Following up on our projected rankings of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in 2015, next up is the top 10 receivers heading into next season.
Unlike the quarterbacks list, it’s become a little harder to narrow down the league’s most elite pass catchers. For one, simply pointing to a receiver’s total yardage is no longer a reasonable benchmark. Last year, 23 wide outs surpassed the millennium mark, 24 did it in 2013, 20 in 2012, 19 in 2011, and 17 in 2010.
The spike is due in part to the NFL’s rule changes protecting quarterbacks, as well as receivers going down the middle, or making catches with their backs to the defense. There’s also the call for increased scoring around the league, and no one player can consistently change a team’s fortunes with a single play like a receiver. It's also a big reason cornerbacks have become such a valued commodity.
The list below is based off each player’s overall skills, playmaking, previous success, injury history, their quarterback and other offensive talent around them, and to some extent their contract status.
The ones who didn’t quite make the cut include the Carolina Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Mike Evans, Houston Texans' DeAndre Hopkins, Chicago Bears' Alshon Jeffery, Denver Broncos' Emmanuel Sanders, and Buffalo Bills' Sammy Watkins but they could prove us wrong by the end of the year.
1.Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
No player’s led the league in receiving in back-to-back years since 2011, but Brown appears poised to snap that minor drought. He might not be the fastest or have the best hands, but he’s an incredible route runner and finds ways to get open even against top defensive backs. His athleticism is also a bit underrated, and his strength led to 568 yards after the catch (No. 4 in 2014). Brown also has the consistent Ben Roethlisberger as his quarterback, and running back Le’Veon Bell to take off some defensive pressure. Expect the 26-year-old to have another big season.
2.Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
Undeniably the most breathtaking playmaker on this list, Beckham should once again take the league by storm with his incredible athleticism and speed down the sidelines. We already know he has maybe the best hands in the league after “The Catch” against the Cowboys and the way Beckham contorts his body is unlike anything we’ve seen in the NFL. Eli Manning’s on-again off-again turnover woes could be a problem and so might be the lack of a true rushing threat, but Beckham should once again be atop of the NFL. He's the youngest players on the list, and has the highest ceiling.
3.Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
Bryant’s ongoing contract issue with Dallas could result in missed games to start the season, but even if he sits out a few games he’s sure to hover around the 16 touchdown receptions he pulled down last year and will almost certainly get more than 1,200 yards for the fourth straight season. Last year, quarterback Tony Romo was the most accurate in the league, but Bryant would be higher on this list if not for DeMarco Murray’s departure to Philly and tight end Jason Witten slowing down.
4.Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
An injury-laden year caused Johnson to miss a career-worst three games, and when he did play he didn’t look like the dominant force that lit up the NFL for at least 1,400 yards the previous three seasons. But with his incredible 6-foot-5 frame and giant hands, Johnson can still take advantage of nearly every defensive back in the NFL and he’s consistently the most dangerous redzone target. Golden Tate will draw some extra attention this year, which should open things up a bit for quarterback Matthew Stafford and Johnson. "Megatron," who turns 30 in September, would be higher on this list if there was more confidence that he can play without injury.
5.Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning’s age and health hold Thomas back for now, but he’s coming off his best season with 111 receptions for 1,619 yards and 11 touchdowns and those numbers should stay roughly the same in 2015. He’s entering a contract year, a factor that can’t be ignored, but Thomas hasn’t hinted that he might miss games. Denver’s loss of tight end Julius Thomas could mean more targets for Thomas or more attention from defenses, but if running backs C.J. Anderson or Montee Ball improve, Thomas should benefit.
6. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
Another absolute star entering a contract season, Hilton and quarterback Andrew Luck could be the best tandem in the league this season, but the 25-year-old also has to contend with veteran Andre Johnson and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen for targets, with the last two also looking for new deals. Hilton’s deceptively quick, and has that extra gear to break away from defensive backs, evidenced by his 16.4 yards per catch.
7. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
Is he lucky to have Aaron Rodgers, or is Rodgers lucky to have him? Really doesn’t matter with Nelson’s blistering speed and diverse route running on the outside or in the slot. At 30 he might slow down a bit, but he benefits from running back Eddie Lacy and another receiver who cracked this list. Nelson’s scrappy, very durable and will slide, slap, and claw to get open. He went to his first Pro Bowl last season, and seems like a lock to return in 2015.
8. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
A little like the next guy on this list, Green’s injury woes last season resulted in his lowest numbers since his rookie year but he’s still blessed with a similar makeup of Beckham and Bryant. At 26, Green’s entering his prime and he should be healthy and return to form, especially with running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard tearing up opposing defensive lines. If Andy Dalton keeps his turnovers down, Green will return to Pro Bowl form.
9. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Jones bounced back from playing only five games in 2013 to put up 1,593 yards and six touchdowns off 104 receptions over 15 games. An undeniable talent, Jones seemed to really hit his stride last season. But even though he set several Falcons records last year, overuse could be an issue with Atlanta missing even a decent running game and veteran receiver Roddy White on the decline. Jones does have quarterback Matt Ryan, and should put up solid numbers, but can he repeat last year’s success?
10. Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
As the No. 2 in the NFL’s best receiving duo, Cobb got his new deal and should snag close to another 12 touchdowns next season. It seems like he’s been in the league for a while, but he’s only 24 and is especially deft at working the corners of the end zone and on third down. Rodgers won't mind taking some chances on throws to Cobb because of his sure hands. Cobb, who finished 11th in yards in 2014, seems poised to have a monster year.