POSITION BATTLES – WIDE RECEIVER (NFC)
Austin and Hurd both have good size, but they have had a tendency to break down in the past. They are both having excellent camps. Hurd has been catching everything thrown at him.
Wade was the team’s most consistent receiver last year and led the team in receptions. Wade started 14 games last year but that had more to do with Rice’s lingering knee injury and he is seen as more of a slot receiver. While Rice had a disappointing season last year, he still has ability. He had a very slender frame when he was drafted, but this year he reportedly showed up to camp with a thicker build. Harvin was drafted for his versatility. He can line up outside, in the slot, in the backfield and return kicks. Word from camp is that he will have a niche role carved out for him along those lines. He does come with some risk and will need to keep his off-field issues under control. Rice is an outside receiver, and if he can stay healthy, he will start at the No. 2 spot. However, Harvin and his unique skill set may actually see as many reps if not more.
Hixon has the speed to get deep but doesn’t always make the catch. He started seven games last season and has experience in the system. Smith was the team’s leading receiver last year. He is becoming a solid possession guy and can play in the slot or outside. He just is not a deep threat or a high-scoring redzone option. Manningham was barely on the field last year. Word out of camp is that he’s been lining up in the slot in three-WR sets. Moss is likely on the bubble, as he seems to only exist on the injury report every year. Tyree is coming back from injury and may need more time. Nicks has size, strength and skills. He has been lining up at one of the starting spots in camp, but has had a little setback by missing a few practices with a minor injury. Barden is just huge at 6’ 6” and 227 pounds. He might need to work on beating the jam at the line and polish his route running. Word out of camp is that he has been lining up in three-WR sets and has been catching everything thrown at him; he could be a dark horse. Smith will have a lock on one of the spots. Hixon will start the season at the other spot, but Nicks will press him for serious playing time and overtake him sooner rather than later.
Bruce contemplated retirement before deciding to return for his 16th season. He has lined up at the flanker spot his entire career. He led the team in receiving last year. He doesn’t run like he used to, but he can still run the routes and give you a good game here and there. He has reportedly rededicated himself as the top receiver in camp. Morgan has ability and can play all three positions, but the team prefers him at split end where he can run deep routes. He is reportedly having a very strong camp.
Branch and Burleson are both coming off reconstructive knee surgery. Branch suffered his injury in January 2008 and Burleson suffered his injury eight months later. Burleson seems to be overcoming the psychological hurdle of surgery quicker than Branch. Word is that he has had a very solid camp. Branch has had some swelling in his knee which has led to him missing some practices. When he has been on the field, word out of camp is that he has looked smooth and has caught everything thrown at him. The belief is that Burleson is better suited as a backup or No. 3 at this point. Branch gives the team upside and more speed on the outside. Look for Branch to be the opening day starter.
Randle El has never justified the money the team has put into signing him. He is better suited for the slot, and that is where the team would like to line him up. Thomas and Kelly were both drafted last year and had disappointing seasons to say the least. Kelly is the bigger of the two, making him more of a redzone option. Thomas has more speed and upside. They both suffered nagging injuries and had a hard time with the playbook last year. Kelly had major offseason knee surgery and could miss time this season while trying to overcome the injury. He has reportedly been limited in practice. Thomas has greatly improved from where he was last year and has had a good camp, but his hamstrings have caused him to miss a few practices. If he can put the injuries behind him and stay on the field, it will be Thomas who wins the starting spot.