There’s arguably more talent at the wide receiver position in the NFL right now, than at any other point in the league’s history. As the transition was made from a run-heavy league to a pass-heavy one, more resources were poured into the position, and the results of that are seen week in, and week out during the regular season. Seemingly every team has a relevant wide receiver today, one that stands out among the league’s best. A new season will bring about new opportunities for the players at this position, it’s just a matter of who will take the next step, and who won’t live up to the expectations.
There were plenty of young receivers in 2016 that made their presence felt, and should be able to improve even further in the upcoming campaign. Likewise, there are plenty of receivers that you probably think will continue their dominance, but will start to fall off the map. Whatever the outcome, there plenty of receivers to keep an eye on in 2017, and there will some surprise performances along the way, for better or worse.
Ranked below are 8 NFL receivers who will have a breakout 2017 season, and 7 who will take a step back.
15. BREAKOUT: DeVante Parker
Despite only starting in eight games last year, Parker had a fine season, and figures to become a more integral part of Adam Gase’s offense in the coach’s second year in Miami. He plays on a talented receiving corps along with Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry, but that just means there is enough talent to scheme him open. If Parker can put together a full season as a starter, then his production could skyrocket, and land him in the upper echelon of the league’s receivers. The Dolphins have a surprisingly potent offense and Parker stands a lot to gain in this system, as long as he gets the right amount of targets. He should have his best season yet in 2017.
14. STEP BACK: Mohamed Sanu
The Falcons gave Sanu a pretty big contract in 2015, when he signed with them after leaving the Bengals. With the emergence of so many other weapons on Atlanta’s offense, it’s likely that Sanu doesn’t live up to the hype. He was only situationally effective as the second receiving option to Julio Jones, and other players surpassed him in production as the season went on. Considering his contract, Sanu should have had a better season, and he will likely be losing out on opportunity to give other offensive threats on the Falcons roster a chance. The expectations were never super high on Sanu, but he may disappear almost entirely by the middle of next season if the trend continues.
13. BREAKOUT: Sammie Coates
This may be a bit of dark horse candidate, but Coates displayed some real big play ability last season with the Steelers. If he and Roethlisberger can get on the same page consistently, he could have a monster season. With defenses paying the most attention to LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown when facing Pittsburgh’s offense, there lies an opportunity for Coates to pick up the slack, and turn in some great performances next season. He’s definitely a burner almost exclusively, but with the arm that Roethlisberger has, that should be enough to up his production. If he’s schemed correctly in the Steelers offense, he could have the breakout season that makes him a household name, and the perfect compliment to an elite player like Antonio Brown.
12. STEP BACK: Brandon Marshall
I will concede that the Giants made a good signing by getting Marshall in free agency. It came at a somewhat reduced price, and there’s no question that he could help their receiving corps in some capacity. But if anybody is hoping for the player to return that racked up 1,500 yards a few seasons ago, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Marshall’s biggest advantage that he gives the Giants will simply be his presence on the field, and the fact that opposing defenses will have to account for him. He’s squarely out of his prime, and will not be the elite player that he was for the majority of his career. Used correctly, he can be an asset to the New York receiving corps, but keep him off your fantasy team for 2017. His individual performance won’t be on par with the best receivers in the league anymore.
11. BREAKOUT: Will Fuller
Out of any of the receivers drafted in the first round of the draft last year, Fuller easily had the best rookie season. He proved that he could be a reliable deep threat at times, and worked his way into the Texans offense quicker than most thought he would. The fact that Brock Osweiler won’t be under center in Houston next season is ideal for Fuller. If the Texans could land Tony Romo, even though his health would be in question, Fuller could reap the benefits of having such a quality quarterback on the roster. Even if they don’t, Fuller will only expect to improve and has a good chance to breech the 1,000 yard mark playing in tandem with DeAndre Hopkins. Fuller has one of the brightest futures for any young player in the league.
10. STEP BACK: Jordan Matthews
For the last several seasons, the Eagles haven’t had any talent on the outside of the field, so they’ve relied on Matthews in the slot to be their most productive receiver. Well, that’s likely about to change. Philadelphia was able to land both Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery in free agency, and their presence will all but ensure that Matthews has his amount of targets decreased heavily. He can still be useful to the offense, but he won’t be hovering around the 1,000 yard seasons that he’s been having in recent years. His role will be reduced, and will serve as the third receiving option to Carson Wentz in 2017. Considering the players that will be getting the bulk of the workload though, I don’t think Matthews will be complaining.
9. BREAKOUT: Stefon Diggs
Even though he’ll likely have Sam Bradford under center again, it’s hard to deny the fact that Diggs is the best receiver on the Vikings roster. If he can stay healthy and put together a full season, he will have the breakout season that most people expect him to be capable of. Diggs has a unique skill set, and can burn defenses with his speed, and also run the routes that a possession receiver would. But again, the catalyst will lie in his ability to stay healthy. He’s never played a full 16 games in either of his NFL seasons, and that will be th determining factor as to whether or not he’ll be able to shift himself into the category of the best receivers in the NFL. It’s not a surefire guarantee, but there’s a good chance that it does end up happening.
8. STEP BACK: Larry Fitzgerald
After a long, productive and legendary career, it’s likely that 2017 is the year that Fitzgerald falls off for good. He’s a strict possession receiver now, but even the game’s best have to have a down season at some point, that more than likely signals the end of their career. It’s not a knock on Fitzgerald, but the Cardinals have an old, often injured Carson Palmer at quarterback, and their best offensive player is actually a running back in David Johnson. He’s been one of the best receivers of his generation, but Fitzgerald is due for a drop off, and more than likely it will come during the 2017 season. Still, with a player of his caliber it’s not a guarantee, but at the same time it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if it did happen. Either way, it’s been a great career for him, and he’s one of the best players in Cardinals history.
7. BREAKOUT: Kelvin Benjamin
After suffering an injury that caused him to miss all of 2015, Benjamin returned last year in fine form. It wasn’t a stellar season, but it was certainly good enough to prove that he hadn’t lost a step due to his injury. In 2017, he’ll probably show why the Panthers took him so highly in the 2014 draft. The Carolina offense should see a return to form next year, and Benjamin stands as their best weapon on the unit. Cam Newton should find him often for big numbers, and Benjamin will be able to establish himself as one of the game’s best players at the position. He’s a big-bodied target with good speed who can dominate against most secondaries he plays against. Consider this one of the safest options on this ranking.
6. STEP BACK: Kenny Britt
The Browns weren’t shy about dumping a bunch of money on Britt in free agency. His only 1,000 yard season came last year for the Rams, and he did do it with poor quarterback play, but it’s unlikely that he can replicate the same performance in Cleveland. Assuming that the Browns go into the year with their starting quarterback being a player already on their roster, there won’t be anybody of quality throwing to Britt, and he’ll get lost in the shuffle. He’s merely a placeholder for the Browns, until they get something resembling an NFL receiving corps on their roster. It doesn’t help that Britt’s age may work against him, and overall he just isn’t a good pick to sustain his production from 2016. He’ll just be collecting a paycheck for the Browns, nothing more.
5. BREAKOUT: Marvin Jones
Jones was one of the most high-profile signings of the 2015 free agency period, and the Lions paid a good amount of money for him. After a torrid start, Jones’ production slowed down as the season went along, but you can expect him to start living up to his payday in 2017. Jones is a great route runner, who has the speed to get necessary separation from the defender. He’ll be more comfortable with Matt Stafford throwing to him in his second year, and the improved offensive line will help his production as well. All in all, Jones is probably Detroit’s best receiver, and while he isn’t the caliber a player of Calvin Johnson, he does enough to fill the WR1 role for the team, and has the skill set necessary to have a big season.
4. STEP BACK: Terrelle Pryor
Signing a one-year deal with the Redskins, Pryor figures to become their top target in the passing game, after the team lost Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson to free agency. Pryor had a good year with the Browns last year, after he made the unorthodox transition from quarterback to wide receiver. But also received a ton of targets, which means there was more opportunity for him to produce on the Browns’ terrible receiving corps. With defenses keying in on him in 2017, it’s unlikely that he hits the 1,000 yard mark in Washington, and his production will diminish a bit. There’s still potential for him to have a decent season, but for those expecting Pryor to all of a sudden turn into an elite talent, don’t hold your breath. His numbers were helped by his circumstances in Cleveland, and that won’t be the case elsewhere.
3. BREAKOUT: Sterling Shepard
Everyone is saying that the player standing to gain the most on the Giants receiving corps is Brandon Marshall, when it’s more likely to be Shepard. The second-year receiver made his presence felt last season, and turned in a very impressive performance. Marshall will act as a decoy for the Giants more often than not, allowing Shepard to get single coverage, while defenses key in to Odell Beckham with equal measure. He has the talent to exploit this, and should rack up some big numbers once defenses forget to account for him. He’s the younger, more dynamic player in comparison to Marshall, and really could prove himself to be one of the most lethal targets in the league. Eli Manning isn’t an error-free quarterback, but he’s still consistent enough to maximize Shepard’s potential. He was a great second round pick for New York, and has a great opportunity to put it all together in 2017.
2. STEP BACK: Allen Robinson
Robinson suffered a massive dip in production after a stellar 2015 season in Jacksonville. Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to improve with Blake Bortles under center for another year. Bortles has shown that he’s a wildly inconsistent thrower, and Robinson’s chances of regaining his footing diminish greatly if that’s the quarterback that is going to be throwing to him. Then there’s the fact that there were a host of other receivers on the Jaguars that emerged as more prominent options than Robinson by midway through the season last year. It’s all adding up to be another disappointing year for him, and it won’t be surprising to see him take his talents elsewhere when he hits the free agent market in a year or two. Robinson looked to be on the rise a few years ago, but his surrounding personnel has hindered his performance in the last year or so.
1. BREAKOUT: Brandin Cooks
The Patriots were much busier than they usually are in free agency, and their prized takeaway on the offensive side of the ball from the period included a trade for Cooks with the Saints. There’s no question that Cooks is one of the most dynamic young receivers in the NFL, and will have his best season yet with Tom Brady throwing to him, in a fail-proof offensive system. With the amount of weapons the Patriots have, Cooks should see plenty of single coverage, allowing him to burn defenses with regularity, and turn in the best season for a New England receiver since Randy Moss was on the roster a decade ago. It’s really a tailor made fit for the Patriots, who much to many people’s dismay, have shown that they aren’t about to fall off the map anytime soon. Cooks gives the team the dynamic receiver needed for Brady as he enters the last stretch of his career. It’s unlikely that this move doesn’t live up to the hype.
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