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Ranking the AFC North: Wide Receivers

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The AFC North has always been known for its physical running game, but don't be mistaken, this division can air it out with the best of them. Thanks to some big armed quarterbacks and two top five receivers, the AFC North also possesses some of the better, and more explosive passing attacks in the NFL. We take a look to see which receiving corps gets to claim top honor in the AFC North.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

As is the case with the running back position, the AFC North wide receiver race is a tight one at the top between the Steelers and Bengals, and then a significant dip to the Ravens and Browns.

1) Steelers

Projected WR Depth Chart: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Sammie CoatesDarrius Heyward-Bey

An argument can be made for the Bengals being the top receiving corps in the AFC North, but the Bengals number two receiver (Marvin Jones) has gone about 20 months without playing football, therefore the edge goes to the Steelers.

At 5’10 and 186 pounds, Antonio Brown is not your typical number one receiver, but in my opinion, his speed, craftiness, versatility (i.e. special teams) and innate ability to make something happen, make him the best – or at least most difficult to cover – wide receiver in today’s game. Despite his small physical stature, Brown led the NFL in yards (1,698) and receptions in 2014 (129). Wheaton, a third year player out of Oregon State, had a solid second season in 2014 (53 receptions, 644 yards, 2 touchdowns), but due to his size (5’11", 182 pounds) and the emergence of the 6’4" 211 pound Martavis Bryant, will likely see most of his action in 2015 as the slot receiver in three receiver packages. Bryant proved to be quite the weapon as a rookie. Eight of his 26 receptions went for touchdowns, and his 21.1 YPC would have led the NFL in YPC – if he had enough catches to qualify. The Steelers round out their receiving corps with a talented 3rd round rookie (Sammie Cotes) and an experienced, yet disappointing veteran (Heyard-Bey).

2) Bengals

Projected WR Depth Chart: A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Denarius Moore, James Wright, Mario Alford

The Steelers get the top spot because they have the best receiver in the division and less question marks regarding health. That being said, the Bengals have the deepest receiving corps in the division. Green is the most physically gifted receiver in the north, but at this point in their careers, Brown is the better receiver – save your "it’s Dalton’s fault" arguments, that is B.S. If healthy, Jones is the best number two receiver in the division, but he missed all of 2014, therefore until we have confirmation he is the same player we saw at the end of 2013, we can’t assume he will be. Sanu is a big and versatile receiver who had a breakout season in 2014 (56 receptions, 790 yards, 5 touchdowns), but he struggled mightily with drops (9 – one off the league lead) and completely disappeared during the last nine games (20 receptions, 193 yards, 1 touchdown) of the season.

Moore could be an interesting pickup (if he makes the team) and has had some solid seasons in the NFL despite never having a solid quarterback. His most productive season was 2012, when the Bengals offensive coordinator (Hue Jackson) was his head coach in Oakland. Rounding out the Bengals receiving corps are two young receivers who will likely see most of their opportunities in 2015 on special teams. Wright was a solid special teams contributor as a rookie, and Alford and his 4.27 40 speed, has the chance to earn the Bengals kick returner job if he plays well in the pre-season.

3) Browns

Projected WR Depth Chart: Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin

I have a hard time ranking the Browns receiving corps above anyone, and in fact, I originally had the Browns ranked fourth. However, the more I looked at the Ravens’ depth chart, the more I realized I couldn’t rank the Ravens anything but last, even though the Browns lack a number one receiver.

With the loss of Josh Gordon for the year, one of the Browns’ big offseason priorities was to fill Gordon’s void. While Bowe and Hartline are solid number two receivers, neither player will be mistaken for a number one receiver and both are closer to the backsides of their careers. Bowe, a first round pick out of LSU, came into the league with big expectations but has never lived up to them. In fact, he hasn’t logged more than 60 receptions or more than 1,000 yards since 2011 and he hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since Week 15 of the 2013 season. While odds are Bowe won’t go all of 2015 without a touchdown, it is hard thinking a 31-year-old Bowe will see his numbers improve much with Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel throwing him the football.

The Browns other free agency signing at the wide receiver position was former Ohio State Buckeye, Brian Hartline. While being a former star of the Scarlet and Grey will make him a fan favorite in the Dawg Pound, Hartline, like Bowe, is a solid number two receiver at best and is coming off his worst season as a pro (39 receptions, 474 yards, 2 touchdowns, 12.2 YPC). At this point in his career, questions regarding his ability to get open without a true number one receiver pulling coverages away from him are fair. Ideally, Andrew Hawkins (5’7", 180 pounds) will be the Browns’ slot receiver where he is a mismatch in the middle of the field, and though he may be the Browns’ number three receiver, he is likely their best receiver and biggest playmaker.

As the Browns’ defacto number one receiver in 2014, Hawkins had an impressive season (63 receptions, 824 yards, 2 touchdowns). His ability to make plays in space and find openings in a defense will make him the best friend of whomever is throwing the ball in the Browns’ offense. Taylor Gabriel is another small receiver and had a solid rookie season (36 receptions, 621 yards, 1 touchdown), but at 5’8" and just 167 pounds, he will have a tough time seeing the field now that Bowe, Hartline and Hawkins will likely all be ahead of him on the depth chart.

4) Ravens

Projected WR Depth Chart: Steve Smith Sr., Breshad Perriman, Marlon Brown, Kamar Aiken, Darren Waller, Michael Campanaro Any Ravens fans who have made it to this point of the article are likely seething, but I have my reasons for this fourth place ranking. After a solid 2014 campaign (79 receptions, 1,065 yards, 6 touchdowns), Steve Smith Sr. proved he still has a little left in the tank. However, it is fair to wonder how much is still left. At 36-years-old, it is hard to imagine Smith’s number doing anything but declining at this point in his career, especially for a receiver who relies on his speed (and offensive pass interference) in order to get open. And, despite his solid 2014 season, Smith tied for the league lead with 10 dropped passes and no receiver with 65+ receptions dropped a higher percentage of their passes (7.5%) than Smith.

Beyond Smith, the Ravens don’t have much in terms of experience when it comes to receivers. The Ravens’ remaining depth chart had a total of 55 receptions in 2014. The Ravens lost their top deep threat in the offseason (Torrey Smith) and his 11 touchdowns, and while they took a big and fast receiver in the first round to replace Smith (Breshad Perriman), the knock on Perriman is dropped passes. In fact, despite playing against less than impressive competition in the American Athletic Conference, Perriman dropped 8 of 54 catchable passes – or a whopping 14.8%! While this Ravens wide receiver corps has some potential in 2015 if all pans out, relying on a 36-year-old receiver and a bunch of unproven players is a dangerous recipe – one that Joe Flacco is likely concerned about.

Insight from the AFC North SB Nation Writers:

Chris Pokorny (@DawgsByNature), Dawgs By Nature

Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel are matchup problems for third and fourth cornerbacks due to their quickness, but we're putting a lot of faith in Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline to step up as No. 1 receivers.

Matthew Stevens (@MatthewS_balt), Baltimore Beatdown (@BMoreBeatdown)

This is a tricky thing for the Ravens because no one really knows what they have on their roster outside of Steve Smith Sr. However, with a first round pick going to Breshad Perriman, the Ravens might once again have the deep threat that many figured they would miss with Torrey Smith heading to San Francisco. The young wide receivers like Kamar Aiken are all unproven, but have looked excellent during OTAs so far. Sadly for Ravens' fans, I can't rank the Ravens' wide receiver corps very high in the AFC North since they are so unproven. Right now I'd vote the Steelers at the top spot due to Antonio Brown alone with the Bengals ranked second due to A.J. Green (barring his health this season). If the Browns had Josh Gordon available this season, the Ravens might even rank dead last in the AFC North. Then again, the Ravens have the potential to find themselves with the best overall group come next offseason based on how the entire unit performs in 2015.

Jeff Hartman (@BnGBlitz), Behind the Steel Curtain (@btsteelcurtain)

The Steelers wide receiving corps is finally more than just Antonio Brown. Martavis Bryant has been a welcome addition and looks to take a huge step in his production in his second season. Along with Bryant, Markus Wheaton will man the slot while rookie Sammie Coates looks to round out a stellar receiving corps.