The Evolution of the Wide Receiver – Was Ray Farmer right?

The Evolution of the Wide Receiver – Was Ray Farmer right?
Reading Time: 8 minutes.

Think of the best wide receivers you have watched in the last few years; Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, DeAndre Hopkins?

How about the last 5 years; Larry Fitzgerald, Megatron, Andre Johnson? 

Even further, Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss?

All incredible Hall of Fame worthy talents, but what else do they have in common, not one Superbowl Ring between them.

It was then Cleveland Browns owner Ray Farmer who said in 2011, “…at the end of the day, when you look at the teams that have these mega-receivers, name the last guy that won a Super Bowl? There are none. The last guy that really helped his team get there was T.O. (Terrell Owens).”

Owens’ performance for the Eagles was in 2005, so of course since then we have seen Moss, Fitzgerald and Julio Jones perform incredibly and get to the big game, but like TO, not win it, Ray Farmer has a point though. It is subjective but arguable that the last elite wide receiver to win a Superbowl was Marvin Harrison of the Colts in the 2006 season.

I spoke to Pittsburgh Steelers number one receiver Juju Smith-Schuster this summer and put that observation to him, I asked Would you say it’s better as a team to have an elite receiver or 3 or 4 good receivers?

Juju Smith-Schuster

“it really depends on the way (the team) plays, if you look at Tom Brady, the Patriots can bring anyone in and he can work with them, Edelman is 100% an elite wide receiver, a team like the Rams will play well if they just have (receivers) that do their job”

The Quarterback

Smith-Schuster makes an excellent point, Wayne and Harrison had Peyton Manning, Fitz played with Kurt Warner, Randy Moss and Tom Brady, and Julio Jones was an unlucky Superbowl loser with Matt Ryan. But what of DeAndre Hopkins, Andre Johnson and the Texans?

Andre Johnson was a star wide receiver for the Houston Texans, playing almost all of his career for the team. At the time of writing he is eleventh all time in NFL career receptions and 10th overall in receiving yards, he was the NFLs leading receiver in 2009. Yet in 2015 when he joined the Indianapolis Colts he described Andrew Luck as “probably the best quarterback he ever played with”. Here are the quarterbacks Johnson played with in his time in Houston;

The two Ryans, Fitzpatrick and Mallet, Case Keenum, Matt’s Schaub and Leinart, Jake Delhomme, TJ Yates, Sage Rosenfels, Tony Banks, David Carr, Tom Savage, Rex Grossman and Ken Dorsey.

If the rule is that the quarterback is what makes the difference and makes the quarterback elite, then Johnson may be the exception to the rule, or are the Texans the exception? DeAndre Hopkins is the current star wide out in Houston, with 3 Pro Bowls, 2 first team All Pro selections and the leagues leading receiver in 2017, the Texans have unearthed another star, but the 2017 season the Texans finished with a 4 and 12 record. His quarterbacks? Schaub, Keenam, Fitzpatrick, Hoyer, Mallett, Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiller and now DeShawn Watson.

What is Elite?

If its not the quarterback that makes you elite, then what? I asked Chicago Bears number one receiver Allen Robinson;

Allen Robinson

“It’s a lot, their ability to create separation and make the tough catches, it’s a league of making tough catches and that’s where a lot of guys make their money, being able to adjust week to week depending on how defenses cover you and still be able to make those big plays”

The ability to create separation and make tough important catches consistantly week on week. We have an abundance of those sorts of players in the NFL today, I have mentioned some of them, Hopkins, Julio Jones, Fitzgerald, Beckham, there are also Devante Adams, Keenan Allen, Tyreek Hill. Perhaps the most polarising though is New England Patriots Julian Edelman.

Edelman will not be a 1000 yard, 10+ touchdowns a season wide receiver, he has passed 1000 yards twice but in the regular season Edelman is known more for making tough plays in important situations, important right? But he is so rarely mentioned when you talk about the best.

In the post season however Julian Edelman is second only to the Legendary Jerry Rice in catches and yards, that may be due to longevity, he plays for the New England Patriots, but you have to get there to accrue these stats and Edelman has been a big part of getting them there. When I posed the question to NFL Network’s former NFL receiver Nate Burleson, he had strong feelings on Edelman;

Nate Burleson

“Look at the Patriots, they may not have an elite wide out, but if you consider Julian Edelman, he’s as elite as you can get in the post season, in my opinion he is a Hall of Famer. He’s dominant in the ways you need him. He may not be the prototypical 6-5 guy but he is dominant in the ways he needs to.”

Scheme vs Player

A great quarter back helps make a wide receiver elite, but isn’t essential, the skills of the player are crucial, players like Edelman have these but are on occasion an exception to the classical rules.

In the modern NFL it is a lot harder for players to succeed, but certain athletes are able to adjust, especially those with great coaches, as they are better prepared for the modern game. Sean McVey and the Rams have revolutionised offence in the last few seasons, resulting in some of his positional coaches such as Matt LeFluer and Zac Taylor being fast-tracked into head coaching jobs.

Rams receivers appear to constantly be open, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Brandon Cooks are household names in your fantasy drafts, and this is because you are always hearing their name called when you watch them play. If 2 are covered, you can be sure the third is completely unmarked on a crossing route, or receving a screen behind a well blocked D. I had the chance to speak to BBC’s former defensive back Jason Bell about their scheme.

Jason Bell

“Without taking anything anyway from a talented player, what the Rams do is amazing, they run the bunch formation better than anyone, and that creates space, it confuses defences, and they do a good job exploiting that, Sean Mcvey is a brilliant play caller and it’s great to watch how open they get.”

The Rams have themselves another great group of wide receivers, as Smith-Schuster said, this can be more important. Having a group of wide receivers over one elite guy makes is harder for the defensive coordinator to simply take away one guy, the quarterback can confidently move from his first read to his second and third.

Becoming Elite

For the young wide receiver, you only have a certain number of hours to practise in the NFL because of the collective bargaining agreement. This means that teams are bringing in players from college and they are used to playing a certain way, the NFL has been adapting more and more to the college way of playing offense, because it is just simpler to get a you player up to speed faster, they have to make it easy on them to be able to go out and play. Last winter Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice explained this very thing to me;

Jerry Rice

“(its) become more collegiate-like because they need the players from college to come in and make a difference immediately. I’m stunned to see that happen but now you see (the players) adapt so much faster”

The learning curve in the NFL is steep, if you take the 2016 draft for example, four receivers were drafted in the first round and its arguable that only Will Fuller has ‘made it’ thus far. The other three, Laquon Treadwell, Corey Coleman and Josh Doctson have yet to make an impact. On the flip side the undrafted Robby Anderson and Geronimo Allison are now talented starters for the Jets and Packers, Tyreek Hill came from the 5th round of the 2016 draft, it could be argued that it is better to take an athlete and train them to play an NFL offense, over a player who was succesful in the College offense.

I had the opportunity to ask Jacksonville’s DJ Chark about adjusting to life in the NFL;

DJ Chark

“It’s a big learning curve, you’re learning about the team, the coach, you’re also learning about the playbook and your quarterback, year 2 you know what’s expected of you, it’s easier to connect with your quarterback. Sometimes you get guys who make a big splash as rookies, but others take a season to adjust and learn what the team is like, what the NFL game is like, now I know what’s expected of me I’m excited about the new season.“

A fine example, DJ Chark is in his second year and having great success having been allowed time to get used to his new job. After 5 weeks of 2019 Chark has already made 485 yards and 5 touchdowns, in contrast to just 174 yards in his first year.

But what of Ray Farmer?

We’ve covered the theory now lets look at some numbers. How effective have Superbowl winning wide receivers been, and how have the best receivers fared?

The following table shows us the Superbowl winning team for the last 15 years, along with the relevant seasons record of their best two wide receivers. We can also see each seasons number one wide receiver and how their team fared.

Some facts that the statistics clearly tell us are;

  • The only league-wide statistical number one receiver to win the Superbowl was Marvin Harrison with the Colts in 2006.
  • Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald were unlucky losers in Superbowls having been the leagues number 1 receiver. (you may remember their teams only lost in the last moments of the game).
  • The average record of teams with a number one wide receiver was just 9-7.
  • Calvin Johnson was so unfortunate to be on what was a very poor Lions team at the time.

About the most interesting have to be the New England Patriots, a real example of the benefits of building a team rather than having the number one players (outside of Brady of course) coupled with good coaching can get you a very long way. Their Superbowl winning wide receivers included names like Chris Hogan, Brandon Lafell, David Patton and David Givens.

To Conclude

The statistics speak for themselves, you clearly do not need an elite wide receiver to win a Superbowl, it is a little disingenuous of Ray Farmer to state that so sweepingly though. Superbowl losses were not on players like Julio Jones and Larry Fitzgerald. Those games could have so easily gone the other way.

Players like Julian Edelman and others who might not damage the top yardage and touchdown numbers, but who can make the important catches at the crucial times are the most important to a winning team.

You can take an athlete and train them up, and in today’s game with such a steep learning curve between college and the pro’s it may be more important than ever, so great coaching is valuable too, be it in player development or creating that all important offensive scheme.

I will leave it to Nate Burleson to make the final comment, Nate breifly joined Ray Farmer’s Cleveland Browns team in the 2014 season;

“You don’t need an elite wide receiver to win a Superbowl but you need one to get you there.”


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