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Michael Thomas Is Setting Records, but Julio Jones Is the NFL's Best WR

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 4, 2020

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) lines up against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Julio Jones is a likely Hall of Famer. Michael Thomas set the single-season reception record last year. They're both incredible wide receivers.

Jones is slightly better.

Sure, Thomas was voted the fifth-best player and top receiver by his peers in the NFL Network's Top 100 countdown. Jones finished just 11th in the balloting and third among receivers, with DeAndre Hopkins eighth overall and second among receivers. Not to quarrel with the ultra-scientific Top 100 balloting procedure—players scribbling a bunch of names at their lockers like they are picking the high school homecoming court—but the countdown got things wrong. And with all due respect to Hopkins (the third-best receiver in the NFL and the best contested-catch target), as well as Tyreek Hill (fastest), Chris Godwin (best up-and-comer), Odell Beckham Jr. (most talented, frustrating, and best source of copy) and Allen Robinson II (most likely to make Christian Hackenberg, Blake Bortles and Mitch Trubisky look like real quarterbacks), the battle for the title of the best receiver in the NFL is a two-man race between Thomas and Jones.

To find out why Jones owns a slight edge over Thomas, let's break down their 2019 seasons using the statistical information at Sports Info Solutions and other sources.

   

Brian Blanco/Associated Press
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Part 1: Raw Data

Michael Thomas led the league in targets (185), receptions (149) and yards (1,725). Jones finished second in targets (157), sixth in receptions (99) and second in yards (1,394). Thomas outscored Jones nine touchdowns to six. Jones averaged 14.1 yards per reception; Thomas 11.6. Thomas and Jones finished first and second in receiving first downs with 91 and 77.

Thomas led the NFL in Football Outsiders' DYAR metric, while Jones finished seventh. Thomas caught 80.5 percent of the passes targeted for him, a shockingly high rate usually reserved for running backs who catch nothing but screens and swing passes. Jones caught just 63.1 percent of his targets, a strong but unspectacular figure.

Thomas is coming off one of the most remarkable seasons in NFL history, so it's no surprise he blows the field away in terms of raw totals and basic analytics. Jones finished second to Thomas in many categories, but it was usually a distant second.

Of course, we all know Thomas catches lots and lots of short passes, while Jones is an all-purpose receiver and dangerous deep threat. For Jones to make up ground on Thomas, his advantage on throws down the field and in other situations will have to be significant.

   

Part 2: Air Yards

Let's break down Thomas' and Jones' numbers by how far their passes traveled in the air. Here are their breakdowns on passes zero to 15 yards downfield:

Julio Jones

  • 105 targets (6th)
  • 70 receptions (8th)
  • 715 yards (9th)
  • 6 touchdowns (tied for 5th)
  • 52 1st downs (tied for 2nd)

Michael Thomas

  • 153 targets (1st in NFL)
  • 125 receptions (1st)
  • 1,305 yards (1st)
  • 7 touchdowns (tied for 3rd)
  • 74 1st downs (1st)

Even if Thomas had not been targeted for a single deep pass last year, he would still have led the league in receptions and finished fourth in yards! Jones is by no means a slouch on short passes, especially if you filter out short-pass-gobbling tight ends: He ranked sixth in receptions and seventh in yards among wide receivers.

Now, here are their breakdowns on passes 15-plus yards down the field:

Julio Jones

  • 52 targets (1st)
  • 26 receptions (1st)
  • 672 yards (2nd)
  • 0 touchdowns
  • 25 first downs (1st)

Michael Thomas

  • 31 targets (25th)
  • 22 receptions (3rd)
  • 487 yards (14th)
  • 1 touchdown
  • 22 first downs (3rd)

Detroit's Kenny Golladay led the NFL in yards on deep passes (759) and finished second in first downs on deep passes (23).

Thomas holds his own as a deep threat, in part because he was effective on medium-length, 15-20-yard passes. Jones possesses a significant yardage edge, partly because he was tasked with challenging defenses on traditional "bombs" more often. On passes 25-plus yards down the field—the truly deep stuff—Jones made seven receptions on 17 targets for 245 yards, while Thomas caught three of just four targets for 110 yards. A difference of four receptions is a big deal when each nets around 30 yards.

So Jones wins this category, but Thomas clearly does a lot more than just catch quick hitches. For Jones to rank ahead of Thomas, he must do more than just haul in a few extra bombs.

   

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Part 3: Third and Fourth Downs

Let's see how Thomas and Jones stack up when their teams need a third- or fourth-down conversion:

Julio Jones

  • Targets: 47 (tied for 3rd)
  • Receptions: 32 (tied for 2nd)
  • Yards: 493 (2nd)
  • First downs: 27 (2nd)
  • Touchdowns: 2

Michael Thomas

  • Targets: 44 (tied for 7th)
  • Receptions: 32 (tied for 2nd)
  • Yards: 387 (8th)
  • First downs: 24 (tied for 4th)
  • Touchdowns: 1

Cooper Kupp led the NFL in third-down targets (52) and receptions (37). Jones and Thomas finished tied in receptions, but Jones had a small but significant edge in first downs and yards. Thomas had a higher catch rate (71.1 percent to 68.0) and conversion rate (61.7 to 54.5) on third downs, but a much higher percentage of Jones' targets than Thomas' came in high-leverage situations.

Interestingly, Jones was more effective than Thomas on 3rd- and 4th-down-and-short: 18 first down catches for 250 yards for Jones with five or fewer yards to go; 14 first downs on 15 catches for 182 yards for Thomas. Jones' experience may give him an advantage on short conversions, or we may just be carving the data up a little too finely. Either way, Thomas may have better rate stats on third downs, but Jones has better bulk stats and is expected to do more in high-leverage situations, which in itself is illuminating.

   

Part 4: The Red Zone (Thomas Strikes Back!)

You probably know Jones is legendary among fantasy gamers for his end zone-is-lava tendencies, and that red-zone passing struggles have cost the Falcons playoff games. So you shouldn't be shocked to learn Thomas has an edge over Jones as a red-zone target. Let's examine how big that edge is:

Julio Jones

  • Targets: 17 (16th)
  • Receptions: 12 (10th)
  • Yards 63 (outside the top 20)
  • Touchdowns: 5 (tied for 12th)
  • First downs: 8 (tied for 8th)

Michael Thomas

  • Targets: 26 (1st)
  • Receptions: 20 (1st)
  • Yards: 179 (1st)
  • Touchdowns: 8 (tied for 1st)
  • First Downs: 14 (1st)

Baltimore's Mark Andrews and Detroit's Marvin Jones Jr. tied Thomas with eight red-zone touchdowns. Jones actually finished second to teammate Austin Hooper in red-zone targets (18) and touchdowns (six) for the Falcons. That said, Jones' red-zone numbers are better than his reputation suggests, and the Falcons' deeper corps of receiving targets nerfs his numbers a bit.

Move the ball up to the 10-yard line, and Thomas' advantage evaporates: He caught just four passes inside the 10 on nine targets for four touchdowns, while Jones caught seven passes on eight targets for five touchdowns. So, Thomas has the edge when catching short slants when there is room to maneuver, while Jones may have a tiny advantage when it's time to go up and get it in traffic. Or we're carving the numbers too finely again. Either way, Thomas clearly wins this category, but it's not quite a blowout.

   

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Part 5: The "Um … Actually" Arguments

Drew Brees is a better quarterback than Matt Ryan, which contributes to Thomas' record-breaking numbers, right? Not really, because Teddy Bridgewater played five-plus games for the Saints last year, and Ryan is reliably among the league's top 10 quarterbacks and had an excellent season.

Jones shared targets last year with Pro Bowl tight end Hooper, Calvin Ridley and former Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman, while the Saints passing game funneled mostly through Thomas and Alvin Kamara. So Thomas' numbers are artificially inflated, right? Not really: After all, not having to share much of the load means Thomas doesn't have a complementary threat at wide receiver to draw away downfield coverage.

What's undeniably true is that Thomas' and Jones' statistics are shaped by their quarterbacks and schemes. Brees and Bridgewater are high-accuracy short passers, and Thomas and Kamara are their best weapons by far, so Thomas got about a dozen highly catchable short passes per game. Jones is the top target in a loaded vertical offense that's always playing catch-up because the defense is terrible, so his rate stats are weaker but his yards per catch are higher. But grading Jones or Thomas on some sort of curve based on their supporting casts isn't appropriate.

That said, parsing the data makes it clear how many of Thomas' catches come, say, on first down and within five yards of the line of scrimmage (a league-high 26 catches for 191 yards in that situation; Jones went 12-54). Such "long handoff" receptions aren't exactly fluff, but they are the type of plays most teams spread among multiple receivers.

That "replaceable" production is the final piece of our argument.

   

Part 6: Conclusion

Thomas may be the greatest short-reception target in NFL history. But short receptions are easy to scheme and generate, and receivers who are effective on shorter routes are relatively easy to find. The marginal value of Thomas' short receptions is not as large as his raw totals suggest. Jones, meanwhile, is an excellent receiver on shorter passes and is at least even with Thomas when it comes to a handful of critical situations, including 3rd-and-short or pass attempts near the goal line.

Jones has been one of the best all-around receivers in the NFL for nearly a decade. His career average of 15.2 yards per catch ranks sixth among active receivers, and the players ahead of him (DeSean Jackson, Josh Gordon, Kenny Stills, Mike Evans and T.Y. Hilton) have far fewer career receptions. Therefore, Jones may be the best deep threat of his generation, and deep threats who can stay consistently healthy and with the program are incredibly rare, giving Jones high marginal value because of his difficult-to-replicate production. Thomas, meanwhile, puts up solid numbers on 15-20-yard passes but cannot seriously be considered a "deep threat" because he is not used that way.

Thomas is younger and will obviously be better in a few years. He's a better fantasy option because of his high reception totals and Jones' low touchdown rates (which appear to be much more of a statistical quirk than a shortcoming). But if you need a go-to receiver to win one big game in 2020, chances are you would select the one who has earned a lifelong A grade in stretching the field and a B-plus on short routes over someone who gets an A+++ in the latter category but a B at best in the former.

That's why Jones is the best receiver in the NFL.

And yes, it's incredibly, hair-splittingly close.