NFL Rankings: The 15 Most Important Receivers In 2015-16
As we approach the start of the 2015 NFL regular season (FOOTBALL IS BACK BABY!) it's that time of year to start ranking who the best players in the league are and what we should expect from them over the course of the season. Usually you will see a list of "Bests" or "Worsts" or "Most Improved" or the like. I'm going in a little bit of a different direction to break down the most important receivers in the league based on a few different qualifiers.
Of course keep in mind that this is not a scientific breakdown. It's sort of like a preseason ranking of the receiving MVPs based on a number of factors that I feel are relevant to the predicting their worth over the next season.
The 15 Most Important Receivers in the NFL are ranked according to the following factors:
Statistical performance over the previous two seasons (2013 and 2014) - Games played, yards, receptions, touchdowns, 1st down percentage and yards after the catch. There is specific focus on game averages for yards and receptions rather than totals over the two seasons.
Consistency of performance - This is where the averages come in. I don't want to see a guy who has racked up 2,000 yards but has games where he totally disappears valued over a guy who can consistently deliver top-tier performances but may not have the explosive big-yardage plays that can skew the big-picture stats.
Health over the previous two seasons - Unfortunately you cannot be valuable to your team if you aren't playing. Guys who have performed well and played in a majority of their teams games over the past two seasons get extra consideration over those who are great but have spent more time off of the field.
Performance in the postseason - Yes that means that this list gives extra credit - or a "bonus" if you will - to players who have performed well in the postseason when their teams' have made it there. If two players are close in all other categories, this list gives preferential treatment to wide receivers that have played well in the playoffs.
I give players a bonus for this because it speaks to their level of importance to their team. If you are a great player on a good or great team, that makes you more important than a great player on a shitty team according to this list. I can't stress enough that they have to have played well. Making it to the playoffs and shitting the bed for your team doesn't count.
I also can't stress enough that the formula involved in creating this list is far from scientific. It's something I made up based on how I view the NFL as a fan and a writer, and you in no way have to agree with it. You just have to read it and debate it with your friends and have fun with it, because that's what sports is really all about.
So without further ado, here are your 15 Most Important Receivers in the NFL heading into the 2015 season.
15. Michael Floyd (Arizona Cardinals)
112 receptions, 1,182 yards, 11 TDs
Games Played: 32
1st Down %: 73.2
YAC: 414 (3.7 per reception)
SG Notes: Michael Floyd is a deceptively important member of the Cardinals offense. Despite having three different starting quarterbacks last year, Floyd has maintained one of the best first down receiving percentages in the NFL. He's reliable, durable, and a perfect young compliment to the aging but still effective Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals made the playoffs last year, but due to an immeasurable amount of bad luck were reduced to merely surviving through the suffering of Ryan Lindley's embarrassing attempt at being an NFL quarterback. With Carson Palmer on his 14th "new" knee, he may be up for more of the same. But if someone under center does happen to be worth a lick, Floyd will be there to do his job and he has one of the NFL's greatest veterans as his wing man. Plus, now that the San Francisco 49ers - their NFC West rivals - are a pile of smoldering ash, they could be a strong contender again for an NFC wild card spot.
14. Emmanuel Sanders (Denver Broncos)
186 receptions, 2,144 yards, 15 TDs
Games Played: 32
1st Down 5: 63.1
YAC: 700 (4.2 per reception)
SG Notes: It's important to note that Sanders has been able to rack up these kind of numbers even while being the number two receiver on his team behind the extraordinarily productive Demaryius Thomas. He stepped up after Eric Decker moved on to the Jets last year, and now that Julius Thomas is a Jaguar, he will be relied on even more. Even closing in on 40-years-old, Peyton Manning is still a wide receiver's best friend in the regular season and wherever he is, his receivers will rise to the occasion. Sanders has never scored a touchdown in the postseason though. Maybe this is his year.
13. A.J. Green (Cincinnati Bengals)
167 receptions, 2,467 yards, 17 TDs
Games Played: 29
1st Down %: 66.5
YAC: 770 (4.6 per reception)
SG Notes: The fact that A.J. Green has the abomination that is Andy Dalton as a quarterback has undoubtedly stunted his opportunities, but he has still been massively successful in spite of him. His 17 touchdowns are tied with Alshon Jeffery for ninth in the league over the last two years, and he remained a bright spot on the Bengals even while they continue to completely fall apart late in the season and into the playoffs. If the Bengals can ever break out of their funk, they will need him to do it; but he can't do it all on his own.
12. Julio Jones (Atlanta Falcons)
145 receptions, 2,173 yards, 8 TDs
Games Played: 20
1st Down %: 69.7
YAC: 833 (5.7 per reception)
SG Notes: The Atlanta Falcons were just awful last year. Matt Ryan is a mediocre quarterback at best, and it's obviously that Julio Jones makes him look even better than he is. Roddy White is mostly just a slot guy at this point, and their run game was brutal. The Falcons only managed 11 rushing touchdowns in all of 2014. Their defense got a little bit better with the addition of some fairly inexpensive but useful talent, but they are clearly putting a lot of their eggs in the Julio basket because they gave him an extremely generous five-year extension worth $71.25 million. He's certainly talented enough to be worth it and he will deliver the stats. It just remains to be seen whether the team can rally around him for the wins.
11. Julian Edelman (New England Patriots)
197 receptions, 2028 yards, 10 TDs
Games Played: 30
1st Down %: 52.3
YAC: 950 (4.8 per reception)
SG Notes: As weird as it may seem, the small but mighty Edelman has been the most consistent offensive weapon for Tom Brady and the Patriots since the departure of Wes Welker. He can easily haul in 10 catches a game whenever needed, and while powerhouse Rob Gronkowski battled with injury in 2013, it was Edelman who became the Patriots' offensive savior, helping to carry them to the AFC Championship game along with Tom Brady and Stevan Ridley. Across the last two postseasons including the Patriots Super Bowl-winning run last year, Edelman accumulated 42 receptions for 454 yards and 2 TDs. If that doesn't make him important, I don't know what does.
10. DeSean Jackson (Washington Redskins)
138 receptions, 2,501 yards, 15 TDs
Games Played: 31
1st Down %: 68.8
YAC: 989 (7.2 per reception)
SG Notes: Oh, Desean. Despite being one of the more polarizing personalities on the field he is immeasurably important to the Washington Redskins if they are ever going to get their act together. He lead all Washington offensive skill players in yards in 2014, as well as lead the receivers with 6 TDs. Despite being handed a barrage of inept quarterbacks with injury issues, he averaged 11.1 yards per catch. He's fast, he has great hands, and he's still one of the biggest deep threats in the league. Oh and did you see that YAC? Yeah he averages 7.2 yards after the catch. I'll take that any day of the week and twelve times on Sundays.
9. Jimmy Graham (Seattle Seahawks)
171 receptions, 2,104 yards, 26 TDs
Games Played: 32
1st Down %: 67.3
YAC: 745 (4.4 per reception)
SG Notes: So many yards, so many touchdowns, and now he is basically going to play with the younger, newer version of Drew Brees. It's hard to imagine a world where Jimmy Graham does not make Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll's lives easier, and that's saying a lot since the Seahawks have now been to two consecutive Super Bowls. Obviously it remains to be seen whether or not Wilson will ever become the historical passer that Drew Brees did, but there's certainly no way that he will let Graham go to waste. Graham is one of the best red zone targets in the NFL, and he's joining his running back counter part in Marshawn Lynch. If they both play to their potential, there could be a record number of touchdowns in the Seahawks future.
8. Randall Cobb (Green Bay Packers)
122 receptions, 1,720 yards, 16 TDs
Games Played: 22
1st Down %: 73.0
YAC: 806 (6.6 per reception)
SG Notes: Randall Cobb has had some injury issues, but when he's been on the field he's been invaluable to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packer offense. With the loss of Jordy Nelson, he has become the Packers number one receiver and the pressure is on. He's absolutely capable of turning it on and playing as one of the best receivers in the NFL, and he proved his worth in last year's playoffs with 15 receptions for 178 yards and 1 TD combined in the Packers two playoff games. Cobb is talented, he's got maybe the best quarterback in the NFL right now passing to him, and his team is solid on every side of the ball; giving him the chance to be more important than ever.
7. T.Y. Hilton (Indianapolis Colts)
164 receptions, 2,428 yards, 12 TDs
Games Played: 31
1st Down %: 66.5
YAC: 774 (4.7 per reception)
SG Notes: T.Y. Hilton paired with Andrew Luck has at times looked like the second coming of Marvin Harrison and Peyton Manning, and other times falls flat. He is easily the best undersized receiver in the league, playing much bigger than his 5'9" frame, and Andrew Luck continues to grow and figure his stuff out every year. Yet T.Y. could really shine if the Colts could utilize a bigger receiver as a red zone target to give T.Y. the opportunity to be the Edelman to someone else's Gronk. Perhaps the newly horseshoed Andre Johnson will be the red zone addition they need to maximize T.Y.'s potential. If so, it could be an even better 2015 for the Colts offense.
6. Alshon Jeffery (Chicago Bears)
174 receptions, 2,554 yards, 17 TDs
Games Played: 32
1st Down %: 70.1
YAC: 930 (5.3 per reception)
SG Notes: Alshon Jeffery has been challenging Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant the last few seasons for the most highlight-worthy catches. He is a strong 6'3" receiver who almost never gets outplayed by the defensive back that's covering him. He's surprisingly effective at extending the play after the catch considering he's not that elusive, and despite having to navigate the inconsistency of his quarterback Jay Cutler, he manages to haul in just over 70 % of the passes that are thrown his way on first downs. He also (sometimes) benefits from the help of Matt Forte at running back. Cutler is capable of having decent seasons, and if the stars could align for Jeffery to be on the receiving end of a motivated Cutler then the Bears would be ten times better for it.
5. Dez Bryant (Dallas Cowboys)
181 receptions, 2,553 yards, 29 TDs
Games Played: 32
1st Down %: 70.2
YAC: 951 (5.3 per reception)
SG Notes: Outside of Calvin Johnson, there is no more physically imposing wide receiver than Dez Bryant. There's something about his attitude and presence on the field that is tangible before he even takes a step. He has more touchdowns receptions than anyone in the NFL over the last two seasons. He's just been plain dominant. There are even some (ME!) that think he was robbed of his reception last year against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Round that could have secured a Cowboys victory. He's clutch, his talent is undeniable and he has a solid quarterback. His only Achilles heel is his temper; but even then it often seems like it is aimed more at himself than anyone else.
4. Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots)
121 receptions, 1,716 yards, 16 TDs
Games Played: 22
1st Down %: 74.2
YAC: 691 (5.7 per reception)
SG Notes: Gronk gets docked a spot because he missed so many games in 2013, but outside of his health issues there is almost nothing to critique about his on-field performance. He's been as dominant as any tight end the NFL has ever seen, and he's easily the best player at his position right now. Part of the separation between him and Jimmy Graham has been his ability to create big plays rather than just finish them. He's also benefited from far more post-season success. He had 16 receptions for 204 yards and 3 TDs during the Patriots' 2014 postseason run, and he will be the most important player - outside of Tom Brady - on the field during every snap he plays for the reigning champions this season. Not to mention that if Jimmy Garoppolo has to start the first few games of the season, I can't think of a better target to have on the field than Rob Gronkowski.
3. Demaryius Thomas (Denver Broncos)
203 receptions, 3,049 yards, 25 TDs
Games Played: 32
1st Down %: 66.5
YAC: 1,398 (6.9 per reception)
SG Notes: Sure, it's easy to be great when you play with Peyton Manning. But it's not that easy. Demaryius Thomas has been a fantasy God over the last two seasons, and his success isn't just inside the twenties. Thomas' 25 touchdowns are second only to Bryant and Graham, and he's posted three consecutive seasons catching for 1,400+ yards. He's a machine. He's big, he's durable, and he can move after the catch like he's Desean Jackson. He leads the league over the last two years in yards after the catch, which means that despite benefiting from Peyton Manning's outrageous regular season success, he's very often creating much of his own yardage. Peyton Manning is actually benefiting from him, and there doesn't seem to be any reason that will change this season.
2. Calvin Johnson (Detroit Lions)
155 receptions, 2,596 yards, 20 TDs
Games Played: 27
1st Down %: 82.6
YAC: 750 (4.8 per reception)
SG Notes: Calvin Johnson is a wide receiver that is larger than many NFL tight ends. Before the emergence of Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and Antonio Brown, he was the consensus for best wide receiver in the league for years. He is still capable of being the best, and this year may be his chance to take back the throne. In his first year with the team, Jim Caldwell took the Lions from 7-9 prior to his arrival to 11-5 in 2014. They finished 2nd in the NFC North, and there's no reason to believe they can't improve on that this year. At this point, Matt Stafford probably is who he is. He's not Aaron Rodgers; but he does have an absolute cannon for an arm and he's fearless on the field. And did we mention that Johsnon has converted over 82% of his targets on first down? That's absolutely insane. He's basically as close to a sure thing on first down as there can be. With Caldwell at the helm, the best of the Stafford/Megatron on-field chemistry may lay ahead in the 2015 season.
1. Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh Steelers)
239 receptions, 3,197 yards, 21 TDs
Games Played: 32
1st Down %: 64.4
YAC: 1,240 (5.2 per reception)
SG Notes: Brown leads the NFL in receptions and receiving yards over the last two seasons combined. It doesn't matter who the Steelers are playing, where they are playing or what the weather is like. Brown is a rock. His lowest yardage total in a game last season was 72 yards. That was his worst. Not only is he the best receiver in the NFL right now, he plays alongside one of the best running backs in the NFL in Le'Veon Bell, and has a not-too-shabby QB in Ben Roethlisberger. If he continues to play at the level he has played at and his rushing and passing counterparts play up to their potential, there is not a reason in the world that the Steelers can't have one of the most consistent and prolific offenses in the league. If they are able to return to their status at the definitive kings of the NFC North, Antonio Brown will be a major reason why.
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