This offseason, I’m looking at how the rosters in the NFC North stack up against one another. So far, Chicago has been middle-of-the-road in quarterbacks (#3), running backs (#2), and tight ends (#3). Next up, it’s time to consider wide receivers. There are a lot of people excited about the state of receivers in Chicago. While the group has clearly improved over the last few years, it’s worth looking at how their divisional rivals stack up.
The Vikings have a lot of talent in their receiving corps, but Adam Thielen deserves special attention. The veteran is a back-to-back Pro Bowler with nearly 2700 yards from scrimmage over the last two seasons. Last year he was the only receiver in the NFC North to rank in the Top 20 in both DYAR and DVOA. He is backed up by Stefon Diggs and (theoretically) Laquan Treadwell.
Diggs is a potent weapon who at least a few teams would be happy to consider a #1 receiver. If I want to criticize him for something, I guess it would be that he tends to be overrated in the hands department--his hands are good, and he has made some individually impressive catches, but his overall catch rate is not freakish. That’s all I have, really.
Treadwell is legitimately a disappointment, especially considering his draft position, but he’s on the roster and he occasionally has some value. Meanwhile, veterans like Jordan Taylor and rookies like Dillon Mitchell will probably shake out into utility pieces. I sort of liked Olabisi Johnson as a prospect, simply because I think he knows what to do on a football field, but that’s a “could be a good rotational piece” like, not a “is going to give defensive backs nightmares” like.
Overall, though, having an elite receiver, a solid #2, and strong potential deeper on the roster is enough to put the Vikings in first place.
2). Detroit Lions
Chicago fans understand that a certain amount of roster churn is expected as a new coaching staff comes. The Lions are in the middle of that roster churn, and so their receiving corps mixes some familiar faces with some that are not so familiar (or are familiar in other uniforms). However, regardless of how the changes work out farther down the depth chart, the Lions have some potent weapons.
Starting with the obvious, Kenny Goldaway is impressive. He’s a 1000-yard receiver who just misses being Top 20 in DVOA while being #16 in DYAR. He does not sport a great catch rate (under 60%), and he can feel like a volume receiver at times. So what? Somebody needs the targets, and when he makes the catch he punishes defenses.
Marvin Jones is another one of those players who can do real damage under the right circumstances without actually redefining an offense. It’s possible that his injury last season was the beginning of the end, but in his prior two years on the Lions he averaged a thousand yards, and I tend to think that he is exactly what most teams need in the #2 position--a solid weapon who knows how he is needed. In this way, I think he could be a good example for rookie Travis Fulgham, even if I doubt Fulgham will ever be close to the player Jones was at his peak.
Replacing Golden Tate with Danny Amendola is fine, and I doubt this is the one roster move that’s going to make a difference for the Lions. That’s not because I think Amendola is fantastic, but rather because Golden Tate was not irreplaceable. Adding Jermaine Kearse? Tommylee Lewis? Okay. I mean, it’s possible that Tom Kennedy leads the way for NFL teams scouting lacrosse teams, and Brandon Powell or Brandon Reilly could be the next Brandon to really make it big, but that seems a little unlikely.
In short, the Lions have a good 1-2 punch and they are developing other talent. That’s good enough for the #2 in the North.
If you want to be a highly productive wide receiver in the NFL, there are a couple of obvious paths. The first is that you could have almost inhuman athletic ability, solid coaching, and a truly impressive work ethic in order to hone your craft. The other option is to have a future Hall of Famer throw you the ball. The Packers have typically had a number of wide receivers who play very well on their offense, but it is really difficult to separate their performance from that of Rodgers.
Pro Bowler Davante Adams would probably be in the first group no matter what. Add in the second, and it’s obvious that he’s dangerous. The problem the Packers have is the question of who is the reliable threat after Adams? Marquez Valdes-Scantling is the next on the list as far as Football Outsiders is concerned (63rd in both DYAR and DVOA), checking in at what is functionally the same level of effectiveness as Diggs, even if box scores have him as a much less impressive player. I would think that St. Brown is fun to watch if he were wearing a different uniform. Geronimo Allison has done some impressive things, and he seems to be at least as dangerous on a per-target basis as other “occasional threat” receivers in the division.
Still, Darrius Shepherd, J’Mon Moore, Allen Lazard, and Jake Kumerow might not even be household names in their own families. Being honest, I forgot Trevor Davis even played for the Packers until I pulled official roster information for this piece, and given that he has had only 14 targets since 2016, it’s possible that the Packers forgot he played for them, too.
In short, the Packers have Adams and whomever else Rodgers deigns to grace with the football. The sad thing is that their second-best weapon is probably going to be at least as good as the Bears’ #2.
4). Chicago Bears
With a breakout year in the Santa’s Sleigh package, Bradley Sowell has put defenses on notice. It’s time for a reality check on the rest of the Bears’ receiving weapons, though, even if this is going to be an unpopular opinion in Chicago. The best way of phrasing things is that the Bears have a three-pronged receiving corps that threatens on multiple levels. Another way of phrasing things is that their top three receivers did not manage to break 2,000 yards among them in 2018.
The excuse that “the ball was spread around” only goes so far, because the Bears were 21st in the NFL last year in passing offense by yards. New offense? Look at the mess that was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator situation. If Mitchell is the quarterback of the future, and if Cohen is a go-to weapon, and if Nagy is an elite offensive mind, then why did Chicago only come in 20th in DVOA in 2018?
Individually, the top receivers are also a bit of a letdown in any meaningful category. On a per-play basis, they did not fare well: Anthony Miller was 36th DVOA, Allen Robinson II was 52nd, and Taylor Gabriel was 61st. Every team in the division had a higher-ranked receiver. Conventional stats are no more flattering. Yards per game? Yards per reception? These players are moving the chains relatively well, and they were certainly held up a developing quarterback and playing in a new system, but they were pedestrian.
Could some of the limitations the Bears’ receivers faced be the result of learning a new offense? Sure. Could some of the limitations the Green Bay receivers faced be the result of the dysfunction up north? Probably.
However, in order to meaningfully evaluate the receivers, let’s play a game. Find a fan base that would trade their #1 for Chicago’s #1, or their #2 for Chicago’s #2. Play the same game through the first four wide receiver spots. How many teams would switch the majority of their players for their corresponding Bears? Do any of those teams play in this division?
Let’s put it another way--if Wims, Mizzell, Ives, or either Hall could emerge this next year and turn in a 900-yard season, they would be the first Chicago receiver to do so since 2014. If Riley Ridley wants to establish himself as elite by Chicago receiver standards, all he needs to do is something about 40 players manage annually, and that’s produce 800 yards. It is possible that I’m being too hard on this group, but it would take multiple players taking major steps forward to prove that I’m off by more than one spot.
Up next: offensive lines.