Every week until the season begins, I’ll be going through each position group in the NFC South, ranking them by team from fourth to first. Now that Julio Jones has moved on to Tennessee, it’s time to rank the most controversial position group in the NFC South: Wide Receivers. The loss of Jones, Emmanuel Sanders and Curtis Samuel have impacted the overall strength of the division slightly, eliminating three of the Top 10 target-getters in the division from a year ago.
Still, the group returns all four 1,000-yard receivers from the 2020 campaign, as well as Chris Godwin, who only missed the mark due to early season injuries. Antonio Brown will get a full year in the South after posting 483 yards and four touchdowns in eight games last season, while rookies Terrace Marshall and Jaelon Darden look to earn some playing time. The division should produce five-to-seven 1,000-yard receivers and a few Pro Bowlers if everyone stays healthy.
Wide Receivers – Bucs Lead The Way
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4. New Orleans Saints
Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Saints did shockingly little to address their lack of depth at wide receiver this offseason, especially surprising considering they lost tight end Jared Cook in free agency. Thomas will look to re-claim his spot as a Top 10 wide receiver in the league after an injury-riddled 2020 campaign, but after him it gets ugly.
Tre’Quan Smith is a solid depth option, but his fourth season will have to represent a big leap. Smith posted a line of 34-448-4 last year, his best NFL campaign. Callaway and Harris each posted 20 catches in 2020, but didn’t do much with them. There’s not much upside further down the depth chart, so the Saints inexperienced, but older wide receivers will need to play beyond what they’ve shown so far in their careers.
3. Atlanta Falcons
The loss of Jones can’t be understated. Even banged up in 2020, Jones was productive and extremely dangerous. He changed the way teams prepared to defend Atlanta. Without him in the lineup, the Falcons definitely become easier to game plan for.
Still, Ridley performed like a true No. 1 receiver last season, leading the division with over 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns on 90 catches. Gage also showed the ability to be a solid No. 2 receiver, growing in his releases and route-running while reeling in 72 catches for 786 yards and four scores.
After those two, Atlanta will need someone to step up. Blake and Zaccheaus both flashed in limited roles, and will likely compete for the No. 3 receiver spot. Sharpe has been productive in the past, but his lack of any standout traits limits his ceiling. Patterson is more of a returner/gadget player option, while Darby and Dortch are roster long shots at this point. It’s a good group in Atlanta, but with Jones it would have competed for the best room in the NFL.
2. Carolina Panthers
Quietly, the Panthers have put together one of the better wide receiver rooms in the league. Moore has put together back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons, showing the patented YAC ability that made him so dangerous in college. Anderson has been every bit as good as Carolina could have hoped when they acquired him late in free agency, exploding for 95 catches and over 1,000 yards a year ago. Anderson had definite chemistry with Darnold during their Jets tenure together, and now the Panthers will attempt to replicate that connection.
The Panthers lost Samuel in free agency, but didn’t stand pat like the Saints or Falcons, adding the underrated David Moore from Seattle. Carolina also drafted Marshall in Round 2, whose upside is through the roof if he can be developed. Sixth rounder Shi Smith had his fans in the draft as well, certainly providing great value as a day 3 pick. It’s an exciting corps with the ability to be productive up-and-down the lineup – if Darnold’s quarterbacking will oblige.
1. Tampa Bay Bucs
Bucs WRs Chris Godwin and Mike Evans – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Bucs have compiled one of the best wide receiver rooms in NFL history, with two future Hall of Famers in Evans and Brown and another in Godwin, who is an All-Pro. The group also complements each other wonderfully, as Evans dominates as a vertical threat, Brown can dominate short-intermediate with his routes and releases and Godwin can do it all.
Despite all this talent it was Miller who led the team in receiving yards at the midseason point, and it was Miller who made several of the biggest plays in Bucs history during the stretch run of the 2020 season. His big-play ability is critical for the Bucs, especially considering the chemistry between he and Brady. Johnson also impresses in a small sample size as a rookie, making one of the biggest catches of the year to convert a third down against the Saints in the playoffs. Darden will be relied upon mostly as a return man this season, but the Bucs are excited about his potential at wide receiver too.
It’s the best wide receiver room in the NFL and it should result in a monster statistical season for Tampa Bay’s passing offense this year.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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