Stefon Diggs, Marvin Jones among top 10 tight-window receivers

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The receiver position might well be at its all-time peak right now, with a mix of some still-functioning veterans and emerging young players providing highlight-reel plays on a weekly basis in 2017. A receiver can instantly endear himself to the national audience by making a spectacular catch with a defensive back in his hip pocket.

With the help of the Next Gen Stats data collected via the chips in every player's shoulder pads, we can now identify the receivers who are best at winning the ball in tight windows. Using a composite score of several receiver stats accumulated when thrown to in tight windows, we'll examine the top 10 tight-window receivers for the 2017 season.

Here are the qualifiers for the rankings:

» Next Gen Stats defines a "tight window" as a throw where the intended receiver had less than a yard of separation from the defender.

» Only wide receivers with 17 or more tight-window targets qualified for the list (49 total players).

» The overall ranking was established by identifying how the 49 receivers in that pool ranked in the following three categories:

-- Catch rate on tight-window targets.
-- Their quarterback's passer rating when they were targeted in tight windows.
-- Yards per catch on tight-window receptions.

» The rankings were added together to create the composite score -- for example, a player who ranked first in catch rate, second in passer rating and third in yards per catch would have a composite score of 6 -- with a lower score indicating better performance. This was done in an attempt to keep the list from skewing positively or negatively toward receivers used in only the short area of the field or those who benefited from superior quarterback play. It's impossible to completely negate the influence of usage and quarterbacks to measure pure ability, but this method helped alleviate those issues to a manageable degree.

Note: Tie scores were broken by passer rating on tight-window throws.

1
Stefon Diggs
WR
Vikings

Catch rate: 61.9 percent (first). Passer rating: 139.7 (first). Yards per catch: 18 (ninth).

Score: 11.

Diggs failed to play 16 games for the second straight season, but he displayed the talent to rival the established top wide receivers in the game, scoring eight touchdowns in the regular season and delivering a walk-off for the ages in the Divisional Round. The Vikings list Diggs at just 6-foot-0 and 191 pounds, making his prowess in tight coverage all the more impressive. Diggs was the only qualifying wide receiver to haul in more than 60 percent of his tight-window passes. Diggs is a stunning route-runner with the ability to separate in a flash -- his ability to win catches even when he doesn't separate makes him an absolute chore for opposing defensive backs to cover.

2
Marvin Jones
WR
Lions

Catch rate: 46.5 percent (seventh). Passer rating: 121.2 (second). Yards per catch: 26.5 (third).

Score: 12.

While Jones is not an ideal separator, few wide receivers are as good as him at winning the ball at the catch point. Jones saw 40.2 percent of his targets this past season come in tight windows, more than any other qualifying wideout, and he routinely made big plays with those chances. He averaged a whopping 26.5 yards per reception in tight windows this season; only Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham (seven) scored more tight-window touchdowns than Jones (five) across the entire stable of NFL pass-catchers. Combining vertical ability and strong hands in traffic make the Lions top outside receiver a dangerous threat, even when he's well-covered.

3
Dez Bryant
WR
Cowboys

Catch rate: 33.3 percent (23rd). Passer rating: 88.2 (fifth). Yards per catch: 17.4 (10th).

Score: 38.

Much was made about the lack of separation earned by the Cowboys wide receivers this year. While the 29-year-old is no longer the physical specimen he once was, Bryant is still one of the better 50-50 ball receivers in the game. He's still especially effective in scoring position: Four of Bryant's six touchdowns this season came on tight-window throws. The Cowboys are looking for improved play from their wide receiver position next year, as the unit created too many high-degree-of-difficulty throws for QB Dak Prescott. Part of that should include a role change for Bryant, who struggled to get on the same page with Prescott at times and hauled in just a third of his tight-window targets. Yet, expect Dallas to continue looking his direction on contested throws in the end zone.

4
Mike Evans
WR
Buccaneers

Catch rate: 39 percent (18th). Passer rating: 74.7 (ninth). Yards per catch: 17.2 (11th).

Score: 38.

Evans sputtered to a career-low 1,001 yards on an offense that came in way south of the lofty expectations set for the Buccaneers this offseason. The production may not have been there in full for Evans, but he was still as reliable in tight coverage as his hulking frame (6-5, 231 pounds) would suggest. Since his time at Texas A&M, Evans has been comfortable both dealing with cornerbacks locked into his hip pocket and winning the ball in tight quarters. The Bucs' top wideout only scored five times this year -- but four of his touchdowns came on tight-window targets. Evans and the entire Tampa Bay offense will look to rebound in 2018, and we should expect his contested-catch prowess to remain the centerpiece of his game.

5
Demaryius Thomas
WR
Broncos

Catch rate: 51.4 percent (fourth). Passer rating: 86.7 (sixth). Yards per catch: 12.8 (29th).

Score: 39.

Some of the flash and flair of his early-career work has left Thomas' game as he strolls into his 30s. Yet, he's still one of the top receivers at boxing out defensive backs and earning position to win passes in tight spaces. It's a credit to Thomas that he's actually developed in this particular area of the game, even while his quarterback play has declined following the peak years of Peyton Manning in Denver. It's helped buoy his production floor. Thomas hauled in 51.4 percent of his targets in tight windows, the fourth-highest rate among qualifying receivers. The Broncos will likely take yet another stab at the quarterback position in the NFL draft this spring, and that new passer will soon come to learn he can trust Thomas in big moments, just as others have before him.

6
Antonio Brown
WR
Steelers

Catch rate: 40.9 percent (12th). Passer rating: 65.8 (15th). Yards per catch: 16.3 (15th).

Score: 42.

The Steelers' All-Pro wideout continues to set the standard for wide-receiver play in the league today. While he's well-known for making big plays and being a premier route-runner, Brown is one of the best contested-catch receivers despite checking in at just 5-10. Size doesn't matter when you're one of the most detailed in your timing and technique at the catch point. Brown finished inside the top 15 among qualifying receivers in all three of the tight-window statistics tested. His passer rating in tight windows would have been even better had Ben Roethlisberger not tossed three early-season picks on tight-window throws when targeting Brown in a loss to Jacksonville. The NFL audience is witnessing the apex of a truly special career from Brown in his current form.

7
Sammy Watkins
WR
Rams

Catch rate: 35 percent (22nd). Passer rating: 93.1 (fourth). Yards per catch: 15.3 (17th).

Score: 43.

Perhaps the first true surprise of the list, Watkins had a first season with the Los Angeles Rams that was largely viewed as a disappointment. Despite staying healthy for the first time in years, Watkins averaged a career-low 39.5 yards per game. However, his placement on this list, especially his wildly impressive 93.1 passer rating when targeted in tight windows, shows that he was quite valuable as a big-play threat in the Rams' high-scoring offense. While it's tempting to imagine the free-agent-to-be in a setting where he'd be a more featured piece of a passing game, the grass isn't always greener on the other side. Despite losing some production to possession receivers like Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, Watkins would best be served by continuing to operate as Jared Goff's hyper-efficient vertical threat in Los Angeles.

8
Adam Thielen
WR
Vikings

Catch rate: 50 percent (fifth). Passer rating: 81.3 (seventh). Yards per catch: 12.7 (31st).

Score: 43.

Thielen was the breakout receiver star of the season, and not many wide receivers displayed his well-rounded ability in 2017. While a great technical route-runner from the slot, his size and physicality affords him the ability to box out defenders and win the ball in tight quarters. Thielen hauled in 50 percent of his targets when a defender was within 1 yard of him, fifth-most among qualifying receivers. Having such a reliable target in tight windows helped gunslinging QB Case Keenum enjoy the best season of his career. Thielen quickly established himself as one of the best receivers in the game in 2017, teaming with the top receiver on this list to form arguably the most dangerous receiver tandem.

9
Keelan Cole
WR
Jaguars

Catch rate: 32 percent (28th). Passer rating: 73.4 (10th). Yards per catch: 23.5 (fifth).

Score: 43.


Entering the 2017 season, it appeared the Jaguars had a strong top trio of receivers in Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee, with a sleeper from the 2017 NFL Draft's third day in Dede Westbrook. Yet, when the dust cleared, it was Cole, a 194-pound undrafted rookie out of Kentucky Wesleyan, who led the team in receiving. Cole flashed massive big-play ability late in the final months of the season and in the Jaguars' playoff games. This extended to his work in tight windows, averaging 23.5 yards per reception, fifth-highest among qualifying receivers. Cole showed more than just vertical ability, as his lone tight-window touchdown came against the Colts, with Cole high-pointing the ball inside the red zone. The Jaguars' receiver corps will undergo some transition this offseason, so don't rule out Cole taking another step forward.

10
A.J. Green
WR
Bengals

Catch rate: 33.3 percent (24th). Passer rating: 66.6 (14th). Yards per catch: 21.4 (sixth).

Score: 44.

Familiarity breeds trust. Andy Dalton has thrown to Green since the duo came into the league together seven years ago, and therefore, Dalton knows he can count on his top wideout on difficult throws. Of course, with the state of the Bengals' offense and quarterback play being what it was in 2017, those passes weren't always efficient. Green's 33.3 percent catch rate was the second-lowest among the players on this top-10 ranking. However, Green showed his special talent by turning in individual big plays on those chances. The Bengals wideout led all wide receivers this season with 79 yards after the catch earned following a tight-window reception. Transitioning from making a contested catch into a runner is an arduous task, but it's one Green excels in.

BONUS NOTES:

» All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins is a master of the circus catch. His absence from the list will certainly confuse some, but he ranked 14th among qualifying receivers. Of course, the Texans receiver suffers in catch rate (27th) and passer rating (17th) due to insufficient quarterback play. We should also note that Hopkins is one of the best receivers at working to earn last-second separation at the catch point to create a wider window for his quarterbacks. Just 26.4 percent of Hopkins' targets overall came when he had less than a yard of separation, which put him just slightly over the league average (23.8 percent).

» Several young receivers who could be on the verge of breakout seasons showed out on tight-window throws this past year. Sterling Shepard (Giants) and Josh Doctson (Redskins) both finished inside the top 15 receivers. Shepard owned the second-best catch rate (57.1 percent) among qualifying receivers. Doctson had the 12th-best passer rating (69.3), despite seeing 35.9 percent of his overall targets on tight-window throws. Seahawks wideout Paul Richardson averaged a whopping 27.2 yards per reception on his tight-window catches this year, making difficult vertical plays look routine.

» A pair of wideouts coming off disappointing seasons struggled to win at the catch point in 2017. Quarterbacks posted a 0.0 passer rating when throwing to Amari Cooper (Raiders) and Jordy Nelson (Packers) in tight windows. Nelson's tight-window stats were not any better in the games Aaron Rodgers played, if you're wondering. He could be in for a salary slash and/or role change. Cooper ranked 49th among 49 qualifying receivers in tight-window catch rate, passer rating and yards per catch. Derek Carr also led all quarterbacks with seven tight-window interceptions.

» Golden Tate (Lions), Jarvis Landry (Dolphins), Doug Baldwin (Seahawks) and Keenan Allen (Chargers) saw the lowest percentage of their overall targets come in tight windows among the 49 qualifying receivers. As primarily short-area and slot receivers, they don't operate in contested space at nearly the same rate as their peers. Of the foursome, Tate posted the best catch rate (47.1 percent) and Baldwin the best passer rating (56.3).

» We missed Odell Beckham Jr. this year. While he didn't qualify for the rankings with just 14 tight-window targets on the season (34.1 percent of his total), he was dazzling in the brief moments we did have him in 2017. Beckham caught 57.1 percent of his tight-window targets with a passer rating of 105.4.

Follow Matt Harmon on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB.

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