Positional Battles: Wide Receiver

By Amol Nadkarni

There are many players going into camp and preseason battling for a significant wide receiver role. We discuss here.

Mike Wallace vs. Kamar Aiken vs. Breshad Perriman – The battle for who will line up opposite of Steve Smith might be one of the most intriguing in the league. Last season, Kamar Aiken broke out onto the scene totaling 75 catches for 955 yards and five touchdowns. Despite his breakout season, he seems to be flying under the radar in this battle and most expect 2015 first round pick Breshad Perriman to claim that spot after injuries derailed his rookie season. The former UCF Knight has excellent top end speed, suddenness, and size and should be seen as the most likely candidate to win the job. The “sleeper” is Mike Wallace, who was once a dominant wideout in Pittsburgh, but has since been plagued by inconsistent quarterback play. Wallace is a speed demon who can take the top off any defense and Joe Flacco throws arguably the best deep ball in the league. Wallace is the long shot, but could surprise.

Brandon LaFell vs. Tyler Boyd – Brandon LaFell will likely go into camp as the number two, as he proved during his time in New England (and to a lesser extent in Carolina) that he is a solid starter. However, he dealt with injuries, limiting him to just 37 catches for 515 yards and zero touchdowns in his last season in New England. Enter rookie Tyler Boyd. The former Pitt Panther is a precise route runner and has great hands who could be a good possession receiver in the league. Boyd could end up being a very good compliment to the explosiveness of A.J. Green.

Markus Wheaton vs. Sammie Coates – With the suspension of Martavis Bryant, the wideout position across from superstar Antonio Brown is up for grabs. Markus Wheaton will go into camp as the number two, as he finished 2015 with 44 receptions for 749 yards and five touchdowns. Solid numbers for a player who was not a starter. However, second year player Sammie Coates is an intriguing player. He is raw but he has the size, speed, and athleticism to be a dominant player. It all comes down to coaching with him, as he needs to learn how to refine his route running and better his hands. Keep an eye on his progress, as he could surpass Wheaton as the number two in Pittsburgh (at least until Bryant returns).

Jaelen Strong vs. Will Fuller – Jaelen Strong versus Will Fuller is an intriguing camp battle, as both players are exciting prospects. Strong did not put up eye-popping stats in his rookie season, finishing with just 14 receptions for 161 yards and three touchdowns, but he has the potential to be a physical possession receiver with the right coaching. Former Notre Dame Fighting Irishman Will Fuller was selected with the 21st pick in the first round of this year’s draft. This alone signals that he will likely be seen as the front runner for the wideout spot opposite DeAndre Hopkins. Fuller is a speedster but he does not have the strongest hands and that could cause him to start out at number three. Expect Strong to enter 2016 as the number two.

Albert Wilson vs. Chris Conley – Third and second year wide receivers Albert Wilson and Chris Conley will battle it out to see who gets to line up opposite Jeremy Maclin. Both receivers put up limited numbers in 2015, with Conley finishing with only 17 catches for 199 yards and one touchdown and Wilson pulling in 35 catches for 451 yards and two touchdowns. Based off the stat line, Wilson might enter camp as the number two but it is Conley who is the more promising player. Conley put up great numbers at the combine a year ago and he has all the physical traits to be a good wide out. However, it is his hands that remain a work in progress and he suffered in college and last season with drops. It is hard to say who will be the number two heading into 2016, but Conley should be able to make the leap with a year in the pros under his belt.

Travis Benjamin vs. Stevie Johnson – Both Stevie Johnson and Travis Benjamin have been starters in their careers, so this will be an interesting battle. Last season with the Browns, Benjamin finished the season with impressive numbers, catching 68 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns. That was with Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel throwing him the rock. Now he has Philip Rivers. On the flip side, in his first season in San Diego, Johnson only managed to hall in 45 catches for 497 yards and three touchdowns. There is a reason the Chargers brought in Benjamin and that was for him to be the number two alongside Keenan Allen. With his shifty route running, Johnson is better for the slot role anyway.

Victor Cruz vs. Sterling Shepard – The interesting aspect about the wide out battle in the Big Apple is that both of these wideouts are better suited to play in the slot. Of course, Cruz in the past has played on the outside, but at this point in his career the slot is an ideal place for him. Shepard is a bit undersized but he makes up for it with his terrific route quickness. He is a technician and although the slot might be a better role for him, he could move to the outside. If fully healthy, Cruz might get the slot role while Shepard will play on the outside. Either way, expect the Giants to roll out a lot of three wide receiver sets in 2016.

Nelson Agholor vs. Rueben Randle – Last season, many expected Nelson Agholor to hit the ground running as a rookie. That never happened, as he finished the season with just 23 catches for 283 yards and just one touchdown. He is still young and he might have felt the weight of expectation last season, but it says something when your team brings in a more established wide out (who has experience as a number two) for competition. Rueben Randle finished last season with 57 catches for 797 yards and eight touchdowns and he opted to sign a one year deal with the Eagles with the expectation that he would be a starter. Agholor has potential, but he will have to make a huge leap to overtake the more consistent Randle.

Josh Doctson vs. Pierre Garcon – Pierre Garcon had another solid season in the nation’s capital, pulling in 72 catches for 777 yards and six touchdowns. He is a strong possession receiver, who has served the burgundy and gold well for the past four seasons, but when the Redskins used their 2016 first round pick on TCU’s Josh Doctson, he instantly found himself in a battle for the number two spot. Docston was one of the most explosive wideouts in college football last season, as he excelled at going up and getting the ball at the high point. He has all the makings of a solid number two and he should push out Garcon for the spot by the start of the season.

Davante Adams vs. Jeff Janis – No receiver was more hyped up entering 2015 than Davante Adams. However, he failed to match the hype, totaling only 50 catches for 483 yards and just one touchdown. Despite this poor return, his main competitor for the number two role, Jeff Janis, only caught two balls for 79 yards. Neither of these wideouts instills much confidence, as they both have been on the team for more than three seasons but have yet to make their mark. The Packers might be better served to resign James Jones, who had a great season last year and is currently a free agent. However, if one had to be chosen, Janis is the better bet, as Adams just does not seem like someone who can match the expectations.

Charles Johnson vs. Laquon Treadwell – Charles Johnson was another one of those wideouts that was expected to excel in 2015. He didn’t, only catching nine balls for 127 yards and zero touchdowns. Enter former Ole Miss Rebel Laquon Treadwell, who was selected by the Vikings with the 23rd pick in the first round. Treadwell has terrific hands and will win most 50/50 balls. Furthermore he is a tremendous blocker, which only adds to his value. This really isn’t a competition. Treadwell will be the number two and could even surpass Stefon Diggs as the number one by season’s end.

Ted Ginn vs. Devin Funchess – Nine years into his NFL career, Ted Ginn Jr. had his best season, racking up 44 catches for 739 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was Carolina’s number one for most of 2015 due to the injury to Kelvin Benjamin, but with Benjamin set to return, Ginn will be the favorite to be the number two. The problem though is Ginn is way too inconsistent and his history shows that there is no guarantee that he can replicate that success in 2016. The more promising wideout is second year player Devin Funchess, who in limited action caught 31 balls for 473 yards and five touchdowns. The former tight end turned wide receiver can be a matchup nightmare and form a tall imposing tandem with Benjamin, similar to the Bears duo of Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall in 2013. Funchess has the ability to beat out Ginn Jr.

Willie Snead vs. Michael Thomas – Not many people had heard of Willie Snead entering the 2015 season. By the end of the season, the former Ball State product had entrenched himself at the number two for the Saints, catching 69 passes for 984 yards and three touchdowns. Despite Snead’s success, the Saints drafted Ohio State’s Michael Thomas in the second round. Thomas, who is the nephew of former All-Pro wide out Keyshawn Johnson, looks the part of a great wide receiver but he still needs to learn the nuances and intricacies of the position. Knowing that he will need some development, the Saints probably see him as a project with huge upside, so going into 2016, the more established Snead should line up opposite Brandin Cooks.

Michael Floyd vs. John Brown – Both Michael Floyd and John Brown had good seasons in 2015, as the Cardinals aerial attack flourished. Floyd finished the season with 52 catches for 849 yards and six touchdowns, while Brown racked up 65 catches for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns. Although Brown had statistically the better season, both Floyd and Brown will see plenty of the field next season. The Cardinals, under Bruce Arians, run a lot of three wide receiver sets, so the distinction between the number two and number three wideout is fairly irrelevant. Floyd will operate on the outside across from Fitzgerald because of his height advantage, while Brown will work more of the middle of the field, with medium to deep routes.

Kenny Britt vs. Brian Quick – The Rams don’t really have many options for rookie Jared Goff to throw to. Even their number one wideout Tavon Austin isn’t really a go-to receiver in the traditional sense. The player that lines up opposite of him will be either Kenny Britt, who caught 36 passes for 681 yards and three touchdowns or Brian Quick, who managed to only bring in ten passes for 102 yards and zero touchdowns. The Rams have one of the worst wideout corps in the league. Britt looks poised to be the starter opposite Austin based solely on the fact that he had exponentially better numbers in 2015 than Quick. The Rams will be a run first team and their passing attack will likely be one of the worst in the league come season’s end.

Jermaine Kearse vs. Tyler Lockett – Jermaine Kearse, who finished the 2015 season with 49 catches for 685 yards and five touchdowns, opted to resign with Seattle this offseason, in the hope that he could continue to play opposite of Doug Baldwin. That might not happen in 2016, as talented second year player Tyler Lockett showed glimpses of exciting playmaking ability last season. The Former Kansas State Wildcat caught 51 passes for 664 yards and six touchdowns. Kearse is a steady contributor but Lockett can evolve into a game changer and as a result he will likely go into the season as Baldwin’s partner across the field.

Bruce Ellington vs. Quinton Patton vs. DeAndre Smelter – The 49ers are a team with a lot of questions at the wideout position. Outside of Torrey Smith it is has hard to tell what they have. Both Ellington and Patton did not contribute significantly last season, with the former only managing to catch 13 passes for 153 yards and zero touchdowns, while the latter reeled in 30 passes for 394 yards and one touchdown. San Francisco saw the need to add more depth to the position and in the fourth round of last year’s draft they selected DeAndre Smelter out of Georgia Tech. Smelter is a big-bodied physical receiver (in the typical mold of Georgia Tech receivers) and he is a super athlete. He should compete right away for the number two spot and could be a great compliment to the speed of Smith on the other side.