When it came to wide receivers, 2021 was a year for the ages. From Ja'Marr Chase's breakout season to former Green Bay Packers target and current Las Vegas Raiders training camp darling Davante Adams claiming the wide receiver throne, there was no shortage of drama, excitement and heartbreak. Even the offseason wasn't safe, with Deebo Samuel's threat of leaving the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons weapon Calvin Ridley's insane gambling suspension making things even more entertaining.
But 2022 is a new year and things are about to get wilder than Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson being traded to the Denver Broncos.
The NFL is rich in wideout talent like never before, as Odell Beckham Jr.'s free agent woes illustrate. It seems like every week a new star is emerging, breaking a record, or making an unbelievable play. We are in the golden years of wide receivers, and that talent reflects in this list. Can these tremendous athletes hold on through contact, show up for their teams, and prove that they can hang with the best of them? Or will they drop this opportunity, leaving their futures in question? Here are five wide receivers who need to step up in 2022.
5. JuJu Smith-Schuster
For a little guy, Tyreek Hill's departure from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Miami Dolphins left a big hole in the Chiefs' high-powered offense. JuJu has been brought in to fill that giant hole. Is it ridiculous to expect JuJu to have the same impact on the game as Tyreek Hill, one of the more electric players we've seen in NFL history? Yes. But it is not ridiculous to expect Smith-Schuster to have the best season of his career.
Since he entered the league in 2017, JuJu's success has been at the mercy of an aging Ben Roethlisberger and an underwhelming Mason Rudolph. This has led to JuJu seemingly never reaching his full potential, eclipsing 1000 yards only once during his tenure in Pittsburgh. Coming off an injury-ridden 2021 campaign, JuJu is going to get the chance to prove what he's really made of, with NFL and Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes under center. Can he return to his 2018 Pro Bowl form, or perhaps eclipse it? Or will he be unable to fill the hole that Tyreek left in a meaningful way?
4. AJ Brown
The Tennessee Titans had a disappointing end to the 2021-22 season, losing to the Cinderella story Bengals in the divisional round with an injured running back in Derrick Henry in the backfield and an inconsistent, sloppy Ryan Tannehill under center. Tennessee, a run-first team, has heavily underused Brown since he broke into the league in 2019, and Brown wanted an opportunity to be the true WR1 on a team that could get him the ball more consistently, especially after former first-round pick Corey Davis left for the Jets.
So naturally, Tennessee traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles.
While Brown is likely to be targeted slightly more consistently, he will still be sharing the load with DeVonta Smith. It's going to be up to Jalen Hurts and the Philly offense to use Brown effectively. But it's going to be up to Brown to prove that he can stay healthy and thrive in a larger role.
3. Allen Robinson II
Allen Robinson has only known dysfunction in his NFL career, as he's spent significant time with the Chicago Bears and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 29-year-old Robinson is coming off the least productive year of his career (aside from his 2017 season in which he only played one game), and is looking for a fresh start with the Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams. On top of a hamstring strain that left him out of five games last year, the dysfunctional Bears offense and a raw and unsteady Justin Fields led to Robinson really struggling for the first time in his career.
Normally a very reliable, productive option, he had career lows in almost every category in 2021. His production will likely improve immediately on the Rams offense, catching passes from veteran Matthew Stafford and lined up across from All-Pro Cooper Kupp. This is Robinson's chance to prove to the NFL that it was a system issue with the Bears, not a personal issue, and that he can be a key piece to a Rams team that has aspirations of a Super Bowl repeat.
2. Michael Thomas
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The enigma that is New Orleans Saints wideout Michael Thomas. It's easy to forget that just three seasons ago, Michael Thomas broke the NFL single-season record for receptions. Since then, however, he has played seven games in the last two seasons, including missing the entire 2021 season due to a setback during rehab from his high ankle sprain that forced him to miss the majority of the 2020 season.
The fact of the matter is we don't know who Michael Thomas is anymore. Three years ago, when paired with the legendary Drew Brees, he was regarded as the best receiver in the league by many. But after almost two years out of the game, with a new quarterback and a new coach, the mystery of Michael Thomas is far from being solved. Can he return to his 2019 greatness? Or will he fade into the background like so many other talented receivers have after significant injuries? Only time will tell.
1. Kenny Golladay
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This year is a make-or-break year for Kenny Golladay. The Giants brought Golladay in last season and gave him a hefty contract to be Daniel Jones's No. 1 target. Golladay, who was one of the highest-paid receivers in the NFL last season, did not reach the end zone in 2021, totaling only 521 yards on 37 receptions. This had a lot to do with the Giants' less-than-stellar offense, which finished dead last in almost every offensive category, but it also had a lot to do with Golladay's inability to stay healthy and a lack of chemistry with Daniel Jones.
In 2022, Golladay will be the biggest salary cap hit to a team of any receiver in the NFL. With a brand new coaching staff led by offensive-minded head coach Brian Daboll, Golladay will get his chance to show that he can meld his game with Daniel Jones and prove that he's worth the $72 million dollar contract. If he doesn't, his future with the Giants will be in question. Perhaps if things don't work out, he can just slide to the locker room next door and join the New York Jets.
- Amari Cooper, Cleveland Browns
- Any Dallas Receiver Not Named CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys
- DJ Moore, Carolina Panthers
- Marquise Brown, Arizona Cardinals
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