The wide receiver has one of the most glamorous roles in all of football, and the NFL seems more stocked with receiver talent than ever before. Nevertheless, the expanded role of the passing game and increasing diversity of skill sets required by evolving offenses has created unique demands on teams in the league.
Teams still need multiple kinds of receivers in order to attack every part of the football field, and rarely field a full corps with every capability. Leaving the specialist dynamos aside (it’s difficult to ask for a receiver that has Percy Harvin’s skill set, for example), there are roughly three categories of receivers that teams, regardless of system, want to employ.
While the traditional designations are useful, they are often incomplete. A “split end” for example is only defined by the fact that he lines up on the line of scrimmage, but generally has a wide variety of other responsibilities based on the system. Here, it will only be used to encompass those receivers who work as “punishment” for defenses who cheat—usually the deep threat, but in some offenses, the receiver most likely to split the defense horizontally with screens instead of vertically.
The flanker position can often produce deep threats (Julio Jones is a good example), but here will largely mean the possession receiver designed to move the chains and serve as a reliable outlet option for quarterbacks avoiding the sack.
Slot receivers come in all different molds, but functionally share the fact that they can take advantage of space and their expanded route tree. This can come from precision, speed or quickness, and models range from Victor Cruz to Wes Welker to Percy Harvin, all of whom have different strengths. At the core, however, they all can take advantage of the extra space afforded them.
Prototypes for split ends include Randy Moss, Bob Hayes, Calvin Johnson and Paul Warfield. Flankers include Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Cris Carter and Brandon Marshall. Slot receivers are a more recent development, but include Charlie Joiner, Az Hakim, Andre Rison and Wes Welker. Notably, players like Carter and Marshall could do damage from the slot as well.
Oakland Raiders (#1 Overall Need, #4 Slot, #3 SE, #3 FL)
The Oakland Raiders need a lot of players all over their roster, but receiver is one of the most glaring holes. Denarius Moore is the best receiver on the roster, but he’s a fine primary backup at best. They don’t have a viable slot threat between Brice Butler and Rod Streater and have the worst production in the league out of the slot. Their ability to create a deep threat is hampered by a limited corps, usually because they don’t have a full set of skills and do not have a reliable receiver to move the chains.
Teams That Need Multiple Starters
Carolina Panthers (#2 Overall Need, #3 Slot, #2 SE, #10 FL)
Steve Smith clearly isn’t what he was and needs to be replaced soon; he’s a better possession receiver than deep threat at this point, and so is LaFell (who is hitting free agency). Without a slot threat, the corps is already spread thin for talent and needs a few players to compete.
New York Jets (#3 Overall Need, #7 Slot, # 10 SE, #4 FL)
There’s hardly a redeeming quality among the receiver corps and Stephen Hill hasn’t progressed quickly enough, though he could eventually produce at SE. Santonio Holmes can as well (and isn’t as old as people think—he’s 29), but might want to fit in as a flanker instead of the multi-tool he was in 2010. David Nelson isn’t much of a possession receiver. Kerley might turn out better than his production in the slot, but for now will need to be upgraded.
Kansas City Chiefs (#4 Overall, #15 Slot, #4 SE, #5 FL)
With Alex Smith, Kansas City is set to have a functional pass game, but Dwayne Bowe hasn’t been getting it done. KC has had terrible slot production, and McCluster is hitting free agency. Donnie Avery is a surprising addition that may bear out, but the rest of the roster is wanting.
San Francisco 49ers (#6 Overall Need, #14 Slot, #1 SE, #15 FL)
Michael Crabtree can be a great player and he fits extremely well as a Michael Irvin-type possession player, but he doesn’t have a big base of talent around him. Their top split end (and slot receiver) has been Anquan Boldin. If they re-sign him, they’ll move down the needs list, but his age is still a concern. They don’t have a consistent deep threat to take advantage of Kaepernick’s arm and could use some options in the slot, as well as depth everywhere.
Washington Redskins (#7 Overall Need, #1 Slot, #5 SE, #28 FL)
Washington is absolutely set when it comes to possession receivers, but don’t have many playmakers despite their fantastic YAC. They provide mid-range options but not many big play options. Moss is old, while Hankerson, Robinson and Morgan don’t really produce from the slot. They’ll need players that can exploit matchups or go deep while Garcon moves the chains.
Baltimore Ravens (#7 Overall Need, #8 Slot, #20 SE, # 1 FL)
Torrey Smith is the only sure thing on the roster, and the rest is either poor or unknown. Marlon Brown has come on strong as a rookie who could become a threat in the slot, but without a consistent chain-mover, the Ravens passing-game will continue to be boom-bust.
Cleveland Browns (#12 Overall Need, #5 Slot, #32 SE, #7 FL)
With Davone Bess’ troubles and Greg Little’s massive failures, the Browns need more than Josh Gordon, who could make an argument as the league’s best receiver and with room to improve. As it is, Bess was much worse in Cleveland than he was in Miami, and the rocky quarterback situation only partially speaks to that. One reliable player would make the receiver position solid, two would virtually make quarterbacking automatic in Cleveland.
Starter at Split End
Minnesota Vikings (#19 Overall Need, #29 Slot, #6 SE, #16 FL)
Greg Jennings and Jarius Wright are both fantastic slot receivers and Cordarrelle Patterson plays a role similar to a slot player on the outside. Jennings can be a possession receiver, too. But unless Patterson develops skills at the catch point, they’ll always have a worry going deep in Turner’s new offense. If Greg Childs returns from injury or Joe Webb takes massive steps, they could fill in, but it’s a worry until then.
New York Giants (#16 Overall Need, #27 Slot, #7 SE, #14 FL)
If Hakeem Nicks returns to New York, things could be be well. But until then, they’ll need a split end who can stretch the field vertically or horizontally. In some ways, they can manufacture deep play from Victor Cruz, but they don’t have a presence on the outside. The question mark is Reuben Randle, who has enough skill to either fulfill the split end role or the flanker role, but he won’t carry the offense and they’ll need another player to fill in.
Starter at Flanker
Jacksonville Jaguars (#8 Overall Need, #18 Slot, #11 SE, #6 FL)
The Jaguars are much better off at receiver than many think. Cecil Shorts is underrated at split end, while Ace Sanders can develop into much more than he was drafted for. But behind them is a drought of talent, and no one on the outside that ever provides consistent offense. Mike Brown and Kerry Taylor represent the roster of castoffs, and Denard Robinson is a massive unknown.
Tennessee Titans (#14 Overall Need, #31 Slot, #13 SE, #2 FL)
Kendall Wright is massively underrated and Justin Hunter has real potential, but Kenny Britt won’t stay and they don’t have an option that screams “reliability.” They’ll need to grab first downs and don’t have an option on their roster great at doing that. Nate Washington is a veteran who can go deep, but catches no better than the average receiver.
St. Louis Rams (#18 Overall Need, #28 Slot, #15 SE, #7 FL)
They may have solved their slot needs with Austin and Bailey, but the Rams haven’t really grabbed a flanker worth banking on. Brian Quick and Chris Givens can be impressive at split end, but no one can be said to consistently advance the ball, even though Givens is among league leaders in first downs per reception because of his massive drop rate. They might have to hope on a free agent or on Austin Pettis’ improvement if they can’t get one in the draft.
Starter In the Slot
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (#9 Overall Need, #2 Slot, #25 SE, #11 FL)
Vincent Jackson and Michael Williams make a phenomenal combination at split end and one of them could probably be repurposed into a possession receiver without too much trouble, but it is a concern. A bigger concern is that while Jackson is great in the slot, he’s better outside and there’s no one to replace him (Underwood is more of a deep threat as it is) to field a full corps. Their slot production has been abysmal and they’ll need to fix that to get a passing game going.
Miami Dolphins (#10 Overall Need, #9 Slot, #14 SE, #20 FL)
Miami’s receiving corps leads off with Brian Hartline and Michael Wallace, but trails off after that. While Hartline continues to be a solid player (but not much more), Wallace has been disappointing, if misused. Wallace can redeem himself, but they don’t have an answer in the slot. Rishard Matthews and Brandon Gibson won’t be enough and there’s nobody behind the top two receivers.
Houston Texans (#11 Overall Need, #6 Slot, #19 SE, #19 FL)
It looks like DeAndre Hopkins was everything the Texans expected him to be and he can moonlight as a deep threat while he continues to move the chains. Andre Johnson is advancing in age, but remains a top-tier receiver. They’ll need to back up Hopkins, but the priority remains a space player, where journeyman Devier Posey won’t make the cut and Keshawn Martin has been abysmal.
Arizona Cardinals (#17 Overall Need, #10 Slot, #22 SE, #18 FL)
More is made of Fitzgerald’s age than is warranted, but he can still produce at a high level for a few years yet, and Michael Floyd could turn into something special—if not, he’ll at least be good. But Andre Roberts will reportedly test the market and that means they don’t have a viable slot option. In addition, they’ll want to find some players beneath the starters.
Detroit Lions (#22 Overall Need, #12 Slot, #31 SE, #12 FL)
The common refrain is that the Lions have the best receiver in the game, but no one around him—but Nate Burleson’s recovery gives them an excellent option for a possession receiver given his catch rate and nose for the marker. Broyles can back him up and may provide a good slot option. Broyles was forced outside this year, and it remains to be seen if he can be a reliable slot starter like he flashed in 2012. The biggest issue on the corps is age, but they could add bodies.
Pittsburgh Steelers (#23 Overall Need, #12 Slot, #21 SE, #25 FL)
Antonio Brown somehow manages to elude national recognition for another year, but he and Emmanuel Sanders have been excellent for the Steelers. Markus Wheaton could eventually replace Michael Wallace’s production, but the greater need is a space player, which Jerricho Cotchery (who’s entering the market) really can’t be at this age.
Chicago Bears (#24 Overall Need, #11 Slot, #23 SE, #30 FL)
Both Jeffrey and Marshall can play all three positions, but that leaves one bare. They’re better as possession receivers, but can play the split end with quite a bit of effectiveness. Marshall dominates the slot, but is better left outside, which means the Bears need to grab a playmaker in space. With Hester focusing on returning fulltime and hitting free agency and Bennett’s underwhelming play, there’s ample room for another player.
Buffalo Bills (#12 Overall Need, #16 Slot, #12 SE, #17 FL)
Buffalo only ranks this highly because there are massive unknowns. Stevie Johnson is a good slot player but has been forced to play every role. Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin both look good, but there needs to be a plan in case the rookies don’t work out, and T.J. Graham really isn’t the answer. This isn’t to say they aren’t set with their top receivers, because they certainly are (for now).
San Diego Chargers (#27 Overall Need, #20 Slot, #17 SE, #32 FL)
Keenan Allen is all that he’s cracked up to be and more, and between Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown, they have options in the slot and outside. Behind them are problems in free agency and talent, but San Diego definitely can matriculate down the field if they need to. Malcom Floyd coming back from injury should make them multicapable again, but they need to remain flexible.
Dallas Cowboys (#25 Overall Need, #17 Slot, #28 SE, #21 FL)
Scott Linehan may change things, but for now Dez Bryant remains a premier option to command attention, while Terrance Williams has had a quietly strong rookie year and can perform many of the same functions as Bryant, though not as well. Dwayne Harris can turn from one of the best returners in the NFL to a good slot player and if not, Cole Beasley can carry the load. But they’re not sure bets and there needs to be assurance.
Denver Broncos (#29 Overall Need, #22 Slot, #29 SE, #22 FL)
The biggest issue for the receivers for Denver will be Eric Decker’s free agency, and they will make him a high priority. Depth will be very important even if they re-sign Decker because the talent behind them is poor, but the front-end ability seems second to none.
Philadelphia Eagles (#31 Overall Need, #30 Slot, #26 SE, #23 FL)
The Eagles are expected to re-sign Jeremy Maclin and in doing so will be one of the most complete receiving teams in the league. They might consider signing Riley Cooper, too, and that would solidify that corps’ position as one of the best. With a great starting corps that can do it all, they also have excellent depth that can develop into game-breaking talent if things go their way.
Green Bay Packers (#32 Overall Need, #32 Slot, #27 SE, #31 FL)
Virtually plug-and-play, the Packers corps never seems to miss a beat. Jordy Nelson is an excellent multitool that can threaten deep or in the slot, and even moves the chains while the rest of the corps can fill in and make plays wherever Jordy is not. Nelson doesn’t need to be great at every role, but he is. That makes Randall Cobb’s ability to play from the slot even more frightening. James Jones will test the market but Jarrett Boykin or Chris Harper are well equipped to handle his job and the Packers are grooming a host of receivers regardless.
Seattle Seahawks (#15 Overall Need, #25 Slot, #9 SE, #13 FL)
Seattle arrives at this rank not so much because of the strength of their corps, but the fact that Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate are hitting free agency while Sidney Rice might be cut. Rice’s contract will probably be resolved at the same time one of those two are signed, but it’s not pretty at the moment. Harvin likely won’t suffer from the same health problem he had this year, and should be a top-tier slot player. Kearse can play both as a flanker and split end, and re-signing Tate or keeping Rice will give them another outside receiver. But no one outside of Harvin dazzles unless Tate is re-signed and they need a better rotation.
New England Patriots (#21 Overall Need, #23 Slot, #8 SE, #24 FL)
It’s amazing what the Patriots have scrounged together, and it looks like they have answers in the slot and to produce first downs with Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, respectively. Edelman is hitting FA, but it looks like he’ll re-sign. If he doesn’t the Patriots move up the needs chart. Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson both look good but remain unknown, so it would be wise to invest there if the Patriots want to continue dominating the passing lanes.
Indianapolis Colts (#20 Overall Need, #26 Slot, #18 SE, #9 FL)
Long have fans lamented Andrew Luck’s surrounding talent, but T.Y. Hilton has proved to be an incredibly underrated talent in the slot. Reggie Wayne is in his final years but should have a year or two left despite injury. As such, they should prioritize replacing him. Da’Rick Rogers has so far proven his detractors wrong and has been nothing short of amazing all things considered. Both he and Hilton can cover the split end and slot roles, but both are better inside. Still, they need to groom a replacement for the possession capability of Wayne.
New Orleans Saints (#26 Overall Need, #24 Slot, #16 SE, #27 FL)
Marques Colston is a superlative talent outside and in, but Lance Moore is disappointing. Kenny Stills provides a surprising deep threat. Nick Toon could turn into something good, but for the most part, they need to find a way to put Colston on the field with two other threats. They’ve cobbled together a good alternative, but one solid player at either flanker or split end will complete things.
Atlanta Falcons (#28 Overall Need, #19 Slot, #24 SE, #29 FL)
The Falcons have an amazing duo of receivers, but don’t have a talented third receiver to complement them, although Harry Davis is nothing if not functional. It’s not important given their other problems, but Atlanta would be devilish to stop if they had a space player like Harvin or Welker manning the slot. They might want to groom some talent there for the future.
Cincinnati Bengals (#30 Overall Need, #21 Slot, #30 SE, #26 FL)
If Marvin Jones continues his massive push into relevance, the Bengals will be far better off than people realize—Mohamed Sanu can control the slot and A.J. Green remains one of the best. It’s a starting three that can perform nearly any function, though could stand to upgrade in the slot. Andrew Hawkins is exciting but not consistent enough to take over Sanu’s spot and Green could use backup as well.