NFL training camps are kicking into gear, and we’re just nine games away from the first preseason game.
While we get excited by this first taste of football, many of the storylines you see coming out of training camp can be misleading. Players are making one-handed catches or looking really fast on the field, but in shorts and t-shirts and without much contact, it can be hard to determine what’s really useful information.
That’s why, this offseason, we’re going to be filtering through the news for you and helping to identify the key training camp storylines that you should be paying attention to for each position. We’ve already covered the running back and quarterback positions, so today we’ll turn our attention to wide receivers.
What’s the Impact of Star Receivers on New Teams?
Three of the biggest moves of the offseason were the trades of star receivers A.J. Brown, Tyreek Hill, and Davante Adams, all former All-Pros in their athletic prime. As training camps open, we can get a chance to not only see how each player adapts to their new team and offensive scheme but how their former team is able to fill the void in production.
Davante Adams is likely the biggest name who changed teams in the offseason when the Packers dealt him to Las Vegas. The five-time Pro Bowler will take his 8,121 career receiving yards and 73 touchdowns to Las Vegas in an offense that already features Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow.
Adams is without question the most dynamic of the group, but it will be interesting to see how targets are dispersed. Aaron Rodgers would often force-feed Adams targets in Green Bay, but it’s unclear if Derek Carr will too. It’s also unclear how much, if any, of Adams’ production was tied to Rodgers being a Hall of Fame quarterback.
With Adams gone (in addition to Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanemious St. Brown), the Packers need to replace 241 targets, 2,081 yards, and 14 touchdowns. The returning leading receiver is Allen Lazard, who finished with 40 receptions and 513 yards. He’ll be joined by rookie Christian Watson and oft-injured veterans Sammy Watkins and Randall Cobb.
Watson is certainly the name to watch since he was the second-most athletic receiver in pre-draft testing since 1987, trailing only Calvin Johnson. However, it will certainly be a different offense in Green Bay.
The same can be said for the Kansas City Chiefs, who will need to replace Tyreek Hill, after dealing him to the Miami Dolphins. The Chiefs will still certainly rely on Travis Kelce, but the team signed Juju Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling and drafted explosive rookie Skyy Moore in hopes of replacing Hill’s production.
In 2020, Smith-Schuster’s last full season, he caught 128 passes, and Valdes-Scantling had 55 in just 11 games last season and was pacing for 85 targets of his own, so it will be interesting to see who can emerge there.
Meanwhile, Hill joins an offense in Miami that was led last year by explosive rookie Jaylen Waddle. How will those two co-exist and, how much will Hill be impacted by leaving Patrick Mahomes for Tua Tagovailoa? Will new head coach Mike McDaniel use Hill in the same creative ways he used Deebo Samuel last year in San Francisco? These are questions training camp will begin to give us answers to.
Lastly, A.J. Brown was traded on draft night to give Jalen Hurts a primary weapon in Philadelphia. Our friends at Philly Sports Network covered that trade when it went down, so check out their breakdown to see what to look for with the Eagles.
In Tennessee, they will turn to Robert Woods and rookie first-round pick Treylon Burks to fill the void. However, this is still a run-first team. A.J. Brown never once hit 110 targets in a season, and, in the past five seasons, the Titans have never ranked higher than 26th in total pass attempts. So we have to wonder if losing Brown will actually change their offense that much?
Other wide receivers who changed teams that are worth tracking in the offseason are Amari Cooper (now in Cleveland), Marquise Brown (now in Arizona), Allen Robinson (now with the Rams), and DeVante Parker (now in New England).
Is Michael Thomas Truly Back?
It’s been over a year since we’ve seen Michael Thomas on the football field. The veteran started only five games during the 2020 season before injuring his ankle. Thomas tried to play through it but wound up aggravating the injury more. After missing all of last season, there were questions about when we would actually see him back on the field.
The last time Thomas played a full season, he caught 149 passes for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns and was named Offensive Player of the Year. After that troublesome ankle injury, will he be the same player? If not, can he still be a difference-maker at wide receiver? These are the questions we can begin to start getting answers to now that Thomas is back at practice for the Saints.
How Will Injured Talents (Chris Godwin, Michael Gallup) Recover?
Speaking of injuries, Chris Godwin and Michael Gallup were both in the middle of breakout years before tearing their ACLs last season. While many assumed both wide receivers would be out for the first few weeks, Chris Godwin avoided the PUP (physically unable to perform) list and is currently practicing with the team. However, it’s unclear just how healthy he is, and we know that players who return from injuries months ahead of schedule can often re-aggravate the injury or not perform up to standards.
With the Bucs also signing Julio Jones and Russell Gage in the offseason, do they need to rush Godwin back? If he does play in Week 1, what kind of role will we see for him out of the gate?
In Dallas, it seems likely that we won’t see Gallup for the first month of the season. However, he has a good chance to become the number two receiver for the Cowboys now that Amari Cooper is in Cleveland. In the meantime, the Cowboys will turn to fourth-year-pro James Washington and rookie Jalen Tolbert, but can either one of them perform at a level high enough to hold off Gallup when he’s back? Will the absence of Gallup and Cooper hold this Cowboys offense back too much early in the season?
Which Young Receivers Are Ready to Take the Next Step?
Across the league, many young wide receivers who have flashed elite talent are getting new opportunities to show what they’re capable of. Gabriel Davis is now the number two wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills. Elijah Moore is coming into Jets camp fully healthy. Michael Pittman Jr. now gets to catch passes from Mat Ryan in Indianapolis. Amon-Ra St. Brown will be a full-time starter in Detroit, and Rondale Moore should get a chance to star in Arizona with De’Andre Hopkins suspended for six games.
Training camp will be our first chance to see just how ready for the new opportunities these young wide receivers are.
Will We Get Another Breakout Rookie Season from a Wide Receiver?
The last two years we have been treated to two phenomenal performances by rookie receivers. In 2020, Justin Jefferson caught 88 passes for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. Last year, Ja’Marr Chase hauled in 81 passes for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. Must be something about LSU, huh? No wonder that team won the National Championship.
There are some talented rookies hoping to make it three years in a row with a tremendous breakout season from a rookie, and we get our first look in training camp. Drake London’s numbers as a junior at USC look like something out of a video game. His per-game averages were 15.5 targets, 11 receptions, 136 yards, and just under one touchdown. The receiver depth chart is barren in Atlanta, and the Falcons have over 280 vacated targets from last season, so London could be in for a huge workload.
We already mentioned Christian Watson and Treylon Burks, but there is also former Ohio State teammates Garrett Wilson (Jets) and Chris Olave (Saints). Wilson was an electric player for the Buckeyes and finished his college career with 2,213 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns despite ample target competition and a Covid-19 shortened sophomore season. However, how good will Zach Wilson be this year? Can Garrett Wilson beat out Elijah Moore? These are things we can watch for in training camp.
In New Orleans, we need to see how Olave works with Michael Thomas and starting quarterback Jameis Winston. Olave was one of the better deep-ball threats in his class and one of the most NFL-ready route runners. The last time fans saw Winston play a full season, he led the NFL in air yards. He’s never had a season in his career where he’s finished lower than fourth in average depth of target. If you combine that with Olave’s skillset, you have the potential for a big play season that could match Jefferson and Chase.
However, it’s also important to keep in mind the larger context of the news we see out of training camp. Last year, Ja’marr Chase struggled with drops and people speculated that he was not able to catch an NFL football. Common sense would have said that a player who took a year off from football would have just been experiencing rust, so make sure to keep a level head as you consume your football content.