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Dawn of the Planet of the Receivers

Sorry, QBs. It’s time to give some shine to the guys who really own today’s NFL: the pass catchers no one can seem to stop.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every NFL position has changed dramatically over the past decade: Quarterbacks are more involved than ever; offensive linemen face a harder college-to-pro leap; middle linebackers may be phasing out of the game completely.

But no position has evolved more than wide receiver, which, thanks to a long list of converging forces, has become perhaps the most talent-stacked group in sports. That’s been palpable in this young NFL season, with dominant pass catchers buoying many top teams: Julio Jones delivered a 300-yard performance two weeks ago for the now 4–1 Falcons; Antonio Brown already has 447 yards and five touchdowns for the 4–1 Steelers; A.J. Green has been a rare bright spot for the flailing Bengals; and the list goes on.

Saying that we’re in a golden generation of wide receivers would be a gross understatement. We’re firmly in an era when, from the youth football level on up, nearly every trend in the past decade has favored receivers. And there’s no evidence that the talent gap between wideouts and other positions will close anytime soon.

Four receivers (Green, Jones, T.Y. Hilton, and Marvin Jones) are currently averaging at least 100 receiving yards per game. Among players who have logged at least 13 starts in a campaign, we’ve seen 23 100-yard receiving averages in NFL history, and nine of them have come since the 2011 season. The 1980s produced one 100-reception, 1,200-yard season; we’ve seen 21 since 2011. The supply of productive pass catchers seems to be endless: Odell Beckham Jr., a first-round draft pick, delivered on his pedigree by becoming one of the league’s best players; Terrelle Pryor, a converted college quarterback, has defied the odds to become one of Cleveland’s lone exciting players. Elite receiver performances are no longer the exception; they’re a constant. And the talent is so undeniable that it’s altered play calling across the league.

And while this receiver dominance is a relatively new phenomenon in the NFL, it was a decade in the making.

“There’s no doubt the game started changing in the early 2000s,” said Todd Watson, Julio Jones’s former coach at Alabama’s Foley High School and the current director of football operations at Troy University. “The game shifted from ground-and-pound to spread.” Every kid, Watson said, went from wanting to play running back in youth football to wanting to be involved in the passing game.

Watson, who arrived at Foley in 2005 after Jones’s freshman season, witnessed this firsthand: Jones was playing safety and running back when he started his high school career. Watson said that if Jones had played in an earlier era, he may have been instructed to bulk up and play defensive end. High school and youth football teams used to be based on the running game and defense, and a 6-foot-3, 220-pound athlete like Jones could excel at so many important positions that he rarely made it to the world of receiving, but that position gained importance due to schematic changes in the game. The proliferation of the spread offense, which began in the 1990s and exploded in the next decade, created a world where, for the first time, most high school teams needed a dominant receiver — and opted to put their best athletes there.

The explosion of that offense coincided with a change in routine, Watson said: “Kids in a small towns in America were working all summer. But during Julio’s time, it became the norm to train year-round.”

Shortly after the spread took off, spring and summer leagues boomed at the high school level, with seven players facing off on each side of the ball. Watson said players were looking for more ways to compete in the off months, and these 7-on-7 camps filled a big need. Powerhouse high schools like Hoover High School in Alabama hosted tournaments. Players traveled their regions to find leagues, some of which are run by high schools, some by independent companies. All have one thing in common: Their reliance on passing helps receivers improve.

The 7-on-7 concept is fairly straightforward: a 40-yard field, no tackling, no pads, and very little live-football action. There’s no pressure on quarterbacks. Defenses can’t tackle, lay a hit to break up a pass, or shed blockers. Receiver is, by far, the position with the 7-on-7 skill set that most closely resembles what those players will eventually need to succeed in a game. In a confined space, receivers aren’t able to rely as fully on their natural speed, forcing them to work on their ball skills, learn to adjust to the pass, and catch in dozens of different ways. The end result: Receivers get literally thousands more productive reps than players at any other position by the time they reach college football.

JC Shurburtt, a recruiting guru who covered offseason tournaments in the mid-2000s, when this current wave began, said the 7-on-7 scene was a breeding ground for the ridiculous receptions we see today: He remembers Green extending his left arm “and just grabbing the ball on kids with great coverage, just circus catches.” (The AAU rules of 7-on-7s state: “This is a non-contact game and any flagrant contact is cause for immediate ejection,” but DBs can still try to swat down passes or intercept them.) Shurburtt also recalls a Pennsylvania quarterback who ran about 15 plays per game at wide receiver during a tournament in Pittsburgh — a fellow named Pryor. “It seemed like he was just messing around,” Shurburtt said of Pryor, who would go on to play quarterback at Ohio State. “Everyone thought, ‘This guy could be Vince Young,’ because in those days, everyone was looking for the next Vince Young. But you saw him and you said, ‘This guy could be an unbelievable receiver.’”

The impact these games had on the receiver position is not so different from the effect that futsal, a version of soccer played on a smaller field, had on soccer players (including Leo Messi), who were forced to be creative and athletic in tight spaces. The difference: In futsal, a handful of positions get better; in this brand of youth football, only one noticeably improved.

“Catch radius” is the area in which a QB can throw the ball and confidently expect his receiver to snag it, and in recent years, the only thing that’s grown faster than the term’s buzzword status is receivers’ actual catch radius, which now seems to be the entire field.

The 7-on-7 generation entered the league with advanced pass-catching abilities, and now they’re using NFL training methods to enhance their already well-oiled skills and take their acrobatics to new heights. Nate Burleson, a 1,000-yard receiver in 2004 who played alongside Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson and is now an NFL Network analyst, said that in his day, everyone but the game’s elite was dissuaded by coaches from showing flair while catching, especially in practice. Practicing for unusual situations like one-handed catches or catches from the ground was not part of the routine. Now, players are so advanced when they hit the pros that coaches expect, and encourage, the exceptional.

“Guys are practicing every scenario — catching the ball jumping up and down, laying on the ground and trying to catch it,” Burleson said. He mentioned that in practice, Pittsburgh’s Brown catches the ball while a trainer “aggressively yanks on his arm. He’s simulating the moment when you have to go up to catch when one of your arms is restricted. So that when it happens, you’ll be confident. In the past, receivers would have walked away, and you’d tell the coach, ‘I didn’t have my other hand,’ and the coach would say, ‘All right, cool.’ Now, you do that to a wide receiver coach and he’ll say, ‘I don’t care, you should have caught it.’”

The expectation that receivers can catch a ball from any angle comes at a price, said former Browns GM Phil Savage, who’s now executive director of the Senior Bowl. He noted, anecdotally, that he’s seen more big drops than ever in the past few years as the trend toward more ambitious passing plays continues. Offenses now show no hesitation in throwing a dozen or more bombs to a receiver over the course of a game, a tactic unheard of in more conservative eras. But, Savage said, teams will accept additional drops if the theatrics pay the dividends they have so far. “Big drops are tolerated in the same way strikeouts are now tolerated in baseball,” Savage said. “You tolerate it because at some point it turns into touchdowns.”

Catches like Beckham’s 2014 jaw-dropper against Dallas, considered one of the best grabs in NFL history, may have seemed fluky at the time, but by this past Sunday his back-of-the-end-zone grab, which would have been considered catch-of-the-year material in the past, looked positively pedestrian by his standards. “Nothing,” Burleson said, “is luck anymore with receivers.”

Receivers’ skill level has changed the very notion of what a catch should look like. And there’s a trickle-down effect that may or may not be a good one: For players like Beckham, Jones, and Brown, circus grabs are the end result of hours and hours of practice; for current high schoolers, attempting the circus catches comes first.

Justis Mosqueda is a NFL draftnik who spends countless hours evaluating college prospects every spring. He also coaches wide receivers and defensive backs at Hood River Valley High School in Oregon.

In the past year, he said, practicing insane catches has become the norm, thanks to Beckham. He admitted it can be “super frustrating” when kids are more focused on flash than fundamentals; even offensive linemen practice making hard catches, he said. But, Mosqueda added, it’s the reality in an era in which young players can pull up YouTube and watch the highlights that they want to emulate. “Odell and those guys have had so much influence on how these kids play,” Mosqueda said.

In some ways, it mirrors Steph Curry’s influence on all levels of basketball. Just as more high schoolers are pulling up from 3-point range to copy their favorite shooter, young football players are trying to catch the ball like Beckham.

This wave of talent has changed the way games are played. The fear that these receivers strike in defenses cannot be overstated, Burleson said. When he entered the league with the Vikings in 2003, he played in the slot next to outside receiver Moss. Before the snap, Burleson said, every defensive back would be so scared of Moss that they would literally be on their heels. “Randy would win every snap because the snap hasn’t happened and the cornerbacks are shook,” he said. “When that happens now, with Julio, with Antonio, the defense is so scared they start forgetting football fundamentals. I’m talking football amnesia.” Moss was a singular talent in his era, with a 6-foot-4 frame, elite speed, and leaping ability. Now, there’s an entire generation of Moss-like receivers putting defenders on skates. This phenomenon is showing up on the field in nearly every game. Once, double coverage on a receiver was a universal sign to throw somewhere else. Now? Well:

This is the major way play calling has changed. For four straight seasons, at least one player has been targeted more than 20 times in a game. There’s never been a cluster like that since 1992, as far back as Pro-Football-Reference’s data on targets goes. Last year, three players (Brown, Davante Adams, and DeAndre Hopkins) were all thrown to in a game more than 20 times. Beckham accomplished the feat a year earlier. Teams now feel comfortable chucking the ball at their star receiver no matter the coverage, and, in most cases, no matter the situation, because the receiver can catch nearly everything. Burleson estimated that Brown can come down with eight out of 10 passes in double coverage.

Burleson predicts that because the athletes on one side of the ball have gotten so good, teams will have to start putting resources into developing equally talented players on the other side. But that kind of shift takes time to translate into results. Until then? Wide receivers will run free. And catch everything.