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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Which NFL Team Has The Best Weapons In Football?

This list is designed to see which team has the best set of receivers- wide outs, pass catching tight ends, and pass catching running backs. This is somewhat of a difficult task because pass catchers are made better or worse by the system that they are in and how good (or bad) their quarterback is. But as smart NFL fans we can distinguish between the talent and skill of a "weapon" versus the overall numbers they are producing. In 2010, I made the argument that Larry Fitzgerald deserved to be a Pro Bowler despite the fact that he was producing average numbers. Larry Fitzgerald was doing everything in his power that he could (running the correct route, catching the catch-able balls that went his way, etc) but there's nothing even a great receiver like Fitzgerald could do for awful, awful quarterback play. I will attempt to use that same logic here today.

For the purpose of this list I am asking myself which set of pass catchers would the Bears want. The reason I choose the Bears is because 1) I'm biased and 2) The Bears have an average QB, an average offensive scheme, and an average offensive line. My biggest defense of Cutler is that historically he has had a horrible team around him which in turn made him look bad. But if he had a great team around him he would look better. Maybe the Bears aren't the best example but the point I am asking myself is which set of weapons will make an average team better.

Another factor that went into this list was depth. Not only do I care about whether a team has an elite receiver on it but I ask myself how many of them. Teams like the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, and Arizona Cardinals have an elite pass catcher on it, but I don't think any quarterback in the league would look at those receivers as a whole and proclaim that they want their full set of receivers.

I am also assuming that each receiver is in full health relative to their age and career.

So with all those disclaimers and set up, let's begin!....

The tenth spot for me was tricky. In my first draft of this list I had the Cincinnati Bengals here. But then I looked at it closely and I couldn't in my right mind justify any list that included both "Andrew Hawkins" and "Jermaine Gresham" on it. In my second draft I was debating between the San Francisco  49ers and the Houston Texans. I like the Texans but Andre Johnson isn't the same guy that he was two years ago and the Texans have never been able to find a second receiver to play opposite of Johnson. I like the depth of the 49ers but their best wide receiver (Michael Crabtree) would probably be the least talented guy on this list. Therefore I finally chose....

10) Baltimore Ravens

Weapons: Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Dennis Pitta, Ray Rice

NOTES: My hesitation to initially even consider the Ravens came from the fact that I didn't believe Torrey Smith was an elite receiver. But then I looked up his numbers. Smith ranks 6th in the NFL among wide receivers in DYAR (total value) and 7th in DVOA (value per play) this year according to Football Outsiders and 13th in WPA and 12th in EPA this year according to Advanced NFL Stats. What does this all mean? That Torrey Smith has emerged as an elite wide out. What's even more impressive is that I don't think his QB is very good... Anquan Boldin is a solid #2 receiver and while not the same guy that he was in his Arizona days, he is still very capable... While Dennis Pitta may have fallen recently for fantasy football, the guy has always been an average to above average pass catching tight end. I think his biggest problem is his team's refusal to pass to him... Ray Rice is one of the best pass catching running backs in the league despite the awful year he's having pass catching in 2012.

9) Denver Broncos

Weapons: Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Joel Dressen, Jacob Tamme

NOTES: Demaryius Thomas is a first round draft pick and is 6'3" 229 lbs. This guys is fast and big and is a great deep threat. Eric Decker, despite being a whitey, is 6'3" 218 lbs and is fast and a pretty darn good route runner. Scouts across the league say that Thomas and Decker are the best athletes Peyton Manning has ever played with, and the dude has played with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. These Denver guys are beasts... Joel Dressen has always been a sneaky good TE in Houston and now he's a sneaky good TE in Denver. The guys goes out and does whatever is asked of him... The jury is still out on Tamme but whenever he's gotten a shot (granted, it's always been with Peyton Manning) he's done pretty well with it.

8) New Orleans Saints

Weapons: Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson

NOTES: Jimmy Graham is either the best or second best tight end in the league next to Rob Gronkowski. Playing basketball most of his life, Graham is just an excellent athlete. The guy is also 6'7" and 265 lbs. He's a physical beast... Sproles is arguably the best pass catching running back in the league (although I personally would argue that it's Matt Forte, but I'm also biased). Last year Sproles finished with 86 receptions- which was good for 5th best in the league... Marques Colston is not an elite wide out and did not come into the league with any pedigree (he was a 7th round draft pick) but he has emerged as a damn good wide receiver and the combination of him PLUS Lance Moore (who surprisingly can do it all) PLUS Devery Henderson (a darn good deep threat) and you've got yourself one helluva receiving corps. The only reason the Saints aren't higher is because they play with an elite QB and in the best system ever and I think that inflates their true value.

7) Dallas Cowboys

Weapons: Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin

NOTES: Jason Witten might have the best hands out of any tight end currently playing the game and in my mind is a Hall Of Fame tight end who's still playing at an elite level... Dez Bryant and Miles Austin taken together SHOULD make the Cowboys a top five (or even three) dynamic duo but both have shown their weaknesses in the past few years. Austin has missed some easy and clutch catches over the years (most notably in 2011 against the Giants where he quote "lost the ball in the lights" and missed a sure fire touchdown which would have eliminated the Giants from playoff contention and made Dallas the winner of the NFC East) and Dez Bryant still has a lot to learn when it comes to basic route running (see: his Monday Night performance in Week 4 versus the Bears). Don't get me wrong, both have great potential and a super high ceilings and both have performed very well over the past few years but their obvious weaknesses drops Dallas only to 7.

6) Pittsburgh Steelers

Weapons: Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmnuel Sanders, Heath Miller

NOTES: Mike Wallace might be my favorite non-Bears receiver in football right now. In 2010 he lead all receivers in both DVOA (value per play) and DYAR  (total value) and in 2011 he was top ten in both. While Mike Wallace was on pace to finish top 2 in DYAR and DVOA again in 2011, the emergence and greatness of Antonio Brown "ruined" Wallace's value. Both Wallace and Brown can stretch the field or only go out five yards- which is an amazing skill to have as a wide out and to have two players who can do that is incredible... Emmanuel Sanders is a fine third receiver and Heath Miller is a fine tight end and both are decent but middle-of-the-pack pass catchers but combined with Wallace and Brown make the Pittsburgh Steelers #6 on this list.

5) New York Giants 

Weapons: Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden, Martellus Bennett

NOTES: Last year Victor Cruz was the 3rd best receiver in terms of DYAR (total value) and the 6th best in terms of DVOA (value per play). This year Cruz is 11th in DYAR... Hakeem Nicks would be top 15 in both DYAR and DVOA if he could just stay healthy. In 2010, in Nicks' breakout and "full" healthy season he was 6th in DYAR and 13th in DVOA. Nicks' talent and skill from what he showed in 2010 has translated into his 2011 and 2012 season but his health has not... Luckily, the Giants have a talented crop with Domenik Hixon and Ramses Barden to fill in when Nicks isn't playing... Bennett was always a pretty darn good passing tight end but he played most of his career behind Jason Witten so he never really got the opportunity. In 2012, when he became the full time tight end he has proven himself to be very good. He ranks 11th right now in terms of DYAR among tight ends.

4) Philadelphia Eagles

Weapons: DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy, Brent Celek

NOTES: I had a discussion with a friend of mine about this list. He thought the Giants and Eagles should be flipped- which is a fair argument. But then I asked him, "Which speedy guy would you rather have: Victor Cruz or DeSean Jackson?" Without any hesitation he said, "DeSean Jackson". As great and amazing as Victor Cruz has been within a year and a half (and he has) I would also choose Jackson. I think Jackson and Jeremy Maclin is an elite, top tiered dynamic wide out duo who have mainly be hindered by the terribleness that is Andy Reid and Michael Vick (granted Jackson's numbers have also been hindered by his own apathy which in turn affects Maclin). Even if you agree that Nicks + Cruz is better than Jackson + Maclin, I think LeSean McCoy and Brent Celek tip the scales in favor of Philly.

3) Green Bay Packers

Weapons: Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jermichael Finley

NOTES: A fair criticism of this selection is that these receivers are made infinitely better by Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy's amazing spread offense but I think the Packers wide outs are super talented and extremely deep no matter what... Greg Jennings, when healthy, is an elite stud no matter who's throwing it to him or what system he's in... Jordy Nelson is also a borderline elite player. People (including NFL defensive backs) underrate Nelson because they think he's another slow white guy but the dude is 6'3", 215 lbs, and ran a 4.45 40 time. In 2011, Nelson finished 2nd in DYAR (total value) and FIRST in DVOA (value per play). The guys is very talented.... Through six games this season, the Packers have THREE wide outs that are top 15 in DYAR [Randall Cobb (7th), Jordy Nelson (8th), and James Jones (15th)] and two within the top 15 in DVOA [Randall Cobb (4th) and James Jones (12th)]... Jermichael Finley, the super talented 6'5" 247 lbs tight end, is easily the least talented guy in this group- mainly because he can't stop dropping the ball. A pretty incredible list when Jermichael Finley is the WORST receiver out of a group of five guys.

2) New England Patriots

Weapons: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker

NOTES: Again, another criticism I've heard about this selection was the fact that it's still a Bill Belichick system and it's still Tom Brady throwing these guys the ball. But if you too have this criticism let me ask you a question, what already created system has two amazing tight ends as its focal point? Gronk and Hernandez are just amazing physical and athletic creatures that are benefited by the fact that their head coach is a football genius. Gronk and Hernandez make the New England Patriots better, not vice versa. Gronk is 6'6" 265 lbs and Hernandez is 6'1" 245 lbs. These guys would be great no matter what team they played for... This is Brandon Lloyd's first year on the Patriots and really hasn't done much but his tenure in Denver and St. Louis prove that he's one of the best deep threat wide receivers in the game (who is actually being hindered in New England because he's being used poorly)... Wes Welker is really the only guy in New England who is benefited by that system and that QB but you still can't deny him the fact that in four our of the past five seasons Welker has at least 111 receptions and at least 7 TDs in three of those seasons.

1) Atlanta Falcons

Weapons: Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez

NOTES: This team was really the reason this list came about. I've had plenty of discussion about how good Matt Ryan really is in the past few weeks (spoiler alert: he's not *that* good) but he's putting up incredible numbers because of the talent he has around him. The fact that I don't believe Matt Ryan is all that a bag of chips and the Falcons are still an elite offense is further testament to how good Atlanta's weapons are... In my opinion Roddy White is the best player out of any pass catcher on this list and is the second best wide receiver in football behind Megatron. White can do EVERYTHING and do it at an elite level. He has amazing hands, he can go deep, and he can do a five yard curl route. He's very good.... While Julio Jones hasn't been consistent week to week this year the guy is just a physical force to be reckoned with and would probably be the #1 wide out on 30 out of the other 32 teams in this league. He ran a 4.39 at the combine and has a 135 inch broad jump. Every scout you talk to about this guy has nothing but great things to say about him... Tony Gonzalez is 36 years old, a guaranteed Hall of Famer, one of the best tight ends that have ever played the position, and is amazing even in 2012. Right now he has THE BEST DYAR in the league among tight ends and is 6th best is DVOA. He's still got it.

So there you go, my top ten list of which teams have the best weapons in football. Coming up soon, my list of the Top Five Teams With the WORST Weapons in Football....
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