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The Top 10 Pass-Catching Groups in the NFL

Josh Gordon says the Browns are tops in the league, but is that true? Here’s the definitive list.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Josh Gordon generated plenty of nuanced, rational online discourse this week when he said the Browns have the “best receiving corps in the league”—a claim backed up by his new teammate, Jarvis Landry. That is a bold proclamation, obviously—but it does bring into focus the strides Cleveland’s made over the offseason adding talent to its offense. With a receivers group that now features a dynamic deep threat in Gordon, an elusive run-after-the-catch playmaker in Landry, and a pair of high-upside talents in Corey Coleman and rookie Antonio Callaway, it’s hard to deny that this unit could develop into one of the league’s best—especially if Gordon can stay on the field and return to his 2013 form. Add in tight ends David Njoku and Seth DeValve, and Cleveland’s overall pass-catching corps has sky-high potential.

But the Browns’ cadre of young playmakers still has much to prove—and there’s plenty of ground to make up on the league’s elite pass-catching units. Widening the scope to include both wideouts and tight ends (while accounting for season-ending injuries to key players—sorry, Chargers), here’s my list for the top 10 receiving corps in the league.

10. Houston Texans

WR DeAndre Hopkins, WR Will Fuller, WR Bruce Ellington, TE Ryan Griffin, TE Stephen Anderson, WR Keke Coutee, WR Braxton Miller, WR Sammie Coates, TE MyCole Pruitt, TE Jordan Akins

Hopkins still feels underrated, somehow, but there’s little doubt he’s one of the league’s premier talents. The Houston playmaker ranks third in both receiving yards (5,063) and touchdowns (tied at 34) over the past four seasons—which is even more incredible considering he’s done it, for the most part, catching passes from of a long series of subpar (to downright terrible) quarterbacks during that stretch. A full season playing with Deshaun Watson, though, may put Hopkins’s otherworldly potential on display.

Past Hopkins, Houston boasts a versatile group of intriguing downfield weapons: A healthy Fuller is one of the league’s most dangerous deep threats; Ellington flashed late last season, catching 29 passes for 330 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 11 games; and the explosive rookie fourth-rounder Keke Coutee has a chance to carve out a role for himself in the slot in year one. Add in a raw but highly athletic wild card in Miller and a tight ends group headlined by Ryan Griffin and Stephen Anderson, and Houston’s pass-catchers could be in store for big things in 2018.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

WR Mike Evans, WR DeSean Jackson, TE O.J. Howard, TE Cameron Brate, WR Chris Godwin, WR Adam Humphries, WR Justin Watson

Tampa Bay’s receiving corps checks all the boxes of an elite unit: There’s Evans, the unguardable mismatch who’s caught 309 balls and 32 touchdowns in four seasons; Jackson, who’s still a quality field-stretching deep threat; Humphries, the team’s dependable slot receiver who quietly caught 61 passes last year; and Godwin, who flashed incredible potential as a rookie and has made a bunch of plays in the team’s OTAs this spring. The Buccaneers are set at tight end, too: The highly athletic Howard is still just scratching the surface of his potential, while Brate is one of Jameis Winston’s favorite red zone targets, and the two tied for the team lead with six touchdowns in 2017.

8. New England Patriots

TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Julian Edelman, WR Chris Hogan, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, WR Kenny Britt, WR Phillip Dorsett, WR Braxton Berrios, TE Dwayne Allen, TE Troy Niklas

This group’s led, of course, by the most dominant tight end in league history. When healthy, Gronk’s just about unstoppable in the passing game, where he’s caught an NFL-best 76 touchdowns since he came into the league in 2010 despite missing 26 games in that span. But Tom Brady has plenty of other options at his disposal, even with the departure of two stalwarts of last year’s pass offense, Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola.

Edelman’s four-game suspension to start the year stings, but when the veteran playmaker gets back onto the field, he should have no trouble reprising his role as Brady’s favorite target in the short and intermediate areas. Hogan (and/or Dorsett) should fill in as the team’s downfield defense-stretcher, and after missing all of last year to a knee injury, Mitchell has a lot of untapped potential as the no. 3 option. For depth, Matthews is an experienced veteran who can be a factor from the slot while Edelman’s gone (and once he’s back, Edelman may play outside more often), and Patterson offers an enticing run-after-the-catch ability that could be a factor in New England’s screen game (plus, he’s an elite kick returner). Britt, who broke the 1,000-yard receiving mark just two years ago, is a total wild card who brings plenty of upside. And Allen and Niklas both could see plenty of snaps at tight end. It’s not the deepest or most-talented pass-catching corps Brady’s ever had, but it sure isn’t bad.

7. Green Bay Packers

WR Davante Adams, WR Randall Cobb, TE Jimmy Graham, TE Marcedes Lewis, TE Lance Kendricks, WR Geronimo Allison, WR J’Mon Moore, WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR Equanimeous St. Brown

Adams emerged as the Packers go-to guy over the past two years, racking up 149 catches for 1,882 yards and 22 touchdowns in that stretch—and the combination of Aaron Rodgers’s return from injury and Jordy Nelson’s departure makes the 25-year-old a prime candidate for a rise to superstardom in 2018. Cobb still has plenty of route-running and run-after-the-catch talent, so don’t be surprised when he kicks off a mini career renaissance this year; and it’s going to be a lot of fun to see if Graham can play a Jermichael Finley–style role in the Green Bay offense. The former Saints and Seahawks pass-catcher is a little past his prime, but he’s still incredibly dangerous in the red zone—and he provides Rodgers with a big target up the seam.

Mix in a few promising young receivers (Allison, Moore, Valdes-Scantling, and St. Brown) and a handful of veteran tight ends as depth (Lewis and Kendricks), and the Packers have a strong, versatile group of pass catchers going into 2018.

6. Philadelphia Eagles

WR Alshon Jeffery, WR Mike Wallace, WR Nelson Agholor, TE Zach Ertz, TE Dallas Goedert, WR Mack Hollins, WR Markus Wheaton, TE Richard Rodgers

There’s no true superstar in this group, but what stands out about the Eagles’ pass-catching corps is its breadth of talent across the board. In Philly’s equal-opportunity passing-game philosophy, everyone plays their role: Jeffery is the team’s big, outside threat (where he reeled in 57 passes for 789 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns last year), while Agholor emerged as an effective weapon out of the slot (he caught 62 passes for 768 yards and eight scores). Ertz has proven to be an all-around playmaker at tight end (and led the team with 74 catches and 824 yards, with eight touchdowns of his own), and Wallace looks like an upgrade over Torrey Smith as the offense’s designated deep threat. And even Nick Foles can contribute.

Add in Goedert, a high-upside rookie who should be a nice replacement for Brent Celek, and Hollins, who flashed at times last year, and the defending Super Bowl champs have plenty of options … for whoever lines up at quarterback this year.

5. Kansas City Chiefs

TE Travis Kelce, WR Tyreek Hill, WR Sammy Watkins, WR Chris Conley, WR Demarcus Robinson, WR De’Anthony Thomas, TE Demetrius Harris, TE Tim Wright, TE Jace Amaro

Pat Mahomes II falls into a pretty nice situation in his first year starting at quarterback with a strong run game at his back and an electric trio of pass-catching options to target downfield. Kelce (83 catches for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns last year) is the most dynamic tight end in the league, capable of taking a shovel-pass and picking up yards on the ground on one play, then creating a mismatch lined up on the outside on the next. Hill might be the most explosive player in the NFL, and the 24-year-old pass catcher broke out last year with 75 receptions for 1,183 yards and seven scores, showing the ability to score from anywhere on the field. The addition of Watkins in free agency is just the cherry on top, and he’s going to make defending the deep parts of the field especially difficult on opposing teams, who can no longer simply key in on Hill.

Down the depth chart, Conley and Robinson give the team more options at receiver, while Harris and Wright provide some insurance at tight end.

4. New York Giants

WR Odell Beckham Jr., WR Sterling Shepard, TE Evan Engram, WR Cody Latimer, WR Roger Lewis, WR Russell Shepard, TE Rhett Ellison, TE Jerell Adams

This group’s heavily boosted by Beckham, of course, who’s scored 38 touchdowns since he came into the league, second only to Antonio Brown’s 44 in that stretch (though Beckham’s played in 14 fewer games). Assuming he’s healthy by the time the season starts, the Giants’ superstar looks poised for a monster campaign, and he won’t be alone: Sterling Shepard (59 catches, 731 yards, two touchdowns in 2017) is an underrated playmaker who can line up both inside and out, and Engram’s a mismatch creator over the middle who led the team with 64 catches and six touchdowns as a rookie. Add in third-year pro Lewis, Latimer, and a pair of role-playing tight ends in Ellison and Adams, and Eli Manning should have a wealth of options to throw to downfield.

3. Minnesota Vikings

WR Stefon Diggs, WR Adam Thielen, TE Kyle Rudolph, TE David Morgan, WR Laquon Treadwell, WR Kendall Wright

The Vikings essentially have two no. 1 receivers. Theilen’s posted back-to-back strong seasons for Minnesota and broke out as a legitimate star last year as he utilized crisp routes, blazing downfield speed, and dependable hands to reel in 91 passes for 1,276 yards and four touchdowns. On the other side, Diggs showed plenty of star traits, too—especially on contested passes—and despite fighting through groin, hip, and knee injuries, he collected 64 receptions for 849 yards and eight touchdowns. To complete the team’s triumvirate of pass-catchers, Rudolph put in a Pro Bowl performance while catching 57 passes and eight scores of his own.

Signed in free agency, Wright has a shot to emerge as a solid veteran no. 3 option, and the team’s still hoping that former first-rounder Treadwell can finally capitalize on his potential. It’s not surprising that Kirk Cousins chose the Vikings in free agency.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

WR Antonio Brown, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR James Washington, TE Jesse James, TE Vance McDonald, WR Justin Hunter, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, TE Xavier Grimble

Brown is just stupid good: Since breaking out for the Steelers in 2011, the diminutive playmaker has racked up an NFL-best 717 catches (96 more than the next closest player, Larry Fitzgerald), an NFL-best 9,743 yards (689 more than Julio Jones, who’s second), and 59 scores (fifth). He’s an astoundingly quick route-runner, is unnaturally strong at the catch point despite standing just 5-foot-10, 181 pounds, and has shown few signs of slowing down as he enters his age-30 season. Opposite Brown, Smith-Schuster has the potential to be a star: The USC product utilized a combination of size and speed to catch 58 passes for 917 yards and seven scores last year, quickly earning Ben Roethlisberger’s trust. That’s what rookie deep threat Washington will hope to do this year, too, and if he can, Pittsburgh’s passing game won’t suffer much from the loss of Martavis Bryant. Add in tight ends in James, McDonald, and Grimble, and the Steelers can do just about anything in their passing attack.

If we were to add running back Le’Veon Bell to this group (and it’d be easy enough to do so, considering Bell’s a hybrid player who lines up in the slot to run routes), Pittsburgh would be my clear no. 1. But to avoid too much ambiguity, I specified this list is just for receivers and tight ends only, which means Pittsburgh’s talent-packed receiving corps gets edged out by just one team.

1. Atlanta Falcons

WR Julio Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu, WR Calvin Ridley, TE Austin Hooper, TE Logan Paulsen, WR Justin Hardy, WR Marvin Hall, TE Eric Saubert

Julio Jones anchors this group as an unguardable, unbelievably explosive downfield playmaker. His 411 catches and 6,317 receiving yards over the past four seasons trails only Brown, and while one knock on his game might be the relative lack of touchdowns—he’s scored 23 times in that stretch, which ranks 21st—few players come equipped with the combination of size, speed, hands, and body control that Jones possesses. The eighth-year pro caught 88 passes for 1,444 yards and three scores last year, and there’s no reason to believe his run of consistently dominant play is anywhere close to ending.

What separates Atlanta from the pack, though, is the depth of talent behind their superstar leader. Sanu (126 catches, 1,356 yards, and nine touchdowns the past two seasons) is a physical and versatile no. 2. Rookie first-rounder Ridley should utilize his strong route-running skills and knack for picking up chunks of yards after the catch as the team’s third option early on. At tight end, Hooper (49 catches, 526 yards, three touchdowns) is an ascending talent with breakout potential, and he’s bolstered at that spot by veteran Paulsen and rookie fifth-rounder Saubert. Add in fourth-year receiver Hardy and the speedy Hall, and the Falcons have the deepest, most complete pass-catching corps in the league.