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A.J. Green, Bengals: It’s no exaggeration to say that Green is the most important Bengal of the past 20-plus years. Cincinnati was a mess for the great majority of time between the heyday of Boomer Esiason and Green’s arrival in 2011. Green’s first two seasons coincided with the franchise making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time. His first year was good (65 receptions, 1,057 yards, 7 TDs), but his second year was great (97-1,350-11). With the further development of QB Andy Dalton (also entering his third season), that trajectory should continue and make Green the rare safe pick at WR for the foreseeable future.

Julio Jones, Falcons: Jones is making Atlanta’s brain trust look like geniuses after the Falcons traded up to take him with the eighth pick of the 2011 draft (four picks after Green). Like Green, he flashed his potential as a rookie and lived up to it consistently last year. He increased his receptions (54-79), yards (959-1,198) and TDs (8-10). Playing alongside Roddy White, he’s no threat to catch 100 passes, but the presence of another top 10 receiver makes it a near certainty that Jones will continue to avoid double-teams and be one of the league’s best big-play receivers.

Jimmy Graham, Saints: The veteran of this group at 26, Graham was a basketball player at Miami who decided to give football a try his senior year. Good call. In his second full season in the NFL (2011), he caught 99 passes — 82 more than he caught with the Hurricanes — for 1,310 yards. That yardage total would have been an NFL record had the Patriots not left Rob Gronkowski in to catch a pass from the backup QB at the end of a meaningless season finale. Graham dealt with nagging injuries last season but still finished with 85 receptions for 982 yards and 9 TDs. Factoring in Gronkowski’s extensive injury history, Graham is the safest bet to become the best tight end of his generation.


Torrey Smith, Ravens: Given what he has gone through in his short life and how he has handled it, you have to root for a guy like Smith. With Anquan Boldin’s departure, he is now the guy for Joe Flacco. If he shows this season that he can be a dependable No. 1 WR and not just a big-play complement, he’s going to make fantasy owners happy for many years.

T.Y. Hilton, Colts: I don’t care if he’s listed behind Darius Heyward-Bey on the depth chart. He already has proven in one season that he’s better than the former Maryland speedster. Reggie Wayne won’t be around too much longer, so I expect Hilton to become the next great Colts receiver — possibly as soon as this year. He may not be the next Marvin Harrison, but trust me, he’s not the next Koren Robinson.