We’ve done our top ten quarterbacks and running backs, but now, let’s take a look at the deepest offensive position in the NFL: wide receivers. There are so many talented receivers currently in the sport, very similar to third base in the MLB. That made this list very hard to make, but by using objective measures, I believe I’ve assembled a strong list of the ten best receivers in the NFL, going off of production and potential over talent and skill. Let’s take a closer look!
DYAR “gives the value of the performance on plays where this WR caught the ball, compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage.”
DVOA “represents value, per play, over an average WR in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the players performance.
EYards “translate DVOA into a yards per attempt figure. This provides an easy comparison: in general, players with more Effective Yards than standard yards played better than standard stats would otherwise indicate, while players with fewer Effective Yards than standard yards played worse than standard stats would otherwise indicate.
#10: Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Unlike most players on this list, Mike Evans has not had a stable quarterback situation. With Jameis Winston’s inconsistency and the constant shuffling between him and Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, Evans has had to deal with poor quarterback play in a way that isn’t too different than what Larry Fitzgerald dealt with in his prime with the Cardinals. That’s what makes Evans’ production last year even more impressive. With 412 DYAR and a 25.2% DVOA, he was one of the most productive and efficient receivers in the NFL last year. Furthermore, he’s an excellent deep ball receiver, which allowed him to averaged an impressive 17.7 yards per reception last year. Under a new system with new head coach Bruce Arians, Winston’s play should stabilize this season. If that happens, Evans could be heading towards a monster season. For now, concerns over his inconsistency – he had just 149 DYAR and a 1.2% DVOA in 2017 – keep him at #10 on this list, but his outstanding production last season earns him a spot on a very tough list to make.
#9: Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams
Since Cooper Kupp missed half of the season and the postseason last year after tearing his ACL in Week 10, he tends to be overlooked when looking at the top ten receivers. However, Kupp has quietly been an elite receiver in the NFL, and I’m not about to overlook that. Before the torn ACL, Kupp was on track to having another tremendous season. After posting an outstanding 24.8% DVOA in his rookie season, he followed it up with a 23.8% DVOA in his sophomore year. Furthermore, his 73% catch rate was much improved from his rookie season, and many of his other statistics were on par with the game’s top receivers before he went down with the injury. Plus, it’s telling that the Rams offense declined after he got hurt, despite having two other strong receivers in Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks; Kupp is clearly the linchpin of that offense with his exceptional route-running ability, and his versatility to play in the slot or on the outside adds to his value. He’s an extremely underrated receiver and assuming he’s healthy, I expect to continue to be the reliable option for Jared Goff that he’s proven to be over the past two seasons.
#8: Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks
As analytics continues to grow in the NFL, the value of throwing the ball down the field will continue to grow. Therefore, teams need fast receivers who can dominate in the vertical passing game. Tyler Lockett is a prime example; his importance to the Seahawks offense cannot be overstated. The 26-year-old led all receivers by a landslide with a 66.3% DVOA, and also led the league in DYAR (464) and catch rate (81%). With an NFL best 97.8 grade from Pro Football Focus on passes thrown 20 yards downfield, he also proved to be the game’s best deep-ball receiver. Obviously, since this season came out of nowhere- he had a -3.4% DVOA the previous season – it’s important not to overreact to this production; Lockett will need to prove last season wasn’t a fluke. Yet, he looks the part of a top ten receiver and with Doug Baldwin out of the fold, likely could have an even bigger season with more targets. Now, $31.8 million extension Seattle signed him to prior the start of last season looks to be an absolute bargain; they believed in Lockett to emerge as a #1 receiver, and he did just that.
#7: Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns
Just like with Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. has had to deal with poor quarterback play throughout his career. However, what Beckham Jr. dealt with last year was far worse: a quarterback (Eli Manning) who couldn’t throw the ball down the field. Beckham Jr. is the classic prototype in today’s NFL: an athletically gifted receiver capable of making contested catchers and gaining seperation, while dominating down the field. Yet, it’s hard to judge his stats, because they’re heavily nerfed due to Manning’s limitations. However, this could be the season where Beckham Jr. finally ascends to becoming a consistently elite receiver. After being traded to the Browns, he’ll be catching passes from up and coming quarterback Baker Mayfield this season, who had great success as a downfield passer last season. At the same time, however, if Beckham Jr. again fails to put up the kind of production a top receiver is supposed to produce, he won’t be saved by excuses; this needs to be the season where he produces like his talent would suggest if he wants to continue to be included on these types of lists.
#6: Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings
Recently signed to a four year, $64 million extension, the Vikings are finally giving Adam Thielen the recognition he deserves. As a former undrafted receiver, Thielen had to work his way up from being a special teams contributor all the way up to being a #1 receiver; he hasn’t had the path that most top receivers have. However, it’s time for him to no longer be overlooked; he’s been one of the most productive receivers. After a strong 2017 campaign that proved him to fringe top ten receiver, the 28-year-old had an even better season with new quarterback Kirk Cousins. His DYAR (341), catch rate (74%), and EYards (1497) were all tremendous, and like Kupp, he provided a lot of value with his route running and his ability to play in the slot and on the outside. Looking at Thielen’s trajectory, although he was a late bloomer, he seems to be on an upward path. After a dominant season, despite having a mediocre quarterback in Cousins, expect him to follow it up with another elite season.
#5: Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers
Speaking of very underrated receivers, like Thielen, Keenan Allen’s not a flashy player, so he tends to go a bit under the radar. However, he’s a top-five receiver in the NFL, and deserves far more recognition than he’s getting. Similar to his quarterback, Phillip Rivers, Allen has demonstrated consistency, especially over the past two seasons. With very little variance in his DYAR (320/378) and DVOA (18.1%, 16.5%), he’s been very reliable for Los Angeles, and improved catch rate (71%) is a good sign heading into this season. Plus, though it feels like he’s a seasoned veteran, he’s only 27-years-old and is still at a stage of his career where he’s capable of improving. So, let’s not overlook Allen anymore; he’s an elite receiver who continues to trend in a positive direction; hopefully, another strong season will allow him to finally stop being overlooked.
#4: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
When ranking receivers in terms of talent, there’s no doubt Julio Jones lands at the top of the list. He’s an athletic freak who is also 6’3”, which allows him to be a force in the vertical passing game. However, despite Jones’ athletic gifts, he hasn’t produced to the level of the three players ahead of him on this list. His DVOA (15.9%/13.7%) have been solid, but aren’t top receiver caliber, and his catch rates (66%/59%) have also been average. Yes, he accumulates a lot of receiving yards, but that’s also a product from his league-leading 170 targets. So, while Jones is very talented and is great at all compiling statistics, he isn’t quite efficient enough to be seen as a top-three receiver, and may be slightly overrated; most see him as the definite #1 receiver in all of football.
#3: Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
Right now, Tyreek Hill’s production on the field is not what people are discussing. He’s currently under investigation for child abuse, and although he was cleared from charges, still could face punishment from the NFL. However, with it being reported that Hill’s maximum suspension will be four games, it’s safe to assume he’ll once again be a huge part of the Chiefs offense. Now, back to his production. He’s consistently been tremendous in terms of DVOA (23.8%/23.6%), DYAR (387/304), and yards per attempt (17/15.8), and may be the most unguardable receiver in the NFL. His speed cannot be quantified, his route-running is strong, he’s better with contested catches than he gets credit for, and outside of Tyler Lockett, is the best deep ball receiver in the NFL. He may not have the insane numbers that the top two players on this list have, but he’s certainly a more well-rounded receiver than he credits for, and although he may be only 5’10”, has earned the honor of being a top-three receiver.
#2: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Efficiency is something I clearly value significantly, and in that regard, no one is better at that than Michael Thomas. With an insane 85% catch rate, he easily has the best hands in the NFL, and that’s only part of his game. The 26-year-old also is an elite route-runner and red-zone threat, and his numbers certainly back this ranking up. His DYAR (442), DVOA (23.1%), and EYards (1658) were all amongst the league’s best, and though his yards per attempt (11.2) wasn’t insane, that speaks more to the style of the Saints offense than his actual abilities. Plus, he ranked third in yards after catch last season, which is a very underrated responsibility for receivers. He’s efficient, separates, is great with contested catches, dominates in the red zone, and also gains yards effectively after catch. Where exactly is his weakness? He may not be very talkative or have an appealing play style, but when it comes down to it, there’s no arguing against his consistent production, and with contract talks opening up between him and the Saints, it’s likely he’ll be a $20 million (per year) receiver by the start of the season, and he’ll be worth every penny.
#1: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Though Thomas earned a lot of consideration for the #1 spot and should be soon as a “1-B” on this list, De’Andre Hopkins is the slightly better all-around receiver and therefore edges him for the #1 spot. The 27-year-old’s production had suffered through the early stages of his career while he caught passes from the likes of Tom Savage, TJ Yates, and Brock Osweiler, but last season, he finally showcases his abilities with a capable quarterback in Deshaun Watson. His DYAR (455) and DVOA (22.6%) were top-notch, while his catch rate (71%) improved significantly and showcased his efficiency. Furthermore, to go along with his efficiency, he also led the league with 1723 EYards, a staggering numbers. Pro Football Focus graded him as the best short yard receiver and the second-best intermediate yard receiver, and he’s also definitely an elite deep-ball receiver. He’s the exact prototype of a dominant receiver, and now that he finally has the luxury of quarterback stability, expect him to continue to put up videogame numbers this season.
We don’t usually do this with our top ten lists, but since this receiver is such a talented receiver, it’s important that we address some of the controversial exclusions from this list.
Antonio Brown: Brown was arguably the best receiver in football as recently as 2017, but his numbers regressed significantly last season, and he ranked as just the 26th receiver, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and will be playing with a far worse quarterback this year in Derek Carr; expect the heavy decline to continue.
TY Hilton: He was tremendous with Andrew Luck back last season, but ultimately, that couldn’t make up for his miserable 2017 campaign. Still, he’s excellent in the vertical passing game and creating yards after the catch, and could easily make this list next year.
Davante Adams: Adams is a beast in the red zone and is incredible for fantasy football with his high touchdown totals, but he isn’t super efficient, and his numbers are good, but not great. He’s a solid #1 receiver, but isn’t quite good enough to compete with the likes of Mike Evans for a spot at the back-end of this list.
Juju Smith Schuster: Smith Schuster is a fan favorite and was incredibly efficient in his rookie season, but that efficiency went down by a huge amount last season. He did have a lot of EYards (1465), but he also benefited greatly from being more of a complementary receiver; Brown got the attention despite his decline. I see Smith Schuster more as a high-end #2 receiver than a true #1 receiver, but he is a great route runner, and definitely could earn a spot on this list if he can continue to produce despite defenses giving him more attention.
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