B/R NFL 1000: Ranking the Top 80 Wide Receivers from 2015
Ask yourself: At the end of the 2015 NFL season, who was the best wide receiver in the game?
We're not talking about who made the Pro Bowl or even who got the All-Pro votes. Who was really, truly the best? Forget reputation and forget how much money each player makes. We want cold, hard analysis that comes from watching games and grading players.
That's what the B/R NFL 1000 is for, and it's back for another year.
The B/R 1000 metric is based heavily on scouting each player and grading key criteria for each position. The criteria are weighted according to importance, with a possible best score of 100.
Potential is not taken into consideration and neither are career accomplishments.
Wide receivers are judged on hands (40 points), route running (40), yards after catch (10) and the overall value of the position relative to other spots on the field (nine). The maximum score for this position is 99.
In the case of ties, our team asked, "Which player would I rather have on my team?" and set the rankings accordingly.
Subjective? Yes. But ties are no fun.
I, along with a team of experienced evaluators (Dan Bazal, Luke Easterling, Cian Fahey, Duke Manyweather and Marshal Miller) scouted each player with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study by our team.
Editor's note: The slides for Kendall Wright, Willie Snead, Stefon Diggs, Eric Decker, Allen Hurns and Tyler Lockett initially contained analysis taken from NFL.com. Those slides were written by an assistant evaluator and have since been replaced by original analysis from Matt Miller and NFL1000 scouting contributors. We regret the error.
80.-76. Wheaton, Huff, Green-Beckham, Brown, Floyd
Hands: 33/40; Route Running: 27/40; YAC: 5/10; Position Value: 9/9
We kick off our wide receiver rankings with Markus Wheaton (5'11", 189 lbs, three seasons). Wheaton tallied 44 receptions for 749 receiving yards while adding five touchdowns in 2015. The Oregon State product also had four dropped passes. Despite being third in line for targets behind Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, he still finished ninth in the league with 17 yards per reception. Wheaton, not the fastest or biggest, gets the job done with his consistent hands and route-running ability.
Hands: 30/40; Route Running: 26/40; YAC: 9/10; Position Value: 9/9
Josh Huff (5'11", 206 lbs, two seasons) was known mostly for his return skills coming out of Oregon, but he saw the field more this season at the wide receiver position. After Jeremy Maclin's departure, the Eagles asked Huff to play more on offense, and he hauled in 27 passes for 312 yards. He is still understanding route running, so most of his receptions came as a result of the system play-calling getting him open. Since he's dangerous with the ball in his hands in the return game, the Eagles tried forcing balls to Huff to see if they could hit some big plays. If Huff gets a full-time role in the offense and learns the full route tree, better days will be ahead of him.
Hands: 33/40; Route Running: 25/40; YAC: 7/10; Position Value: 9/9
A physically gifted player, Dorial Green-Beckham (6'5", 237 lbs, one season) had an average but typical season for a rookie wideout. He has the No. 1 thing you can't teach, and that is size. In his first season, Green-Beckham ranked eighth in the league in yards per reception (17.2). He caught 32 balls for 549 yards and added four touchdowns. After sitting out his last season in college and only practicing at Oklahoma, it took him a while to get into the swing of things. Look for big things to come from Green-Beckham, who will have Marcus Mariota throwing to him for many years ahead.
Hands: 32/40; Route Running: 29/40; YAC: 4/10; Position Value: 9/9
Corey Brown (5'11", 185 lbs, two seasons) benefited greatly from having Cam Newton as his quarterback. With injuries for the Panthers at the receiving position, Brown had no choice but to step in. The Ohio State product tallied 31 receptions for 447 yards, and he added four touchdowns. Not known for his route running or for having a big body, Brown's best bet to get open is his straight-line speed. He has the body to be a slot-type receiver; now, he has to continue to develop by running crisp, clean routes.
Hands: 32/40; Route Running: 30/40; YAC: 4/10; Position Value: 9/9
In what he said was his last season of football, Malcom Floyd (6'5", 225 lbs, 11 seasons) finished third in the league in yards per reception (18.7). On only 30 catches, he was able to reach 561 yards and score three touchdowns. Floyd has been one of Philip Rivers' favorite targets for a long time. With his size and ability to get open, Floyd wins a lot of one-on-one deep balls. Not known for doing much after the catch, he goes into traffic and makes tough grabs. If 2015 was indeed Floyd's last season, the undrafted free agent out of Wyoming had a heck of a career. He totaled 34 touchdowns and 5,550 yards.
75.-71. Wallace, Thompkins, Wright, Bryant, Douglas
Hands: 32/40; Route Running: 27/40; YAC: 7/10; Position Value: 9/9
After joining his third team, Mike Wallace (6'0", 205 lbs, seven seasons) didn't have quite the impact the Vikings were hoping for. His 39 catches tied the career low he set back in his rookie season. The speedster from Ole Miss totaled 473 receiving yards and scored only two touchdowns. He didn't record a single 100-yard game all season, as Minnesota didn't put Wallace's speed to use. Let's hope the Vikings can get this top-notch deep threat more involved next year. Never known for his route running, Wallace relies on big plays. He recorded just two receptions of 25 or more yards in 2015.
Hands: 39/40; Route Running: 24/40; YAC: 4/10; Position Value: 9/9
Kenbrell Thompkins (6'1", 195 lbs, three seasons) played in only seven games this season for the Jets. On his third team in as many seasons, he is likely hoping to find a permanent home. Since Thompkins is known mostly for his great hands, it's no surprise he had zero drops in 2015. In seven games, he caught 17 passes for 165 yards. Fighting for targets with three other Jets on this list made it hard for him to get involved in the offense. Thompkins, who doesn't have blazing speed, puts his body in good position to shield defenders and allow his hands to snap up whatever is thrown his way.
Hands: 32/40; Route Running: 27/40; YAC: 8/10; Position Value: 9/9
Jarius Wright (5'10", 191 lbs, four seasons) wasn't involved in the offense in 2015 as much as he was in 2014. With the emergence of rookie Stefon Diggs and the signing of Mike Wallace, his reps were limited. Playing mostly out of the slot, Wright showed versatility as a route-runner and explosiveness with the football in his hands. A player who is quick more than he his fast, he tallied just 34 receptions for 442 yards in 16 games.
Hands: 23/40; Route Running: 34/40; YAC: 10/10; Position Value: 9/9
Martavis Bryant (6'4", 211 lbs, two seasons) is one of the NFL's most physically gifted receivers. His size-speed skill set grades out just as high as some of the top receivers in the game. The difference lies in Bryant's off-field issues and dropped passes. Bryant piled up 765 yards on 50 catches and added six touchdowns. But he dropped 11 passes, which tied for fourth-most in the league.
Hands: 36/40; Route Running: 27/40; YAC: 5/10; Position Value: 9/9
A former Atlanta Falcon, Harry Douglas (6'0", 183 lbs, seven seasons) just finished his first season with Titans. It's always interesting to grade players who go from playing with a veteran quarterback to playing with a rookie quarterback. In 2015, Douglas hauled in 36 balls for 411 yards and two touchdowns. Working out of the slot mostly like he did in Atlanta, Douglas proved to be a safety net for rookie Marcus Mariota. Not blessed with tremendous speed, Douglas uses his route-running prowess and great hands to maintain success in the league.
70.-66. Shorts, Aiken, Randle, Heyward-Bey, Garcon
Hands: 31/40; Route Running: 29/40; YAC: 8/10; Position Value: 9/9
Cecil Shorts (6'0", 202 lbs, five seasons) once again struggled with injuries in 2015. In only 11 games, he recorded 484 receiving yards. Because of the Texans' quarterback issues, receiving numbers were hard to come by, and Shorts tallied 42 receptions and five drops. He showed his limitations by making few impact plays and reaching the end zone just twice.
Hands: 36/40; Route Running: 28/40; YAC: 4/10; Position Value: 9/9
Kamar Aiken (6'2", 215 lbs, four seasons) had the best year of his young career in 2015. After Steve Smith Sr. suffered a season-ending injury, Aiken became Joe Flacco's No. 1 target. Aiken set career highs in catches with 75, yards with 944 and touchdowns with five. He isn't super fast, so he depends on his hands (four drops) and route-running skills for success.
Hands: 36/40; Route Running: 29/40; YAC: 4/10; Position Value: 9/9
Former LSU Tiger Rueben Randle (6'2", 208 lbs, four seasons) hauled in a career-high eight touchdown passes this season. He made 57 grabs for 797 yards and may just be coming into his own, as he is still just 24 years old. But Randle rarely practiced during the season because of chronic knee issues, and because wide receivers and quarterbacks use routes and plays in practice to develop chemistry for games, it was difficult for him to get on the same page as Eli Manning. Still, Randle dropped only three passes and can be a solid No. 2 option to go along with maybe the best receiver in the game in Odell Beckham Jr.
Hands: 32/40; Route Running: 31/40; YAC: 6/10; Position Value: 9/9
People will always link Darrius Heyward-Bey (6'2", 210 lbs, seven seasons) to that blazing 40-yard dash he ran at the combine. Heyward-Bey was behind three other Steelers on this list for targets and pulled in 21 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns. Though he's never lived up to his status as the No. 7 pick in 2009, Heyward-Bey has stuck around in the league because he has two things you can't teach: size and speed. On 37 targets, he dropped only two passes. This may catch some by surprise since a case of the drops had always seemed to follow him everywhere he went.
Hands: 35/40; Route Running: 30/40; YAC: 4/10; Position Value: 9/9
A sixth-round pick out of Mount Union, Pierre Garcon (6'0", 216 lbs, eight seasons) tied his career high for touchdowns with six this season. Consistent play from the quarterback position was a huge help, allowing Garcon to catch 72 passes for 777 yards. His hands were put to the test, though, as he dropped five passes. Known as a good route-runner, Garcon was a safety net for quarterback Kirk Cousins. They had a great relationship built through practices, which meant Cousins always knew where Garcon would be on the field.
65.-61. Kerley, Jones, Moore, Smith, Wilson
Hands: 29/40; Route Running: 31/40; YAC: 9/10; Position Value: 9/9
TCU product Jeremy Kerley (5'9", 188 lbs, five seasons) had his number of snaps decline significantly in 2015. He tallied the lowest numbers of his career with 16 receptions for 152 yards. When the Jets acquired Brandon Marshall in the offseason to become their No. 1 target, it allowed New York to move Eric Decker into his best role in the slot. But the slot position is the only position Kerley can play because of his lack of size. Kerley is still explosive and dangerous working laterally; he just needs more opportunities to make plays.
Hands: 32/40; Route Running: 30/40; YAC: 7/10; Position Value: 9/9
What a crazy year it was for James Jones (6'1", 208 lbs, nine seasons). It started when he got cut after spending training camp with the New York Giants. But after Jordy Nelson suffered a season-ending injury, Jones' old team came calling. Jones tallied a career-high 890 receiving yards and 17.8 yards per reception, which ranked fourth in the league, and eight of his 50 catches went for touchdowns. Having Aaron Rodgers at quarterback may have helped a bit. But Jones' hands have been a question mark ever since he came into the league, and he dropped five balls in 2015.
Hands: 37/40; Route Running: 29/40; YAC: 4/10; Position Value: 9/9
Lance Moore (5'9", 187 lbs, 10 seasons) continues to be a safety net for quarterbacks no matter which team he's on. Moore has been consistent in one area: catching the football when it's thrown his way. He hauled in 29 passes for 337 yards and added four touchdowns. The term "chain-mover" describes Moore perfectly. Of his 29 receptions, 20 of them went for first downs. Though four Lions were targeted more often than he was, Moore, 32, maintained his value because of his ability to get open and catch the football. He was also one of only four players who didn't drop a pass in 2015.
Hands: 27/40; Route Running: 33/40; YAC: 10/10; Position Value: 9/9
Still one of the best deep threats in the NFL, Torrey Smith (6'0", 205 lbs, five seasons) led the league in average yards per receptions in 2015 with 20.1. He totaled 663 receiving yards on only 33 receptions and added four touchdowns. But when he signed with the 49ers, Joe Flacco didn't go with him. Smith still needs to improve his short and intermediate routes if he's going to be a go-to receiver on every down.
Hands: 36/40; Route Running: 25/40; YAC: 9/10; Position Value: 9/9
An undrafted free agent out of Georgia State, Albert Wilson (5'9", 200 lbs, two seasons) nearly doubled his receiving stats from his rookie season. He recorded 35 receptions for 451 yards and two touchdowns. Since he doesn't have great size, Wilson does his work by using uncanny quickness to separate from defenders. He was the third target in the Chiefs offense and surprised people by becoming an impact player. Based on his size, one would assume he plays in the slot, but Kansas City lined him up all over the place.
60.-56. Mariani, Walters, Kearse, Avant, Evans
Hands: 38/40; Route Running: 23/40; YAC: 9/10; Position Value: 9/9
Marc Mariani (6'1", 187 lbs, six seasons) is a name on this list nobody would have guessed would be here before the season. Before 2015, Mariani had caught only five passes in five years. He hauled in 22 passes this season for 300 yards. After spending nearly his whole career as a return specialist, he finally had an opportunity to line up at receiver because of injuries. While his route running needs work, he showed off his sure hands—he didn't drop a pass all season.
Hands: 37/40; Route Running: 28/40; YAC: 5/10; Position Value: 9/9
Much like the 60th receiver on this list, nobody would have pegged Bryan Walters (6'0", 195 lbs, four seasons) for this list before the season. He had only nine career catches in three years before this season, but Walters hauled in 32 passes for 368 yards and added his first career touchdown in 2015. He played in only 11 games, but Walters contributed to the Jaguars' new-look passing attack. Walters' hands are his biggest and best attribute (one drop). With Walters as a safety net and a move-the-chains kind of receiver, Blake Bortles had a big season.
Hands: 34/40; Route Running: 29/40; YAC: 7/10; Position Value: 9/9
Jermaine Kearse (6'1", 209 lbs, four seasons) spent the season as Russell Wilson's No. 2 option and set career highs in receptions (49), yards (685) and touchdowns (five). The former Washington Husky has made a name for himself in Seattle. He dropped four passes, but Kearse proved reliable in the Seahawks' expanded passing game. His athleticism is underrated and so is his on-the-field ability. Though he may not test well in terms of combine numbers, Kearse has game speed.
Hands: 39/40; Route Running: 27/40; YAC: 4/10; Position Value: 9/9
Jason Avant (6'0", 210 lbs, 10 seasons) once again made this list based on his skills and not stats. He tallied just 15 receptions for 119 yards in 16 games—numbers that do not stand out and that Antonio Brown could put up in a single game. But Avant does all the little things that go unnoticed by those looking solely at box scores. He is an excellent blocker who never takes a play off and didn't drop a single pass.
Hands: 27/40; Route Running: 38/40; YAC: 5/10; Position Value: 9/9
Mike Evans (6'5", 231 lbs, two seasons) was second in the league with 15 dropped passes this season. Many scouts have said catching passes from rookie quarterback Jameis Winston may be a reason for this. Because of Winston's upper-class arm strength, Evans has to try to adjust to balls that get on him much quicker than they did from old quarterback Josh McCown. One big improvement Evans made was in his route running. His size, strength and balance make him a dangerous slant receiver when matched up in single coverage. He caught 74 passes for 1,206 yards, which ranked 11th in the league.
55.-51. White, Hawkins, Williams, Colston, Matthews
Hands: 37/40; Route Running: 30/40 YAC: 4/10 Position Value: 9/9
Longtime Falcon Roddy White (6'0", 211 lbs, 11 seasons) hauled in 43 receptions for 506 yards and one touchdown in 2015. There is no doubt White's best days are behind him. Early this season, White had some strong words for his new coaches (per ESPN.com), saying he wanted the ball thrown his way more often. Julio Jones is the clear-cut No. 1 target in Atlanta, and if White would like to further his career, he could take a page out of Larry Fitzgerald's book and move to the slot full time. With his understanding of angles and body positioning, White still runs excellent routes, and he dropped only two passes. This is the perfect skill set for a safety valve or slot receiver.
Hands: 37/40; Route Running: 27/40; YAC: 7/10; Position Value: 9/9
Andrew Hawkins (5'7", 180 lbs, five seasons) played in only eight games because of injuries. He hauled in 27 passes and dropped one. The prototypical slot receiver, Hawkins relies on his quickness to get open. He has a great first step that allows him to separate from defenders. Playing with two quarterbacks who never got into a rhythm hurt his development. Though he lacks size, Hawkins constantly attacks the football in the air and attempts to run through it on the ground to give himself an opportunity to complete catches.
Hands: 33/40; Route Running: 30/40; YAC: 8/10; Position Value: 9/9
Terrance Williams (6'2", 208 lbs, three seasons) was one of the few Cowboys who didn't get injured this season. The injury to Dez Bryant allowed Williams to reach career highs in targets (91), receptions (52) and yards (840) as the No. 1 receiving option. Quarterback Tony Romo missed almost all of the season, which led to Williams having to catch passes from four different quarterbacks. Williams is a good route-runner, but he makes his money on deep routes. He is a burner who can't be left in space against limited cornerbacks because he will beat them downfield.
Hands: 32/40; Route Running: 33/40; YAC: 6/10; Position Value: 9/9
The Saints' all-time leading receiver, Marques Colston (6'4", 225 lbs, 10 seasons) finished this season with the fewest receptions of his career. Another receiver whose best days are behind him, he had 520 receiving yards on 45 catches and added four touchdowns. Colston continued to use his big body to gain position on defensive backs. Colston works mostly out of the slot and is known around the league for deep slants over the middle and hauling in tough catches in traffic. With the emergence of Willie Snead, Colston took the role of third or fourth option on most routes.
Hands: 32/40; Route Running: 31/40; YAC: 8/10; Position Value: 9/9
In his sophomore season, Jordan Matthews (6'3", 212 lbs, two seasons) fell three yards short of eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark. The second-rounder from Vanderbilt hauled in 85 passes and scored eight touchdowns. His hands graded out a tad better than they did last season, though he had nine drops. After becoming the Eagles' go-to target following the departure of Jeremy Maclin, Matthews' game is much different. As a possession receiver, he used the offense's scheme and his body to his advantage.
50. Donte Moncrief, Indianapolis Colts
Donte Moncrief (6'2", 222 lbs, two seasons) solidified himself as the Indianapolis Colts' No. 2 receiver by making big strides in his sophomore season. He caught 64 passes for 733 yards and added six touchdowns. Once again, his hands weren't in question, as he dropped only four balls all year.
Moncrief did a much-better job this season using his body to get in good position to pull in passes in tight coverage. He just about doubled all of his stats from his rookie season. Even though Moncrief is not exceptionally fluid, he is able to change direction with ease.
Moncrief doesn't have blazing speed or much big-play ability. His game is about using his body to try to break tackles after he has already made the catch.
49. Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers
When I scouted Ty Montgomery (6'0", 216 lbs, one season) in preparation for the 2015 NFL draft, his hands were a major issue. Though his season was cut short by injury, Montgomery hauled in 15 passes and dropped only one. Catching footballs from a passer like Aaron Rodgers isn't the easiest of things to do, so it's a huge plus to know Montgomery must have put in a lot of work during training camp to get his hands better.
Montgomery's athleticism leads you to believe he will have major upside once he cleans up his route running. His game is similar to that of teammate Randall Cobb. He is in a great place to learn all the routes from different wide receivers.
There's no doubt Montgomery was a dangerous playmaker at Stanford when he had the ball in his hands. The Green Bay Packers took some heat for spending a third-round pick on a limited receiver and returner specialist. But much like Cobb did in 2011 after coming out of Kentucky, Montgomery spent time this season returning kicks and will continue to develop as a receiver. Next season, if fully healthy, he may just be the Packers' most dangerous playmaker in the return game.
48. Steve Johnson, San Diego Chargers
Though he played in only 10 games this season, the San Diego Chargers' Steve Johnson (6'2", 207 lbs, eight seasons) had a good relationship going with Philip Rivers. On 61 targets, Johnson caught 45 passes for 497 yards, but he dropped five balls. Catching passes from Rivers likely proved much easier than the season before, when he had to try to nab fastballs from Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco.
Johnson was once tagged as the most unorthodox route-runner in the NFL, and he was once again creative in getting open in 2015. As a guy who can easily separate from defenders, he does most of his damage on option routes. This is key for Rivers, who must try to understand which option Johnson will take.
Even though he just finished his eighth season in the NFL, Johnson still has quick, fluid feet that help him do damage in one-on-one coverage. He's not particularly fast, but he is elusive with the football in his hands.
47. Travis Benjamin, Cleveland Browns
Former Miami Hurricane Travis Benjamin (5'10", 175 lbs, four seasons) had more production this season than he did in the previous three seasons combined. He turned out to be the Cleveland Browns' go-to receiver, catching 68 passes but dropping six. It was a surprise to everyone in the league that Benjamin was so productive. One can tell Benjamin has put in the work to make his hands better, as he showed much-better mitts than he had in college.
Route running is where Benjamin has improved his game the most. After running mostly go routes his whole career, his route tree was far more advanced in 2015.
Dating back to the combine, everyone knew Benjamin was a burner who could take any catch to the house. He recorded eight plays of 40-plus yards this season and proved that once he is even with a defender, he is leaving the defender. There were multiple times a defender underestimated his speed and paid for it by watching Benjamin walk into the end zone for one of his five receiving touchdowns.
46. Percy Harvin, Buffalo Bills
Injuries continued to plague Percy Harvin (5'11", 184, seven seasons). He played in only five games in 2015, catching 19 passes and dropping one. The Buffalo Bills were hoping to have him on the field alongside Sammy Watkins to create a dynamic duo at the receiver position. Though it was a small sample size, Harvin did show improvement in catching the football.
Never known to be an elite route-runner, Harvin relies on his athleticism to get open. His quickness and explosiveness aren't what they once were, as injuries have dampened his career.
Although he is still dangerous with the football in his hands, Harvin isn't what he once was coming out of the University of Florida. It will be an interesting offseason for both Harvin and the Bills as they see if they can milk the last bit of talent out of him—before his career is over.
45. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
What a disappointing year it was for the Dallas Cowboys. Injuries derailed the team and its best offensive weapon in Dez Bryant (6'2", 220 lbs, six seasons). Bryant broke a bone in his foot in the Cowboys' opening game of 2015 and appeared in nine games, but he wasn't near the player he was in 2014. Ranked No. 1 on this list a season ago, Bryant's production was limited in 2015. He caught 31 passes for 401 yards and three touchdowns. Drops were an issue when he was on the field, as he had seven.
Bryant's route running has never been anything to question. Even though he has mastered the route tree, not having Tony Romo throwing him passes put a hurt on his production. The separation he gets from defenders is unlike that of any other receiver.
The foot injury took away Bryant's explosiveness in 2015. Though you have to respect his desire to compete, just chalk this season up as a lost one. But there is no reason why Bryant won't be back in the top 10 next season.
44. Kendall Wright, Tennessee Titans
Drops were not an issue for Kendall Wright (5'10", 191 lbs, four seasons) in 2015, having only three all season. Wright has been a difficult guy to grade in the NFL because he has played with such inaccurate and inconsistent quarterbacks throughout his career. The addition of Marcus Mariota looks to right that ship at quarterback, as he will look to Wright as his top target. Out of 59 targets Wright saw in 2015, he was only able to bring in 36 catches for a 61 percent catch rate—a poor rating regardless of quarterback play. With improved timing and work with his quarterback, Titans fans should be eager to see what the duo can do going forward in their careers.
Part of Wright’s poor catch rate stems from timing and sloppy routes. Wright often rounds off his routes, despite his lightning-quick feet and doesn’t make people miss with double moves like most speedy receivers. Fine-tuning those aspects of his game—and working with the same coach and quarterback for two seasons in a row—should help fix a lot of the problems in his game. Wright will have no excuses entering 2016, after a mediocre 2015 season.
A typical quick receiver, Wright doesn’t offer much long speed in the NFL. He is able to plant his foot and change direction quicker than a defender can get to him and wreaks havoc underneath with his lateral ability. Too often Wright is caught from behind and can overdo his lateral move and become a dancer in space.
43. Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
When the Green Bay Packers' Jordy Nelson suffered a season-ending injury in August, Randall Cobb (5'10", 192 lbs, five seasons) became opposing defenses' No. 1 target to stop in the passing game. Catching fastballs from Aaron Rodgers isn't the easiest thing to do in sports, but Cobb hauled in 79 passes while dropping 10. His hands were more suspect this season than any other, as there were multiple times Cobb was caught looking upfield before he had secured a catch.
Cobb lines up mostly in the slot and is an exceptional route-runner who has worked to improve since the first day he stepped on the field for the Packers. He can run any route in the book from the slot, which makes it super difficult for defenses to cover him—even in such limited space inside. Cobb is also a nightmare to cover because of his exceptional quickness and balance.
Cobb relies on his quickness and fluidity to create separation in tight space. So dangerous with the football in his hands, Cobb even lined up in the backfield a few times per game as Mike McCarthy and Co. used him to try to get Green Bay's running game going.
42. Mohamed Sanu, Cincinnati Bengals
A quarterback in high school, Mohamed Sanu (6'2", 210 lbs, four seasons) this season cleaned up the biggest problem that plagued him in 2014. Sanu dropped only one pass; he had led the league with 14 drops in 2014. Sanu told me he would spend more time in offseason training working on his hands, and the hard work paid off.
Since he doesn't run the whole route tree, Sanu depends on his athleticism to get open. Still known as a raw receiver, there is room for improvement for the soon-to-be free agent. Since he's blessed with great size and strength, if Sanu can clean up his route running, there's no reason why he couldn't land in the top 20 on this list next season.
What Sanu can do with the ball in his hands is as impressive as any other receiver in the league. His big body makes him a tough tackle for anyone—especially cornerbacks who can't match his size-and-strength combo. He tallied 394 receiving yards, and more than half of those (209) came on yards after the catch.
41. Marvin Jones, Cincinnati Bengals
After missing all of 2014, Marvin Jones (6'2", 198 lbs, three seasons) picked up right where he left off. His numbers this season were slightly better than those he posted in 2013, though he scored only four touchdowns instead of 10. Since Jones came into the league, his hands have never been in question. He dropped only three passes in 2015 and continued to show a natural ability to catch the football. Jones has the unique ability to make a difficult catch look routine.
Jones became the No. 2 option behind superstar A.J. Green this season, so he may find himself as a top-two option in free agency this offseason. His route running needs the most improvement. He doesn't have the cleanest or quickest first step, and he's a strider who needs to get going first before breaking in and out of routes.
Jones' slender build doesn't make him too dangerous after the catch. He isn't a burner who uses his speed to separate or pull away from anyone. Jones is a smooth runner who makes it look like he isn't moving as fast as he really is.
40. Jamison Crowder, Washington Redskins
Going into the 2015 season, Jamison Crowder (5'8", 185 pounds, one season) wasn't expected to contribute too much in his rookie season. He far exceeded expectations. The fourth-round pick from Duke caught 59 passes for 604 yards, and he dropped only four balls on 74 targets. For a small-framed receiver, Crowder isn't afraid to go over the middle to make tough catches.
A polished route-runner coming into the league, Crowder did most of his work out of the slot. With playmakers all around him, the slot fit his style of play the best, and it fit what the Washington Redskins needed out of him. Crowder is small and lacks the speed required to separate from defenders over the top. He isn't able to maintain his acceleration and doesn't have the second gear others use to run past defenders down the field.
Crowder is quicker than he is fast and has impressive acceleration off the line of scrimmage. He also brings the ability to return punts and is silky with the ball in his hands. His smaller frame makes him a tough tackle for bigger defenders who lack quickness.
39. Willie Snead, New Orleans Saints
An undrafted free agent out of Ball State in the 2014 NFL draft class, Willie Snead (5'11", 195 lbs, one season) didn't catch a pass in his rookie season. He spent time in the Cleveland Browns' training camp, then caught on with the Carolina Panthers' practice squad before being signed to the New Orleans Saints' practice squad late in the year. In Snead's first sniff at the NFL, he turned in an impressive season as Drew Brees' second-favorite target. Snead was rock-solid on his 95 targets, dropping just four passes on his way to 69 catches. Snead's toughness over the middle, combined with very good hand-eye coordination, makes him a viable weapon split out wide or in the slot.
The biggest area of development for Snead during the season was in his route tree. He has the ability to throttle down and get defenders to lose their balance as they try to adjust to his transition, but he must learn to use the threat of a cut to get the defender to tip his hand in coverage. Snead uses his body well to get inside leverage, but he isn't a big enough body to effectively shield the ball from the defense on errant passes.
With solid open-field speed, it was evident early on that Snead could do something with the ball in his hands after the catch. In Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals, he added 43 yards after the fact on his one catch, opening the eyes of everyone scrambling to find out who this new receiver was in New Orleans.
38. Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams
Tavon Austin (5'8", 176 lbs, three seasons) may be the most dangerous receiver in the NFL with the ball in his hands. He hauled in 52 passes this season while dropping four on 81 targets. He has proved to be a sure-handed receiver, but he rarely has to catch a contested ball. The drops occurred when safeties bore down on him while he came across the middle.
Not known for running the traditional route tree, Austin has elite quickness in and out of cuts, which makes up for the lack of routes. He shines when the defense is in zone coverage, and he has the ability to break a route off and sit in an open area. Austin also changes speeds on his routes to sit in space or shake a trailing defender when necessary.
Austin can make NFL defenders look like they are in high school while trying to tackle him. He has a plethora of moves and strategies and deploys them without hesitation. He is so dangerous with the ball in his hands that the St. Louis Rams found ways to get him the pigskin—whether it was out of the backfield, on reverses or on screen passes—because he has the ability to take any play to the house.
37. Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders
When the Oakland Raiders drafted Amari Cooper (6'1", 210 lbs, one season) fourth overall in 2015, they got all they could ask for and more. The only negative to his great rookie season was his league-leading 18 dropped passes. The hands issue came as a surprise for most, as he showed exceptional paws at Alabama. Multiple people around the league believe the velocity of Derek Carr's throws could have had something to do with Cooper's drops. If not for the drops, Cooper may have found himself in the top 10 of this list, because every other aspect of his game graded out near the top.
Many pegged Cooper as the most polished route-runner they had seen come out of college in a long time. Cooper is such a smooth, fluid athlete that he moves faster than people realize. He runs every route in the book with ease. He solidified himself as a No. 1 receiver for years to come by notching 1,070 yards and six touchdowns.
This special player is just as dangerous after the catch as anyone in the NFL. He tallied 11 plays of 25 or more yards and left defenders in the dust as he showed exceptional run-after-the-catch skills.
36. Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
Brandin Cooks (5'10", 189 lbs, two seasons) had a strong sophomore season in 2015. As the go-to option for Drew Brees, Cooks caught 84 passes and dropped only four. Cooks is a natural catcher of the football. His hands give Brees the confidence to throw his way in any circumstance. Cooks is not one to shy away from contested catches; even though he may not be that big, he will fight for the football with the best of them.
His first-step quickness is up there with the best in the NFL. Cooks gets in and out of his breaks in a hurry while pulling away from defenders on short to intermediate routes.
Cooks isn't a long strider, but he wins with quickness at the line. His smaller frame makes it tough for defenders to tackle him in open space. The New Orleans Saints look to have hit a home run, as they landed a No. 1 receiver for many years to come with the 20th pick in the 2014 draft.
35. Eric Decker, New York Jets
Eric Decker (six seasons) found a chemistry with Ryan Fitzpatrick in New York, and in his sixth season as a pro, he caught 80 passes on 126 targets. That production was great, and Brandon Marshall's influence opposite Decker allowed him more single-coverage looks, but the eight drops credited his way this season are too big to ignore. Decker's 12 touchdowns show his impact, but drops over the middle and when in traffic were a significant part of his evaluation.
As the Jets' primary slot receiver, Decker has exceptional size (6'3", 214 lbs) to push smaller nickel defenders up the field or box them out on underneath routes. Where Decker excels is when getting a hard push off the line and then using his size to spin and act as a shield between the defender and the ball on option routes. He understands how to find space, and with defenses generally keeping two defenders on Brandon Marshall, he was able to find plenty of soft spots over the middle and on intermediate routes. Decker isn't used much on the sideline, but grading his influence in the slot still results in a big score.
Decker's strength in his route running is his size, but that holds him back as a yards-after-catch player. He doesn't have the dynamic speed or agility to shake defenders in space, and instead he works more like a possession receiver when getting the ball in his hands.
34. Jerricho Cotchery, Carolina Panthers
Longtime journeyman Jerricho Cotchery (6'1", 205 lbs, 12 seasons) helped the Carolina Panthers fill a big void at receiver after Kelvin Benjamin suffered a season-ending injury in training camp. Cotchery caught 39 passes and dropped one in 2015. His hands have never been in question, as he has been known for his natural catching ability ever since he came into the league out of North Carolina State in 2004.
At this stage in his career, Cotchery depends on his savvy route running to get open. He lacks elite speed, so he depends on reading zone defenses and knowing when to stop on a route to hang around and be productive. Having the NFL MVP as his quarterback was a big help in having such a productive season at this stage in his career.
Cotchery averaged 5.1 yards after the catch and graded out better in that category than most would expect. He is a strong runner with the ball in his hands and isn't afraid to take a hit in the open field.
33. Eddie Royal, Chicago Bears
Former Virginia Tech Hokie Eddie Royal (5'10", 185 lbs, eight seasons) was only on the field for nine games this season. He spent most of his time in the slot and finished with 238 receiving yards on 37 catches. He dropped three passes in 49 targets but seemed to have a good relationship with Jay Cutler—his former quarterback from his first year in Denver.
Royal makes a living running underneath routes out of the slot. He's an undersized receiver without tip-top athleticism, but he still puts up solid numbers every year. Running option routes out of the slot proved to be important to have that quarterback-wide receiver chemistry he has with Cutler, as so much of the option-route game is improvisation on the part of the receiver and awareness by his quarterback. By its very nature, that aspect of the passing game is a quick chemistry builder.
Royal always seems to make would-be tacklers miss, which allows him to tack on a few extra yards after the catch. A former kick and punt returner, Royal still shows that quickness and is a tough tackle in the open field for bigger defenders.
32. Cole Beasley, Dallas Cowboys
The definition of "possession receiver" must have a picture of Cole Beasley (5'8", 180 lbs, four seasons) right next to it. The ultimate slot receiver had to catch passes this season from four different quarterbacks because of injuries. Willing to work the middle of the field with his small frame, Beasley shows natural pass-catching skills. He hauled in 52 passes and dropped four, acting as a security blanket for whomever was back there throwing passes for the Dallas Cowboys.
When facing press coverage, Beasley tends to have trouble separating from defenders. Rhythm with the quarterback is key for a slot receiver because he has to understand when to stop in an open zone and when to keep running. Beasley didn't have that rhythm, as the Cowboys quarterbacks played musical chairs.
Beasley lacks the speed to beat guys on deep routes, but he is dangerous in tight spaces in the middle of the field. His quickness and smaller frame make him tough to bring down when the ball is in his hands.
31. Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals
Former Notre Dame star Michael Floyd (6'2", 220 lbs, four seasons) had a year that much resembled his 2014 effort. Floyd had four drops while catching 52 passes for 849 yards. Based on his overall athleticism, one would think Floyd dominates cornerbacks. But there is room for him to become more effective at the catch point—by going up stronger to bring down one-on-one balls.
Floyd no longer depends on his raw athleticism to get open in coverage. A huge last month of the season leads us to believe Floyd is due for a huge year in 2016. Larry Fitzgerald's resurgence and second-year star John Brown's emergence have made it difficult to cover this talented threesome.
Floyd uses his body to box out the defender covering him. He is a long strider who is quick enough to run the full route tree. Once in the open field, Floyd uses a powerful stiff arm to keep defenders at bay.
30. Michael Crabtree, Oakland Raiders
With his best season since 2012, Michael Crabtree (6'1", 215 lbs, seven seasons) put himself back on the map in Oakland. Having a great young quarterback and another great receiver lined up on the opposite side of him really helped Crabtree get his career back on track. He hauled in 85 passes for 922 yards and added nine touchdowns. He did, however, drop eight passes on 143 targets.
Crabtree lacks elite speed, so he relies on his positioning to seal off defenders while catching the ball. He isn't able to create enough separation to be an easy target on most routes in the route tree. Quicker than he is fast, he relies on savvy route running to get open in tight coverage.
A pure possession receiver, Crabtree struggles to gain yards after the catch. He doesn't have freakish athletic traits, and he isn't one to run away from anyone. He lacks big-play ability, but it is impressive to watch him go to work on corners on a weekly basis and win chess-like matchups by setting up his defenders.
29. Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Vincent Jackson (6'5", 230 lbs, 11 seasons) was on his way to a big bounce-back season until the injury bug struck. He appeared in only 10 games in 2015 and caught 33 passes for 543 yards while only dropping one pass. Jackson, who has big, strong pass-catching hands, showed he still has some productive football left in his body.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quarterback play was a huge part of Jackson's success. He is still a good route-runner and an impressive straight-line receiver who rebounded with rookie Jameis Winston, who was able to get the ball down the field. Jackson and Winston had nice chemistry with one another, and Jackson proved to be a good safety valve for Winston in tough situations.
At this stage of his career, Jackson isn't going to run away from anyone in the league. He can use his big body to shield defenders from the ball, and his frame also makes it difficult on smaller corners who try to tackle him one-on-one in the open field. Jackson has long-distance speed left in the tank—it just takes him a little longer to get going these days.
28. Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings
Stefon Diggs (6'0", 191 lbs, one season) had a very efficient rookie season in terms of catching the ball. He dropped just two passes, according to Pro Football Focus. While that consistency was valuable to the Minnesota Vikings offense, it wasn't what stood out most. Diggs offered Teddy Bridgewater wider windows to hit because of his ability to track the ball in the air and pluck it from the air against tight coverage.
Diggs is an ideal fit with Bridgewater because he runs crisp intermediate routes. The receiver sells his routes coming out of his breaks with upper-body movements while quickly shifting his weight to turn away from tight coverage. His route running particularly stood out against the Denver Broncos during what was his breakout display of the season.
It's not that Diggs is an exceptional athlete—a Percy Harvin-type receiver who can accelerate away from any defender and overrun defensive backs when he has built-up momentum. Diggs is so dangerous after the catch because he understands how to set himself up at the catch point before relying on his quickness to turn away from incoming defenders in an instant.
27. Allen Hurns, Jacksonville Jaguars
In his second season as an undrafted free agent from the University of Miami, Allen Hurns (6'3", 205 lbs, two seasons) set career highs in targets (99) and catches (64) while also scoring a personal-best 10 touchdowns. Hurns emerged as a true big-play threat in Jacksonville, and his consistency as a pass-catcher made him a focus in the passing game. Of those 99 targets, Hurns hauled in all but three, showing he can be trusted on deep routes to climb the ladder and attack the ball in the air. And even when asked to make plays on underneath balls, Hurns wasn't shy about attacking contested balls in traffic.
Hurns' route tree is still being developed, but the Jaguars are ready and willing to ride his deep routes all the way to the end zone. With 4.55 40 speed coming out of Miami, Hurns has shown to have better burst down the field than expected. He's also adjusting to the ball in the air in a way you can't time on a stopwatch. His ability to locate the ball and then adjust to it with his speed and hands has made him one of the league's best up-and-coming deep threats.
Hurns isn't all deep routes, despite finishing seventh in the NFL in receptions over 20 yards (13). He's also showing a knack for stiff-arming defenders after the catch and picking up tough yards as a ball-carrier. Even without great speed, his big frame allows him to muscle through tacklers and find space.
26. Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks
Tyler Lockett (one season) started to get a lot of attention at the 2015 Senior Bowl—and rightfully so. He was able to surprise fans, and scouts, with his hands in his rookie season. Being able to bring in 51 of his 67 targets was good enough for Lockett to be ranked for the seventh-best catch percentage among all receivers. As Lockett develops he will have to work on his hand strength and rely less on making catches with his body.
With world-class speed, Lockett is a threat to score from anywhere. Route running is an area needing to be polished up, but the Seahawks utilized his abilities perfectly in 2015. By running shallow underneath routes with Lockett, the Seahawks baited defenses to play him close. And as soon as they did, Lockett was able to beat everyone with a simple double move and be 10 yards away from his nearest man. Those same gimmicks won’t be as effective going forward, and Lockett will need to improve his footwork and ability to find holes in coverage.
As mentioned earlier, Lockett can move. Many people assumed the Seahawks drafted him solely for his ability as a return man. However, just like Pittsburg State product John Brown, Lockett surprised everyone with his ability to hit the seam and do damage after the catch. His ability to change direction without missing a beat is second-to-none; add in his exceptional field vision and Lockett is one of the more dangerous receivers after the catch. His slender frame, just 5'10", 182 lbs, does make him easy to bring down, if a defender can get their hands on him.
25. Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers
Keenan Allen (6'2", 211 lbs, three seasons) was off to the best start of his young career when an injury ended his year. He played in only eight games. Allen caught 67 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns. He finished sixth in the league with 90.6 receiving yards per game, but he did drop five passes. Allen possesses soft hands and is a natural catcher of the football. Though he's a taller receiver, Allen doesn't mind working the middle of the field and has the ability to make catches against tight coverage.
Allen's route-running ability ranks near the top of the league. His footwork is what helps him win in either man or zone coverage. His quick and precise feet allow him to shift his weight quicker than his opponents on a regular basis.
What keeps Allen from being considered a top receiver is his inability to do damage after the catch. Quicker in his routes than he is with the ball in his hands, he still lacks the short-area burst needed to be an exceptional YAC receiver. If Allen had long-range speed to go with his route-running ability, he would be elite.
24. Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
It was shocking when Calvin Johnson (6'5", 237 lbs, nine seasons) released a statement in January that he's contemplating retiring. Some consider him the best receiver of the 2000s. In what may be his final season, Johnson recorded 88 receptions for 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns. On 142 targets, he dropped just five passes, which tied his career low. Johnson continued to impress by making tough "jump ball" catches—many of which came in double coverage.
From the day Johnson stepped on the field, he was the most athletically gifted wide receiver in the game. With his combination of size and speed, he will go down as the biggest, fastest receiver of all time. His route-running ability has improved so much over the years, and he has always shown a tough presence on slants and deep-breaking routes.
Injuries have slowed Johnson from his first days in the league. But for a player his size, he is still freakishly fast. With burst and buildup speed, he makes it tough on corners who have to try to single-cover him. And with that big body also comes a big body to hit, which means he's susceptible to lower-body injuries because defenders go for his knees.
23. John Brown, Arizona Cardinals
A favorite of mine coming out of Pittsburgh State, John Brown (5'11", 179 lbs, two seasons) had a huge sophomore season in the NFL. Brown can reach elite status by improving his hands. While he caught 65 passes this year, he also dropped five balls. A few of those came because he just didn't watch the ball all the way into his hands.
Brown put in work last offseason, learning to run every route in the book, and it showed on Sundays. Blessed with elite quickness and explosiveness, he was able to match that with understanding his route and when to break it off because of man or zone coverage. His ability to release at the line of scrimmage makes it difficult for a defender to get a hand on him out of his break.
When Brown steps on the field, he very well may be the fastest player on it. His elite speed helped him pile up 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns. His fluidity and balance while moving faster than anyone else is truly incredible. The sky's the limit for Brown, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him in the top 10 on this list next season.
22. Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers
Consistency has been the word that best describes Anquan Boldin (6'1", 220 lbs, 13 seasons). He may go down as one of the most underrated receivers to ever play the game. Boldin made 69 catches for 789 yards and four touchdowns in 2015. He uses body positioning as well as anyone and blocks defenders out to make catches. He dropped only four passes on 107 targets and continued to be a safety net for his quarterback in making tough catches. He's an easy catcher of the football who has a unique ability to react to late passes and haul them in.
He may not be able to run a 4.7-second 40-yard dash these days, but Boldin gets open with his sharp- cutting ability. Knowing he isn't much of a deep threat, most defensive backs play tight, up-close coverage. This is where Boldin's bulk comes in handy, as he wins with his hands and is able to get off the line by being physical.
At this stage in his career, he will never run away from anyone. He also lacks the short-area burst needed to be as dangerous as he once was with the ball in his hands. Boldin is basically a tight end now—one who plays outside.
21. Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
Julian Edelman (5'10", 200 lbs, seven seasons) was on his way to his best year until he injured his foot. In only nine games in 2015, he grabbed 61 balls for 692 yards and seven touchdowns. One downside to his season besides the foot injury was seven dropped passes on 85 targets. But this was his third season as the New England Patriots' go-to target in the passing game, which usually results in more drops. He plays the tough role of catching passes in the middle of the field, and most of his drops came in traffic.
Edelman may be the top route-runner on this list, which is pretty insane since he was a quarterback in college. There isn't a route in the route tree he can't run at a high level. His ability to get in and out of breaks is as good as anyone's in the league. The option routes he runs are a huge reason for his success, not to mention the great relationship he has with his quarterback—Tom Brady.
His short-area burst and explosiveness make him a tough tackle with the ball in his hands. Elite agility is the name of Edelman's game.
20. Brandon Marshall, New York Jets
Brandon Marshall (6'4", 230 lbs, 10 seasons) had a fantastic bounce-back year. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for his fourth team, which made him the first receiver to accomplish that feat. The big-bodied Central Florida product hauled in 109 passes for 1,502 yards and 14 touchdowns. On 167 targets, Marshall dropped 11 passes. A lack of concentration may have caused most of those drops.
The savvy veteran uses his body as well as any other receiver in the league to get in the best position to make a play on the ball. Marshall showed off his usual fluid and precise routes this season. He's a tough matchup for any corner, does a great job setting up his defender and takes advantage of the opportunities he creates for himself.
Marshall is tough to bring down after the catch. He doesn't have blazing speed, and he won't run away from anyone at this point in his career. But he does not shy away from contact, and if you are trying to tackle him, you better be ready to get physical.
19. Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos
Faced with the same two-quarterback issue as Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders (5'11", 180 lbs, six seasons) suffered a slight decline in his numbers this season. Sanders posted 76 receptions for 1,135 yards and six touchdowns. He dropped seven passes on 131 targets, but he had to adjust from quarterback to quarterback, and that could cause an issue for any receiver.
Sanders' footwork is lightning-quick, and it allows him to sustain speed through his breaks and make sharp cuts away from tight man coverage. He understands how to set up defensive backs who try to hand-fight with him and also takes advantage of aggressive defensive backs. He can run every route in the route tree and is consistently in the right spot at the right time.
Sanders has more than enough top speed to threaten any defender. His quickness, fluidity and burst make him exceptionally difficult to cover and dangerous on screen plays once he gets the ball in his hands. Though he's not particularly big, Sanders uses his elusiveness to avoid defenders while running with the ball.
18. Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins
Jarvis Landry (5'11", 202 lbs, two seasons) had a huge year for the Miami Dolphins. He did most of his damage out of the slot, making 110 grabs for 1,157 yards and four touchdowns. He dropped seven passes. Noted for having huge hands, Landry is an elite possession receiver who catches almost everything thrown his way. He may have made the catch of the year with a one-handed grab versus the Indianapolis Colts.
Landry makes it difficult for defenders to cover him by using his strength to get off the line, and he's just fast enough to create separation. He's not a typical slot receiver who relies on quickness to get open—his speed and routes are more linear, but he's fast enough to make it difficult for teams to press him at the line.
Landry may have improved most this season in his ability to make people miss with the ball in his hands. Coming out of LSU, he didn't have a great time in the 40-yard dash, which led people to believe he would be too slow to play receiver in the NFL. Well, he has been on a mission to prove he has game speed that can't be measured by a manufactured sprint. He was elusive in the return game as well.
17. DeSean Jackson, Washington
A hamstring injury in training camp resulted in a late start to the season for DeSean Jackson (5'10", 178 lbs, eight seasons). He played only nine games in 2015 but finished fifth in yards per reception (17.6). Jackson caught 30 passes and didn't drop a pass. His totals of 528 receiving yards and four touchdowns had many wondering what a full season would have looked like. Jackson is a classic natural-hands catcher, which allows him to be successful. There are some guys who were blessed with great hands and make it look easy. Jackson also does a great job tracking deep balls and has the ability to get his hands in the right place no matter which shoulder the ball is thrown over.
Most people think Jackson is mostly just a vertical route-runner, but that's not the case. He's one of the league's better route-runners, but he wins routes on more than his speed. When Jackson runs a slant, his quickness off the line allows him to get inside defenders who are playing off coverage, trying not to get beat over the top.
Blessed with easy, top-notch speed, Jackson runs by defenders on the regular. He's a smaller guy, and his body is fragile, which plays into his not wanting to take big hits with the ball in his hands. Everyone knows his greatest trait is his speed, but his quickness and short-area burst are also above-average.
16. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Catching passes from two different quarterbacks this season may have led Demaryius Thomas (6'3", 229 lbs, six seasons) to drop 12 passes—third-most in the league—on 169 targets. He did, however, grab 105 balls for 1,304 yards and six touchdowns. Thomas' drops look like they came from a lack of concentration and trying to run before completing the catch.
Working with Peyton Manning for the past four seasons has done wonders for Thomas' route running. He has learned to sit in open spaces in defenses, and he does a great job of being physical with corners. He also knows how to get open by using body positioning.
Blessed with great size, strength and speed, Thomas makes for a tough tackle in the open field. He has a vicious stiff arm—which we all saw years ago on the famous Tim Tebow-to-Thomas pass that gave the Denver Broncos a playoff victory. So when defenders are going to hit Thomas, they better be ready to get physical.
15. Danny Amendola, New England Patriots
As the No. 2 receiver in the New England system, Danny Amendola (5'11", 190 lbs, seven seasons) posted his second-best season as a pro with 65 catches and just two drops on 80 targets for 648 yards and three touchdowns. He's sure-handed over the middle and displays excellent toughness and concentration while making contested catches against linebackers and safeties on underneath patterns.
Amendola is able to win as a route-runner with a special mix of speed, toughness, timing and balance. He's rarely thrown off rhythm on his routes and has the short-area quickness to beat press coverage and quickly get to and through his breaks in the route tree. He's also straight-line fast enough to work downfield as a deep threat, even if his lack of length limits his range.
Amendola is thought of as a yards-after-catch guy, but in 2015, he averaged just four yards per grab after the fact. The Patriots' system sets the table for its receivers to make plays in space, but much of Amendola's work is done before the catch.
14. Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Allen Robinson (6'3", 215 lbs, two seasons) burst onto the scene in his sophomore season, posting 80 receptions on 142 targets for 1,400 yards. If there is an area for improvement in his game, it's drop; he had eight this year. The positive is that two of those came in Week 1, and Robinson then went on a tear of consistent pass-catching. And it's not a physical limitation but rather a bit of a timing issue with quarterback Blake Bortles that needs to be developed.
The one area in which Robinson really took off this season was as a route-runner. He has the size to post up defenders in the end zone, but his body control and flexibility looked much better in the open field, which rounded out his game nicely. Robinson's ability to win inside positioning was key to his 14 touchdowns—which tied for the league lead—and enabled him to excel as a route-runner at every level of the field.
Robinson's profile as a big, physical receiver doesn't allow for a ton of yards after the catch, but he posted a respectable average of 4.4 in that category this season—up from 3.2 in 2014.
13. Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks
Doug Baldwin (5'10", 189 lbs, five seasons) had a career year in 2015, nabbing 78 catches for 1,069 yards on 99 targets with just two drops. From both a drop-rate perspective and what you see every Sunday, Baldwin emerged as one of the NFL's most sure-handed receivers. He has great chemistry with Russell Wilson and is able to work the entire field given his skills catching the ball over his shoulder or playing the ball in front of him.
Baldwin doesn't win with size given his frame, but he understands spacing and timing at a high level. He knows how to create space between himself and the defense and is a master at extending his route if the pocket breaks down and Wilson is asked to scramble. In terms of breaking down and accelerating through his routes, Baldwin is one of the NFL's most underrated receivers.
Baldwin can scoot with the ball in his hands, picking up an extra 5.6 yards after the catch on average in 2015. He also added big-play ability to his resume by using his abilities in space to score 14 touchdowns, which tied for the league lead.
12. Golden Tate, Detroit Lions
From a statistical standpoint, Golden Tate (5'10", 198 lbs, six seasons) had a big drop-off in 2015. His numbers went from 136 targets, 99 catches and 1,331 yards to just 121 targets, 90 catches and 813 yards. Tate dropped only six passes. Though the entire Detroit Lions offense took a step back, Tate's dive was a concern, but his impact and raw ability kept his grades high.
Tate is slippery in the open field, and as a route-runner, he was the best of the Lions wide receivers. He's able to throttle up and down on a dime and can easily leave defenders in his dust when he hits his second gear to stretch the field.
Tate doesn't play small in the open field—no matter his listed size. He's a fiery competitor, and his background as a high school running back shows up when he has the ball in his hands. Tate averaged six yards after the catch in 2015 after posting seasons of 7.2 in 2014 and 7.9 in 2013.
11. Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
Alshon Jeffery (6'3", 216 lbs, four seasons) owns two of the strongest hands in the NFL. He has an unreal ability to make fingertip grabs and consistently shows off just how powerful those hands are by making ridiculous sideline and end-zone catches. Jeffery's two drops on 92 targets in 2015 show the reliability of his hands.
Jeffery isn't a super-fast receiver, but he wins in his route game with excellent strength at the catch point and a mentality that every jump ball is his. What he lacks in explosiveness, he makes up for in his ability to separate from defenders with his hands and leaping ability. So while you won't see him breaking ankles in space, Jeffery will physically dominate defenders over the top.
Partially because of his average speed, Jeffery isn't going to wow anyone with open-field moves after the catch. He is a powerful runner once he has the ball and can break a few tackles to pick up extra yards, but as a runner in space, he's average by NFL standards.
10. Steve Smith Sr., Baltimore Ravens
Steve Smith Sr. (5'9", 195 lbs, 15 seasons) opened doors for short receivers, but few can match his aggression at the catch point. That's been a trademark throughout his career, and it's allowed him to succeed as both a deep threat and an underneath receiver. Smith dropped four passes on 70 targets in 2015, but he's still one of the game's toughest covers because he'll sell out for the ball and always makes a full-hearted attempt at the catch.
Watching Smith accelerate off the line, then bend his hips and burn through a slant route is straight out of Football 101. He's so balanced and poised whenever the play calls for him to sink his hips or chop his feet, and with his quickness and toughness in the open field, he's close to impossible to read and react to.
Smith is relentless after the catch, and the numbers back that up. He averaged 5.7 yards after the catch in 2015. He has excellent speed and vision on the move and is able to quickly find daylight and stretch catches into big plays.
9. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
DeAndre Hopkins (three seasons) is listed at 6'1", 218 pounds, but he plays like he's 6'3" or taller and has excellent range. He also has great leaping ability, which allows him to catch passes most 6'1" receivers would never be able to get. His strong hands and fearlessness above the turf help, too. On 187 targets, Hopkins grabbed 111 passes against just seven drops.
He has an amazing ability to sink his hips and change direction, but he's also so good at accelerating past defenders to work the deep areas of the field. He runs a complete route tree and doesn't have a true hole in his game there. Hopkins checks the boxes for speed, agility, balance and foot quickness.
The tape didn't show big plays after the catch for Hopkins, who was generally limited in this area by the lack of targets around him in the Houston passing game. He has the athleticism to be a factor here if and when the Texans obtain more threats at receiver.
8. Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
A change at quarterback and a new coaching staff may have caused a few early-season drops by Sammy Watkins (6'1", 211 lbs, two seasons), but over the final six weeks of the year, he was as dominant as any player in the league. Watkins saw 91 targets, caught 60 passes for 1,047 yards and dropped just four balls. That's a solid average, especially considering the lack of weapons around him in the passing game.
Watkins runs pissed off, and when coupled with great speed and strength, it makes him a dangerous route-runner. In the Buffalo Bills' scheme, he was asked to stretch the field and proved he has the gear to take the top off defenses and work the sideline. He's also elusive enough at the line of scrimmage to be valuable on breaking routes over the middle.
Watkins' yards-after-catch average dipped to just three in 2015 (from 5.2 in 2014), but he was also asked to play through a lot of bracket coverage that set up safeties and cornerbacks around him to make the tackle immediately after the catch. A more creative scheme would have taken better advantage of his running skills.
7. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
A.J. Green (6'4", 207 lbs, five seasons) was once again magnificent in 2015. On 123 targets, he posted 86 catches for 1,297 yards. And of all those passes, he dropped only three. As the main focus of a dynamic passing attack, Green has to do it all, and his concentration and strength are a perfect match for his tremendous catch radius.
While Green isn't the fastest or biggest receiver in the NFL, he has a nearly perfect mix of all the route-running traits an elite pass-catcher needs. He has the ability to separate with size and win at the catch point, and he pairs slightly above-average speed with timing, aggressive leaping and long arms to dominate cornerbacks.
Green has never been great after the catch, and in 2015 he again averaged less than five yards per grab (3.9) after the fact.
6. Jeremy Maclin, Kansas City Chiefs
Jeremy Maclin (6'0", 198 lbs, six seasons) went off in his first season as a Chief, posting a career-best 87 catches on 120 targets while recording just one drop. That gives Maclin a perfect score in the hands category. His ability to acclimate to Alex Smith and the Kansas City passing game was a sight to see, and Maclin's soft hands and toughness at the catch point led to a brilliant year.
Good route-runners need burst, balance, flexibility in their hips and core, as well as quick feet. Maclin has all of those traits. There are times he can play small over the middle, but the Chiefs found a receiver capable of lining up all over the field—and one who excels on deep and intermediate routes alike.
The short, timing-based passing game in Kansas City didn't open as many lanes for yards after the catch as Maclin saw in Philadelphia. Perhaps more than anything, the lack of talent around Maclin in the Chiefs offense limited his output with the ball in his hands, and his yards-after-catch average dropped to 4.1—the second-lowest mark of his career (3.9 in 2010).
5. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
T.Y. Hilton (5'9", 180 lbs, four seasons) had his numbers drop to 125 targets, 69 catches, 1,124 yards and five touchdowns in 2015, but his drops went from 10 in 2014 (on 149 targets) to just three. Quarterback Andrew Luck's injury definitely affected Hilton's bottom line, but the Florida International product continued to produce thanks to strong hands, great concentration and an ability to sell out for the ball in the air.
Hilton may not be big, but he plays big when attacking the defense. He's not afraid to get physical at the line of scrimmage and is also a complete route-runner who finishes when he leaps off the turf to attack the ball. With his top-flight speed and exceptional change-of-direction skills, Hilton is also able to outrun defenders and accelerate to space in his route tree.
Hilton is a speed demon. For his career, he's averaged 5.4 yards after the catch. His 2015 number was slightly better at 5.6 but still not back to what he posted his rookie year: an amazing 7.7 yards after the catch.
4. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
Players are supposed to slow down when they hit 32, but Larry Fitzgerald (6'3", 218 lbs, 12 seasons) had a jaw-dropping season in 2015, and it all goes back to the fantastic hand strength and concentration he brings to the table. On 139 targets, Fitzgerald caught 109 passes and dropped just five. His ability to reel in balls thrown with heat or up and away continued to impress.
Fitzgerald is blessed with great balance and has an ideal blend of speed, power, length and agility. As a route-runner, he's loose enough in his hips and ankles to cut and change direction, but he also has the long, powerful stride needed to run past defenders up the field.
As Fitzgerald gets older, making plays after the catch isn't as important to his game, but he's still a threat to take the ball and go to the house. We saw that against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional playoffs.
3. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Julio Jones (6'3", 220 lbs, five seasons) is who NFL scouts would design if they could create a wide receiver. He's big, fast (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine) and has exceptional length and concentration. In a new offensive system in 2015, Jones caught 136 passes on 193 targets and dropped only 10. Those drops give reason for pause, but on 193 targets, more drops are expected and allowed. Jones was, without a doubt, one of the game's best in 2015.
Jones is an athletic marvel. Players his size aren't supposed to move easily through direction changes. With great balance and quickness in his feet and hips, Jones is able to run a full route tree and can line up anywhere on the field to do it.
With his big frame, Jones can struggle to be an electric player after the catch, but he still averaged 4.9 yards with the ball in his hands while routinely seeing double coverage.
2. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Antonio Brown (5'10", 181 lbs, six seasons) continues to assault NFL defenses with his ability to take over games as an outside receiver. As the key weapon in the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, Brown was targeted an incredible 190 times in 2015. He made 136 grabs against just five drops. While that's not a perfect catch rate, it's impressive given the number of targets—and even more impressive when you factor in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missing a good chunk of the season, which left Brown with unfamiliar passers.
Brown is, in our opinion, the NFL's best route-runner. He's so explosive off the line of scrimmage and combines that with the flexibility and body control to execute great breaks and transitions in his route game. Brown isn't the biggest or strongest receiver, and there are some faster, but he has the agility of a point guard and uses that to twist up defensive backs.
With his top-tier speed and agility, Brown can be deadly with the ball in his hands. In 2015, his average yards after the catch dipped from 4.8 in 2014 to 4.6, but at least some of that can be attributed to inexperienced quarterbacking around him.
1. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
In just his second season, Odell Beckham Jr. (5'11", 198 lbs) has emerged as one of the NFL's top receivers. On 153 targets, Beckham dropped just four passes in 2015, which highlighted the elite concentration and hand strength he brings to the table. As both a deep threat and an intermediate receiver, Beckham is one of the most sure-handed players in the game.
Beckham's speed, body control and awareness combine to make him an electric route-runner. Defensive backs can't play Beckham off the line thanks to his ability to make something out of nothing as a yards-after-catch receiver, but they can't play him at the line of scrimmage either because he's so explosive off the line.
Beckham can use his burst, open-field vision and game-changing speed to take a screen or quick slant and dominate defenders. As an elite yards-after-catch threat, Beckham scores perfectly in this area.
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