Over the next few days, we’ll be taking a look at the talent in the NFC West and seeing how the Rams match up. Today we look at the wide receivers and tight ends.
In a division that generally has relied more significantly on the run than the pass in the recent past, there aren’t exactly a whole lot of standout receivers and tight ends in the NFC West. However, there are a few key difference-makers who can definitely affect the outcome of a tough divisional matchup.
The wide receiver position may be the only one in the division where the Arizona Cardinals have a significant edge over every other team. The Cardinals led the division with 4002 passing yards in 2013, and that production was largely because of their starting receiving tandem of Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald. In his sophomore season last year, Floyd had a breakout season, and with a team-leading 1041 receiving yards became the first Arizona receiver to accumulate more yardage in a season than Fitzgerald since Anquan Boldin did so in 2006.
That’s not to say Fitzgerald had a bad year, though. With Floyd’s emergence as a big-play receiver, Fitzgerald was freed up to become more of a possession receiver, and he took full advantage, catching 82 passes for 954 yards and 10 touchdowns. There’s little question that Floyd and Fitzgerald are the best starting tandem of receivers in the division heading into 2014.
The Cardinals lost their third receiver, Andre Roberts, in free agency, but they believe they have a worthy replacement in third-round pick John Brown, a little-known prospect from Pittsburg State who most didn’t expect to go as high as he did. Though undersized, Brown has some quality breakaway speed and has reportedly been very impressive during OTAs. Veteran Ted Ginn will also provide coverage at the position.
As has been the practice for the past several years, the Cardinals figure to rely on a platoon of tight ends in 2014. Incumbent starter Rob Housler is back after having the best season of his career in 2013, when he caught 39 passes for 454 yards and caught his first career touchdown pass. Housler will face some competition going into this year, though. Former Minnesota Vikings tight end John Carlson has also joined the team, and he’ll look to provide production similar to the 32 catches for 344 yards that he had last season. The Cardinals also drafted Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas, a 6-foot-6, 270-pounder who can be effective as both a blocker and receiver and will be expected to contribute immediately after being selected in the second round.
Despite its uncertainty, there’s not much question that San Francisco’s receiving group is still the second-best in the division. Anquan Boldin is the leader of the group, having experienced a bounce-back season in 2013 with 85 catches for 1179 yards and seven touchdowns. However, Michael Crabtree will look to return to form after last season saw him miss all but five regular season games with a torn Achilles, and then underperform after he returned. If the former 1,000-yard receiver can be a significant contributor, he and Boldin could challenge Fitzgerald and Floyd as the league’s best receiving duo.
Another former 1,000-yard receiver, Buffalo Bills castoff Steve Johnson, will be the Niners’ third option and look to return to his previous levels of production. After three straight seasons of accumulating over 1,000 receiving yards, Johnson had a disappointing year in 2013 and caught only 52 of 100 balls thrown his way for 597 yards and three TDs. It’s possible that Johnson, who will be 28 years old this season, is past his prime, but the 49ers are taking a gamble on the belief that he still has something left in the tank.
Of course, San Francisco also has the best tight end in the division with Vernon Davis, who was third in the NFL with 13 receiving touchdowns and sixth among tight ends with 850 receiving yards despite catching only 52 passes. That ranked him eighth in the league in average yards per catch with 16.3.
Even though their passing game was disappointing in 2013, the St. Louis Rams seem to have the third-best receiving group in the division heading into this season. Tight end Jared Cook, who was underwhelming in his first year as a Ram but still racked up 671 yards and five touchdowns on 51 catches, will look to become more consistent in his second year as a Ram. He’ll certainly want to cut down on his drops, as his eight were the most among NFL tight ends in 2013.
The Rams are also hoping for some solid production from former Tennessee Titans first-rounder Kenny Britt, who they signed as a free agent this offseason. Britt has had some rather effective seasons, namely when he caught 42 passes for 775 yards and nine touchdowns over 12 games in 2010. But his production has dipped in the past several seasons, and the Rams will be hoping that he can avoid injuries and off-the-field issues, two things that have held him back in recent years.
Beyond him, St. Louis will also be hoping for further production from a young cast of receivers, including Chris Givens, Tavon Austin, and Austin Pettis, that was decently effective in 2013 but by no means elite. There’s a particular expectation that Austin, the former eighth-overall pick, will be more of a difference-maker in his second season after having an up-and-down season as a rookie. It’s also worth noting that 2012 second-rounder Brian Quick could make his way into the rotation and perhaps surpass Pettis on the depth chart.
While the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013, it’s hard to argue that they don’t have the worst receiving corps in the division. Their leading receiver, Golden Tate, left for Detroit as a free agent this offseason, and now Doug Baldwin is the only player left on their roster who exceeded the receiving yardage of Pettis, the Rams’ fourth-leading receiver in 2013. Seattle will hope for bounce-back seasons from Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, who were limited to a total of nine regular season games last year, but consistent health from that pair is by no means a certainty.
Baldwin, the former undrafted free agent, will be the cornerstone of the Seahawks’ passing attack after catching 50 balls for 778 yards and five touchdowns in 2013. Seattle is hoping that he’ll be complimented by Rice, Harvin, tight end Zach Miller, who had 33 catches for 387 yards and five TDs last year, and Jermaine Kearse, a solid depth receiver who accumulated 22 receptions for 346 yards in 2013. Two rookies, second-rounder Paul Richardson and fourth-rounder Kevin Norwood, will also aim to become part of the offense. With that said, Richardson is pretty raw and needs to develop his body and receiving skills before he’s ready to make a big impact, and there are questions about Norwood’s ability to translate his skills to the NFL, so don’t necessarily count on hearing either of their names too much in 2014.
While many call today’s NFL a “passing league”, it’s clear in the NFC West that running is still a very big part of things, and as Seattle displays, a team can be successful without having a dominant passing attack.