A generation ago, when Cris Carter was a top receiver prospect from Middletown, Ohio, the glamour guys were running backs. Now, when he goes to off-season camps to teach his position, Carter can't believe his eyes. "Everyone's a wide receiver—or wants to be," says the former Vikings star. "If you were a talented kid, why wouldn't you? You can't be touched five yards past the line of scrimmage, more team are blitzing more often so you can make huge plays, and so many teams are throwing it downfield."
Just as Larry Fitzgerald and Santonio Holmes owned the postseason last year—the Cardinals' Fitzgerald set playoff records for receptions (30), yards (546) and touchdowns (seven), and the Steelers' Holmes was named Super Bowl MVP after his title-winning, toe-tapping catch in the final minute against Arizona—young receivers are primed to have big moments over the next five weeks. Four months ago Miles Austin was an unknown on the Cowboys' bench, the Saints' Robert Meachem and the Vikings' Sidney Rice were underachieving former high picks, Vincent Jackson had yet to break out from a talented stable of Chargers receivers, and DeSean Jackson was ... well, the Eagles were trying to figure out just what he was.
Over the course of the 2009 season, each of the five has emerged as a major long-ball threat, and any of them could be the darling of January and February. Says New Orleans coach Sean Payton, "I wouldn't be surprised if a month from now Robert Meachem goes six [catches] for 180 [yards] with two touchdowns and is the Super Bowl MVP."
In the NFL you can never be sure when a trend is about to start, because new approaches are often countered as soon as they appear. But the numbers—not to mention the highlight packages—suggest that receivers are having a larger impact than they have had in years, especially down the field. In 2009 there were 866 pass plays of 25-plus yards and 710 touchdown passes, both third most in the league since 1990, and pass catchers averaged 5.1 yards after the catch in '09, third best since the stat's inception, in 1992.
A number of factors contribute to the prominence of the big play:
• Wideouts are entering the league better prepared for the pro passing game, partly thanks to their physical makeup—"The best college athletes used to be split between receiver and corner," says Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, "and now a lot more of them are playing receiver"—and partly because more college teams are using spread offenses with four and five receivers.
• Teams are blitzing more often and with more players, which means more one-on-one coverage for receivers. According to Footballoutsiders.com, through Week 13 defenses were sending five or more pass rushers on 35% of snaps, up from 31% in 2008. That means teams are more often leaving a single safety (or none at all) to help on the downfield throws.
• Top quarterbacks are better than ever at connecting with their targets. Drew Brees set an alltime record for completion percentage (70.62%), and both Peyton Manning (68.8%) and Ben Roethlisberger (66.6%) had their most efficient seasons. Ten quarterbacks passed for 4,000 yards this year, three more than the previous NFL record, set in 2007.
Is it a new era? Who knows? But these five receivers hope to make a lasting—and deep—impression.
Miles Austin: The Antidiva