The wide receiver position is more jam-packed with talent than at any other point in NFL history. So many teams have their cupboard stocked with wideouts who are difference makers and many who approach the position in different ways than their peers on the roster.
One of the primary tasks of the wide receiver position is to run clean routes and get open from the defender covering them in order to present a reliable target to the quarterback throwing them the ball. The NFL's Next Gen Stats tracking is able to objectively determine who the best receivers are at getting open in an unparalleled fashion from anything we've never seen before. Next Gen Stats' "separation at target" metric measures how much separation a receiver earned from the defender covering them when their quarterback threw them the ball. Other separation metrics to measure getting open on a per route basis could be coming down the line, but this is the method, for now.
In this Top-10 ranking, we will examine the separation ability of the NFL's No. 1 receivers. For this post, we will define a No. 1 receiver as a player who saw at least 100 target when lined up out wide, which came out to 15 receivers in total, though we'll also look at some notes of who would have hit that total if not for injuries. The term No. 1 receiver is indicative of a special wideout who dictates outside coverage and can carry their team's passing game, not just the top receiver on a depth chart. Not every squad has one. In future posts we will look at slot, No. 2 and supporting receivers.
Note: Out-wide vs. slot separation and air yards per target were included to provide further context to where exactly these receivers are being targeted on the field.
1) Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers (2.92 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.9 (88 percent of plays)
Slot separation: 2.69 (21 percent of plays)
Air yards per target: 11.2
Arguably the NFL's best wide receiver, Antonio Brown just wrapped up his fourth-straight season with 100-plus catches and 1,200-plus receiving yards. He's scored 43 touchdowns over that span, as well. Thus, it is no surprise to see him atop this ranking of No. 1 receivers. The fact that the Brown leads a metric measuring separation is fitting, as it is emblematic of what makes the wide receiver so great.
Brown was a sixth-round pick from Central Michigan. He stood at just 5-foot-10, weighed 186 pounds and had nothing remarkable in his measured athletic profile that would have indicated a future NFL star. Yet, Brown snagged a spot early in the Steelers wide receiver rotation because he was a great route-runner, and rose up the ranks of the NFL's pantheon of elite wide receivers because he mastered the art of separation. Brown checks in here with 2.92 yards of separation on his targets this season. His score was a full 0.15 yards higher than the wideout ranked at No. 2. There is no wide receiver in the NFL better at getting open than Antonio Brown.
2) Odell Beckham, New York Giants (2.77 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.72 (85 percent of plays)
Slot separation: 2.82 (13 percent of plays)
Air yards per target: 11.3
If there's anyone who can challenge Antonio Brown for the title of "best route-runner in the NFL" it is Odell Beckham. He came into the league already polished beyond his years, as Dave Gettleman once called him the best route-runner in the historic 2014 wide receiver draft class. It's continued on to the pro-level, as Beckham amassed 288 catches, 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns in his first 43 career games. Frankly, if the height of Beckham's exploits is news to you, it's hard to imagine how you even found your way to a football website.
The Giants All-Pro receiver averaged 2.77 yards of separation on his targets this season. On an offense that ranked 26th in scoring, Beckham still managed to star and often won them games individually with his patented big plays on slant routes. On other occasions, Beckham as the shiny bright spot wasn't enough to single-handedly win the Giants games. New York has a true legendary caliber offensive player on their hands here, that's plain to see, but they need to explore adding more playmakers and find ways to improve their quarterback play.
3) Terrelle Pryor, Cleveland Browns (2.76 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.78 (83 percent of plays)
Slot separation: 2.62 (10 percent of plays)
Air yards per target: 15.1 (from McCown, Kessler and Griffin)
Perhaps it's because of the team that he plays on or the winding path he took to get here, but the story of Terrelle Pryor's development into a true star wide receiver went under-discussed as it unfolded this season. At this point two years ago, Terrelle Pryor was insistent in his four-plus-year stance that he would not switch positions in the NFL, one he finally softened in June. He spent his first true year as a wide receiver in 2015 and registered just one catch in his lone game action. You wouldn't know that was his backstory had you just watched him this year.
Pryor averaged 2.78 yards of separation on his targets. He showed an ability to get open at all levels of the field and a surprising knack for getting open. Despite the drafting of Corey Coleman along with multiple other rookie receivers, it was Pryor who emerged as the team's clear No. 1 receiver right away. Pryor owned a 41.5 percent share of the combined air yards distributed by Cody Kessler, Josh McCown and Robert Griffin III. For context, Mike Evans led the NFL with 43 percent of Jameis Winston's air yards, and T.Y. Hilton was second with 38.7 percent, among receivers who played the majority of the season with one quarterback. Terrelle Pryor is a free agent this offseason and the team should make every move to assure he stays. For what it's worth, NFL Network's Courtney Fallon reported that the Browns viewed Pryor as the only "absolutely untouchable" asset on their roster prior to the NFL trade deadline mid-season.
4) Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders (2.71 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.42 (86 percent of plays)
Slot separation: 3.21 (13 percent of plays)
Air yards per target: 10.3 (from Carr)
It was a strange second season for Amari Cooper. He had a number of explosive outings with six games of 70-plus yards and three of 130-plus. Yet, he also finished with less than 50 yards in six games, four of which came in the last month and half of the regular season. His involvement in the offense seemed to come and go in waves, without any true explanation. The good news is that his best skill, running pristine routes and separating from coverage, remained intact. Cooper averaged 2.71 yards of separation on his targets overall, and a whopping 3.21 yards on his looks from the slot. It remains to be seen if Cooper's usage changes next season, but his ability to get open is not in question.
5) Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers (2.68 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.54 (73 percent of plays)
Slot separation: 2.97 (26 percent of plays)
Air yards per target: 12.8
Jordy Nelson's season was one of two halves. In the first 11 games of the season, Nelson averaged just 2.3 yards of separation. The lowest point was a Week 7 win over the Bears where he averaged 0.9 yards of separation and caught just one pass. Nelson started to get going after that and then from Weeks 12 through 17, the Pro Bowler averaged 3.3 yards of separation. One of the biggest differences was the Packers began to move Nelson around more, which was also made necessary by an injury to Randall Cobb. Nelson saw 48 targets when lined up in the slot, more than any other receiver who also saw 100 or more targets out-wide.
Receivers beginning to alter their role to adjust to their changing skill set as they age is essential to extending their viability. Larry Fitzgerald provided a good example of this in Arizona over the last three years. It appears Nelson may be on the same path, though he certainly regained much of his old form as the year went along. One way or another, Nelson was yet again one of the best receivers at earning separation this season.
6) Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos (2.63 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.55 (74 percent of plays)
Slot separation: 2.95 (24 percent of plays)
Air yards per targets: 14.1 (from Siemian and Lynch)
Emmanuel Sanders did not lose much off of his pace in his first season since 2013 without Peyton Manning. He crossed the 1,000-yard mark and caught more passes in 2016 than he did in 2015, despite playing just one more game. Sanders has had an interesting career in the NFL. He never met expectations in Pittsburgh largely because his precise style didn't fit the backyard-style of football Ben Roethlisberger played at the time. However, his ability to using technique and time in his routes was a perfect fit in Denver with the way Manning approaches the position. Sanders' 2.63 yards of separation at target reflects that skill to perfection. One interesting note that developed during the season was Paxton Lynch's clear preference for Sanders over Demaryius Thomas. The former owned a 45.2 percent share of the rookie's intended air yards to just 27.1 percent for Thomas.
7) Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints (2.38 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.41 (87 percent of plays)
Slot separation: 2.19 (13 percent of plays)
Air yards per target: 8.4
The Saints rookie receiver hit the ground running for his professional career, as Michael Thomas caught 92 passes in 15 games to lead all rookie receivers by a wide margin. While Thomas was the big wide receiver Drew Brees was lacking with Marques Colston's prime in the rearview mirror, what made him such a tremendous fit with the team was his ability to separate from coverage on short and intermediate routes with precise technique for a collegiate player. Coming into the season, the thought was that he would take Colston's place as the big slot player, but Thomas was more effective as an outside receiver, averaging 2.41 yards of separation lined up wide to 2.19 inside.
One way or another, he earned Brees' trust right away and led the team in targets, letting 2014 first-rounder Brandin Cooks operate in a role he's well-suited for as a splash player in the deep game rather than a full-time No. 1. Given that Thomas also popped up as one of the 10 best receivers at winning the ball in tight coverage, it's clear this is a player with a complete skill set. Thomas is a ready-made star wideout and he's already well on his way there.
8) Michael Crabtree, Oakland Raiders (2.27 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 1.93 (71 percent of plays)
Slot separation: 3.04 (26 percent of plays)
Air yards per target: 11.3 (from Carr)
Derek Carr is a lucky man, as he gets the benefit of having two No. 1 caliber wide receivers at his disposal. In addition to the drafting of Amari Cooper at fourth overall, the Raiders brought in Michael Crabtree prior to the 2015 season. The veteran wide receiver revived his career in Oakland after it began fizzling out following the 2012 season in San Francisco. Crabtree has always been one of the best route-runners in the NFL, and his skills have only become more refined as he's aged. That identifiable skill on film made it apparent that going to a timing-based quarterback in Derek Carr was going to breathe life into Crabtree's career that was wilting under the complete opposite in Colin Kaepernick.
Crabtree's proficiency as a route-runner is exemplified in his separation scores, especially in the slot where the Raiders move him to get him in position to be a reliable target for Carr. His overall reliability as a separator is clearly something the young quarterback appreciates, as 2016 was the second year in which he led the Raiders in targets over Amari Cooper.
9) DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans (2.25 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.14 (83 percent of plays)
Slot separation: 2.60 (15 percent of plays)
Air yards per target: 12.6 (from Osweiler and Savage)
It was a tough season for DeAndre Hopkins, who saw 151 targets but failed to crack 1,000 yards while playing with a quarterback who completely held the Texans offense hostage. He finds himself inside the Top-10 but on the lower end with 2.25 yards of separation on his targets. Hopkins is a fantastic player, one who is a strong craftsman in the nuanced areas of route running. However, he's not a player who will overwhelm with his size, speed or overall quickness. As such, he's never going to be an elite separator but has maximized every inch of his physical gifts to round into form as one of the NFL's better No. 1 receivers. The real issue that occurred this year is that Brock Osweiler was unable to make use of Hopkins' best skill, which is contorting to make tough catches in a wide radius deep along the sidelines. Osweiler was unwilling to ever take downfield shots outside the numbers, thus rendering his No. 1 receiver's premier trait useless.
10) Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons (2.25 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.26 (78 percent of plays)
Slot separation: 2.21 (21 percent of plays)
Air yards per target: 14.3
Julio Jones was not quite the sole locomotive of the Falcons offense that he was in 2015. He averaged 9.2 targets per game this season compared to a whopping 12.7 last season. His decrease in the involvement in the offense was not a reflection of any decline in his skills, however. Jones is a massive 6-foot-3, 220-plus pound receiver who is still one of the fastest in the game. Even when his technique isn't as refined as some of the others on this list he's a chore to cover. Given that he also checked in as the fourth-best receiver at catching the ball in tight coverage, you see why he's a complete asset as a No. 1 receiver.
One benefit that Jones saw from not being pummeled with targets this year is that his looks came farther down the field than in previous years. Jones' 14.3 air yards per target was higher than other traditional elite No. 1 receivers on this list.
Four bonus notes:
Mike Evans averaged 2.13 yards of separation at target. Getting open isn't always the most important ability to being a wide receiver, especially when you have the trump card of elite size and ability in contested situations. Both assets helped Evans to an All-Pro season even if he isn't one of the game's elite separators.
Allen Robinson averaged 1.93 yards of separation at target. That ranked 15th out of 15 receivers with 100-plus targets out wide. The entire Jacksonville offense was broken this year, not just the quarterback position. Now fully-installed head coach Doug Marrone indicated that Allen Robinson's big Week 16 game after he took over for Gus Bradley came as a result of moving the No. 1 receiver around. Much of that was about making sure he wasn't running extremely low-percentage, high-degree of difficulty routes on a routine basis, something that happened far too often this season.
Demaryius Thomas averaged 2.05 yards of separation at target, 0.58 less than his fellow Broncos receiver. He is the bigger name and the player with the higher NFL Draft pedigree. However, there's good reason to assert that Sanders is the superior of the two Broncos receivers.
Three injured No. 1 receivers performed quite differently in limited looks.
Dez Bryant averaged 1.85 yards of separation at target. He ranked 54th out of 55 receivers to see 50 or more targets out wide. Bryant has always been the master of 50-50 balls in tight coverage. He and Dak Prescott improved in their chemistry in those situations as the year progressed.
Sammy Watkins averaged 2.48 yards of separation at target. All that holds Watkins back from joining the group of the NFL's top receivers is health. His separation ability is his best, especially down the field as he averaged 15.6 air yards per target from Tyrod Taylor.
A.J. Green averaged 2.39 yards of separation at target this year. That score would have put him squarely inside the Top-10 and we already noted in the tight coverage rankings that he doesn't just win those passes, but some of the most difficult ones of any receiver in the NFL.