The third installment in our position-by-position analysis of the NFC West brings us to the Arizona Cardinals' biggest and best strength, wide receivers. The Cardinals wide receivers were simply amazing in 2008 and considering that the average age of the top five receivers is less than 26 years old, there's no reason to think that they can not continue to improve. The talent around the division was also upgraded this off season with a big free agent signing and a high profile draft pick, but how is the overall talent?
(Disclaimer: You can go ahead and sound the homer alert if you choose) The Arizona Cardinals have the best group of wide receivers that the NFL has to offer, and it's not even close. Larry Fitzgerald stated his case as the best WR in the league with his record setting playoff performance to cap off his third 1,400 yard season before his 26th birthday. No wide receiver is better at snagging to that ball at it's highest point and the fact that he still acknowledges that he can get better is down right scary. Anquan Boldin, when healthy, is a full back in a wide receivers' body. He's got the toughness to catch a ball the middle and lay some wood to any defender that gets in his way. He won't run by many defenders but he's still a factor in the red zone because of his ability to make the tough catch and take a shot. Steve Breaston came out of nowhere to post over 1,000 yards in just his second season and he's the perfect vertical threat to compliment Fitz and Q. He also made a case that he's more than a slot receiver by averaging five receptions and 61 yards per game in weeks that Boldin missed due to injury. He's still a raw receiver but at the age of 25, he's got plenty of time to improve. Jerheme Urban and Early Doucet round out the depth chart and they'll fight for the 4th WR role in 2009. Urban's a decent receiver who does many things well but doesn't really excel in any one category. Doucet's entering his second season and has looked very impressive during off season workouts, so far, but the talent above him will limit his playing time. Doucet was called a "Boldin-clone" after the draft last year and he's a guy that the staff has been very high on, so a semi-breakout season doesn't seem so far-fetched. Grade: A (although for the record, that doesn't do this unit justice)
San Francisco 49ers - Niners Nation
Sound the homer alert here as well, although I certainly won't claim the best receivers in the league, or even in the division. However, I'm quite excited about the 49ers wide receivers heading into 2009 as this post will indicate.
The national media attention has focused primarily on Michael Crabtree (heartiest thanks to Al Davis). While he is certainly a supremely talented wide receiver, the 49ers receiver corps was already beginning to develop into a solid unit. They lack the home run threat of a Larry Fitzgerald, but they make up for that with great potential five to six receivers deep. This is arguably the best group of 49ers receivers since Jeff Garcia was slinging the ball to Terrell Owens and Tai Streets (who had one really solid year).
Isaac Bruce brings the veteran experience and was the leading receiver last season. At this point he's probably the #1 receiver, coming off a solid 2008, but at some point he'll give way to the youngsters behind him. The team signed Brandon Jones this offseason and are hoping he can finally take a step up in performance (41 receptions last season). Outsiders would probably view those two as the starting receivers given the experience of one and the price tag of the other. However, there's a decent chance one, if not both, will be coming off the bench at some point this season. The most likely player to break through as a starter this season is Josh Morgan, a second year receiver out of Virginia Tech. Although he was a sixth round pick last year, injuries got him enough training camp playing time to push him to second on the depth chart behind Bruce. A preseason staph infection and midseason groin injury slowed him down considerably. While his numbers weren't spectacular, he showed some flashes of big time potential, most notably on his game-winning touchdown catch in the final two minutes against St. Louis.
Amidst the fanfare of Josh Morgan, Jason Hill showed solid improvement in his sophomore campaign. Hill played primarily in the slot last season, but has seen time as the starting Z receiver in voluntary workouts ahead of Brandon Jones. Training camp and preseason will be huge for the trio of Morgan/Hill/Jones in determining who gets starting time. At this point I honestly don't know who the two starting receivers will be for the 49ers. While some might argue that shows no clear cut strength there, I think it's a sign of the new-found depth the 49ers have at the position.
The 49ers receivers wrap up with a battle between Dominique Zeigler and Arnaz Battle for a possible sixth receiver position. Battle is entering the final year of his contract and appears to have maxed out his abilities. While never great, he's been a tough, gritty receiver and solid special teamer for the 49ers through some lean years. Zeigler is a guy with a pretty stark contrast among 49ers fans. Some are convinced he'll be a solid contributor and thus is worth holding onto. Others would have no problem sticking him back on the practice squad even if it means somebody else grabs him.
I've held back discussing Crabtree because I actually expect his draft season foot problems to slow him down out of the gates. While I certainly expect contributions from Crabtree, I'd prefer to operate under a conservative assumption and be pleasantly surprised by whatever he does contribute. Furthermore, I think the 49ers have sufficient depth to cover any growing pains for Crabtree.
All in all, I think the 49ers are in excellent shape going forward at receiver. I won't give them an A because they haven't produced at a sufficient level yet. I won't give them a C because I believe the talent is that good. Grade: B
St. Louis Rams - Turf Show Times
If ever there was a place for an "incomplete" grade... The Rams have no shortage of receivers on the roster, but there's a dearth of experience among those candidates. Donnie Avery, coming off a solid rookie season, leads the pack, and his speed and hands make him a reliable option as the #1 WR. On the other side is most likely Keenan Burton, who showed real potential in duty limited by injury, the depth chart and a poor offense. The team is hoping Laurent Robinson can regain the promise he showed in 2007 with the Falcons as the number three guy. From there, the receivers get even more questionable. Tim Carter has the most career receptions, 80, but he hasn't played since 2007. Fifth round pick Brooks Foster was the third WR in a talented group at North Carolina.
The lack of experience and a prototypical playmaker type has fans and pundits alike pointing to the Rams receiver corps as a red flag. However, the success last year of Miami's relatively unproven and unknown group of receivers and the success of the Eagles earlier in the decade stand as reassuring precendent for fans. The implementation of Pat Shurmur's West Coast style offense and the return of Steven Jackson behind a bolstered offensive line should help overcome the experience thing.
Still, we just won't know until we see them play. Grade: C
Seattle Seahawks - Field Gulls
Week one at Buffalo, Seattle started Courtney Taylor at flanker. That's sort of the "For sale: Baby shoes..." of Seattle's 2008 season. Starting split end Nate Burleson was injured and lost for the season that same game. Deion Branch was not fully healed but not put on the PUP list. He would suffer a compensation injury, landing one legged and suffering a stone bruise against the Giants, and miss five more weeks. Bobby Engram cracked a bone in his shoulder and missed the first three weeks of the season. Ben Obomanu-
Suffice it to say, Seattle flunked out at wide receiver in 2008.
Seattle signed marquee free agent TJ Houshmandzadeh on March 2nd. The soon to be 32 year old free agent receiver will wear Engram's old number, 84, and Engram is a pretty good exemplar for what Seattle can realistically hope from Houshmandzadeh. He's a bit injury prone and his run after catch numbers are trending down, but his hands are excellent and so is his ability to box out and create space. Housh is a sub-superstar with an unforgettable name so he's famous and a comparison to Engram may seem modest, but Engram was a steady and supremely productive possession receiver for Seattle and that's what Houshmandzadeh should be, if in a bigger role.
Deion Branch makes this unit above average. Branch has a bad reputation for being fragile, but before the freak ACL tear in the 2007 Division round and the collateral damage it wreaked on the 2008 season, Branch had missed just six games in his previous three seasons. Branch is not impervious or even tough, but the often repeated phrase that he's "made of glass" ignores that he missed two weeks in 2006 because of a contract holdout not injury and that ACL injuries take as much as a year to fully recover from. It wasn't a year after Branch's surgery until a month after Seattle's season ended.
And yet Branch tantalized with his agility, likely still recovering, his concentration and open field moves and made a pretty good case, if brief and ultimately futile, that he could be an absolute stud in a West Coast Offense. He has great hands, great open field moves, an explosive redirect and good speed, making him, at his best, a bit like a slighter, shorter Greg Jennings.
Nate Burleson is a better athlete than receiver, but away from Mike Holmgren's exacting system, he might finally show more production than potential. It will help if plays out of the slot, because he doesn't separate well and that leads to stretches where he disappears. Because he was once a dangerous returner, fans tend to think Burleson's best skill is run after catch, but that hasn't been true since his thousand yard season in 2004. Wes Welker can attest, RAC yards are there for the taking when opposing defenses play Cover Randy Moss coverage. I've never been a huge fan of Burleson, but he's not yet 28 and very athletic, so there's hope he could become a good receiver and great slot receiver.
Seattle has a few more talents on its roster worth mentioning. Third round pick Deon Butler is instantly one of the fastest receivers in football, but beyond that, a good resume at Penn State, and a reputation for good route running, there's little else we can be sure of. Transitioning to the NFL can take time, and the specific reason a receiver does not yet or even never pans out is unpredictable.
Ben Obomanu could be good depth, but has proven so far to be little more than an occasional deep threat that's pretty bad at being a deep threat. He might blossom if his role is expanded, but it's a long shot.
Practice Viking Courtney Taylor is polished and athletic and reaching a crossroads as a player. One path leads to a gunner job, should he want one, and an early retirement. The other, should he sharpen his route running and make his hands not just good, but consistently good, is a job as a wide receiver in the NFL. The first path is much more likely. His famous flameout and preseason no-shows afford him little patience, and he doesn't have the draft pedigree or pure tools to bounce around the league. He does have good tools and therefore good potential, but somewhere, where Taylor's talent meets Jerry Rice's work ethic, there's a good player, but then Rice's work ethic was as rare and amazing a talent as Randy Moss's speed or Barry Sanders moves. Grade: B
Ranking the reciever groups was easier than we anticpated and here's what we came up with:
So what do you guys think? How would you rank the division? Would any other receiver in the division rank in the top three for the Cardinals?