While the term “hot seat” is typically associated with head coaches and their job security, they are not the only ones who feel the heat during an NFL season. Along those lines, the official “start” to the 2013 season is next week as training camps are set to open and the battle for roster spots will begin anew among the players.
As NFL offenses continue to evolve, more and more of an emphasis is being placed on the passing game. Consider that in 2008 only six quarterbacks passed for more than 4,000 yards and only three wide receivers posted 100 or more receptions. Last season, 11 quarterbacks eclipsed 4,000 yards passing while five receivers and one tight end all went over 100 catches.
So with more of a premium being placed on the passing game, which wide receivers and tight ends need to step up the most this season? Here are the 15 pass-catchers we think that need to make the most of their targets in 2013.
1. Danny Amendola, WR, New England Patriots
Amendola was already tasked with having to fill the big shoes of the departed Wes Welker, Tom Brady’s favorite target the past six seasons. His job has only gotten tougher, however, since Rob Gronkowski underwent back surgery and Aaron Hernandez got arrested and charged with murder, among other things.
The Patriots moved quickly to sign Amendola to a five-year, $31 million contract after Welker bolted for Denver, and it’s now on the former Ram to live up to it. For him to do that, however, the oft-injured wideout needs to stay on the field. Amendola has played in all 16 games just once in his four seasons. He missed all but one game in 2011 and five last season due to an assortment of injuries. His career bests of 85 catches, 689 yards and three touchdowns are also a far cry from the 112-1243-6 line Welker averaged in his six seasons in a Patriots uniform.
2. Percy Harvin, WR, Seattle Seahawks
Not only did Harvin get his request for a change of scenery, getting traded from Minnesota to Seattle, he also got a new six-year, $67 million contract extension from the Seahawks. Now there are no more excuses for the 25-year-old all-purpose threat, as he becomes the No. 1 wide receiver for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Harvin was off to a great start last season before suffering an ankle injury (which ironically happened when the Vikings were in Seattle) that ended his 2012 campaign after just nine games. Harvin needs to stay healthy and produce for his new team, meaning he can ill afford to be hampered by the migraine issues he’s dealt with in the past or, more importantly, become a headache for the Seahawks.
3. Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants
After posting back-to-back 70-catch, 1,000-yard seasons in 2010 and ’11, a lucrative, long-term contract seemed all but a given for Nicks. The 2009 first-round pick, however, broke his foot last May and also was hampered by a nagging knee injury throughout his 2012 campaign.
Not surprisingly, Nicks’ production (53-692-3 in 13 G) fell dramatically last season, making this one critical as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. The Giants have already given out one big contract to a wide receiver, as they signed Victor Cruz to a five-year, $43 million extension earlier this week. Nicks will have to stay healthy and get back to his 2011 form (76-1192-7) if he wants the opportunity to sign a similar type of deal, with the Giants or any other team for that matter.
4. Kenny Britt, WR, Tennessee Titans
Britt exploded out of the gates in 2011, leading the NFL with 14 catches for 271 yards (19.4 ypc) after the first two games. A torn ACL in the next game ended his season and everything has somewhat gone downhill from there. The 2009 first-round pick suffered a couple of setbacks in his return from knee surgery, resulting in additional operations, and he clearly wasn’t the same player last season. Britt caught just 45 passes for 589 yards (13.1 ypc) and four touchdowns in 14 games in 2012.
The talented wide receiver also has had his share of off-field issues, including multiple arrests and several other incidents that involved the police and resulted in him being suspended one game by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Britt is entering the final year of his rookie contract and the Titans have taken a wide receiver in either the first or second round of the past two drafts. If there’s any wide receiver in the NFL who needs to stay out of trouble and put up big numbers, it’s Britt.
5. Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers
In 2009, Davis earned a Pro Bowl invite after catching 78 passes for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns. His numbers have gone down every season since, dropping all the way to just 41 receptions for 548 yards and five touchdowns last season. In addition, Davis had nine games during the 2012 regular season in which he caught two or fewer passes.
The 49ers came up just short against the Ravens in last season’s Super Bowl and have every intention of making a return trip in 2013. To get there, Davis cannot disappear for long stretches like he did last season, especially with wide receiver Michael Crabtree already lost because of a torn Achilles tendon. Davis did end last season with back-to-back 100-yard games in the NFC Championship game and Super Bowl, so perhaps that’s a sign of things to come.
6. TE, New England Patriots
With Rob Gronkowski’s status for 2013 up in the air following June back surgery and Aaron Hernandez now incarcerated and no longer on the roster, the Patriots’ tight end situation is one gigantic question mark headed into training camp. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 106 receptions and 16 touchdowns last season, or nearly half of Tom Brady’s total (34) in 2012.
Gronkowski is still listed as No.1 on the depth chart on the team’s Web site, but there’s no guarantee as to when he will be ready to get back on the field. That leaves Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells, who combined for nine catches and 194 yards last seasons, as the next options with veteran Jake Ballard and undrafted free agents Brandon Ford and Nate Sudfeld also on the roster.
As has already been stated, tight end is an important component of New England’s offense. Whoever it is, someone needs to step up to fill the role that Hernandez did behind Gronkowki in recent seasons, if not carry the load until Gronkowski is back and 100 percent healthy. This is especially the case considering that Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead are no longer on the roster. Combine these three with Gronkowski and Hernandez and you have 84 percent of the catches, 82 percent of the yards and 85 percent of the touchdown catches the Patriots’ offense produced in 2012.
7. DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, WRs, Philadelphia Eagles
There’s already been a lot of talk about the type of offense Chip Kelly is going to run with the Eagles, but regardless of the design, the success of the scheme will largely come down to the players. Jackson and Maclin seem ideally suited for Kelly’s system, the question is how quickly will they adapt to it and will they be able to thrive in it?
Jackson hasn’t been the deadly all-purpose weapon he was his first three years in the NFL. His receiving yardage has declined in each of the past three seasons, as his 2012 campaign was cut short by a rib injury. Can he return to his explosive ways in 2013?
Maclin’s had his own injury issues, as he’s played all 16 games just once in his four seasons, but there’s much more at stake for him in 2013 compared to his teammate. While Jackson signed a five-year contract extension last March, Maclin is entering the final year of his rookie contract. So while Jackson and Maclin will both be playing in a new offense this fall, it’s Maclin who is playing for his next paycheck.
8. Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay Packers
Some thought the Packers would release Finley or at the very least restructure his contract during the offseason, but neither ended up happening. Finley earned a $3 million roster bonus in March and will play this season with no guarantees or assurances about his future in Green Bay. He’s set to make close to $4.5 million in salary this season and undoubtedly the Packers would love to get more than the 61 catches, 667 yards and two touchdowns they got from the athletic tight end in 2012.
Finley’s presence is even more important with Greg Jennings (see below) now in Minnesota. From a tight end perspective, it doesn’t get much better than catching passes from Aaron Rodgers. It’s now up to Finley to take advantage of this and prove to the Packers he’s a worthwhile, long-term investment.
9. Mike Wallace, WR, Miami Dolphins
Headed into this past offseason, Wallace was believed to be the No. 1 wide receiver on the free agent market and he parlayed that status into a five-year, $60 million deal with Miami. His new contract includes $30 million in guaranteed money, so now all that’s left for the soon-to-be 27-year-old is to play as well as he’s paid.
The 2009 third-round pick posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with the Steelers in 2010-11, but he managed just 836 yards receiving last season. He did catch eight touchdown passes, but the Dolphins, who finished 26th in the league in passing offense in 2012, are expecting more. Wallace was the biggest splash the team made in free agency and they are hoping that he can help second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill take that next step in his development as a passer.
10. Torrey Smith, WR, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens are the defending Super Bowl champions, but this is not the same team that beat San Francisco in New Orleans in February. With Anquan Boldin now with the 49ers, it’s up to Smith to become a consistent and reliable target for quarterback Joe Flacco.
This is an important season for the third-year wideout, as he’s been primarily a deep threat for the Ravens his first two seasons. If Smith wants take that next step and establish himself among the best receivers in the league, he needs to start by improving upon a career catch rate that sits at less than 50 percent. Even with all of the roster changes, the Ravens should be able to mount a spirited defense of their title, but only if Smith does his part in the passing game.
11. Justin Blackmon, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
It took Blackmon, the fifth overall pick of the 2012 draft, a little bit longer to get acclimated to the pro game, but there’s no disputing his athletic ability and immense upside. Look no further than a record-setting performance (14 rec., 236 yds) against Houston in Week 11 and four straight games with at least six receptions to finish last season.
Unfortunately, Blackmon will miss the first four games of this season due to a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. The uncertainty that is the Jaguars’ quarterback situation is already one factor that could potentially hinder his development, and now he won’t even be getting on the field until October. The sky is seemingly the limit for the talented Blackmon, but his introduction to the NFL has been anything but smooth sailing.
12. Greg Jennings, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Jennings left Green Bay as a free agent to sign with NFC North rival Minnesota for five years and $45 million. With Percy Harvin now in Seattle, Jennings immediately becomes the Vikings No. 1 option and they need him to play like one to boost the league’s second-worst passing offense and help third-year quarterback Christian Ponder develop as a passer.
The Vikings are also hoping that the eight-year veteran can mentor first-round pick Cordarelle Paterson and 2011 fourth-round selections Greg Childs and Jarius Wright. To do that, however, Jennings will need to be out on the field, which has been somewhat of a problem lately. He has missed 11 games in the last two seasons combined with different injuries. Jennings can’t help the offense or his young teammates if he’s spending all of his time in the training room or on the sidelines.
13. Jared Cook, TE, St. Louis Rams
After four disappointing seasons with the Titans, Cook signed with the Rams as a free agent to reunite with former head coach Jeff Fisher. Of course, a new five-year, $35 million contract with nearly $20 million in guaranteed money doesn’t hurt either. Cook, who has 4.49 speed, can line up anywhere and is capable of making big plays after the catch. The problem is he just hasn’t done it yet on a consistent basis. Will that change in 2013? The Rams certainly hope so.
14. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
Hopkins is a rookie, but there’s a reason the Texans took him with the 27th overall pick. They need him to step into the starting lineup immediately and flash the big-play ability (18 TD catches) he did with Clemson last fall. The Texans have one of the best running games in the league led by workhorse Arian Foster, a Pro Bowl quarterback in Matt Schaub, and established pass-catchers in All-Pro wide receiver Johnson and Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels. However, a team can never have enough weapons on offense, especially one that has its sights set squarely on getting to the Super Bowl.
15. A.J. Jenkins, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Jenkins was taken by the 49ers in the first round (30th overall) of the 2012 draft, but only played in three games as a rookie and didn’t catch a single pass. After in essence redshirting as a rookie, Jenkins needs to step up in 2013, especially with 2012 leading receiver Michael Crabtree already lost for the season because of an Achilles injury. San Francisco acquired veteran Anquan Boldin in the offseason, but he will turn 33 in October and will need help from his position mates. Jenkins needs to show his team and the rest of the NFL that there’s a reason he was drafted in the first round a little more than a year ago.