In recent history, a vast majority of Super Bowl Champion teams win with a franchise quarterback, dominant run game and lockdown defense — but it’s been fairly rare for recent champs to have one of the game’s top pass-catchers out wide. It’s an interesting trend to note, but it’s a trend nonetheless — unfortunately for NFL personnel executives, there isn’t a book on “How to Build an NFL Roster for Dummies.” And if there was, it would be hard to imagine the author discouraging management from re-signing dominant wideouts. Special receivers have differing abilities: some can take the top off a defense, some are consistent chain-movers, some can force defenses into certain personnel packages and some can take complete control of a game, no matter who is lined up at quarterback.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey
You know those “special” receivers I was just describing? Antonio Brown is the first to come to mind. Many will argue he’s the best wideout in the NFL, and it’s hard to argue against. Browns’ chemistry with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is nearing the level of the chemistry between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick; the receiver is a game-changer when Big Ben is on the field, but he comes back down to earth — relatively — when the quarterback is sidelined. The Roethlisberger-Brown pairing was a match made in heaven, and it has paid dividends for the Steelers over the past few seasons.
Markus Wheaton still needs to prove his ability to consistently impact games, but he’s shown flashes that indicate he’s the best number two wideout in the AFC North. Rogers has drawn high praise throughout the season and figures to start in the slot, while Heyward-Bey has developed into a reliable deep threat. If Pittsburgh can tap into Coates’ potential, the Steelers’ wide receiver group could become the best in the NFL — like it was when now-suspended Martavis Bryant was around.
2. Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, Cody Core, James Wright
Green, like Brown, is a special receiver, but he’s just special in a different way. With speed to burn and unrivaled lateral agility, Green is arguably the NFL’s best deep threat. He constantly beats double-teams, comes down with contested passes and burns defensive backs with ruthless double-moves. If he played against the Ravens for 16 games every season, Green would be the best receiver in NFL history. After losing Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in free agency, the Bengals have become far more top-heavy at the position, but they still have one of the NFL’s best receivers, which is always a good thing.
LaFell comes over from New England on a bargain deal after playing the worst season of his career. Cynics will cite the wideout’s foot injury and prior issues with drops, while optimists will point to his numbers as a sign of reassurance. Whether you like him or not, LaFell is far from the worst number two wide receiver in football. And as history has shown, playing opposite Green (and alongside guys like Andy Dalton, Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert), isn’t the most difficult job in the NFL. Back in 2011, Jerome Simpson put up 50 catches, 725 yards and four touchdowns, while catching passes from a rookie quarterback who was playing behind a worse offensive line then than he is now.
Though he was knocked throughout the 2016 NFL Draft process, Boyd looks like a quality player. Core has the potential to develop into a serious deep threat, while Wright and undrafted rookie Alex Erickson have been equally impressive throughout the preseason. Things are looking up for the Bengals’ receivers.
3. Baltimore Ravens: Kamar Aiken, Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro, Steve Smith
Aiken’s stellar 2015 campaign resurrected what was, prior to season, one of the worst receiving corps in the entire NFL. The former undrafted free agent caught 75 passes for 944 yards and five touchdowns last season.
Wallace, once a blossoming young player in Pittsburgh, has seen his career take a turn for the worse with less successful stints in Miami and Minnesota compared to his prior success with the Steelers. Perhaps pairing him with Aiken alongside a young Perriman will give the Ravens the dynamic and versatile receiving corps they’ve been missing since parting ways with Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, who were both major contributors in Baltimore’s Super Bowl run.
Smith, recently re-activated after a serious Achilles injury, will be the X-factor for Baltimore’s receiving corps, but he’s 37-years-old and doesn’t figure to play a major factor on offense, at least when compared to his role in 2015.
If things go right for the Ravens’ receiving corps, Baltimore could have the strongest and deepest position group in the division. That being said, the question marks at the position — whether Aiken’s 2015 season was an anomaly, whether Wallace can return to his Steelers form and whether the next three guys on the list can stay healthy — mean if things don’t go right, they could go very wrong.
4. Cleveland Browns: Corey Coleman, Terrelle Pryor, Andrew Hawkins, Josh Gordon, Taylor Gabriel, Ricardo Louis
Though the Browns’ wide receiver group isn’t strong, it’s certainly interesting. First-round rookie Coleman, a superstar from Baylor, leads one of the youngest position groups in the NFL.
Pryor, a former quarterback who played for Ohio State and even the Bengals at one point, figures to line up opposite the rookie in Week 1 after an inspiring preseason. Hawkins, another former Bengal, will likely work the slot and serve as the veteran leader within the position group.
The Browns’ X-factor, Gordon, led the NFL in receiving back in 2013 despite missing two games due to a suspension. Suspended again after the 2014 season, the wideout was forced to sit out all of 2015 after repeatedly violating the NFL’s Substances of Abuse Policy. If he’s able to quickly shake off the rust, Gordon has the talent to re-establish himself as one of the league’s best wideouts. However, that will be easier said than done after a year of not playing football.
Cleveland’s receiving corps, which boasts four rookies from the 2016 NFL Draft alone, isn’t strong now, but it could be very strong in a couple of years.