2011 Playoff Top Twelve: Receivers

As Doogan pointed out in a comment the other day, this has completely become a passing league.  The best running backs in the league are not in the playoffs, while a team with a subpar quarterback has basically no shot.  So, one would then be safe to assume that the best teams in the league are those with the best wide receivers, right?  Not necessarily.  If you asked random fans of the NFL to name the league’s best receivers, what answers would you get?  Andre Johnson?  Calvin Johnson?  Larry Fitzgerald?  Brandon Marshall?  Some fans focused on reputations might still answer with Randy Moss or Terrell Owens or Chad Ochocinco.  Some more savvy fans might even answer Brandon Lloyd, since he did lead the league in receiving yards.  Well, every single one of those players have one thing in common – they are NOT in the playoffs this year.  So, what wins in this passing league?  The short answer:  diversity.  The teams with the best offenses have a real diversity and depth in “weapons.”  Throwing to Randy Moss or Brandon Marshall 15 times a game is not going to win any more in today’s NFL.  The best receiver is simple:  the one that is open.  And, the teams that might have to sacrifice having an elite-elite wideout for three or four, or sometimes more, “weapons” that will be open 8-10 times a game are the teams that are winning in 2010.  So, on that note, let us dive into our playoff receiver rankings. 

Like yesterday with running back groups, today’s list is not going to be individual receivers, but instead groups of receivers, or receiving corps, if you will.  We are going to try and not take into account the guy throwing the ball, so we will not focus on “passing rankings,” but more focus on the guys catching the ball, including tight ends, running backs, and, of course, wide receivers.  I will also try and consider a team’s “passing scheme,” as best I can.  Along with the ranking will be, in italics, a list of the guys who had either 30 catches or 300 yards receiving this year for that specific team.

12). Seattle Seahawks.  (Mike Williams 65-751, Deon Butler 36-385, Justin Forsett 33-252, Brandon Stokley 31-354, John Carlson 31-318, Ben Obomanu 30-494) 

Reconnecting with his old coach, Pete Carroll, has given Mike Williams a second chance in the NFL

Again, Seattle finds itself last on a list.  The Seahawks traded away their two most experienced, most dependable wide receivers before the halfway mark of the season this year (and, maybe not coincidentally, both wound up as rather important components of playoff teams ranked higher than Seattle on this list).  T.J. Houshmandzadeh was traded away to Baltimore before the regular season began, and Deion Branch was traded back to New England a couple games into the season.  What they are left with is an inspiring reclamation project and, well, not much else.  Mike Williams nearly ate himself out of the league after making a bad decision to follow Maurice Clarrett (probably never a good decision to do anything that Clarrett decided to do) out of school as a sophomore, sitting out a year, and then being a gigantic bust for Detroit.  His old college coach, Pete Carroll, brought him back and he looks really good.  But, he is really the only weapon Seattle has to work with.  John Carlson is an okay receiving tight end, and Justin Forsett is a decent pass-catcher out of the backfield, but this is a pretty dreaful offense, all-around, and it is primarily because of a lack of weapons.

11). Kansas City Chiefs.  (Dwayne Bowe (72-1162, Tony Moeaki 47-556, Jamaal Charles 45-468)  

If you ask Matthew Berry, or any other fantasy dork, they'd probably tell you that Jerry Rice was pretty good, but no Dwayne Bowe

I ask anyone who finds this ranking far too low to answer one question:  How much do you pay attention to fantasy football?  If the answer is “a lot,” then please try and separate fantasy football with reality.  Andre and Calvin Johnson are both on losing teams.  Yes, Dwayne Bowe had an absolute monster of a fantasy season.  And, he is an outstanding receiver.  But, part of the reason he put up such crazy numbers is because there is no one else around him that can catch balls.  Bowe has been great for about 11 or 12 weeks now, but would you trust him more in these playoffs than Reggie Wayne or Roddy White or Greg Jennings?  I certainly would not.  And, there is really nothing else on the outside for Cassel to throw to.  Tony Moeaki had a decent rookie season, but he is not an elite tight end.  I do love Jamaal Charles and his pass-catching ability, but Thomas Jones is not a threat.  Other than Bowe and Charles, this team’s weapons are rather tame. 

10). Chicago Bears.  (Johnny Knox 51-960, Matt Forte 51-547, Earl Bennett 46-561, Greg Olsen 41-404, Devin Hester 40-475) 

He's the best...kick returner

One of the reasons I defend Jay Cutler is that I really do not completely trust this group of receivers he has got here…at least not yet.  I think that this group could, at some point, blossom into a really nice group, but right now in January 2011, they are not all that scary for opposing defenses.  Johnny Knox is a speed merchant, who is becoming a really good deep threat.  He has had a pretty good year, but I refuse to think of him as a real difference-maker yet.  Earl Bennett has a nice rapport with Cutler, considering they roomed together at Vanderbilt, but he is nothing more than an average NFL receiver.  And, Devin Hester, as good as he is as a kick returner (easily the best EVER), he is still not a dependable receiver and has trouble getting open in this league.  However, for the lack of anyone on the outside, I do feel like the strength of this Bears receiving corps is out of the backfield and at tight end.  Matt Forte can be a dynamic threat out of the backfield, playing the Marshall Faulk role in the Mike Martz offense.  And, I think that Greg Olsen might be the most underrated pass-catching tight end in the league.  The only problem is that Martz has no idea how to use a tight end, so a lot of Olsen’s abilities are wasted in this offense.  Overall, I find this Bears receiving corps a lot better than Seattle and very close to the next four or five teams, and I am a very big fan of the Mike Martz system.  In my iterations of this list, they were as high as #6, but, in the end, the lack of a real go-to guy or a lot of depth plus the fact that they will play at least one game in “The Windy City” has them settled here at #10.

9). Indianapolis Colts.  (Reggie Wayne 111-1355, Pierre Garcon 67-784, Jacob Tamme 67-631, Blair White 36-355) 

Still getting it done...sometimes by himself

This one is so incredibly hard to rank because it is really hard to parse out the Peyton Manning effect on all of these receivers.  Personally, I think that on any other team, Pierre Garcon is an average 3rd wideout – at best – and Jacob Tamme is a backup tight end.  And, Blair White is probably a practice squad guy.  This team has just been riddled with injuries – losing Dallas Clark, Anthony Gonzalez, and Austin Collie – leaving them very short at the skill positions.  There are two reasons that I decided to – barely – slot them ahead of the Bears.  One is the great passing scheme this team runs.  Again, this might have a lot to do with Peyton, but I do not think it is all him.  This offense has been rolling for a decade now (especially at home), so the system is certainly a part of it.  And, the second reason is clear and simple:  Reggie Wayne.  He is still, somehow, one of the best in the business.  He still has some of his great breakaway speed that makes him a legitimate deep threat on every possession, but he is also an excellent route runner that gives him that third-down conversion ability that the Colts will need if they are to make a run in the playoffs this year.

8). New York Jets.  (Dustin Keller 55-687, Braylon Edwards 53-904, Santonio Holmes 52-746, LaDainian Tomlinson 52-368, Jerricho Cotchery 41-433)  

Santonio shines brightest when all the world is looking

I am not a big fan of this group of Jets receivers, but if we are just talking about who I trust the most to come up big in these playoffs, I could not drop them below any of the teams already mentioned, as much as I wanted to.  Plus, in looking at the numbers, we have to remember that Mark Sanchez is not really that good, and consequently, Brian Schottenheimer is forced to call a rather conservative gameplan.  So, just looking at the receiving corps here, there is a lot to like, albeit, nothing spectacular.  Dustin Keller is a very good tight end, who has become a much-needed safety blanket for the young QB.  Braylon Edwards, while nowhere near the star he should be with that talent, is still a dangerous receiver.  And, we have all seen LaDainian Tomlinson’s body of work as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, so despite losing a step or two, he is still a real threat.  And, then there is the ultimate X-factor on this team – Santonio Holmes.  He missed four games and still finished with 52 catches and over 700 yards.  Plus, when the spotlight shines the brightest, we all know that Santonio steps up (as evidenced even this year with two huge game-winning plays).

7). Pittsburgh Steelers.  (Mike Wallace 60-1257, Hines Ward 59-755, Heath Miller 42-512, Emmanuel Sanders 28-376) 

"You may not know it by looking at me, but I can run really fast."

The Steelers claim to have jettisoned the aforementioned Holmes because of a caustic personality and a desire to “improve the team’s character.”  The real reason they did this (it certainly has nothing to do with personal character because look at the quarterback they run out there every week) is because Holmes was expensive, and they had a guy just as good, if not better, waiting to break out.  Though not many people are talking enough about him, Mike Wallace has become a legit superstar in this league.  He is an absolute burner, but he is also a concise route-runner and a gamer.  Putting him on the opposite side of one of the ultimate professionals, in Hines Ward, gives the Steelers all that they had when they won two Super Bowls with Holmes and thensome.  It still remains to be seen if Wallace has the knack for the moment quite like Holmes, but he certainly has the ability.  And, despite a down year, Heath Miller is still one of the more reliable pass-catching tight ends in the league.  The downside to this receiving corps is that they do not get anything from their running backs.  Mwelde Moore is an okay pass catcher when he is in there, but Mendenhall has yet to show any ability to be a threat out of the backfield.

6). Atlanta Falcons.  (Roddy White 115-1389, Tony Gonzalez 70-656, Jason Snelling 44-303, Michael Jenkins 41-505) 

Veteran Tony Gonzalez brings as much with his veteran leadership to the Falcons as he does with his Hall of Fame ability

If the theme of this year was not “depth over singular talent,” then I could be justified moving this receiving corps higher because of just how good Roddy White is.  I did consider it because I think White is that good.  But, I want to stay consistent, and the Falcons depth cannot match up to the depth of the five teams I have ranked above them.  Tony Gonzalez is going to the Hall of Fame, but not for what he has done in a Falcons uniform.  He is still very good, but no longer elite.  I do really like Michael Jenkins on the other side, but I would never be surprised to see  him shutout in a playoff game.  And, like the Steelers, the Falcons primary back (Michael Turner) is no threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.  Jason Snelling is a solid pass-catcher, but he does not play every down.

5). Green Bay Packers.  (Greg Jennings 76-1265, Donald Driver 51-565, James Jones 50-679, Jordy Nelson 45-582, Brandon Jackson 43-342) 

It is time to face the fact that this guy is a superstar

I really struggled with where to put this group on this list.  In my various drafts, I have had them anywhere from #2 to #6.  I finally settled on #5.  The little group of #4 – 6 is very interesting and could go any way.  They all – Falcons, Packers, and Ravens – have #1 receivers (White, Jennings, and Boldin), but I ranked them in the opposite order of how I feel about those receivers individually because I think that the complementary parts are a little more important right now.  I think Roddy White is the best of the three and then Greg Jennings, who is an absolute star.  But, the complementary parts of these two teams are not as good as those of the Ravens.  I like Donald Driver, and he is terrifying in a playoff scenario because of his experience and big-game mentality, but I am still unconvinced about James Jones and Jordy Nelson.  All that being said, if the Packers had not lost Jermichael Finley to injury, I might have them as high as #1 – that is a huge loss.

4). Baltimore Ravens.  (Anquan Boldin 64-837, Ray Rice 63-556, Derrick Mason 61-802, Todd Heap 40-599, T.J. Houshmandzadeh 30-398) 

The Ravens knew what they were getting in Anquan Boldin - a quiet superstar

I knew this would be bad news when the team I am accused of having a secret love affair with acquired my favorite receiver in the league.  Well, I have to say that, while I think the Ravens made a brilliant move in acquiring Anquan Boldin, he has not been quite as good as I anticipated.  In fact, that and the breakout of Jeremy Maclin has proven, once again, the Eagles are run just about perfectly, from a personnel standpoint.  That being said, though, Boldin is still a very good #1 and exactly what the Ravens needed this offseason.  But, they were not done, as they added another veteran receiver in T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has also paid solid dividends.  The ageless and constant-professional Derrick Mason, despite an in-season tiff with his young quarterback, has had another fantastic season, and Todd Heap has had a resurgent season, after a couple disappointing ones started to raise alarm about what he has left.  Add to the mix one of the best 3 or 4 pass-catching running backs in the NFL, in Ray Rice, and you have a pretty solid group of weapons surrounding Joe Flacco.  Questions may arise as to just how well they are being used, but they are certainly very talented, and immensely experienced.

3). New England Patriots.  (Wes Welker 86-848, Deion Branch 48-706, Aaron Hernandez 45-563, Rob Gronkowski 42-546, Danny Woodhead 34-379, Brandon Tate 24-432) 

Never thought I would compare Bill Belichick to Bobby Fischer

The next two teams on the list are the two perfect examples of this trend of “depth over individual stars” that is going on around the league’s receiving corps.  The Pats ousted the uber-talented Randy Moss and got better.  They lean on two guys under 5’10”, a guy on the wrong side of 30, and two guys built more like offensive lineman than pass-catching athletes.  But, it works.  And, it works because the scheme is so brilliant.  Even without a freakshow athlete, like Moss, the Patriots are absolutely sensational at causing matchup nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.  They use the size (or lack thereof) of Welker and Woodhead to perfection.  And, then they use their two grueling tight ends – Hernandez and Gronkowski – in perfect harmony with their offensive goals.  I have heard the great simile of saying that Belichick uses his tight ends the way a chess Grand Master uses his knights.  These two guys can do things that other guys on the field cannot do, and therefore, defenses cannot stop.  This offense is sickly good, and it is mostly because of the scheme and the buy-in from these players of that scheme.

2). New Orleans Saints.  (Marques Colston 84-1023, Lance Moore 66-763, Robert Meachem 44-638, Jeremy Shockey 41-408, Devery Henderson 34-464, Reggie Bush 34-208, Jimmy Graham 31-356, David Thomas 30-219, Pierre Thomas 29-201) 

Coach Payton must have a lot of fun crafting plays with all these tools available

Talk about loaded.  The Saints, again, enter the postseason presenting quarterback Drew Brees a veritable smorgasbord of options.  And, Brees’s favorite one?  The open one.  That is why this offense is so good.  Sean Payton is a brilliant designer of offense, and Drew Brees is the perfect guy to captain this ship.  Colston had another under-the-radar great year, without stifling the growth of breakout guys like Lance Moore and Robert Meacham.  They also still get great contributions from guys like Devery Henderson and Jeremy Shockey.  They get great production out of the backfield from Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, and they have this new, fancy weapon, in tight end Jimmy Graham (the former U of Miami basketball player), who is an absolute nightmare to cover on the goalline.  This team is, again, loaded, and will test every member of an opponent’s secondary on just about every drive. 

1). Philadelphia Eagles.  (LeSean McCoy 78-592, Jeremy Maclin 70-964, Jason Avant 51-573, DeSean Jackson 47-1056, Brent Celek 42-511) 

The Eagles with the best weapons in the NFL? When a guy as good as Jeremy Maclin can go almost unnoticed, it might not be so crazy

Call me what you will, but this is the best set of weapons in the National Football League.  First of all, they have the ultimate game-changer in DeSean Jackson.  Defenses have no idea what to do with him, as his speed is absolutely devastating.  Then, they have a guy who may have already been a legit #1 receiver in this league if he weren’t coupled with Jackson in Jeremy Maclin.  The most underrated player on the this team, Maclin had a brilliant year, with 70 catches, 964 yards, and 10 touchdowns.  Further, the Eagles have maybe the best third-down possession receiver in the game in Jason Avant, who has the size to get open on third downs and the hands to be trusted on to convert.  They have a very good tight end, who is just starting to play like everyone thought he would in Brent Celek.  And, oh by the way, they just happen to have the best pass-catching running  back in the NFL in LeSean McCoy.  Add to that one of the smartest, most prepared, and most creative offensive playbooks in the league, and you have yourself the best set of weapons in the NFL.  Yes, the Eagles.  My, how far we have come since the days of Charles Johnson and Torrance Small.

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One Response to 2011 Playoff Top Twelve: Receivers

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