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Going Deep: The 10 Best Deep Ball Threats in the NFL

Dan Van WieContributor IIIJanuary 6, 2017

Going Deep: The 10 Best Deep Ball Threats in the NFL

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    Who are the 10 best deep-ball threats right now in the NFL? If you think about that question for a minute, who are the players that immediately come to your mind?

    We thought it would be an interesting presentation to create, taking into account the speed of the wide receivers in question, statistics from the past several seasons and looking at several other factors.

    "The other factors" portion of the research included analyzing parts to the receiving game that don't get mentioned very often. Most football fans are now familiar with the concept of "Yards after catch, or YAC. But, I don't believe many fans are that up on the term "Air Yards" which is essentially the number of yards the pass traveled in the air past the line of scrimmage.

    For the purposes of this presentation, we are focusing more on the air yards that were involved in pass plays, as opposed to the YAC side of the fence. If you are so inclined to learn more about these terms or concepts, here is an article by Bill Barnwell from Football Outsiders that goes into greater depth on YAC and "Air Yards".

    In an article that addresses this issue, writer Danny Tuccitto of ESPN Deportes.com, figured out that two-thirds of all receiving yards from the 2011 NFL regular season were actually "Air Yards", while the other third were yards after the catch.

10) Dallas Cowboys WR Miles Austin

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    Dallas Cowboys WR Miles Austin is a productive deep ball threat when healthy, but that seems to be the one of the biggest issues with him lately, keeping him healthy.

    Austin has averaged 15.7 yards per catch over his NFL career, which includes 225 career receptions. In the 2012 season, Austin is tied at No. 4 for having pulled in five catches of at least 20-plus yards per catch this year.

    Austin was No. 2 in the NFL with 21 catches of 20-yards or longer in 2009, and then he once again finished in the top 10 in 2010, when he caught 17 long passes, good for a No. 9 ranking in the league.

    Tony Romo has the arm strength to throw the deep ball, so if Austin can take care of himself, the deep passes will continue to be a part of the Cowboys offense.

9) New York Giants WR Victor Cruz

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    New York Giants WR Victor Cruz burst onto the NFL scene in a big way in 2011. Cruz played way beyond his years by finishing with a whopping 1,536 receiving yards. Receivers are supposed to break out in their third year, but Cruz is just any other player. He only played three games in his rookie year in 2010, but never recorded a reception and then went on I.R., ending his season.

    To think that Cruz went from zero receiving yards to 1,536 in just one year is basically unbelievable. He is following it up in 2012, as Cruz is leading the Giants in receiving yards and receptions after three games.

    But Cruz was just that special last year. He wound up with 25 catches that went for at least 20-yards or more last year, which ranked him tied for No. 3 in the NFL with Larry Fitzgerald.

    Then you add in the salsa-dancing celebrations and winning personality. How can you not like rooting for an undrafted rookie free agent that brings some excitement and life to the NFL?

8) Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald

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    Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald has enjoyed a prolific career in the NFL. As for the past couple of years, he has been trying to figure out who is throwing him the ball every week, as it could be Kevin Kolb one week or John Skelton the next.

    No wonder Fitzgerald got personally involved in trying to recruit Peyton Manning to join him in Arizona when Manning was still a free agent.

    As for Fitzgerald's deep ball threat ability, we turn to his bio page at Arizona Cardinals.com for some background information:

    Tied Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and the NY Giants Victor Cruz for the NFL lead with 17 receptions of 25+ yards in the 2011 regular season.

    Dating back to 2005, leads the NFL in receiving yards (8,835) and receiving TDs (65), ranks second in receptions of 25+ yards (77) behind Steve Smith (84).

    Fitzgerald is now in his ninth season in the league, so it is understandable if he has lost a step in his speed compared to how he ran as a rookie in 2004. But when he is asked to go deep, and the ball is laid up there for his 6'3" frame to contest for the football, I always like his chances of coming down with the catch.

7) Philadelphia Eagles WR DeSean Jackson

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    There are a variety of videos out there featuring DeSean Jackson highlights, but I selected this one since it focuses more on longer pass receptions and less on the punt returns that Jackson is so well known for.

    In the video, you will see Jackson beating leaving the secondary in his dust, as he frequently is able to use his top-end speed to blow past the various corners and safeties that were asked to control him.

    Jackson is another example of a NFL wide receiver that is currently in the top-five of all current NFL wide receivers with a career average of 17.7 yards per catch.

    In 2009, Jackson was No. 3 in the NFL with 18 receptions of at least 20-yards or longer. He followed that up in 2010 by finishing at No. 4 with another 21 long catches. Jackson now has his extended contract and he should be a happy camper in Philadelphia for the short-term and long-term. Expect to see him on some highlight reels soon.

6) Green Bay Packers WR Greg Jennings

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    The Green Bay Packers will be well represented in this presentation with not just one wide receiver, but two. The first Packers player that we want to highlight is veteran Greg Jennings.

    Researching Jennings biography page at Green Bay Packers.com, here are some items that illustrate exactly why Jennings is such a prolific deep ball threat: 

    Holds the franchise record and is tied for the lead among active NFL players (with Lee Evans) with four 80-yard catches in his career.

    Leads the NFL with 30 catches of 40-plus yards since 2007 and is tied for the NFL lead with 58 receptions of 25-plus yards over that span.

    Of his 49 career TD catches, 18 of them (36.7 percent) have been at least 40 yards in length. Has a staggering average of 30.7 yards per TD catch.

    Think about that for a second. 30 catches of at least 40-yards long. That is the very definition of a deep threat. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has the big arm needed to throw the deep ball and he also has the receivers that are talented enough and fast enough to haul in the bombs.

5) Carolina Panthers WR Steve Smith

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    Who exactly is Stevonne Latrall Smith? Well, that would be the birth name of Carolina Panthers WR Steve Smith.

    As for Smith's ability to be a deep ball threat, would it surprise you to learn that since 2005, Smith leads all active NFL receivers with the most receptions of 25-yards or longer with 84 catches? Trailing him on the list is Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals with 77 receptions.

    With Smith's speed and the big arm of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, it would seem quite possible for Smith to break the 100-catch mark of receptions that went for at least 25-yards or longer if he can play for a couple more years.

4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Vincent Jackson

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    This video collection highlights a number of various catches Vincent Jackson made during his career with the San Diego Chargers. There is a variety of short, medium and long passes in this collection, but enough big bombs to illustrate our point, which is that Jackson is one of the best deep-ball threats in the league.

    For his career, Jackson has averaged 17.6 yards per catch, which places him in the top five of all active NFL wide receivers for their career to date. Jackson finished in the top 10 of all NFL receivers for receptions of 20-plus yards or more in both 2009 and 2011. In 2010, his production was impacted by his lengthy holdout.

    Jackson demonstrates very good body control on extending his long frame for deep passes. At 6'5", Jackson can use his superior height and long arms to reach passes that very few people can get to. With his speed, height, coordination and work ethic, Jackson is one of the best deep-ball threats in the NFL.

3) Green Bay Packers WR Jordy Nelson

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    Green Bay Packers WR Jordy Nelson has put up some impressive numbers so far during his relatively short NFL career.

    If you visit his biography or highlight page on Green Bay Packers.com, you will come across one bullet point that grabbed my attention:

    Ranks No. 3 among active NFL players (min. 20 TD catches) with a 32.1-yard average on his 21 career TD receptions.

    That average of 32.1 speaks volumes about the ability for Nelson and quarterback Aaron Rodger's ability to connect on long pass plays, and the speed that Nelson has to be able to fly past the secondary to haul in the long passes.

    Another interesting item found on Nelson's bio page was the following:

    His 18.6-yard receiving average ranked No. 2 in the league in 2011 among players with 50-plus catches and No. 5 in single-season franchise history.

    Nelson is an underrated deep threat, but the proof is in the numbers.

2) Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson

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    While there is no question that Calvin Johnson is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, if not the best, I rank him at No. 2 on the deep ball threat presentation due to how often Johnson is used on much shorter plays in the Lions offense.

    In the 2012 season, Johnson is ranked as the No. 1 wide receiver with 24 receptions for 369 yards, good for an average of 15.4 yards per catch. Nobody has more 20-plus yard receptions this year than does Johnson, who leads the league with nine.

    Johnson led the NFL in the 2011 season with 32 catches that were at least 20-yards or longer, which was exactly double the number he had just the year before. It appears that a healthy Matthew Stafford has a dramatic impact on what kind of a deep ball threat Johnson can be.

1) Pittsburgh Steelers WR Mike Wallace

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    On this video clip, you will see Pittsburgh Steelers WR Mike Wallace burn the Indianapolis Colts secondary with a long touchdown pass. Ben Roethlisberger shows off his strong arm on this play, which results in Wallace catching the ball in stride and resuming his top end speed to cruise into the end zone.

    Wallace averages 18.3 yards per catch, which is currently the highest average yardage per catch of any active NFL wide receiver, as per this list compiled by Pro Football Reference.com.

    How valuable would Wallace be to other NFL teams around the league? It will be interesting to see what happens with his contract status in the 2013 offseason, since the Steelers designated him with the franchise tag in 2012.

    In regards to production, Wallace led the NFL in the 2010 regular season with 26 receptions of 25-yards or longer. He followed that up with 18 more in 2011 and already has four long catches in the 2012 season.

Deep Ball Threat Honorable Mention Group

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    There were a number of players that I considered at length for inclusion in this list, but since there is only room for 10 names in a top 10 list, there were a number of players that I had to eliminate.

    You can refer to them as the second tier of deep ball threats if you prefer, but some of the players considered at length for my top 10 were:

    A.J. Green (Cincinnati), Demaryius Thomas (Denver), Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis), Andre Johnson (Houston), Torrey Smith (Baltimore), Malcom Floyd (San Diego), Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh), Santonio Holmes (New York Jets), Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City), Brandon Marshall (Chicago), Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants), Roddy White and Julio Jones (Atlanta).

    In addition, I wanted to mention four exceptional tight ends that continue to break the mold about how we used to perceive the way tight ends could perform. They are deep ball threats in their own right. The quartet is Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (New England), Brent Celek (Philadelphia) and Jimmy Graham (New Orleans).

    In conclusion, if you had a player in mind but their name didn't appear, I consider them to either be an intermediate route runner, or they excel at yards after the catch as opposed to being a deep ball threat.

    Thanks for checking out the presentation.

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