Sports Outside the Beltway

10 Best NFL Receiving Units

Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders ranks the NFL receiving units from 1-32 including, rightly I think, tight ends. Here’s the top 10:

1. Dallas (1)

After six weeks of Drew Bledsoe, the Cowboys’ receivers were struggling. While Terry Glenn had a very respectable 16.8 percent DVOA, Terrell Owens was at a woeful -7.7 percent, and Patrick Crayton (the likely third or fourth target on most plays) had only been thrown 12 passes in six weeks because Bledsoe couldn’t stay upright long enough to find him. Even Jason Witten’s 17.0 percent DVOA had him at a mediocre 13th amongst tight ends.

By the end of the year, Glenn’s DVOA had improved to 20.4 percent, while Owens got all the way up to 12.2 percent. Crayton got 36 more attempts in the final 10 games and was the best third receiver in football. Witten’s DVOA went up to 19.1 percent, seventh amongst all tight ends. The point: Having an even competent quarterback can be the difference between a group of receivers struggling, or being amongst the league’s elite. While Owens and Glenn are getting up there in age, both have yet to show an appreciable level of decline in their metrics, and Owens will likely see an improved catch rate after healing his finger injury. Crayton remains one of the unsung threats in the league, and Witten, the best tight end in a division full of them. A team’s top four receivers will see 65-70 percent of all the throws made by a quarterback over the course of a season; one through four, no one’s better than the Cowboys.

2. Indianapolis (3)

On one hand, it would be incredibly interesting to see what would happen if Marvin Harrison ended up playing with Charlie Frye, or someone of that ilk. How much of his performance would he lose? On the other hand, breaking up Manning and Harrison just seems wrong, like sticking Tennille with Tom Jones, Chuck D with Prince Markie D.

What makes Indianapolis so dangerous, though, is their depth. In Harrison and Reggie Wayne (No. 1 and No. 2 in wide receiver DPAR last season), they have a one-two punch to match any in football; when you add Dallas Clark to the equation, you may have the three best pure receivers in the game. What makes this team even scarier in 2007 is the addition of Anthony Gonzalez in the first round; while it’s impossible to forecast certain success for the young man, take a gander at the other skill-position players the Colts have used first-round picks on under Bill Polian: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne. These guys could make Jim Sorgi look good. While Gonzalez will undoubtedly struggle some with the complex Colts playbook, his 3.6 GPA while at Ohio State offers some encouragement that he might be a quick study.

3. Cincinnati (4)

As good as Indianapolis’ starting wide receivers were, Cincinnati’s star combo of Chad Johnson (5th in DPAR) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (4th) were right behind them. In fact, it’s easy to construct a pretty convincing argument that by the time Carson Palmer had come all the way back from his knee injury, the combination were approaching the performance of Wayne and Harrison. Before the Bengals bye in Week 5, the Colts’ duo were averaging 5.5 DPAR per game combined, while the Bengals’ top two had a measly 2.3 DPAR per game between them. Over the rest of the year, while the Colts’ stars kept their numbers up at 5.69 DPAR per game, the Bengals got up to 4.46 DPAR per game; still not at the Colts’ level, but approaching it.

What separates the Colts’ offense from the Bengals, though, is depth. The Bengals offense does not enjoy a threat at tight end the level of Dallas Clark, although Reggie Kelly has proven to be an effective receiver (17.8 percent DVOA in 2006) when used. While Chris Henry was an excellent third wide receiver, a full season of Anthony Gonzalez will be better than the maximum eight games Henry will be allowed to suit up for in 2007. While they’re not the Colts’ set of receivers — very few teams in NFL history have been — Johnson and Houshmandzadeh are an elite duo, and they are likely to continue to be for at least two more seasons.

4. Baltimore

A great group of receivers hidden by a quarterback losing his arm strength and pocket dexterity. While neither Derrick Mason nor Mark Clayton had spectacular statistics last season, the offensive scheme they played in, and Steve McNair’s quickness to check down caused some deflation in their numbers as opposed to their actual talent level. Mason remains one of the more reliable No. 1 receivers in football, a steady target who runs excellent routes and frees up space underneath while being double-covered. Clayton, on the other hand, is a star waiting to happen, a deep threat in the vein of Chicago’s Bernard Berrian with an upside not dissimilar to Carolina’s Steve Smith. He gained confidence as the year went along, and by the time the playoffs rolled around, was receiver No. 1A. He may have as good a chance to enjoy a breakout 2007 as anyone in pro football.

While third wideout Demetrius Williams is a step down from those two, he was a serviceable deep threat in his first season of playing time on offense, and is likely to see more action out of the slot as the Ravens open up their offense some in 2007. The real third option, though, is tight end Todd Heap, who’s ready to assume the mantle of best non-Gates tight end in football from Tony Gonzalez as he enters his peak and Gonzalez leaves his. Heap remains an excellent end zone option and requires safeties to help out on him, creating space for Clayton behind them.

The Football Outsiders say Anquan Boldin hasn’t been as great as his numbers would suggest in Arizona. (Brian Bahr / Getty Images)

5. Arizona (6)

Oh, if they only had a tight end. Last year, we panned former first-round pick and Cardinals’ third receiver Bryant Johnson as a bust, and the player holding the Cardinals’ wideouts back; Johnson responded with an excellent campaign, ranking 13th in DVOA and 27th in DPAR despite not being a starter. This year, we turn our scornful gaze, surprisingly, toward Anquan Boldin; while he’s been a workhorse at wide receiver (his 18.8 points of DPAR were 21st in the league last year), he’s yet to post a DVOA above 5 percent in his career, which points somewhat to the source of his success being a significant level of usage as opposed to spectacular performance. Expect that to improve some as the Cardinals’ offensive line does. The scary thing is that this threesome is already among the top two or three in football on their own merits, and they’re just now getting a good quarterback and slowly developing an offensive line. Oh, and they haven’t even hit their peak yet.

6. Denver (14)

It’s not often that a team’s Hall of Fame receiver suffers a steep decline and yet the receiving corps gets better, but that’s exactly what’s happened in Denver. Despite the controversy at quarterback, Javon Walker emerged as roughly the same receiver he was in Green Bay before his 2005 ACL tear; he was eighth in DPAR and 22nd in DVOA in 2004, 16th and 30th, respectively, in 2006. The effects of having to adjust to Jay Cutler’s development and Jake Plummer’s regression peg those as sufficiently similar performances. Of course, to speak of regression would require discussing Rod Smith, who absolutely fell off the cliff in 2006, 78th in DPAR and 77th in DVOA; toast got offended when you mistook it for the far-more-burnt Smith. With Smith still struggling to return from hip surgery, Denver will likely give more playing time to free agent Brandon Stokley and promising second-year player Brandon Marshall, who came on at season’s end and looks to be a real player.

The other advantage to Denver’s attack are their tight ends, who may be the deepest group in the game. Former Patriots first-round pick Daniel Graham is primarily known as a mauler, but he’s also a reliable pair of hands and good underneath option; meanwhile, backup Tony Scheffler posted an 8.7 percent DVOA last year, good enough for 14th in the league. He runs deeper routes than Graham, and the two will serve as solid complements to each other. Last year’s starter, Stephen Alexander, will likely remain as a blocker and decoy receiver. All in all, Cutler will be spoiled for choice in his first full season at the helm.

7. New England (10)

Speaking of spoiled for choice, New England had a hole at receiver, and instead of sticking a finger in to plug it, they just threw in the whole hand. Five new receivers come to the Patriots to supplement Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and Ben Watson, but each of them has flaws. Donte’ Stallworth has had one healthy year in five; health is a skill, and it’s the one thing Stallworth lacks that keeps him from being an elite wideout. Randy Moss hasn’t been Randy Moss in three seasons, and for a player who’s 30 and has always relied on his physical skills, it’s unlikely that he’ll return to being Randy Moss as a Patriot.

Randy Moss struggled in Oakland. Will he be able to return to glory in New England? ( Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images)

Wes Welker is an excellent third receiver and return man, but has very little upside and has likely already peaked. Kelley Washington was squeezed out in Cincinnati because of a loaded wideout group, but he’s also injury-prone and his aptitude for playing special teams (which is what he’ll need to do to grab a roster spot) has been questioned. Finally, Kyle Brady is likely to fulfill most of the blocking requirements Daniel Graham served in previous years, but he’s no threat in the air and the Patriots will need David Thomas to serve as the second tight end in the receiving game. While the Patriots have certainly improved their group of receivers, the improvements might not be as dramatic as first glance would have it.

8. San Diego (5)

This discussion begins with Antonio Gates because the passing attack is all based around him. At this point, Gates is one of the five best free talent acquisitions in NFL history; at 27, and with a body a little bit healthier than most tight ends because of his lack of a college football career, we can even expect that Gates might turn it up another notch as Philip Rivers matures.

Outside of Gates, the Chargers have a group of talented wide receivers with something to prove. Eric Parker is a first-down machine, and one of the most underrated players in football; his DVOA rankings over the last three years are 26th, 3rd, and 7th. While the departed Keenan McCardell had clearly lost a step across from Parker, he was booted from the starting lineup by injury and the emergence of 6-foot-5 Vincent Jackson as a viable starter. Jackson still has a ways to go before he’s of McCardell’s caliber, but he creates dramatic matchup problems for every defensive coordinator the Chargers face: how do you defend against two guys who are 6-foot-4-plus and run like the wind? If Norv Turner actually does finally live up to his offensive guru reputation, it could be a scary time for safeties league-wide. When you throw in first-round selection, and former LSU speed demon Craig Davis, this is another batch of receivers who are already good and will only get better. San Diego suffers from this analysis not including the receiving benefits of LaDainian Tomlinson, but either way, this is a promising group.

9. Seattle

If this list was purely looking at wide receivers, Seattle would be in the top-five. That’s what happens when you have Football Outsiders favorite and emerging star D.J. Hackett pushing his way into a lineup that already features fellow Outsiders poster boy Bobby Engram, Nate Burleson and a now-settled Deion Branch. Hackett’s DVOA answered only to Devery Henderson’s last year, as he caught 67 percent of the passes thrown to him, and averaged nearly 14 yards per completion.

The problem, though, is that the Seahawks have neglected to acquire any tight ends to suit up for them this year; while Marcus Pollard, Will Heller and Bennie Joppru may answer to that title, none of them are players anyone would want to rely on as a championship-caliber tight end. While Engram and Hackett may do the underneath work that tight ends normally do in the West Coast offense, expect Seattle’s blocking effectiveness to decrease.

10. Detroit (27)

Well, they have to be above-average at something. The Lions’ bugaboo became the position they could hang their hat on last year, as Roy Williams’ development within Mike Martz’s pass-happy attack pushed him into the upper-echelon of NFL wide receivers; his 29 DPAR were good for sixth in the league, although at a 14.1 percent DVOA, he was only 21st. Mike Furrey’s conversion to wideout became one of the better stories of that nature in recent memory, as he caught 98 passes and put up a solid DPAR and DVOA. In addition, the selection of Calvin Johnson gives the Lions what appears to be — caution now — a sure thing across from Williams. In addition, tight end Dan Campbell posted a whopping 44.2 percent DVOA on 32 attempts last year, the best for any tight end in football.

The problem is that some of these successes are obviously schematic; Campbell’s never been that level of receiver and isn’t likely to be again, while Furrey’s skills are also overstated by his usage pattern. Even if Johnson’s the real deal, Detroit’s still a step behind the elite receiving corps in football.

Click the link for teams 11-32 and an explanation for all the acronyms.

It’s interesting that they rank the Cowboys #1, given the lack of depth behind their two geriatric starters at wideout. Patrick Crayton is generally underrated, I think, but I never would have guessed he was the best #3 in the game. And the tight end production should increase substantially this year under the new offense.

Of course, there are several other teams in contention for this title and most have more established quarterbacks. If Tony Romo doesn’t return to mid-2006 form, his receivers won’t be the best in the League.

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