Reggie Wayne, 35: Wayne’s World
Returning from knee injury to a team where his understudy, T.Y. Hilton, exploded in the playoffs with a 200-yard performance. Indy tried to force the ground game last season, however their strength clearly comes from Andrew Luck and his targets. Wayne is back, along with tight end Dwayne Allen, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. With Luck’s offensive coordinator from Stanford now calling the shots on the Colts, Wayne has looked good this summer as he is expected to be the chain-mover again on third downs. It helps that Allen is back, Hilton has arrived, and Luck can use his legs. He will probably lead the team in targets and receptions.
Steve Smith, 35: Not All About Steve
Moving on from Carolina, Smith joins Torrie Smith and Dennis Pitta as the top options for Joe Flacco to throw to. For years Smith carried the Panthers, as they lacked offensive talent and diversity, which attracted him double-coverage. A little faster than his prime but a polished route runner that’s hard to tackle. Torrie may be the #1 in Gary Kubiak’s offense, but rest assured that the veteran will take advantage of single coverage in Baltimore. He may not play at a Pro Bowl level anymore, but you can credit that to the deep receiver position rather than his decline. He should catch the second most passes on the Ravens, behind Torrie.
Andre Johnson, 33: Andre the Giant
The stud is a threat to eclipse 200 yards on ay given Sunday, let alone the century mark. Bill O’ Brien is an offensive guru from the Bill Bellichick tree, and the quarterback whisperer behind Matt Cassel’s 10-win season in the Patriots days. This is good news with starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who showed a knack for getting his best receivers involved: Stevie Johnson in Buffalo then Kendall Wright in Tennessee. O’ Brien was the man that took on the disastrous Penn St. situation and turned the page, his initial plans are to feature Johnson in a weak division to get the Texans back into the playoff picture. Johnson is still elite and has taken good care of his body, so when he does get nicked up he generally plays through it and still performs at a high level. Expect another Pro Bowl caliber campaign.
Anquan Boldin, 33: Bold & Beautiful
Boldin is coming off another 1,000-yard season. Vernon Davis is the speed threat over the middle, but he’s more so used as a safety valve than a featured tight end. Michael Crabtree has #1 receiver talent, whether it’s inconsistent health or play though, that keeps Boldin’s value under the radar. He runs beautiful routes that gain separation from faster defensive backs, with the physicality to take on safeties and linebackers across the middle. Even if Crabtree suits up for every game, don’t expect Boldin to go away by any means after earning Colin Kaepernick’s trust in just one season together. Odds are that he won’t reach another Pro Bowl, but I’d go as far to bet that he’ll lead the team in at least one receiving category (targets, catches, yards, touchdowns).
Wes Welker, 33: Wesley Sniped
Perhaps one concussion away from retirement, Welker has taken on a slightly different role from his days in New England. His former role is the one played by Julian Edelman, an intermediate route runner relied to reel in passes over the middle after finding the seam. Now with Peyton Manning, he’s running precise intermediate routes and is expected to use his nimble ability to get yards after the catch. Welker racked up the YAC with the Patriots too, but Denver actually featured him in the redzone. His role is carved out and respected, as he is one of 4 options and can stick to his strengths in the slot. He allocated over 800 yards last season, his production should be around that mark if he doesn’t literally, get knocked out of the league.
Roddy White, 32: Rowdy Roddy White
White has eased into his mentor role with Julio Jones as Atlanta’s #1 receiver. White can still play this game at a high level, he played all of last season through lingering injuries and didn’t reach 1,000 yards. His role won’t change much after Tony Gonzalez retired, because that void will be filled by Harry Douglas, the slot receiver that topped 1,000 yards a year ago in the absence of Jones. White won’t see double-coverages, and his route running expertise will still win battles against good cornerbacks. He should finish second on the team in most, if not all, receiving categories. He and Jones form a top-3 receiving tandem, and when you throw in Douglas, a top-3 trio of weapons in Matt Ryan’s arsenal. Ryan coming off a 4,500-yard season should tell you, they’re going to air it out and White is going to continue to be a big part of the offense.
Vincent Jackson, 31: Receiving Over the Influence
This guy has been a stud with several different quarterbacks, recently inexperienced. Now he gets a veteran in Josh McCown, a guy that outperformed Jay Cutler in limited action last season for the Bears. McCown wasn’t shy, he plugged right into the offense and fed the beast receiving duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. V.J. will still be in the hunt for a Pro Bowl spot at the end of the year, and it really helps that the Buccaneers drafted Mike Evans in the first round. Evans’ attributes are nearly identical to Jackson, and it will take a year or two before the torch is passed. Past his days of getting caught under the influence, we now see a leader that is a good influence for the rookie on the other side. V.J. is Tampa’s best offensive player that will lead the team in receiving.
Marquis Colston, 31: Constant Colston
Colston is the reliable target under the radar in New Orleans. Surrounded by playmakers, he has been the one constant through thick and thin. He’s never been a guy to burn past secondaries, but he made a name for himself by running spot-on routes and shedding the first cornerback’s tackle. He’s always put in a good position by mastermind Sean Payton, and has unconditional chemistry with Drew Brees after years around the block. Brandin Cooks will be the chess piece moved all over the field, Kenny Stills will stretch the field, and of course Jimmy Graham is the game’s premiere tight end. Colston has his role and he plays it well, well enough to finish second in at least one receiving category.
Larry Fitzgerald, 30: Giving You Fitz
This guy has been great for so long. Bruce Arians loves that he keeps his body in top-notch shape, is mentoring Michael Floyd, and is a threat to post 1,000 yards still. Carson Palmer is a gunslinger that will look to the veteran Fitzgerald, on key third downs as he gets kicked into the slot on 3-wide formations. Fitz kills the slot, has a nose for the seam, and the endzone. I think he passed the torch to Floyd last season, as Floyd led the team in receiving yards with 1,054. That doesn’t mean that Fitz is even close to done, he nearly joined the thousand-yard club with 954. He’s also grooming #3 receiver John Brown, someone that Arians will put on the outside so Fitz can roam the middle. He’ll lead the Cardinals in some receiving categories, probably not Pro Bowl caliber, but this forms a top-5 receiving tandem, and quietly top-10 receiving trio.
Brandon Marshall, 30: Marshall Law
Chicago has a top-2 duo in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Defenses can’t double-team both guys, unless they want Matt Forte to shred them in multiple ways. Marshall is the main man for Jay Cutler and the Bears, and coach Marc Trestman loves to pass. Marshall will probably lead the squad in targets, as well as some other receiving categories, and remain a Pro Bowl candidate. The emergence of Jeffery will ease some attention, but teams will live with Cutler’s hit or miss deep ball to Jeffery. What they won’t live with, is Marshall racking up the catches and the YAC, but there isn’t much anyone has done to stop it yet. He’s certainly showing his understudy the ropes after maturing from his Denver days, and he’s still holding the torch.
Greg Jennings, 30: Guess Who’s Back?
With several thousand-yard seasons under his belt, Jennings finally developed a rapport with a quarterback in Minnesota. He’s lined up wide with a few different signal callers under center, but things are pointing up with Matt Cassel and Norv Turner. Teams know about the playmaking threat that is Cordarrelle Patterson, and the gameplan is to put 8 in the box against Adrian Peterson. Sure, Kyle Rudolph will benefit like Cameron Jordan did for Cleveland last season. Jennings will also benefit as a possession receiver, better than any #2 receiver Turner had to call plays for in the Browns’ offense. Jennings quietly has a chance to re-enter the 1,000 yard club this season, although most consider that a stretch.
Miles Austin, 30: Born Again?
Speaking of second chances, Austin moves on from the Big D to the dog pound. Known for his two good seasons as a guy that would catch an intermediate pass, and shed a couple tackles for big gains. Whether he’s running for the veteran Brian Hoyer or rookie Johnny Manziel, Josh Gordon’s year-long suspension was upheld and Austin is the only receiver with a resume standing. The NFC North has physical defenses, but Joe Haden is the only elite corner and they’re on the same team. Austin will keep going up against Haden in practices, so his matchups on gamedays will be easier than his reps throughout each week. I’m a big fan of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who’s featured standout receivers Andre Johnson, Santana Moss, and Pierre Garcon in year’s past. Cleveland will throw the ball, and Austin will get his chance to also re-enter the 1,000-yard club.