I retweeted a curious-looking picture during Sunday night's Pro Bowl. DeSean Jackson and Dez Bryant, both members of the losing Sanders Team, went in for a high five after Jackson's first quarter touchdown.
In the modern NFL rival players typically have friendly relationships, so that wasn't all that unusual. Considering Jackson's Eagles just knocked the Cowboys out of playoff contention, however, it was a bit surreal to see the two rivals celebrate as teammates.
That prompts you to look at the performances the two receivers turned in. Getting looks from the same top-shelf quarterbacks, Jackson outdid Bryant with three catches for 40 yards and a touchdown. Bryant, who managed just 12 yards, had two opportunities at touchdowns. He was held out of the end zone on the first, and he dropped a likely score later on.
That got me thinking – we saw who you'd likely agree are the top two receivers in the NFC East compete. How does the rest of the division stack up at wide receiver? Who are the East's best playmakers out wide?
1. Dez Bryant, Cowboys –Doesn't even slightly bother me that Jackson finished with a much better day in the Pro Bowl. Bryant has turned in one of the best efforts in the NFL during the past two seasons, going over 90 catches, 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012 and 2013. He's improved every year of his career. He's got great size and better hands. There are several top-notch receivers in the division, but I think Dez brings the most to the table.
2. DeSean Jackson, Eagles –You can't deny Jackson's playmaking ability – he's averaged at least 15.6 yards per catch in each of the last five seasons, and he averaged as much as 22.5 yards per catch in 2010. He's coming off the best season of his career, following the emergence of Nick Foles. His slight stature at 5'10, 175 pounds makes him slightly less versatile than Dez, in my opinion, and his play dipped in 2011 and 2012, when the Eagles struggled. There's no denying his status as a definite gamechanger, though.
3. Victor Cruz, Giants – I'm sure Cruz was disappointed with the season he turned in after signing a big-money extension in 2013. But if 998 yards and four touchdowns is a down year, then you're probably doing something right. Cruz burst onto the scene in 2011 as one of the league's biggest home run threats. Despite the increased notoriety, he's still managed to produce. He was New York's most reliable receiver last year, despite Eli Manning's struggles with ball security.
4. Pierre Garcon, Redskins –Until you look at the stats, you'd probably never guess Garcon led the league – yes, the league – in receptions in 2013. He hauled in 113 balls as basically the only reliable part of Washington's passing game. He also finished eighth in the league (and first in the division) in yards with 1,346. It's a huge designation for Garcon for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it's the first time he's ever cracked 1,000 yards. Second, it helps disprove the notion that he's an average receiver who benefited from Peyton Manning's excellence in Indianapolis. This is the first truly excellent season he has ever turned in, and the first great season he's had without Manning. It'll be interesting to see if he maintains.
5. Hakeem Nicks, Giants –His 896 yards this past year aren't awful, but it's bound to be disappointing to not reach the end zone in 2013 – especially for a guy looking for a new contract. Despite that, the overall body of work is still impressive for a guy with two 1,000-yard seasons and 27 career touchdowns.
6. Jeremy Maclin, Eagles –Maclin didn't even play in 2013, thanks to a torn ACL suffered in the preseason. That said, I still think he's one of the most dangerous secondary receivers in the league. His skillset is a little too similar to Jackson's, but his ability is undeniable. Maclin has never had a 1,000-yard season, but he also hasn't finished below 850 yards since his rookie year. He's averaged 13.4 yards per catch for his career, and he's got 26 touchdowns in four seasons.
7. Riley Cooper, Eagles –Speaking of Maclin, there was plenty of talk about how his absence would hamstring Philadelphia's offense. Without Maclin, the common logic was that Philly didn't have a No. 2 receiver behind Jackson. In that regard, Cooper clearly stepped up to the plate. His 835 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013 were career bests by a long shot. His outstanding average of 17.8 yards per catch was the best in the division among receivers with more than 20 catches. [embedded_ad]
8. Miles Austin, Cowboys –It feels unfair to drop Austin this low, given the success he's had in his career. It's not lost on me that I'm ranking him below Cooper, who just turned in the first quality season of his career. It's hard to shake Austin's total lack of impact from 2013, though. Unless he can figure out his hamstring issues, it's hard to imagine him trending back upward – despite the fact that he had a 950-yard, six-touchdown effort in 2012.
9. Terrance Williams, Cowboys – It's hard to judge a guy on one season, but Williams was impressive in his 736-yard, five-touchdown rookie campaign. Of all the superstar receivers listed above, only Cruz enjoyed a significantly better debut season. In terms of catches, yards and touchdowns, Williams turned in a similar or better rookie effort than Bryant, Jackson, Nicks, Garcon and Maclin.
10. Rueben Randle, Giants—The second-round pick might have emerged as a new No. 2 in New York, should the Giants choose to let Nicks leave town in free agency. Randle doubled his production across the board from his rookie year. He jumped from 19 catches to 41, 298 yards to 611 and three touchdowns to six.
I'm going to continue reviewing positions as the offseason goes along. Next time out, I'll be taking a look at the quarterback spot.