Ranking the NFL's Best Home Run Threats

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMay 24, 2017

Ranking the NFL's Best Home Run Threats

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    Selecting football's top home run threats sounds like a slam dunk. But if we're not careful, we'll get knocked out in the first round. 

    Yep, we're really mixing the metaphors. That's because there are all kinds of NFL playmakers: sideline sprinters, shifty open-field jitterbugs, jump-ball acrobats, backfield battering rams and All-Pros who are great at just about everything.

    A "home run" can be a 50-yard bomb, a kickoff return, a screen pass gone wild, a Hail Mary in the corner of the end zone or a simple inside handoff that turns into a track meet. Picking 10 top playmakers from a crowded, diverse field is no easy task.

    This list was compiled using per-touch averages, lists of 20-plus- and 40-plus-yard scrimmage plays, deep dives into the Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus databases, lots of tape review and a little common sense. When in doubt, players who are known specifically as big-play machines were chosen over All-Pros who also happen to score their fair share of long touchdowns.

    That's enough housecleaning. Let's step up to the plate.

Honorable Mentions

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    The following players fell just short of making the cut.

    Antonio Brown, Steelers: One of the NFL's best players, of course. But Brown is more known for all-around excellence than for burning the defense for 40-yard touchdowns. If we include too many players like Brown, this "home run threat" countdown will become an "NFL's best receivers and running backs" countdown.

    Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys and Le'Veon Bell, Steelers: See Antonio Brown.

    Jordy Nelson, Packers: Nelson and Aaron Rodgers rediscovered their big-play chemistry in the second half of last season. It wasn't quite enough to crack the countdown, however.

    Jay Ajayi, Dolphins: Ajayi can turn simple inside zone runs into home runs. To crack the top 10, he had to be more of a factor in the passing game.

    Taylor Gabriel, Falcons: A thrilling player to watch, but there are just too many big-play machines in the Falcons offense to single out Gabriel.

10. Sammie Coates, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Sammie Coates started the 2016 season by catching a 40-plus-yard pass every week for five straight weeks.

    He broke free for 42 yards against Washington in the season opener. He doubled down in the rain in Week 2 against the Bengals: 44 yards on a stop-and-go route and 53 more yards on a bomb up the right sideline. He torched an Eagles cornerback for a 41-yard basket catch along the sideline in Week 3, then burned Marcus Peters for 47 yards against the Chiefs in Week 4. Finally, Coates outran the lowly Jets secondary with a too-easy 72-yard bomb in Week 5.

    But Coates suffered a hand injury that caused him to drop several passes in the Jets game. He remained on the Steelers weekly roster but was limited to decoy status for the rest of the season. Opponents weren't fooled; the cast on Coates' hand was a giveaway.

    Coates' hand remains a source of mystery, with conflicting reports about whether he underwent surgery on his fingers in the offseason. The return of Martavis Bryant and the drafting of Juju Smith-Schuster crowds the Steelers receiving corps. There may not enough deep shots to go around in Pittsburgh, especially since Antonio Brown must get fed before the others can eat.

    But when Coates is healthy, he eats up the cornerback's cushion and gets separation on vertical routes like few other receivers in the league.

    Coates is a boom-or-bust home run threat, like Ted Ginn, Cordarrelle Patterson and others who did not make the countdown. He makes the cut because, despite the drops and injuries, he produced an amazing amount of "boom" in just a few weeks.

9. Michael Thomas, Wide Receiver, New Orleans Saints

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    Most of the big-play receivers on this list hope to reach the end zone by outrunning or outjuking defenders. Michael Thomas is more likely to catch a pass on the 10-yard line and drag defenders across the goal line.

    Thomas caused 20 missed tackles last season, according Pro Football Focus, fourth in the NFL among wide receivers. Many of those "missed tackles" were straight-up broken tackles. The 6'3", 210-pound Thomas made some defenders miss en route to 18 receptions of 20-plus yards and nine touchdowns. But he made a lot of others wish they had.

    Thomas averaged 12.4 yards per catch, so he's more of a work in progress than some of the other home run threats on this list. With 40-yard dash times on the wrong side of 4.5 seconds, he's not a burner. But there is more than one way to break open a big play. Thomas is a matchup nightmare with a vast catch circumference. And once he gets past that first would-be tackler, he's fast enough.

    With Brandin Cooks gone, Thomas will be Drew Brees' primary target. That may mean lots and lots of short receptions every week. Cornerbacks had better wrap him up if they don't want them to turn into long touchdowns.

8. Tyrell Williams, Wide Receiver, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Tyrell Williams is the NFL's easiest-to-overlook home run threat. He wasn't even invited to the combine after coming out of Western Oregon in 2015. He went undrafted. He caught just two passes as a rookie, though one was an 80-yarder.

    Last season, when the Chargers hid Williams in the slot, opponents thought they could cover the 6'4" receiver with 4.43 speed with safeties. Big mistake. Williams caught 19 passes of 20-plus yards, six of 40-plus yards and led the Chargers in receptions and yards.

    There is nothing fancy about Williams' game. He's a glider in the open field who gets away from defenders before they know they are beat. He knifes upfield after catches underneath, uses the juke stick rarely but effectively, and can win a footrace up the sideline. His highlights don't make your eyes pop out like some of the others on this list, but there are an awful lot of them.

    The Chargers added Mike Williams in the draft, and Keenan Allen is likely to get healthy again one of these years. Opponents may still overlook Williams this season. But Philip Rivers won't, which means the big plays should keep on coming.

7. LeSean McCoy, Running Back, Buffalo Bills

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    This list was really designed for wide receivers. But LeSean McCoy has been a consistent big-play running back for years, capable of making the most of a relatively small number of carries and excelling in a variety of systems.

    Shady produced 13 plays from scrimmage of 20-plus yards last season, including runs of 53, 54 and 75 yards. For a player on a run-first team that lacked a true No. 1 receiver for most of the season, McCoy was often the only one opponents truly needed to game-plan to stop.

    McCoy led all starting running backs with 5.4 yards per carry. Pro Football Focus credited him with causing 43 missed tackles on running plays (sixth in the league) and 18 on receptions (third among running backs)—high totals for a rusher with a relatively low carry amount.

    From Andy Reid's Eagles offense to Chip Kelly's uptempo experiment to the retro ground-and-pound attack the Bills deployed for the last two seasons, Shady has combined vision, exceptional stop-and-start quickness, elusiveness, power and open-field burst to turn every touch into a potential disaster for the defense. When he doesn't have the blocks, McCoy makes something happen. When he does have the blocks, as he often did behind the rugged Bills line, he provides almost enough big-play capability to make a passing attack unnecessary. 

6. Rob Gronkowski, Tight End, New England Patriots

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    Rob Gronkowski was targeted for just 38 passes between injuries last season. He caught 25 of them. Twelve of those netted 20-plus yards.

    So Gronk produced a big play on 48 percent of his touches and nearly one-third of his targets. Eat your heart out, Tyreek Hill.

    While that per-touch rate in 2016 may be a wee bit inflated, Gronk caught six passes of 40-plus yards in 2015. When healthy, he typically produces big-play numbers to match those of the top tight ends.

    Gronk's versatility makes him a truly dangerous home run threat, even though everyone in the stadium knows what he is capable of. Offenses must scheme to create mismatches for the typical "big-play receiver," hiding him in the slot or a bunch formation so the opponent doesn't stick him with its top cornerback and a deep safety. Gronk arrives pre-hidden. He can line up next to the right tackle in a three-point stance, block (very well) for a few plays, then burst up the seam. Gronk creates mismatches against safeties and linebackers because the defenses have no other choice.

    He would rate higher—heck, he might rank firstif injuries didn't slow him down. This season, he'll be surrounded by big-play threats such as Chris Hogan (17.9 yards per catch last season) and newcomers Brandin Cooks (eight touchdowns in 2016, including a 98-yarder) and Mike Gillislee (5.6 career yards per carry).

    Tom Brady may have another 50-touchdown season. If so, pencil Gronk in for a bunch of them, and pity the poor defensive coordinators who must figure out who covers who.  

5. Tyreek Hill, Wide Receiver/Kick Returner, Kansas City Chiefs

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    NFL.com introduced a "fastest ball-carriers" category to its Next Gen Stats recently. The category measures just what it claims to measure: the speed, in miles per hour, achieved by the NFL's fastest players when they break free in the open field.

    Tyreek Hill was the NFL's fastest player last year, reaching a speed of 23.24 miles per hour during a kickoff return in Week 2.

    A penalty nullified that return, so perhaps it shouldn't count. No worries: Hill also had the NFL's second-fastest run last year, reaching 22.77 miles per hour during a safety kick return against the Broncos in Week 12.

    The Next Gen Stats folks also track the longest plays in the NFL based on actual distance run by the ball-carrier, which accounts for all of the dodging and weaving that takes place during many big plays. Hill was responsible for three of the 10 longest plays in the league last year, though two of them (including the aforementioned kickoff return) were nullified by penalties.

    If "home run threat" is defined as "threat to score on every touch," Hill wins this category by a landslide. He had two rushes, two receptions and three punt returns of 40-plus yards last season. Every screen, sweep or kickoff has the potential to turn into a big play when Hill is on the field. And as the Next Gen Stats crew revealed, some of Hill's most breathtaking work didn't even reach the final stat tally.

    Hill only ranks fifth because some players have been doing it longer and can do more than catch defenders by surprise. As a package role player, Hill's game was all icing and no cake. The icing was tasty. But there is still a cake to bake.

4. Odell Beckham Jr., Wide Receiver, New York Giants

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    The enduring image of Odell Beckham Jr. is that of a man defying all of the rules of physics in the end zone, outrunning and outleaping defenders before telekinetically attaching the football to his fingertips, then perhaps doing something awkward with the sideline equipment in celebration.

    Beckham is supposed to be all about aerial thrills and finesse. So it may surprise you that he led all receivers by causing 29 missed tackles last year, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Defenders weren't going to let Beckham beat them deep last year. Safeties on his side of the field often lined up on the stadium concourses, then backpedaled. So Beckham began running crossing routes, and lots of them, so he could get the ball in space. He became a spinning, juking ankle-breaker who rarely let the first defender bring him down. He turned shallow drags into long gains. Oh yeah, and sometimes he still beat the defense deep.

    The Giants now have Brandon Marshall at the other receiver slot, Evan Engram at tight end and a developing Sterling Shepard in the slot. That should mean that opponents won't be able to roll all of their coverage to contain Beckham, so the end zone superheroics should quickly return. The Barry Sanders routine in the middle of the field will probably stick around, too.    

3. T.Y. Hilton, Wide Receiver, Indianapolis Colts

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    It should have been a miserable year for T.Y. Hilton. He battled a hamstring injury in the middle of last season and a back injury at the end. He was the only true deep threat on the roster for most of the campaign, meaning safeties shadowed him everywhere he went. And quarterback Andrew Luck was usually under siege behind a patchwork line.

    Still, Hilton led the NFL with 28 receptions of 20-plus yards while setting career highs in receptions (98) and yards (1,448).

    Hilton is elusive both before and after the catch, capable of getting separation with a crisp release off the line of scrimmage and spinning away from defenders in the open field. But there is more to being a home run threat than mere agility. Hilton does all the little things that lead to an extra big play or two per game: tiptoeing both feet inbounds after a sideline catch, working to get open when Luck scrambles, charging hard upfield after short slants without worrying about taking a shot from a safety.

    And Hilton did all of that last year when Donte Moncrief was injured and defenders had little else to worry about from the Colts offense. Imagine what Hilton can do if he and Moncrief (and Luck) are truly healthy this year.

2. DeSean Jackson, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    DeSean Jackson led the NFL last season with 17.9 yards per reception. It was the third time he led the league and the fifth time he averaged more than 17 yards per catch. He recorded four 50-plus-yard receptions: three long bombs and a catch-and-run against the Bears. Jackson has now caught 57 passes of 40-plus yards in his career.

    But the receptions themselves don't tell the whole story. Jackson drew five pass-interference penalties for 169 yards last season, according to Football Outsiders. So tack five more big plays (including fouls that netted 46 and 50 yards) onto Jackson's numbers.

    Now in Tampa, Jackson joins Mike Evans, and rookies O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin in what will quickly grow into one of the NFL's most dangerous receiving corps. Few receivers can outjump a defender for a contested pass like Evans. Godwin is an up-and-coming Evans clone. Howard has the tools to be the NFL's next great all-purpose tight end.

    And no one makes opposing safeties line up 18 yards off the ball and backpedal at the snap quite like Jackson. Defenders do more than respect him. They sometimes just give up and grab him.

1. Julio Jones, Wide Receiver, Atlanta Falcons

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    Being a home run threat in the NFL over the long haul takes much more than track speed, video game moves and the ability to catch some defenses by surprise.

    It's about tracking deep passes over your shoulder and making adjustments. It's about knowing where you are along the sideline and not letting a cornerback squeeze you. It's about precise cuts and carefully executed double moves. It's about beating the press, fighting through traffic and making the catches that have to be made. It's even about finding ways to contribute at a high level while playing through injuries.

    Julio Jones is the complete package, both as a receiver and a big-play threat. His five receptions of 40-plus yards in 2016 give him 28 in his six-year career. But those numbers don't include his playoff accomplishments last year: a 73-yard touchdown against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game; catches of 27 and 23 yards in the Super Bowl, including a circus catch along the sideline that shoulda-woulda-coulda iced the game for the Falcons.

    Year in and year out, for good teams and bad, against great defenses or the Saints defense, when healthy or coping with injuries, Jones has been a consistent threat to score on every deep throw or quick slant.