The biggest winners in the league becoming so pass oriented are wide receivers. Not only are defensive backs able to get away with less, but teams throwing more equals more opportunities. For that reason, plenty of receivers such as Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery, Pierre Garcon, T.Y. Hilton, Michael Floyd and Kendall Wright broke out in 2013. This year, a whole new crop of receivers seem destined to breakout. The players I have selected are an interesting group. While some are younger players looking to establish themselves, others are veteran players who figure to reap the benefits of new surroundings.
Cordarrelle Patterson, Vikings: What we knew about Patterson entering the NFL was that he had ridiculous game changing ability, but still needed to develop as a receiver. The game changing ability is a certainty as it was constantly on display. Patterson averaged over 30 yards per kick return scoring two touchdowns. On top of that, the Vikings gave him 12 carries where he totaled 158 yards (an average of 13.2!) for three touchdowns. As a receiver, Patterson finished with 45 catches for 469 yards and four touchdowns.
While Norv Turner gets a lot of criticism for his times as a head coach, there is no question that he can find ways to get his best playmakers the ball. If you need evidence, just look at the leaps both Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron made for the Browns last year.
As scary as it may sound, Patterson might have even more natural ability than Gordon who led the league in receiving last year. At 6’2 220 pounds, you aren’t supposed to run a sub 4.4 like Patterson can. Add in how he excels at making defenders miss in the open field and it isn’t even fair. In a vertical passing game like Turner’s, there is a lot to like about Patterson this season regardless of who the Vikings quarterback is. Production may be inconsistent from week to week, but the potential for huge final numbers are there. At the very least, Patterson is the kind of player that NFL Redzone was created for. He will probably lead the league in plays that make fans hold their breath.
Justin Hunter, Titans: A first round pick in 2013 and college teammate of Patterson, Hunter only caught 18 passes as a rookie. However, on those 18 passes he averaged a ridiculous 19.7 yards a catch. Hunter’s ability really showed in two games later on in the season. The total stats from those two games were 10 catches for 223 yards and two touchdowns. At 6’4 with a 4.4 speed, his ability to stretch defenses isn’t a question, but Hunter has publically said he’s looking to become a more complete receiver working underneath. Along with that, Hunter also put on some muscle this offseason and has set a goal to catch at least 60 passes this season.
Some feel that Hunter could be this years equivalent of Alshon Jeffery. Considering the natural ability and improvements made, it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see Hunter establish himself as the Titans number one receiver for the foreseeable future.
Markus Wheaton, Steelers: With Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery leaving in free agency, there is a big void that needs to be filled opposite Antonio Brown. That role is Wheaton’s for the taking. Despite limited action catching only six passes, Wheaton has the skills to be a dynamic player. He has big time speed and some have compared him to a former Steeler receiver Mike Wallace who broke out in his second season. At this time, we don’t know if Wheaton will be used as more of a complete receiver, or as a deep threat. Regardless, he has a great opportunity and has more than enough ability to produce.
Terrance Williams, Cowboys: Williams got off to a slow start as a rookie in 2013 catching only five passes for 60 yards through his first three games. After that, he showed what he was really capable of finishing the year with 44 catches 736 yards and five touchdowns. On a per reception basis, Williams was one of the best in the entire league last year. In 2014, Williams could be in for a huge year. New offensive coordinator Scott Linehan loves to throw the ball (just look at Matthew Stafford’s pass attempts the past few years), and the Cowboys defense should put the team into plenty of shootouts. Tony Romo showed trust in the rookie receiver last year and should be behind only Dez Bryant and Jason Witten in terms of targets. The talent, and opportunity is there for a big second season.
Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos: Sanders had a very solid 2013 as the number two receiver for the Steelers. On the year, he set career highs across the board with 67 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns. While that was a great opportunity for Sanders’ career, he managed to get an even better one this offseason. Now he will be teaming up with Peyton Manning and Broncos explosive passing attack. While Sanders could have a hard time adjust due to four years of chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger, the Broncos are counting on him to pick up the 140 or so available targets due to Eric Decker’s departure. With Manning at the helm surrounded by various playmakers, Sanders should be able to post the first 1,000 yard season of his career.
Golden Tate, Lions: 2013 is a year Tate will never forget. Not only did he set career highs in both receptions and yards, but played a huge role on a Seahawks team that won a Super Bowl. Despite the Seahawks having with a more conservative approach to the passing game, Tate was able to rack up 898 yards on less than 100 targets.
While winning a Super Bowl is usually the ultimate goal in a players career, Tate should really begin to see his individual numbers take off in 2014.
This offseason, he joined the Lions where he will be the benefit of constant single coverage opposite Calvin Johnson. By joining the Lions, Tate solves two things the Lions had been lacking in the passing game. The first one is simply catching the football. As a team in 2013, the Lions led the league in drops but Tate was one of the most sure handed receivers in the league this past season. Along with that, he is already the second best receiver Matthew Stafford has had to throw to in his career due to his ability to operate in all aspects of the passing game.
Tate can excel in short and intermediate areas due to his physicality and ability after the catch. To go with that, he is also able to beat defenders deep both due to his speed and playing bigger than his listed 5’10 height. The Lions offense should resemble that of the Saints which has been a dominant passing attack for years now. Tate will probably be asked to move around all over the field and essentially be a high end version of Lance Moore. Considering Tate’s skills and how productive Moore was, a year of 1,100 yards and six touchdowns is in play.