By Steve Silverman
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While the NFL has given strong hints over the years that the passing game was the single-most important factor when it came to playing dominating football and winning championships, the league never quite took the final steps to allow that to happen.
Defense obviously matters, and the running game has made something of a comeback. But wide receivers are the game's best and most explosive big-play makers, and they can change the scoreboard and the direction of any game in an instant.
They also present the biggest problems for opposing coaches. When players such as Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. or Julio Jones score from 50 yards out or farther, or find a way to beat air-tight double coverage, they do a lot more than put six points on the board. They create confidence on their sideline and doubt on their opponents'.
That's when major comebacks or blowouts happen, and that's why the game's most dangerous receivers are worth their weight in gold.
Here are our top-10 wide receivers heading into the 2016 season:
1. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger is regularly listed with the top quarterbacks in the league, and he owes much of his success to Brown. The Steelers receiver is one of the toughest and hardest-working players in the league, and he brings an indomitable attitude onto the field with him on an an every-game basis. Brown has overwhelming athletic ability, and he knows how to break down defensive backs and does not get tired. He caught 136 passes for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and the only thing that could slow him down this year is a serious injury. Look for Brown to increase his TD total despite seeing double coverage most of the season.
2. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
After starting his career with a brilliant performance in the second half of the 2014 season, ODB was even better (96 catches, 1,450 yards, 13 TDs) in 2015. Expect the Giants to once again focus much of their offense on Beckham's spectacular ability to stretch the defense with his speed, incredible reach and magnificent hands. While the size of his hands helps him to catch passes that other receivers couldn't, he works at his craft and seemingly turns impossible plays into game changers.
3. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Jones has dominating strength and the ability to run away from tacklers on a consistent basis. Nobody is better at beating the jam at the line of scrimmage than Jones, and he uses his superior upper-body strength to punish defensive backs that try to slow him down. Jones caught an eye-catching 136 passes for 1,871 yards and eight touchdowns last year, and he put those numbers together even though quarterback Matt Ryan was not at his best. If the Falcons can play with just a bit more consistency on defense, Jones has a chance to lead this team to the postseason.
4. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys suffered badly as Tony Romo was sidelined with injuries for the majority of the season, and nobody felt that loss more than Bryant. Working under the assumption that Romo will be mostly healthy, Bryant will regain his status this year as one of the game's pre-eminent receivers. Nasty, tough and powerful, Bryant wins the battle for the jump ball most of the time, and he gives the Cowboys a huge edge in the red zone.
5. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Hopkins has made steady improvement in each of his first three seasons in the NFL, and when you consider that he caught 111 passes for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Texans last year despite their substandard play at quarterback, it's an amazing achievement. Hopkins makes tremendous adjustments to poorly thrown balls, and his ability to angle his body at the last second gives him the edge when it comes to catching passes that appear to be out of his reach. The Texans are counting on Brock Osweiler to upgrade their QB play this year, and unless he is a complete bust, Hopkins will continue to put up huge numbers.
6. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
There was a feeling of dread around the Packers last year when Nelson went down in the preseason, and that feeling never went away during the 2015 season. Nelson is a game-changing player and Aaron Rodgers' security blanket. He finds a way to get open and get deep, and once Rodgers stretches the defense, the Packers' offense has the ability to steamroll opponents. Nelson returns to the elite wide receiver level in 2016.
7. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have been one of the top regular-season teams in the league for several seasons, and it's the physical talent of Green and several other players who have allowed them to become consistent contenders. Green is big, fast and athletic, and those talents allowed him to catch 86 passes for 1,297 yards and 10 TDs last season. Green's concentration will wane from time to time, but he is clearly one of coach Marvin Lewis' best assets.
8. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
While Evans had a significant downturn in his TD catches in 2015, we are bullish on his ability to dominate opponents with his size and strength. Evans is a 6-foot-5, 231-pound monster who had 74 receptions for 1,206 yards and three scores last year while working with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. There is a good chance Winston may be among the most improved players in the league this year, and that would allow Evans to put up impressive numbers in 2016.
9. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
The Denver wideout may learn how the other half lives this season as Peyton Manning has retired and Osweiler has moved on. The defending Super Bowl champions are going to have a hard time moving the ball and lighting up the scoreboard, and that will play havoc with Thomas' receiving totals. However, if rookie Paxton Lynch can unseat retread Mark Sanchez and run the Denver offense successfully, Thomas will remain an impact player.
10. Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers
Allen has established himself as one of the top receivers in the NFL. He was on his way to an All-Pro or Pro Bowl season last year when he caught 67 passes in the first eight games of the season. While his season ended abruptly after suffering a lacerated kidney, Allen should once again return to top form as he is healthy going into 2016.
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