Last week, I was trying to accomplish what I thought was a fairly straightforward task: make a (rough) list of the best non-QBs in the NFL. At most positions, that’s not overly difficult. Aaron Donald is the top interior rusher. Khalil Mack and Von Miller belong at the top of the pack, in some order, among edge rushers. Bobby Wagner is the best inside linebacker, with Luke Kuechly nipping at his heels. David Bakhtiari reigns supreme among offensive tackles. But when I tried to complete the same exercise for wide receivers, I hit a wall.
There’s arguably more receiving talent in the NFL today than at any point in history. The passing boom at all levels of football and the implementation of seven-on-seven tournaments for high schoolers have players catching more passes at an early age than ever before. Eight of the top 10 receivers in NFL history by yards per game are currently active: Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins, and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
As we prepare to kick off the 2019 season, there’s a case to be made that plenty of receivers have a legitimate claim to the WR throne. But let’s narrow that group down and eliminate some of the near misses.
Evans, Green, JuJu, Adam Thielen, Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and a few others simply didn’t make the cut. I’m sure fans of those teams will gripe, and I can understand why. Each has produced at a high level consistently in his respective offense, and I’d hear arguments for all of them. But if you’re being honest with yourselves, Vikings fans, you’d trade Adam Thielen for Julio Jones if given the chance. You know it’s true, and so do I. And that’s OK. Bucs fans, you’d rather have Hopkins than Evans. There’s no shame in that, either. There are plenty of excellent pass catchers who fill perfect roles in their specific schemes, but for our purposes, this is about finding the receiver you’d use to start your offense in 2019. Considering those guidelines, I whittled the list to five: Beckham, Brown, Jones, Hopkins, and Thomas. So, with that group in mind, let’s try to answer a simple question that’s not all that simple: Who is the best receiver in the NFL?
The Case for Odell Beckham Jr.
Based on his total production the past two seasons, OBJ is the overlooked man in this group. After missing 12 games in 2017 with a broken ankle, Beckham sat out the final month of last season with a quad strain. It’s worth noting, though, that through the Giants’ first 11 games in 2018, Beckham was on pace for 1,479 yards and seven touchdowns. It wasn’t that long ago when Beckham was considered the most dynamic young receiver that the league had ever seen, and when he’s on the field, he still puts up numbers that rival any receiver in NFL history. Since the 1970 merger, only Jones (96.7) has averaged more yards per game than Beckham (92.8), and the latter has put up his numbers with a steadily declining Eli Manning at quarterback.
When Beckham was at his best during his first three seasons, he was nearly unstoppable at running slants. And even though he was still a terror on inside-breaking routes last season, his ability to attack defenses in a variety of ways was hampered by Manning’s issues throwing downfield. Among 24 quarterbacks with at least 50 percent of their team’s deep targets last season (20-plus yards downfield), Manning ranked 17th in accuracy rate at 39.2 percent, according to Pro Football Focus. Compare those numbers with those of Baker Mayfield, who finished behind only Drew Brees—and just ahead of Patrick Mahomes II—at 51.4 percent. It’s not a stretch to say that the 2019 version of Mayfield may be the best QB that Beckham has had in his career. When Beckham is healthy, he’s one of the rare receivers that can create opportunities from virtually any position at every level of the field. And now, he has a quarterback with the ability to accurately place throws all over the place. Most people probably wouldn’t choose Beckham for top among this group right now, but by the end of the year, I wouldn’t be surprised if people return to seeing him as arguably the best wideout in the league.
The Case for Michael Thomas
Any argument for Thomas begins with his ridiculous efficiency numbers. The 26-year-old phenom hauled in a league-best 85 percent of his targets, which just shouldn’t be possible for someone who garnered 147 looks. Thomas’s relatively low 7.8 air yards per target help that figure, but he also hauled in seven of his nine deep targets last season, which tied Seattle’s Tyler Lockett for the best rate in the league. It’s pretty simple: When the Saints threw the ball to Michael Thomas last season, that pass got completed.
Thomas impacts the game in a different way from any of the other guys in this group. He’s the only one who spent more than 30 percent of his snaps in the slot last season, and, even as an outside receiver, he does most of his work in the soft, underneath areas of the defense. No one has a better feel for how to find space in the secondary than Thomas. When teams play zone against the Saints, it’s almost uncanny how Thomas drifts a few feet in either direction or slightly adjusts his route to avoid a defender. At times, it looks like he and Drew Brees share a brain.
He may do his best work finding crevices in the defensive backfield, but Thomas isn’t a receiver who needs plenty of separation to dominate. Against man coverage, the Saints love to throw him quick back-shoulder fades that allow him to use his 6-foot-3, 212-pound frame to overpower defensive backs and come down with 50-50 balls. Thomas finished eighth in the NFL last season with a 56.7 percent contested catch rate, according to Pro Football Focus. That level of return on difficult throws is what makes Thomas’s eye-popping catch rate so remarkable. He brings the reliability of a slot receiver and the physicality of a prototypical no. 1 option all in one package.
The Case for Antonio Brown
These were Brown’s numbers in a down year last season: 104 receptions, 1,297 yards, and a league-leading 15 touchdowns. Oh, and he also missed a game.
Brown wasn’t the same world-altering force in 2018 that he’s been throughout most of his career, but most of his best traits were on display. For his size, Brown is easily the best deep-ball receiver of his generation. His ability to track the ball in the air and adjust to make difficult catches is unparalleled among players 6-foot and shorter. That deep-ball prowess is a driving force behind Brown’s ability to consistently find the end zone. On just 36 deep targets last season, Brown caught nine touchdown passes (no other player had more than seven such touchdowns all year). I will never understand how Brown can fend off his defender, track the ball, and navigate the final few feet of the end zone the way he does.
Despite his knack for finding the end zone, one reason for Brown’s (relative) drop-off last season was that his deep-ball efficiency declined a bit. Brown’s 38.9 percent catch rate on deep throws ranked 36th among the 89 receivers who recorded at least 20 percent of their team’s deep targets in 2018. Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles likely had a lot to do with those issues. Only Sam Darnold, Jameis Winston, and Joe Flacco finished with a worse deep-ball accuracy percentage than Roethlisberger last season, according to PFF.
There are aspects of the Roethlisberger-Brown partnership that might be difficult for Brown to replicate with Derek Carr in Oakland, though. Brown’s status as the most productive receiver of his generation has been fueled by the way he creates space at every point in the down, and Roethlisberger has always been acutely attuned to exactly when that’s going to happen. No wideout has a deeper arsenal of releases off the line of scrimmage, and Brown is able to get open immediately against most press coverage. He also does an excellent job of setting up routes down the field by using subtle movements to get defenders turned around just before Roethlisberger lets the ball go. And finally, no player in the league has been more dangerous when the play starts to break down, which blends well with the way Roethlisberger can extend plays inside the pocket. Covering Brown is a nonstop challenge from the moment the ball is snapped until the play ends, no matter how long that may take. Even after a modest season by his standards, Brown is still a nightmare for any defense.
The Case for Julio Jones
Julio Jones makes defenders play scared. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds with 4.34-second 40-yard dash speed, Jones is one of the most physically gifted and imposing receivers the NFL has ever seen. So even if that fear shouldn’t come as a surprise, it’s still amazing to see how cornerbacks react to him. When threatening receivers downfield, Jones chews up yardage at an incredible pace. Even the fastest corners seem shocked by how quickly he gets on top of them, and it leads to most players retreating as fast as possible. That respect for Jones’s deep speed makes his comeback and out routes some of the most devastating plays in football. Watching the way Jones navigates the defensive backfield is akin to how LeBron James moved around a basketball court in his prime; it’s hard to reconcile a man that big covering that much ground, and the way he owns space changes how the rest of the game is played.
By several metrics, Jones is both the most productive receiver of his era and one of the most prolific pass catchers ever. Among players with least 50 targets last season, Jones led the NFL in PFF’s yards per route run stat at 2.93. It was the fourth year in a row that Jones has led the league in that stat and the fifth time in the past six years. For nearly his entire career, Jones has gotten more out of his receiving snaps than anyone else. His 96.7 yards per game is also the best figure since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger; his 9.8 yards per target ranks eighth.
The lone knock on Jones throughout his career has been his lack of touchdowns compared to other top receivers. He’s tallied double-digit touchdowns just once in his career (2012) and finished with only eight touchdown receptions last season despite leading the league in receiving yards at 1,677. The “problem” last season was two-fold. One issue was a lack of opportunities and the Falcons’ tendency to use Jones as a decoy near the goal line to free up other players. Tight end Austin Hooper had three more targets inside the 10-yard line (10) than Jones (seven). Rookie receiver Calvin Ridley caught six red zone touchdowns on just eight targets, thanks in large part to his ability to take advantage of single coverage with some nasty double moves. The other concern last season was Jones’s lack of deep-ball chemistry with Matt Ryan. Jones finished the season with 15 deep receptions, the second highest total in the league. But he ranked tied for 31st in deep-ball catch rate among players with at least 20 percent of their team’s deep targets. There are plenty of examples from last season of Ryan airmailing a wide-open Jones down the field for what would have been an easy score. Still, Jones remains the receiver anyone would build in a lab.
The Case for DeAndre Hopkins
Nuk doesn’t play like the ideal modern receiver. Space is the currency in today’s NFL, and unlike most of the league’s great wideouts, Hopkins doesn’t trade in it. His game isn’t predicated on creating separation, exploiting the middle of the field, or dominating with speed. And that’s what makes him so damn special.
At its most basic, playing receiver is about catching footballs, and no one in the world is better at that right now than Hopkins. PFF credited him with zero drops in 2018; no throw his way last season that should have been completed wasn’t. For a guy who finished with 159 targets and 115 receptions, that’s stupefying. Hopkins is the most natural catcher in the NFL, and in his case, that means more than making spectacular plays. The physics-defying catches are nice, but what sets Hopkins apart is how casually he makes the somewhat-difficult receptions. Whether he has to reach away from his frame or subtly move back toward a throw that’s just a bit off-target, no one makes the challenging look routine quite like Hopkins.
The ease with which he catches the ball makes Hopkins the most dangerous sideline receiver in the NFL. Because he snags throws with such little effort, he can spend a disproportionate amount of his mental energy on controlling both his feet and his body. There’s a reason that quarterbacks are throwing the ball between the numbers more often than ever: Fitting balls down the sideline and asking receivers to negotiate tight spaces is difficult. Apparently no one told that to Hopkins. Including the playoffs, Hopkins hauled in 62.2 percent of his passes between 10 and 20 yards downfield and outside the numbers last season.
Hopkins is more than just a sideline artist, though. He caught 58 passes between the numbers (regular season and playoffs combined), and you need look no further than his performance in the Texans’ 37-34 win against the Colts in Week 4 to see how he can dominate the middle of the field. Against Indy’s zone-heavy defense, Hopkins was a monster, dicing up the soft areas in the defense for 10 catches and 169 yards. Hopkins can hurt defenses anywhere as the most reliable receiver in the league.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’m going with Hopkins. Any one of the five has a fair claim, and the margins here are razor-thin. Thomas plays with the most accurate quarterback in the NFL and doesn’t stretch the field like his elite contemporaries. Beckham was dinged up a bit in the past two years. Brown’s on-field connection with Roethlisberger ideally suited his game, and it’s hard to ignore how last season ended for him off the field in Pittsburgh.
When it came down to it, the choice for me was between Jones and Hopkins. No two receivers carried a larger load for their respective offenses last year. Jones led the NFL in percentage of his team’s air yards with 45.64; Hopkins came in second at 44.04. No other receiver topped 38.2 percent. It was essentially a toss-up between the two, and what gave Hopkins the slight edge goes beyond any statistical metric. Right now, when a ball is thrown in the NFL, there’s no one in the league I trust more to come down with it than DeAndre Hopkins. That’s not the only factor involved in playing wide receiver at the highest level, but Hopkins sets himself apart by the way he can do everything: He’s a vertical threat, a middle-of-the-field threat, and a threat along the sideline. There’s no spot where he doesn’t make plays, and he makes them more reliably than any other receiver in the league. If Jones and Hopkins ran the same route, with the same separation (they both averaged 2.5 yards of separation per play, according to Next Gen Stats), with the same pass, I have more faith in Hopkins to come down with the ball. That may seem like an inexact science, but when you’re dealing with a race this close, sometimes that’s the only way to decide.