1.New England Patriots: To say New England now has abundance at this position would be a massive understatement. Wes Welker’s and newly signed Brandon Lloyd’s roles are pretty clearly defined, but the Patriots also have Deion Branch, Anthony Gonzalez, Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth, Chad Ochocinco, Julian Edelman, special-teams star Matthew Slater and seventh-round pick Jeremy Ebert all competing for roster spots and roles in this offense.
Welker turned 31 this month, but he has caught more than 100 passes in four of the past five seasons, including a whopping 122 last year. How much does the premier slot receiver of this generation have left? That is hard to guess, but Welker still creates all sorts of problems for every defense he faces and Tom Brady has extreme confidence in him.
With Lloyd in the picture, Welker’s catch total could decrease, as Lloyd is sure to find some favorable matchups now on the perimeter -- often deep downfield. He is an acrobatic receiver who has a ton of big-play ability. Lloyd’s downfield ability is a huge reason New England added him to an already extremely potent passing attack.
Branch will be 33 before the season starts and has appeared in all 16 games only one time in his 11 seasons. Branch is a Brady favorite, but Lloyd is going to cut into Branch’s production in a big way. Still a solid receiver, Branch isn’t someone who can consistently torture single coverage like Lloyd can.
Gaffney hasn’t missed a game in five years and quietly had a pretty good season for the Redskins last year, despite a questionable supporting cast. He is also over 30. I could see him sticking in New England, as the Patriots were very aggressive in pursuing him after his release in Washington.
Gonzalez didn’t play a snap last year and has appeared in only 39 games in his five-year career. Durability is clearly the biggest knock on Gonzalez, but at one point, he and Peyton Manning had a good thing going. This former first-round pick might surprise in a new uniform if he is able to stay healthy.
The 34-year-old Ochocinco was a great player in Cincinnati, but did next to nothing in his first year in New England. He lacks the discipline in his route running to be a regular contributor and is wildly inconsistent, with very few impressive showings. Ochocinco was not a good fit in New England from the start.
Stallworth is yet another over-30 wideout with a checkered history. He is also a former first-round selection and still has the speed to get deep, which is an element the Patriots look to infuse back into their passing attack. One interesting aspect of choosing which wideouts to keep from this huge group is that most of the veteran receivers discussed above offer little-to-nothing on special teams. But any way you cut it, the Pats are pretty loaded at wideout.
2.Buffalo Bills: Although the Bills locked up Steve Johnson, wide receiver is a spot where you can argue they are not noticeably improved from a year ago. Johnson is clearly the top option at wide receiver for Buffalo, but the Bills also will have Donald Jones, David Nelson, Marcus Easley and third round pick T.J. Graham competing for playing time in an offensive system that could feature a high percentage of three-wide receiver sets.
Johnson eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in each of the past two seasons and crossed the goal line 17 times over that stretch. He has had some ups and downs and isn’t a special talent when comparing him to other teams’ top wide receivers, but there is also a lot to like about what Johnson brings to the Bills’ offense. He has done some of his best work against the top corners in this league.
Jones played only eight games last year, catching just 23 passes with one touchdown. But he has good deep speed and flashes some big-play ability to go along with enough size to be a starter opposite Johnson. Nelson is a big-bodied slot receiver in the Marques Colston mold. He stepped up for the Bills last season and is the second-most reliable member of this group. I especially like what Nelson offers in the red zone.
Easley showed promise coming out of college but has no production yet in the NFL due to injuries. But he is big and fast. Keep an eye on him. I like his chances in this offense. Graham has a ton of work to do with his development as a wide receiver, but he has extreme speed and explosiveness. It might take time for him to be able to get on the field, but once he does, Graham could open up a lot of room for everyone in this offense.
He isn’t a wide receiver so I am not including him in my ranking process, but with Fred Jackson back to being healthy, I expect C.J. Spiller to line up more on the outside and run wide receiver routes.
3.New York Jets: I am still very much a believer in Santonio Holmes as a player, but outside of Holmes, the wide receiver cabinet is rather bare for New York. You can blame the quarterback play for sure, but there is no way around it -- Holmes had a dismal season for the Jets last year. A player who has shown up huge on the biggest of stages, Holmes was clearly frustrated with his situation last season en route to accumulating a measly 654 receiving yards. I can’t say I condone Holmes’ behavior last season, but his numbers likely would have been much better with more efficient quarterback play.
To bolster this position for the long term, the Jets used a second-round pick on Stephen Hill. Hill is the ultimate size/speed prospect and should immediately have an impact on deep routes to help keep the Jets’ opponents off the line of scrimmage to some degree. But Hill has a lot of work to do with the route tree before he can be considered a true complement to Holmes.
They also picked up the often-injured Chaz Schilens in free agency. Schilens appeared in 15 games last year for the Raiders but accumulated only 271 receiving yards. In the two seasons prior, Schilens missed 19 of a possible 32 games with injury. When healthy, Schilens has used his size, route running and strong hands to move the chains in this league. The Jets could really use that.
Jeremy Kerley could be poised to make an impact in his second season. He demonstrates a lot of quickness and could become the next big contributor out of the slot in the AFC East. Patrick Turner saw snaps last year and is still in the equation. He is a big-bodied receiver who doesn’t separate all that well or stretch the field. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Jets were to add another free-agent wide receiver to the mix before training camp.
Bess is a prototypical slot receiver with excellent short-area quickness. He is good after the catch and can thrive with a strong supporting cast on the outside, but he is by no means a feature receiver. Bess is dependable, but not much of a factor near the goal line. Hartline can stretch the field, but he too doesn’t excel in the red zone. To me, Hartline is a borderline starter in any situation. He also will not be able to be the focal point of the passing attack. In what is sure to be a run-first offense in Miami, Bess and Hartline also offer very little as blockers.
The only other notable veteran here is Legedu Naanee, who was unspectacular for the Panthers in 2011. Naanee does have some ability and his blocking will endear him to this coaching staff in their run-first offense. Maybe this change of scenery and opportunity for playing time pays off for Naanee. Clyde Gates, a fourth-round pick from a year ago, will get ample opportunity to step up in his second season. Gates has rare long speed but caught only two passes in his rookie season. A full offseason could help quite a bit, but he has a long way to go in terms of learning the nuances of the position.
The Dolphins used late-round picks to add B.J. Cunningham and Rishard Matthews to this equation. In a deep receiver draft, the Dolphins made excellent value picks here, as both youngsters have intriguing size and movement skills. But counting on late-round rookies to kick start a passing game is far from a wise wager. The Dolphins need to improve at wide receiver in a big way, especially if they plan on maturing Ryan Tannehill as an NFL quarterback properly.