Ranking the NFL's Top 7 Wide Receivers Heading into 2021 Offseason
The shape, size and hierarchy of the NFL's body of wide receivers will soon change in somewhat dramatic fashion.
Not only is this year's receiver draft class expected to be as loaded with talent as last year's record-breaking group, but also more than half a dozen big-name wideouts—including Corey Davis, Will Fuller V, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, T.Y. Hilton, Allen Robinson II and JuJu Smith-Schuster—are scheduled to hit the free-agent market March 17.
But before we get caught up in the shifting dynamics of the league's wide receiver depth charts, let's get our bearings by breaking down the top seven receivers in the sport based on career accomplishments, trajectory, recent production and overall talent.
Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers: The 28-year-old four-time Pro Bowler fell eight yards short of 1,000 yards despite missing two games in 2020. But he hit that mark in each of his three previous campaigns and has caught 100-plus passes in three of his last four seasons. He's not dominant but is consistently one of the game's top threats.
A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans: He's only 23 years old, but the 2019 second-round pick already has two 1,000-yard seasons and a Pro Bowl honor. The physical, reliable and promising Brown already has 19 receiving touchdowns as well. He was also the only regular starting receiver in the NFL to break one tackle per six receptions or fewer on average.
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The 27-year-old has gone over the 1,000-yard mark in each of his seven NFL seasons, earning three Pro Bowl nods. He scored 13 times for the Super Bowl champs despite being hampered by injuries in 2020.
Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Evans' 25-year-old teammate caught 77.4 percent of the passes thrown his way and still managed to score seven touchdowns despite missing four games in an injury-plagued 2020. The 2017 third-round pick gets extra credit for ranking second in the league with 95.2 yards per game in an exceptional 2019 campaign.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons: There will likely be some fury over his exclusion from the list, but trajectory matters, and age and durability issues are catching up to the 32-year-old seven-time Pro Bowler. There's no doubting his accomplishments, but his best days are likely behind him after several of his rate-based numbers sank in 2020.
Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons: Meanwhile, Ridley broke out in the same offense. Only three NFL receivers gained more yards than the 2018 first-round pick in 2020 (1,374). He still needs to become more consistent, but the talent and raw numbers are there for the 26-year-old.
Allen Robinson II, Chicago Bears: You gotta wonder how much more productive Robinson could have been in a half-decent offense the last few years. Amazingly, despite poor quarterback play, the 27-year-old has caught 200 passes for 2,397 yards and 13 touchdowns the last two seasons.
7. Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings
You might argue that we're crowning Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson too soon, but it's really hard to argue with a 1,400-yard rookie season. And that happened despite the fact that the 21-year-old was held to just 70 total yards in his first two games.
Only two receivers beat that 1,400-yard mark, and only three averaged more yards per target than Jefferson (11.2), who dropped only two of the 125 passes thrown his way and was tied for the league lead with 23 20-plus-yard receptions.
In a run-oriented offense, the 2020 first-round pick scored four touchdowns on deep balls, ranking behind only three receivers in that category.
Put simply, he has already become an elite playmaker. And that happened in a rookie season that contained almost no time for preparation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now imagine how much more dominant Jefferson can become as he gets more acclimated in the 2021 offseason.
6. DK Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks
Two receivers selected in the second round of the 2019 draft look quite special, but you'd have to give a slight edge to DK Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks over A.J. Brown.
Metcalf has dropped a few more passes than Brown and could stand to become more consistent, but he entered the league extremely raw and yet put up 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns during a Pro Bowl sophomore season at age 23 (he was 22 for most of the 2020 campaign).
Metcalf was the only player in the NFL to gain 30-plus yards on a dozen receptions in 2020, and like Jefferson, he also scored on four deep passes.
So he's already put up the numbers, and the promise is undeniable. In fact, former Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz told Metcalf he's the closest thing he's seen to Calvin Johnson.
Put it all together and it's enough for the Mississippi product to be considered elite despite a relatively small sample and a few lapses out of the gate.
5. Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
There's little doubt that New Orleans Saints wideout Michael Thomas would have ranked higher if not for the fact that injuries derailed his 2020 campaign. But durability and recent production factor in, and it's fair to wonder about the soon-to-be 28-year-old's future production in light of Saints quarterback Drew Brees' possible retirement.
When he was usually pretty healthy and statistically dominant from 2016 to 2019, we had no way of knowing how much Thomas was benefitting from the fact that the Saints offense was jacked. After all, he was the only No. 1 pass-catching option in an attack featuring a future Hall of Fame quarterback, a superstar running back and a stacked offensive line.
Still, Thomas was often unbelievably efficient and reliable and oftentimes remarkable during the most prolific pass-catching four-year start in NFL history (by a wide margin). He was the league's Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 and is already a two-time first-team All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowler who is just a year removed from catching a single-season record 149 passes.
A tumultuous, banged-up 2020 campaign is a concern, and there should be questions about how productive Thomas will be after his rate-based numbers declined in a limited fifth pro season. But the guy knows how to get open better than almost anyone else in football, and he catches practically everything in his vicinity.
He gets the benefit of the doubt for now.
4. Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills
It's kind of awesome that the Vikings essentially traded Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills for Jefferson, because both were top-five receivers in 2020.
While Jefferson exploded at a cheaper rate in Minnesota, Diggs led the league with 127 catches and 1,535 yards while scoring eight touchdowns as the centerpiece of Buffalo's high-powered offense. As a result, a 27-year-old with six 700-yard seasons became a first-team All-Pro for the first time.
Arguably the league's crispest route-runner, Diggs did drop eight passes. But he made up for that by catching 15 of the 17 balls thrown his way in the fourth quarter of one-score games for a team that was in the Super Bowl conversation thanks mainly to a passing attack starring him and young franchise quarterback Josh Allen.
His chemistry with Allen is obvious. And although he might not have the same ceiling as Jefferson or Metcalf, his track record, talent and age indicate that several more extremely productive seasons likely lie ahead for the overachieving 2015 fifth-round pick.
3. DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals
The top three players on this list are separated from everybody else by a chasm about the size of the famous canyon located in DeAndre Hopkins' new home state. Nobody could fault you for putting the comically smooth, incredibly productive Hopkins in the top spot. But cases can just as easily be made for 2020 NFL touchdown reception leader Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers or Kansas City Chiefs game-changer Tyreek Hill.
I'm listing Hopkins third because, even though he caught 115 passes for 1,407 yards, he wasn't quite as much of a difference-maker for the Arizona Cardinals in 2020. The three-time first-team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler settled for six touchdowns in his age-28 season and amassed just 83 total yards in two critical games at the conclusion of the regular season.
It's true that Cards quarterback Kyler Murray isn't as developed or productive as Aaron Rodgers for Adams or Patrick Mahomes for Hill, but the gap in big plays is still quite pronounced. Adams and Hill caught a combined 37 passes in the red zone compared to just 11 for Hopkins, who wasn't close to as much of a deep threat as Hill and somehow dropped more passes (two) than Adams (just one on 149 targets).
Hopkins will almost certainly wind up in the Hall of Fame, but he's a little older and likely has less tread on his tires than the two aforementioned receivers who outplayed him in 2020.
2. Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
Adams led the NFL with 18 touchdown receptions in 2020, but that first-team All-Pro season wasn't an aberration for the 28-year-old four-time Pro Bowler.
Rodgers' favorite target also scored double-digit touchdowns in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and since 2018 he's one of just three receivers (along with Thomas and Jones) to average more than 90 receiving yards per game. He led all qualifiers in that category despite not ranking first in receiving yards in 2020 because he missed two games because of hamstring and ankle injuries (making those 18 touchdowns even more remarkable).
It all came together for the 2014 second-round pick in 2020, as he dropped just a single pass on nearly 150 targets while leading the league in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) at Football Outsiders and earning the top grade among qualified receivers at Pro Football Focus.
So it helps that he's catching passes from one of the greatest of all time, but that doesn't come close to explaining Adams' awesome numbers. He's become a phenomenal pass-catcher, a near-perfect route-runner and one of the top playmakers in the sport.
1. Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
Nobody puts fear into opposing defenses quite like Hill, who might be the league's most dangerous weapon with the ball in his hands and is certainly the top deep threat in football.
He might not be as refined as Diggs, Hopkins or Adams when it comes to running routes, and he's not as physically capable when it comes to making contested catches on short or intermediate routes, but that's not his role. The 26-year-old five-time Pro Bowler's job is to stretch and stress out defenses, and nobody does that better at wide receiver.
And it's not as though the numbers aren't there for arguably the fastest player in the league. He ranked second to only Adams in 2020 with 15 touchdowns, a tied-for-league-high three of which came in the fourth quarter of one-score games.
An NFL-best nine of those scores came on deep passes from Mahomes, giving him as many deep touchdown catches as Hopkins, Adams and Diggs combined.
Again, arguments can easily be made in favor of at least the top three players on this list. We're giving the edge to the top offensive threat, but the battle for the "top receiver" title is heated.