Last Sunday in Atlanta, we all got to see the platonic ideal of an NFL receiver. It looks exactly like this …
… and not much like what we saw a few hours later in Foxborough:
Yet, despite the vastly different styles and skill sets, both of those players are their quarterback’s top targets. Julio Jones is the perfect receiver, preordained for professional greatness as a high schooler, and Julian Edelman used to be a college quarterback, but the two of them function, broadly, in the same role for two Super Bowl–caliber offenses. The definition of the no. 1 receiver is changing — and Jones and Edelman are trying to rewrite it completely.
What more is there to say about Jones? He possesses prototypical size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), elite speed (he ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash on a broken foot at the combine in 2011), unbelievable explosiveness, vice-grip hands, and a playmaker’s “I can beat anybody, at any time” mentality. Simply put, there is only one Julio Jones. He does everything you’d want from a no. 1 receiver — and then some.
Watch a highlight reel, and you’ll see Jones beating press coverage, launching himself above traffic, hauling in a pass, and then dragging hapless defenders an extra 5 or 10 yards. Edelman — well, he’s not doing that. He’s running quick-twitch, precision option routes over the middle of the field in response to how a linebacker drops into coverage; he’s catching the ball, juking, strafing, and then using his short-area explosion to elude bigger, slower defenders to pick up an extra 5 or 10 yards.
However, the disparate skill sets produced nearly the same number of yards after the catch this season: Edelman finished with 385 yards after the catch, Jones with 388. Both finished with an average of exactly 5 yards after the catch per reception, per Pro Football Focus.
Unsurprisingly, their numbers diverge elsewhere. On the season, Jones’s average depth of target (14.5 yards, per Pro Football Focus) far outpaced Edelman’s (9.1), as did his yards per catch (17.0 vs. 11.3). Jones also doubled Edelman’s touchdown numbers, six to three.
That said, Edelman did outpace Jones in a few other key areas. In the red zone, he gathered more targets (15 to nine), receptions (six to four), and yards (37 to 22), while equaling Jones’s touchdown production (two). Shockingly, Jones actually finished seventh on his own team in red zone grabs — apparently preferring to just score touchdowns from much farther away and with a much higher degree of difficulty.
Edelman’s importance to the Patriots as their go-to guy really stood out on third downs, too. The 5-foot-10, 200-pound receiver led the team in targets (49), catches (28), yards (431), and first downs (25) on that key down. Meanwhile, Jones led a diverse Falcons offense in third-down yards (204) but finished behind Mohamed Sanu in targets (20), receptions (12), and first downs (nine) on those plays.
Of course, no one is going to argue that Edelman is better than Jones, but the former Kent State quarterback has proved himself good enough to be the go-to option on a great team. From Week 10 until the end of the regular season, Edelman matched Jordy Nelson for an NFL-best 748 receiving yards on 57 catches (two fewer than Nelson). His elite production hasn’t dropped off in New England’s two playoff games either: He caught eight passes for 137 yards against the Texans and another eight for 118 yards and a score against the Steelers. With Rob Gronkowski out injured, Edelman has done as much as possible to replace the production of a generational talent who appears twice his size.
On that absurd 73-yard catch-and-run against Green Bay, Jones was lined up in the slot — historically the province of quicker possession receivers like Edelman. But in today’s NFL, the no. 1 receiver is no longer a giant plastered to the sideline like Calvin Johnson or Randy Moss. Instead, smaller receivers like Odell Beckham Jr., T.Y. Hilton, Antonio Brown, and Doug Baldwin are the big-play and big-volume guys for their teams despite lining up anywhere across the field.
Now, part of the reason teams are leaning on these tinier, speedier wideouts is simply an issue of scarcity: World-class athletes like Jones are rare. In addition to that — and this is also why you’ll see the Falcons move Jones around — NFL offenses are realizing that there’s more than one way to move the ball downfield. As we’ve seen with both New England and Atlanta, attacking coverages in the middle of the field can often produce the same results as attacking corners in man down the sideline. As teams are spreading out and putting three, four, and sometimes five receiving threats on the field more and more frequently, defenses have struggled to field enough players capable of covering speedy receivers while still stopping the run.
In the new spread environment, Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and his New England counterpart Josh McDaniels have preyed on creating mismatches. Identify the defender that can’t hang in coverage — maybe it’s a smaller corner, a slower linebacker, or a stiffer safety tasked with coverage on the inside — and then attack him mercilessly. Versatile receivers like Jones and Edelman possess enough route-running prowess and strength to get off of the press to play outside (yes, Edelman plays outside, too), but both are also capable of diagnosing a defense, finding a soft spot, and getting open to catch a pass from the slot.
Jones and Edelman are about as different as two players could be, but they each beat coverage and catch the ball, play after play. In the end, if you want to be a no. 1 receiver, that’s the only thing you have to do.