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Introducing the NFL’s Always-Open Club

All hail king and emperor Antonio Brown

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Welcome to the Always-Open Club. The first rule of the Always-Open Club is: Please, talk about the Always-Open Club.

The concept for this (extremely exclusive) group came about as a joke a few years ago on the Grantland NFL Podcast. I can’t remember who the first member was, but the idea was that there are just some receivers who, on any given play, are almost certainly running open down the field.

Some of the original members ran routes with surgical precision (Andre Johnson). Others were practitioners of a dark art that allowed them to conceive space and time differently than the rest of us (Anquan Boldin). No matter how they accomplished it, though, there was only one requirement — just be open.

Plenty of names have been tossed around over the years, but I’d never collected them all in one place. I figured it was time to right that wrong. Before presenting this season’s Always-Open Club class, a few notes about the selection process:

1. This isn’t the Supreme Court. Membership is not guaranteed for life, and as much as I’d love to include past members like Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, the old-timers just couldn’t cut it given this year’s crop.

2. Wideouts typically get the first look here, but playing the position isn’t a prerequisite. That’s why leaving Le’Veon Bell off of this list physically hurt me.

3. Extra points are awarded if a guy incites an audible reaction when incinerating a defender. (There is no actual points system; I just want you all to have some insight into my completely arbitrary thought process.)

All right. With that out of the way, let’s go. Here they are, the members of the 2016 Always-Open Club.

Keenan Allen, Chargers (Currently on Administrative Leave)

Allen played only 27 snaps this season before tearing his ACL against the Chiefs in Week 1, but what he did to Marcus Peters on this play was still enough to gain him entrance to the squad. The Chargers wideout may not be the most devastating slant-catcher in the NFL (we’ll get to him, I promise), but he’s my favorite.

Watch Allen’s legs on that play. They’re all over the place. He looks like the Roadrunner picking up steam. The ability to make his lower body appear like a jumbled blur while simultaneously maintaining total body control leaves cornerbacks hopeless to slow Allen off the line. No one creates separation at the snap with quite as much style. Get well soon, Keenan. We miss you over here.

Cole Beasley, Cowboys (Secretary)

Most of the route runners I enjoy are lethal with two types of moves that are related but different. Some, like Allen, have a knack for winning on in-breaking routes. Others — Antonio Brown comes to mind — are constantly able to get separation outside by selling those inside moves.

Beasley’s greatest hit is neither, and it’s why I wanted to include him. Oh, and because of what he did to the Packers’ LaDarius Gunter on this play.

Built into the Cowboys offense are tons of opportunities for Beasley to toy with defenders in space, and on whip routes and the like — any play that involves Beasley showing inside before breaking toward the pylon — that often ends poorly for the man in coverage. Natural quickness and pinpoint footwork are the starting points for those routes to work, but Beasley adds to their effectiveness with some great acting. His flair for slow-playing his routes turns defenders into marionettes. (And yes, it took every ounce of my strength to avoid a Master of Puppets joke there.)

Stefon Diggs, Vikings (Treasurer)

Even in an unofficial capacity, this is Diggs’s first year as a card-carrying member of the club. He didn’t start until Week 5 of his rookie season in 2015, but he’s been the focal point of Minnesota’s passing offense ever since. This fall, he’s been a monster, especially considering the Vikings’ problems in pass protection.

Aside from Diggs, there were 21 NFL receivers with at least 100 targets through Week 14. Among those 21, dink-and-dunk Jarvis Landry had the best catch rate at 72.5 percent. Diggs is at 77.2 percent. Given his volume of work, that’s just stupid efficiency.

My favorite thing about Diggs is the sneaky way in which he sets up double moves. He has an uncanny ability to get defensive backs moving before spinning them into a mess 4 or 5 yards off the line.

By the third change of direction on this play, I’m not even sure Damarious Randall knows where he is, let alone Diggs. His only choice is to hang on for dear life, and Diggs still reels in the touchdown. I pray that Minnesota puts together a decent passing game some time soon. This guy has a chance to be something.

Jordan Reed, Redskins (Vice President)

Of all the guys from this class, it’s Reed whose tape most frequently makes me mutter “Oh my god” in a tone that combines excitement, sympathy, and disgust.

Reed is often called the best route-running tight end in the league, but the qualifier is hardly necessary. He’s among the league’s best route runners, period, and the defenders left in his wake range from helpless linebackers to actual cover corners. Watch poor Micah Hyde in the play above. I mean, that’s just cruel.

The Always-Open Club has a soft spot for players who lack whiplash-inducing speed but still manage to pile up huge numbers. Reed fits that criteria better than anyone. Cowboys safety Byron Jones is one of the best athletes on the planet, running a 4.36 40-yard dash at his UConn pro day, boasting a vertical leap of nearly 45 inches, and unofficially breaking the world record by broad-jumping 147 inches at the 2015 combine. Reed weighs 246 pounds and ran his combine 40 in 4.72 seconds, which is … fine.

This is Reed torching Jones on a 33-yard catch down the sideline while also drawing a flag for pass interference. Not bad — for a tight end.

Odell Beckham Jr., Giants (President)

One-handed catches may have made Beckham famous, but he’s much more than just flash. He’s also flat-out filthy as a technician on the outside. Beckham’s signature play, the 5-yard slant that he takes to the house, wouldn’t be possible without his inconceivable speed, and the route is typically pretty ridiculous in its own right.

Off the snap, Cowboys corner Brandon Carr anticipates the route well. When OBJ hesitates, though, it causes Carr to pause for just long enough that Beckham beats him inside. A second later, the ball’s in Beckham’s hands, and, well … goodnight.

“There’s just no one like him,” NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said after Beckham took that one the distance. And he’s right. That the Giants are cruising toward a playoff berth with little else on offense beside Beckham’s ability to rip off big plays speaks to his status as a singular talent. Overall, Brown is a more devastating receiver, but no player in football has a knack for the spectacular like Beckham.

He’s constantly putting on a show, and that includes how he gets open. This little move against the Bengals is one he’s pulled a few times this year. I’d try to describe my reaction upon seeing it for the first time, but it’s probably easier to show you.

The best part about that play was afterward, when Pacman Jones told the ref to check if Beckham stepped out of bounds. It’s the equivalent of a baseball manager asking to review whether a guy touched first base after clubbing a 550-foot home run.

Antonio Brown, Steelers (Emperor/Chancellor/King)

I don’t know if most clubs have kings, but this one certainly does. Even including Brown on this list is a borderline insult. It suggests that he’s in the same stratosphere as every other receiver on earth, which — to be clear — he is not. At this point, we’re running out of areas in which Brown is not the undisputed master. He’s the most precise route runner alive, able to bludgeon corners with every branch of the route tree. His feel for space — both in creating late separation with a subtle bend in his pattern and in understanding where and when the cracks in a zone defense will appear — is unmatched. And despite being 5-foot-10 and 181 pounds, he makes a habit of stealing cornerbacks’ lunch money on 50–50 balls down the sideline:

The Always-Open label, when associated with most of these guys, is an exaggeration. With Brown it’s not. The most unstoppable pass play in football right now involves Brown lining up wide against a corner in man coverage. His ability to create instant separation off the line of scrimmage makes him a terrifying deep threat (he already has five touchdowns of 25 yards or longer this season), and in an effort to avoid the crisper, most corners manned up on Brown (wisely) give him a bit of cushion.

The Steelers’ counter to that is the nastiest back-shoulder throw known to man. A well-timed throw behind a corner is tough to stop under ordinary circumstances, but when Brown is involved, it’s a finishing move on par with most Mortal Kombat fatalities. If anyone needs further proof that stopping this play is next to impossible, watch Brown’s catch against Miami (above). Reshad Jones, a 215-pound wrecking ball, recognizes what’s happening and smacks Brown as the ball arrives — and Brown still makes the play. There are few constants in the NFL, but this is one of them: Antonio Brown is always open.