Do the New England Patriots have the Best Pass Catchers in the NFL?

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PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 23: Rob Gronkowski #87 celebrates his 36 yard touchdown reception with James White #28, Danny Amendola #80 and Chris Hogan #15 in the second half during the game at Heinz Field on October 23, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Every year, Pro Football Focus releases a preseason ranking of all 32 National Football League receiving groups. This year, to the surprise of many, the New England Patriots took the number one spot. Seven weeks in, they maintain the title. The question is, how?

Do the New England Patriots have the Best Pass Catchers in the NFL?

PFF is one of the most reputable sources for everything about professional football, but even the scholarly fan will question this ranking. How could the Patriots be number one without a star wide receiver? How could the Patriots receivers be the best in the game when their top wide-out, Julian Edelman, is not even among the top 25 most-targeted wide receivers?

In the eyes of PFF, the answer is simple; depth. And when you look closer at the Patriots roster, the depth is hard to ignore.

The Top Tight End Tandem

It’s tough to rank a committee over stars like Julio Jones and Antonio Brown, and tandems like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders or Victor Cruz and Odell Beckham. But the Patriots’ tight end production has been staggering, and the other receivers have been steadily efficient.

Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett are both matchup nightmares for any defense. Too fast for linebackers, too strong for cornerbacks. The pair rank first and second respectively in yards per route among all tight ends. Bennett is also tied for third in the league with four touchdowns, three of which came in Tom Brady’s return against the Cleveland Browns three weeks ago.

Gronkowski and Bennett are the heart of the group, but the role players are just as efficient. Running back James White has been targeted 38 times by quarterbacks, second-highest on the team. White also leads all Patriots receivers in yards after catch with 251.

Wide receiver Chris Hogan, acquired from the Buffalo Bills in the off-season, is second on the team with 20 yards per catch, and has been the best deep threat on the team. Danny Amendola has 13 catches, 160 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 total targets. In what has been a quiet year so far for Edelman, his counterparts have shouldered the load.

PFF’s Other Top Spot-Getters

The Washington Redskins and the Arizona Cardinals are second and third in the PFF rankings. The Redskins have 2,027 yards through the air this year; fifth-best in the NFL. Wide receivers Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Jamison Crowder have combined for more than half of those yards (1,088) and five touchdowns.

The ageless Larry Fitzgerald is tied for second in touchdowns (five), third in catches (46) and fourth in targets (70), but besides he and running back David Johnson, who has 323 receiving yards, receiver production has been down in Arizona. Michael Floyd and John Brown have caught just 43 of 89 total passes thrown to them in 2016.

The rest of the receiving corps are a toss-up in terms of rank. The Atlanta Falcons lead the league in receiving yards (2,348), mostly due to quarterback Matt Ryan’s career year. Wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree have propelled the Oakland Raiders to a 5-2 start. The duo are the only teammates in the top 20 for receiving yards (1,075 combined), and have the Raiders’ receivers ranked fifth by PFF.

There has been no clear number one receiving group this year, but the Patriots have the best record in the league, arguably the best two tight ends, and a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Regardless of statistics or rankings, New England has looked the part this year. Most of the league is still playing catch-up.

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