As the offseason rolls on, it seems like only fun exercises and rankings can beat away the doldrums, so it’s time to rank the top 15 wide receivers in the NFL. Due to the volume of wide receivers in the league and the importance of passing, it is literally the deepest position in the NFL. If the top four quarterbacks in the league are dubbed as “elite”, then it makes sense for the top 12 wide receivers in the NFL to be elite, assuming the top three receivers on a team are “starters” due to the volume of targets today. Three times 32 is 96, and 12 is one eighth of 96 (four is an eighth of 32), so the proportions match. The quality and depth of the position makes it difficult to rank players, so sticking to a top 15 also makes things a bit easier.
1. Detroit Lions Calvin Johnson
There’s no doubt that Johnson is going to top almost every wide receiver ranking ever made, and it’s because nobody is as difficult to cover as Johnson. His size makes it almost unfair to match up against him, and he was a huge deep threat for the Lions last year despite being hobbled by a knee injury. Megatron averaged a whopping 17.7 yards per reception, and Matthew Stafford can use him as a red zone weapon, a deep threat, or a possession receiver due to his height and ability to shield defensive players away from the ball. Johnson isn’t just a physical specimen, though, because he understands timing concepts and is a masterful route-runner who can adjust on the fly.
Commanding coverage from multiple defenders, Johnson is as good as anyone at drawing away coverage assignments. To get a glimpse of his savvy, watch a touchdown reception he had against the Chicago Bears that proved to be the winning play; with one nasty cut, he left nemesis Charles Tillman in the dust at a critical juncture of the game in an even more critical area of the field. Not only does his size make him a top-notch player in the red zone, but his ability to find space with a quick move at the end of his route also gives him that advantage.
2. Cleveland Browns Josh Gordon
I hope Gordon turns his life and career around, because a Hall of Fame career is probably at stake here. It’s pretty ridiculous how he was able to lead the league in receiving by nearly 200 yards, because he missed two games with a suspension and had poor quarterbacks throwing it to him. Gordon averaged nearly 19 yards per reception last season, and his size and strength makes him one of the league’s most formidable playmakers. He absolutely burned up Aqib Talib in single coverage last season, but Talib was just one of his high-profile victims. The scary thing is that Gordon could theoretically be even better than this if he can get his head on straight, but that’s a big “if” at this point, as sad as it is to say.
3. Atlanta Falcons Julio Jones
It becomes almost pointless to try and rank the top ten receivers, because there’s just about no margin in skill between, say, Julio Jones and A.J. Green or Antonio Brown and Jordy Nelson. Jones gets the nod, though, because he’s just as much of a physical specimen as Johnson. Jones had 41 receptions for 580 yards in just five games last season, and he was actually playing hurt when he put up those monstrous numbers. He’s as explosive as anyone in this league, and he averaged almost as many yards per game as Gordon did…on an injury.
4. Cincinnati Bengals A.J. Green
He’s so good that you can make the case that he’s the most valuable player on his team, and it’s a team that includes two elite players in Andrew Whitworth and the consistently dominant Geno Atkins at defensive tackle. Green consistently dominates at the wide receiver position, as he’s had 97 and 98 receptions in each of the past two seasons with 11 of them going for touchdowns in both seasons. Green can beat defenses in a variety of ways, and Andy Dalton leans on him as much as any quarterback leans on their top receiver.
5. Chicago Bears Brandon Marshall
He’s closer to being enshrined in the Hall of Fame than some think, and he’s one of the most difficult receivers in the league to cover due to his physicality. You know how Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are revered for their physical press coverage? Well, Marshall is like the receiver version of those guys in playing style, and it gets to the point where cornerbacks like to accuse him of pass interference.
These claims are, in my view, unfounded, because that’s just his playing style, and very few receivers have the strength to do it. It’s a skill like Cortland Finnegan‘s (when he was in his prime, mind you) ability to pester receivers into frustration. Marshall’s strength is almost tight end-like, as seen in his elite run blocking, which is better than what several tight ends could probably muster. Like the names around him, Marshall is a huge matchup nightmare, and Alshon Jeffery should give plenty of credit to Marshall, because his savvy, size, and skill helped Jeffery rack up some monster numbers.
6. Denver Broncos Demaryius Thomas
Golden Tate actually had the highest average number of yards after the catch per reception in the league, but Demaryius Thomas was the league leader in overall YAC. Thomas can do it all at the wide receiver position, and we’ve seen him explode for huge gains on screen passes in the slot (the famous Week 1 audible play) or burn cornerbacks on the outside. I don’t think there’s a better wide receiver in the league at executing the double move, and we’ve seen him pull some sweet cuts against physical corners on the Kansas City Chiefs and even the Seattle Seahawks (it’s just that the Seahawks DBs were so good that they always recovered in time). Thomas averaged 15.5 yards per reception last year with 92 overall catches, and he had an average of 10.1 yards per target.
7. Houston Texans Andre Johnson
Still going strong at the age of 32, Andre Johnson is fresh off of his fifth season with at least 100 receptions, and he isn’t going to slow down any time soon. A sure-fire future Hall of Famer, Johnson is still one of the most consistent receivers in the league, and I can’t think of a player who is better at moving the chains. His average of 12.9 yards per reception was decent, but it was actually his lowest total since 2006.
His anger with the Texans organization over their inability (unwillingness?) to find a quarterback to his liking will only dissipate if one of their current QBs turns into a legitimate starter, but that’s not something most people believe will happen. Instead, it looks like Johnson, the possibly underrated DeAndre Hopkins, and the undoubtedly underrated TE grouping will have to wait until 2015 to snag a true franchise passer. Johnson’s frustrations are understandable, but he’ll have to tough it out, and that’s honestly the way it should be. He’s been with the Texans for his entire career since 2003, so it would be weird to see him playing for another team.