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Offseason countdown list part 3: The 10 best skill players the Vikings will face this year

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) makes a catch on Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes (29) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Alright, we’ve reached the waiting-for-training camp portion of the offseason.

While you look at the calendar, checking off each day before camp arrives, we’ll be unveiling a weekly countdown of top 10s relating to the Minnesota Vikings’ 2017 season. For Part 1, we looked at the 10 most interesting players. Part 2, the seven Vikings who could make their first Pro Bowl in 2017. Here is Part 3, the 10 toughest skill players the Vikings will face this year:

1 – Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports 

2016 stat line: 261 carries, 1,268 yards, seven touchdowns, 75 receptions

Pro Football Focus Rank: 1

While the Pittsburgh Steelers have an elite quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, the shape of their offense has shifted over the past few seasons. Everything runs through Bell, who had 336 touches in just 12 games in 2016. He is the league’s most patient runner, basically reinventing the way running backs wait for blocks. And Bell is a terror in the receiving game, averaging a strong 8.8 Yards Per Catch for his career. The Vikings’ defensive line and linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr will have their work cut out in Week 2 against Bell.

2 – Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

2016 stat line: 83 receptions, 1,409 yards, six touchdowns

PFF Rank: 1

The league’s best all-around receiver, Jones has led the NFL in receiving yards per game in each of the last two seasons, clearing 100 yards per contest in 2015 and 2016. Considering how often Jones is targeted in the deep passing game, it’s impressive that he had a 64.3% completion percentage on passes thrown his way last year. Physical cornerbacks like Xavier Rhodes face quite the challenge with the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Jones. He drew six Defensive Pass Interference penalties last year for 132 yards – second most in the NFL.

3 – Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2016 stat line: 96 receptions, 1,321 yards, 12 touchdowns

PFF Rank: 2

Evans, who is basically the size of a tight end only with receiver speed and agility, has improved his numbers each year since being selected seventh overall by the Bucs 2014, jumping from 68 catches in his rookie year, to 74 in Year 2 to 96 last season. With Tampa Bay adding more weapons in the offseason, Evans may not be targeted as often as the 173 time he was last year, but he might improve his efficiency from a 55.5% catch percentage now that DeSean Jackson is on the other side.

4 – Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers

2016 stat line: 106 receptions, 1,284 yards, 12 touchdowns

PFF Rank: 3

The NFL’s leader in receptions in 2014 and 2015 picked up his fourth straight 100-catch season in 2016, tying him for the most 100-catch seasons in a row and with Jerry Rice, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison for the third most 100-catch seasons in history – Brandon Marshall owns the record with six. He also has double-digit touchdowns in the last three seasons. Brown isn’t gigantic like Jones and Evans, but he’s an outstanding route runner and wins battles for the ball down the field. He’s what Stefon Diggs aspires to be.

5 – Jordan Reed, Washington

2016 stat line: 66 receptions, 686 yards, six touchdowns

PFF Rank: 6

When the ball is thrown at Jordan Reed, he’s going to catch it. In his four NFL seasons, Reed’s lowest catch percentage was in 2016 at an outstanding 74.2%. At 6-foot-3, 235-pounds, he is a wide receiver playing tight end, creating nightmare matchups for linebackers – as the Vikings saw last year when they faced Washington.

6 – Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears 

2016 stat line: 252 rushes, 1,313 yards, six touchdowns, 29 receptions

PFF Rank: 7

Most fifth-round draft picks don’t see the field in their first year, much less clear 1,000 yards as Howard did for the Bears. He averaged 5.2 Yards Per Attempt, second best in the NFL only behind LeSean McCoy. Against the Vikings, he averaged 5.9 YPA and gained 288 yards in two contests. The Bears also have a sneaky-good interior offensive line that may help Howard have a strong sophomore year.

7 – AJ Green, Cincinnati Bengals

2016 stat line: 66 receptions, 964 yards, four touchdowns

PFF Rank: 4

Fantasy owners were been down on Green in 2016 as he fell short of 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, but only because he was limited to 10 games. The former fourth-overall pick may have actually had his best year as he posted the highest catch percentage (66.0%) of his career, highest Yards Per Game (96.4) of his career and ranked as one of the league’s best by Pro Football Focus tracking.

8 – Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

2016 stat line: 92 receptions, 1,137 yards, nine touchdowns

PFF Rank: 6

It doesn’t hurt to play with Drew Brees, but Michael Thomas earned his 92 catches in his first year – the second most all-time by a rookie. He ranked among the elites in Pro Football Focus ratings and caught 76.0% of the passes in his direction.  The former second-round pick lives up to his Twitter name @CantGuardMike

9 – DeSean Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2016 stat line: 56 receptions, 1,005 yards, four touchdowns

PFF Rank: 36

One of the best deep threat receivers of the last decade, Jackson led the NFL with 17.9 Yards Per Catch last season – the third time he’s led the NFL in that category in his career. Now Jackson joins an offense in Tampa Bay that loves to push the ball downfield. Jackson will likely draw favorable matchups playing alongside Mike Evans.

10 – Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers

2016 stat line: 97 receptions, 1,257 yards, 14 touchdowns

PFF Rank: 14

 

When the Vikings first matched up against Nelson in Week 2, it appeared that age and a severe knee injury had taken its toll, but the Packers’ veteran receiver got his burst back in the second half of last year, catching 66 passes  for 842 yards over the final nine games. He torched the Vikings in their Christmas Eve game in Lambeau Field and will offer another tough challenge in 2017.

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