Every week in this space, Chris Wesseling will roll out the power rankings for one specific NFL position, attribute or award.
So far, we have covered Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates, defensive front sevens, satellite backs, wide receivers, the Around The NFL quarter-season All-Pro team, best offseason bargains, Comeback Player of the Year candidates, NFL divisions and midseason All Pro team.
Now that Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert is leading the league with nine touchdown receptions, it’s a good time to review the NFL’s top red-zone weapons.
On to the list:
1. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots tight end: Once Gronkowski catches two more touchdowns, he will trail only Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates among tight ends on the career list. He’s still just 26 years old. Gronk is simply too big, too strong and too dynamic for any one defender to stop him in the end zone.
2. Dez Bryant, Cowboys wide receiver: Last week’s 18-yard touchdown in a sea of hands is a reminder that Bryant deserves the benefit of the doubt despite missing five games. No player pulls in a greater percentage of red-zone targets than Bryant, who wins at the catch point with physicality, strong hands, an impressive catch radius and a my-ball rage where most receivers have a my-ball mentality. Bryant’s 41 receiving touchdowns led the NFL from 2012 through 2014.
3. Tyler Eifert, Bengals tight end: The third-year tight end isn’t quite as physical as Gronkowski — no one is. But Eifert is a smoother leaper who consistently comes down with 50-50 balls by high-pointing and flat-out leaping over defenders. He has corralled 10 of 13 red-zone targets. If the NFL’s labyrinthine catch rule wasn’t such a convoluted mess, that percentage would be 11 of 13 with 10 touchdowns.
4. Odell Beckham, Giants wide receiver: Beckham’s 19 receiving touchdowns fell one shy of Randy Moss’ record for the most in a player’s first 20 NFL games. Despite standing just 5-foot-11, OBJ boasts bigger hands than those of 6-foot-5 Calvin Johnson. Gifted with those oven mitts, an explosive first step off the line, the best hang time in the game and an improvisational creativity, Beckham more than makes up for his lack of height in the condensed red area.
5. DeAndre Hopkins, Texans wide receiver: Hopkins is staking his claim as the NFL’s best boundary receiver with Jordy Nelson out for the season. Reminiscent of acrobatic former BroncosPro Bowler Brandon Lloyd, his bread and butter is a contortionist act on the sidelines and in the end zone. He has huge, strong hands and plays with a physicality greater than his 6-foot-1, 214-pound frame would suggest. The lone bright spot in Houston’s aerial attack, Hopkins is just one touchdown off the wide-receiver lead while catching passes from benched quarterbacks.
6. Calvin Johnson, Lions wide receiver: I can’t hold the Lions’ 2015 dysfunction against Johnson, who is the only active player with four seasons of at least a dozen touchdowns. If he had the luxury of a better play-caller, a reliable offensive line and a more consistent quarterback, he would be vying with Gronk and Dez for the No. 1 spot on this list.
7. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals wide receiver: Fitzgerald was once the gold standard, recording double-digit touchdowns in four of five years before the post-Kurt Warner conga line of quarterback ineptitude sabotaged his production. Now that a reinvigorated Carson Palmer is flirting with an MVP-caliber season, Fitzgerald is on pace for a career-high 14 scores.
8. Brandon Marshall, Jets wide receiver:Ryan Fitzpatrick is third in ESPN’s QBR metric this season, thanks in large part to Marshall and Eric Decker functioning as power forwards capable of boxing out smaller cornerbacks in the end zone. Although he’s still prone to miscues, Marshall has come a long way since he dropped a half-dozen end-zone passes in one season with the Dolphins.
9. Allen Robinson, Jaguars wide receiver: Second-year receivers Robinson and Allen Hurns are the first teammates to gain 600 receiving yards and score six touchdowns in the first eight games of the season since Randy Moss and Wes Welker accomplished the feat in the Patriots’ magical 2007 season. That’s heady company with a pair of potential Hall of Famers. Robinson not only leads the NFL with 17 plays over 20 yards, but is also a dangerous red-zone threat at 6-foot-3 with a 42-inch vertical leap and fluid body control.
10. Danny Woodhead, Chargers running back: Perception is not reality. The pint-sized Woodhead has been one of the most efficient short-yardage weapons of the past decade. That doesn’t even take into account his ability to lose linebackers on wheel routes and screen passes for easy scores. He leads all running backs in receiving touchdowns this year after finishing second only to Jamaal Charles in 2013.
Honorable mention:Jimmy Graham, Gary Barnidge, Alshon Jeffery, Martavis Bryant, A.J. Green, James Jones, Eric Decker, Julian Edelman, Greg Olsen, Jordan Reed, Kyle Rudolph, Antonio Gates, Cam Newton
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