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Ranking the WR units the Patriots will face in 2017

Positional Rankings Series: The Patriots’ 2017 opponents — wide receivers.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

In this series we’ll rank the positional groups for each of the thirteen teams on the Patriots’ 2017 regular season schedule. We’ll start at the core of the defensive front seven and work outward throughout the defense. Then we’ll do the same for the offense, ultimately finishing at the quarterback position.

Have you missed a position in this series? Catch up here:

Defense: Int. DL Edge DefendersLinebackersSafetiesCornerbacks

Offense: Int. OLTackles Tight EndsRunning Backs — Wide Receivers — Quarterbacks

When looking at the slate of wide receiver groups on the Patriots’ schedule, it’s no surprise that the team allocated considerable resources in its secondary this offseason. Here are the 13 units New England will face in 2017.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

In what was likely the toughest call atop any of the positional ranking lists in this series, Pittsburgh's unit edged out Julio Jones and company by the narrowest of margins. The deciding factor? The return of explosive vertical threat Martavis Bryant. He'll bolster an Antonio Brown-led group that includes third-year slot receiver Eli Rogers, who developed a solid rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2016, Cobi Hamilton, who logged 467 snaps last season, and veteran Darius Heyward-Bey. Former USC Trojan JuJu Smith-Schuster, the team's second-round pick, looks to work his way up the depth chart, as will Sammie Coates, who started training camp on the PUP list.

2. Atlanta Falcons

Unlike in years past, this unit no longer relies solely upon the league's best pass-catching weapon -- Julio Jones -- for its production. Cleveland Browns castoff Taylor Gabriel was one the NFL's best slot receivers in 2016. Mohamed Sanu, who was added in free agency last offseason and caught a career-high 59 passes last year, assisted in taking pressure off of Julio Jones, propelling the league-leading Falcons offense.

3. Miami Dolphins

84, 110, and 94. Those are Jarvis Landry’s catch totals for the first three seasons of his NFL career. He has quickly emerged as one of the best slot receivers in the league. Kenny Stills returns on a contract extension signed on the heels of a 2016 season in which he averaged 17.3 yards per catch and tallied nine touchdowns. There’s no reason to believe that he and teammate DeVante Parker, who flashed his Pro Bowl-caliber skill set at times last season, shouldn’t continue ripping the tops off of defenses in 2017.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Mike Evans, a top-ten NFL wide receiver talent, has been dominant over the past two NFL seasons. He will finally have some much needed help in 2017 with the arrival of DeSean Jackson and his unique ability to take the top off of the defense. But perhaps the most intriguing addition to this wide receiver group is Penn State rookie Chris Godwin, who has reportedly looked smooth and explosive in training camp.

5. Oakland Raiders

Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are talented enough to carry this unit to the fifth spot on this list, but the depth chart behind them remains a major question mark. In the wake of Andre Holmes' departure in free agency, Cordarrelle Patterson was brought in to join Seth Roberts behind Derek Carr's two stalwarts on the outside.

6. New Orleans Saints

Former Ohio State Buckeye Michael Thomas took the league by storm in 2016. He was the NFL’s best rookie at any offensive position. The underrated and remarkably consistent Willie Snead becomes the team’s number-two option with the departure of Brandin Cooks. Teddy Ginn was added this offseason to stretch defenses. 2017 is likely a “make or break” season for the six-foot six-inch Brandon Coleman.

7. Denver Broncos

Behind Denver’s duo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders lies a crowded group of pass catchers that the team has yet to cultivate a consistent third option from. Rookie Carlos Henderson will be expected to emerge from that group that includes Cody Latimer, Bennie Fowler III, Jordan Taylor, and Marlon Brown.

8. Los Angeles Chargers

The loss of seventh-overall pick Mike Williams for an unspecified amount of time certainly isn’t ideal, but it can be quickly overcome if number-one option Keenan Allen can remain healthy. Do not overlook the combination of Dontrelle Inman and Tyrell Williams, who each return in 2017 on the heels of a season which saw the duo combine for over 1,800 yards and 11 touchdowns. Slot receiver Travis Benjamin looks to continue developing chemistry with veteran quarterback Philip Rivers.

9. Houston Texans

This unit has already sustained its first major injury of 2017 with the loss of Will Fuller to a broken collar bone for eight to twelve weeks. Fuller was going to be heavily relied upon to help draw some coverage away from Nuk (DeAndre) Hopkins, who has been targeted 561 times since entering the league in 2013.

10. Carolina Panthers

This less-than-stellar wide receiver group will ultimately place a lot of pressure on tight end Greg Olson and rookie running backs Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel in the passing game. While much was made of Kelvin Benjamin’s hefty appearance as he reported to OTAs in June, the biggest concern for this unit is the underwhelming performance of former Michigan standout Devin Funchess.

11. Kansas City Chiefs

With Jeremey Maclin gone, this unit’s production is going to be entirely on the shoulders of 2016 breakout star Tyreek Hill. Albert Wilson and former Georgia Bulldog Chris Conley project to be the second and third options in the group.

12. Buffalo Bills

Buffalo, in a clear rebuilding effort, shocked the NFL this past Friday by trading Sammy Watkins to the Rams for a second-round pick. Jordan Matthews was acquired in a trade with Philadelphia involving Ronald Darby, keeping rookie Zay Jones from being thrust immediately into the primary role. Thirty-six-year-old Anquan Boldin, signed earlier in the week to an incentive-laden one-year deal, will presumably see an increased role in the offense than he originally anticipated. He’ll likely be an invaluable asset to Jones as a veteran mentor who leads by example and let’s his play on the field do the talking.

13. New York Jets

Ya’ll know the deal here.

How would you rank these units?

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @Bphillips_PP