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Apr 05

NFL Offseason: Ranking the top 10 WR tandems in the league post free agency

With the signing of DeSean Jackson in Washington to be paired with Pierre Garcon, last year’s second most targeted receiver and 13th highest fantasy scorer at his position I asked myself “Is there a better WR tandem in the NFL right now than what was just assembled?”

You’ll see via the rankings below, I answered yes, but the duo still deserve a lot of credit. Is the question fantasy relevant? Vaguely, in that being associated with any of the pairings below is generally a boon to a QBs overall stat line and also in that each situation plays out a little differently in terms of the players’ impact on one another.

I’m presenting my Top 10 WR tandems below, with a loose projection for each this coming season and a discussion of their relative impact on each other.

Inevitably, this is going to lead to debate and it should… ranking groups like this is a highly subjective process. Share your agreement, disagreement, name calling, in the comments below.

1) Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
Big, strong, fast and with sure hands Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are the best WR tandem in the league (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images).

Big, strong, fast and with sure hands Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are the best WR tandem in the league (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images).

However you slice their 2013 season, its hard to argue that Marshall and Jeffery were anything other than the best pair of wideouts in the league. According to Pro Football Focus grading, Marshall was the best overall receiver in the league while his sophomore counterpart finished eighth. Each player was top 12 in receptions, yards, and were top 20 in receiving touchdowns.

The veteran just turned 30 years of age and is showing no signs of decline while Jeffery is moving into the magical third year for wide receivers. There may be some debate as to which is more ownable in 2014, but they both are easily top 10 fantasy wideouts which no other duo in the league can say. Naturally, that is good news for QB Jay Cutler who was putting together a strong fantasy campaign before injuries got him off track last year. He seems to be often injured, but it is hard not to like Cutler as one of the better QBs outside the fantasy top 12 given the talent he is working with at receiver and the success of Marc Trestman’s offense last year in the NFL.

At 6’4″, 230 lbs and 6’3″, 216 lbs respectively it is rare to find a single WR with the size/strength combination possessed by Marshall and Jeffery, let alone two on the same team.

2) Julio Jones and Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons

At this time last year, I’d have ranked Jones and White atop the list but with the development of Jeffery and Marshall over the course of the season coupled with the issues in Atlanta, they’ve been bumped. Still, don’t let a down year blind you to the fact that Jones and White fit each other and their offense very well.

2013 was easily White’s worst season since he became a full time starter and it comes at the age of 32, so many will point to the injuries and regression as an indication that he is beginning to show his age. My own take is that White tried too hard to stay on the field early in the season after suffering a significant injury and it derailed his recovery and his production. You’ll note that late in the season, the six time (consecutive heading into 2013) 1000 yard receiver seemed to turn things around. Over his final five games, White averaged nine receptions and 100 yards per game, scoring twice. Assuming good health and offensive line improvements, he should return to near his previous level of production.

Julio Jones meanwhile was injured early in the season and by all accounts will be fully ready to go come training camp. He actually led the league in yards per route run last year, at 2.74 (just ahead of Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon) and while the foot injury is his second since joining the Falcons it shouldn’t be taken as a sign of a player who won’t be able to play 16 games.

It is easy to forget both of these players after their 2013 production but Jones should return to the top tier of wide receiver ranks while White still has plenty left to offer in 2014.

3) Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers

These two haven’t given us a full season of good health together since uniting in Green Bay but the promise that Cobb showed in his rookie season (80 receptions) coupled with Nelson’s ability to stretch the field make these two a perfect compliment for one another. Presumably with the departure of James Jones and emergence of Jarrett Boykin, Cobb will continue to man the slot for the Packers next year leaving him free to operate underneath and on quick hits from Aaron Rodgers while Nelson is his man on the outside.

Despite starting just 35 games over the last three seasons, Nelson has averaged a 67-1107-10 line and is coming off an 85 reception, 1314 yard, 16 game season. Cobb was easing his way back into action at the end of last season and showed flashes of the potential that had him hyped as one of the top fantasy options in the league heading into the year. With a full offseason to get healthy and return to form, the potential remains. Matching 80+/1000+ yard lines (with the TD edge going to Nelson) next season are easily in reach.

4) DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, Washington Redskins

Given the depth presented elsewhere in this list, four is a lofty rank or Jackson and Garcon who we have yet to see on the field together. Their biggest challenge will be that the players operate in similar styles, and will have to find a way to coexist effectively on the field. If everything clicks, four could wind up feeling far too low.

That said, you can’t deny the talent or the benefits afforded to each player with the fact that opposing defenses will be spread thin trying to cover two top talents. Their combined 2013 receptions would have led the league for any duo, and while there will be some competition for targets each can be productive. Particularly if Washington’s defense continues to struggle and forces the team into passing situations. Jay Gruden made a monster out of AJ Green working with Andy Dalton, and there should be a lot of opportunity for each player.

I broke down the fantasy implications in the immediate aftermath of the deal.

5) Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, Detroit Lions

While this seems like the application of “Megatron+anyone” logic, it goes deeper than that as the Lions just added a perfect fit opposite him. Johnson followed his (near) 2000 yard season with a 14 game (near) 1500 yard encore and remained dominant despite struggling with injury all season. The expectation is that the soon to be 29-year-old will be fully healthy heading into the season, seeking a fourth straight campaign with an average of more than 100 yards per game.

Tate meanwhile stands to benefit significantly from factoring in alongside Johnson. In his four year career, Tate has never played with a receiver who commanded anywhere near the attention Johnson does from opposing defenses. With Megatron drawing doubles, the speedy, sure handed Tate is in prime position to take advantage of relaxed coverage on his side of the field. Nate Burleson has played well with Detroit, but the team has been seeking this type of secondary receiver for years.

Last season, Tate set career highs with 64 receptions and 898 yards while maintaining a high catch rate. He was 17th in the league in terms of % of targets caught with 68.8 mark after finishing 14th in 2012. While playing across from Johnson, who also commands his quarterback’s attention, would be presumed to be a detriment to Tate’s touches (Johnson had 148 in just 14 games last season) the move should actually help his overall volume – Seattle threw the second least passes per game last year (26.25 per game) while Detroit threw the 5th most, and Jim Caldwell’s offense should keep that number high in 2013. With sure hands and more targets, coupled with more open field, Tate could easily top 1000 yards for the first time in his career.

The move should help Johnson as well. While he will always be the chief concern of opposing coordinators, not having to do it all should keep him healthy through games and through the season and with Tate making plays on the other side of the field he shouldn’t be blanketed in quite the same way as he has been the last few seasons (a frightening thought, given his dominance during that period).

6) Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, Philadelphia Eagles

Each has their question marks heading into 2014 (one is being asked to be ‘the guy’ for the first time after a breakout campaign, the other returning from a significant injury) but these complimentary wide receivers fit well in Chip Kelly’s offense. Coming off a 47 catch, 17.8 YPR campaign Riley Cooper should see more targets from Nick Foles as the top WR on the depth chart and the two showed a strong rapport last season. Cooper has deceptive speed and the size to win one on one battles with cornerbacks.

Maclin meanwhile, has three 800 yard seasons to his credit and projects very well as a ‘catch and run’ receiver in Chip Kelly’s offense in 2014. With Cooper working over the top of defenses and Maclin taking advantage of room cleared out underneath and in the middle of the field expect strong numbers from the duo.

7) Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders (Wes Welker), Denver Broncos

Part of their production this season will be a result of the Peyton proximity effect, no doubt, but Thomas had been identified as a significant talent before Manning’s arrival and Sanders joins the Broncos from Pittsburgh coming off a career high in receptions.

Thomas has 24 scores over the last two seasons as part of the league’s most prolific offense and nearly identical yardage and reception totals with 1434/1430 and 94/92. Expect more of the same from Thomas this season, and while I’d rather have Eric Decker than Emmanuel Sanders on my NFL roster he’ll step into Decker’s role starting opposite DT (with Welker manning the slot). Sanders hasn’t been the redzone target that Decker has been through the course of his career – his six TDs in 2013 more than doubled his previous three year career total – but he should receive similar overall volume and as such post a highly productive campaign in Denver.

This group ranks six as opposed to the 3/4/5 range that last year’s would have fallen into in part because of Sanders’ 62 percent catch rate from 2013. That number still projects to more than 80 receptions based on Decker’s 135 targets from last season but you’d like to see a higher mark before anointing this a dominant group.

8) Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals
With one still strong at 30 and another on the rise, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are one of the league's best WR duos (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire).

With one still strong at 30 and another on the rise, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are one of the league’s best WR duos (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire).

After suffering through three seasons of a revolving door of mediocrity in the post Kurt Warner era, Larry Fitzgerald showed he can still take over games last season, with 82 receptions, 954 yards and double digit scores for the first time since ’09. His yards per reception stayed down in the low double digit range (11.6) and he caught just 63.6 percent of his targets (Palmer operated at 63.3% overall), but Fitzgerald remains one of the finer technical receivers in the league. Last season’s numbers are probably pretty close to his ceiling moving forward, as Carson Palmer ages and the receiver further separates from his early career dominance.

Michael Floyd however, is stepping up alongside the veteran. In his second season Floyd turned 65 receptions into 1041 yards and five scores. Over the second half of the season, as he continued to grow and as the team shifted to making him the focal point at WR2 rather than spreading the ball between Floyd and Andre Roberts. The numbers are skewed by a massive (193 yard) performance against Jacksonville, but three of his scores and 608 of his yards came in his final eight games, where he was the 21st highest fantasy scorer at his position. Overall, he also finished 21st in yards per pass route run last season (1.83) suggesting that as his role in the offense grows, his production should alongside it.

As Floyd moves into his 3rd year (and second under Bruce Arians) expect continued development, giving Arizona two strong threats on the outside.

9) Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks (T.Y. Hilton), Indianapolis Colts

Maybe it is Reggie Wayne who winds up in parenthesis as the offseason moves along, pending his return from last year’s ACL tear, but nevertheless this is another triple threat receiving corps that looks to be among the best in the league on paper.

Wayne’s return/Nicks’ arrival allows Hilton to shift back to a more natural role in the slot, assuming all players come to camp healthy and occupy their projected roles. Wayne’s reception and yards per game numbers were down last year before his injury, but he still projected to top 1000 yards and 80 grabs, so, if he comes back healthy we’re looking at a productive receiver yet again.

Nicks meanwhile went the entire season without a touchdown as part of a dysfunctional Giants offense after a three TD, 700 yard injury riddled 2012. His yards per reception were impressive last year however (16.0) and he is just two years removed from an 1192 yard campaign. At 26 years old, moving indoors and playing with a QB on the rise in Andrew Luck, Nicks is a prime candidate for a bounce back.

 

10) It’s a tie… each of the following sets of receivers has their intrigue but the number two man faces questions of proving himself, avoiding decline, etc: Bryant/Williams, Crabtree/Boldin, Smith/Smith.

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