There is more to ranking receiving units than just pure stats, although certain numbers never lie. One also has to account the quarterbacks and the NFC South is loaded with some gunslingers: Drew Brees (New Orleans), Matt Ryan (Atlanta) and Cam Newton (Carolina) are the veterans of the division. Tampa Bay will likely go with rookie Jameis Winston, who fit the bill while he was at Florida State.
There are some who believe the receivers make the quarterback better and others who believe the quarterback can make the receiver better. In likelihood, it is a combination of both. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning can make almost any receiver look good while Dallas’ Dez Bryant and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson can make nearly any quarterback look like an All-Pro.
The NFC South does have some of the stronger receivers in the NFL. Let’s take a look at how the units stack up in their own division.
4. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
When you first see the Saints being last in the division, it almost makes you do a double take. As often as the Saints throw the ball with Brees, this has to be a misprint right? Nope. This was a costly offseason for New Orleans as it lost its top two pass catchers from 2014, including Jimmy Graham who left for Seattle.
With Graham and Kenny Stills gone, the Saints are missing nearly 150 catches and more than 1,800 yards of offense (along with 13 touchdowns). This will put intense pressure on Marques Colston and second-year receiver Brandin Cooks. Colston had 59 catches for 902 yards and five touchdowns in 2014. That is a solid season. Cooks had 53 grabs for 550 yards and three scores during his rookie campaign. Both will have to be better in 2015.
Also, the Saints will need for a third target to march in. Will it be a rookie like R.J. Harris or will a veteran like Josh Morgan answer the call? Brees and the Saints’ offense will have to find out soon.
3. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The third- and second-best receiving units in the NFC South could easily be flipped. Here is when numbers took over as well as depth.
Tampa Bay has one of the up-and-coming receivers in the NFL in second-year pro Mike Evans. With 68 catches for 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns, Evans showed why he was a top-10 draft pick in 2014. Tall, with deceptive speed, Evans often makes beating corners look easy.
He also had a good teacher with Vincent Jackson on his side. Jackson led Tampa Bay with 70 catches and had 1,002 yards and two touchdowns, not bad for an old guy. Whenever Tampa Bay needed a play, Jackson’s number was usually called.
Much like New Orleans, Tampa Bay will need a third guy to step up. Whether that is tight ends Austin Seferian-Jenkins or newly re-acquired Tim Wright or if veteran Louis Murphy can hold off rookie Kenny Bell, the Buccaneers will need consistency from someone else to help the rookie Winston.
2. CAROLINA PANTHERS
Tight end Greg Olsen seems to be getting better with age, hauling in career bests 84 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns for the division champions. It also helped he had rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin taking up some of the slack. The rookie had 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns and was a force deep and in the red zone. With a year under his belt, he should be even better in 2015.
Jerricho Cotchery was a solid third guy with 48 catches for 580 yards and a score but the Panthers are looking for bigger things from their third guy. They are hoping rookie Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn Jr. or Mike Brown can provide that spark.
1. ATLANTA FALCONS
Atlanta has arguably the best receiver in the NFC South in Julio Jones, who has become one of the top pass catchers in the NFL. Jones had 104 catches for 1,593 yards and six touchdowns last year. He had a long reception of 79 yards as well, if you’re thinking he just catches hitches. He is the total package.
His sidekick Roddy White was still making plays 10 years into his career. He had 80 catches for 921 yards and seven touchdowns. That’s one heck of a one-two punch. Even with Harry Douglas gone, teams will have a hard time stopping both Jones and White. Devin Hester will try to fill the void but look for rookie Justin Hardy or veteran Leonard Hankerson to eventually become that third target, giving Ryan plenty of weapons at his disposal.