A breakout NFL receiver is sometimes easy to spot: Just look for the guy who runs fast, dusts cornerbacks with a wide variation of routes, and has the silkiest hands on the field. 

Well, not really. If it were that easy, NFL personnel departments would have a much easier job.

But heading into 2023, the league has as many compelling wideout prospects as ever, the product of several decades of the sport becoming more pass-centric and college teams alike putting more receivers on the field than they once did. Many of the league’s emerging receivers in 2023 will be rookies, like the four who got picked consecutively between the 20th and 23rd overall selections in April’s draft.

Others have played NFL downs already, some with more success than others. Here are six receivers who could take sizable strides forward in 2023, based in large part on compelling pieces of their statistical profiles from Opta Analyst. 

George Pickens, Pittsburgh Steelers 

It doesn’t take a lot of data to understand Pickens’ star potential. One only needs to watch some highlights from his rookie season in 2022 to get the idea. But the Steelers’ second-year wideout has some exciting peripherals to make his case, too. Pickens immediately became one of the league’s most relied-upon deep threats. The average depth of his targets was 14.7 yards downfield, farther from the QB than all but one receiver (Gabe Davis of the Buffalo Bills) who had as many targets as Pickens’ 84.

Pickens posted a 66.7% burn rate on those targets, well above the league average of 60.6%. The Steelers leaned on Pickens for a heavy volume of contested catches deep down the field. His 58.3 open rate, the pure percentage of his targets on which he was open, lagged well behind the 72.3% league average. That did nothing to stop Pickens from posting 800 yards in his first season as a professional. For good measure, his 39.7% big play rate easily outpaced the 26.8% league average. 

Average Depth of Target leaders

Van Jefferson, Los Angeles Rams 

Jefferson was a major contributor to the Rams’ Super Bowl team in 2021 when he had an 800-yard season and emerged as an effective secondary option behind Cooper Kupp. Jefferson started all 17 games that year, but injuries limited him to 11 appearances in 2022, and his production took a step back in both counting and rate stats.

But Jefferson appears healthy now, and the Rams’ decision to part ways with veteran deep threat Allen Robinson – who joined up last year and took targets from Jefferson – bodes well for Jefferson’s prospects of being more involved in the offense again. Even in a down year, Jefferson was highly explosive, posting a league-leading 48.7% big play rate with an average target depth of 16.5 yards. 

Skyy Moore/Kadarius Toney, Kansas City Chiefs 

The two young Chiefs receivers are worth talking about as a pair because both of them showed signs last year of being critical cogs in Patrick Mahomes’ long-term machine. And it’s highly likely that, as Travis Kelce gets older and Mahomes continues to be one of the league’s greatest passers ever, either Moore or Toney (or both) will become a prolific target. 

Moore, a second-round pick playing his rookie year, was an overall statistical disappointment. He saw just 33 targets in the regular season and only had more than three in a game four times. But Moore was incredibly sure-handed; he did not drop a pass, and his 0.957 catch rating (on a 0-to-1 scale) says that Moore was one of the best receivers in the league (eighth among those with as many targets) at catching catchable balls. If the ball was near Moore, he caught it. He graded out well above average on run after the catch (6.7 yards) and burn rate (75.8%). 

Toney, a former New York Giants first-rounder whom the Chiefs got in a midseason trade, became heavily involved right away. He generated a 29.2% target share from Mahomes and seemed to always be the man in the soft spot of the defense: Toney’s open percentage of 96.4 (including the playoffs) was third in the league. He (like Moore) caught his passes incredibly close to the line of scrimmage, with an average depth of target at 3.5 yards.

But he still managed an above-average 29.4% big play rate. That was because Toney generated 0.452 missed or broken tackles per touch, a higher mark than all but two other receivers. He got open, and he was slippery once he did. 

Laviska Shenault Jr., Carolina Panthers 

Shenault moved from the Jacksonville Jaguars to Carolina, where the Panthers used him in the slot, on the outside, and in the backfield. Shenault only appeared in 13 games and only ran 87 receiving routes, but what he did with those routes was downright intriguing if he can keep a clean bill of health in 2023. Shenault’s minus-0.7-yard target depth made him one of the shallowest targeted pass catchers in football and contributed to Shenault’s 96.9 open rate – the highest in the NFL. But Shenault caught just about everything (with just one drop) and generated 0.417 missed or broken tackles per touch.

He posted a burn rate just below average at 56.3%, but his 3.9 burn yards per route were the league’s second-most behind Tyreek Hill among those with at least 85 routes. Shenault’s 12.4 yards after the catch were the most in the league, nearly 3 yards more than Deebo Samuel in second place. With better health and more targets, Shenault could be an especially interesting target for rookie quarterback Bryce Young, whom the Panthers will want to give as many easy throws as possible. 

2022 Open Percentage leaders
(ADT=Average Depth of Target)

Khalil Shakir, Buffalo Bills

The sample size was tiny, but Shakir was one of the most effective route runners in the NFL as a fifth-round rookie out of Boise State. He appeared in 14 games and saw just 26 targets, of which he only caught 10, and Shakir will once again start well behind Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis and even tight end Dawson Knox in Josh Allen’s pecking order.

But Shakir’s 76.9% burn rate on that little sample of targets was the second-best figure in the league (including the playoffs), as were his 15.2 burn yards per target and his 43.1% big play rate. Shakir should get more targets in 2023 than he did in 2022, and if he’s anywhere near as hard to cover as he was in his limited rookie action, the Bills will have yet another ascendant pass catcher in an offense that has lots of them. 

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