The tiers of NFL superstardom are rarely formed by meritocracy; it’s not enough to simply be great. Davante Adams learned that after his breakout 2016 when he posted a 12-touchdown season and a career-high 997 yards, tantalizingly close to the 1,000-yard benchmark.
After an inconsistent rookie campaign and a disappointing, injury-riddled 2015 season, Adams’ enormous 2016 must have been the result of Jordy Nelson’s return and Aaron Rodgers getting other-wordly hot down the stretch. This was a player who, only a year before, felt the scorn of NFL Twitter for his trouble hanging on to passes and inability to create down the field.
Packers fans wanted to see Jeff Janis and Jarred Abbrederis playing over Adams just a year before, so ‘16 had to be a fluke.
I’m biased because I’ve been a believer in Adams since I was there in person to watch him play the best game of his career to date against the Patriots back in 2014. His virtuoso performance in the Cowboys playoff game that season sold me on his potential.
But it wasn’t until late in 2016 I truly believed Adams could not only be a good NFL receiver, but a legitimate No. 1. During the Run the Table stretch, Adams had clearly been a key factor in the team’s turn around. But this play, to open Week 14 against the Seahawks opened my eyes. It was a 66-yard touchdown on Jeremy Lane to start the game that made me stand up and take notice.
If he can do that, create big plays down the field, to go along with his devastating quickness and burst running routes, he could do just about anything the Packers needed him to do on the football field.
Then, in 2017, he proved it. Even without Aaron Rodgers for most of the season, Adams posted one fewer catch on four fewer targets and just two fewer touchdowns. The numbers technically went down, but to essentially maintain production playing with Brett Hundley should really be considered a step up. Anyone paying any kind of attention to the Packers—which last season was mostly just diehard Cheeseheads once Rodgers got hurt—saw Adams take over.
He’d ascended as the team’s No. 1 receiver. As Jordy Nelson struggled to create after the catch, or really get open generally, Adams assumed the mantle as the Green Bay go-to receiver. In his fourth season, Adams carried the passing attack, sealing the game against the Bears with a third-down completion on a bomb from Hundley. He literally won the game in overtime in Cleveland on a slip screen where he made three defenders miss and raced to the end zone. He took apart Pittsburgh passing defense, nearly single-handedly keeping the Packers in the game.
If Adams can be that guy with Brett Hundley, imagine what he can be with Aaron Rodgers, particularly with Jordy Nelson fitted with black and silver in the Bay Area. We know he’ll be a touchdown machine; Adams leads the league in receiving touchdowns the last two seasons.
But Adams has a chance to ascend to the upper echelon of receivers, one where it could reasonably be argued he already belonged. He earned his first Pro Bowl selection last season and wound up 45th on the NFL Top 100 list even after his numbers technically fell off last year. Clearly fans and peers are paying some level of attention to him. Perhaps the atrophy of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb in real time before our eyes made the contrast even more stark. When Brett Hundley took over, Davante Adams still looked like Davante Adams whereas Nelson and Cobb looked like shells of their former selves.
Adams finished 15th in DYAR for receivers (defense-adjusted yards above replacement), and among players above him, only DeAndre Hopkins had to play with a backup quarterback for any stretch of time. Imagine how much more productive he could have been if in two of the games he did play with Rodgers, he hadn’t been cheap-shotted by a linebacker.
After his star-turning campaign in 2016, Adams finished 14th in DYAR. In other words, he was essentially just as good with Brett Hundley as Aaron Rodgers. That speaks for itself when it comes to answering critics about Adams as a product of the system.
But that DYAR list, though not a perfect stat, creates an opportunity: where does Adams now fall in the NFL star receiver hierarchy? I posited on Twitter the only receivers I’d definitely take ahead of Adams were Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green and Mike Evans.
Brown, Jones, and Hopkins all posted DYAR’s ahead of Adams in 2017 and Jones, Brown, Evans and Green were better by DYAR in 2016. Only two players not on my list were above Adams in DYAR in each of the last two seasons: Michael Thomas and Adam Thielen. In fact, the only receivers to be ahead of Adams in DYAR each of the last two seasons are Thomas, Thielen, Brown, and Jones. In other words, over the last two seasons combined Adams has been a top-5 WR in terms of consistency.
If we were to rank the receivers in the league by tier, most would agree Julio, OBJ, AB are that top tier. Hopkins probably has the best case to be included in that group.
The next tier, for me, would be Hopkins, Green, and Evans despite a disappointing 2017 campaign.
Adams should be considered just a step below, with the Thomas, Thielen, Keenan Allen, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Doug Baldwin tier. But the Packers’ new No. 1 receiver is as good a route runner as anyone on this list. He’s clearly the best adversity playmaker in contested situations and on the sidelines, and the touchdown numbers show he’s the best red zone threat. If there’s going to be a player from this mix who can fight his way into the next tier, it’s Adams.
And if he’s going to do it, what better time than 2018, when the Packers have few other proven options for a quarterback looking to light the league on fire? If Rodgers stays healthy, fans and media won’t have the option of not paying attention, of not noticing a player becoming a superstar in front of our eyes.
Steve Martin is fond of saying “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” That might as well be the slogan of the 2018 Packers with Davante Adams leading the charge.