It’s no secret that the NFL has transformed into a full-blown passing league, and the role of wide receivers has blossomed as a result. More playmakers are emerging every season, and a constant discussion about the best receivers in the game is always taking place.
Let’s take a look at the 10 best wide receivers in the NFL today.
10. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
With all the talent listed below him, Fitzgerald rounds out the bottom of this list. This is actually reminiscent of the better part of his NFL career—in which he’s carried an offense (featuring a carousel of mediocre-at-best quarterbacks) on his back but hasbeen overshadowed by circumstances out of his control. His last 1,000-plus yard and 10-plus touchdown season came in 2009. In the prime of his career, Fitzgerald’s production fell victim to poor surrounding talent and lack of a capable quarterback.
We saw a resurgence last season from Fitzgerald—Bruce Arians’ vertical offense and the acquisition of Carson Palmer lifted him back to prominence. He makes up for his average speed with crisp route running and some of the best hands in the game. While he fell short of 1,000 yards, Fitzgerald reached double-digit touchdowns for the first time since 2009.
As he continues to play through his early 30’s, Fitzgerald continues to show why he is still so highly regarded. This might be his final season with Arizona, but it could be his best since 2009.
9. Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
It’s difficult for a young player to crack into the top-10 at any position in their second season. But Jeffery is the rare instance of someone instantly becoming a household name.
The Bears took a chance on Jeffery with their second round pick in 2013, despite concerns over his work ethic and speed. Jeffery spent time with coaches developing his route running, but still managed to haul in 24 receptions and three touchdowns as a rookie.
Jeffery took a monumental step forward in 2013—his route running vastly improved and combined with his elite athleticism and hands, catapulted him to a breakout season. Even with Brandon Marshall on the other side, Jeffery had 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. If Jay Cutler can stay healthy for a full season, there is no reason to think Jeffery won’t be higher on this list next year.
8. Andre Johnson, Houston Texans
Johnson seems to be like a fine wine, he just gets better with age. The 33-year-old showed once again last season why being one of the smartest players in the game has its advantages.
Johnson played exceptionally well last year, despite playing for the worst team in football. He recognized his quarterback’s deficiencies and put the pressure on himself to make their jobs easier. He does this with his outstanding football I.Q. and ability to recognize what the cornerback is doing, along with perfect timing and impressive speed on his routes.
There are plenty of “What if…?” theories that go along with Johnson’s career, but the veteran continues to show his abilities remain top notch. He may reach the end of his career on a rebuilding team, but that should make his accomplishments even more impressive as he continues to produce.
7. Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears
Marshall’s path to greatness has been a roller coaster. He flashed potential in Denver before being shipped off to Miami, where his elite skills mixed poorly with off the field issues and headaches for the coaching staff.
Just two seasons into his stay with the Dolphins, Miami shipped off the troubled receiver to Chicago. Marshall has found a home—he is thriving with gunslinger Jay Cutler and stepped up as a leader for the Bears.
He has posted consecutive seasons of 100-plus receptions, 1,200-plus yards and 10-plus touchdowns since joining the Bears. Marshall always finds an advantage against his opponents—outsmarting them, physically wearing them down and beating them for contested balls.
Marshall is still in the prime of his career—but his greatest accomplishment has been mentoring Jeffery. He remains one of the best blockers at his position and that makes him the ultimate player and leader.
6. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
While Brown might be the smallest player on this list, he has never let that stop him from beating up on opposing secondaries. Even as more national attention turns his way, Brown continues to work even harder than ever.
The Steelers situation at wide receiver has been fluid—Mike Wallace left in 2013 and Emmanuel Sanders departed in free agency this offseason. Through it all, Brown has remained and developed from unheralded 6th round pick in 2010 to a top-10 receiver last season.
He does everything well—possessing impressive speed, strong hands and the ability to adjust his body and find the football. Brown increases his worth by returning kicks and his role in the offense will only grow from here. Brown may not receive the same recognition as the rest of this group, but he is an excellent player.
5. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
While Peyton Manning deserves plenty of credit for his record-breaking season, he couldn’t have done it without the assistance of Thomas. The 26-year-old was Manning’s go-to receiver last season with a team-leading 143 targets.
At 6’3″ and 229 pounds, Thomas is one of the best size-speed receivers in the game. Many forget he was an inexperienced receiver coming out of Georgia Tech and tore an Achilles tendon after his rookie season. The injury cost him precious time that normally would have been spent developing his route running and hands.
Now just a few seasons later, Thomas has worked his way amongst the best in the game. He finished fourth in receiving yards (1,430) and first in touchdowns (14) amongst wide receivers last season. If Thomas can cut down on eight drops from last season, he can take the next step as an elite receiver.
4. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Jones made it on this list despite missing 11 games last season and having lingering questions about his foot. When Jones is healthy, there are few players who can match his production and skill set.
In five games last season, Jones had 41 receptions for 580 yards and was on pace for a career season. Jones 4.3 40-speed is hard to imagine when you see him stand at 6’3″. But he is a gazelle on the field with speed, agility and elusiveness to navigate routes and separate from the defense.
He has a great quarterback in Matt Ryan and another talented receiver alongside him in Roddy White. Everything is in place for Jones to establish himself as an elite player, now he must stay on the field for 16 games.
3. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
If there is one player who can challenge Calvin Johnson for the top spot one day, it’s Bryant. The only thing holding him back has been his attitude, but he seems to be turning a corner.
As Bryant continues to mature as a leader, his desire to be a better player will grow with him. He has always had the physical ability—a 6’2″ frame, 4.5 40-time and outstanding range. Bryant has the ability to make leaping one-handed catches look easy—it’s actually the routine balls he has problems with.
This is what’s keeping Bryant from true greatness—a grounded, team-centric attitude and consistency holding on to the football. He is in an offense that loves to throw the ball and with more growth, and there is no reason to think he can’t attain 100-plus receptions, 1,200-plus receiving yards and 10-plus touchdowns.
Bryant is primed for a career year in 2014. If he keeps his head in the game and stays healthy, he’ll dominate opposing secondaries—even if the coverage is rolled his way.
2. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Green has taken the league by storm since being drafted fourth overall in 2011. With each passing season, he just gets better and better.
The Bengals’ passing game under OC Jay Gruden was too pass-heavy, something that will change under new OC Hue Jackson. Green will remain the focal point of Cincinnati’s offense, but will see a reduction from his 180 targets last season.
A balanced Cincinnati offense will actually benefit Green—defenses will bite more on play action, allowing Green to get that extra step of separation and get open. His size, burst and balance help make him one of the best deep threats in the NFL. The stage is set for Green to become one of the true elites in football.
Quarterback play has certainly been a problem early in Green’s career—Andy Dalton’s ball placement diminishes when throwing downfield and hurts Green as a result. Some of Green’s highlight reel catches have actually been a result of poorly thrown passes. But if Green wants to take that final step, he must cut down the drops to single digits.
1. Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
There is no question who the best receiver in the game is right now. Johnson has everything the other nine players possess and it has helped him to get where he is today.
If scientists wanted to build a wide receiver in a lab, they would likely still fall short of Johnson’s ability. He has the unfathomable mixture of lightning speed, unmatched size and the intelligence of a coach. His accomplishments go beyond the numbers and All-Pro accolades.
It doesn’t matter how much time you scheme against him or if you put him in triple-coverage, he is going to catch the football. The attention he draws from the defense allows teammates to get open and make plays on their own. He is as good as they come and the only question is, where will he rank amongst the greats—namely Jerry Rice—when he is done?
Note: Cleveland Browns WR Josh Gordon would’ve made this list. But after being hit with a season-long suspension (with an appeal pending), he is currently slated to miss the entire 2014 season.