The Rise of the Playmaker: Who Will Be the Best of the NFL’s Great Receivers in 2021?
It’s a passing league. You hear it said so often these days about how the NFL has become all about throwing the ball.
Quarterbacks have dominated the MVP award in recent years, with the last player from another position earning the honor in 2012. It’s why the top three picks in this year’s NFL Draft were QBs.
In the 2020 regular season, 18 players topped 1,000 receiving yards. That was actually a decrease from the previous campaign when no fewer than 29 achieved the feat, but it does not necessarily reflect a reverse on recent trends.
Stefon Diggs led the way in 2020 with 1,535 yards. The Buffalo Bills receiver will be expected to be a key component for his team on offense again this season, yet no individual has topped the list for two straight years since Calvin Johnson, who managed to do so in 2011 and again in 2012.
So who are the top contenders to lead the way this time around?
Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills
Acquired by the Bills through a trade with the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs enjoyed an outstanding first campaign in Buffalo.
He not only led the way in receiving yards but also catches (127) and targets (166) while playing in all 16 games in a year where COVID-19 impacted so many rosters. His 95.9 yards per game ranked second, even though he had just seven plays that went for 25 yards or more.
Emmanuel Sanders has arrived during free agency to bolster the receiving group in Buffalo, yet Diggs undoubtedly remains top of the depth chart and has established a rapport with starting quarterback Josh Allen.
Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons
Ridley’s third year as a Falcon saw him emerge as a pass-catching superstar.
The 26-year-old Ridley had 90 catches from 143 targets, resulting in 1,374 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. He also recorded a big play of 45.1% of his targets, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL among wide receivers.
New head coach Arthur Smith got his chance at a top job after impressing while in charge of a run-heavy Tennessee Titans offense, but by no means does that mean a receiver cannot prosper in his system. One reason Ridley could improve on his previous numbers is the departure of Julio Jones, a franchise legend who did miss time due to injury in 2020 but still had 51 catches.
Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings
Rookie receivers are not meant to settle into NFL life as quickly as Jefferson did with the Vikings.
The first-round pick was selected with the intention of replacing the departed Diggs and had 88 receptions for 1,400 yards – surpassing the single-season record by a rookie in the Super Bowl era, set by Anquan Boldin (1,377) in 2003. That is a particularly impressive achievement when you consider he had just 70 yards combined in his first two games. He made up for lost time with seven 100-yard outings in the weeks that followed.
Yards after the catch (YAC) will likely need to rise for him to surpass those numbers, considering he averaged 4.6 yards per reception – 27th among receivers.
Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
A contract year, plus a quarterback with a point to prove (again) are potentially the added ingredients required for Adams to have a record-breaking year in what could potentially be his last for the Packers.
Aaron Rodgers is still around after an offseason full of intrigue – and the reigning MVP already fed his top option relentlessly in 2020. Indeed, Adams’ average of 10.6 targets and 8.2 receptions per game were the best for any receiver in the NFL and he led the way with 18 touchdown catches and 98.1 yards per outing.
His total yardage of 1,374 was tied for fifth, but it should be remembered he played in only 14 games. He recorded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable, 70.1% of the time and led all receivers with 3.9 burn yards per route.
With the benefit of three more games than he had in 2020, Adams is perhaps the favorite to unseat Diggs at the top of the leaderboard.
Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
Hill averaged a healthy 14.7 yards per catch and 9.0 receptions a game as part of a high-powered Chiefs offense.
His final total of 87 catches came from 135 targets, showing how he remains a prominent option for quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He topped 1,000 receiving yards for the third time in four years (he had 860 while playing in 12 games in 2019) and average 3.3 burn yards per route.
The Chiefs are coming off a painful Super Bowl loss and may feel they have a point to prove, yet the main concern for Hill’s hopes is the presence of a dominant tight end on the roster (more on him to come).
DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals
In his first year with the Cardinals, Hopkins set a franchise record for receptions in a season, finishing up with 115 (matching his best season with the Houston Texans, by the way) for a total of 1,407 yards.
His 7.2 catches per game ranked third behind only Adams and Diggs, aided by 13 plays that went for 25 yards or more. His YAC number (510) also ranked in the top 10 for all positions, helping him secure a fifth trip to the Pro Bowl.
The 29-year-old Hopkins has missed just two games in his entire career and while he is set to head into his ninth season, there has been little sign of him slowing up in terms of overall output.
DK Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks
Having gradually emerged in 2019 before making a noticeable impact in the postseason, Metcalf made a further leap in his second year with the Seahawks.
His big-play ability was demonstrated by his 15.7 yards per catch, which ranked fourth in the NFL among those with at least 100 targets. Likewise, the Vikings rookie had 16 receptions that went for 25 or more yards, one more than Metcalf managed while working with Russell Wilson.
His offseason included a spell on the track as he clocked in at 10.36 seconds in his 100-meter heat at the Golden Games and Distance Open in California. But now the focus is back to football, and Metcalf will hope to use that speed to help him improve on his gaudy average of 13.31 burn yards per target from 2020 (league average: 10.98) and take the Seattle offense to the next level.
Best of the Rest
Who else could emerge from the pack?
Michael Thomas led the league for receiving yards in 2019 with the help of Drew Brees, only to then endure an unexpected down year last time out. His early trip to the PUP list has likely ended his hopes of regaining the crown before Week 1 has even kicked off. Terry McLaurin had similar numbers to Hill (87 receptions on 134 targets), as well as 486 yards after the catch – a number only topped by four receivers.
Meanwhile, A.J. Brown topped 1,000 yards for a second straight season with the Titans and trailed only Adams with 3.6 burn yards per route, though he now has Jones to compete with for targets. Allen Robinson should not be dismissed after having 151 targets on a struggling Chicago Bears offense, while Justin Herbert’s emergence with the Los Angeles Chargers helped Keenan Allen average 10.5 targets per outing, second most in the NFL. If a long shot is more your fancy, Diontae Johnson had 88 receptions for 923 yards, but those figures came on 144 targets and Johnson’s big-play percentage was a disappointing 21.3.
Dak Prescott’s return to fitness should help the Dallas Cowboys’ plethora of receiving options, including Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, while Matthew Stafford’s move to Los Angeles will be expected to pad the numbers for Rams duo Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.
The Year of the Tight End?
Blocking is still part of the job but catching balls has become a key aspect of life as an NFL tight end: Travis Kelce had the second-most receiving yards (1,416) and Darren Waller (1,196) also made the top 10. Waller actually had more targets out of the pair, while his 576 yards after the catch put him second behind only running back Alvin Kamara in the entire league.
George Kittle made it to four figures in 2018 and 2019, only to then see injury ruin his fourth campaign with the San Francisco 49ers. He was open on 90.5% of targets and led all tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route. Expect him to try and make up for the lost time.
Then there is Kyle Pitts, the rookie selected fourth overall by the Falcons. Despite playing only eight games, he led the FBS in receiving yards (770) as he racked up 96.3 yards per game, averaging 17.9 yards per catch. If he can translate those ridiculous numbers to the pro game, Pitts will become immediately become prominent in Atlanta’s offense, potentially taking away some opportunities that could go to Ridley.
Design by Matt Sisneros.