- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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Two of the NFL's best receivers will be showcased in the desert Sunday when the Houston Texans visit the Arizona Cardinals. Paul Kuharsky (AFC South) and Mike Sando (NFC West) of ESPN.com's NFL Blog Network asked the Texans' Andre Johnson and the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald -- and their peers -- who's better and why.
Familiarity breeds contempt -- as in, "We cannot stand getting beat by that guy."
But with Johnson, familiarity also breeds respect -- as in, "We would love to have him on our team."
"With his size and ability to run after the catch, his hands, his instinctiveness and how he reads coverages, he is one of the best up there," Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew said.
Asked to choose between Johnson and Fitzgerald, whose teams square off at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, Jones-Drew echoes a lot of people in the league.
"I think whichever one you take, you will be fine," Jones-Drew said. "You can take Andre. Andre is a little bit faster running the 40, but as we saw Larry in the Super Bowl, no one was catching him when he broke up the middle. I think they are pretty much the same."
Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said the biggest difference between the two is how they are deployed and their respective team's schemes.
"Both play the same," he said. "They both are physical; they both use their body great. Houston uses Andre different than they use Larry in Arizona. The ball is coming out pretty quick for the Cardinals, it looks like. Kurt [Warner] is not going to hold it long. Andre is different with the play-action and the things that they can do to push it downfield. But they are in the same category."
Here's the rest of our look at Johnson, and a link to a corresponding piece about Fitzgerald from Mike Sando.
Three questions with Johnson
Kuharsky: The best receivers tend to study their peers. What does your scouting report on Fitzgerald say?
Johnson: I think he has great hands. You can just pretty much put the ball anywhere around him and he's going to catch it. And I definitely love the way he attacks the ball when the ball is up in the air. I think he is probably the best receiver in the league at doing it. If you look at the playoff games from last year, he had some catches where you could just throw the ball up and he was just skying over guys catching it. I think he's very good at what he does.
Kuharsky: Even the best players have an off day on occasion. When you look back on those times, what happened?
Johnson: I couldn't pick out one particular thing. I think most guys that have success against me are guys who are able to play underneath all of my routes, and most of the time they have help over the top. I think that's the most frustrating thing because when they are able to play underneath me, you can do whatever you want to do, burst them at the top of routes and things like that, and it really doesn't matter. No matter what you do, when you turn around, they're going to be standing there right in front of you. That's the thing I have the most trouble with.
Kuharsky: Who is the best receiver in football and why? (And it's OK to choose yourself.)
Johnson: The best receiver in football? You know what I just think that Randy Moss, his talent alone, I've never seen a guy that can turn it on and turn it off like he could. Even though he's been in the league for a while, they haven't really been on the same page this season, I've always just been into Randy Moss.
An AFC personnel expert on Johnson:
"He's got everything you want: Size, strength, run after the catch, speed, catching range. He can turn a 5-yard play into a 95-yard play. I think that's where the difference between those two guys is. Some people may have Fitzgerald No. 1, [Johnson] No. 2. Some are going to have Johnson No. 1, Fitzgerald No. 2. I'd take either one of them, but if I had to take one, I'm going to take the guy in Houston. Because of the speed. That's the only real difference in them because they both are big-time playmakers."
What others think of Johnson:
Melvin Bullitt, Indianapolis Colts safety: "When you look at him, he looks kind of like a big, physical tight end that can run like one of the fastest wide receivers in the game. You've got to be physical with him up front and try to get some help with him over the top. Try to play just as physical as he plays. He's hands down one of the most respected players in the game right now with all that he does. He's not a diva at all. Scores, hands the ball to the ref. Plays hard. Doesn't complain when the team doesn't do as well. He's one of those guys you can look to him and say, 'This is the kind of player I want to be like.'"
Heimerdinger: "I love Andre. I get to see him when we cross over; I watched him all last week against Jacksonville. The guy works his tail off, he blocks, any ball within his frame he catches and he's amazing with the ball after the catch. He's always running. I'd have to go through all the receivers in the league and think about it, but I think he's in the top two.
"I think Andre is a great, great receiver that plays the game the way it's supposed to be played and you don't even know about him. He's the best receiver nobody pays attention to because he doesn't bring attention to himself.
"For [Houston head coach] Gary [Kubiak] and those guys, it's tremendous. You're excited to go to work every day because you know that's a problem you'll never have. He just does what he's supposed to in all phases. He really is a good football player."
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning: "He's an excellent player, I've always known that. We've always had our hands full when we've played against him. I know our defense has always had tremendous respect for him. He and Reggie Wayne are good friends from going to the same college [the University of Miami]. He's one of the top receivers in the league. He's awesome."
Johnson's No. 80 ranks in the top 50 jerseys sold since April 1 this year. Sales of his jersey are up more than 50 percent from last year.
Although he was once in a fantasy football commercial for NFL.com, his commercial for Dick's Sporting Goods this year is his first national sponsorship deal and has received good reviews.
His foundation is dedicated to empowering and developing youth from single-parent homes, and he has installed an academic excellence program at a school he has adopted, Bastian Elementary in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Houston. The impoverished neighborhood is not unlike the one Johnson grew up in in Miami, according to his publicist, Stephanie Belton.
Belton is biased, but she says Johnson is the most popular athlete in Houston.
Adam Clanton of Houston NBC affiliate KPRC said he's more likely second.
"He's not the demonstrative guy, he's more of a silent assassin," Clanton said. "Yao Ming is probably No. 1 in town because of the worldwide appeal and because he's so huge. But if Andre isn't No. 1, he's No. 1A."
When Clanton was a host of the morning shot at the Texans' flagship radio station, 610 KILT, Tuesday morning broadcasts were from local Verizon stores and a player or two would be part of things.
Johnson was the biggest draw of any player at those appearances, Clanton said, with fans lined up outside for autographs before the broadcast began at 6 a.m.
ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer says of Johnson:
"He's a very good route-runner. Matt Schaub is much like Kurt in that he is a precision guy, a timing guy, a rhythm guy. The longer he holds the ball, the worse he is. He needs Andre to beat man coverage now and beat zone coverage by being where he should be on time. That is why he can have 10-, 11-, 12-catch games. They can find soft spots in zones with anticipation and trust. There is really good synergy there.
"The big-play threat is there every single play. Andre is a little more explosive than Fitzgerald. He can absolutely run right by you. He can take the top off any coverage. There is always that fear of 'Are they taking a shot here?' After three steps, when he is at top speed, 'Is this a 12-yard hook or a go route? They look the same to me. This guy can just flat go by me on any play.' There is a little more of the burner, explosive, take-the-top-off-the-coverage aspect with Andre Johnson, and they do it more with him. Fitz is a better straight-line guy than people give him credit for. They just do not do it a whole lot. They did it more late last season, I thought.
"Receivers start giving the route away by pitter-pattering and turning their shoulders back. No matter how big and fast you are, you are going to get stopped doing that. You have to keep your shoulders and head vertical and foot speed at top level, and then the suddenness of being able to stop. Now you are unstoppable. The top of the route is where the greatest amount of fear is for the cornerback. If it looks vertical, he is not going to jump on anything."
The case for Johnson as the NFL's best WR:
Kuharsky: In evaluating Andre Johnson as I've covered the AFC South in this job, my previous work couldn't help but affect my feelings. I covered the Titans for a lot of years, and they are a franchise that has long struggled to find dynamic wide receivers. Sometimes when I saw Johnson in action against them, and many times when I saw his highlights, I felt as if he was playing a different position. I'd joke with colleagues about the eye-opening idea that a receiver was allowed to do the sort of things he does: Blow by people, make acrobatic catches out of frame, gobble up YAC [yards after catch].
I agree with Jones-Drew and my personnel guy and, I suspect, virtually everyone else connected with the league: I'd happily put Johnson or Fitzgerald on my team as my No. 1 receiver. I've misperceived their speed in the past but know now that Johnson has a large edge there. Give me two guys with similar capabilities who are about the same size, and I'll take the faster one. In this scenario, I'll take Johnson.
Paul Kuharsky covers the AFC South for ESPN.com.