Ash Thompson gives you his rankings of the NFC North’s Wide Receivers
Clearly, at this point in the offseason, there is some projection required in stacking the collective position groups of an entire division. Any of the players in the 15-20 range could easily not make their respective team if another player steps up. The NFL is unbelievably inconsistent at the bottom end of the roster from year to year, so the guy who put up 35 receptions last year when someone’s slot receiver tore an ACL could be on the outside looking in this year. The quarterback has to throw to someone.
You should take these rankings, and any rankings at this point in the offseason, with a grain of salt. This is my best guess regarding what players will be WR1-5 for each team on the NFC North, and a ranking of them in some nebulous “goodness level” across many very different player archetypes. There is no position within any play where you look at Marquise Goodwin and Sage Surratt, for example, and say: “that’s the right guy” about both. They almost don’t actually play the same position. But “WR” is the designation for both, so they’re on the list.
20. Sage Surratt, Lions
The Lions’ top-rated UDFA has an extremely clear path to making the team, possibly even getting on the field. There were many surprised reactions to Surratt going undrafted in the online draft community, but once that happened, the Lions were an obvious choice. There just are not a lot of decent players between Surratt and the roster. He will need to focus on his special teams acumen to claim a spot, but Surratt’s reputation as a worker is well established. Surratt is 6’3″ and 209 lbs, and he will be competing with corners and safeties for kick coverage roles to make the team. His 4.66 40 yard dash time will preclude him from a shot at return duties. As a footnote, it is interesting how different the testing numbers are between the players the Lions signed at wide receiver, and those that they drafted to fill roster spots. I will likely cover that in a VLOG on the YouTube channel at some point.
19. Bisi Johnson, Vikings
Johnson is a fringe roster player who has shown the ability to contribute on offense when called upon. His path to playing time is a little bit cloudy with Justin Jefferson offering a similar skill set, but at an elite level that Johnson can only dream of. Johnson has the skill set to play any receiver spot, but he has not been good enough to be the team’s first option at any of them. He has been a solid route runner and a high effort player as a Viking, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he takes a step to a higher spot on this list after the 2021 season.
18. Quintez Cephus, Lions
Cephus was one of the few receivers on the Lions roster who could “get freaking open,” to quote Dan Campbell, for the Lions in 2020. The problems showed up when the ball got there. Cephus never really meshed with former Lions QB Matthew Stafford, and seemed to have difficulty handling the high heat that Stafford delivered every ball with. The good news for Cephus came with the Jared Goff trade. Goff throws a very accurate and extremely catchable ball. Cephus could be competing with Surratt for a role on offense, and desperately needs to show the new coaching staff that he should stick around. The Lions could be looking at other team’s roster moves very closely if neither of those two players shows them something to like.
17. Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Vikings
It is not so much that Smith-Marsette is all that much better than Bisi Johnson, but he brings a second gear to the table which none of the players lower on this list have. That ability to take the top off of the defense and open up room underneath for other better players is a valuable trait for someone looking to grab one of the last roster spots. He doesn’t have true burner speed, just enough that someone does need to pay attention to him running a post on first down.
16. Chad Beebe, Vikings
Beebe is a slot-only receiver who offers that small but plucky, quicker-than-fast, ultra-high effort skillset that coaches just love. That skillset seldom ever translates into anything but a special teams ace, however, and Beebe has not shown any indication that he is going to step into the Vikings WR3 role by anything but default. He is a lethal combination of small and slow that relegates him to a career of being the guy who plays when there are no better options. That he may be the Vikings WR3 is more of an indictment on their roster construction than an endorsement of Beebe’s ability.
15. Marquise Goodwin, Bears
Goodwin was actually considered a very good player just a couple of seasons ago. The 49ers signed him to a three-year extension for decent WR 3 money in 2018. Unfortunately, Goodwin’s health has not held up. His star has fallen to the point where Dazz Newsome, a 2021 sixth-round pick, will be a legitimate contender to knock Goodwin off the roster. It is possible that a year off to recover, he opted out of 2020 with the Eagles, brings back some of Goodwin’s magic. Speedy and slight 30-year-old receivers with an injury history do not often find a happy ending in their later years, however.
14. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Lions
St. Brown is the first player on this list that I am 100% sure will make the roster of their team. He is only a rookie, but the ability to contribute early was one of St. Brown’s main selling features. It is not difficult to see a path to the Lions’ WR2 role for St. Brown as an untested rookie. That does not speak well of the Lions wide receiver room, but if you’re reading this I probably do not have to tell you that the Lions really needed more help than they found at that position. But with that aside, St. Brown brings a versatile skill set that will result in seeing a lot of snaps for Anthony Lynn specifically. He blocks extremely well for a college receiver. His work ethic is unquestionable, get ready to hear about his Mr. Universe father for a decade. and that blocking ability will mean early-down snaps. He is unlikely to leave the field for second or third down after playing first down.
13. Devin Funchess, Packers
Funchess serves as a cautionary tale for those who believe that converting a college tight end to wide receiver in the NFL is a good idea. He has been fine, a legitimate starter in the NFL for years, but he has never been as good as the opportunity in front of him made it appear he should be. He is a big target, and will battle Allen Lazard for snaps as the Packers WR4-5, but Funchess might be as high as the WR3 for the Vikings or Bears, and the WR 2 if he were in Detroit. After cuts, Funchess, who opted out of the 2020 season, may be available if the Lions were looking to buy someone like Surratt some time to develop with a veteran example to show him how to function in the role at the pro level.
12. Darnell Mooney, Bears
Darnell Mooney is the player on this list I think is most likely to make my rating look bad at the end of the 2021 season. As a rookie, the former fifth-round pick pulled in 61 receptions for 631 yards as the team’s designated deep threat. If he’d had a better QB he might have put up even bigger numbers. The main question is whether the Bears have good enough players to let Mooney work when other teams start focusing more on the talented pass catcher. If Allen Robinson goes down, Mooney is suddenly the defacto WR1 in Chicago, and he could put up some very good numbers for as long as he lasts. He’s a smaller player at 5’10 and 178lbs, which makes it unlikely that he would hold up under a much higher workload than he’s seen. Despite some nice deep routes, Mooney averaged just over 10 yards per catch and 6.2 yards per target. He is not the stereotype downfield receiver.
11. Allen Lazard, Packers
Lazard has been one of the three players that the Packers have been practically begging to grab the number two receiver spot across from Davante Adams. He has done enough with the opportunity to be a part of the offense, but not enough to rank higher on this list. If he gets the nod, it is because neither Marquez Valdes-Scantling nor Amari Rodgers stopped him. Lazard took a big step in year two of his career but failed to repeat that in year three, having hit a plateau in production. Lazard is a big receiver but lacks the speed or agility to get open consistently. He is likely to lose more snaps to rookie Amari Rodgers than Marquez Valdez-Scantling, as the latter holds the role as the Packers’ designated deep threat firmly in hand.
10. Amari Rodgers, Packers
Rodgers was one of the draft’s best slot receiver prospects. With Davante Adams and Valdes-Scantling on the outside, there will be plenty of room for Rodgers to work underneath. The Clemson rookie brings grit and toughness that make him likely to thrive as a blocker early, which would be the primary reason to consider the bigger Lazard over Rodgers on early downs. I was extremely high on Rodgers during this pre-draft process, and I think Packers fans will be very happy with their new WR 2.
9. Breshad Perriman, Lions
Breshad Perriman is a big and fast player who has only one hole in his game. It is an important hole, however, as it does not matter how open a player gets if he doesn’t catch the ball. Perriman would have been a terrible signing during the Matthew Stafford era, as stone-handed receivers were guaranteed to fail with the steady supply of rocket balls coming their way. Jared Goff, however, throws a very catchable ball. The Lions desperately need Perriman to synch with Goff in a way that he really has not been able to with any other QB. He is their default WR2, unless St. Brown is able to step into the role immediately. Perriman does stretch the field, and his greatest success in the NFL was with Tampa Bay. Current Lions receivers coach Antwaan Randle-El was on the staff that coaxed Perriman’s best season out of him. Perriman could see upwards of 100 targets for the Lions this season and seems likely to eclipse his career highs even if he does not live up to this rating just by default.
8. Anthony Miller, Bears
Miller is a solid player somewhat in the Golden Tate model. He is not tall, but he fights for the ball with tenacity. He is electric with the ball in his hands. No player was less well served by the Bears quarterback situation than Miller during the Mitchell Trubisky era in my opinion. His role has been complicated by the presence of Tarik Cohen on the roster as well, giving the team another top-tier option to achieve similar ends as Miller is capable of delivering in the short passing game. While I believe in Miller as a player, he is the player most directly threatened by the Marquise Goodwin signing. Should Goodwin return to form, it may be Miller on the outside looking in if the Bears go younger and cheaper at the bottom of their depth chart.
7. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Packers
Valdes-Scantling, like Lazard, has failed to truly step into the Packers number two role across from Adams. He has, however, carved out a niche as a fairly reliable deep threat for Aaron Rodgers. This is a pure height/weight/speed receiver that has worked his way up the Packers depth chart during his three years in the league by making big plays. He is likely to see a regression in 2021, with his 11.1 yards per target likely not sustainable. Like Perriman, Valdes-Stantling does struggle with making the easy catches at times, and that prevents him from being higher on this list.
6. Damiere Byrd, Bears
Byrd was an unheralded prospect that has worked his way into being a legitimate NFL starter. He is an undersized chain mover who was the only legitimate starter at receiver for the New England Patriots last year. Ideally, Byrd would be a team’s WR3, serving as the slot guy complementing more dangerous players on the outside, but last year he was the default WR 1 in New England. One thing Byrd brings to the table is legitimately terrifying speed for defenses. Byrd has always had eye-popping athleticism, and last year with the Patriots he finally delivered production to match his numbers. He is not a red zone threat, not many 5’9″ receivers are, but very few teams have a slot corner who can match Byrd’s speed or agility. The Bears have Byrd, Miller, and Goodwin all competing for the same offensive role.
5. Tyrell Williams, Lions
Williams turned one electric season with the Chargers into a big contract with the Raiders. The change in offensive philosophy and a series of injuries did not serve Williams well. He is a big, fast receiver who is at his best working vertical routes or long crossing routes that take advantage of his speed. Williams has the greatest level of potential volatility in the NFC North not including injury. He is the defacto number one receiver in Detroit, and he will have the opportunity to exceed even his one magical season with the Chargers. A new opportunity and a year to get healthy after the Raiders put Williams on IR for the 2020 season with a questionable injury, could result in Williams being part of a lot of winning fantasy football teams.
4. Adam Thielen, Vikings
Adam Thielen is a legitimate number one receiver in the NFL when he’s healthy. At 30 years old and the last couple of seasons having featured some nagging injuries, Thielen’s days as a great receiver may have drawn to a close. But I would take him over any other team in the North’s second option without reservation, and he would be the unquestioned number one target in Detroit. Thielen gives Kirk Cousins a reliable safety blanket on his worst days, and an eye-popping weapon that destroys worlds on his best days. While we may see more of the former than the latter in 2021, that still lands Thielen the number four spot in the north.
3. Justin Jefferson, Vikings
So, this is where the legitimately great receivers in the North start. Jefferson was my 2020 draft crush, and he exceeded even my lofty expectations. He set multiple NFL rookie records for the modern era. Jefferson meshed instantly with Kirk Cousins, giving teams facing the Vikings an impossible choice of whether they would get carved up by Jefferson or his counterpart across the formation, Adam Thielen. The Vikings may not have much behind their deadly duo, but as long as these two players are on the field with Dalvin Cook in the backfield, the Vikings offense is a problem. Jefferson made plays all over the field in 2020, whether Thielen was healthy or not. Teams who chose to focus on Thielen rather than Jefferson had a bad day in 2020.
2. Allen Robinson, Bears
Allen Robinson may end his career with hall of fame numbers despite having spent his career catching balls primarily from Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky. I don’t think I really need to go further into why Robinson is number two on this list. There has been no great quarterback elevating Robinson’s game, the offenses he has played on have been largely terrible. Robinson, however, has been spectacular regardless of the mediocrity surrounding him.
1. Davante Adams, Packers
Adams has developed into one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and he is undoubtedly the best wide receiver in the NFC North. The only knock on Adams is that he has missed games in every season of his NFL career. He has never missed many, but he has always missed at least one. Adams is coming off an 18 touchdown season as Aaron Rodgers’ primary target, and the only thing that might dethrone the king of the North at the wide receiver position is suddenly finding himself playing with Jordan Love as his quarterback.
So where does that leave the Lions?
As I said earlier, there is no surprise for Lions fans in the fact that the wide receiver room at Allan Park is not loaded with perennial all-pro players. The Lions have the worst wide receiver group in the division, lacking top-end talent or depth. But within the division there will likely be opportunities to add competent veterans, should the Lions choose to do so. It is more likely that the Lions will choose the path of developing young players over bringing in bottom-tier veteran depth. The Lions receivers are not good, and they’re not likely to change that between now and week one.