Free agency got an unsuspecting visitor on Friday when the Kansas City Chiefs released wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. Just two years into a five-year contract, Maclin wasn't able to contribute enough last season to justify paying him $12 million in 2017. The loss makes Kansas City's receiving unit extremely weak, but will give another team the opportunity for a significant boost. Maclin may have struggled recently, but in a better passing offense he's proven that he can be a valuable No. 1 option.
So now seems like a good time to rank all 32 NFL receiving units, after the release of Maclin and soon-to-be-next Eric Decker by the Jets. At the top is the team most familiar to being at the top, and not far behind is an NFC South team not named the Falcons. At the bottom, a surprising amount of teams that don't seem to have much talent at the receiver despite their seemingly being an abundance of good receivers in this high-volume passing era.
These are the guys who make most of the biggest highlights every week, as well as the ones who will break your heart. (Asterisks denote 2017 NFL Draft picks.)
1. New England Patriots: Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Andrew Hawkins, Malcolm Mitchell
The Saints unloaded him, but Cooks is still a top-20 player at his position:
Three players have recorded 75 receptions, 1,000 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in each of the past two seasons. Cooks is one. The other two are Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown. Beckham and Brown made the Pro Bowl in both seasons. Cooks made it in neither.
He's small (5-foot-10, 189 pounds), and he played in a high-volume passing offense, but Cooks has made the most of his targets. Over the last two seasons, he ranks 13th in catches, eighth in receiving yards, sixth in touchdowns, and 10th in yards per target. In Football Outsiders' plus-minus for receivers (a statistic breaking down how many passes the average WR would have caught for the same team in the same situations), Cooks ranked seventh. The Patriots added him without losing a receiver of note, including Edelman (1,106 yards in 2016), Hogan (18th in plus-minus), and Mitchell, who had six catches for 70 yards in the Super Bowl. Veterans Amendola and Hawkins provide experienced depth as well. And if you want to get technical, they have another receiver who has been to each of the last six Pro Bowls: Special teams beast Matthew Slater. New England is great at a lot of things right now, and the receiving unit is no exception.
2. Green Bay Packers: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Jeff Janis, Geronimo Allison, DeAngelo Yancey*, Malachi Dupre*, Trevor Davis
With Nelson healthy, Aaron Rodgers comfortably settled back into being his old self. Nelson caught 97 passes for 1,257 yards and an NFL-high 14 touchdowns after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL. He was third in DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and 10th in plus-minus. While Cobb continues to have some struggles, he's a great player to have as your number three receiver now that Adams has established himself as one of the league's best number twos (75 catches, 997 yards, 12 touchdowns). We can't say for sure how good the depth is, but Ted Thompson drafted two more receivers (Yancey in the fifth, Dupre in the seventh) as he continues his tradition of constantly trying to get better at wideout.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin*, Adam Humphries, Bernard Reedy, Josh Huff
Evans has gone over 1,000 yards in all three of his seasons, and scored 12 touchdowns for the second time in his career in 2016. He was sixth in DYAR and seems unbeatable at the point of the catch. He might only get better if his targets go down with the addition of Jackson, as there's less pressure on him now to do everything. Jackson is second in the league over the last two seasons in yards per target, and his career average of 17.7 yards per catch is the highest of any active NFL player. They're in the conversation for best 1-2 in football, but Humphries and Godwin have stood out in OTAs per head coach Dirk Koetter:
"The most consistent guys since we've been out here have been Godwin and Adam [Humphries]," Koetter said. "Those two guys have been making plays everyday. Real happy with what Chris is doing, but he could play in(side) or out(side), either one."
4. Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown, Eli Rogers, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, JuJu Smith-Schuster*, Sammie Coates, Justin Hunter, Demarcus Ayers
Brown is as good of a receiver as you could hope for, but then GM Kevin Colbert found another gem in Rogers (594 yards as an undrafted rookie in the slot) and bonus: Bryant returns after he was suspended for all of last season. Bryant caught 14 touchdowns over his first 21 games. The Steelers also drafted Smith-Schuster in the second, high praise from a team that hasn't drafted a receiver that early since Limas Sweed in 2008. Brown, Rogers, Bryant, and Smith-Schuster make a solid top four, but the competition behind them is also deep and relatively talented.
5. Miami Dolphins: Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, Jakeem Grant, Leonte Carroo
Landry is an exceptional player (fourth in receptions since 2015), but Parker could be settling in as the best receiver in Miami. The former 14th overall pick has 1,189 yards and seven touchdowns over his last 21 games, with an excellent 9.22 yards/target. If that wasn't enough, they gave Stills a four-year, $32 million deal to stay in Miami after he had 17.3 yards/catch and nine touchdowns last season.
6. Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green, John Ross*, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, Josh Malone*, Cody Core
There's lots to work with here for Andy Dalton. Cincinnati has now spent top-10 picks on Green and Ross, so you can't say they aren't trying to give Dalton weapons to win a playoff game. Also, LaFell had 862 yards last season, Boyd put up 603, and they took another receiver, Malone, in round No. 4.
7. Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, Andre Roberts, Devin Fuller
The biggest concern here is how things change with the loss of Kyle Shanahan. Julio will probably be Julio for another decade, but what about the breakout season of Gabriel and the career-high 72.8 catch percentage by Sanu? However, I can't fault them too much for a regression that hasn't happened yet.
8. Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Brice Butler, Lucky Whitehead, Ryan Switzer*
Dez is the star of the show … but he finished lower in DYAR than both Beasley (fifth) and Williams (17th) last season. They added Switzer, Mitchell Trubisky's top target at UNC.
9. Denver Broncos: Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Cody Latimer, Carlos Henderson*, Bennie Fowler, Jordan Taylor, Isaiah McKenzie*
Thomas has topped 1,000 yards for six straight years, while Sanders has done so for the last three. However, depth is a significant issue in Denver with Latimer being a complete bust since going in the second round in 2014.
10. Seattle Seahawks: Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Tyler Lockett, Amara Darboh*, Paul Richardson, Tanner McEvoy, David Moore*
Baldwin has earned the distinction of best slot receiver in the game, and potentially is a top-ten receiver overall. He ranked first in plus-minus, eighth in DYAR, and since the start of 2015 is third in touchdown receptions, 10th in catches, 15th in yards, and is seventh in yards/target with a 75.4% catch rate. Lockett has the ability to become a high-end outside receiver if he can stay healthy. Richardson came on strong at the end of last season with some phenomenal catches in the playoffs. And the team drafted Darboh in the third round, giving Seattle more competition for the struggling Kearse.
11. Jacksonville Jaguars: Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, Dede Westbrook*, Rashad Greene, Arrelious Benn, Bryan Walters
They seemed on the verge of having one of the best receiving units in the game, but neither Hurns nor Robinson could manage to catch even half of their targets from Blake Bortles last season. Not to say that's probably not a Blake Bortles problem, but it doesn't give us much of a chance to positively evaluate them either. At least Lee came through with his strongest career season.
12. New York Giants: Odell Beckham, Jr., Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard, Tavarres King, Dwayne Harris, Roger Lewis
We all know how special Beckham is -- if you don't know, then I'm sure he'll tell you, especially if you're Josh Norman -- but below the surface were some issues with Beckham's game last season, as well as the passing offense in New York as a whole. Beckham ranked just 29th in DYAR and 52nd in DVOA, catching just 59.8% of his targets, though some blame falls on Eli Manning. On top of that, the depth is potentially nearing nil -- Marshall ranked dead last in plus-minus with the Jets last season, Shepard caught eight touchdowns but is still a work in progress. OBJ is one of the game's best and most exciting players, but overall there's a high ceiling and a low floor.
13. Oakland Raiders: Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Cordarrelle Patterson, Seth Roberts, Jaydon Mickens
This team has an elite number one receiver in Cooper, but Crabtree dropped 13 passes last season and it's a little more difficult to place a lot of faith in him given his up-and-down career. The depth is just awful.
14. New Orleans Saints: Michael Thomas, Willie Snead, Ted Ginn, Brandon Coleman, Corey Fuller, Jake Lampman
Welcome to Michael Thomas World. Drew Brees has turned a lot of receivers and tight ends into fantasy stars, but Thomas could be his best weapon yet. His 92 catches were the second-most by a rookie ever, his 1,137 yards rank seventh, and his nine touchdowns are the for the 13th-most. He caught 76% of his targets and finished second in DYAR, third in plus-minus, and third in DVOA. Snead is an excellent number two, and the team's depth is okay.
15. Philadelphia Eagles: Jordan Matthews, Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Dorial Beckham-Green, Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins*, Shelton Gibson*
Probably the league's worst unit a year ago, getting Jeffery for one year was a huge bargain for Philly, immediately giving them credibility without a long-term commitment. Smith should feel more comfortable here as the third or fourth-receiving option, as he's never really been a number one.
16. Minnesota Vikings: Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Laquon Treadwell, Jarius Wright, Michael Floyd, Rodney Adams*, Stacy Coley*
Diggs could be up to the task of being a number one receiver -- he was fourth in plus-minus and caught 75% of his targets, though Sam Bradford rarely takes deep shots. Thielen, who was born in Minnesota, raised in Minnesota, played at Minnesota State, and went undrafted before signing with the Vikings, was ninth in DYAR and signed a four-year, $19.2 million deal. The X-factor is Treadwell, a first round pick who had three targets as a rookie despite being healthy all year.
17. Los Angeles Chargers: Mike Williams*, Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin, Dontrelle Inman, Tyrell Williams
This is the third team on this list that will be placing hope in a top-10 pick rookie receiver. Williams went seventh overall out of Clemson, but may get to hang back a bit with the return of Allen from a torn ACL and Tyrell Williams trying to capitalize on his 1,059-yard season a year ago, albeit with too many drops. There's talent, but Williams is a rookie, Allen has missed 23 games over the last two years and Williams is unreliable.
18. Houston Texans: DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Braxton Miller, Jaelen Strong, Keith Mumphrey
It's hard to blame these guys too much for Brock Osweiler's downfalls. However, it's also hard to know what to expect they'll get from Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson. Fuller had 211 yards over his first two career games, then averaged just 35 yards/game over the rest of the season and had a huge drop in Houston's playoff loss to New England. I don't know that there will be much production from this unit after Hopkins gets his lunch.
19. Indianapolis Colts: T.Y. Hilton, Phillip Dorsett, Donte Moncrief, Kamar Aiken, Tevaun Smith
Hilton led the NFL in receiving yards last season and hardly anyone made a stink about it. They invested a first rounder in Dorsett two years ago and he has yet to hit the 100-yard mark in a game. Moncrief showed potential in 2015 then got injured and went M.I.A. last season. Aiken seems like a solid, but unspectacular, free agent signing.
20. Tennessee Titans: Tajae Sharpe, Corey Davis*, Rishard Matthews, Harry Douglas, Taywan Taylor*, Eric Weems
Sharpe was all the hype of the 2016 preseason, but then he hauled in 20 yards or less in eight of 16 games as a rookie. I'm unconvinced of Davis' worthiness as the fifth overall pick, but they doubled down on Taylor in the third. Matthews was the best receiver on the team last season and could continue that trend next season. All in all, this unit is talented, but I don't know yet if they have a true number one receiver.
21. Washington Redskins: Terrelle Pryor, Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder, Ryan Grant, Brian Quick, Robert Davis*
They lost their top two receivers but added Pryor -- is it an even trade? Probably not. But it's also tough to judge Pryor much based on his one season as a receiver for the worst team in football and he did really well given the circumstances. Crowder is already one of the best slot receivers in the league. With the return of Doctson (22nd overall pick in 2016), it could be a really good 1-2-3, but there are still plenty of unknowns in the equation. Depth gets a solid C average.
22. Buffalo Bills: Sammy Watkins, Zay Jones*, Corey Brown, Andre Holmes, Rod Streater, Brandon Tate
They didn't pick up Watkins' fifth-year option, which almost guarantees that he'll have a breakout season and force the Bills to either franchise tag him or see him walk away for only a comp pick in return. Jones was getting some first round hype before going 37th overall, which is still pretty high. There's talent up top, but pretty much zero depth and Buffalo may not be done adding to this position.
23. Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Chad Williams*, J.J. Nelson, Brittan Golden, Jaron Brown, Aaron Dobson
Fitz actually isn't that old (33) and he led the NFL in receptions last season. However, it's possible none of the other receivers on this roster are good. Nelson ranked 75th in plus-minus and Brown took a huge step back from his breakout 2015 campaign.
24. Detroit Lions: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Jared Abbrederis, Kenny Golladay*, T.J. Jones, Keshawn Martin, Jace Billingsley
Jones had 205 yards in Week 3, then never topped 100 yards again, often completely disappearing from games. Tate could be the best complement-to-a-number-one in the NFL, but the Lions don't have a true number one since the retirement of Calvin Johnson. The group is decent but lacking a big threat. That's what they hope the athletic, 6'4 Golladay can one day become.
25. Baltimore Ravens: Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro, Chris Matthews, Chris Moore
As nice as the Wallace comeback story is, it's hard to feel comfortable about expecting a follow-up season that will live up to the hype. Perriman missed his rookie season and was unspectacular in his debut campaign (499 yards, three touchdowns, 50% catch rate). If Baltimore has the worst offense in the AFC next season, it wouldn't surprise me.
26. Cleveland Browns: Kenny Britt, Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins, Jordan Payton, (Josh Gordon, still suspended)
Without Gordon, this is a pretty bad unit. Britt is at best a one-for-one swap for the loss of Pryor. Coleman is talented but was a liability as a rookie. Cleveland is improving in a lot of areas, but receiver doesn't seem to be one of them.
27. Kansas City Chiefs: Tyreek Hill, Chris Conley, Albert Wilson, Jehu Chesson*, De'Anthony Thomas, Demarcus Robinson
It was already a fairly bad unit with Maclin. Without him, it could be the worst. Hill is exciting, but still not really a traditional receiver and only averaged 9.7 Y/C last season. That puts the pressure on Conley, who has yet to really show development as a number one threat, Wilson, and the rookie Chesson.
28. Chicago Bears: Markus Wheaton, Kevin White, Cameron Meredith, Kendall Wright, Rueben Randle, Deonte Thompson, Victor Cruz, Josh Bellamy, Daniel Braverman
It's a big "If," but if White can stay healthy for a season, I still believe he possesses top receiver capabilities, and could be even better than Alshon. Meredith is okay. Wheaton, Wright, Randle and Cruz are all good, cheap, veteran signings that at least give Chicago some interesting competition at the position, and maybe one of them turns into the Mike Wallace of 2017.
29. Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, Curtis Samuel*, Devin Funchess, Charles Johnson, Russell Shepard, Brenton Bursin, Christian McCaffrey*
Benjamin is capable of big catches and big games, but so inconsistent that he should not be a team's top receiver. They then drafted not one, but two WR/RB hybrid type players in McCaffrey and Samuel. If you discount the rookies, this unit is just plain bad after Benjamin, and I wouldn't rely on him for more than one big catch a game -- the problem being that he could also have one or two big drops. He ranked 73rd in plus-minus, while Funchess ranked 82nd out of 88 players.
30. San Francisco 49ers: Pierre Garcon, Jeremy Kerley, Marquise Goodwin, Bruce Ellington, Trent Taylor*, Aldrick Robinson
Kerley had the second-worst DYAR of any receiver last season (the worst is coming soon) but that didn't stop new GM John Lynch from re-signing him. Garcon is very good but didn't go to a situation that would seem to set him up for a productive season. There's not much talent or depth here, though Kyle Shanahan might be able to get a little more out of them than most coaches. That still won't be much.
31. New York Jets: Quincy Enunwa, Charone Peak, Quinton Patton, Robby Anderson, Jalin Marshall, ArDarius Stewart*, Chad Hansen*
The Jets informed Decker that they would be releasing him, so that leaves this unit almost completely bare. Enunwa has done a really nice job given the quarterbacks he's had to work with, but shouldn't be anyone's number one receiver. Stewart was Alabama's top target and could get some valuable snaps this season given the opportunities that the Jets will have for any and all players.
32. Los Angeles Rams: Robert Woods, Tavon Austin, Mike Thomas, Cooper Kupp*, Josh Reynolds*, Bradley Marquez, Pharoh Cooper, Nelson Spruce
Austin wasn't just the least valuable receiver in the NFL last season (caught only 58 of 106 targets, 4.8 Y/T, 8.8 Y/C, seven drops, three touchdowns, is set to be the third-highest paid receiver in the league in 2017), he was one of the worst we've seen in at least a decade. They lost their best receiver -- Kenny Britt -- in free agency, and responded by signing Robert Woods to a $34 million contract; Woods had 613 yards and one touchdown last season. There's a good chance that Kupp could be their most valuable wideout right now, which is a heavy burden for a third-round rookie coming out of Eastern Washington University.