By Bryan Hall
Our highest-graded group of receivers in the league? The Patriots? Packers? Saints? Nope. Those teams might have the history and hype, but through four games this season they donít even make our shortlist. Looking at the complete collections of receiving options out there, thereís one that is riding higher than the rest.
Itís a well-rounded Baltimore Ravens unit whose speed and pass-catching are overwhelming defenses with impact plays. For years it seemed like the Ravens had all the pieces in place for championship-caliber team, but always came up short because they never had the receiving threats to keep defenses honest. Baltimore finally appeared to turn that corner last year and now have arguably the most complete receiving arsenal in the NFL.
Second-year man, Torrey Smith (+6.1 receiving) is the speed burner and itís his presence as a deep threat that sets up the rest of the Ravensí passing attack. For proof, you need look no further than Baltimoreís very first offensive play of the season, a 52-yard reception to Smith on a post route. Smith lines up almost exclusively on the outside and has had most of his big plays on go routes. When DBís start playing off, heíll counter with a few slants and hitches ó the perfect set up for double moves. By the end of it all, heís got DBís turning in circles (see BAL @ PHI, 3Q 3:19). Nearly 60% of his targets are 20 yards or more downfield and he leads the NFL with 16 targets and seven catches on deep passes.
Playing the role of the savvy possession receiver is veteran Anquan Boldin (+2.2). Boldin does much of the dirty work: slants, crossing patterns, in routes, and mostly from the slot (62% of passing snaps). While he may be the guy moving the sticks, the Ravens wonít hesitate to send him deep out of the slot (CLE @ BAL 2Q 12:34) or with corner routes underneath Smithís goís (CLE @ BAL 3Q 12:49).
When Boldin moves inside, Jacoby Jones takes the outside. Jones has probably been the surprise of the group; he was a starter for the Texans last year, but didnít produce much. With Smith eating up safety help on his side of the field, Jones has been making hay on goís and posts to the other side. Heís pulled in nine receptions and logged a +4.5 pass grade on the season.
At the TE position, itís Dennis Pitta (+2.2) doing most of the receiving. Before getting blanked against Cleveland last week, Pitta was averaging six receptions per game. He lines up in the slot on 72% of his passing downs and at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, heís difficult to defend. Linebackers donít have the speed to stay with him, and defensive backs have trouble tackling him ó go low to bring the big guy down, and he leaps over you (NE @ BAL 2Q 1:53). Pitta is a threat in the red zone with two touchdowns already on the year.
Ray Rice was our highest-graded receiver out of the backfield for the 2009 and 2011 season and the second-highest in 2010. He tops the list again so far this season with a +4.5 grade. Baltimore likes to keep Rice in to pass protect and then release him late in the play is a dump-off option for Joe Flacco. With all the long ball stuff going on, youíve got linebackers dropping deep and a whole lot of space for Rice to work his after-the-catch magic underneath. Heís forced five missed tackles after receptions this season, second only to Trent Richardson among RBs.
Great hands make good grades at PFF. Of the five, only Rice has a dropÖ one.