This offseason has not been the best in the NFC West for “elite” wide receivers in division. Early on, we learned that Michael Crabtree, the favorite target of Colin Kaepernick, would miss a majority of the regular season recovering from a torn Achilles’. Yesterday, reports began to surface that Seattle Seahawks‘ wide receiver, Percy Harvin, was thrown on their physically unable to perform (PUP) list. While the extent of the injury is still unknown at this point, many are suggesting that “season-ending” hip surgery is a definite possibility for the newly crowned king of the ‘Hawks offense.
While having an elite No. 1 receiver seems to be an asset, from the outside looking in, these types of injuries make you think twice about putting all of your eggs in the hands of one player. If Calvin Johnson were to get injured, would the Detroit Lions be able to compensate offensively? A.J. Green “twisted” his knee at practice at Bengals Camp this week, and drastic, season-altering reports started to get thrown around the league. Luckily, Green appears to fine, but would losing just this one, singular player knock the Bengals out of being the “favorite” to win the AFC North… out of playoff contention…. out of relevance?
The one mark against the St. Louis Rams over the past half-decade is that they have failed to grab, what they league considers, a true No.1 receiver. In the Sam Bradford-era, Brandon Gibson, Brandon Lloyd, and Mark Clayton have all been slotted into that role on the field, but none were overly successful. Now, the St. Louis Rams have snagged a bounty of offensive playmakers, including two of the most dominant players in college football last season. However, even with Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, and Jared Cook in tow, the Rams are still without a true No. 1 receiver on the roster. But, is that a bad thing?
In 2011, the Green Bay Packers were one of the most dominating offenses in the NFL, finishing 3rd in overall yards and leading the league in points per game. That year, the Packers had six players with, at least, six receiving touchdowns, and four players with 600+ yards. Aaron Rodgers finished the season with the best quarterback rating in the NFL, helped by completing 68.3% of pass attempts for 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns, and only 6 interceptions. There was no No.1 receiver on the team, although Donald Driver and Greg Jennings both certainly fit that role earlier in their careers. Still, the Packers were arguably the best passing offense in the league. In 2012, both Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, the veteran duo that had seen roughly 30% of Rodgers’ total targets and accounted for over 1,400 yards and 15 touchdown the season before, went down with injury. Naturally, losing two of the most valuable receivers on the team would send the offense into a down-spiral, right?
Aaron Rodgers would finish the 2012 season by completing 67.2% of his passing attempts for 4,295 yards, with 49 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. The Packers’ offense still finished in the Top 5 in points per game, understandably being jumped by the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos and the Robert Griffin III-led Washington Redskins. Moreover, in the latter three-fourths of the regular season, Green Bay ranked 3rd in points per game, seemingly adjusting to the “new” offense.
The Packers are merely one team that consistently dominates the league without having a true No. 1 receiver. The New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints are regularly Top 5 offenses, and yet both do not have any player that would be considered an elite wide receiver. Maybe, that says something about “needing” that type of player…
The obvious common thread in all of those offenses is an “elite,” future Hall-of-Fame quarterback. However, that doesn’t mean that the theory behind the “No.1-less receiving corps” is flawed. Each of those offenses rely on a handful of players, each with vastly different skill sets, to work in conjunction to force mismatches against the defense. That appears to be exactly what the St. Louis Rams have accomplished this offseason. Tavon Austin is a Randall Cobb-type player, using his quickness and elusiveness to create separation in his route and, eventually, cause missed tackles on the field. Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks are both overly-athletic tight ends, both possessing unusual size, speed, and jumping abilities. Chris Givens and Stedman Bailey are both “take-the-top-off” downfield threats, with Givens clocking speeds unmatched by almost any receiver in the NFL. Even Brian Quick and Austin Pettis can be matchup nightmares, both measuring in around 6’3 in. tall and posting jaw-dropping verticals. The combination of those players makes for an offense system that is not necessary predicated on the performance of any individual player. If you want to focus on covering Jared Cook, then you are going to be leaving Chris Givens one-on-one verses the cornerback on the outside. If you want to focus on maintaining the outside with additional help from the safeties, then Tavon Austin and Jared Cook will have more room to work between the hashes and up the seam. Most important, if one player goes down, the offense is not doomed. It is like the “Avengers” of widee receivers, each possessing their own “powers” that can be highlighted at an moment. If one goes down, there are three or four more people you are going to have to deal with…
There is certainly nothing wrong with having an elite receiver on your football team. Clearly, if it could be done, the St. Louis Rams would jump at the opportunity to acquire a Calvin Johnson, an A.J. Green, or even a Michael Crabtree. However, the risk-reward on those rosters is significantly greater, and it appears as though both the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have be dealt bad hands this season with their “superstar” receivers. Take solace in the receiving corps that the Rams have built this offseason. If recent history is any indication, the receiver-by-committee approach is one that can result in instant success on the scoreboard with the right quarterback and the right “committee.” We still do not know if the Rams’ roster fits that mold, but we should find out the answer to that question sooner rather than later.