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Battle of the (AFC North) Wide Receivers—How Do They Compare?

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I began this series with a comparison of the quarterbacks in the AFC North. Since the performance of the quarterback is going to depend to a greater or lesser extent on the competence of his receiving corps, it makes sense to continue my series with the wideouts. Since the number of players to consider is a great deal larger, I’m going to look at the presumed #1 and #2 receivers, and just mention the depth at the position. If there is any depth (*cough, cough* Cleveland.) And I’m aware the terms #1 and #2 receiver aren’t terribly meaningful, but for the purposes of this post they are a useful shorthand for the starting wide receivers.

Since this is a Steelers blog I’ll begin with our guys. A year ago it was a definite question as to whether Antonio Brown or Emmanuel Sanders would snag the spot in the lineup. This year Brown has a jersey in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his record-breaking 1000+ yards as both a receiver and returner, while Sanders missed numerous games due to recurring problems with his feet and knees. Fortunately the injury situation looks better for Sanders, and he should be a real contributor this season, particularly in the slot where he is especially valuable for his blocking. But for the purposes of this post he is "depth," as is Jerricho Cotchery and whoever else makes it through camp. The money is on Toney Clemons at this point, but he has some competition.

The other receiver is Mike Wallace. Admittedly he hasn’t signed his tender yet, and it is possible he will hold out through training camp and even partway into the season. But that isn’t particularly likely, mainly because he surely understands he’s only hurting himself at this point. One hopes his agent understands this as well.

Both Brown and Wallace are young, and both have put up fairly remarkable numbers in their early years. In fact, few players ever in the NFL have matched Wallace’s numbers for his first three seasons. And Brown has proven his worth over and over. Nobody, at least on the receiving corps, works as hard as he does, and he works to very good effect.

There has been a fair amount of argument over whether Brown would look as good without Wallace to pull double teams from the opponent. This is a legitimate concern, but it shouldn’t matter for the coming season, unless Wallace gets injured, or decides to sulk over the contract situation. Neither are particularly likely—Wallace has been extraordinarily durable, never even appearing on the injury list as I recall, much less missing a game. And I think he is ultimately too sensible to destroy his prospects of a big contract, either from the Steelers or another team, by playing poorly and seeing his numbers tank next season.

And speaking of numbers, here is a comparison between Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. This has been discussed over and over, but frequently with either unsubstantiated assertions such as "Brown has better hands" or with cherry-picked stats. (In case you’re wondering, the Drop Rates for the AFC North receivers, including Brown and Wallace, will appear later in this article.) Here are some of the relevant numbers from their careers. (I may, of course, also be cherry-picking, but I picked the stats allowing for easy comparison on a chart. The full range of stats may be found on the table which follows.) The key is, GP = Games Played, Rec = Receptions, RT = Returning, FD = First Down and ATT = Attempts.


I apologize for the size—the bigger files get automatically sized down, and I can't alter it.

You can all draw your own conclusions from what you see, assuming you can see it at all, but a few things were really interesting to me. First was how close Brown got in 2011 to matching Wallace’s average yards per reception. Second was his number of first downs in 2011, which beat Wallace’s number in any of his three seasons. But note Wallace is still the touchdown king, at least in Pittsburgh. What it mainly establishes is what a double-edged weapon they are together. As I noted above, there is no reason to think this will be different in 2012, especially with quality depth in Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. But let’s move on to the rest of the AFC North.

Next up, Cleveland, since I dissed their receiving corps in my previous post about quarterbacks before I really looked at the numbers. It turns out I was at least partially correct to do so, at least with the information we have at this point. First, the positives.

Greg Little finished the 2011 season leading the Browns in catches and receiving yards. He will be their #1 receiver in 2012, barring, of course, injury or other unforeseen circumstances. The phrase "leading the Browns in catches and receiving yards" may seem like damning with faint praise, but in fact Little was the No. 2 rookie wide receiver in the NFL in catches, behind A. J. Green. He was also No. 4 in yards, behind Green, Torrey Smith of the Ravens, and Julio Jones. As a side note, this is quite an impressive showing for the AFC North.

So what was bad? Well, the Browns led the league last year with dropped passes, missing 43 catches. Which is a lot. Since this was an issue, I decided to check out the rate of dropped passes last season for the receivers presumed to be the starters in the AFC North in 2012. Pro Football Focus has a calculation, the Drop Rate, based upon what they view as catchable balls. The lower the rate the better. (The number on the chart is a percentage.)


When we look at the chart, we can indeed see Little missed a great many balls, approaching one in every five catchable balls thrown to him. Mohamed Massaquoi was much better, but still missed more than 10% of catchable balls. According to Jamison Hensley, ESPN’s AFC North beat writer, who wrote this several weeks ago, things don't seem to be improving:

I went to the Cleveland Browns' minicamp this week with an open mind about their wide receivers. I left shaking my head.

By my count, there were six dropped passes in a 90-minute practice Wednesday. If this carries into the season, the passing attack will struggle again and it wouldn't matter whether the quarterback is Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy or Aaron Rodgers.

While this was disputed by several commenters, Hensley’s words are not particularly encouraging for those hoping Brandon Weeden will have a good season.

Please note as you look at the chart—Mike Wallace has by far the lowest rate of dropped catchable balls in the AFC North. (For those of you who are wondering why there is no second receiver for the Bengals, keep reading.) In fact, out of 45 ranked receivers Wallace ranked No. 8. Little ranked No. 45.

To return to the Browns, their depth doesn’t, at this point, appear to provide a clear challenge Massaquoi for the #2 position. In this draft the Browns didn’t address the WR issue until they chose Travis Benjamin in round four. This doesn’t mean Benjamin or Jordan Norwood or Owen Spencer can’t step up and overperform, as did 2010 sixth-round pick Antonio Brown or, for that matter, 2009 third-round pick Mike Wallace, but there is little indication at this point the Brown’s receiving corps will be a major strength of the team. Hensley believes they remain a weakness.

So how about those Bengals? Why do they only have one wide receiver? Well, unlike the situation for every other AFC North team, I could not find substantial agreement about who the #2 receiver is on the Bengals’ depth chart for 2012. Last year the second wideout was of course Jerome Simpson, and he left in free agency this off-season. The name cropping up the most frequently to fill the void is Armon Binns. This surprised me, as the Bengals drafted Mohamed Sanu in the second round. But for whatever reason he only appears to be in the mix, along with other names such as Marvin Jones.

Binns was signed by Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent last spring. He was cut and picked up by the Bengals in September. They stowed him on their practice squad for 2011, and he never played in a game. So even if I went with Binns as the #2 receiver I wouldn’t have any stats to put up for him. However, it looks as if the Bengals have several options for a strong competition for the second spot. Sanu is said to be a very good possession receiver who can run any type of route and with excellent hands. Marvin Jones is expected to split time at the various receiving spots. Jordan Shipley is a promising slot receiver.

As far as A.J. Green goes, there isn’t much to say. Green was a top-10 receiver in the NFL last season, and there is no reason to believe he is going to regress this season.

Finally, the Ravens. Last season Torrey Smith emerged as one of the most exciting rookie receivers in the league, or one of the most annoying if you were a Steelers fan watching the second Steelers-Ravens game. Like A. J. Green, he only promises to get better this season. The second receiver, Anquan Boldin, was an amazing player early in his career, but he is not the player he was in 2003. Boldin is still a very solid receiver to all appearances, though, and in combination with the omni-talented Ray Rice and a couple of good tight ends gives Joe Flacco plenty of good options to throw to. (However, I shouldn’t be taking the backs and tight ends into consideration at this point, as the picture for all the teams may well change when we look at those positions.)

So how do we compare the various receiving corps? The lack of a clear #2 in Cincinnati makes it a bit more difficult to do, but let’s take a look at some more numbers and see where they take us. First, here is a chart using the same stats I used to compare Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. (All numbers are for 2011.)


I’ll let you all draw your own conclusions.

Next, let’s look at what Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference, and Football Outsiders have to say about these players. First up, Pro Football Reference’s "Average Value" for 2011:


Next, Pro Football Focus’s Wide Receiver Rating:


PFF's top-ranked receiver for 2011 was Jordy Nelson, who blew everyone else out of the water with a 150.2 score. (The next closest was Marques Colston with 132.4.) The highest AFC North receivers were Torrey Smith (No. 9) at 108.6 and Mike Wallace (No. 10) at 108.0.

Finally, the Football Outsider ranking of receivers for 2011. Unlike the other two, lower is better in this ranking, with the No. 1 receiver for 2011, league-wide, being Calvin Johnson.


Well, it appears the best receiver in the AFC North last season was Mike Wallace, by almost any measure

That doesn’t come as breaking news, of course, except to those of the BTSC faithful who have busily been trying to persuade themselves we don’t really need Wallace. (This may, of course, be true, but shouldn’t downplay what he has done for the Steelers thus far.) A. J. Green is in hot competition with Antonio Brown for the #2 spot, and Torrey Smith makes a case for himself if he continues to play the way he did in the latter part of last season. Mohamed Massaquoi is the undisputed holder of last place. Greg Little is better than his drop rate would indicate, and if he can clean this up (or buy himself a vat of pine tar) he will be a force to be reckoned with this season.

So now for my (usual disclaimer about homerism) ranking of the AFC North, combining the information about the quarterbacks and receiving corps:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

2. Baltimore Ravens

2. Cincinnati Bengals

4. Cleveland Browns

At this point I believe slot No. 1 and No. 4 are fairly obvious. I have the Ravens and the Bengals tied because while the Bengals have, I believe, the better quarterback as well as an excellent No. 1 receiver, the question mark at the No. 2 receiving slot makes me unwilling to put them in front.

So far things don’t look very rosy for the Browns, but that may change when we look at Running Backs in my next post. Stay tuned!