Cris Carter's top 10 NFL receivers
The first thing I noticed when putting together my list of the league's 10 best wide receivers is that size really does matter. I was a big receiver when I played in the NFL. My head coach in Minnesota, Dennis Green, loved wideouts with plenty of size.
So as I began compiling this list, my bias for the position became pretty apparent. It was going to be hard for the little guys to stand a chance when it came to deciding on my favorites.
That doesn't mean I completely ignored the smaller players. I'm just saying I had a hard time getting past all the physical freaks who now dominate the position. They are all over the league, and they're doing things that only two or three players could do back in my day. These players also deserve credit for being more than exceptional athletes who happen to make a living in the NFL. They're all pretty skilled at their craft and are going to be doing plenty of damage in the league for years to come.
That's why it was so difficult to determine the final group. I wanted to include Houston's Andre Johnson, but I can't say he's on the same level as these other guys anymore. The same is true for Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis. Even though they both had more than 100 receptions in 2012 -- and have enjoyed spectacular careers -- I had to leave them off my list because the competition was so tight.
Maybe I'd think differently about that once the season begins. For now, here's my list of the NFL's 10 best receivers heading into this year:
1. Calvin Johnson, Detroit: This is the easiest pick on this list. Johnson isn't just the best wide receiver in the NFL; he's one of the best players, period. There are only a few teams where you'll find the head coach, general manager and strength coach all agreeing on who the hardest worker in their locker room is. Detroit is one of those teams. Johnson has the size (6-foot-5, 236 pounds) and speed (4.32 seconds in the 40-yard dash) to dominate defensive backs on ability alone, but you can see the effort he puts into his game. He's gotten better at releasing off the line and beating double coverage, and his toughness is unquestioned. In short, it will be a long time before his name ever leaves the top of this list.
2. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona: I've known Larry since he was a ball boy with the Minnesota Vikings in the 1990s, so I will always have a hard time downgrading him. Even though he says he had his worst season last year -- when he had 71 receptions and 798 receiving yards -- I didn't see a player who was struggling to do his job. Larry was open plenty during the 2012 season. He just ran into one of those situations where he didn't have a quarterback who could get him the ball consistently. In a typical season, he would have had his customary 1,200 to 1,300 yards easily. With Carson Palmer now under center in Arizona, Larry will get back to looking more like his old self.
3. A.J. Green, Cincinnati: There's no player I enjoy watching more on film than Green. He is smooth in his routes and has fluid hips, and his ball skills are tremendous. He can adjust to the ball no matter where it's thrown, and his feel for the game is sick. He already knows plenty of veteran moves to create separation and get open. There's a reason why he's been to two Pro Bowls in his first two seasons. If Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton continues to grow, Green should be producing 100-catch, 1,400-yard seasons for a long time.
4. Julio Jones, Atlanta: It's not often that a player is as good as advertised, but Jones has been exactly that for the Falcons. A lot of people were stunned when Atlanta moved up to select him with the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft -- the Falcons traded five picks to Cleveland for that opportunity -- but nobody is complaining now. Jones came into the league with a professional attitude, and he's benefited from being coached by Atlanta receivers coach Terry Robiskie, who's one of the best in the business. From everything I've heard, Jones comes ready to work every day and has a grind-it-out attitude. There's no diva in this guy, even though he made the Pro Bowl in his second season. He's all about being as good as he possibly can be.
5. Brandon Marshall, Chicago: Marshall has turned the corner emotionally, and his maturity is apparent in Chicago. He's become a mentor to second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery and has made a lot of tough catches for that offense. He's always been a good route runner, but now he does the little things too: playing hurt, competing relentlessly, producing consistently. I don't know if he's been 100 percent healthy over the past couple of years, but that's another reason why he's earned his spot on this list.
6. Dez Bryant, Dallas: You're always going to have a Dez Bryant somewhere in the league, somebody who has to go through some off-the-field problems in order to reach his potential. I know exactly what that feels like. What I love about Dez is that everything you're starting to hear about him is encouraging. He's making good decisions. It's clear that football is important to him. He's getting into better shape. He played at a Pro Bowl level last season (92 receptions, 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns), and he should be even better this season. Of all the players on this list, he may have the highest ceiling.
7. Demaryius Thomas, Denver: If you like big receivers, then you have to love the 6-3, 229-pound Thomas. He's the perfect example of a great athlete who blossomed into a complete wide receiver. You can see the improvement in his route running over the past two years, the way he makes clutch plays and his consistency in catching the ball in traffic. Playing with Peyton Manning at this point in his career makes a huge difference, but his potential is through the roof. He's the prototypical big receiver.
8. Steve Smith, Carolina: At 5-9 and 185 pounds, Smith is the smallest receiver on this list. At 34 years old, he's also the oldest. But that's how much respect I have for his game. He's still difficult to single cover, and if you look at it from a pound-for-pound perspective, he's probably the strongest player in the league. No receiver on this list competes harder than Smith. The only real problem he's had is exposure. He's played on so many bad teams in Carolina lately that people sometimes forget how good he still is.
9. Roddy White, Atlanta: White is the consummate professional and a player who has really developed since coming into the league. He has great hands. He is a good route runner. And he's become a receiver who understands football at a higher level, especially when you see his feel for when to sit down in zone coverage and how to set up defenders. The more I think about it, White would be higher on this list if he wasn't playing with Julio Jones.
10. Percy Harvin, Seattle: Like Smith, the 5-11, 195-pound Harvin is another small receiver to make this list. He's also the most versatile player in this group. Some people may be surprised that I'm taking a guy who mainly plays in the slot and giving him this much love, but that's how special Harvin is. He's not in the slot because he's small. He's there because it gives his team the best opportunity to exploit his quickness and explosiveness. The issue with Harvin is health, as he's about to undergo hip surgery that will sideline him for three to four months. If he makes a full recovery, Harvin could be as dangerous as he was at the start of the 2012 season, when he was a legitimate MVP candidate in Minnesota.
Editor's note: Harvin announced Monday on Twitter that he will require surgery for a hip injury. He will likely remain on the physically unable to perform list until the Seahawks have a better idea of his recovery time.