Earlier this week we broke down the quarterback and running back positions in the division and tried to get a sense of where everyone stands. Today, we take on the pass catchers. Let’s see how they look.
Ranking the wide receivers in this division is a little tough. None of these teams have absolutely outstanding receiver groups. There is definitely some potential for improvement, and a couple of stars as well.
The Texans take the top spot in the wide receiver rankings. DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best receivers in football, with a nearly unmatched ability to contort himself to make catches. His performance in 2017 was incredible, and that was without his star quarterback for half the season. Will Fuller as the number two only played in 10 games and was still able to pull in 7 touchdowns and average 15.1 yards per reception. Bruce Ellington and Braxton Miller work as suitable number three receivers, and their production likely goes up if Watson is healthy. This unit is the most complete in the division, and could even see rookies compete for that number 3 spot.
Let me preface this ranking by saying that putting the Colts receivers second in the division is less about how good the Colts can be and more about rest of the division’s weakness. The Colts do, however, have a top ten wide receiver in T.Y. Hilton. He and Luck have a strong connection, and I expect that to be on display this season. Behind Hilton are a lot of questions. Ryan Grant is a decent option in the two or three spot, but last year was the first year he had any kind of real production. How much he can contribute remains to be seen. Chester Rogers is another player with potential, but who ultimately has a lot to prove. Behind them are Deon Cain and Reece Fountain, two rookies who could have a significant impact on the passing game, but who are at this point, merely projections. Unless one of those rookies has a breakout year, the receiver group depends heavily on T.Y. being T.Y.
If not for Hilton, the Titans would have the number two spot. They don’t have a proven number one, although Corey Davis has a chance to prove he can be that this season. Rishard Matthews is a solid option as a number two receiver, but is right now what best passes for their number one. Tajae Sharpe is another wild card for this group. He lost his 2017 season with a foot injury, but had a promising rookie season and could come back in a big way in 2018.
The Jaguars bring up the rear in this contest. Without a true number one on the roster, they are in a similar position as the Titans. Marquise Lee and Keelan Cole are both solid players who contributed to the offense last year, and the addition of Donte Moncrief certainly won’t hurt them. Having watched Moncrief struggle when he doesn’t have a solid passer to work with makes me doubtful that he will make a significant leap with his new team. This team simply lacks an outright playmaker at the position, and with Blake Bortles throwing the ball, their ceiling in the passing game is pretty low.
When addressing the tight end position I should clarify that because we are taking a look at the skill positions, I am examining them through the lens of being a pass catcher. I won’t spend a lot of time analyzing how effective players are as blockers, although that is obviously an important part of what many of them bring to the table.
Just like my assessment of the running backs, I expect most of you will disagree with my putting the Colts at the top here. However, I think the Colts have an opportunity to have one of the better tight end groups in the league in 2018. Jack Doyle has established a great chemistry with Andrew Luck and that will be important while Luck gets his rhythm back. Doyle has had back to back seasons of solid production despite dreadful play calling and an injured quarterback. He isn’t the best tight end in the division, but he might be the most reliable.
Balancing him out is the guy who might be the most dangerous. Eric Ebron has struggled to live up to his role as a first round pick in the eyes of Lions fans. The stigma is that Ebron struggles with drops, although the numbers he achieved over the past three seasons don’t really reflect that as a major issue. Based on his numbers, had he been targeted at the rate that Delanie Walker is, he would have produced similar stats. Having a young and talented player like that paired with Doyle could prove to be a deadly combo.
That isn’t all though. Erik Swoope is still a mysterious possible contributor for the group as well. Swoope managed to put together a 297 yard season on just 22 targets in 2016 despite not seeing much of the field. If he can stay healthy, which is a big if, this is a trio that could present problems for a lot of defenses.
What the Titans lack at the number one wide receiver spot, they largely make up for in Delanie Walker, the best tight end in the AFC South. Since 2014, Walker hasn’t had less than 800 receiving yards. He got targeted 113 times on average over that span, and while he will be 34 when the season begins, expect him to continue playing a significant role on the Titan’s offense. Second year player Jonnu Smith will also be hoping to see his role expanded after he had just 30 targets that resulted in 157 yards and 2 touchdowns. Like the Colts, the Titans also suffered from poor play calling last season but with new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur coming out of Sean McVay’s system, expect that to change and to see these two get good production.
The Texans don’t have a proven tight end to speak of. The surprise retirement of C.J. Fiedorowicz left them scrambling to find a suitable replacement at the position without a lot of draft capital to do so. Stephen Anderson is entering his third season and saw a major uptick in his production from year one to year two, but he still scraped just 342 yards and a touchdown last season. He will have to step up to attempt to fill the hole left by Fiedorowicz, and the Texans also drafted a move tight end in Jordan Akins who they hope can contribute as a rookie. Not having a solid option at tight end is tough on young quarterbacks and I expect that Bill Obrien will try to get Akins involved and building chemistry with Watson early.
Tight end is not a focal point of the Jaguars offense, and we shouldn’t expect it to become so this season. They parted ways with long time tight end Marcedes Lewis in the offseason and brought in Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Niles Paul to fill the role. Neither guy has proven to be a major weapon for their prior teams, but will likely fit the role assigned them by the Jaguars just fine. This is primarily a run-first offense and we should expect that their tight ends will be prioritized as blockers more than pass catchers.
After examining all these teams from an offensive skill position perspective, I am more encouraged than ever about how competitive this Colts offense can be, at least in the division. Before anyone gets too carried away, keep in mind that the AFC South has grown in prominence due to their defense, so this is not an indicator that the Colts will be a top offense in the NFL in 2018. However, with some good breaks they can be a very good one.
Next I’ll be taking a look at how the defensive positions stack up. My guess prior to really diving in, is that the Colts will be significantly less competitive in this area. That makes it even more critical that they put forward a very competitive offense, and it seems they will be equipped to do so in the coming season.