Power Ranking the NFL's 25 Best Route Runners
If you watch college football, you might say route running is overrated because of all the screen and Go routes being thrown. In contrast, when it comes to the NFL, route running is the most important trait of all wide receivers.
When a receiver can't run routes properly, he doesn't separate from defensive backs the majority of the time despite his physical traits. This means he must understand the nuances of route running, which includes beating press coverage, not wasting steps and tipping off defensive backs with their eyes and shoulders.
Most of the league's best receivers are exceptional route runners and don't make the aforementioned mistakes in the process, which is why they are considered elite.
But as you'll see over the next few slides, not all elite receivers are exceptional at it and some aren't even in the Top 25.
25. DeSean Jackson
It's not that Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson is a poor route runner, it's just that he tends to be lazy doing it.
Despite possessing great explosiveness and lateral agility that gives him the ability to run every route in the book, Jackson does not put forth the effort to run them to perfection, and that has cost the Eagles in the past.
As Ray Didinger of CSNphilly.com noted, he is particularly lazy on routes that work back to the quarterback and cross the middle of the field.
24. Austin Collie
Indianapolis Colts receiver Austin Collie is sometimes forgotten because he's overshadowed by the other receivers in Indianapolis, but he's a quality route runner.
Collie has long been strong in this area, dating back to his collegiate days at BYU where he ran the entire route tree in the Air Raid offense.
He does a good job of creating separation against man coverage and finding the soft spots in zone coverage. He's also not afraid to work the middle of the field, which has unfortunately led to issues with concussions.
23. Dwayne Bowe
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is one of the league's most talented players at the position, and if he was more interested in performing consistently, he'd be one of the best route runners.
If you haven't noticed already, route running takes a lot of discipline and it's something that Bowe has lacked as he sometimes enjoys doing what he prefers instead of what's been instructed. Despite this, he makes the list because he knows how to get open.
22. Anquan Boldin
Tough as nails and a crisp route runner, Baltimore Ravens Anquan Boldin checks in at No. 22.
A few years ago, he would have been higher up on the list because he was a better athlete than he is now, but he's still one of the league's better route runners.
Boldin has good upper body strength and can run all the routes on the route tree.
21. Hakeem Nicks
Hakeem Nicks of the New York Giants is very similar to Anquan Boldin in that he has great upper body strength and is a crisp route runner.
He's also very physical with defensive backs and his clean footwork has helped him create separation at the top of his route.
20. Jason Witten
The first tight end on the list, Cowboys' Jason Witten checks in at No. 20.
It's not always pretty watching Witten run routes because he looks rather stiff, but he's one of the league's best at getting open.
The reason for this is because he uses his body well to shield off defensive backs when he's working back to the quarterback. When he's running away from man coverage, his short area quickness helps him separate from DBs.
19. Victor Cruz
Whenever one watches Victor Cruz of the Giants, he's always getting open and it doesn't matter where he lines up before the snap.
Whether he's outside the numbers or in the slot, he does an excellent job of running a variety of routes.
On the outside this past season, he ran magnificent routes such as post-corners that allowed him to find the soft spot in Cover 2. From the slot, he ran option routes that saw him evade man coverage.
18. Vincent Jackson
Towering over defensive backs at 6'5", Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson is a good route runner at his size.
He is problematic for defenders because of his strength and vertical speed, which has made him very dangerous down the field. He doesn't have exceptional short area quickness—which has made his short to intermediate routes less impressive than his deep routes—but he's still quality for his size.
17. Antonio Brown
Dating back to his days at Central Michigan, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown has run strong routes.
It's a bit surprising that a receiver at a small school like Central Michigan would be good at running routes, but such was the case with Brown. He possesses short area quickness and very good attention to detail that has enabled him to continue having success running routes in the pros.
16. Deion Branch
Deion Branch may have turned 33 years of age yesterday, but the former Super Bowl MVP is still one of the league's best route runners.
He has great understanding of the field, especially where the sideline is, and does an exceptional job of creating space down the field for quarterback Tom Brady to drop the ball in.
He's also very smart and attacks the cornerback's leverage very well.
15. Brandon Lloyd
You don't become a New England Patriots receiver by running poor routes, which is one of the reasons why the recently acquired Brandon Lloyd is on this list.
Brandon Lloyd, who spent time between Denver and St. Louis last season, has very good body control and plays with good pad level. He's also quick out of his breaks and does a good job of working back to the quarterback. Lloyd can run any route asked of him, including vertical ones, which is why he's so valuable to the Patriots.
14. Santonio Holmes
New York Jets receiver Santonio Holmes is one of the most talented players at the position because of his exceptional quickness, explosiveness and speed.
When the former Ohio State product feels like playing, his combination of talent has translated into quality route running.
He does a very good job of separating from defenders on both short and deep routes, but the problem is that when he's not getting the ball, he tends to lose interest and his route running suffers.
13. Brian Hartline
Miami Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline probably isn't one of the first names that comes to mind when discussing the position in general. However, when it comes to route running, he is one of the league's best.
Hartline does a great job of getting in and out of his breaks while keeping his pad level low.
He also does a good job of converting routes while reading leverage, and is very skilled at the small details of the game such as using his quick hands to beat defensive backs at the line of scrimmage and developing his route down the field.
12. Roddy White
Roddy White of the Atlanta Falcons had some of his spotlight taken away last season with the arrival of teammate Julio Jones, but he's still the best route runner in Atlanta and one of the league's best overall.
White is a possession receiver that does a good job of sinking his hips and separating from defensive backs when running routes, plus he always gives his maximum effort.
11. Jordy Nelson
Green Bay Packs wide receiver Jordy Nelson was one of the most impressive deep-ball pass catchers last season. It helps to have Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball, but Nelson deserves credit for getting open week in and week out.
Nelson is able to win at the line of scrimmage and does a very good job of creating space from defensive backs down the sideline.
Furthermore, he's quality when it comes to working the middle of the field and reading safety leverage, often running post patterns that split the safeties in half and result in long touchdowns.
10. Miles Austin
Miles Austin had issues with injuries last season, but that doesn't change his positioning when it comes to the route running power rankings.
He checks in at No. 10 and for good reason: he consistently gets open. He is very quick out of his breaks and can run any route asked of him. He also is very dangerous once he gets the ball, which is problematic considering he separates from defenders so well.
9. Davone Bess
Whether he's split wide or aligned in the slot, the performance doesn't change with Davone Bess.
He's been one of the league's best route runners since he's come into the league, mastering the slot position and having to do work on the outsides as well. Overall, his route running is exceptional because of the quick feet he possesses.
8. Reggie Wayne
He's aged and no longer has Peyton Manning throwing him the ball, but Reggie Wayne is still one of the league's best when it comes to route running.
Wayne does a really good job of attacking the leverage of cornerbacks and separating from defensive backs on all routes, especially comebacks.
7. Greg Jennings
The second Packers receiver to make the list, Greg Jennings can be argued by some as one of the five best route runners in the league, but for now, he stands at seven on the list.
Jennings is very good at getting open at all depths of the field, but some of his best work has come deep, where it seems he runs post routes to perfection every single time.
He is very quick when changing directions and does a good job of keeping his shoulders squared prior to breaking off the route. This makes it difficult for the defender to read where Jennings will be going.
6. Wes Welker
Wes Welker may be most recently remembered for his drop in the Super Bowl against the New York Giants, but he's also one of the league's elite receivers and route runners.
He does a lot of work from the slot and has run thousands of pivot routes that move the chains. He's also been very good working the intermediate area of the field by running post patterns, especially off the play action.
It also shouldn't be forgotten that he's scored plenty of long touchdown deep down the field, most notably a 99-yard catch against the Miami Dolphins last season.
5. Marques Colston
Marques Colston of the New Orleans Saints is often overlooked by the national media, but not by us here at Bleacher Report.
Colston is an outstanding route runner and because of this, he has given the Saints offense flexibility when it comes to aligning him. He's able to move all over the formation and run crisp routes whether they are short, intermediate or deep.
4. Andre Johnson
Possessing a rare combination of size, speed, quickness and physicality, Andre Johnson is one of the five best receivers in the league.
Whether he's ranked as the first or fifth best receiver in the league is debatable, but his route running is not. He is very good at breaking off his routes and creating separation from defenders while also being able to get open deep.
3. Steve Smith
Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers has great field awareness, very quick feet and deep speed to threaten any coverage, which combine to make an outstanding route runner.
He does a good job of posing problems for defensive backs in man coverage because he has great understanding of the field and the finer points of the position.
He has been playing at a high level for a very long time, and I expect this to continue with quarterback Cam Newton throwing the deep ball to him.
2. Larry Fitzgerald
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has been running quality routes for a very long time now.
I remember him getting open on a consistent basis in college when he was at the University of Pittsburgh and it wasn't simply because he had physical talent. He knew the details of the position early on and brought it over to the NFL, where he's been a living nightmare for defensive coordinators.
1. Calvin Johnson
NFL fanatics calls him "Megatron" because he is easily one of the most impressive talents to ever step foot on the gridiron.
He has rare body control, is incredibly explosive and has great hands. Moreover, he is a fantastic route runner, displaying the ability to run all routes from inside and outside alignments.
This is nothing new with Johnson, who showed his capabilities in this area of the game in college where he ran double moves for touchdowns.