Last week we looked at the Top-10 best receivers at creating separation among the NFL's select group of No. 1 wideouts. That is an exclusive club but we know there are other talented receivers scattered throughout the NFL today.
Many of them will fall on this ranking of separation ability. Some of them are complementary receivers to a No. 1 wideout on their own team, while others are at the top of their depth chart but don't fit the classic mold of a true alpha receiver. Here we will look at the Top 10 No. 2 wide receivers at creating separation using the NFL's Next Gen Stats tracking data. The metric measures the separation between the receiver and the defender on passes where they were targeted.
Note: 100 total targets was the minimum number to be considered a No. 2 receiver and not a No. 3 or lower. However, none of these players saw 100 targets when lined up out wide, as that was the threshold for the No. 1 receiver group.
1) Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers (2.89 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.46 (71.9 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 3.06 (19.8 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 12.3
Here we have Davante Adams leading the Next Gen Stats Top 10 rankings for the second time. It's just another feather in the cap he's wearing after a rebound third season. In addition to being one of the best receivers at winning the ball in traffic after a rash of drops in 2015, Adams' technique and route-running were also noticeably improved in 2016. He created more separation this year, there's no question about that. It also helped that he could return to a more comfortable role for his skill set with Jordy Nelson back in the fold. With Nelson out of the picture in 2015 Adams had to take on the opposition's top corner with Randall Cobb being a strict slot receiver. He thrived in this year's rendition of the offense with an assignment that better fit his abilities.
It is important to note the wide gap between Adams' separation numbers when targeted out wide vs. the slot. His 2.46 number out wide is less than ideal and behind several other players on this list. His slot targets boost his total. It's probably fair to say at this point in his career that we shouldn't expect Adams to ever be the premier separator. However, with his skills in contested situations, he has a counterpunch to mitigate that, especially with the NFL's best passer when throwing into tight windows behind center in Aaron Rodgers.
2) DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins (2.89 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.77 (76 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 3.25 (24 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 16.3
Perhaps still the NFL's best deep threat, DeSean Jackson checked in with his fifth 1,000-yard season this year. He also led the league in yards per reception (17.9) for the third time in his career. Jackson averaged a strong 2.89 yards of separation despite averaging a whopping 16.3 air yards per target from Kirk Cousins. Jackson was the only receiver in the NFL this year to average more than 16 air yards per target and register more than 80 targets on the season. Much like Adams, Jackson's separation numbers were higher when he lined up in the slot. He made some of his biggest plays when targeted out of the slot with 219 yards on just 12 catches.
Jackson is a free agent this offseason. With Washington drafting Josh Doctson in the first round and the emergence of Jamison Crowder as one of the NFL's best slot receivers this year, it's fair to wonder if he returns to the team.
3) Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints (2.83 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.76 (64.7 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.98 (33.6 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 13.5
The Saints rookie Michael Thomas ranked seventh in separation at target among the NFL's No. 1 receivers, as he emerged in his first year to be the top wideout for New Orleans. While his arrival brought on a drop in targets and catches for 2014 first-rounder Brandin Cooks, it allowed the speedy wideout to slide into a more comfortable role. Cooks averaged 2.83 yards of separation on his targets this season. He was the clear downfield threat for the Saints this year. Among their four pass-catchers to see 80-plus targets, Cooks was the only one to average more than 10 air yards per target.
Cooks was a bit miscast as their true No. 1 receiver, but he's still one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL. The Saints have had a receiver inside the Top 10 on all three of the No. 1, No. 2 and slot rankings.
4) Brandon LaFell, Cincinnati Bengals (2.76 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.72 (83.2 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.21 (14 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 10.9
We can feel your snickers from here, but look, the Bengals did actually get a solid season as a No. 2 wide receiver out of Brandon LaFell. He even had to step in as the No. 1 toward the end of the season, as he averaged a team-high 8.7 targets per game in the six contests that A.J. Green missed. LaFell averaged 2.76 yards of separation on his targets this year and presented a reasonable option for Andy Dalton. A free agent this offseason, LaFell could conceivably return to the Bengals on a reasonable contract. Should he depart, that would open up a hole at the No. 2 outside spot in Cincinnati. Rookie Tyler Boyd was much more effective on his slot targets (2.75 yards of separation) than when targeted out wide (1.97 yards of separation) in his first pro season, so projecting him to that spot is a bit of a leap of faith.
5) Mike Wallace, Baltimore Ravens (2.73 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.79 (84.5 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.44 (15.5 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 12.7
Another veteran castoff that found a home with a new team this year, Mike Wallace turned in a solid 1,000-yard season with the Ravens. It was his first since 2011 with the division-rival Steelers. Baltimore got their leading receiver for a two-year deal with just $4.5 million in guarantees. The 30-year old receiver averaged 2.73 yards on his targets and wasn't strictly a downfield threat, either. His 12.7 air yards per target trailed Breshad Perriman on his own team and was just over the league average (11) for receivers with 100-plus targets. With Steve Smith retiring at the end of 2016, Wallace is likely locked into a starting spot for Baltimore in 2017. The Ravens will hope Perriman ends up snaring the spot opposite him.
6) Golden Tate, Detroit Lions (2.71 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.34 (67.4 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 3.48 (32.6 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 8.9
While it looked like Marvin Jones was going to take over for the Lions as the top receiver on the team, he fell off after a hot first month and Golden Tate finished with 32 more targets. Tate's usage changed rather dramatically with the addition of Anquan Boldin. Tate's slot alignment dropped from 51 percent in 2015 to 26 percent this last season. He was still far more effective at creating separation in the slot, averaging 1.14 more yards of separation on his interior targets. Tate was still primarily a short-to-intermediate threat in space, as he averaged just 8.9 air yards per target. 2016 was his third-straight with the Lions and at least 90 catches and there's little reason to expect that to change next year.
7) Pierre Garcon, Washington Redskins (2.66 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.64 (86.8 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.78 (47 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 10.8
The second Washington receiver on this list, Pierre Garcon had an incredibly effective season considering there were rumors he was on the chopping block in training camp. He had his first 1,000-yard season since he led the NFL in receptions back during the 2013 campaign. Garcon is still one of the better route-runners in the NFL, and has seemed to become more savvy as the years have worn on. With 2.64 yards of separation when targeted out wide and leading the team with 114 looks total, he was the clear top outside pass-catcher for Kirk Cousins in 2016. Along with DeSean Jackson, Garcon will see his contract expire this offseason. He could easily return to Washington to make sure they have a contingency plan in place with Josh Doctson coming back from an Achilles injury, or he will prove to be a nice addition for another team searching for a useful veteran receiving body.
8) Steve Smith, Baltimore Ravens (2.65 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.41 (53 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.92 (19.8 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 9.4
The now-retired Steve Smith joins his 2016 Baltimore teammate Mike Wallace on the Top 10 list. No. 89 showed he still had it in 2016 by catching 69.3 percent of his targets and averaging 57.1 yards per game. Smith took more slot routes as his career wore on, and averaged a healthy 2.92 yards of separation on those targets. That was quite a bit better than his 2.41 yards of separation on his looks from the outside, a figure that certainly would have been higher back in his prime years. However, one trait that always made Smith special for his size was his ability to bully defensive backs and win at the catch point. That never left him. Smith registered a 47.6 percent catch rate on his targets with less than a yard of separation, above the NFL average of 40 percent. Steve Smith walked away on his own terms and with something left in the tank, just as he wanted.
9) T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts (2.60 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.43 (49.6 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.75 (49.7 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 12.8
Believe me, it feels like a bit of a crime to not have T.Y. Hilton on the list of Top 10 No. 1 receivers. He was dominant this year. Hilton led the NFL in receiving yards and owned a 38.7 percent share of Andrew Luck's air yards, which only trailed Mike Evans for second-highest for any receiver this year. However, the minimum threshold to make the No. 1 receivers list was 100 targets out wide. In a normal year Hilton likely hits that mark, but the Colts actually experimented with Hilton as a slot receiver on a regular basis this year with injuries hitting the pass-catching group. Hilton lined up in the slot on just 28 percent of his plays in 2015 but that jumped to 50 percent this year. He took 77 targets in the slot, 77 out wide and one tight to the line. Falling under 50 percent of his targets saw him just miss the qualification for the Top 10 slot receiver, as well. So while he's not a No. 2 receiver in ability, that's where he falls for these ranking qualifications. It's no slight on him.
Either way, Hilton was an excellent player this year. He averaged 2.6 yards of separation on his targets this year and it is worth noting that he was more effective at creating separation in the slot (2.75) than out wide (2.43). Despite his size, Hilton was more dominant at the catch point this year than any other in his career, winning 48.5 percent of his targets with less than a yard of separation.
10) Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars (2.56 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.48 (85.7 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.96 (12.4 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 12.0
Much like the receiver at No. 1 on this ranking, Marqise Lee experienced a serious rebound in 2016. The 2014 second-round pick, taken ahead of his more productive teammate Allen Robinson, registered 851 yards on 63 catches this season. He posted just 52 catches for 613 yards in his first two seasons combined. Health was a big difference, as this was the first time Lee played 16 games, but make no mistake, he took his game to an actual NFL-level this year. Lee averaged 2.56 yards of separation on his targets as the Jaguars' starting flanker. That mark was better than either of his teammates, Robinson and Allen Hurns. He also had the best catch rate (42.9 percent) on targets with less than a yard of separation. Of all the Jaguars receivers, Lee also runs by far the lowest degree of difficulty routes and the coaching staff was creative about getting him opportunities, something they weren't with Robinson. Not many units were as disappointing than Jacksonville's offense in 2016, but Lee's emergence into a contributor is something they can take solace in as a positive development.
Four bonus notes:
Tyrell Williams averaged 2.50 yards of separation at target, just missing the Top-10. Williams was also relatively strong at the catch point, winning 40.7 percent of his passes with less than a yard of separation. Coming off a legitimate breakout season, Williams will pair with a hopefully healthy Keenan Allen in 2017 to form a strong receiver corps that also features Dontrelle Inman and Travis Benjamin.
Kenny Britt averaged 2.35 yards of separation but was one of the 10 best receivers in tight coverage. Britt is a free agent this offseason and should command starter's money for an excellent 2016 season despite league-worst quarterback play.Rishard Matthews averaged just 2.17 yards of separation on his target but was still productive. He ended up as the Titans top receiver and nearly went over 1,000 yards while scoring nine touchdowns. Matthews won 42.3 percent of his passes with less than a yard of separation.
Kelvin Benjamin averaged 1.80 yards of separation on his targets, the lowest of all receivers with 40-plus targets. No full-season starter threw into tight windows more than Cam Newton this season. His receivers and the offense's uncreative routes are a big reason why. Benjamin was above average in contested catch conversion rate, the only player above 40 percent on the team, but the Panthers need to add a receiver who creates more separation this offseason.