Ranking the 2020 AFC North wide receiver groups
With the recent number one overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Joe Burrow, making him the third current AFC North quarterback to include a Heisman trophy in his resume joining Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. Throw in two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger and the division boast one of the most decorated groupings under center.
While the division features elite-level talent at the quarterback position, its wide receiver groupings may be the deepest and most talented in all of the NFL. All four teams in the division have tremendous depth and individual talent at the wide receiver position, but this list takes a statistical dive to see which group of pass-catchers stand out from the rest in the AFC North.
Only the team’s wide receivers and tight ends were eligible to be included on this list, with an emphasis on overall depth. Cumulative career production was the greatest factor in creating these rankings of on-field results.
4. Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens finished the 2019 season with the best record in football at 14-2, including an MVP season by second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson. Some may be baffled that such a prominent team could find themselves last on this list, but I prefer to see it as a testament to how outrageously successful they were in the run game.
The Ravens shattered many NFL rushing records throughout the 2019 season, including the most rushing yards by a team in a season with 3,296 and most rushing yards by a quarterback in a season totaling 1,206.
Although the run game was most prevalent for the Ravens, Lamar Jackson certainly can thread the ball downfield and they do have many high-level pass catchers.
The top option for the Ravens in the 2020 season will be Marquise Brown. The 21st overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft out of Oklahoma University found instant success for Baltimore as a big-play threat, hauling in seven touchdowns on 46 receptions while playing with a screw in his foot.
Brown has since had the screw removed this offseason and adds another year of chemistry with his Pro-Bowl quarterback. Many fear Brown to become a one-trick pony as just a deep ball threat, but despite the criticism, the second-year receiver is projected to surpass well over 1,000 receiving yards in the 2020 season.
The Ravens also took advantage of the stacked wide receiver draft class adding Devin Duvernay from the University of Texas with the 92nd overall pick. Like Brown, Duvernay has the elite speed to take the top off of the defense while also possessing a physical style of play that is ideal for racking up yards after the catch.
In his senior season at Texas, Duvernay led all FBS with 103 receptions and also earned first-team All-Big 12 Honors. Duvernay will certainly be another weapon for Lamar Jackson in the already stacked Ravens offense.
For the Ravens smash mouth, downhill offensive attack, the tight end position is crucial. While their primary responsibility was run blocking, Nick Boyle and Mark Andrews were well incorporated into the passing game in 2019. Andrews specifically stood out in the air attack, surmounting 64 receptions, 10 touchdowns, and averaging an impressive 13.3 yards per reception. Look for the Ravens to incorporate Andrews even more into the passing game in 2020 after a stellar sophomore year.
With additional air options like Miles Boykin and Willie Snead, the Baltimore Ravens air attack is ready to fit in with their run game in the 2020 season. And while they may be last on this receiving corps list, the Ravens have all the tools necessary to be one of the top teams in the league once again this season.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Although the Cincinnati Bengals finished last in the NFL in 2019 with a record of 2-14, Joe Burrow enters the 2020 season with a considerable amount of hope in regards to his receiving unit.
When healthy, AJ Green could be regarded as a top receiver in the division, but he is a huge question mark after missing the entirety of the 2019 season with a pestering hamstring injury. The seven-time Pro-Bowler has amassed 63 career touchdowns making him a prime target for a rookie quarterback.
As mentioned, the main concern for the Bengals is Green’s health throughout the season. In years where Green participated in 13 games or more, the sure-handed wide receiver never failed to surpass 1,000 yards, showing his consistency while healthy.
Cincinnati strengthened their offense in the 2020 draft once more selecting Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins with the 33rd overall pick. In one of the greatest wide receiver draft classes in NFL history, Higgins stood out after a touted career with the Clemson Tigers. In his two seasons, Higgins was tied with DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins for most receiving touchdowns in program history with 27.
While Higgins does lack some of the burst off the line and quickness in and out of routes you would expect from a future number one receiver, his ability to control his body in the air and make acrobatic catches will cement him as a solid number two behind Green for the time being.
Tyler Boyd is another playmaker for the Bengals, now approaching his fifth year in the NFL after breaking many receiving records at the University of Pittsburgh. Boyd provides a quality option for Burrow in the slot position, where he lines up nearly 37% of the time. Boyd is coming off consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and has gained plenty of confidence becoming the number one receiver with AJ Green out of the lineup.
To round out the pass-catching unit for the Cincinnati Bengals is speedster John Ross III, who set an NFL record with a 4.22-second 40-yard dash at the 2017 combine. However, Ross III has also struggled with injuries, only appearing in 24 games in three seasons after being selected 9th overall by the Bengals.
There is no debate that Joe Burrow will have plenty of pass-catching options in the 2020 season, although he is hindered in creating relationships with his receiving unit due to Covid-19. The Bengals receiving corps hopes to aid their quarterback in getting the team back to their winning ways after losing 14 games last season.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers did not live up to the team’s lofty standards in the 2019 season in a big part to losing starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger early in the season to an elbow injury. However, the Steelers have put their previous struggles in the past and reloaded their offense in anticipation of a new season with Roethlisberger back under center. With Pittsburgh’s young talent and key offseason acquisitions, I believe they have the division’s most consistent receiving corps from top to bottom.
JuJu Smith-Schuster returns back for his fourth campaign with the Steelers and is looking to solidify himself as the number one receiver as he approaches the end of his rookie contract. Smith-Schuster came across struggles in the 2019 season in large part to injuries and inconsistencies at the quarterback position.
In his first two seasons with the Steelers, Smith-Schuster put up veteran numbers, hauling in 14 touchdowns and receiving for 2,343 yards, including a pair of 97-yard receiving touchdowns. At just 23 years old JuJu still has plenty to prove in his career and will be ready to refocus in 2020 with Roethlisberger back at the helm.
In the offseason, the Steelers went out and found another weapon for Roethlisberger when they signed tight end Eric Ebron to a two-year contract. Ebron in his sixth NFL season presents a big target at 6-4 253 lbs. but possesses the quickness and agility that makes him a matchup nightmare for linebackers.
Ebron has found much success when paired with Pro-Bowl level talent at the quarterback positions. In 2018, Andrew Luck connected with Ebron 66 times for 13 touchdowns. His speed and versatility have been put on display throughout his career as he has 32 catches of 20 plus yards and six receptions of 40 yards or more.
The Steelers also added Chase Claypool this offseason when they drafted him in the second round with the 49th overall pick. The Canadian-born wide receiver hauled in 66 passes for 1,037 yards and 13 touchdowns in his senior season at Notre Dame. Towering at 6-4, 238lbs Claypool provides another big target for Roethlisberger. While he will most likely not start right away for the Steelers, Claypool can receive significant reps in the 2020 season and should be an ideal target for red zone passing plays.
Lastly, Pittsburgh rounds out its pass-catching group with a pair of young receivers that both possess speed perfectly tailored for the modern NFL. James Washington and Diontae Johnson combined for 1,415 yards and 8 touchdowns last season and many analysts believe Johnson has the overall skills to mold into the number one option in the near future.
While Smith-Schuster, Claypool and company can take the top off of a defense, Washington and Johnson find their success with the short to mid-range passing game, relying on their shiftiness and vision to elude tackles after the catch.
Coming off an injury at 38 years old, Roethlisberger’s window for his third Super Bowl run is closing, but he will have every weapon possible to try and make that happen. The Steel City is known for their defense, yet the front office and coaching staff have loaded up the Steelers’ offense for the 2020 season.
1. Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns had high hopes in the 2019 season after assembling a star-studded offensive attack. Unfortunately, in true Browns fashion, those hopes were crushed as they settled for mediocrity once again finishing with a 6-10 record.
Cleveland cleaned house in regards to their coaching staff in anticipation of the 2020 season, hiring offensive guru Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski will have every opportunity to prove his worth this season as the Browns, under quarterback Baker Mayfield, have a litany of high talent, high profile pass catchers.
When it comes to high profile wide receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. will most certainly top any list. Being a star on and off the field, Beckham has garnered plenty of attention throughout his career, but his numbers don’t lie.
Through his six-year NFL career, Beckham has had five 1,000 yard receiving seasons and has caught double-digit touchdowns in three of those campaigns. His productivity has been down however in recent years as he has only scored 10 touchdowns in the previous two seasons.
Beckham claims a core injury that he had surgically repaired in January limited his abilities in 2019 and says that he is rejuvenated for the 2020 season. There is no doubt that when 100%, Beckham can be one of the top receivers in the NFL, which would be a welcome sight for the Cleveland Browns.
Lining up adjacent from Odell the Browns have yet another Pro-Bowl talent wide receiver in Jarvis Landry. Like Beckham, Landry has a knack for plucking the ball out of the air with his seemingly sticky hands.
The five-time Pro-Bowler had one of the best seasons of his career in 2019, vacuuming in 83 receptions for 1,174 yards and six touchdowns. Landry is coming off an offseason hip surgery that could keep him sidelined for the first couple of games, but will return as an elite outside threat.
The tight end position is once again featured on this list as the Browns possess a pair of hand-in-the-dirt pass catchers. While injured for most of the 2019 season, David Njoku will remain as a staple of this high-powered offense in 2020. In his two full seasons with the Browns, Njoku tallied 1,025 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
The Browns made headlines once again this offseason by signing tight end Austin Hooper to a 4-year 44-million-dollar deal, making him the highest-paid tight end in football. Hooper is yet another new wave NFL tight end that possesses the skill set of a wide receiver on a 6-4 250lbs frame.
The sure-handed Hooper who has a career catch percentage of 77.3% found much success last season with the Atlanta Falcons. In 13 games, he recorded 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns. At just 25 years old, Hooper provides another young, athletic target for Baker Mayfield.
With supreme talent scattered across the board for the Cleveland Browns offense, some wonder how Stefanski will spread the touches. One thing that is for sure is that Mayfield will have one of the greatest receiving corps not just in the AFC North, but in the entire NFL when the browns suit up this fall.