Top 10 Wide Receivers Based on Advanced Statistics

Most people who see this list will most likely be convinced that I am criminally insane by the end of the article. Then again, most people will just skim the list without reading the analysis and then just go on believing that Amari Cooper is a top-10 receiver in blissful ignorance (I’m looking at you, Cowboys fans).

Obviously, production is the best place to start the search, but advanced statistics are at the foundation of this list. Looking at those stats completely changed my perception of the top-10 receivers in the league in the best way possible because advanced statistics are, without a doubt, the most reliable way to evaluate any athlete.

I am looking mostly at last year’s stats because this list pertains only to the top receivers going into next season. However, 2016-2018 stats will make an impact as well, especially if a player was injured or if their stats were inconsistent from previous years. This list is based purely on talent, skillset, and the ABILITY to produce, not production itself.

#10: D.J. Moore, #12 WR, Carolina Panthers

DJ Moore

This selection will be subject to a lot of criticism. I have D.J. Moore on here, but no Amari Cooper, no Stefon Diggs, no Kenny Golladay, and no Keenan Allen. So, why don’t I make it real simple for all of you skepticists and just compare Moore’s 2019 to that of all four of those players?

Moore’s quarterback situation last season was probably amongst the worst in the league, but he produced in spite of that. A statistic I will talk a lot about in this article is True Catch Rate (TCR). TCR measures the percentage of balls a receiver catches using only catchable passes. Moore’s TCR was 87.9%, which was far higher than his catchable target rate of 73.3% (ranking 74th in the league and 9th on this list). This illustrates his poor quarterback play, but also provides evidence for his great hands because that TCR ranked 19th in the league and 5th on this list. It’s also better than all 4 of his competitors who didn’t make the list.

Moore’s drop rate of 3.0% ranked 25th in the league and beats out those 4 guys yet again. He also topped their contested-catch rates at 55.6% (6th in the league) as well as their yards per game with 78.3. In short, he managed to be more efficient and more productive for the Panthers with Kyle Allen at quarterback than Keenan Allen with Phillip Rivers, Adam Thielen with Kirk Cousins, Kenny Golladay with Matthew Stafford… or his injury replacements, and Amari Cooper with Dak Prescott. 

Player Profiler calculates a catch radius that accounts for a player’s ability to move laterally and vertically to catch the ball. Any score that is 10.20 or above is considered “extraordinary” for a receiver. Moore’s score of 10.24 puts him in the 89th percentile and exemplifies one of his biggest strengths as a receiver; he’s a playmaker. Moore is probably the most underappreciated receiver in the league, but his skill set and production value are top-10, and it’s time people started to take notice.

#9: Tyler Lockett, #16 WR, Seattle Seahawks

Lockett

Tyler Lockett is another undervalued weapon who produces in a massive way for the Seahawks. Every year, Lockett outperforms what his target share indicates he should. Last season, he had the 2nd-most yards of anybody with 110 targets or less, and in 2018, he had the most yards of any player with less than 100 targets, and he himself only got 70. Lockett loses volume because he is a deep threat in a run-first offense, but that doesn’t take anything away from the brilliant statistical performance he puts forth on Sundays.

As a deep threat, yards of separation is a very significant part of Lockett’s game, and he ranked 10th in the league and 1st on this list at 3.2 yards in 2019 and 3.3 yards in 2019. Lockett’s Yards Before Catch Per Reception (YBC/R) ranked 4th in the league in 2018 at 13.2 yards. Both TCR and drop rate usually get worse as TBC/R goes up, but that wasn’t the case here. He didn’t have a single drop and his TCR was a shocking 96.6%, good for #2 in the league and #1 on this list by a lot. What I’m telling you right now is that of his 59 catchable targets, Lockett only missed 2. 

He played a godly level of football in 2018 and only got targeted 70 times for 57 receptions, 965 yards, and 10 touchdowns. If he keeps those advanced stats with 150 targets, that would have been just about the single greatest statistical season of all time. 2019 wasn’t as productive, but Lockett still overproduced for his target share, gathering a career-high 1,065 yards and 8 touchdowns on only 110 targets. He also had a TCR of 87.2% (22nd in the league) with a YBC/R of 9.1, which is relatively high, and a remarkable drop rate of 1.2%. Not to mention, his combined contested catch rate from the last two seasons is a surprising 54.2% on 24 targets. That percentage would have ranked in the top 10 last season. 

So, 5’10” 182 lb Tyler Lockett gets top-notch separation, catches almost everything around him, and can make plays in traffic. Maybe we should all wait until marriage… Get this man at least 130 targets next season and let’s just see what happens. Lockett is a top-10 receiver in the league based on his surprisingly well-rounded skill set and his ability to produce at such an astounding rate.

#8: Mike Evans, #13 WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Evans

Mike Evans at 8?! “Codswallop”, they say; he’s top-5 for sure! I hate to break it to you, but Evans should be a lot better than he is right now, so if it seems like I’m being a bit harsh, that’s because I am. He has had at least 1,000 yards in all of his 6 NFL seasons, which alone is enough to land him consideration for this list. The dude is an athletic freak with insane agility for his size. He’s a superstar without question, but his lack of consistency and reliability takes him out of the top-5 conversation. 

TCR is a great stat because players like Evans, who have literally half-blind quarterbacks, don’t get penalized. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t matter if Jameis Winston was as accurate as Drew Brees, because Evans just doesn’t have good hands. His TCR stands at 82.7%, which ranks 44th in the league and 9th on this list. If that doesn’t convince you of his lousy hands, then maybe his drop rate of 5.9% will. 

Also, according to the stats, Mike Evans isn’t a great deep threat, but that’s exactly how the Bucs use him. Evans’ YBC/R was fourth in the league last year at 13.4 yards, but his contested catch rate sat at just 32.1%, which was 28th in the league, and he only managed a lukewarm 2.4 yards of separation. So, Evans is a deep threat who doesn’t get open very well and whose contested catch rate is only mediocre. That’s not top-5 material.

So, if I’m hating on Evans this much, why is he even on the list? The man got 1,157 yards and 8 touchdowns in 13 games last year, that’s why. Despite his issues catching the ball and his ineptitudes in traffic, he still managed to pull off 89 yards per game in an offense loaded with weapons to compete against. It would be unfair not to have him on this list simply because of the elite production we all know he can provide, even without consistent route-running or steady hands.

#7: Adam Thielen, #19 WR, Minnesota Vikings

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings

Adam Thielen is one of the best receivers in the game, and his injury-plagued 2019 campaign shouldn’t count against him. Thielen racked up 1,377 yards and nine touchdowns, in 2018. He has proven that he can produce even while competing for targets with Stefon Diggs, who whines every time he doesn’t get 10 targets and 100 yards, in the Vikings’ run-first offense. That is the mark of a true top-10 receiver. 

Some of Thielen’s advanced statistics from 2018 are truly spectacular. He averaged 2.9 yards of separation, which ranked 3rd among wide receivers with 100+ catches, on 8.5 YBC/R. Also, Thielen’s TCR ranked 30th in the league at 86.3% and his drop rate was just 2.0%. Thielen’s hands and route-running separate him as a top-10 receiver.

On top of those attributes, one of Thielen’s most impressive statistics was his contested catch rate of 55.6%, #9 in the league in 2018. His ability to make contested catches is a defining feature of his game due to the extensive route tree he runs with the Vikings. Minnesota stretches the field vertically and horizontally and he gets a ton of different assignments from blocking to outs to go routes. Adam Thielen is as reliable as they come at wide receiver and he can make plays anywhere on the field.

#6: Davante Adams, #17 WR, Green Bay Packers

San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers

A healthy Davante Adams is one of the most dangerous wideouts in the game. In 2018, he hauled in 13 touchdowns to go along with his 1,386 yards in 15 games, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of his capabilities. Adams’ catch radius rounds out to 10.20 exactly, which puts him in the 85th percentile among wideouts. He doesn’t seem like an athletic playmaker who can snatch any ball out of the air with ease, but that’s exactly what he does.

Adams’ drop rate was a mere 3.0% and his TCR came in at 87.4%, good for 20th in the league in 2018. But, here’s why Adams is sixth on this list: an average of 3 yards of separation that season with only 8.2 YBC/R. That statistic puts some concrete credibility to his route running, which we all know is fantastic.

Here’s another fascinating stat, but this time from his 2019 campaign. Adams had a ton of deep targets for a 12-game season, but he didn’t have very many contested catch targets. Those 23 deep targets were good for 19th in the league, but his contested catch targets totaled a mere 13. Those 13 targets probably weren’t all deep passes either. Players who run 4.56 40-yard dashes usually don’t get open downfield much. The fact that he is able to do it with such consistency is the reason he’s so high on this list. Adams is undisputedly a top-10 receiver going into next season and anyone who disagrees is mistaken.

#5: Tyreek Hill, #10 WR, Kansas City Chiefs

Tyreek Hill

You don’t get the nickname “Cheetah” without being the fastest guy on the field. Tyreek Hill has blazing speed, but he isn’t like the John Rosses and Jacoby Fords of the world; Hill is a true superstar at the receiver position and one of the toughest players in the league to guard. 

Hill managed a staggering 3.2 yards of separation last season, ranking 10th in the league and tied with Lockett for 1st on this list. Hill runs almost every route in the playbook, but his two main jobs are to run deep and to get the ball in space. So, his well-above-average yards of separation is just one of the many attributes that contribute to his success as a deep-ball threat. 

However, let’s just say for a second that Hill doesn’t get the better of the defense with his speed. At 5’10” 185 lbs, he also somehow plays well in traffic. He is a true wideout because he succeeds in every facet of the position, including contested catches. In 2018, Hill’s contested catch rate was 45.0%, ranking 17th in the league. He isn’t even 6 feet tall and well under 200 pounds, but still beats some of the world’s best defenders on jump balls. 

All of that on top of Hill’s 10.30 catch radius rating is what makes him the cheat code he is. He’s a nightmare for defenses to prepare for because if he isn’t the one catching the ball, then he’s making way for his teammates to make plays. He must be accounted for at all times when he’s on the field, and that’s why he’s a top-5 receiver in the league.

#4: Julio Jones, #11 WR, Atlanta Falcons

Julio

I’m sorry to burst the “Julio is the best receiver in the league” bubble, but he’s not. Julio is an NFL legend and no one can deny that. Nevertheless, at this point in his career, his production is a byproduct of his volume, not his reliability.

Julio Jones has the single worst TCR on this list at 81.1%, ranking 56th in the league last season. His yards of separation is also the worst on this list at a measly 2.2 yards. He uses his frame to make plays on the ball, so he relies less on yards of separation. However, even guys who play the game similar to him, like Mike Evans and DeAndre Hopkins, had more yards of separation and a higher TCR than he did last season. 

Separate yourself from the name for one minute and think. Doesn’t the fact that Julio missed almost 20% of his catchable targets bother you just a little bit? If you’re a loyal or stubborn fan and you’re thinking that last year was just an off year, you would be wrong. His 2018 was slightly better, but not by enough to change my perception of him.

So, why is he #4 on this list if he has all those horrible qualities? Well, he’s clearly doing something right if he’s had 1,300+ yards in each of his last 6 seasons. His drop rate last year was phenomenal at 2.5% and his contested catch rate ranked 12th in the league at 48.1% with 52 targets. That means 25% of his receptions were contested. His skillset as a receiver is undeniable. The fact that he had to get a quarter of his receptions while covered speaks to the difficulties he faces in coverage and the attention defenses must pay him every week. That alone makes him an invaluable asset to any team and a true top-5 receiver.

All in all, Jones is a fantastic player, but he isn’t the best receiver in the league. Almost all of his advanced statistical figures dropped to new lows last season, and that is never a good sign for a receiver that just turned 31. It’s time to crown a new king of the wide receiver position.

#3: Chris Godwin, #12 WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Detroit Lions v Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Chris Godwin broke out in a huge way last year, so huge that I already have him as a top-3 receiver going into next season. This is probably the most controversial spot on this list. Putting Godwin ahead of Julio Jones wasn’t an easy call, but after seeing his advanced statistics, I had no choice. First off, let’s discuss Godwin’s incredible production last season. The man got 1,333 yards and 9 touchdowns in 14 games. That’s 95.2 yards per game, 2nd to only Michael Thomas last season. 

Godwin’s 91.5% TCR ranked 6th in the league and is astronomical for a breakout player with a healthy 8.8 YBC/R. His 2.8 yards of separation also indicate his ability to get open downfield. I will prove that Godwin can use his body to make plays like Jones and Evans, but he can also create consistent separation, which sets him apart from those 2 guys. His most impressive stat might be his drop rate, a mere 0.8%!

He dropped 1 pass in 121 targets. Imagine a player who only started 8 games the year prior going out and catching almost every ball in his atmosphere, leading his team in receiving yards and touchdowns, and doing all that with a quarterback who just got Lasik surgery. That’s just what Chris Godwin did in 2019.

Another attribute that sets Godwin apart is his versatility as a receiver. With 4.42 speed and a 6’1” 209 lb frame, he has the tools to be whoever his team needs him to be. He can run sharp routes, illustrated by his yards of separation, he can run short routes or screens with elite speed and vision, and he is one of the best deep threats in the league on top of all of that. 

Godwin was targeted on 22 deep routes last year, ranking 23rd in the league, but that number is far too low for a player with his abilities. His contested catch rate last season… 64.0% on 25 targets, ranking #3 in the league. If the ball is in the air near Godwin, chances are he’s going to come down with it. A guy with 4.42 speed who can catch the ball over just about anyone should have at least 2 deep targets per game, if not 3. Godwin is #3 on this list because his skill set is elite with respect to every aspect of the wide receiver position. If he keeps up that level of play for the next several seasons, he’ll be fighting for that #1 spot.

#2: DeAndre Hopkins, #10 WR, Arizona Cardinals

D-Hop

I don’t know a single person who would dare put DeAndre Hopkins outside of their top-5 wide receivers in the NFL because I would never associate with someone so ignorant. Hopkins is a force on the outside and the quality he’s best known for is his unbelievably secure hands. His drop rate of 2.5% last season and 1.2% the season before are both remarkable for a player with his volume. In that time, he only had three drops on 313 targets. 

Hopkins is also known for his ability to make tough catches. In 2018, Hopkins’ contested catch rate was 55.8% on, get this, 48 targets. Similar to Jones, that makes him both a reliable red-zone target and a player that defenses must account for at all times. I don’t think there is a single corner in the game, apart from maybe Stephon Gilmore, who can shut him down consistently in single-coverage. 

Here’s another wild figure from Hopkins’ 2018 season. His YBC/R was in the clouds at 10.3 yards, however, he still managed a higher TCR in that year than he did in 2019 when he had 7.5 YBC/R. That tells me two things: the 1st is that Hopkins can catch the ball consistently at any level of the field, and the 2nd is that 2019 was an off-year. 

The thing about guys like Hopkins, Evans, and Jones is that they don’t really need to create much separation to make plays on the ball, and the double coverage they constantly face makes it a lot harder to do so. Therefore, since all 3 of those guys play a similar brand of football, it can be useful to pit them against each other. Spoiler alert: Hopkins wins almost every time. Hopkins’ 2.7 yards of separation last season beat out Evans’ 2.4 and Jones’ 2.2. Hopkins also topped Evans’ poor 2.1 yards of separation in 2018 but tied with Jones at 2.5 yards. 

I think the question everyone is asking themselves is why I have Hopkins over Julio, so I’ll make it very clear. Hopkins gets more separation, he has better hands, and he is more reliable in traffic, which is a big part of their game. Julio beats out Hopkins in the arena physical skills, but this list is about the ability to produce, and Hopkins does that better than Jones.

#1: Michael Thomas, #13 WR, New Orleans Saints

MT

It pains me to give Michael Thomas the keys to the castle, but he earned the #1 spot. Why can’t he just be normal on social media? It would make this whole thing so much easier. Thomas took the league by storm last year, racking up 1,725 yards, 9 touchdowns, and shattering Marvin Harrison’s single-season receptions record with an otherworldly 149. Thomas is an emotional wimp, but you have to give credit where credit is due; he is the best receiver in the world.

I’m going to debunk this whole “Michael Thomas only runs slants” argument right now. It’s true that Thomas’ YBC/R was just 7.7 yards last season, but that’s just what he does best; he gets open short and makes plays after the catch. Defenses know exactly how the Saints are going to use Thomas every game and they still can’t stop him, so why would New Orleans do anything differently? Also, here comes another bubble burst: Thomas could probably be a great deep ball receiver if given the opportunity.

His contested catch rate last season was 4th in the league at 63.3% with 30 targets. The year before, it was 1st in the league at an astounding 73.9% on 23 targets. You don’t think Thomas can make plays downfield with those percentages? Need more proof? Thomas managed 2.6 yards of separation last season on just 7.7 YBC/R. The year before, he gained 7.1 YBC/R and created 2.7 yards of separation. So, imagine the space he could create if he went more than 7-8 yards deep. He could be a deep threat if that’s what the Saints needed him to be, but as illustrated last season, he’s doing fine where he is.

Thomas can catch too, and he can do it just as well, if not better, than DeAndre Hopkins. Thomas’ TCR last season was 3rd in the league at 94.9%. Even though Hopkins had an off-year last season, I am still going to compare them to illustrate this stat’s magnitude. Hopkins’ YBC/R was actually lower than Thomas’ last season, yet Thomas’ TCR was still 6.8% higher than Hopkins’.

So, Thomas made plays further down the field with more reliability while leading the league in yards after the catch, yards before the catch, yards, targets, catches, and regular catch percentage. He has the ability to produce at any level of the field better than anyone else in the league, and that’s why he’s the best receiver in the game, hands down. 

Honorable Mentions (one quality that made them miss the list):

  1. Stefon Diggs (inconsistency)
  2. Amari Cooper (can’t catch)
  3. Cooper Kupp (limited scope of abilities)
  4. Kenny Golladay (can’t get open/can’t catch)
  5. Keenan Allen (middle of the pack in every category)

Sources:

https://www.playerprofiler.com/nfl/

https://nextgenstats.nfl.com/stats/receiving#average-separation

https://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/2019/receiving_advanced.htm

https://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/2018/receiving_advanced.htm

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