By: Jayson Braddock
While watching the Houston Texans at Training Camp, conversation often comes up surrounding the talent of Deshaun Watson's top three receivers. It got me to wondering if the Texans, when healthy, have the best trio of starters at the wide out position. After some consideration, I landed on the top five units in the NFL for 2019.
#5 - The Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles edged out the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers for the last spot in my top five list. The Chargers have a declining Travis Benjamin, who has seen his numbers drop year-over-year for four consecutive seasons, watering down their top guys, in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.
Similar to the Chargers, the Chiefs' stellar duo of Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, see their value as a group take a dip when you factor in Demarcus Robinson. Kansas City also spent a second round pick this year on Mecole Hardman, but it's not enough to crack the top five trios around the NFL for this season. I'm a believer in Demarcus Robinson and have been since he entered the league, but he's yet to crack 25 receptions in a season, despite four touchdown receptions in 2018.
On to the Philadelphia Eagles. Philly sees the return of DeSean Jackson this season. Despite Jackson getting up there in age, he's still able to take the top off the defense. Jackson isn't a volume catcher, as he hasn't eclipsed 50 receptions in a season since leaving Washington. What he lacks in quantity, he makes up for in quality. On his 41 receptions in 2018, he went for 774 yards and an average reception of 18.9. That's his 3rd highest average for yards per reception in his 11 seasons.
Alshon Jeffery has been steady for the Eagles. He too, isn't putting up huge numbers in receptions, like he did during his second and third seasons in the league, when he went for 85+ catches in back-to-back seasons. Instead, he has hovered around 60 receptions during his two years in Philly. His value is increased by the 15 touchdowns he's hauled in over those two years, up from only a combined six touchdowns the two seasons prior, while in Chicago.
Nelson Agholor got off to a slow start in his career with the Eagles after being selected 20th overall back in 2015. The last two seasons have seen him live up to his pre-draft hype as he's gone for 60+ receptions in each season while averaging six touchdowns per season over that span.
It's a stellar trio, but they don't go higher on this list, due to lacking a number one caliber receiver that rivals that of DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham Jr.
#4 - The Atlanta Falcons
When you have one of the best receivers in the league, like a Julio Jones, it makes building behind him with that second and third guy a little easier.
Over the last five seasons, Jones has averaged 104 receptions for 1,598 yards and six touchdowns. Most kids dream of making it to the NFL and having a season in which they catch 100+ passes for over 1,500 yards. Jones has averaged that for half a decade.
Atlanta went out a couple of seasons ago and brought in Mohamed Sanu as the Robin to Julio's Batman. Since leaving Cincinnati after his rookie contract, Sanu has consistently been around 60 catches, 700 yards and 4 receiving touchdowns, each season. The duo of Jones and Sanu have been the model for how a #1 and #2 receiver should produce in an offense, year in and year out. Throw in his quarterback prowess as the cherry on top, with a career passing mark of 7 of 8 for 233 yards and four touchdowns.
After two years of the Jones / Sanu show working so well, the Falcons went and found the final missing piece to the puzzle in 2018 with their first round selection of Calvin Ridley. All Ridley did as a rookie was catch 10 touchdowns on 64 receptions for 821 yards. There's no reason to believe that his sophomore campaign is ripe for a slump. Matt Ryan steers this ship and the crew aboard are consistently well-fed.
#3 - The Los Angeles Rams
This Rams offense can run...unless it's the Super Bowl. Put that game out of your mind when considering the best trio of receivers around the NFL. The Rams are easily among the top three units in the conversation.
Brandin Cooks has averaged over 75 receptions, 1,100 yards and 7 touchdowns a season over his last four years, despite playing on three different teams (Saints / Patriots / Rams). Wherever you put him, he finds success. It doesn't matter if it's with Hall of Famers like Drew Brees and Tom Brady or if Jared Goff is taking the snaps. It's scary to think about the fact that he's still only 25 years old and will be in just his second year in Sean McVay's offense.
Robert Woods was seen as a disappointment, early-on in his career, after all of the hype that surrounded him and Marqise Lee as the best duo in college football, while at USC. The USC duo was often compared to the Clemson duo of Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins when pundits would ask questions, similar to this article. Woods may not have lit the world on fire, early on, but still managed to average almost 52 receptions, 650 yards and three and a half touchdowns over his first five seasons in the NFL.
In 2018, Woods broke out in a major way as he put up 86 receptions for 1,219 yards and six touchdowns. Those marks were all career highs for Woods.
The duo of Cooks and Woods were down their third leg last season as Cooper Kupp missed eight games. After eclipsing 60 catches and 850 yards to go with five touchdowns as a rookie, Kupp was on his way to shattering those marks before his injury knocked him out. During those eight games he hauled in 40 passes for 566 yards and a career high, six touchdowns.
There's nothing this trio can't do as far as opening up the offense at McVay's disposal. They each bring special talents to the table and are all expected to put together another huge season for the Rams offense.
#2 - The Houston Texans
It's hard not to put an extremely talented trio, that includes the best receiver in the league and only offensive player to receive a 99-rating on Madden '20, as the owners of the best trio of receivers in the game. Yet, this is where they land in my opinion.
Hopkins has not only played, but has started in every game except one in his six NFL seasons. During that span, he's had two seasons with 110+ receptions, three seasons with double-digit touchdowns and four seasons of 1,200+ receiving yards, including two seasons of 1,500+. He's the best at what he does.
Will Fuller came into the league with huge question marks surrounding his hands and ability to stay healthy at the NFL level. The latter seems to still be a huge concern, but the former has become a non-issue. I don't ever recall seeing a guy with an issue in how it relates to drops, becoming a confident hands-catcher, until I watched Will Fuller's career, here in Houston. His route-running, speed and hands have made him an unstoppable force opposite of DeAndre Hopkins. Fuller has caught 11 touchdowns in the 11 regular season games in which he's played with Deshaun Watson.
Keke Coutee rounds out this trio of pass catchers. While it may seem to some to be a little premature in adding Coutee to this list of great trios around the league, I couldn't disagree more. Similar to Fuller, his only kryptonite, it would appear, is untimely injuries. When you watch him up-close, he's unguardable. While he only played limited amounts due to injuries, he put up 28 receptions for 287 yards and a touchdown in his rookie season. When he was able to come back at the end of the season, he led the Texans in receiving yards in their playoff game against the Colts. Coutee caught 11 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown in his first playoff action, as a rookie. Expect a lot more from this unit in 2019.
#1 - The Cleveland Browns
It feels weird typing "#1" next to the Cleveland Browns in any regard. While I don't buy all of the hype surrounding this team in how it relates to significant playoff success this season, they do have the top trio of receivers in the NFL.
You may not like their effort at times, character or shenanigans, but you can't deny their talent.
While Hopkins is the best receiver in the NFL, in my opinion, Odell Beckham Jr may be the most talented. Beckham's first three seasons in the NFL, he recorded 1,300+ receiving yards every year, to go along with double-digit touchdowns in each of those seasons. In that same span, he never dipped below 90 receptions in a season. The last two years in the life and career of Beckham have been less than ideal, but I don't believe for a minute that any of his elite talent has left his body.
Beckham's BFF may be one of the best slot, possession receivers in the game. Jarvis Landry has never fallen below four receiving touchdowns in any of his five NFL seasons and has averaged 96 catches for over a 1,000 yards each season of his career. Now that Beckham is playing with him, defenses will be forced to allow him to roam the slot with only one-man dedicated to keeping the ball out of his hands.
While the opposing defenses try to figure out how to stop Beckham and Landry, they have a speed demon that can fly past single coverage at any point for a quick-six. Antonio Callaway caught 43 passes for 586 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie. He'll enter 2019 with his quarterback and himself having another year under their belts in the NFL and multiple All-Pros in Beckham and Landry drawing all of the attention away from the speedster.
It’s been a few days, but fans are still playing the big, could’ve-been moments of the Houston Texans’ big AFC Divisional showdown last Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens.
To borrow from legendary football coach T.S. Eliot, that’s how the Houston Texans season ended Saturday in Baltimore: not with a bang, but a whimper.
The top-seed Ravens ended the Texans’ miraculously unexpected charge into the playoffs with a smothering, shackling defense, 34-10, in the Divisional round. Although the score was tied 10-10 at the half, the Ravens pounded the Texans into submission with 24 unanswered points in the second half.
The Texans offense, which had excited fans all season with swashbuckling play calling and electrifying rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, inexplicably played tighter than a gas station slot machine along I-10 in Louisiana.
Texans fans on social media groaned when the Texans started a drive or needed a couple yards on third down by running the ball up the middle for no gain. I’m thinking the team needs a “cussin’ jar” on the sidelines next season. Each time the Texans run up the middle, offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik has to throw a $100 bill in the jar.
Uh, wasn’t it a wide-open offense that brung the Texans to the post-season, including a wild card win at home? What happened? Did the coaching staff forget to take its Prevagen?
What a year
Still, what an amazing season it was for the Houston Texans. Just one year ago, thanks to one of the stupidest coaching decisions in league history by former head coach Lovie Smith, the Texans pulled victory from the jaws of a much-needed defeat and blew the No. 1 pick in the draft. The result was a 3-win season and another last-place finish in the AFC South.
While the Carolina Panthers got their man at No. 1, Bryce Young from Alabama, the Texans had to “settle” for Stroud, who turned in one of the most sensational rookie seasons — ever. Meanwhile, Young is still wandering the Panthers sidelines with his helmet on sideways after getting his brains rattled.
From blown up to blowing up
The Texans blew up the franchise. They started in 2022 by punting vice president Jack Easterby. For a refresher, Easterby was compared to a “pox” and a “cancer” by fans — even an “STD that lingered.” (Ew.)
As I mentioned back then, a Sports Illustrated exposé on Easterby revealed that he brought a “culture of mistrust and constant chaos among staff and players,” arranged for illegal team practices and flouted safety rules during COVID, and reportedly hired private eyes to follow players during their off-hours.
They regrouped and hired new coach DeMeco Ryans — a fan favorite when he played here — who actually faced the field during games this season. They even improved the food at concession stands at NRG Stadium. Speaking of food, name a football stadium anywhere else in America where you can get a smash-hit Trill Burger.
Nowhere, that's where.
Everything that could go right … went right. The team finished with 10 regular season wins plus the wild card victory. Nobody saw any of this coming.
Where do the Texans go from here? Head coach Ryans will get lots of love for NFL Coach of the Year. If Stroud doesn’t win Offensive Rookie of the Year — unanimously — there oughta be an investigation.
Houston's C.J. Stroud selected 2023 PFWA Rookie of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year; Texans' Will Anderson Jr. named Defensive Rookie of the Year; All-Rookie Team selected:https://t.co/9u7iFec6Sq pic.twitter.com/YCXNSOVQpj
— Pro Football Writers (@PFWAwriters) January 23, 2024
Don’t take my word for it. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr., whom the Texans drafted at No. 3 right after they drafted Stroud, were just named Offensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year — respectively — by the Pro Football Writers of America. In the pro football world, that’s a good precursor to the bigger, official NFL award given announced later.
Offensive coordinator Slowik will interview for head coaching positions because it’s well know that the NFL struggles to find white coaches for these jobs. The Texans will be the favorites to win the AFC South next season.
Rekindling the love
More important, the Texans won back the city and its fans. Last year, and a few more years before that, the only business making money was the company that made the tarp to hide empty seats in the upper deck. The sidewalk game day traders couldn’t give away Texans tickets. Literally had no takers.
Now? And for the future? Texans football is back. It’s fun again. We can root for these guys.
Next season can’t get here soon enough.