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Ranking the premier talent in the NFL: Two receivers stood out above the rest in 2019

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We all know how good Michael Thomas has been for the Saints, but 2019’s breakout receiver came from Tampa Bay, and it wasn’t Mike Evans.

New Orleans Saints v Tennessee Titans
Michael Thomas’ record-setting 2019 season rightfully stacks up as the best in football at the position.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

We tend to think of receiver as a position dependent on its quarterback, but the best pass catchers elevate their QB as much as it works the other way around. A.J. Green put together a perennial Pro Bowl career with Andy Dalton. Larry Fitzgerald excelled with Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer, but also with a cavalcade of sub-mediocre lumbering white dudes. We realized Davante Adams was a star when he produced just as successfully for Brett Hundley as he had for Aaron Rodgers. So while context always matters for these players, receivers tend to produce over time at levels commensurate with their abilities, not just their quarterback’s.

So who was the best in 2020? We put together a group of metrics for receivers to parse that question. As always, the point of using a slew of numbers allows us to paint a fuller picture. The qualitative side with Pro Football Focus pairs with the outcome-based quantitative side with Football Outsiders and Pro Football Reference, plus the blend of the two with Sports Info and Solutions’ Total Points metric.

For an explanation of the methodology and a discussion about the top QBs, click here.

Top WRs of 2019

Name Index PFF Grade PFF Receiving Grade Yards Per Route Total Points AV DVOA
Name Index PFF Grade PFF Receiving Grade Yards Per Route Total Points AV DVOA
Michael Thomas 56.3 9.97 10 10 9.05 10 7.29
Chris Godwin 53.3 10 9.97 7.78 10 5.56 10
Tyreek Hill 45.94 9.42 9.68 8.51 6.51 5 6.83
Julio Jones 45.84 9.99 9.96 8.47 7.78 6.11 3.54
A.J. Brown 45.83 9.26 9.15 9.27 4.6 5.56 7.99
Stefon Diggs 45.42 8.69 8.64 9.34 4.76 6.67 7.32
Amari Cooper 44.1 9.27 9.28 7.95 5.24 5.56 6.8
Mike Evans 41.39 9.45 9.39 7.99 5.87 5 5.49
DeVante Parker 41.73 8.73 8.8 6.56 8.1 5 4.54
DeAndre Hopkins 41.52 9.63 9.68 6.91 7.3 6.11 1.89
Tyler Lockett 41.39 8.51 8.64 6.49 5.24 5 7.5
Mike Williams 41.37 8.17 8.22 6.63 6.51 4.44 7.29
Terry McLauren 40.99 9.45 9.54 7.12 5.24 3.89 5.76
Kenny Golladay 40.33 8.81 8.74 7.05 5.24 5 5.49
Jarvis Landry 39.91 8.62 8.82 7.08 8.57 5.56 1.25
Keenan Allen 39.71 8.85 8.95 6.98 7.14 5.56 2.23
Calvin Ridley 39.4 8.26 8.25 5.87 3.81 3.89 9.33
Cooper Kupp 37.99 8.22 8.39 7.22 6.98 5 2.16
Michal Gallup 37.42 8.16 8.2 7.5 4.44 5 4.12
Allen Robinson 37.23 8.91 8.94 6.32 7.94 5 0.12
D.J. Moore 37.21 9.07 8.84 7.05 6.83 4.44 0.98
Courtland Sutton 37.08 9.16 8.88 7.22 5.08 5 1.74
Davante Adams 35.91 9.21 9.31 8.09 4.13 5 0.02
Robert Woods 35.54 9.06 8.86 6.53 7.3 5 -1.22
Emmanuel Sanders 34.81 8.65 8.74 6.11 3.65 4.44 3.2
Marvin Jones 33.59 8.04 8.22 5.31 5.08 3.33 3.6
Odell Beckham Jr. 29.79 7.57 7.65 6.28 4.92 5 -1.65
Tyler Boyd 29.31 8.05 7.96 5.73 7.46 3.89 -3.78
Julian Edelman 28.99 7.94 8.11 6.35 3.65 5.56 -2.62

Two names stand out above the rest. We had to know Michael Thomas would do well here given the sheer volume of his productivity last season. He didn’t score as well in some of the efficiency or adjusted stats, but if you get a lot of targets and do well with them, that’s extremely valuable to the team.

The same is true for Chris Godwin, who may not be the same name by reputation or have as snappy a Twitter handle, but who was unbelievable last season in all parts of the field. Th Buccaneers sling it downfield regularly and that’s a factor, but guess what? Chunk plays are really important and very useful for a team. Guys who can consistently create them are irreplaceable in the NFL. Just ask the Packers.

Speaking of, Davante Adams’ case falls apart here only because of the injury. He was an elite receiver overall by PFF, in receiving grade, and yards per route run. So by quality of snaps on the field and on a per-snap basis, he produced at an extremely high level, but value to a team in its totality will be hurt by a lack of availability. Missing a month of the season cost Adams in counting stats like AV and Total Points, and his place in the offense, along with burbling questions about his fit in an Aaron Rodgers offense (which affects his DVOA), tamps down the numbers for a receiver who played like a star last year when he was healthy.

In some ways, his low touchdown numbers are a regression from where he’d been earlier in his career. He’s one of the most effective red zone weapons in football and has traditionally scored at a higher rate than most players. Managing five touchdowns on 127 targets stands in stark contrast to the 10 he scored in 2017 on 117 targets or the 12 on 121 in ‘16. This was an abnormal season in a lot of ways for Adams, and had he scored at his usual rate, we can expect his efficiency and value numbers to have soared.

If there was one other name that jumps out here, not just for Packers fans but cue the sad trombone anyway, it’s A.J. Brown. As a rookie, this index considers his 2019 season to be elite, and his ability to make plays after the catch elevate him to another level. It’s not just the Titans offense, which creates space off play action with the biggest beast in the backfield, or Ryan Tannehill being otherworldly. Brown, with his size, speed, and toughness, brings a Baby Julio-esque profile to the table, although he lacks the game-breaking speed Jones offers the Falcons.

One last note on this list: it’s further evidence of the way in which Odell Beckham’s Jr.’s productivity does not match his profile. Words like “overrated” get thrown around too often, but OBJ’s Q-score has exceeded his on-field score by a considerable margin. He’s an incredibly gifted, explosive player, but we haven’t seen him consistently be that guy on the field in a long time.

Putting together the work we’ve done so far on priority positions, two combinations stand above the rest much like Michael Thomas and Chris Godwin. The Drew Brees-Thomas connection and the Patrick Mahomes-Hill battery easily top the next highest groups although only 12 pairs qualified in both categories.

We’ll get into more details as we break down the defense, but it’s worth mentioning of those 12 combinations of quarterback and receiver, only five made the playoffs last season, which is partially the point of the exercise. It tends not to be sufficient to exclusively excel on offense or only have premier talent on one side of the ball. Luckily for the Packers, one of the teams who qualifies and made the playoffs, they have the defensive talent to match their offensive firepower.