Sports Outside the Beltway

NFL’s Best Wide Receiver Tandems

Which NFL teams have the best wide receivers? Scouts, Inc. ranks them 1-32. Here are their top 10:

1. Indianapolis Colts An exceptional group of wide receivers got better with the addition of first-round selection Anthony Gonzalez. Marvin Harrison is still among the best wide receivers in the league and is playing at his typical Hall of Fame level. Although Reggie Wayne certainly benefits from having Harrison on the other side, he just gets better every season and is now a bona fide Pro Bowl pass-catcher. Harrison and Wayne are both tougher than they are given credit for. Former Ohio State star Gonzalez comes from a big-time college program and was productive at the highest level. He is one of the most polished receivers from this year’s draft and should excel with the Colts. This group also benefits from having a pretty darn good quarterback throwing them the football.

2. Arizona Cardinals Matt Leinart has an ultra-talented pair of wideouts at his disposal. Who do you roll the coverage to? Larry Fitzgerald has great size and enough speed to go along with sticky hands, a fantastic body control and rare ball skills. He excels in the red zone, can stretch the field or eat a cornerback alive with his possession routes. Anquan Boldin is probably the No. 2 option in this offense, but he is a true No. 1 on just about any other team in the league. He has great size and physicality. He is tough and makes a lot of big plays after the catch. He isn’t a burner and has slight durability concerns, but he is very productive. These two thrive off each other; few teams in the league have a better situation at wide receiver. What is scary is that this tandem should get better.

3. St. Louis Rams Torry Holt is an absolute superstar and is quite possibly the best wide receiver in the game today. For some reason, this guy simply does not get his due. He is a future Hall of Famer and continues to perform on a very high level. Holt can do it all and makes every member of this offense better. Isaac Bruce obviously is getting up in age and is not the dynamic weapon that he once was, but as No. 2 receivers go around the league, Bruce is still pretty formidable. St. Louis signed Drew Bennett in free agency to replace Kevin Curtis. Bennett will bring a much-needed big body to this group to complement the other wideouts. The No. 2 spot soon will belong to Bennett, and when he teams with Holt and Bruce, the Rams will find matchups to their advantage with regularity.

4. Cincinnati Bengals This is an elite group of wide receivers, but Chris Henry’s eight-game suspension will hurt. Henry has his problems off the field, but when he steps between the lines, he creates mismatches and consistently makes big plays. He is a touchdown machine. Although Henry will be missed, Tab Perry is a player who could blow up in Henry’s absence. Perry is tough as nails, strong and determined with a great blend of size and speed. It can be argued that Chad Johnson is as good as any receiver in the league today, and diagnosing weaknesses in his game is difficult to do. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is an exceptional second option with a high football IQ who consistently exploits single coverage in the short and intermediate areas.

5. Detroit Lions Is it too early to rank the Lions’ wide receivers among the best in the business? Absolutely not. Calvin Johnson is just that good of a prospect. He is a rookie and surely will have some growing pains as all newcomers do, but Johnson is a superstar without physical weaknesses. He will get by on hard work and talent alone this year, and then be among the top players at the position in the next few years. Roy Williams is an out-of-this world athlete who is quickly becoming a complete receiver. Williams is already among the better players at his position and defenses will have a brutal time producing a game plan against this duo. Mike Furrey is solid and should do a great job in the slot and as the No. 3 receiver. QB Jon Kitna is a lucky man.

6. New England Patriots The Pats’ receiving corps would have ranked near the very bottom of this list one year ago, but times have changed. Adding Wes Welker, Donte’ Stallworth and Randy Moss to the group will do that. Say what you want about Moss, but when he turns it on, there is no one like him. Of course, he is a wild card at this point, but we have a hunch that Tom Brady might get something out of him. Stallworth will benefit a great deal from all the attention that Moss will garner. Both players are exceptional deep threats and this group is just dripping with big-play potential. Welker is quick and reliable out of the slot. He should fit in very well. Last year’s top receiver, Reche Caldwell, will allow the Patriots to exploit secondaries with an outstanding four-receiver set. This group is outstanding on paper, but needs to prove that it is worth our lofty ranking.

7. Denver Broncos There is a noticeable drop-off after the top six receiver groups. Rod Smith has been a rock of consistency for Mike Shanahan over the past decade or so, but the veteran is beginning to show signs of slipping. Jay Cutler still will look his way when the chips are down, but Brandon Marshall should surpass Smith as the starter opposite Javon Walker. Marshall is a budding star with great tools. He will see a lot of single coverage next year and could make himself a household name in this offense. Walker is a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver who possesses an outstanding combination of size, explosiveness and deep speed. Expect an even better season from Walker in 2007 now that he is a year removed from his knee injury.

8. Dallas Cowboys Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn are an aging starting duo, but they remain very formidable. For all the drama that Owens brings off the field, he is still a game-changing presence on Sundays. He dropped a lot of passes last year — many of which would have gone for big plays and touchdowns — but he played through a serious hand injury, which obviously hindered his ability to catch the ball cleanly. Owens has lost half a step, but is still a very good wideout who scores touchdowns in bunches and is a tough matchup for any cornerback. Glenn is a dynamic second receiver who still can stretch a defense or torture his opponents with crisp, short and intermediate routes. Patrick Crayton is tough and competitive, but overall, the Cowboys are lacking depth behind their veteran starters.

9. Baltimore Ravens Although Derrick Mason is on the decline, fellow wideouts Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams are gaining steam and progressing very well in their young careers. Williams is one of the best young wide receivers who you have probably never heard of. He is a tall, angular guy who can stretch the field. Williams is going to be a good one. Clayton is a very mature player for such a young guy and has ascended rapidly. He isn’t particularly big or physical, but he is extremely quick and makes a lot happen after the catch. Although Mason isn’t what he once was and rarely scores, he is still a decent starting option who knows the tricks of his trade. It should be noted that this threesome also benefits a great deal from the presence that TE Todd Heap provides in the middle of the field.

10. Pittsburgh Steelers Hines Ward has been nicked up a bit over the last two seasons, and with his physical style of play and age, he needs to prove that he can stay healthy for an entire season. That being said, Ward is still a very good player who brings toughness, leadership and attitude to the Steelers’ offense. He exploits single coverage and has performed well even when the opposition rolls its coverage in his direction. Last year’s first-rounder, Santonio Holmes, experienced some usual bumps in the road during his rookie season, but he finished the season very strong and has the looks of an explosive playmaker. Holmes should have a big year. Behind the starters, Pittsburgh’s receiving corps is very average and the Steelers need someone to step up as the No. 3 guy.

I hate when they try to factor rookies into this because there’s really no way of knowing how they’ll perform. And, frankly, there’s always the issue of quarterbacks, offensive lines, schemes, and so forth.

It’s hard to think that there are seven teams better than the Cowboys, who bring Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn to the table and complement them with Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. That duo isn’t getting any younger, though, and the youngsters behind them are unproven. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the Cowboys wind up performing well above this ranking but it strikes me as perfectly fair going into the season.

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