Tom Brady threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2011 but just 4,343 yards and 25 touchdowns last year. There are many variables that contributed to the decline, including Brady's progression from his lower-middle 30s to late-middle 30s and a different set of opponents. But the most obvious reason Brady's production dipped by 15-20 percent was that instead of throwing to Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and longtime pal Deion Branch, he was throwing to Julian Edelman, injured bits of Gronk, Danny Amendola and a bunch of rookies last year.
The Patriots receivers made neither the Top Five nor Bottom Five in this week's edition of Rankings File, but Patriots fans get surly if their team isn't mentioned, and Brady's statistics illustrate an important point. A top receiving corps can make a decent quarterback look great and a great one have a career year. A bad receiving corps can stunt the development of a weak quarterback and make a strong one appear washed up. And while it is often hard to tell just where a quarterback stops and his receivers start, there is plenty of statistical, scouting and anecdotal evidence to help unscramble the omelet that is an NFL passing game.
The following ratings use any and all breakdowns available in the Football Outsiders database and other sources: success rates on short and deep passes, drops, third-down efficiency rates for individual receivers and so on. Anyone who claims to completely separate receivers from quarterbacks and schemes (and offensive lines, opponent strengths, situations and so on) is bluffing. But the best corps on this list will help their quarterbacks in 2014, while the worst may hold their teams back.
One minor point before we continue: Running backs are judged as receivers in these rankings, and they are lumped in with the wide receivers and tight ends. So Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch play second fiddle to guys like Danny Woodhead and Gio Bernard this week; think of it as permanently third-and-six, trailing by a touchdown for this entire essay. When we cover the running games in a few weeks, the tables will turn, and blocking tight ends will also get to step out from the shadows of receiving tight ends like tight end Jimmy Graham, who plays tight end for the Saints.
The Five Best Receiving Corps
1. Denver Broncos
I know what you are thinking: "Without Peyton Manning, these guys would be nothing special."
Wes Welker has had five 110-catch seasons. "Well, without Peyton or Tom Brady, he would be nothing special." Welker caught 111 passes the year Matt Cassel was the Patriots quarterback. He caught 67 passes from Joey Harrington and Daunte Culpepper the year the Patriots decided to trade a high draft pick for him. "Well, Welker is getting old." I'll spot you that one.
Demaryius Thomas is a 6-foot-3, 230-pound former first-round pick who caught 10 passes for 297 yards and one touchdown in two 2011 playoff games from a quarterback I'm not supposed to mention anymore. I will go out on a limb and say that Thomas was on his way to becoming a star in any conventional offense.
Emmanuel Sanders' catch and yardage totals have steadily risen over four years in Pittsburgh, though he was admittedly a minor disappointment when given an increased role last year. "Well, Sanders would be nothing without Ben Roethlisberger." He caught 13 passes for 197 yards during the three Byron Leftwich/Charlie Batch messes of 2012. There aren't many better No. 3 receivers in the NFL.
We know exactly what a "made by Peyton" tight end's stats look like. Jacob Tamme caught 67 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns in 2010 and 52-555-2 in 2012. Julius Thomas caught 65-788-12 last season, despite being a) inexperienced; b) the fourth option in the receiving game most weeks; and c) pushed by Tamme, who caught 20 passes himself.
Cody Latimer has been getting great reviews in minicamp. (Cue the official theme song of summer rookie news.) Andre Caldwell is still around for emergencies. Knowshon Moreno's departure will hurt the dump-off game a bit. Whatever. And yeah, the Seahawks shut these guys down in the Super Bowl. They shut all the other guys down in the regular season, too.
The bottom line is that we know what Peyton looks like with an ordinary surrounding cast. He threw for 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2010 with the great Reggie Wayne flanked by Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, aging Dallas Clark, Tamme and Blair White, with Donald Brown filling in for Joseph Addai most of the year. Last year's crew helped the older Manning to 777 more yards and 22 more touchdowns, and it's not like there was a lot of margin to work with when starting with 4,700 and 33. Peyton 2010 and 2013 was like Brady 2011 and 2013 in reverse.
Also, the whole "nothing without Peyton" argument is undermined by Garcon, a former undrafted rookie who caught 113 passes during the Redskins debacle. There is zero chance that Garcon would have developed the way he did, and received the opportunities he earned, if his early-career quarterback was Jake Locker. Peyton does make his receivers look better, but it often sticks to them after he's gone.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
The Broncos have a receiving corps customized for Peyton Manning. The Bengals have the ideal receiving corps for an offense led by a mortal. Manning needs bunches of guys who can run option routes and catch 15-yard comebacks along the sidelines. Human quarterbacks typically need a deep threat, a possession target, a checkdown backfield receiver, a tight end who works the middle and so on. Instead of multiple multi-tools, the Bengals have excellent single-purpose weapons.
A.J. Green is both the star and the designated deep threat. He makes the most of what long passes reach his general vicinity. Andy Dalton was 21-of-50 for 694 yards throwing deep to Green last year -- not terrible numbers until you count Dalton's four interceptions, the fact that "deep" means 15 or more yards downfield and the sheer number of overthrows caused by Dalton winding up and launching as hard as he could.
Marvin Jones is the boundary guy who specializes in tough sideline catches. Mohamed Sanu is a screens-and-hitches guy who could still grow into more. Both Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert can line up anywhere and do anything expected of a tight end. Gio Bernard caught 56 passes out of the backfield last season, adding big-play ability on dump offs and short passes the team lacked in previous years.
The Bengals lost electrifying jitterbug Andrew Hawkins to free agency this offseason, but his role shrunk as Bernard, Sanu and Eifert developed. There are only so many footballs to go around, and unfortunately, only one potato gun-armed quarterback to distribute them. Any receiving corps that helps Andy Dalton throw for 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns is clearly very special.
3. Detroit Lions
The Lions have had no success building a supporting cast for Calvin Johnson. Titus Young steered his life into the great roadside culvert of terrible choices. Ryan Broyles can get injured while filling out HMO paperwork. Mid-priced veteran pickups have not helped much: Nate Burleson broke his arm during a pizza run, while Tony Scheffler cannot even be trusted handling pizza without dropping it.
All of those guys but Broyles are gone, but there are a handful of decent holdovers. Brandon Pettigrew can be frustrating, but at least the giant tight end is good for catching flat and drag passes and rumbling over some defenders. Reggie Bush is a bush is a bush. And Joique Bell is an excellent receiving back: He caught 21 passes that netted 10 or more yards last year, a very high total for a big bruiser who catches mostly dump-offs and screens.
The Lions don't rank third because of Pettigrew or Bush types, of course. They rank third because they brought over Golden Tate from Seattle, drafted Eric Ebron and got some developmental mileage from receiver Kris Durham and tight end Joseph Fauria last year. Megatron and Tate may be the best 1-2 punch in the NFL this year. Ebron's seam stretching will take some pressure off Pettigrew. Durham and Fauria were miscast as a No. 2 receiver and a frequent-use tight end, respectively, last year. As a third or fourth target, Durham can be effective, and Fauria will allow Jim Caldwell to deploy two tight-end sets even if Pettigrew is hurt or Ebron is slow to develop.
The reason the Lions got by with such terrible secondary targets in recent years was Megatron: Opponents have to double cover him constantly, unless they are happy allowing him 14 catches for 329 yards (the Cowboys strategy). That will leave Tate single covered this year, unless you split the safeties. Oops, Ebron is flying up the seam at slot receiver speeds. Pettigrew is crossing the middle. Look how many yards of open field are in front of Bell, who runs like an out-of-control riding mower, or Bush, who still has some wheels and moves. It's a whole series of matchup nightmares. There are few teams capable of stopping the Detroit Lions. One of them, of course, is the Detroit Lions.
4. New Orleans Saints
The Saints used to have the deepest, most multi-dimensional receiving corps in the NFL. Then, guys began getting old or moving on. By last season, it was clear that Lance Moore and Darren Sproles weren't the playmakers they were a few years ago, while role players of the Super Bowl era like Devery Henderson and Reggie Bush were long gone.
Luckily, the Saints had the best tight end in the NFL, tight end Jimmy Graham, who made tons of plays in the modern tight end role: He lined up as a wide receiver or in the slot like most other tight ends, but he also lined up at tight end frequently, like a tight end. Stalwarts Marques Colston and Pierre Thomas also kept playing at a high level. Thomas' emergence as a receiver in recent seasons was one reason Sproles became expendable.
Graham and old friends like Colston could not keep the Saints in the top five by themselves, however. Kenny Stills emerged as one of the best receiving prospects in the NFL in the second half of last season. Stills finished the season 12-of-23 on "deep" receptions for 450 yards and six touchdowns. He also caught 78 percent of the short passes (less than 15 yards in the air) thrown to him. Stills looks like the new improved version of Henderson or Robert Meachem, who is still hanging around the depth chart. Coveted rookie Brandin Cooks (the Saints leapt past the Chiefs and Eagles to grab him) is incredibly swift and willing to make tough catches in traffic, making him a prime candidate for the slot version of Sproles' old role.
Assuming tight end Graham realizes that he will not be able to prove he is something other than a tight end, this is a multidimensional receiving corps reminiscent of the Super Bowl crew. And the guy throwing them the ball is still pretty darn good, too.
5. Chicago Bears
Brandon Marshall has been in some awful situations over the years. He was trapped in Josh McDaniels' doghouse/gulag in Denver. He was the lone target in ill-conceived offenses in Miami and Chicago, culminating in 2012, when Mike Tice decided to send Marshall into patterns by himself while nine teammates blocked for Jay Cutler. Marshall persevered with five 100-catch seasons and seven 1,000-yard seasons. As Dan Pompei wrote last week, Marshall is working through both diagnosed mental illness and some of the immature behaviors that plagued his early life , but on the field he has been durable, and he has not caused a ripple of clubhouse controversy. He may be the least appreciated truly-great player of our generation, someone who would have had Jerry Rice seasons if he played with better quarterbacks or organizations that could construct a logically functioning offense from 2006 to 2012.
Alshon Jeffery is like a younger Marshall clone. Both are built like jumbo possession receivers but can also get deep, and few teams have two cornerbacks who can match up with receivers so multi-dimensional. If a quirky personality makes you run for the safety of Bear Pascoe, then Martellus Bennett is not the tight end for you. But Marc Trestman stopped worrying about strange quotes and the occasional blown assignment and learned to love the Black Unicorn, who blocks like a traditional tight end but can line up split wide when needed.
Matt Forte ensures the Bears' place in the top five. He has been one of the best receiving backs in the NFL since he entered the league. Among other contributions last year, he converted first downs on third-and-nine, third-and-12, fourth-and four and fourth-and-nine (!), plus a touchdown catch on third-and-goal from the four-yard line and several shorter conversions. Lack of depth keeps the Bears from getting any higher than fifth, though Josh Morgan is a decent No. 3 receiver, and rookie running back Ka'Deem Carey is a better change-up back than Michael Bush, who was the running back equivalent of a baseball pitcher bouncing his new knuckle screwball to the plate with an 0-2 count.
Top 10: San Diego Chargers. The Chargers keep barging in to various top and bottom fives, squeaking in just below the leaders with a receiving corps most people think of as buddy cops Antonio Gates (who has only three days until retirement and doesn't need this guff) and Keenan Allen (young hotshot with all the right moves but a lot to learn.)
Allen is one of the brightest young prospects in the NFL. It's obligatory to compare him to young Anquan Boldin, mainly because the comparison fits so well. Gates is fading, but with 77 catches last year, he has a funny way of showing it. It's easy to forget how great a prospect Eddie Royal appeared to be before the Josh McDaniels era got weird in Denver. Royal caught 70 percent of the passes thrown to him last season, a high rate partly attributable to Philip Rivers but also a product of Royal's ability to get open underneath. Backup tight end Ladarius Green appears ready to slip right into Gates' shoes, perhaps a pair he purchased in 2003 or 2005.
Danny Woodhead gives the Chargers their final push toward the top. Woodhead ranked first among running backs in Football Outsiders' DYAR metric as a receiver, and there are lots of stats that demonstrate that he did more than the average screens-and-dumps guy out of the backfield. He's my favorite Woodhead split: In the red zone, he caught 21 of 23 passes thrown to him for 118 yards, five touchdowns, three other first downs and a variety of other useful outcomes (like eight yards on first-and-10 from the 15). The Chargers got a little crazy when handing off to the tiny Woodhead in goal-line situations last year, but he was so useful as a receiver that it explained why he was in the red zone huddle.
Top 10: Houston Texans. Assuming Andre Johnson finds peace within his heart, soul and savings account by September, he joins DeAndre Hopkins to form one of the best 1-2 receiving tandems in the NFL. Arian Foster returns as a productive backfield receiver, and Garrett Graham stepped up last year as a possession tight end.
What the Texans lack is depth. Keshawn Martin is hard to evaluate because he had so much lost-cause production last year: He caught a lot of very short passes from Case Keenum in December losses. Backup tight end Ryan Griffin is in the same boat, while rookie third stringer C.J. Fiedorowicz is a great blocker who can catch a little, not vice-versa. Backup running back Andre Brown is not a very good receiver because he always has his fingers crossed that he will finally stay healthy.
The Bears don't have much depth either. Think of the Texans as the Bears except that Graham is not as good as Martellus Bennett, Hopkins is a developmental year behind Alshon Jeffery, Foster is not as versatile as Matt Forte and Andre Johnson is grumpy. At any rate, this is a great support network for a young quarterback.
On the Rise: Buffalo Bills. The Bills have about a million dudes on their receiver depth chart right now, and listing them all would get ridiculous. Just to reiterate things I have written about elsewhere: 1) Steve Johnson will help the 49ers as a No. 3/matchup guy, but he was hurting the Bills as a veteran focal point, so the switch to rookie Sammy Watkins will be an almost immediate upgrade. 2) Holy cow, Marquise Goodwin is fast. 3) Last year's quarterback situation made it difficult to evaluate players like Robert Woods and T.J. Graham. Coping with a rookie quarterback is one thing; coping with quarterbacks recently pulled off the waiver wire for several weeks is another thing entirely. 4) Scott Chandler is a very good tight end and crazy matchup specimen who would have a much higher profile on a better team. 5) Both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller contribute positively to the passing game, though Spiller got stuck hauling in too many swing passes for tiny gains last year from quarterbacks just trying to survive. 6) The Bills have a lot of guys with initials for first names.
On the Decline: Atlanta Falcons. The 2012 Falcons receivers were the last crew to outplay the Seahawks secondary. Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones combined for 17 receptions, 186 yards and two touchdowns in the 2012 playoff win, allowing the Falcons to dictate offensively to the Seahawks for three quarters in a game that feels like it took place 20 years ago. Gonzo is now retired, White is 32 years old and Jones has not returned to full practice since October foot surgery.
Jones should be at full speed for the start of camp, but untested Levine Toilolo is now the starting tight end, Harry Douglas returns as the very ordinary third receiver and the Falcons never seem capable of getting the most from their running backs in the passing game. The Falcons receiving corps should still be pretty good, but it has fallen far since 2012, and the team was too busy rebuilding other units to improve it.
From the Ashes: New York Jets. Santonio Holmes was the Jets 2011-13 malaise made flesh. He was always an ordinary-at-best receiver -- his great 2009 season was fueled by a bunch of big stat games during a Steelers losing streak -- but as the Jets became sillier he devolved into the worst kind of paycheck guy, always just injured enough to have an excuse to play poorly or disappear for a convenient stretch. When he was on the field, he sometimes acted like the proper way to respond to an off-target pass was to shrug at it as it flew by, then make sure everyone noticed his disappointed body language. It was always depressing to hear television commentators mention Holmes as if he were some Larry Fitzgerald-level talent trying to overcome injuries and bad quarterbacks, and to see the Jets beat writers trapped in a Groundhog Day of "what's Santonio's health status?" stories every summer. The shackles have been loosened, folks. The Jets have finally moved on.
Stephen Hill posted one of my favorite stat lines ever last year during Geno Smith's great search for the broadside of a barn. Hill was targeted 13 times in four games, catching one pass for two yards. If I were selecting two receivers to make a struggling quarterback's situation worse, I would have a hard time doing better (or worse) than Holmes and Hill, who played in a flexbone option offense in college and still does not appear to know all nine basic receiver routes.
Hill is still listed as a starter, but Eric Decker, Jeremy Kerley, David Nelson and a bunch of rookies will probably limit him to "big guy going deep" duties. Remember that Decker is not just a Peyton Manning creation: He looked like a rising star in 2011 when catching passes from Kyle Orton in Denver. Kerley is a good slot target, and Nelson is a long-and-lean possession guy who makes the most of the opportunities the Jets grant him when not fiddling with Holmes and Hill. The rookie crop is headed by Jalen Saunders, whose screen-and-burn game could make him Geno's best friend, and also features Shaquelle Evans and tight end Jace Amaro, who will be a speedy complement/potential replacement for talented-but-inconsistent Jeff Cumberland.
These "from the ashes" segments appear to have confused some readers. They do not represent a team suddenly lurching into the top 10, but a team going from disaster to a place somewhere in the middle of the pack. This is not a great receiving corps, but it no longer consists of players who seem to have been selected to make the offense worse, or who clearly did not want to be on the field.
The Six Worst ReceivingCorps
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans (tie)
The Bucs and Titans don't have terrible receiver corps. They do have hard-to-evaluate receiver corps, however, thanks to years of bad quarterbacking and some offensive mismanagement. That's why they are stuck in this tie.
In Tennessee, Kendall Wright is a fine receiver trying to get by on two or three accurate downfield throws per game. Rivers McCown at Football Outsiders broke down Justin Hunter's rookie season at length, and while the drops and rookie mistakes were alarming, a couple of 40- to 54-yard receptions will go a long way toward building coaches' confidence while you are developing. Then again, Nate Washington was in Tennessee when they built the Grand Ole Opry, and targeting Delanie Walker for 86 passes is a sign of madness. Newcomer Dexter McCluster can be a fine slot receiver, an acceptable No. 2 wideout or a dangerous change-up running back. He cannot be all three at once, however, which is what the Titans really needed.
Vincent Jackson is a heck of a receiver in Tampa Bay. Few receivers are better at getting open against tight coverage and watching a ball sail five yards out of bounds beyond them. Unfortunately, Jackson is now 31 and has needed a butterfly net to catch passes for so many years that it is hard to truly evaluate him. Rookie Mike Evans is a bad-ball specialist -- the Bucs could have used him in 2012-13 -- but very raw, and there is no depth whatsoever behind him. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, another rookie, is expected to play a major role at tight end, but he is a project. Doug Martin is a good backfield receiver when healthy, and the Evans-ASJ combo may look much better in December than August, but this is clearly a work-in-progress receiving corps.
29. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders could go in the same category as the Titans and Buccaneers. Rod Streater came from nowhere (Temple, to be specific) but is developing into a very good all-purpose receiver. Denarius Moore has wheels, and James Jones looks like one of those deep threat receivers who is disappointing early in his career but has a long second career once his technique catches up to his talent: the Brandon Lloyd/Eddie Kennison career path.
But then there are those tight ends: David Ausberry, Mychal Rivera, Nick Kasa. Maurice Jones-Drew looks like a receiving threat at this point in his career only because the Jaguars forced four or five passes in the flat to him per game. The bench behind the top three receivers is loaded with the likes of Greg "The Drop Machine" Little and hanger-on Juron Criner. Marcel Reece is great in the flats, but we are talking about a fullback, folks.
Raiders receivers of recent years have had a habit of developing to a certain level then stopping: Ronald Curry, Chaz Schilens, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford, Louis Murphy and possibly Moore, who has had variations on his rookie season for three years. The quarterbacks and organization deserve much of the blame. The organization has not demonstrated much change, and the quarterbacks are still terrible, so the Raiders are stuck here.
30. Cleveland Browns
This ranking assumes that Gordon will be suspended for at least half of the 2014 season; as he was last seen getting a speeding ticket in a car that reportedly smelled like the army jackets in the cloakroom during Laser Pink Floyd at the planetarium, that's a safe guess.
But wait … the Browns have assembled the most amazing superhero team this side of the Great Lakes Avengers. It's the Legion of Oddball Slot Receivers! There's Miles Austin, an elder statesman with the power to cloud Jerry Jones' mind so he overpays him! There's Anthony Armstrong, former Redskins deep threat who can name all of the teams in the Intense Football League! There's Andrew Hawkins, whose experience in reality television and as an employee in a wind turbine factory gave him the power to cling to the bottoms of depth charts throughout Ohio! There's Pizza Delivery Lord Nate Burleson! There's Earl Bennett … oh heck, he already got cut. Best of all, there are no drafted rookies, because who needs anyone from the best rookie class in 20 years when you have guys from the CFL, Arena football, the Intense Football League and stars of the 2007 Seahawks and 2009 Cowboys?
OK, OK. Hawkins has screen-and-burn capability. Burleson and Austin can still do a little something on underneath routes. Travis Benjamin can fly and may get an increased role. And Jordan Cameron is a very good possession tight end. All these slot guys and tight ends need are a pair of starting receivers to draw some coverage deep and toward the sidelines so they can work their magic. Unfortunately, the one guy who fits the description has issues.
Oh, and yes I am aware that Chris Ogbonnaya caught 48 passes last season. Twenty-two of them came with the Browns trailing in the fourth quarter. He's not a good receiver out of the backfield.
31. Kansas City Chiefs
Todd Pinkston is miscast as a No. 1 receiver. The size and speed profile fits, and he is good at tangling up and drawing pass interference, but Pinkston doesn't get separation against good cornerbacks and does not work the middle of the field effectively. James Thrash is a hardworking slot receiver miscast as an every-down starter. He can turn short slants into big plays but must be schemed open. Tight end Chad Lewis is workmanlike but strictly an underneath receiver. Youngster Freddie Mitchell left college with all of the talent in the world but does not seem interested in putting the pieces together. This receiving corps relies far too much on running back Brian Westbrook, whose talent and effort are undeniable, but who will get injured at the worst possible times if his workload is not monitored.
Oops! I wrote a scouting report for the 2003 Eagles by mistake! OK, this is an easy fix. Replace Todd Pinkston with Dwayne Bowe, James Thrash with Donnie Avery, Chad Lewis with Anthony Fasano, Fred Ex with A.J. Jenkins and Brian Westbrook with Jamaal Charles. Everything else is 100 percent accurate.
Terrell Owens is calling Andy Reid as we speak, assuming his cell phone plan is paid up.
32. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers host the Seahawks on Oct. 26. Their over/under for receiving yards should be around 75, with Mike Tolbert providing most of it.
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Next Week: We kick the special teams around for a while, because the week of July 4 is the best time to bury uninteresting subject matter. Kidding! Well, not totally. I love talkin' special teams, so tune in to talk Justin Tucker before blowing your backyard up with cherry bombs. Also, there's a certain Peter King-recommended, five-star Amazon rated paperback that you have not bought seven or eight copies of yet. A Good Walkthough Spoiled is available in print or for your tablet thingy, and it makes ideal beach reading, as a few of the essays were beach writing.