The NFL’s best: A Detroit News series
Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News
Third of 13-part series ranking the best NFL players at each position.
When Lions coach Jim Schwartz was the defensive coordinator with the Titans in 2008, he had a short week to prepare for a Thanksgiving Day matchup with the Lions.
The Lions hadn’t won a game all season but that didn’t stop Schwartz from staying up late worrying about a solid defensive game plan. He told reporters shortly after taking the Lions head coaching position that it was Lions receiver Calvin Johnson that he was so worried about.
At 6-foot-5, 236 pounds, and boasting 4.3 speed, Johnson is one of the toughest matchups for defensive backs in all of football. As Schwartz can attest, he gives defensive coordinators headaches trying to figure a way to slow him down.
“He’s a young player, but he also has some experience now,” Schwartz said. “He’s learned how to persevere through a lot of things in the NFL, he’s learned how to persevere through double teams; he’s learned how to be successful even when he’s being double teamed. He’s taken a really big jump this year as an inside receiver. Inside breaking routes from the slot, I mean those are run after the catch, those things have been really big for him this year. It’s been difficult for him, but his production wouldn’t reflect how difficult it’s been on him.”
Before the Lions added a few weapons to pair with Johnson, it wasn’t uncommon for him to be double and even triple teamed.
Johnson broke through in 2010, earning his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods after compiling 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The fact that Johnson was productive without franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford for 12 games is even more impressive. Johnson played with three different quarterbacks 2010, having to adjust week-to-week with three very different throwing styles.
“I don’t know how many wide receivers are making the Pro Bowl with three different quarterbacks,” Schwartz said.
The scary thing about Johnson is that he feels he hasn’t even reached his potential yet.
“I’m close, but I haven’t gotten there exactly where I want to be,” he said late last season.
Johnson is one of a number of truly gifted receivers in the NFL today.
Right now, there’s probably the biggest collection of Hall-of-Fame caliber receivers playing in the NFL than there’s even been.
Top 10 receivers
1. Calvin Johnson, Lions: He’s the hardest receiver to match up against since Randy Moss was in his prime. Simply put, he’s a freak. There’s a reason they call him “Megatron.” Take a poll of defensive backs around the league and ask them who the hardest receiver in the NFL to cover is and Johnson’s name will likely come up more than anyone else.
2. Andre Johnson, Texans: If anything, he’s consistent. Johnson has averaged nearly 100 yards per game over his last 54 games. He managed 1,216 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games in 2010 and that was with the league’s leading rusher (Adrian Foster) as a teammate.
3. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals: No one probably did more with less than Fitzgerald. The quarterback play was abysmal for the Cardinals all season, yet he managed 90 catches for 1,137 yards and six touchdowns. It’s his fourth-straight season with at least 1,000 receiving yards and over that stretch he missed just one game.
4. Roddy White, Falcons: White led the league with 115 receptions, a single-season Falcons record, marking the fourth-straight season he’s recorded at least 1,100 receiving yards. White led the NFL with 73 of his catches resulting in a first down.
5. Reggie Wayne, Colts: With an AFC-best 111 receptions, Wayne became the seventh player in NFL history with three or more 100-catch seasons.Last season was his seventh-straight 1,000 yard season. Even more impressive is the fact that he hasn’t missed a game since 2002, a streak of 129-straight regular season starts.
6. Greg Jennings, Packers: Jennings was clutch for the Packers all season, especially when tight end Jermichael Finley was lost to a knee injury. Jennings had 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns and posted 100-yard-plus games in playoff wins against the Falcons and Bears on way to Super Bowl title.
7. Mike Wallace, Steelers: The fastest receiver in the NFL stormed onto the scene in 2010 with 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns. There was some debate as to whether he could flourish as a team’s No. 1 option, but those questions have been put to bed for good. Wallace averaged 21.0 yards per catch, and by the end of the season, he demanded safety help over the top.
8. DeSean Jackson, Eagles: Jackson is lightning in a bottle, whether it’s running the go route for quarterback Michael Vick or returning punts. One of the fastest players in the game, Jackson averaged 22.5 yards per-catch last season, the most of any receiver with more than 10 catches.
9. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs: Bowe paced the NFL with 15 touchdown catches in 2010, the most in a season in Chiefs history. There have been questions about his work ethic, but there’s no question that when he’s healthy, and motivated, he’s a fantasy football player’s dream.
10. Hakeem Nicks, Giants: Nicks missed three games in 2010 but still had 79 catches for 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season as the team’s No. 1 option. In only his second season in the league, Nicks has become the go-to guy for Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
Thursday : Running backs
Friday : Receivers
Saturday : Tight ends
Monday : Offensive tackles
Tuesday : Guards
Wednesday, June 29: Centers
Thursday, June 30 : Safeties
Friday, July 1 : Cornerbacks
Saturday, July 2 : Outside linebackers
Monday, July 4 : Inside linebackers
Tuesday, July 5 : Defensive ends
Wednesday, July 6 : Defensive tackles