If one thing has become clear in this age of social media, it’s this: everybody likes lists and rankings. For those who have followed me on Twitter or read my columns on TCIPF, you know that my personal inclination is to take lists for what they really are: a functional means by which to collate detailed and comprehensive material, and present it in an overly simplistic manner. You can’t argue that they are fun, and there’s no question they generate vigorous and energetic debate.
In that spirit, I have relented. I will rank my top five wide receivers entering the 2012 season. Again, and I know it’s become my mantra, please read my reasoning, and the substance behind my choices. As always, this is more a discussion of the players than a strict list.
Here my top five:
5. A.J. Green
4. Steve Smith
3. Larry Fitzgerald
2. Calvin Johnson
1. Andre Johnson
The first point to notice: the size of four of the top five receivers. Only Smith is shorter than 6-foot-3 and weighs less than 210 pounds. That speaks to the evolution of the wide receiver position in the NFL. Look at the majority of the first-round selections in the NFL draft the last number of years — A.J. Green, Michael Crabtree, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, Jonathan Baldwin, Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd. The big wide receiver is in demand. In 2011, the Falcons traded up 21 spots, in addition to surrendering numerous draft picks, to select Jones with the sixth overall pick. Jones is just shy of 6-foot-3 and comes in at 220 pounds. Size matters.
That leads to A.J. Green at No 5. He’s almost 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds. He does not look that big on film. He has elements of Randy Moss as a vertical receiver, with his long fluid stride, his excellent body control and leaping ability, and his soft hands. Green, much like Andre Johnson, moves like a smaller man. But he’s a smoother, more elegant athlete, a glider with deceptive separation and acceleration. His ease of movement belies his explosiveness. This year marks is his first real NFL offseason, and I would expect Green to improve significantly, particularly at the small details of the position, like beating press coverage. There’s no question Green has an elite skill set with his combination of size, movement and hands. So it’s no surprise that he’s already in the conversation regarding the league’s top wide receivers.
My inclusion of Steve Smith at No. 4 might surprise some, but I’ve studied him for a long time, and I always felt he had special attributes. There is no tougher wide receiver in the game; physicality and explosiveness define him. Smith might be short (he’s 5-foot-9) but he’s not small, and he plays with an edge that never relents. He has elements of finesse due to his dynamic quickness and short-area burst, and he’s strong and powerful as a result of his body type and his uncompromising desire. He’s always made tough catches in traffic. He’s elusive with the ball in his hands, with the run-after-catch ability of a punt returner, which he has been in his career. There might be no better route runner versus man coverage than Smith. He can run past corners vertically, and he can run away from them across the field. Vertical speed, lateral explosion, physical strength and mental toughness: you normally don’t see that combination of traits in one receiver. You could argue that not even the top three embody each of those characteristics in the all-inclusive way in which Smith does.
What always strikes me about Larry Fitzgerald is he’s much faster than people generally acknowledge. He’s the definition of the phrase, “he plays fast.” He caught a 73-yard touchdown early last season against the Redskins, and he ran away from DeAngelo Hall. I asked Steelers corner Ike Taylor about Fitzgerald in the spring, and the first thing he said was Fitzgerald’s speed is deceptive, that he plays like he runs a sub-4.4 40-yard dash.
Where Fitzgerald is truly special is his understanding of the subtle details of the position, the disciplines that separate merely talented receivers from becoming top receivers. Fitzgerald is a master of those nuances. He understands how to use pace, tempo and stride length with his vertical stem to set up off-coverage corners. He has a great feel for how different routes are run, and how alignments or splits impact how you run those routes. He’s physical off the ball versus press coverage. He disguises his routes very well. He’s adept at establishing inside position on in-breaking routes, and using his size and body position to shield defenders. There’s no one better at those finer points of receiving than Fitzgerald.
There are similarities between Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson. Both have outstanding ability to go up and highpoint contested balls, both have the flexibility to contort their bodies to make tough catches, and both track the deep ball very well. The difference would be that Calvin Johnson does it more with length, whereas Fitzgerald does it with power and strength. And the given that needs no further discussion: Fitzgerald has the best hands in the NFL.
I understand that many, if not most, would have Calvin Johnson at the top of the list. In 2011, he joined Randy Moss as only the second receiver in NFL history to gain 1,600 yards and score 16 touchdowns in a single season. While Calvin Johnson was accomplishing that, Andre Johnson spent more than half of last season on the sideline with a hamstring injury. Out of sight, out of mind. It was easy to forget how special Andre Johnson is, at the same time being reminded weekly of Calvin Johnson’s outstanding play.
I’m splitting hairs here, but here’s why I give a healthy Andre Johnson the slight edge over Calvin Johnson. Andre Johnson is more purely athletic and explosive. When you watch him on film, you see the quickness, lateral agility and short-area burst of a much smaller man. You forget that he’s 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds. He’s built like a linebacker. Talk to many receivers and defensive backs in the league, and they will tell you that his combination of size, speed and sheer athleticism is off the charts. They have never seen another receiver like him.
What you immediately notice on film is how explosive he is off the line of scrimmage, whether it’s against press or off coverage. He puts instant pressure on the defense. His ability to stop and start, change direction and get in and out of breaks with instant acceleration is extraordinary. His play speed is the best of any receiver in the NFL. He can blow the top off of any coverage.
I have felt that Andre Johnson has been the best receiver in the NFL for a number of years. Playing in Houston, for a team that only made the playoffs for the first time last season, has not enhanced his national recognition.
Calvin Johnson is a bigger man than Andre Johnson, and looks it on film. At 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds, he has unique size, which helps in a number of ways. First, it creates an unusually wide catching radius. As a corollary, you could make the argument that Calvin Johnson has better and more consistent hands than Andre Johnson. He snatches the ball with very strong and powerful hands. The second way in which Calvin Johnson’s size is a major factor is stride length. That’s what allows him to be such an imposing vertical threat. If he has free access off the line of scrimmage, he eats up ground incredibly quickly. Sometimes he looks like he has taken two steps, and he’s covered 15 yards. I remember that 73-yard touchdown he caught against the Bears on “Monday Night Football” last season. It came against Cover 2 defense, a coverage specifically designed to prevent deep passes over the top. Calvin Johnson exploded past safety Chris Harris on his corner/post route. There’s a vertically explosive element to his game that is not the result of a timed 40 speed, but rather size and stride.
Like Andre Johnson, who has been doing it for years, Calvin Johnson has now become an effective slot receiver. I saw that more last year than in previous years. What Calvin Johnson also has is great body control and flexibility. He can make difficult and contested catches, which also augments his deep ability. He can both outmaneuver and outreach defensive backs. As I said, the difference between Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson is microscopic. In the what-have-you-done-lately world in which we live, it’s easier to visually access Calvin Johnson’s greatness. It’s more recent and immediate.
One thing is certain in today’s NFL: it’s become more a game of pitch-and-catch than ever before, and that increasingly places a premium on the wide receiver position.