The drought is upon us. We have reached the point in the year when the NFL news cycle grinds to a painfully dull trickle and we are left in the pitiable situation in which we wait excitedly for training camp. It will get so bad that we’ll long for a preseason game before it is all said and done.
So, in the interest of feeding my appetite for football, I decided to take a look at the skill positions around the AFC South heading into the 2021 NFL season. Today we’re going to be talking about the wide receiver position.
1.) Tennessee Titans
The Titans’ position on this list is evidence of what a difference one star player can make. Before the trade for Julio Jones, I might have ranked them 3rd. Jones is one of the best receivers in the NFL, and while he’s no spring chicken, there is little on-field evidence to suggest that he can’t play at a high level. The biggest question is whether he can do so for an entire season. Regardless, his addition makes this a completely different offense.
Fortunately for the Titans, Jones isn’t their only threat. A.J. Brown has established himself as a number one wide receiver, and lead the team in receiving yards in both of his first two seasons. With Jones opposite him, this could be an even better year for Brown.
With two receivers of this quality on the roster, what remains is to determine who will get the scraps. They brought in Josh Reynolds and Chester Rogers through free agency, and grabbed Dez Fitzpatrick in the 4th round to provide young talent. Reynolds and Rogers aren’t world beaters, but can certainly handle the load of a WR3 on the offense. The real question of this group is if Jones can stay healthy. If he can, this is a really solid group. If not? They can fall pretty far.
The biggest question on this list is which team belongs in second place. The homer in me would love to put the Colts here, but with a lot of unknowns, I think the logical choice is the Jaguars. Marvin Jones provides veteran leadership on a young Jaguars team looking to build a winning culture. He’s been a very solid WR2 over his career, and a touchdown machine, putting up 32 TDs over the past 4 seasons.
Laviska Shenault will look to expand on his solid rookie campaign with an expanded role in the 2021 season. One of my favorite receivers from the 2020 NFL Draft, Shenault looked like a guy who could grow into the part of a top wide receiver, and with a top QB prospect in Trevor Lawrence, we’ll get to see if he can make that jump. With second year growth, he could present a problem for defenses.
D.J. Chark rounds out the starting group and provides an element that the other two can’t in terms of size and speed. With an ability as a deep threat and the size and athleticism to go up and get the ball, Chark makes this receiver room very complete. If he can stay healthy, he could be the best of this group.
Additionally, they’ve got veteran disappointment Phillip Dorsett as a player who can round out the roster. He certainly isn’t a guy you’d want to hang your season on, but with real NFL experience, you could probably do worse at your fourth string wideout position, right?
The Colts wide receiver room is a really tricky one for a handful of reasons. The demise of T.Y. Hilton has been greatly exaggerated. He still did a lot of things really well last season, and runs one of the prettiest out routes you see. It clearly took some time for he and Philip Rivers to get on the same page, but once they did, it became clear that he could still play at a high level.
However, expecting more than a WR2 production from a guy who is undersized and will turn 32 this year is perhaps unrealistic. Hilton doesn’t have the speed he once did, and was never the player you sent to go up and get the ball. He is a tactician and excellent route runner. He’ll command attention, and should still be able to eat up corners who don’t take him seriously. The biggest question for Hilton is whether he can make it through a season in one piece. He has struggled over the last 3 seasons to stay healthy, gritting through tough injuries to contribute.
What will determine this group’s ceiling won’t be Hilton, but how well Michael Pittman Jr. develops in year two. Pittman finished 2020 very strongly, and showed signs of his potential. If that translates into a year two jump, the Colts could be in a very good spot. Pittman has size and after-the-catch ability in Pittman that Hilton has never had, and that they haven’t had in my memory. Maximizing that would be a huge lift for the offense.
The biggest wild card of the group is Parris Campbell. Perhaps no receiver has gotten a worse deal than Campbell has. Injuries have wrecked the guy’s first two season in the NFL, and one of the most exciting prospects the Colts have brought in during the Chris Ballard era has never gotten off the ground.
When healthy, Campbell has been electric. His speed and ability to make plays with the ball in his hands are evident. Unfortunately, those plays have been few and far between due to myriad injuries. If Campbell has a fully healthy 2021 season, he could round out a very good wide receiver room. Unfortunately, a lot of the success of this group is based on hope.
Perhaps the best thing the Colts have going for them is quality depth. Zach Pascal and Ashton Dulin can both contribute to the offense, and while it would be less than idea for either to have to fill the role of one of the above guys, it wouldn’t kill the team either.
Dezmon Patmon, Mike Strachan, and De’Michael Harris provide young depth as well, and while it seems likely that only Patmon will end up on the active roster, they aren’t completely void of talent in the wings.
4.) Houston Texans
Rounding out the bottom of this list are, once again, the Houston Texans. If you look at the Texans receiver room and only had a cursory knowledge of the recent NFL, you could be persuaded that it is pretty solid. Brandin Cooks is a quality top receiver who has succeeded wherever he’s gone. It may be worth asking, however, what has prompted three teams to move on from such a productive player.
Behind Cooks, the questions begin to arise. Randall Cobb has been reaping the benefit of his 2014 Pro Bowl season in terms of name recognition basically ever since it ended. He has been a solid but mostly average player since.
Chris Conley slots in as another mediocre player who would be excellent to have as a fourth or fifth string receiver, but who will end up spending time as a second or third stringer for the Texans. Conley’s best season was in 2019 with the Jags, when he was targeted a career high 90 times. At 6’3” 205lbs, he provides good size, but he’ll turn 29 in season, and the chance that he suddenly has a breakout season is pretty unlikely.
The Texans’ best hope at their WR2 spot is Keke Coutee. When healthy, Coutee is a very exciting player. He’s like the Texans’ version of Parris Campbell. A small and speedy player, Coutee just can’t stay on the field. He’s played just 23 games in his 3 NFL seasons. If he can stay healthy he’ll certainly lift this group, but with questions surrounding who will be delivering the ball, how much can he lift it?