Ask anyone who the top five wide receivers in the league are and you’ll get a spirited debate. It’s hard to argue against the consensus top three — Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones — but after that it gets tricky. DeAndre Hopkins is an incredible talent stuck without a reliable quarterback. Mike Evans has had as good a start to his career as almost anyone. A.J. Green is an absolute game-changer when he’s healthy. And none of those six guys led the league in receiving yards last season. That title belonged to T.Y. Hilton.
Ranking receiver position units can be even more difficult. It’s a mix of individual skill, stats, age, health and consistency. But how much do you weigh each? There are so many outside factors — quarterback play, offensive system, play-calling, etc. — that have a major impact as well. One way to evaluate a receiving corps is to level the playing field: same quarterback, running back, tight end and line and the same play-calling. But this would significantly devalue players who fit a specific system well. So in order to establish a ranking, it must be a mix of both. Here’s how it went:
32. New York Jets
Outside: Quincy Enunwa, Robby Anderson
Slot: ArDarius Stewart
Depth: Marquess Wilson, Charone Peake, Jalin Marshall, Chad Hansen
This is among the most fluid depth charts in the NFL. The Jets got rid of their only proven receiver, Eric Decker, to show their commitment to a complete and total rebuild. That move, though, has left their wide receiver corps lacking. Enunwa did show some ability as the de-facto No. 1 receiver last season, and Anderson surprised as an undrafted free agent. But Anderson was arrested this offseason and there’s very little depth here.
31. Los Angeles Rams
Outside: Robert Woods, Tavon Austin
Slot: Cooper Kupp
Depth: Pharoh Cooper, Josh Reynolds
The Rams intend to play Austin on the outside, though he seems like a more natural fit for the slot. In Sean McVay’s first year in Los Angeles, he has a lot on his plate. Even with the additions of Woods and Kupp, building the receiving corps looks to be a long-term project.
30. Kansas City Chiefs
Outside: Chris Conley, Tyreek Hill
Slot: Albert Wilson
Depth: De’Anthony Thomas, Jehu Chesson
Given the Chiefs’ run-first system, this low ranking isn’t too much of a big deal. The Chiefs rarely put three wideouts on the field at once anyway. Hill really needs to prove he’s not just a flash in the pan. While his rookie year was sensational, only half of his 12 touchdowns came as a receiver.
29. San Francisco 49ers
Outside: Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin
Slot: Jeremy Kerley
Depth: Aaron Burbridge, Bruce Ellington, Aldrick Robinson, Trent Taylor
The 49ers actually have a host of recognizable names. Garçon is one of the toughest wide receivers in the league, and being reunited with Kyle Shanahan should give this offense some life. The issue is the man opposite of him. Goodwin has yet to play in all 16 games in any season, and last year he caught just 29 of his 68 targets, an abysmal 42.6 percent catch rate.
28. Chicago Bears
Outside: Cameron Meredith, Kevin White
Slot: Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton, Victor Cruz
Depth: Rueben Randle, Deonte Thompson
The Bears should host a show named “Extreme Makeover: Slot Receiver Edition.” Wright and Cruz fell out of favor after long tenures in Tennessee and New York, respectively. Wheaton missed almost all of last year in Pittsburgh. All three guys signed short deals. Will any one of them prove he deserves a second chance?
27. Cleveland Browns
Outside: Kenny Britt, Corey Coleman
Depth: Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Louis
That Britt surpassed 1,000 yards last year in the dreadful Rams offense is a miracle. He’s going to a similarly low-ceiling environment in Cleveland. He’ll be an important part both on and off the field helping teach Cleveland’s young wide receivers. The lack of depth here is concerning, though, as is the uncertainty at quarterback.
26. Baltimore Ravens
Outside: Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman
Slot: Jeremy Maclin
Depth: Chris Matthews, Chris Moore, Michael Campagnaro
At 30 years old, Wallace had an outstanding year in Baltimore after lost years in Miami and Minnesota. He still has speed to burn; he showed as much by recording 14.1 yards per reception, his best mark since 2011. The Ravens have to replace both Steve Smith and Kamar Aiken, though, and that’s no small task. Expect a good year from former first-rounder Perriman and a bounce-back year for a fully healthy Maclin. If neither happens, Baltimore is in trouble.
25. Minnesota Vikings
Outside: Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen
Slot: Diggs, Jarius Wright
Depth: Laquon Treadwell, Michael Floyd
Ideally, either Treadwell or Floyd would step up on the outside allowing Diggs to play in the slot, where he took a lot of his snaps last year. But Treadwell had a very disappointing rookie season, and Floyd keeps getting in trouble off the field. The latest fiasco: A four-game substance abuse suspension, supposedly for drinking tea. If either one of these guys plays to his potential, bump the Vikings up a few spots, because Diggs is a legit top receiver, and Thielen was quietly very good last year as well.
24. Detroit Lions
Outside: Marvin Jones Jr., Golden Tate
Depth: Jared Abbrederis, TJ Jones, Jace Billingsley, Kenny Golladay, Keshawn Martin
Through the first seven weeks, Jones Jr. was averaging nearly 90 yards per game and had reeled in four touchdowns. Over the next nine games, he averaged about 45 yards per game and didn’t score once. While Tate continues to be one of the most reliable and versatile weapons, the Lions need Jones Jr. to be more consistent. Better yet, they need a third guy to step up. Billingsley could be that guy, according to his teammates.
23. Buffalo Bills
Outside: Sammy Watkins, Zay Jones
Slot: Philly Brown
Depth: Andre Holmes
Watkins is similar to Alshon Jeffery in that if he’s healthy, he makes a wide receiver group way, way better, but he can’t stay healthy. The Bills made some important moves this offseason to help out Tyrod Taylor. Jones, the FBS all-time reception leader, can provide more size and physicality than his predecessors. Brown and Holmes can both help out as well.
22. Carolina Panthers
Outside: Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess
Slot: Curtis Samuel
Depth: Charles Johnson, Russell Shepard, Brenton Bersin
This offseason the Panthers stepped up their efforts to surround Cam Newton with weapons. Samuel will be a versatile addition to the slot, and Christian McCaffrey provides speed and agility out of the backfield. Replacing the speed element of Philly Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. won’t be easy, though. Ginn Jr.’s ability to take the top off was an important cog in this offense.
21. Philadelphia Eagles
Outside: Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith
Slot: Jordan Matthews
Depth: Nelson Agholor, Paul Turner
If Jeffery can somehow stay healthy for an entire season, move the Eagles up as much as 10 spots on this list. He’s that good when he’s on. But the Eagles signed him to a one-year deal for a reason. He’s missed twelve games in the past two seasons, and he never looked quite right last year.
20. Houston Texans
Outside: DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller
Slot: Braxton Miller
Depth: Jaelen Strong
Hopkins is a terrific receiver, and that his team barely makes the top 20 speaks volumes about the players and system around him. Fuller started last season strong but fell off sharply, and it remains to be seen whether he can be an every-down player. The Texans simply have no proven pass-catchers outside of Hopkins. That’s why they fall so far.
19. Arizona Cardinals
Outside: John Brown, JJ Nelson
Slot: Larry Fitzgerald
Depth: Jaron Brown, Aaron Dobson
Fitzgerald, who plays both slot and outside, continues to defy Father Time. But it’s the health and production of John Brown that is key this year. Last year he was diagnosed as a carrier of the sickle-cell trait and later dealt with hamstring issues. If he’s back to 2015 form, that’s a huge boost for this group.
18. Washington Redskins
Outside: Terrelle Pryor, Josh Doctson
Slot: Jamison Crowder
Depth: Brian Quick, Ryan Grant
Pryor spent the first three years of his career as a quarterback. In 2015, his first year in Cleveland, he barely played at any position. Then he caught 77 passes for over 1,000 yards in his first season as a wide receiver. That speaks volumes about how outstanding an athlete he is. It’s not hard to believe he’ll continue to grow leaps and bounds with one year of wide receiver under his belt.
17. Seattle Seahawks
Outside: Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse
Slot: Tyler Lockett
Depth: Amara Darboh, Tanner McEvoy
Only four players have had at least 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns in both of the last two seasons: Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, Brandin Cooks and Doug Baldwin. That’s some pretty good company for Seattle’s top target, consistently one of the NFL’s most under-appreciated players.
16. Los Angeles Chargers
Outside: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams
Slot: Travis Benjamin
Depth: Dontrelle Inman, Tyrell Williams
The Chargers have really solid depth, which is good. The issue here is that their far and away best receiver, Allen, is coming off back-to-back seasons that have ended with an injury. If Allen’s healthy and Mike Williams doesn’t miss the season, as he might per a recent report, Philip Rivers has a really nice supporting cast around him.
15. New Orleans Saints
Outside: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr.
Slot: Willie Snead
Depth: Brandon Coleman, Tommylee Lewis
Thomas is one of two rookies ever to post at least 90 catches for at least 1,100 yards and at least nine touchdowns. The other? Odell Beckham Jr.
14. Jacksonville Jaguars
Outside: Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee
Slot: Allen Hurns
Depth: Rashad Greene, Dede Westbrook, Arrelious Benn
The issue for the Jaguars isn’t out wide. Robinson is one of the best at the position, and Hurns is a matchup nightmare in the slot. Add the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner (Westbrook) into that mix and you have three really solid players. Who delivers them the ball is the issue.
13. Indianapolis Colts
Outside: T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief
Slot: Phillip Dorsett
Depth: Kamar Aiken
Hilton is one of the most underrated players in the entire league. He’s had four straight 1,000-yard seasons, all with at least five touchdowns. He produces when Andrew Luck is in the lineup, and he produces when Luck isn’t in the lineup. He just produces. If only Moncrief and Dorsett could stay healthy …
12. Tennessee Titans
Outside: Corey Davis, Rishard Matthews
Slot: Eric Decker
Depth: Harry Douglas, Tajae Sharp, Taywan Taylor, Eric Weems
The Titans needed to upgrade their receiving corps, and they did just that. Davis has an NFL-ready body and was one of the most productive wideouts in FBS history. Decker is a great veteran presence in the slot. The Titans have a bunch of good pieces around a good backfield, good line and good tight end. That’s a formula for success.
11. Miami Dolphins
Outside: DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills
Slot: Jarvis Landry
Depth: Leonte Carroo
This ranking is based upon Parker realizing his potential and living up to it in his third year as a pro. He started to show that he could do just that over the second half of last season.
10. Dallas Cowboys
Outside: Dez Bryant, Terrence Williams
Slot: Cole Beasley
Depth: Brice Butler, Lucky Whitehead, Ryan Switzer
The Cowboys went extremely run-heavy last season with Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield, and they should run the ball a lot again this year. So the numbers are going to be down across the board for the receivers, but that shouldn’t impact their ranking too much. Bryant is a true No. 1, and Beasley has developed into one of the more effective slot men in the league.
9. Denver Broncos
Outside: Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders
Slot: Carlos Henderson
Depth: Cody Latimer, Bennie Fowler, Jordan Taylor
In the history of the NFL, three players have caught at least 90 passes five years in a row: Torry Holt, Marvin Harrison and Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos were one of four teams (Washington, New Orleans and Oakland were the others) to have two 1,000-yard wide receivers, which speaks volumes about Thomas and Sanders considering who was throwing them the ball.
8. Green Bay Packers
Outside: Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams
Slot: Randall Cobb
Depth: Geronimo Allison, Jeff Janis, Trevor Davis, Malachi Dupre, DeAngelo Yancey
Adams took the jump he needed to take last year, recording more receiving yards than in his first two years combined. But the Packers are always looking to upgrade the weapons available to Aaron Rodgers, as shown by the late-round selections of Yancey and Dupre, both big-bodied targets.
7. Atlanta Falcons
Outside: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu
Slot: Taylor Gabriel
Depth: Justin Hardy, Andre Roberts, Nick Williams
Jones elevates this group to a top-10 ranking almost all by himself. Yes, having Matt Ryan throwing the ball helps, but Jones is an otherworldly talent. His ability to win any one-on-one matchup — with speed, with size, with strength — is unmatched.
6. Oakland Raiders
Outside: Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree
Slot: Seth Roberts
Depth: Cordarrelle Patterson
Cooper and Crabtree make up the best under-30 tandem in the NFL, and they complement each other well. Cooper has the size, speed and skill to win matchups up and down the field. When things get close to the goal line, Crabtree (17 touchdowns in the last two years combined) produces at an outstanding level.
5. Cincinnati Bengals
Outside: A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell
Slot: Tyler Boyd
Depth: John Ross, Cody Core, Josh Malone
When Green is healthy, you could argue this is the best receiving corps in the league. Regardless, the Bengals are a top-five team even with his uncertain health, especially after the additions of Ross and Malone. There are no excuses for Andy Dalton this season.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Outside: Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson
Slot: Adam Humphries
Depth: Chris Godwin
Perhaps no group of wide receivers complements one another as well as the Bucs’ wideouts do. Evans, at 6-foot-5, is terrific in all aspects, but especially so making the tough catches in traffic. Jackson takes the top off defenses, and Humphris operates really well in small spaces.
3. New York Giants
Outside: Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall
Slot: Sterling Shepard
Depth: Roger Lewis, Dwayne Harris
Yes, Marshall is 33, but his game has aged very well. He’s a big body and terrific possession receiver to put opposite of Beckham Jr. Marshall’s numbers won’t necessarily be outstanding, but the attention he draws will open up things for others.
2. New England Patriots
Outside: Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan
Slot: Julian Edelman
Depth: Andrew Hawkins, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell
Just when you thought the Patriots couldn’t get significantly better, they added Cooks, one of the best wide receivers in the game. This high ranking, of course, is due mainly to how well the receivers fit the Pats’ system. The Patriots have the perfect personnel to keep things running at an elite level.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Outside: Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant
Slot: Brown/Eli Rogers
Depth: Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Justin Hunter
The Steelers have the best receiver in the league and the best depth in the league. Bryant’s return adds the big-play element the team didn’t have last year outside of Brown. There are so many good options on this roster — even preseason cuts will be very difficult.