Smith an edge, but combine his energy with savvy route running and a fearless attitude in traffic. Oh, and he still remains a broken-tackles machine.
Do folks remember how good Allen was last season before a kidney injury cut it short at the midpoint? Over the first half of 2015, Allen had himself on pace for 135 catches and nearly 1,500 yards as Philip Rivers’s top target. One of his top traits coming out of Cal was his ability to adjust his game to any spot, inside and outside, and he has maintained that chameleon-like development with the Chargers. His health is a growing concern—Allen has yet to play a full 16-game schedule. That’s about the only thing holding him back from claiming an entrenched spot as a dominant No. 1 receiver.
Pre-contract extension Thomas and post-contract extension Thomas were two separate entities, the line in the sand drawn when Denver handed its 6' 3" primary receiver a $70 million deal in July 2015. Thomas struggled with drops and virtually vanished for stretches during games last season, with the Broncos’ shoddy QB play doing him no favors. He still caught 105 passes for 1,304 yards. He also has averaged 100 catches over the past four seasons, so the track record is there for him to light up the stat sheet again in 2016. Thomas should be finding the end zone quite a bit thanks to his size and his shiftiness in the open field. The latter is an underrated trait of his.
A bit speculative in nature to put Cooper this high up the rankings already, ahead of a plethora of more proven options. But the 2015 No. 4 pick wasted little time last season showing why the Raiders have such lofty hopes for he and Derek Carr together. Cooper topped 100 yards receiving in three of his first six games while Oakland emerged as a surprise wild-card contender. Neither Cooper nor his team could keep the momentum rolling into December and January, but the upside is obvious. Cooper finished with 1,070 yards and nine TDs last season, and that should be his floor moving forward.
The 10-year NFL veteran has topped 1,000 yards in eight of his seasons thus far, missing out only during an injury-plagued 2014 and his rookie season of 2006. Another big-bodied headache out wide, Marshall (6' 4", 229 lbs.) brings a swagger common to many of the receivers populating our list. He never was more productive than in 2015, when he hung 1,502 yards and 14 touchdowns on the board—no wonder he’s been pushing for Ryan Fitzpatrick’s return. As is becoming more and more common with typically outside WRs, Marshall also can thrive from the slot. He and Eric Decker share that trait.
A line of thinking exists out there that says Robinson, headed into his third year, still could polish out some of the kinks in his game—he dropped eight passes last season, for example. If that’s true, look out. Robinson’s rookie season of 2014 was cut short by a stress fracture, but he was borderline unstoppable from Week 2 on in 2015. He scored in five consecutive games spanning Weeks 12 through 16, including a three-touchdown performance against Tennessee. All told, he hauled in 14 TDs, tied for the league lead with Brandon Marshall and Doug Baldwin.
Of the Texans’ 5,564 yards last season, more than a quarter (1,521) came courtesy of Hopkins receptions. As the focal point of the Houston offense, Hopkins elevated his game to another level, catching 111 passes (on 192 targets) for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. As with Dez Bryant, A.J. Green and others on this list, his numbers would have climbed even higher with better quarterback play. Productive all over the field, Hopkins is an acrobat in the end zone and along the sideline, using his size (6' 1", 218 lbs.) to box out defenders and plucking difficult catches out of the air with his tremendous hands. Still just 24 years old and now paired with what Houston hopes is a legitimate franchise QB in Brock Osweiler, Hopkins could set his sights on a 2,000-yard season in the near future.
A legitimate No. 1 receiver from the moment he entered the league as the No. 4 pick in 2011, Green has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his five seasons and has yet to miss the 1,000-yard mark. The Georgia product carries career per-year averages of 83 catches, 1,234 yards and nine touchdowns into the 2016 season, in which he will try to hit the 100-reception mark for the first time. He was on pace to challenge that mark last year before Andy Dalton suffered a season-ending thumb injury. Standing at 6' 4", Green is almost impossibly silky in his gait. If there has been a knock on Green, it has come from drops—he hit double digits in that category two seasons ago. Last year, he had just two miscues on 132 targets.
The fact that Jones is only No. 4 speaks to the talent ahead of him on this list. Atlanta’s 2011 first-rounder paced all NFL receivers in 2015 with 136 catches and 1,871 yards—a clip of 116.9 yards per game. Jones is the league’s alltime leader with 95.4 yards per game for his career, well clear of runner-up Calvin Johnson (86.1). He exploded last season despite a near complete lack of help from his fellow receivers. An aging Roddy White caught 43 passes, Leonard Hankerson caught 26 and everything else ran through Jones, Devonta Freeman and, to a far lesser extent, Jacob Tamme. Jones remains as lethal as there is when it comes to tracking the deep ball and adjusting for a catch.
It would be unfair to call any receiver “likely” to knock Brown from his perch, but Beckham could have the best chance to do so. Football’s version of the “Human Highlight Reel” (props, Dominique Wilkins), Beckham already ranks top 20 in Giants history for receiving yards ... and he has played all of two seasons. After posting 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns as a rookie, Beckham bumped up all of those totals to 96, 1,450 and and 13, respectively, during his sophomore campaign. Thirty-two of his receptions last season came out of the slot, adding to how difficult a matchup Beckham can be. He is flat out electrifying whenever the ball is in the vicinity. We know it doesn’t take a perfect throw for Beckham to come down with a catch.
Chalk up Bryant’s 2015 campaign as one to forget. He played in just nine games, hampered the entire time by the broken foot he suffered in Week 1. And when he was out there, the Cowboys’ superstar had a ragtag crop of quarterbacks slinging the ball his way in place of Tony Romo. The result: career lows for catches (31), yards (401) and touchdowns (three). A healthy Bryant, though, has overcome his early-career inconsistency to become the gold standard for physical receivers. He overwhelms defensive backs downfield and especially in the red zone—he led the NFL with 16 touchdown catches in 2014. Bryant also has become an improved blocker, to the point of being dominant when he latches on to an opponent. When people talk of a model “outsider receiver,” Bryant is often the image that comes to mind.
An unstoppable star in fantasy football—our Michael Beller has him ranked as the No. 1 overall player in that realm—Brown is the most dynamic player in the NFL right now. He has led the league in receptions each of the past two seasons (129 and 136, respectively) while averaging 1,766 yards receiving. Add in his punt-return prowess, and Brown is a threat to top 2,000 all-purpose yards every season, just as he has in three of the past five years. Ben Roethlisberger targeted him at least 10 times in games eight through 16 last regular season. Brown responded with a ridiculous 17-catch, 284-yard showing against Oakland (52 yards shy of the all-time mark) and later hauled in 16 receptions against Denver. The Steelers can line him up anywhere on the field without worrying about him getting open. He’ll make defenders miss time and again once he has the ball in his hands, too.