A name one rarely hears among those in that top tier? Green Bay's Jordy Nelson.
He's seventh in yards with 649, tied for third in touchdowns with seven and second in percentage of passes caught among receivers with 30-plus receptions, at 75 percent.
Some will argue that Nelson has only skyrocketed into the top three because of the injuries to Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jermichael Finley this year, making Nelson Aaron Rodgers' No. 1 target by default.
But anyone who has been following Nelson closely over his six-year career in Green Bay knows that's an easy argument to shoot down.
|Jordy Nelson's Targets Through 7 Games in 2013|
|Week 1 @ San Francisco||10||7||130|
|Week 2 vs. Washington||4||3||66|
|Week 3 @ Cincinnati||9||8||93|
|Week 5 vs. Detroit||7||5||82|
|Week 6 @ Baltimore||9||4||113|
|Week 7 vs. Cleveland||6||5||42|
|Week 8 @ Minnesota||8||7||123|
Nelson's average targets in the four weeks Jones, Cobb and Finley were active: 7.5.
Targets in the three weeks following: 7.6.
Nelson isn't performing this well because Rodgers suddenly has no one else to throw to. He's been doing it all along, under the radar, until suddenly, with the departure of Greg Jennings and Donald Driver in the offseason, and the rash of injuries in 2013, the world took notice.
From Walk-On to WR1
When Nelson walked-on as a freshman at Kansas State in 2003, it wasn't as a wideout. He was a safety and did not see any playing time that year or the next.
In 2005, he switched to receiver and proceeded to shatter what would total 11 KSU receiving records by the end of his senior season.
Despite his monster senior year at Kansas State, in which he posted the most productive season the school had ever seen with 1,606 yards over 122 receptions, his relatively slow 60-yard shuttle speed (11.53 seconds) at the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine gave some teams pause about his acceleration and explosiveness.
He was under the radar even then.
But one person saw Nelson's potential, and that was Ted Thompson.
Though Thompson's best known for being taciturn in free agency and trades, he is quite aggressive in wheeling and dealing draft picks. Thompson assessed Nelson's value as an early second-round pick, and then traded a late first-round draft choice to the New York Jets to acquire him and a fourth-round selection.
Nelson was named Rookie of the Year in 2008 by the Packers Hall of Fame, but in 2009, he dropped to fourth on the team in snaps played, after Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and Jones.
Packers fans don't need to be told that he truly broke out in Super Bowl XLV against Pittsburgh, in which he posted a career-high nine receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown.
In 2011, after having trailed Jones and Jennings in yards in 2010, he leapfrogged over them both, as well as Driver, to lead the team in yards at 1,263. Moreover, after notching seven touchdowns total in his three seasons, he had a breakout 15 in 2011.
Nelson's elevated play in 2011 and 2012 no doubt motivated Thompson's decision not to budge when Jennings balked at the Packers' $8 million offer to stay in Green Bay this past offseason, even though the team was losing Driver to retirement.
He had found his new star. Or rather, he had drafted and developed him, as Thompson does best.
Nelson has three traits that are rare to find in one player, which have helped him become the second-best receiver in the NFL: versatility, accuracy and explosiveness.
Nelson would be the Packers' most obvious star X receiver, but that doesn't mean he is one. He has the requirements: height (he's the tallest of the corps, at 6'3"), size and leaping ability (have you seen his acrobatic catches?)
The attributes of Nelson's teammates would also seem to suggest that he's best-suited as a traditional X receiver. Jones is a little shorter but still very physical at 6'1", and he could also play the X but often plays the Z, or flanker. Cobb, of course, is a multithreat, but at 5'10", he is the prototypical slot receiver who is smart, small and quick.
But Nelson doesn't always line up in the X position, and that's what separates him from receivers who traditionally have, like Johnson. Nelson has taken 483 snaps in 2013, per Pro Football Focus, to amass his 649 yards, while Johnson has racked up 821 yards in fewer snaps (459).
This year, Nelson's not just the big play on the back-shoulder pass to the sideline guy. He's adaptable.
Especially in 2013, Nelson has moved around, because his versatility means that when different positional players like Jones or Cobb and Finley get injured, he can step into their roles.
Take a look at the below chart of Nelson's eight targets in last Sunday's matchup against the Vikings. He lined up as the X, the Z and in the slot.
|Nelson, Nelson Everywhere: Positions vs. Vikings|
|Down and Distance||Position||Result of Play|
|3rd-and-2 @ MIN 11||Slot||Short right, 11 yards, TD|
|2nd-and-3 @ GB 25||Z||Deep right, incomplete|
|3rd-and-3 @ GB 25||Z||Short left, 7 yards|
|3rd-and-6 @ GB 24||Slot||Short middle to Nelson, 76 yards, TD|
|3rd-and-1 @ GB 29||Z||Short right, 11 yards|
|4th-and-3 @ MIN 42||Z||Short right, 8 yards|
|2nd-and-8 @ GB 47||X||Short middle, 7 yards|
|1st-and-4 @ MIN 4||X||Short left, 3 yards|
|Game film courtesy of NFL.com|
According to Pro Football Focus analyst Bryan Hall, Nelson lined up in the slot on 17 of 69 snaps, or 25 percent of the time. However, as we see in the table, both of Nelson's touchdowns were a result of plays from the slot. Let's look at them a little more closely:
In his first touchdown on 3rd-and-short last Sunday in Minnesota (above), Nelson is lined up in the slot on the line of scrimmage and is going to run a quick vertical route into the end zone. Rodgers finds him on an 11-yard pass to the right, and though Josh Robinson delivers flawless coverage, Rodgers puts the ball in a spot only Nelson can catch it.
Nelson's second touchdown of the night was also on third down. Nelson lines up in Finley's usual slot, while tight end Andrew Quarless is split out wide to the left. Myles White runs a quick comeback route.
Jarrett Boykin is set to run a post, and Quarless a crossing route, but when the Vikings bring the blitz and Rodgers lobs a short pass over the middle to Nelson, both take off down the field after him when his go route takes him 76 yards for the touchdown.
"I like Jordy everywhere," Mike McCarthy told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week. "Jordy just does it right every time.
"He can play every position. He can run every route."
We all know Nelson can play on the outside. But being able to fill in for Cobb and Finley on the inside makes him a rounded threat and nearly impossible for defenses to cover.
What's most impressive about Nelson is not only can he line up anywhere, but Rodgers can depend on him to make good on nearly all his connections.
One area in which Nelson has all but other top receivers in the NFL beat is his ability to hold onto the ball. In his 256 career receptions since 2008, Nelson has had only 25 drops, meaning he has a career drop rate of just 8.90 (of 281 total catchable passes).
|Nelson Drop Rate Compared to 2013 NFL Top-Five Receivers|
|Career Receptions||Career Drops||Total Catchable Passes||Drop Rate|
|Pro Football Focus and SportingCharts.com|
Don't be fooled by the false pattern above. While it seems logical to conclude from the careers of the five receivers featured here that fewer receptions means a lower drop rate, and consequently more receptions means a higher drop rate, that's not a given.
As a notable outlier, A.J. Green, currently ranked No. 22 overall in 2013 by Pro Football Focus, has a very similar career drop rate as Johnson (9.50) but has had less than half as many catchable balls (242).
The takeaway from the above table is that Nelson's accuracy is keeping pace with the five best receivers in the league in 2013.
In fact, Nelson's two dropped passes out of 41 catchable passes in 2013, as compared to Green's six dropped passes out of 52 catchable passes, is one reason Nelson is currently ranked 20 spots above Green, though many don't even include Nelson's name in the same conversation as Green's.
It's worth noting that the quarterbacks throwing to these receivers have no effect on drop rate—nullifying the popular "but Nelson has Rodgers throwing to him!" argument. The classification of all these passes as "catchable" removes any bias about the quarterback who may be throwing them.
Rodgers, for his part, couldn't be happier with Nelson's ability to connect on most everything thrown his way.
"Jordy makes 'em look easy at times," Rodgers told ESPN's Rob Demovsky earlier this year. "It makes me look good."
Anyone who has tuned into a Packers game in the past few years knows that Nelson is a constant deep threat.
Nelson is tied for fifth in the NFL in 2013 in explosive catches (defined as catches of 20-plus yards), with 11.
That means that of his 39 receptions so far in 2013, 28 percent have been explosive plays.
Think about that in context. This is a receiver who is lining up in the slot a significant amount of the time. He's not like Johnson, an X receiver (traditionally, though he has seen time in the slot in 2013) who is averaging 17.5 yards per catch.
Nelson makes a lot of big plays, but he also makes more small ones than most other receivers who are good enough, and the right size, to play the X on their respective teams.
Nelson's acrobatic sideline catches on streak routes are fun to watch, but they mean more than that. (Above, he explains to Cris Carter how he is able to make them.)
In many ways, Nelson's tip-toed, precise sideline catches bring together all the reasons he belongs in the top echelon of NFL receivers.
They demonstrate his explosiveness, clearly, but also his accuracy, versatility and, most importantly, the amount of trust Rodgers has in him to end up with the ball.
According to the NBC broadcast last Sunday, Rodgers and Nelson are the most prolific quarterback-receiver duo in the regular season in the league, since 2009. Rodgers averages 11.4 yards per pass to Nelson in that time, for a rating of 138.5—both highest from any quarterback to receiver.
Some may choose to take the rankings; some may choose to leave them. Others will give more or less credence to the system in which Nelson plays.
But the numbers, and especially the film, don't lie. Jordy Nelson, the No. 2 receiver in the league, is the real deal.