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New England needs a healthy Rob Gronkowski to jumpstart its passing game
Twenty-four players went over 1,000 yards receiving in the NFL last season, even though just five caught 100 or more passes. And this group doesn’t include the likes of Julio Jones, Roddy White, Percy Harvin or Rob Gronkowski, who each missed a significant amount of time because of injuries.
With offenses relying and more and more on the passing game, the number of 1,000-yard and 100-catch wide receivers and tight ends will only continue to grow. Subsequently, the pressure for these players to produce in each category will likewise increase.
With that in mind, here are 15 pass-catchers who need to make the most of their targets in 2014:
1. Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle paid handsomely (three draft picks and a six-year, $67 million contract) for Harvin last March and got a total of three games out of him because of a torn labrum that required hip surgery. That said, the reason the Seahawks willingly give up so much in the first place was evident in the Super Bowl when Harvin returned the second half kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown and led all rushers in the game with 45 yards on just two carries. The hope is that he can offer similar production over the course of an entire season, especially with last year’s No. 1 receiver, Golden Tate, now in Detroit.
2. Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs
Everyone knows Kansas City’s offense begins and pretty much ends with Jamaal Charles, but if the Chiefs want to have any semblance of a passing game they need more from Bowe. After catching 81 passes for 1,159 yards in 2011, Bowe’s numbers have declined to just 57 and 673 last season. The 2007 first-round pick is making too much money ($8.8 million base this year, $30 million more through 2017) for that type of production, especially on a team that’s limited on pass-catching options to begin with.
3. Mike Wallace, Miami Dolphins
Similar to Percy Harvin, Wallace also signed a lucrative contract as a free agent last offseason. Unlike Harvin, Wallace doesn’t have an injury to blame for his lack of production (12.7 ypc, just 5 TDs) in 2013. There’s still a bunch of money remaining on Wallace’s five-year, $60 million ($30 million guaranteed) pact, so he’s not going anywhere. Unfortunately, the Dolphins as a team may not either unless Wallace performs more like the No. 1 receiver he’s being paid to be.
4. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Outside of Julian Edelman, the Patriots’ passing game was very much hit-or-miss last season, and the majority of it was “miss.” This is where Gronkowski comes in, who is every bit the matchup nightmare that Jimmy Graham is, when he’s on the field. With just 18 games played over the last two seasons, it may be too much to expect Gronkowski to survive a full season, but there’s no denying his impact when he’s out there. In the last two years, Tom Brady has thrown 33 touchdowns compared to just eight interceptions when Gronk has been on the field. Brady’s 25 touchdown passes in 2013 (Gronk played just seven games), were his fewest in a full season (2008 doesn’t count) since ’06 (24).
5. DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins
Jackson led the Eagles with 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns last season. So why did Chip Kelly release his most productive target and eat more than $6 million in dead money in the process? Opinions vary on that, but it had to be a pretty good reason, considering the move allowed Jackson to join NFC East rival Washington. Fit and team chemistry are some of the words that have been tossed around in this regard, so it’s on Jackson to show that’s not the case, especially on a team that’s looking to bounce back with a new coaching staff in place.
6. Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts
This time last year, Nicks was looking to put together a strong season with free agency on the horizon. While he managed to stay relatively healthy, the production just wasn’t there, as Nicks didn’t score a single touchdown despite playing 15 games and catching 56 passes. Nicks signed with Indianapolis in March, but it’s a one-year deal so the 2009 first-round pick better treat this season as an audition or he may find himself in the same situation next year.
7. Danny Amendola, New England Patriots
As important as Rob Gronkowski is to the Patriots’ passing game, Amendola needs to live up to the contract he signed last offseason too. Once again injuries played a major role, limiting Amendola to just 12 games and only six starts. And outside of two 10-catch games, Amendola hauled in a total of 34 passes in his 10 other appearances and scored just two touchdowns. Amendola was signed with the intent of replacing Wes Welker. At this point, there are getting half of the production for basically the same cost (both earning $3 million in base salary this season).
8. Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams
St. Louis traded up to snag Austin with the eighth pick of the 2013 draft and the expectations were the all-purpose dynamo would be unleashed. This didn’t exactly transpire, however, as Austin failed to make an immediate impact and the Rams struggled with how to use him in their game plans. Progress was made as the season went on, including a two-touchdown (one receiving, one return) breakout against Indianapolis. The hope for this season is that both the player and the team will be on the same page. The Rams have a championship-caliber defense in place; it just needs the offense to do its part.
9. Eric Decker, New York Jets
Decker cashed in on two strong seasons in Denver to the tune of a five-year, $36 million contract with the Jets. Now, it’s just a matter of proving he’s worthy of being paid so well in his first season with his new team. A team that just so happens to be in the media capital of the world. Oh, there’s also no Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker or Julius Thomas to draw attention away from Decker. And do I really need to bring up his quarterback situation?
10. Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
Watkins is in many ways this year’s Tavon Austin. A dynamic, explosive, all-purpose threat that starred in college that a team traded up for in the first round to get. The Bills paid a pretty hefty price (first- and third-round picks in 2015) to move up four spots to land Watkins, so there’s little doubt they have high hopes for the former Clemson All-American. However, as was the case with Austin last season, there’s no guarantee that rookies pay immediate dividends. And having a young wide receiver rely on a young quarterback (and vice versa) only adds to the degree of difficulty.
11. Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
Benjamin’s not getting near the attention of Sammy Watkins, but that doesn’t change his situation in Carolina. The Panthers’ first-round pick (No. 28 overall), Benjamin has as much experience with the team as pretty much anyone else in the receiving corps – zero games. The top four wide receivers from last season are no longer on the roster, which means the defending NFC South champions are really hoping that Benjamin literally catches on sooner rather than later.
12. Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles
Maclin missed all of last season with a torn ACL, so there are plenty who are eager to see how well he fits in Chip Kelly’s offense. Besides coming back from a serious injury, however, Maclin also will be replacing the departed DeSean Jackson as a starter opposite Riley Cooper. So he needs to not only get rid of the rust pretty quickly, he also needs to grasp Kelly’s complex system. On top of that, Maclin’s signed for just one year, so in essence he’s playing for his next paycheck. No pressure, right?
13. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Houston’s first-round pick (27th overall) last year, Hopkins got off to a strong start as a rookie before struggling to find consistency. After catching 18 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown in his first three games, Hopkins posted just 34 receptions for 559 yards and another score the rest of the way. Included in those final 13 games were three one-catch efforts. Granted quarterback play was a big issue in 2013, but new head coach Bill O’Brien needs Hopkins to make his presence known this season if the Texans’ offense is to rebound. This is especially the case if All-Pro Andre Johnson maintains his stance about not wanting to be a part of the rebuilding effort under O’Brien.
14. Jared Cook, St. Louis Rams
After signing a big contract (five years, $35 million) with St. Louis last offseason, the expectation was that Cook would finally capitalize on the talent and potential he had teased everyone with his previous two seasons in Tennessee. While he did post a career-best 51 catches, the yardage (671) and touchdown (five) totals still leave something to be desired. While Tavon Austin certainly needs to take his game to a new level this fall, it’s not fair for him to shoulder all of the blame. Cook also needs to be accountable, especially since his quarterback is in the same boat.
15. Levine Toilolo, Atlanta Falcons
Toilolo’s inclusion on this list is not due to any fault of his own. Rather it’s because the second-year pro has the unenviable (and pretty much impossible) task of following a legend, future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. No one really knows what the Falcons have in Toilolo, the 2013 fourth-round pick from Stanford, but they do know what Matt Ryan had in Gonzalez. And that was a consistent, reliable target that averaged 82 receptions and seven touchdowns over his five seasons in Atlanta.
Other Names to Watch
Miles Austin, Cleveland Browns
Josh Gordon’s fate should be known fairly soon, but it’s safe to say he will miss a fair number of games, at minimum. Whether it’s “veteran” Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel at quarterback, they will need Austin or Nate Burleson or Andrew Hawkins to give defenses someone else to worry about besides tight end Jordan Cameron.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
There’s no denying the difference-maker Jones is for the Falcons’ offense. Matt Ryan really needs a healthy, explosive Jones if this team wants to get back to its winning ways, especially with Tony Gonzalez now retired.
Steve Smith, Baltimore Ravens
Carolina’s all-time leading receiver heads to the Ravens to provide a productive option at receiver behind Torrey Smith. Hopefully the bulk of the attention Steve Smith generates with his new team will be what takes place on, not off of, the field.
Golden Tate, Detroit Lions
Seattle’s No. 1 receiver the past two seasons doesn’t have to worry about filling that role in Detroit. Still, Calvin Johnson has yet to be paired with a suitable sidekick and the Lions need Tate to be just that, especially given how much he’s being paid (five years, $31 million, $13.25 of it guaranteed).
Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh Steelers
Antonio Brown is the No. 1 wide receiver and tight end Heath Miller is a favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger, but the Steelers need someone to replace Emmanuel Sanders. The hope is that Wheaton, the team’s third-round pick in 2013, can emerge after a hand injury basically wiped out his rookie season.
(DeSean Jackson photo courtesy of Washington Redskins' Web site, www.redskins.com)