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Breaking Through The Myth of a 'No. 1 Receiver'

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The Fantasy Football world has brought to mainstream the concept of the "No. 1 receiver" on NFL teams. 

It strongly suggests a No. 1 receiver is the "best" receiver on the team. That's essentially true, but it leaves out details as to what means to be a team's No. 1. It also leads people to a common misnomer. 

There isn't a "No. 1 receiver" position. 

No team's depth chart says "No. 1 receiver" over a player's name. It's a legitimate concept, but it's just that, a concept. 

The Steelers official web site has their depth chart, and it designates the receiver positions as "WR1" and "WR2," which is a way to avoid using the old-school and not-well recognized positions of "flanker" and "split end." In reference to the Steelers, the WR1 position is the flanker, and the WR2 position is the split end. 

This depth chart reflects the offensive personnel out of their base offense - one split end, one flanker, two tight ends and one running back, along with five linemen and a quarterback.

A split end typically lines up on the line and is the widest player of the formation. A flanker plays in the slot, or about four yards from the last player on the line. 

Split ends and flankers do not play on the same side of the field. They don't usually run the same kinds of routes, either. To suggest one could just flip to the other is as silly as saying the left guard could just play the right guard because either way, he's lining up next to the center.

A split end runs deep routes, short slants and things associated with that. Typically, they are long, deep speed guys, the playmakers. Mike Wallace is the Steelers starting split end. He replaced Santonio Holmes last season. Plaxico Burress and Nate Washington also played this position in the past. 

A flanker, or a slot receiver, is versatile. They have good hands, make tough catches across the middle, and make defenders miss tackles. Hines Ward has been the Steelers flanker for a long time, and I'm not even sure the offense was similar in the pre-Ward days. There's a reason these designations stayed in place between Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

Obviously, all receivers need to have all of the aforementioned characteristics, and this is where it's important to know why there isn't a defined No. 1 receiver. 

One reason is split ends and flankers are not in the game solely to catch passes. 

Jamison Hensley of ESPN - a writer I feel does a great job covering the AFC North, and did a great job covering the Ravens in his time with the Baltimore Sun - wrote a post today suggesting Steelers receiver Antonio Brown should be starting over Ward. 

With all due respect to him, it doesn't really work that way. The receiver position is much more interchangeable than, say, the offensive tackle position. 

You always have two offensive tackles, you can have anywhere from zero to five receivers in various spots around the formation. 

Wide receivers in particular, are sort of like hockey players. Teams start formations more than they start individual players. The Steelers start out of a 2-TE set because their philosophy is that of a running team. Ward is without question the best run-blocking receiver. If you want to show teams you're going to run the ball, Ward is the flanker. 

This says nothing of the fact Brown is listed as a split end, not a flanker. He backs up Wallace. Technically, Emmanuel Sanders is behind Ward on the flanker depth chart.  Ward is the rightful flanker in the 2-TE set. 

That certainly doesn't mean Brown can't play flanker, or Sanders play split end. The Steelers play out of several formations other than the 2-TE, and Brown has seen and will see plenty of snaps. The point is whomever starts is irrelevant. 

If the first play of the game dictates the amount of playing time one player will get, then perhaps it's not sensible to start Brown over Ward. However, there's no rule that says the starter must play the whole game. Brown was in on 40 percent of the offensive snaps against Arizona in Week 7, 68 percent in Week 8 against New England and 73 percent against Baltimore. 

He has yet to start, but still played in about 2/3s of the team's snaps over the last three games. 

Here's the kicker, though. By conventional thinking, Brown is legitimately the team's No. 1 receiver. Not either starter, Ward or Wallace, Brown has taken over the conceptual No. 1 receiver spot. 

An appropriate way to define a No. 1 receiver is the primary target of an offense's passing game; or at least that's the Fantasy Football way of defining it. That definition says nothing about the running game, though. It also doesn't say anything about the philosophy of the team. 

Seems strange to suggest the receiver targeted the most often in the passing game doesn't start. But it's perfectly valid. The Steelers break the mold of the alleged No. 1 WR concept because of their philosophy. 

If you break down the Steelers passing offense game-to-game, what you'll find is WR Mike Wallace is a statistical monster. He's second in the NFL in receiving yards (868) fifth in receptions (47) and seventh in average (18.1). 

Brown is eighth in the NFL with 73 targets - or amount of times the quarterback threw to that receiver, including incompletions. 

His 73 targets are more than Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald (69), Green Bay's Greg Jennings (66) and Buffalo's Steve Johnson (66). In the interest of full disclosure, all of those players have played eight games while Brown has played in nine, but he has 10 more total targets than Wallace (63). 

And all of that has changed over just the past three weeks. Since Week 7, Brown has 35 targets to just 20 for Wallace. In that time, the Steelers have seen a huge shift from a deeper passing attack to a shorter one. They've also been utilizing far less of the 2-TE set, partially out of a desire to utilize the depth they have at receiver, partially because of a vastly improved offensive line - they don't need Heath Miller and/or David Johnson as inline blockers. 

The question then becomes whether you'd rather have one primary guy who runs all routes at all distances, or would you rather have three guys, all of whom excel at one particular skill that different from the other two? Very sabremetrical, but I'd take the three with outstanding ability with a specific skill. 

So would the Steelers. 

Over the last three games, the roles of the receivers have become more specialized. Brown has become the possession receiver, Wallace still is the deep threat and Ward provides blocking and red zone catches. The Steelers passing offense since Week 7 is netting an average of 335 passing yards per game. They averaged 250 per game in the previous six.

Since targeting Brown in the shorter passing game more often than Wallace in the deeper game has yielded 25.6 points a game. Before Week 7, the Steelers were scoring 19.8 points a game. 

These numbers are skewed a little because the commitment to the pass also means a lack of commitment to the running game. But it also accentuates the point even more. The Steelers offense is now able to harness the individual talents of all their receivers - that includes Miller (5.3 catches a game Weeks 7-9, 3.1 catches per game in Weeks 1-6) and Sanders, who has two touchdown receptions instead of buying into the idea of forcing one of them to be everything, and the others follow after him. 

They don't need a "No. 1 receiver." Not that it exists, anyway.