Got a good question in the mailbag last week and I thought it would make a good post on its own.
Q: Could you please explain what a No. 1 receiver is. Is he the one that catches most of the passes? Can he be a No. 1 if he doesn't catch 100 in a season? Is he the one that leads the team in receiving yards? Perhaps he's the "go to guy?" The most reliable? Best hands? Is he the fastest receiver on the team? Is it similar to having a No. 1 defensive end, or maybe an offensive tackle or guard. Is there such a thing?
Is it better than having two or three equally talented and dependable receivers? Wouldn't it be better to keep a secondary guessing who's gonna get the ball? Could a tight end be a No. 1 receiver? If not, why? Basic terminology says there is a tight end and a split end. I understand how it has changed to wide out, and could the slot receiver (the back in a pro set formation?) be a number 1? How many NFL teams actually have a number 1 receiver?
In all seriousness, I don't understand and wish someone would explain it. Although I've always heard the term and thought I understood, I really don't. I'm sure I'm not the only one out here. I think there are an awful lot of people that only pretend to understand because it's cool to throw around cool terms in a conversation and are ashamed to admit that they don't.
Pete J., Mt. Prospect
A: Well, Pete, I'm not going to claim to be the No. 1 authority on this subject, and I think it's fair to say a No. 1 wide receiver is many things to many different people. Let me just say that the definition of No. 1 wide receiver, in my book, is an elite wideout who could start for any team in the league. I like to think of a No. 1 wideout being a "blue" in scouting terms, and a blue is an elite level player who could start for all 32 teams. By that definition, of course, it's fair to say the Bears do not have a No. 1 wide receiver. A blue receiver is going to be someone who can stretch the field vertically and has all of those traits you rattled off. A No. 1 wide receiver is one who had a chance to impact the game on every down. He can't be a guy who just catches a lot of balls, or gets a lot of catches in the red zone. He needs to be a player that on a weekly basis the opposing defense is very concerned about. Right now, the Bears don't have one. They're hoping they can forge that player between Devin Hester and Johnny Knox.
Would it be better to have a No. 1 or three equally talented and dependable receivers? To each his own, but you can sign me up for the elite talent every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Blues are the players that make the biggest difference on Sundays. Remember when the Carolina Panthers came in to play the Bears in the 2005 playoffs? Can you name the wide receiver who started opposite Steve Smith? Keary Colbert. The Bears knew who was getting the ball and they couldn't stop him. Smith has been an elite talent for a long time. If you're referring to the Bears, I'd be careful saying they have three equally talented and dependable receivers at this point. Devin Hester has been good. Earl Bennett and Knox basically have four games of experience each. They've been productive thus far and all three are on pace for a little more than 750 yards receiving.
The No. 1 receiver is going to pass the eye test almost every time out. Remember what Calvin Johnson did vs. the Bears? That's a No. 1 wideout. Andre Johnson in the season finale last season? Ditto. Even when the Bears had Marty Booker in his prime, combining for 197 receptions in 2001 and 2002, I would not have put him that category. Quite simply, Booker wasn't a dominant player who could take over a game, and he didn't stretch the field vertically. Very good? No doubt. Elite? No. Can a tight end be a No. 1 wide receiver? No. He's called a tight end for a reason.
So how many true No. 1's are there in the NFL right now? Every man's list is going to be a little bit different. I've always said a good ballpark figure is about a dozen. Who would I put on there as locks right now?
Who are maybes on the list?
Antonio Bryant. He posted legitimate numbers last season, but has a bad knee right now and there have always been character questions.
Derrick Mason. You could make a strong case he filled that role last season, but he's probably too old to make the grade.
Terrell Owens. His skills have deteriorated some, no question, but he was a beast at one time.
Did I leave someone off the list? Maybe. There are certainly scores of more talented wideouts in the league. But true No. 1 wideouts? They're hard to come by. That is why the Bears and a score of other teams were hopeful Plaxico Burress wasn't headed to jail. I hope that clears it up, or at least gives you an idea what one man's opinion is.