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Wide Receivers: The next Stokley

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More Harmon rankings: Tight ends

I continue my position-by-position review with the often outspoken, sometimes misunderstood, and always entertaining wide receivers. They've made their share of headlines this offseason and keep us scratching our heads on draft-day.

Which target will become a new quarterback's favorite? Which injured player will return to glory with monster numbers? And who will rise to Brandon Stokley-like status from the third receiver position in 2005? Which one will it be?

All those questions and more will be answered as I post my top 50 wide receivers. I'll start in the Bay Area:

1. Randy Moss, Oak
Moss was hobbled by injury for much of the season in '04 and still racked up 13 touchdowns. Moss will be the man in the Raiders "if we get the ball last, we'll win" offense. He's money in the red zone and a virtual lock for double-digit touchdown receptions, failing to do so just once in his seven-year career (2002). It will be interesting to watch how Kerry Collins reacts to having three explosive wide receivers on the field at the same time and how much it elevates his game. But on paper, the Raiders offense should pile on the points.

2. Marvin Harrison, Ind
Six straight years of better than 1,100 receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns pushes Harrison into the No. 2 spot. In Peyton Manning's record-breaking 2004 season, Harrison saw some of his receptions and yards pilfered by Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, but tied a career-high with 15 TD receptions. He's also a guy that can be counted on to lace 'em up each week, as he's missed only five games in his nine-year career. Even if some of the drives stall short of the end zone this year, Harrison is a lock to find the end zone frequently and rack up loads of receptions.

3. Terrell Owens, Phi
While there's no doubting that Owens can pile up big catches and touchdowns when on the field, there's still some concern about his injured groin and the fact that he could eventually face disciplinary action from the Eagles if he acts up. He certainly connected well with Donovan McNabb last year (77 catches, 1,200 yard and 14 TDs) and can take over a game like almost nobody else. Owens has scored eight or more touchdowns in seven of the past eight seasons. Though he's yet to see the field in a game situation this preseason, he's always ready when the lights go up for real.

4. Torry Holt, StL
Holt doesn't get the same love in the press as the other top players at this position, but all he does is produce. He's caught over 80 passes in five straight seasons, racking up 1,300-plus yards in each of those campaigns. In the past two seasons, he's added touchdowns to go along with the other categories, posting back-to-back double-digit TD efforts. All the components are there for another big year in St. Louis.

5. Chad Johnson, Cin
The vocal wideout of the Bengals stands to be the prime beneficiary of the growth of Carson Palmer in his second full season as a starting QB. Johnson's tallied three straight 1,000-yard receiving campaigns, but has absolutely dominated in the past two years. Johnson has averaged 92.5 receptions, 1,314 receiving yards and 9.5 touchdowns in that span, with two different QBs. If the offense clicks as expected, his numbers will rival those of the top players on this list.

6. Javon Walker, GB
Walker has put up two remarkable seasons in a row, averaging 1,050 receiving yards and 10.5 touchdowns. The big difference in '04 was that his number of looks rose tremendously, resulting in better than twice the number of receptions he had in '03 (89 vs. 41). Look for Brett Favre to target him early and often again this year. The desire to win and dominate will override any lingering effects from the offseason contract squabbles.

7. Andre Johnson, Hou
If you ever believed in the third-year receiver theory, this is the guy to watch in '05. He's already established himself as a spectacular talent, having averaged over 70 catches and 1,050 receiving yards in his first two seasons. The knock on the Texans is that they don't have a No. 2 receiver to complement Johnson, but RB Domanick Davis fits the bill just fine. David Carr has been nursing a sore Achilles, but he's not expected to miss any regular season reps. The biggest concern for this group is keeping Carr upright. He's been sacked 140 times in his three seasons under center.

8. Joe Horn, NO
In his five seasons with New Orleans, Horn has racked up huge numbers. He's eclipsed 1,200 receiving yards in four of five seasons and has reached double-digit touchdowns in two straight seasons. Jim Haslet will ride Deuce McAllister's legs this year, which should open up the passing game. With Donte' Stallworth keeping defenses honest on the other side and Aaron Brooks continuing to take care of the ball, look for another big year from Horn. You can phone that one in. Sorry, couldn't resist such a lame joke.

9. Reggie Wayne, Ind
Wayne's the second receiver of the Colts' terrifying passing attack. He has posted great numbers for two seasons, and was obviously a big part of the record run last year in Indianapolis. He caught fewer than three passes in only three games in 2004 and scored in 10 different contests. It's unlikely that the offense steam-rolls opponents at such a break-neck pace in '05, but Wayne is sure to see his fair share of receptions and trips to the painted grass.

10. Anquan Boldin, Ari
Look back to 2003 for a second, when Boldin racked up 101 receptions and 1,377 yards en route to winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. He missed half of last season with a knee injury, only to come back for the second half and haul in 56 catches and 623 yards. With the opposition also needing to account for Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson, Boldin is primed for a huge comeback year. His route-running is just what precision QB Kurt Warner needs, and he's back at full speed.

11. Steve Smith, Car
Smith established a tremendous rapport with Jake Delhomme in the 2003 season. The two connected for 88 catches, 1,100 yards and seven scores. Smith has recovered nicely from his '04 injury and looks to be his speedy self. He caught eight balls in Carolina's last preseason game and will be a favorite target of Delhomme again this year. Smith does lose the big complement in Muhsin Muhammad, so the team will be looking for Keary Colbert and Rod Gardner to step it up. The Carolina defense will also cause problems for opposing offenses, leading to short fields and scoring opportunities for Delhomme and company.

12. Nate Burleson, Min
Burleson filled in admirably for the injured Randy Moss a season ago, rolling up over 1,000 receiving yards and scoring nine touchdowns. Daunte Culpepper will most certainly continue to throw the ball often (over 32 attempts per game as a pro), and the presence of Troy Williamson and Marcus Robinson will serve to take some pressure off of him. The Vikings will look to Mewelde Moore and Michael Bennett to supply some consistency in the running game, but will have no problem launching an aerial assault on a regular basis. Burleson's surpassed expectation as a No. 2 and should be able to exceed those totals in this attack.

13. Hines Ward, Pit
While working out a long-term deal, Ward has re-joined the team and is working hard to get on the same page with Ben Roethlisberger. He's reached 1,000 receiving yards in four straight seasons and has caught at least 80 balls in each of those campaigns. The Steelers will again pound the rock with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley (once available), but look for them to loosen the reigns on Ben Roethlisberger a bit, particularly in trying to stretch the field with speedsters Antwaan Randle El and Nate Washington. Ward will always find a way to get open and make things happen across the middle.

14. Darrell Jackson, Sea
The Seahawks passing attack failed to live up to the preseason hype a year ago, as Jackson and the departed Koren Robinson dropped more passes than perhaps any receiving combo in history. He still managed to catch 87 passes despite those difficulties. Beyond Jackson, the Seahawks are looking to Bobby Engram and veterans Jerome Pathon and Joe Jurevicius to keep the chains moving. Mike Holmgren's offense in 2005 will feature a steady diet of Shaun Alexander, whose knack for finding the end zone, combined with the question marks at receiver slides Jackson down a couple pegs on my board.

15. Michael Clayton, Tam
Clayton caught 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie with little help in the receiving corps and multiple changes at QB. A healthy Joey Galloway and building continuity at QB with Brian Griese under center should only help Clayton's cause this year. The Buccaneers welcome in a rookie running back to shoulder the load this year, with Carnell "Cadillac" Williams expected to pile up yards. If Williams is effective and the line holds up, Griese should be able to build on his 20 touchdowns passes from '04, to the benefit of Clayton.

16. Roy Williams, Det
Williams battled through an ankle sprain and erratic QB play to post a tremendous rookie campaign of 54 catches, 817 yards and eight touchdowns. Williams is an athletic performer who can make up for inaccurate throws with his flair for the dramatic. The Lions should be much improved on offense, if only by handing the ball off with greater frequency to Kevin Jones. Detroit also has a myriad of other tremendous receiving options at the disposal of Joey Harrington and Jeff Garcia (Mike Williams, Charles Rogers, Kevin Johnson and Marcus Pollard). As Dave Wannstedt once said while coaching the division rival Bears, "All the pieces are in place."

17. Ashley Lelie, Den
Lelie defines the term "big play receiver." He averaged over 20 yards per catch last year, rolling up over 1,000 yards with seven touchdowns. And he hit those marks with only 54 receptions! Lelie spent his offseason getting stronger and has worked extensively on intermediate and middle routes this summer. Lost in the euphoria of Reuben Droughns' breakout year was the fact that Jake Plummer threw for over 4,000 yards for the first time in his career. Yes, he'll drive you nuts with ill-advised throws (that lefty toss from last year still haunts me), but he'll put up points and yards in this system, and Lelie will be the top guy.

18. Deion Branch, NE
Branch hass shown to be a clutch player on the big stage, capturing the Super Bowl MVP last year. Now, it's time for Branch to consistently hook up with Tom Brady over the course of a full season. He's yet to play in this preseason, but is expected to see action this coming week. Branch averaged a solid 13 yards per catch last year, and caught a career-high four touchdowns in nine games. The addition of Andre' Davis should help to spread the field, allowing Brady and Branch to connect on routes over the middle and letting him do his work after the catch. The propensity of Brady to spread the ball around to his multiple receivers (with two great tight ends) remains the primary concern for Branch.

19. Drew Bennett, Ten
There was some concern when Derrick Mason left for the Ravens this offseason, but a trio of rookies (Brandon Jones, Courtney Roby, and Roydell Williams) have stepped up to allow people to breathe a little easier when considering the possibilities for Steve McNair, Bennett and the Titans offense. And, big target Tyrone Calico looks like he'll be ready to roll for the season opener and second-year TE Ben Troupe should be cleared to play as well. So, there appears to be more help for Bennett than originally anticipated. A concern is that Bennett will face a steady diet of double-teams as the top target. Also of concern is that most of his production came in three remarkable performances (28 catches, 517 yards and eight touchdowns) off the arm of Billy Volek late in '04. However, at 6-foot-5, he will create some match-up problems downfield and keep those receiving totals high.

20. Lee Evans, Buf
As they say, "speed kills," and there's no question that Evans has speed to spare. He lit up the scoreboard in the second half of the year, posting big gains and finding paydirt on nine occasions. Defenses will be forced to pay attention to the shifty running of Willis McGahee, freeing Evans and fellow wideout Eric Moulds.

21. Jimmy Smith, Jac
The Jaguars are building a solid receiving corps (Reggie Williams and Matt Jones) behind the reliable Smith, who has gone over 1,000 receiving yards in eight of the past nine seasons (in 2003, he missed four games due to a suspension). With QB Byron Leftwich ready to make a leap in production this year, Smith remains his safety valve. The potential downside is that Smith is 36 years old, but he hasn't missed a game, outside of the suspension, since 2000.

22. Laveranues Coles, NYJ
Coles and Chad Pennington established a rapport in Coles' first stint in New York. He caught 89 balls for 1,264 yards in 2002 before leaving for Washington. The two picked up right where they left off last Friday (6/19), hooking up for six completions, 57 yards and a touchdown against Minnesota. Naturally, Coles is like Keyshawn Johnson in leagues that reward receptions, as he'll catch more than his fair share of passes. Pennington's shoulder appears fine right now, which means big totals for Coles this year.

23. Isaac Bruce, StL
Bruce recorded his highest reception total in a decade with 89 catches in 2004. He was targeted early and often by Marc Bulger, and that should not change terribly much this year. The offensive line is solid and Steven Jackson is ready to bulldoze defenders to the tune of five yards a pop. That'll soften the middle of the defense and leave room for Bruce to wreak havoc. Since an injury-shortened 1998 season, Bruce has piled up over 980 yards in each of the past six years and always contributes a handful of touchdowns.

24. Larry Fitzgerald, Ari
The Cardinals have put together one of the more intriguing offenses in the game this year, bringing in Kurt Warner to run the show and drafting speedster J.J. Arrington from Cal. Fitzgerald will benefit from a full year of Anquan Boldin running opposite him, and Bryant Johnson (49 receptions, 537 yards in '04) is a solid third option. If the offensive line can keep Warner upright, the trio of receivers should make fantasy owners happy, with Fitzgerald dominating around the goal line.

25. Plaxico Burress, NYG
Burress is playing with a chip on his shoulder in '05 with all of the questions about his health and ability to make a play. He posted two huge years in 2002 and 2003 opposite Hines Ward and will look to become a No. 1 receiver in his own right this year. The inability to stay healthy in '04 has him slipping in drafts and may make him a mid-round steal.

26. Donald Driver, GB: Walker will draw the double-team, leaving Driver to dominate second CBs for another year. He'll record his third 1,000-yard season, but will find it hard to replicate the nine scores.
27. Chris Chambers, Mia: Chambers has yet to have that huge year (even with 11 TDs in '03, he was under 1,000 yards). If Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and running game gets on-track, this could be his first.
28. Jerry Porter, Oak: Lingering hamstring concerns have kept Porter off the field in the first two preseason games. Just shy of 1,000 yards with nine scores in '04, he now has Moss to take on the double-teams.
29. Derrick Mason, Bal: Mason comes off of his ourth straight 1,000-yard season with the Titans. Defenses will continue to put eight in the box for Jamal Lewis until Kyle Boller steps up.
30. Muhsin Muhammad, Chi: Slips in the ranks after Grossman's injury. Can Chad Hutchinson find him?
31. Rod Smith, Den: Seven 1,000-yard seasons in eight years and top TD total since 2001 last year with the emergence of Lelie.
32. Donte' Stallworth, NO: Was more reliable and consistent in '04, reaching new heights in receptions and yards. In 2005, he'll eclipse his rookie TD total (8).
33. Eric Moulds, Buf: Moulds has gone over 1,000 receiving yards every other year for the past seven seasons. He's established a solid connection with J.P. Losman and should reach that total again.
34. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Cin: Exploded onto the scene with 73 catches and nearly 1,000 yards in '04. Will start opposite Chad Johnson in what many expect to be a huge year for the Bengals attack.
35. Eddie Kennison, KC: Reached the 1,000-yard mark in 2004 in his ninth NFL season and scored a career-high eight touchdowns. Big line and all the other pieces in place means another solid season (owns three straight with 850-plus receiving yards).
36. Santana Moss, Was: Slowed by injury and the "Curtis Martin Experience" in 2004, Moss decided to move on to the Redskins. His reception total should rebound toward his 2003 mark, but Chris Cooley will vulture some red zone looks.
37. Charles Rogers, Det: Can he stay on the field? Nice TD reception from Jeff Garcia this past week. He'll will be a nice speed complement to Roy Williams.
38. Justin McCareins, NYJ: Didn't quite live up to this columnist's "sleeper" projections of '04, but 56 catches for 770 yards wasn't terrible. I put him there again with a healthy Chad Pennington and speedy Laveranues Coles back in the mix.
39. Brandon Stokley, Ind: Unlikely to repeat his dominant '04 performance, but still a threat in potent Colts attack. His injury this preseason has pushed him down the draft board
40. Antwaan Randle El, Pit: Will factor into the starting mix with Cedrick Wilson opposite Hines Ward. Randle El will be a deep threat for Roethlisberger this year.
41. Keenan McCardell, SD: Didn't find the end zone but once in 2004, but Drew Brees looked at him frequently in his seven weeks of playing time (31 catches for 393 yards).
42. David Givens, NE: Contract-year player who'll play the No. 2 role to Branch. Look for the catches to drop, but attention in the red zone to increase, a la 2003 (six TD).
43. Keyshawn Johnson, Dal: Johnson has recorded 60 or more catches in eight of his nine NFL seasons (2003 suspension-shortened year is the exception). Highest TD total (6) since 2000 last year. He will benefit from Drew Bledsoe's arrival.
44. Keary Colbert, Car: Great route runner who'll build on a solid rookie season (47 catches, 754 yards, 5 TD) opposite Steve Smith.
45. Antonio Bryant, Cle: The Browns traded Andre' Davis to NE, pushing Bryant to the starting spot opposite Braylon Edwards. Look for him to eclipse his 733 yards, 6-TD rookie year.
46. Marcus Robinson: Travis Taylor may be the No. 2 option, but a healthy Robinson owns the red zone.
47. Braylon Edwards, Cle: Hasn't been in camp long, but already leaving mouths agape. Speed and size combo makes him a threat.
48. Amani Toomer, NYG: Had streak of five straight 1,000-yard seasons snapped in 2004. With addition of Burress, should approach that mark in '05.
49. Tyrone Calico, Ten: He's a monster in the red zone if he can stay healthy. He'll see his first game action in the next exhibition tilt.
50. Ronald Curry, Oak: Curry was on his way to a big year before his Achilles injury in '04. He's got a shot at becoming the third 1,000-yard receiver in an explosive Oakland attack.

And this year's candidate for the Brandon Stokley breakout year …

Kevin Curtis, StL
The word is beginning to spread about the speed and ability of this third-year receiver from Utah State. He caught four passes for 127 yards and two scores in the Rams' loss to the Chargers. In sporadic duty a year ago, he flashed the speed that will make him a great draft-day sleeper pick. Curtis caught 32 passes over 13 games last year. The eye-popping fact underlying those numbers is that he ripped off receptions of 30 or more yards in four of those contests. Mike Martz loves to show off his genius, and this year that means ample opportunities for No. 83 downfield.