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Meet the New Class of Elite NFL Receivers

There are some party-crashers on the wideout leaderboards. Are they all there to stay?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The wide receiver leaderboards are sprinkled with a bunch of new names. For years, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, DeAndre Hopkins, T.Y. Hilton, and Keenan Allen have dominated traditional and advanced receiving statistics. In the past few seasons Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Amari Cooper have joined that group. Those receivers could be ranked in a dozen different ways, but any list of the league’s elite receivers would pull from the above players. Until now. Halfway through the season, this remarkably stable group of players has been disrupted. Here are the 10 qualifying receivers with at least 80 yards per game this season:

  1. Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints (109)
  2. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (105)
  3. Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams (99)
  4. Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (96)
  5. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons (89)
  6. Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys (88)
  7. Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks (85)
  8. Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers (84)
  9. John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals (82)
  10. Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions (80)

Half of those names (Thomas, Evans, Jones, Cooper, and Adams) are established top-tier wide receivers. The other half (Kupp, Godwin, Lockett, Ross, and Golladay) are all appearing in the top 10 in receiving yards per game for the first time. Fantasy football players have already seen this disruption. Godwin, Lockett, and Kupp are all in the top five at the position in fantasy, whether in standard or half- and one-point per reception leagues. Second-year Jacksonville receiver DJ Chark, who went undrafted in fantasy leagues before the season, ranks eighth.

There’s an even better way to identify emerging receiver talent than yards per game or fantasy points. Pro Football Focus calculates a number called yards per route run, which is exactly what it sounds like. Yards per route run is akin to yards per attempt for a running back or yards per pass attempt for a quarterback. Looking at a receiver’s yards per route run is better than yards per game because it allows us to compare players on the Falcons (a league-leading 43 pass attempts per game) with the 49ers (league-low 28 pass attempts per game). Julio Jones ranks fifth among all players in receiving yards per game and San Francisco tight end George Kittle ranks 27th (67.6). In a vacuum these numbers suggest Jones is dominating and Kittle is having a down season. But by yards per route run, Jones ranks 10th (2.3) while Kittle ranks third (3.0).

Yards per route run makes intuitive sense, and it also passes the eye test. The players who consistently topped the leaderboard this decade are Julio Jones, A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., Tyreek Hill, Keenan Allen, Michael Thomas, T.Y. Hilton, Adam Thielen, and Stefon Diggs. No number will ever quantify what it means to be “elite,” but yards per route run is the closest we’ve come. This year the yards per route run leaderboard has changed just as much as the receiving yards per game leaderboard. Here is the top 15 in the category (minimum 45 targets):

  1. Stefon Diggs (3.0)
  2. Amari Cooper (3.0)
  3. Michael Thomas (2.9)
  4. Cooper Kupp (2.7)
  5. Mike Evans (2.6)
  6. Davante Adams (2.4)
  7. Julio Jones (2.3)
  8. Michael Gallup (2.3)
  9. Tyler Lockett (2.3)
  10. Courtland Sutton (2.3)
  11. Chris Godwin (2.3)
  12. Kenny Golladay (2.2)
  13. DJ Chark (2.1)
  14. John Brown (2.1)
  15. Terry McLaurin (2.0)

A number of factors have contributed to some established players falling off this list. Davante Adams, Adam Thielen, and Tyreek Hill have all dealt with injuries. Odell Beckham Jr. is in a terrible offense. Antonio Brown is out of football. In their absence, a number of players, many in their second or third year, have catapulted themselves into the conversation about the league’s best pass catchers. Let’s dive into whether these breakout players are legit receivers or deceivers.

Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams

Two moments of Kupp’s season stand out above the rest. The first came when Troy Aikman was announcing the Rams-Seahawks Thursday Night Football game in Week 5 and explained that Kupp’s dad was once his backup, but that he had forgotten about him until the Los Angeles Times reminded him that week. That was cold and unnecessary, Troy. The second was when Kupp erupted two weeks ago for 220 receiving yards on just seven catches against the Bengals in London. Kupp is averaging 99.0 yards per game, third most in the league, and has caught 58 passes (no. 5 among pass catchers) on 87 targets (no. 4) for 792 yards (no. 3). Kupp does most of his damage from the slot, and he may be the league’s best receiver who works primarily from the inside. Kupp has run 219 of his 295 passing snaps from the slot this year (74.2 percent), or roughly three in every four plays. Among the 30 receivers who have run more than half of their receiving routes from the slot (minimum 100 total receiving snaps), Kupp leads all of them in targets, receptions, and yards per route run, and is second in yards.

Once he has the ball, he’s difficult to bring down. Kupp is tied for second among all receivers in broken tackles on receptions (six), and he is second in the league in yards after the catch (413). Kupp is the only non-running back in the top six of yards after the catch, with almost 100 more yards than the next-best receiver, Michael Thomas. A major reason he gets so many yards after the catch is the Rams receivers’ stellar blocking downfield, but Kupp is also elusive. Three years ago, he was the no. 69 pick out of Eastern Washington. Now he might be the best slot receiver in football—though he has to contend with the next guy for that title.

Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks

“When it comes to just being vulnerable, that’s the best way to be free,” Tyler Lockett told Sports Illustrated when asked about the poetry anthology he released last month. Lockett knows something about getting free. Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett is the new Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson. Lockett may not be the best receiver in football, but his connection with Wilson is as good as, if not better than, any other connection in the league. Whereas Rodgers and Nelson once dominated the back-shoulder throw, Wilson and Lockett are unstoppable in the corner of the end zone. They demonstrated that last week when Wilson found Lockett in the corner of the end zone not once, but twice.

On Thursday Night Football in Week 5, Wilson and Lockett orchestrated one of the best plays of the season when Wilson tossed a throw to the corner of the end zone that looked so haphazard, off-balance, and off the mark that Joe Buck thought it was a throwaway. But Lockett contorted his body diagonally and glued his fingertips to the ball at the exact same moment he clicked his feet down on the last few inches of green grass for the best touchdown of the year.

Lockett ranks fourth in the league in catches (59) despite being tied for 11th in targets (72), is seventh in receiving yards per game (85.2), and is 40th in first downs. Like Kupp, Lockett went no. 69 in the draft (Lockett in 2015, Kupp in 2017) and lines up in the slot more than 70 percent of the time. He’s second to Kupp in yards per route run from the slot (2.6) and eighth in yards per route run overall (2.3). Kupp is slightly ahead of him, but the Seahawks are 7-2 and Wilson is the MVP favorite while the Rams are 5-3 and Jared Goff is struggling. If Lockett isn’t better than Kupp, he is certainly happier right now.

Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Entering the fantasy football season, the hype around Chris Godwin was less that of a consensus sleeper and more of a cult following. Somehow, he has blown away even the loftiest of expectations. Godwin is fourth in receiving yards per game (95.8), tied for third in touchdowns (six), and fourth in PPR scoring among receivers. Amazingly, he doesn’t even lead his team in any of those categories. Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans is second in receiving yards per game (105.3), is tied for first in touchdowns (seven), and is the no. 2 receiver in PPR scoring (and no. 1 in standard or half-PPR scoring). That makes Godwin the league’s best no. 2 receiver this season by a country mile, and he spent the first six weeks of the year eclipsing Evans himself. Godwin had 125 or more receiving yards for three consecutive games earlier this season, a franchise record. His blend of speed and balance makes tackling him difficult, which is why he ranks third in yards after the catch among receivers (288).

Godwin was beloved for each of the past two seasons for the athleticism he’d demonstrated at Penn State, highlighted by a phenomenal 2017 Rose Bowl against USC. Godwin was 13th in yards per route run as a rookie at just 21 years old, but his season was overshadowed by fellow 21-year-old rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster (who was also in that Rose Bowl). Two seasons later, Godwin has run circles around JuJu. Godwin is second in first downs among all receivers (42), behind only Michael Thomas. But in fantasy football this year, the teams who drafted Godwin are second to none. Godwin is a fantasy savior, as Matt Kelley of Roto Underworld, one of Godwin’s main proponents this season, has indicated with his Twitter avatar.

Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions

Golladay is the third member of this list drafted in the third round in 2017, alongside Kupp and Godwin. He also has a chance to be the best. At 6-foot-4 and 214 pounds, Golladay has been dubbed Babytron, or the spiritual successor in Detroit to Calvin Johnson’s Megatron. His second season was so promising that the Lions felt comfortable enough to trade receiver Golden Tate and roll with Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. The decision looks wise. Golladay is tied with Mike Evans for the league lead in receiving touchdowns (seven), and that number would be higher if Detroit weren’t so inept in the red zone. That’s always been an issue for offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell (who was the Seattle OC when Russell Wilson threw a goal-line interception in Super Bowl XLIX against New England), but Detroit has been one of the most aggressive downfield-passing teams in the league this season in Bevell’s new offense. Matthew Stafford’s average pass this season is targeted at a receiver 10.6 yards downfield, the highest in the league, and his average completion is also a league high at 5.5 yards downfield. Golladay subsequently has become one of the league’s best deep threats at no. 6 in yards per reception. He is 10th at the position in fantasy scoring (one spot ahead of Julio Jones), and that might be on the low end for him in the next few years.

John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals

The fourth member of the 2017 NFL draft class on this list and the first whose “breakout” season is more deceiving yards than receiving yards. Ross is on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, but before the injury he opened the season with 11 catches for 270 yards and three touchdowns in his first two games. But context is king. One of those plays was a flea-flicker. Another was a deep pass where Seahawks safety Tedric Thompson was in perfect position for an interception but whiffed, allowing Ross to score a long touchdown. Remove those two plays and Ross goes from three touchdowns on the season to one, and his league-leading 20.5 yards per reception drops to 12.9, which would rank 58th in the league, just behind Green Bay’s Allen Lazard.

Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos

Of all the names on this list, Sutton may be having the quietest great year. He ranks 14th in receiving yards per game and no. 10 in yards per target despite spending the first half of the season with Joe Flacco as his quarterback. The first inkling that the second-rounder out of SMU was coming for the Broncos’ no. 1 job this season was in training camp, when he and Emmanuel Sanders got into a rare intrapositional-group scuffle that foreshadowed Sutton eclipsing Sanders in the offense. It turns out that was underselling it. Not only does Sutton lead Denver in air yards, but he leads the league in the percentage of team air yards, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats. With plays like this touchdown reception last week against Browns cornerback Denzel Ward, the no. 4 pick in 2018, it’s easy to see why:

The Broncos traded Sanders to San Francisco before the deadline, clearing the runway for Sutton to take off this season and beyond.

DJ Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars

Chark, not Odell Beckham Jr. or Jarvis Landry, has been the most impressive LSU receiving product this season—he has the most targets (70), receptions (43), yards (692), yards per reception (16.1), yards per game (76.9), and yards per route run (2.1). That’s before getting into touchdowns, where Chark has six and Landry and Beckham have two combined. Chark came out of nowhere this season (he went undrafted in fantasy football), usurping Dede Westbrook, Marqise Lee, and Chris Conley to grab the majority of the pie in Jacksonville. Chark’s speed (4.34-second 40-yard dash, good enough for the 98th percentile among receivers) and size (6-foot-4, 198 pounds) were obvious at the combine, but his ability to get open at the pro level this soon was not. Chark has had excellent chemistry with Gardner Minshew II, but don’t expect his success to end when Nick Foles returns next week. The play Foles injured his collarbone on against Kansas City in Week 1 was a 35-yard touchdown pass to Chark in the corner of the end zone.

Minshew has taken up most of the oxygen with the Jaguars offense, and only so much of the national consciousness can be devoted to athletes from Jacksonville, but with Minshew headed back to the bench, Chark may get his due.

Terry McLaurin, Washington

McLaurin’s numbers are not as good as those of the rest of the players on this list, but he has been the best rookie receiver halfway through the season. D.K. Metcalf is coming on strong, but he trails McLaurin in receptions, receiving yards per game, and yards per route run (they are tied with five touchdowns each, though Metcalf has played one more game). He has the moves to get off the line of scrimmage when defenders give him cushion and when they don’t. He’s got the speed to burn defenders for long plays downfield ...

… and the concentration to catch contested balls.

It’s worth noting McLaurin’s emergence with 2.0 yards per route run. Here are the players who had more than 2.0 yards per route run through Week 9 of their rookie year since 2008 (minimum 45 targets):

  • DeSean Jackson, 2008
  • A.J. Green, 2011
  • Doug Baldwin, 2011
  • Keenan Allen, 2013
  • Mike Evans, 2014
  • Amari Cooper, 2015
  • Michael Thomas, 2016
  • Terry McLaurin, 2019

There isn’t a dud on that list. McLaurin hasn’t been the most impressive player of the season, but he’s making an impact as a rookie.