For the past month, my colleague Kevin Clark and I have spent an hour a week debating the 10 best players at each position in the NFL. There have been some contentious moments (see: Rodgers, Aaron), but for the most part, we’ve been able to come to a consensus about who belongs at or near the top of each list.
At some positions, like wide receiver and tight end, there’s been absolutely no drama: Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski are no. 1 by anyone’s standard. But the ease with which we arrived at that conclusion started a different conversation: Right now, which of those surefire no. 1s boasts the largest gap between him and the rest of the players in his position group? I sought to find the answer, while simultaneously looking to see how these players’ current runs stack up against the best in their position’s history.
This exercise could probably include guys like Marshal Yanda, Luke Kuechly, or Aaron Donald, but I landed on three players — Brown, Gronk, and J.J. Watt — who seemed to have the strongest cases. For all three, I looked at their numbers for the past three seasons and compared them to the rest of the top 10 players at their position in the same categories, all in an effort to see who actually had the biggest advantage. I found that, unsurprisingly, all these guys are really fucking good. But I also found that one of them is the best of the best.
Antonio Brown vs. Wide Receivers
Even compared to the other pass catchers excelling during the Golden Age of wide receivers, Brown appears to be made of a space-age metal that’ll probably end up saving us from an alien invasion. His overall production has been staggering, with an average of 125 catches for 1,677 yards over the past three seasons. But even those totals don’t fully communicate how unstoppable he’s been. The Mohawked One managed 1,834 yards in 2015 despite playing a significant chunk of the season with Landry Jones and the 2015 version of Michael Vick throwing him the ball. That’s a cosmic event.
When it comes to raw totals, the only category Brown hasn’t owned over the past three years is touchdowns. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound former punt returner has only 31 scores, which is still tied for third in that span (Brandon Marshall tops the list with 34). By every other measure, though, it’s been Brown’s world. His league-leading 5,031 yards and 375 catches during that period is nearly 111 catches and 1,344 yards — a full Pro Bowl season — more than the average of the players ranked nos. 2–10 in each category.
His healthy diet of targets (541) has helped inflate those totals, but even when the force-feeding in Pittsburgh starts to resemble the spaghetti scene from Se7en, Brown’s efficiency numbers rarely suffer. He’s eighth in yards per target (9.30), somehow rivaling the collection of deep-ball specialists at the top of that list. But even more ridiculous is that his 69.3 percent catch rate ranks fourth among wide receivers since 2013. Among the three players above him — Doug Baldwin, Eddie Royal, and Jarvis Landry — no one has more than 278 targets, and most of their work is done out of the slot.
It doesn’t take long to find historical comparisons for what Brown has done lately, because there aren’t many. Only two other players even have at least three seasons with 95 catches, 1,495 yards, and eight touchdowns, let alone three seasons in a row.
Marvin Harrison is one of them, and digging through his career numbers was a reminder of just how absurd Harrison was after Peyton Manning got to Indianapolis. Harrison averaged 118 catches for 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns in the best three-year stretch of his time with Manning (2000 to 2002) and was comfortably the league’s most productive pass catcher over that period. Those numbers still can’t edge out Brown’s totals, either in a vacuum or in an era-specific assessment. During those three years, Harrison’s yardage total was about 121 percent of the rest of the top 10’s average, and even his famously gaudy reception numbers were only 130 percent of the group average. Brown is at 136 and 142, respectively, for 2013 to 2015.
With Harrison dispatched, that leaves only one name on the list, and when Jerry Rice is the boss waiting on the final level, you’re not typically winning this video game. Identifying the best three-year stretch of Rice’s career is its own challenge, with touchdowns supporting certain stretches and catches and yardage pointing to others. You could close your eyes and point, and it probably wouldn’t matter. But on a production basis, it’s probably — again, probably — 1993 to 1995, when Rice averaged 111 catches, 1,617 yards, and 14.33 touchdowns. Ya know, no big deal.
Not surprisingly, Rice blew away his peers from that era in every category, but in terms of yards per game and receptions, Rice’s numbers were just about even with Brown’s when filtered through an era-specific lens. His yardage numbers were 139 percent better than the rest of the top 10, and his reception total was at 135 percent. Even during the most competitive era for wide receivers in league history (of the 57 90-catch, 1,400-yard seasons since the merger, just less than half have taken place in the past decade), Brown still wasn’t markedly worse in those two areas when compared to the rest of the NFL than Rice was during what was probably the most productive three-year stretch of his entire career. Chew on that for a second.
And then stop. Compared to the mid-’90s, the total number of passes attempted isn’t notably different, but the effectiveness of those passes is, because that’s where Rice puts distance between him, Brown, and really, every receiver who’s ever walked/floated around the earth. Rice’s 43 scores were 156 percent of the top 10 average, which is ridiculous, but play in and play out, a throw of any kind to Rice was considerably more dangerous than a throw to any other receiver. Despite finishing second to Cris Carter in targets between ’93 and ’95, Rice had the highest catch rate (69.2 percent) and yards per target (10.10) of any player with at least 100 targets. That should not be possible.
Rob Gronkowski vs. Tight Ends
The approach has to be a little different for Gronk, because given his injury history, raw totals don’t make as much sense. In a way, though, that reality makes his overall production even more impressive. Despite playing six fewer games than Jimmy Graham, two fewer than Julius Thomas, and 11 fewer than Greg Olsen over the past three years, Gronk is still seventh among tight ends in catches, third in touchdowns, and second in yards. Change those to per-game and per-catch numbers, and you’ll start thinking your Pro Football Reference filters are wrong.
Since 2013, Gronk has averaged 78.2 yards per game. That’s 15.2 more than Jimmy Graham, who is second, and 142.6 percent of the nos. 2–10 average. He’s caught 5.22 passes per game, second among tight ends. The average Gronk catch goes for 14.98 yards, 0.86 more than any other tight end with at least 100 targets. And oh yeah, he’s averaging 0.73 touchdowns per game — second to Julius Thomas among tight ends and fourth among all pass catchers. Like a basketball star relied on to hit tough shots, Gronk’s efficiency numbers should have an inverse relationship to his usage, but in his case, that hasn’t happened. It’s helped make him the best tight end of his generation, and in the estimation of many, has put him well on his way to being the best tight end ever.
Since the merger, only a handful of usual suspects warrant mention in that conversation, and two of them were Gronk’s peers at one point or another. But even as Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates helped to shape and usher in a new era of pass-catching tight end, neither ever put together a three-year stretch like the one Gronk has delivered. Each had only a single season in which he matched the 78.2 yards-per-game average Gronk has put up over this run.
The only guy with a real claim to the throne is the player who really changed the game for tight ends. Kellen Winslow’s arrival to the NFL in 1979 altered how coaches and fans viewed the possibilities of the position, and with good reason. In his first full season, Winslow caught 89 passes for 1,290 yards and nine touchdowns, and he didn’t slow from there. From 1980 through the strike-shortened ’82 season, Winslow caught 231 passes for 3,086 yards and 25 touchdowns in 41 games. Those numbers give Gronk a serious per-game run on their own, but when adjusted for era, it’s absolute destruction.
Winslow’s 75.3 yards per game ruins the 42.06 average for the rest of the top 10 during that stretch. It’s even worse with receptions and touchdowns. Winslow’s 231 catches are 184.6 percent the nos. 2–10 average, and his touchdown total is nearly double (25 compared to 13). Gronk will always be worth more to the Pats than his receiving totals, and the way Bill Belichick has held him back at times to preserve his body for key points in the season should matter when we consider his overall production. But in any argument about the best receiving tight end ever, Winslow’s name has to be mentioned.
J.J. Watt vs. Defensive Ends
The box score offers way less perspective on Watt, but it’s worth starting with what we do have. Watt’s 48.5-sack total over the past three seasons comfortably tops the league. There’s a 14-sack gap between him and Robert Quinn, who checks in at no. 2. That’s an All-Pro season’s worth of production, and Watt’s total is actually 162 percent of the nos. 2–10 average.
It’s no surprise that Watt’s current run — the past two Defensive Player of the Year trophies, and three of the past four — puts him in elite historical company, and even though Michael Strahan had a terrifying three-year stretch in the early 2000s, in terms of overall impact, the best comparison is still Reggie White’s insane tear from 1986 to 1988. White totaled 57 sacks during those three years, which included only 44 games because of the players’ strike in ’87. Bruce Smith, who was pretty damn good in his own right, was next on the list with 38. White’s total was 173 percent of the average for the rest of the top 10, and nearly double the total for Sean Jones, who finished 10th with 29 sacks. Even as we watch Watt cause damage on an Avengers movie scale, it still doesn’t compare to the quarterback carnage White brought to the late ‘80s.
But compared to Brown, Gronk, and the rest of today’s NFL, the gap between Watt’s sack total and the production from the rest of his position group is still staggering, and it’s the same sort of advantage he has in nearly every available category for defensive linemen. In Football Outsiders’ defeats statistic, which includes stops on third and fourth down, plays behind the line, and turnovers, Watt’s 77 tops the league over the past two seasons combined, and is 138 percent of the 55.77 average for players ranked nos. 2–10. Defeats for 2015 will be released in the Football Outsiders Almanac later this year, but the site’s founder, Aaron Schatz, was kind enough to show me Watt’s figures, along with these nuggets:
- FOA credited Watt with 51 hurries last year. Nobody else totaled more than 37.5 (Carlos Dunlap).
- Watt had 33 QB hits, including plays canceled by penalty. Olivier Vernon was second at 30.
Looking at the overall totals for 2013 and 2014, Watt’s superiority is clear by those numbers too. FOA credited him with 35 hits in 2014. Ziggy Ansah was second with 19, and the nos. 2–10 average was only 15.88, essentially half of Watt’s total. He had 11 more hurries than second place Von Miller that year, and three more run tackles for loss than second place Lavonte David. Two years ago, the numbers weren’t quite as ridiculous, but they were still pretty absurd. Watt finished third in run tackles for loss, but he still had 15 more quarterback hits (36) than any other player, nearly doubled the average for the rest of the top 10, and finished fourth in hurries by Football Outsiders’ numbers.
So, Who Has the Biggest Edge?
Gronk and Brown are undeniably generational talents, and on their current pace, it’s easy to imagine both finishing their careers as either the best player ever at the position (in Gronk’s case) or the best guy not named Jerry Rice (in Brown’s case). But even with that outcome looming, right now, Watt still owns the largest production gap between one player and the rest of the men at his position. Among every other distinction he’s earned, that just might be the most remarkable.