By Steve Silverman
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When it comes to scoring touchdowns and striking suddenly, wide receivers are the game’s most dramatic impact players. While it can be argued that quarterbacks allow the wide receivers to make big plays, an equally powerful case can be made that wide receivers allow quarterbacks to reach their potential as a result of their spectacular talent.
There are three wide receivers who are clearly recognized as the best in the business as we start the 2017 season. Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, Atlanta’s Julio Jones and the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. are game-breaking players who are loaded with spectacular physical gifts and remarkable skills.
In this piece, I look at the top-10 receivers in the game today. While many of the rankings can be used for fantasy football purposes, I’m including all aspects of a wide receiver’s game – including blocking – that are not factors in fantasy.
1. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh
There is no receiver in the NFL who has the ability to get open on an every-play basis like Brown. Brown has eye-catching quickness off the line of scrimmage, and he makes his cuts at close to full speed. He has an incredible sense of timing that allows him to know where the ball is even before he has started to look for it. He also has the key quality that all receivers need — a tremendous pair of hands that allow him to make the most difficult catch. Brown, who is 5-foot-10, 181 pounds, has caught 100 or more passes each of the last four seasons, and he had 106 receptions for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago.
2. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
The difference between Brown and Jones is simply a matter of taste, and those in the Jones camp can point to his superior size at 6-3, 220 pounds. In addition to being able to dominate smaller defensive backs with his size and strength, Jones is an excellent athlete who has acrobatic leaping ability and tremendous long speed. Jones came back to earth last year with 83 receptions for 1,409 yards with six touchdowns after catching 136 passes for 1,871 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015.
3. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
There’s a subtle difference in the way the crowd reacts to a great play by Beckham than any of the other receiver on this list. There’s a remarkable burst of cheering when Brown, Jones, Dez Bryant or Jordy Nelson make a catch, but it’s somewhat different when Beckham makes one of his remarkable one-handed grabs. There’s a second or more of incredulous silence as the fans in attendance can’t believe what they’ve seen before a roar overtakes the stadium. Beckham had 35 TD receptions in his first three seasons, and he caught 101 passes for 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. Despite those great numbers, Beckham will drop some passes that he should catch, and that irks coaches and fans.
4. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay
At 6-5, 230 pounds, Evans is a huge man who can overpower nearly everyone who tries to cover him. He has built a tremendous working relationship with quarterback Jameis Winston, and the two are still getting better every season. If there is a battle for the football with a defensive back, Evans is going to win it nine out of 10 times. He caught 96 passes for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and he should be able to improve upon those numbers this year.
5. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay
Nelson has been underrated throughout his career, and the reason for that is opposing coaches and players have underestimated his overall athleticism and speed. That’s a huge mistake, as Nelson has the kind of physical skills that allow him to get the best of opposing defensive backs. After missing the 2015 season with an ACL tear, he came back brilliantly with 97 receptions for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns. He had 19 receptions of 20 or more yards, and he can catch the ball in traffic as well as any receiver in the game.
6. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis
Hilton has superior quickness that allows him to break free off the line of scrimmage, and he has been a remarkable talent for quarterback Andrew Luck. He is a mighty mite at 5-9 and 181 pounds, and he caught 91 passes for 1,448 yards and six scores last year. Hilton excels at avoiding the huge hits, and he has been quite durable throughout his career. While his long speed is only slightly above average, he is remarkably adept at getting open and staying open as he runs his pattern.
7. Dez Bryant, Dallas
Bryant is a powerful receiver who is one of the most physical players at his position in the league. He made 48 consecutive starts between 2012 and 2014, but he has had injury issues the last two years. If Bryant can stay healthy this year, he could put remarkable numbers on the board, as the Cowboys will almost certainly be more dependent on their passing game because of Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension. Bryant is 6-2 and 220 pounds, and he may be the best in the league when it comes to high-pointing the ball.
8. A.J. Green, Cincinnati
The Bengals suffered badly when Green missed six games with a hamstring injury last season, and they need him to be in the lineup for all 16 games this year. Green is a superb route runner with excellent hands, but he is not going to impose his will on opposing defenses the way the top receivers on this list will. If Green gets off to a good start in a game, he can dominate, but if he drops a pass or two early, he can disappear for long stretches. He has also been hindered by quarterback Andy Dalton’s periodic lack of accuracy.
9. Michael Thomas, New Orleans
After a brilliant rookie season, it’s clear the Saints are committed to making Thomas the centerpiece of their offense. They traded fellow wideout Brandin Cooks to the Patriots, and that’s a clear indication that head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have complete faith in him. Thomas caught 92 passes for 1,279 yards and nine touchdowns, and his game-breaking speed and long arms help him make incredible circus catches.
10. Doug Baldwin, Seattle
The other wide receivers on this list all have a fairly significant edge on Baldwin when it comes to physical talent and natural gifts. However, nobody works harder than Baldwin, and he will fight hard to make every reception. He is capable of dominating because of his commitment and toughness, and he had a remarkable 2016 season in which he caught 78 passes for 1,069 yards and 14 touchdowns. He simply refuses to accept defeat and is an indefatigable warrior.
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