At first blush, the question may seem blasphemous, with the Atlanta Falcons boasting one of the top wide receiver duos in the NFL, paired with a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in tight end, Tony Gonzalez. However, this isn’t a discussion about who has the better cast “in their prime,” but, rather, which teams will have the best Top 3 receivers when the St. Louis Rams take on the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Yesterday, Ramblin’ Fan mentioned that both Julio Jones and Roddy White were withheld from practice on Wednesday, leaving players like Harry Douglas and Drew Davis as the “starters.” Luckily for Falcons’ fan, Jones did return to practice on a “limited” basis for Thursday practice, although White continued to man the sideline instead of the field. Even with reports that Roddy White “expects” to play on Sunday, it is unclear if that will happen and, more importantly, how effective the Pro Bowl receiver could be returning to the field after missing significant time with injury.
Flip over to the St. Louis Rams, and you have a fresh pair of young receivers, both primed for a breakout game to “officially” start their season; Tavon Austin and Chris Givens. The combination of Tavon and Givens is lightning in a bottle, with one taking the top off the defense, and the other being a menace anywhere on the field. In fact, the “average” of the career-low 40-times between the two players is 4.26 seconds… no, that wasn’t a typo. However, “talk is cheap” in the NFL, with plenty of former track stars gracing the back ends of NFL depth charts, never stepping foot on the field to use that dynamic speed.
For Chris Givens, that obviously is not the case, setting a rookie record last season with five consecutive games with a 50+ yard reception. He compiled 42 receptions and 698 receiving yards in, essentially, 11 regular season games, after being eased onto the field at the start of the season, and getting “benched” during the first San Francisco 49ers game due to a violation of “team rules.” In Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals, Givens was guarded man-to-man by Patrick Peterson, on top of drawing deep safety help for a majority of the game. He caught both of his targets, each for 1st downs, on way to sub-par 27 yard receiving night. However, his mere presence on the field opening up the game for another player in the Rams Top 3…
Jared Cook had, arguably, the best performance of any “receiver” in the NFL in Week 1, comparable to Anquan Boldin, A.J. Green, and Demaryius Thomas. Sam Bradford’s new, dynamic weapon caught 7 passes for 141 yards, including 2 touchdowns. Cook also broke off a 47-yard catch-and-run that should have raised that count to 150+ yards and 3 touchdowns, but got the ball poked out by a trailing Tyrann Mathieu right before crossing the goal line. The Rams tight end-hybrid averaged a “true” 20.1 yards per reception, and single-handed forced negative grades on four Cardinals’ defenders who attempted to cover him last Sunday, including two linebackers, a safety, and their other starting cornerback.
That doesn’t even mention the Rams’ “pocket ace,” the 8th overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. Tavon Austin was extremely effective in his rookie debut, catching 6 out of 7 targets for 41 yards. The total yard may be underwhelming, but 46% of those yards came after the catch, with most reception occurring within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage. Austin also drew a massive 26-yard defensive pass interference call against Tyrann Mathieu, which would set up the Rams first scoring drive of the season.
Assuming Julio Jones and Roddy White return to the field, the debate will be between…
The St. Louis Rams Top 3 put up solid numbers against one of the better secondaries in the NFL, with one of the elite cornerbacks in the game. The Atlanta Falcons Top 3 put up mediocre numbers against a defense one-year removed from the worst “yards allowed” performance in the history of the NFL.
The fact that Julio Jones and Roddy White are both coming off injury is obviously the only reason that his debate is feasible. White was rendered ineffective for most of the game last Sunday, and, with missing another full week of practice, would not project to do much better against the St. Louis Rams’ stud trio of cornerbacks. Jones was more effective in the game, but clearly suffered without having White on the other side of the field, and not helping his case with a dropped pass on an early 3rd down and a costly lost fumble after a long reception. Gonzalez is the only player of the three in “perfect” health, but is starting his 17 season in the NFL, and is more of a security blanket and red zone specialist than a play-making receiver. With all of that in mind, the St. Louis Rams could certainly make a case that, for now, their starting Top 3 receivers have the edge over the Atlanta Falcons. We’ll have to wait until Sunday to find out…