- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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We’re going to pick up the pace on the NFC South position rankings as we near the end. We looked at tight ends Thursday morning and, now, we’re going to move onto the wide receivers.
In terms of overall strength, I’d say this position is one of the better ones in the division. But there’s a huge disparity between the Saints, who have a bunch of good receivers to the Panthers, who have only one proven commodity, to the Buccaneers, who have lots of potential but no sure things. On to the rankings.
Steve Smith, Panthers. There were three guys in the race and the other two had better numbers than Smith last year. But I’m playing a hunch that Smith will have a monster season, even though the Panthers have some uncertainty at quarterback. I’m basing this on my theory that Smith, always a high-energy guy, will be more motivated than ever after simmering on the sidelines throughout training camp while recovering from a broken arm.
Roddy White, Falcons. I came very close to going with White at No. 1 and White’s numbers from the last three seasons would have validated that choice. I think White can have an even bigger impact this year because running back Michael Turner and slot receiver Harry Douglas are healthy and they should take some coverage away from White.
Marques Colston, Saints. Colston also got consideration for No. 1. He’s often a man among boys and his size makes him a mismatch for just about any cornerback. His 70 catches last season don’t quite compare with the numbers White and Smith usually put up, but that’s mainly because New Orleans has so many other options in the passing game. Still, Colston is the best of all those options.
Robert Meachem, Saints. After a rough start to his career, Meachem emerged last season and caught nine touchdown passes. I expect him to only get better. He’s earned the trust of Drew Brees and the coaching staff and that means more passes will be coming his way.
Devery Henderson, Saints. Yep, I’m going with three New Orleans receivers in the top five. That’s a credit to Brees and Sean Payton for spreading the ball around so well. Henderson is a guy who has grown into a very solid receiver, after overcoming major problems with drops early in his career.
Mike Williams, Buccaneers. I’m really hesitant to rank a rookie receiver this high because I’ve seen too many of them through the years struggle after looking great in the summer. But I think Williams might be the exception to this rule. In camp and the preseason, he’s just gone out and made plays day after day. Tampa Bay needs someone to emerge as a No. 1 receiver and he seems to be leading the candidates.
Michael Jenkins, Falcons. A lot of people like to criticize Jenkins because he doesn’t put up flashy numbers. But that’s not really his role in the Atlanta offense. White and tight end Tony Gonzalez are going to get the bulk of the passes thrown their way. Jenkins’ job is to be a safety valve and a strong blocker in the running game. That might not sound like a big deal for a wide receiver, but in Atlanta’s system it is. Jenkins is the best blocking receiver in the division.
Harry Douglas, Falcons. Some Atlanta fans are rooting for Douglas to take Jenkins’ spot in the starting lineup, but that’s not really in the plans. The Falcons want to use Douglas in the slot. He’s a guy who can stretch the field and pull some coverage away from White and Gonzalez. He also gives Matt Ryan another downfield threat besides White.
Reggie Brown, Buccaneers. Someone’s going to end up being the starter opposite Williams and the Bucs think Brown has a shot at securing that role. This is a guy the Bucs traded for with five years left on his contract. He’s still adjusting to the system a bit, but the Bucs think he’s going to fit in.
Brandon LaFell, Panthers. The rookie could end up starting because the Panthers really don’t have much beyond Smith. LaFell’s progressing pretty well and the Panthers see him as a younger version of Muhsin Muhammad. That’s a nice comparison, but LaFell’s still got a lot of work to do to get to that level.
Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers. The plan is to use him in the slot, where Stroughter is a perfect fit. He showed big-play ability last year and the Bucs are fantasizing about Stroughter running under some deep passes from Josh Freeman.
Lance Moore, Saints. He was sort of overshadowed and forgotten last year, but that may have been mainly due to injuries. In 2008, Moore was New Orleans’ most consistent receiver. With Colston, Meachem and Henderson around, Moore might not get a great deal of playing time. But he’s a nice luxury to have around in case there are injuries. How many No. 4 receivers around the league are better than this guy?
Dwayne Jarrett, Panthers. Carolina’s been waiting for the light to go on since Jarrett was drafted. It hasn’t happened yet and maybe it never will. If LaFell ends up starting, Jarrett may just fade away.
Arrelious Benn, Buccaneers. He was a second-round pick, but Williams has been better in the preseason. The Bucs aren’t down on Benn. They think he’s progressing at the normal pace for a rookie and he could play more of a role as the season goes on.