Before roster building begins in earnest this offseason with free agency and the draft, Cynthia Frelund breaks down where every NFL team stands at wide receiver below. Note that wide receivers only -- NOT all pass-catchers -- were considered; each team's top three receiver (by reception) is listed, and players who are not under contracted for 2021 are denoted as unrestricted free agents (UFA), restricted free agents (RFA) or exclusive rights free agents (ERFA).
My math confirms what most of us suspected immediately after the Cardinals acquired Hopkins from Houston last offseason: the swap was extremely lopsided in favor of Arizona, based on what the field-stretching Hopkins meant to the offense in 2020. In 2019, the Cardinals recorded the lowest air-yards-per-target mark (8.9) in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats; last season, Hopkins averaged 9.0 air yards per target by himself. With him in the fold, the Cardinals also used 10 personnel at the highest rate in the league (20.3%) -- the Bills (14.4%) were the only other team to leverage four-receiver sets at a rate above 6 percent. Hopkins' off-ball metric (which measures his ability to draw elite defensive coverage, thus creating better opportunities for other pass-catchers) ranked as the second-best in the NFL. He also helped Arizona finish with the least drops in the league (seven), per Pro Football Focus.
Finally, the trade spared the Cardinals from having to locate a WR1 in a year with increased uncertainty and decreased cap space, meaning they can create a WR acquisition strategy that reflects their needs and offensive play-calling strategy, without having to overpay. The only question that outsiders like us may have is whether Fitzgerald, 37, will return, which will ultimately shape the strategy.
My computer vision functions kind of like how a telestrator does during a broadcast, mapping the paths receivers take during their routes -- and Ridley's route running could literally go in a wide receiver textbook. Meaning, it's precise; the timing and separation have been the most reliable and the most consistent in the NFL since 2018, when he entered the NFL as a first-round pick. Per NGS, Ridley paced the NFL in both receptions of 10-plus air yards (51) and receiving yards on such catches (1,027). For context, overall reception leader Stefon Diggs had 10 fewer receptions of 10-plus air yards (41).
One more somewhat surprising fact about the Falcons' receivers before we go: No other WR group saw more end-zone targets in 2020 (42), per NGS.
The Ravens' wideouts hauled in the fewest receptions (137) for the fewest receiving yards (1,729) as a position group last season. It follows that they also had the fewest receptions of 10-plus air yards (41) and the fewest such touchdowns (14), per NGS. However, they managed to have the most cushion (that is, space to work with) in the NFL, with 6.8 yards, per NGS. These results do reflect their strategy; the Ravens' pay-calling wasn't aimed at deep attempts as often as other clubs' play-calling was. Tight end Mark Andrews' mid-season stay on the reserve/COVID-19 list also impacted the overall passing game. That said, in order for the weapons on this offense to be maximized, ramping up the threat of the pass would go a long way. Part of the reason the receivers had so much cushion was that opposing defenses were more focused on attacking the higher-probability event of a run. Given what the roster projects to look like right now, adding to the receiving corps seems to be the highest-value return on investment for the Ravens, in terms of win-share increase.
A lot of people grade trades right when they happen. I do it, too -- but then I also look back to see both how the trade worked out and how my grade held up. As much as I liked the Bills' acquisition of Diggs at the time that it happened, my models actually underestimated how much of a return on investment Diggs would provide. Ahead of last season, it seemed like DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals would have a much bigger impact, but my math shows that Diggs finished 2020 with a slightly higher share of wins added (1.485) than Hopkins (1.482). This is even more impressive when you consider the Cardinals secured Hopkins from the Texans for dirt cheap; Diggs managed to overperform the high expectations set by the trade terms with the Vikings (four draft picks, including a first-rounder). Diggs led the NFL in receptions with 127 and receiving yards with 1,535. As a position group, Bills receivers recorded 28 deep receptions, the most in the NFL (NGS). They also had a reception percentage that was 7.7 percent above expectation (65.4 expected, 73.1 actual).
Carolina has been making some very interesting noise already this offseason, in terms of the QB carousel. Right now, the Panthers sit atop my list of boom-or-bust candidates -- and their fate in 2021 will likely hinge on what they do under center, as all signs seem to be pointing toward a change. This is already among the best situations a new signal-caller could ask for, and it could get even better, depending on how all the puzzle pieces end up coming together. When head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady took over in 2020, it seemed like we were going to see a faster-paced but shorter-target passing strategy, especially with Teddy Bridgewater at QB and running back Christian McCaffrey working his pass-catching dominance from the backfield. But McCaffrey was hurt, and the Panthers adjusted, netting 26 deep receptions, the second most in the NFL, while receivers aligned wide averaged 16.2 yards per reception, also second most in the NFL, per NGS. Oh, and is it too early to talk about Moore being a guy to target in your fantasy draft as someone your friends could be sleeping on?
Let's start with the good news: The Bears' receivers were tied for the fewest drops in the NFL last season, with seven, per PFF. How about some more good news? On first down, the Bears had not only the third-highest catch percentage (71.2%) but also the third-highest yards-per-target mark (9.1). One of the things this indicates is that the play-calling in the passing game at the beginning of drives was efficient; the Bears called a pass on 54.1 percent of first downs, ninth-most in the NFL. It also means the foundation could be set for a big uptick in efficiency, if personnel changes can help make the offense more successful on every down and throughout the whole drive. If they want to rely more on their passing game, they'll have to boost their reception percentage on third down, where they ranked 31st. Keeping Robinson in Chicago would go a very long way toward helping, as his 45 receptions on first down and 25 that netted a new set of downs both rank seventh-best in the NFL. Robinson could be even more impactful, depending on who is under center in 2021.
No team had a lower passer rating on first down in 2020 than the Bengals (75.1). But let me be a bit more specific about what this means. Cincinnati quarterbacks faced quite difficult passing situations, thanks to the subpar O-line. The receivers, meanwhile, managed to rank 20th in terms of separation earned on first down, despite dealing with a rash of injuries, which is fairly encouraging, given the circumstances. The emergence of Higgins, a second-round pick, had a lot to do with this. Presuming Joe Burrow returns to full health after losing much of 2020 to a torn ACL, and presuming the Bengals can improve the quality of their O-line, this offense should be in better shape, although the team must sort out Green's status and add a pass-catcher or two to truly maximize Burrow's potential and improve their downfield productivity. Last season, Cincinnati receivers only earned three touchdowns on targets of 10-plus air yards.
The Browns had the fifth-worst completion percentage on third down (54.7). The good news is they have all of the things that receivers need to be successful: a great O-line, the right QB, an excellent run game (especially this!) and the right system to succeed. PFF also shows that their receivers' nine drops ranked as the third-fewest in the NFL last season. Between OBJ 's return from injury and the depth they already have at the position, the Browns will have the flexibility to focus on other position groups -- or, should they find the right, correctly priced asset, they could add to this group.
NGS shows that the Cowboys led all receiver groups on passes of 10-plus air yards with 889 yards through Week 5 -- when quarterback Dak Prescott was lost for the season with an ankle injury. They also collected 39 such receptions (ranked third most) and five such touchdowns (tied for fifth most) during that span. The rookie Lamb's 784 receiving yards from the slot this season ranked second-most in the NFL, just behind Buffalo's Cole Beasley. This is an easy paragraph to write, because there's not a lot of strategy to discuss or problems to address at this position group. I just want to know if there will be any more "three 1,000-yard receiver" guarantees ahead of next season or not ...
No receiving corps had a lower reception percentage on third down last season than the Broncos (52.3%). Jeudy also will look to cut down on his drops after logging 12 as a rookie, which tied for the second-most in the NFL, per PFF. The Broncos' play-calling strategy showed a reliance on deeper passes, as they averaged 12.7 air yards per target, the most in the NFL, per NGS. With Courtland Sutton set to return from injury after missing most of 2020, this position group is in good shape to set their QB up for passing success -- whoever that ends up being.
With Matthew Stafford at quarterback, the Lions' receiving corps recorded 1,916 yards off targets of 20-plus air yards, the fifth-most in the NFL, per NGS. The Lions had five different receivers log at least 200 such yards -- Jones had 680 himself, which ranked 14th among wide receivers. Kenny Golladay only played in five games in 2020, and Detroit's offensive identity will likely be greatly changed, with Anthony Lynn as architect and Jared Goff under center, but keeping Golladay, who is headed for free agency, a Lion would go a long way toward stretching the field and creating space for Goff to have the best odds of operating efficiently.
This is an article about each team's position group, not just one player -- but I can't help but start with recognizing just how dominant Adams was in 2020. His win share of 1.511 edged out Stefon Diggs to pace the position. His 115 receptions broke down into the following alignments: 68 wide, 46 slot and just one tight (per NGS). No other Packer wide receiver had more than 19 receptions when aligned wide (Valdes-Scantling), and the next closest from the slot was 16 (Lazard). We have already established that Adams is a beast, and my model's best WR for 2020, right? So here's the recommendation to Green Bay brass: add to this position. Defense needs help (that's a different article), but this is truly one of those areas where my model's logic plants a big, red flag. Add here and make the best use of your MVP quarterback when he's at his finest.
It seems the Texans will be -- or maybe the better phrase is, should be -- focusing quite a bit of energy on developing their strategy and making the right acquisitions here, if they are to ease franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson's discontent. Last season, Watson and the receiving corps hooked up for 17 touchdowns on targets of 10-plus air yards, the third most for any team. Fuller, who is headed for free agency, had seven.
Other general managers beware; if the Colts keep making deals like the one they made for Carson Wentz (low-risk and high-reward, preserving the ability for the team to move on from the QB with minimal cap implications), this is going to be a really scary team for a long time. For another example of the front office's prowess, consider that Indianapolis receivers jumped from last in the NFL in deep receptions in 2019 (when they had six) to a tie for 18th place in 2020 (when they had 17). This may not seem like a jaw-dropping accomplishment, but it reflects the Colts' strategy of continuing to build a well-rounded team (which you can also see in their great defensive additions and the ways they addressed the run). In this instance, drafting Pittman, who logged just one catch of 20-plus air yards but drew seven targets, helped boost this area of the offense. While figuring out how to replace tackle retiring left tackle Anthony Castonzo, to preserve the integrity of the O-line, will likely be a main focus, deciding how to navigate the free agency of Hilton is also important.
With plenty of cap space, a new coaching regime and three picks in the top 33, the Jags have a ton of options at every position. It seems extremely probable that Urban Meyer will select quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick, so defining his passing game strategy could be a focus of one of the next two picks (Jacksonville also owns No. 25, from the Rams), should the team not find the right free agent(s) to execute the plan with its current corps. In 2020, Chark averaged 14.2 air yards per target, which ranked 10th among receivers. The rookie Shenault, meanwhile, averaged 6.4, which was fifth-lowest (per NGS). The point here is that the Jags have some diversity in use and type already, so they can further shape their receiving corps to best match their vision for success.
This is a team and position I am always keen to track. Andy Reid and GM Brett Veach have been in lockstep about their targets and strategy at wide receiver, and with Reid's ability to teach players and execute a plan, they usually successfully pull off an unexpected move or two. For example, I wasn't as high on Sammy Watkins when they acquired him in 2018, but he's filled their needs pretty much perfectly since. With Robinson set to join Watkins in free agency, the Chiefs will likely again show us something about how to add appropriate depth and variety at the position. Of course, this is an easier task for any team when Patrick Mahomes is the QB. Last season, Hill's eight deep touchdown receptions led the NFL, and between him and tight end Travis Kelce, the bulk of pass catching impact on passing downs is accounted for.
This is a young position group, especially with Agholor and Zay Jones slated to become free agents, and head coach Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock could be looking to really double down on their aggressively speed-reliant strategy. Last season, Vegas receivers averaged 16.4 yards per reception when aligned wide, which topped all receiving groups (per NGS). I may be most interested in what the Raiders will do this offseason -- they've seemed a little too quiet so far.
Good news for Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert: This corps is rock solid, with no one set to hit free agency. Last season, the group earned 17 touchdowns on targets of 10-plus air yards, which was tied for third most in the NFL, per NGS. For fun -- and not necessarily because this factors into strategy at all -- I'd like to point out that Allen is even better at catching passes from a QB who is off-platform (that is, when Herbert is not perfectly set, like, say, when he's on the run) than my model forecasted. Before we saw Herbert play, my model flagged this as a potential area that could require a bit of adjusting by Allen and the other Chargers receivers, given that they were used to playing with a less-mobile QB (Philip Rivers). However, Allen's learning curve appeared to be less steep than predicted for a receiver of his level of experience and skill (it also surely helped that Herbert throws off-platform daggers, as well).
Please read the Detroit section with respect to deep passes, then return ... it will make you excited for the Matthew Stafford era to begin in Los Angeles. Last season, the Rams' receivers averaged 8.0 air yards per target, the lowest number in the NFL, per NGS. Their seven receptions on 32 targets of 20-plus air yards were also the fewest, and their catch percentage on such passes (21.9%) was tied for the lowest, with the Bengals. Receivers aligned wide earned just 11 yards per reception, which was also the lowest in the NFL. Stafford has a resume that includes many high-caliber deep attempts and connections. Reynolds is set to be a free agent, but both Kupp and Woods should be pretty excited to see what kind of plays get added to the playbook, now that Sean McVay can take a different strategy.
Miami's receivers earned just three touchdowns on targets of 10-plus air yards and just 3.01 yards after the catch per reception last season, both of which were tied for second fewest among WR groups in the NFL (per NGS). New co-offensive coordinators Eric Studesville and George Godsey will be interesting to track and project. It seems that there is an emphasis on diversity of play-calling and game planning (likely meaning less usage of RPO), which would lead me to predict there could be some interesting changes in Miami's passing-game potential in the near future. I see my colleague Daniel Jeremiah has LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase paired with Miami in his latest mock draft, which my models see as an amazing fit. The Dolphins also have cap space and are slated to pick twice in the first round (third and 18th overall). Fun fact: Parker is the only player selected in the first round by the Dolphins between 2015 and 2018 who is still with the team.
Jefferson earned 40 receptions on 60 targets of 10-plus air yards for 957 yards and five touchdowns, per NGS. The rookie posted the highest reception percentage on passes of 10-plus air yards (66.7%) among 44 players with at least 40 such targets. Thielen's 13 red-zone touchdown receptions ranked second in the NFL (only behind Davante Adams' 14). Jefferson (entering Year 2 of his rookie contract) and Thielen (signed through 2024) have the WR1 and WR2 spots on lock, but adding depth here will create increased efficiency and help keep play-action efficient.
The Pats earned just three touchdowns on targets of 10-plus air yards (tied for second fewest) and just two TDs on receptions by wideouts aligned wide (the fewest, per NGS). From a strategy standpoint, New England will look to improve its ability to earn receiving touchdowns after tying for the fewest in the league last season (12). It surely didn't help that Julian Edelman was lost to a knee injury in October. It's also a little hard to write about the receivers and what to expect going forward when the quarterback position is so uncertain, but the situation any signal-caller would come into will likely be improved before the 2021 season kicks off.
Surprisingly, Saints receivers had a 66.7 percent reception rate on passes of 10-plus yards, the highest in the league, per NGS. I say surprisingly because Thomas, their most valuable pass-catching weapon, missed a significant portion of the season. Last offseason's acquisition of Sanders paid immediate dividends, and it set New Orleans up well for this offseason at the position.
No receiver position group generated fewer yards after the catch per reception than the Giants at 2.96, per NGS. The return of running back Saquon Barkley, who missed most of 2020 with a torn ACL, will make it easier for the pass-catchers to get open, because defenses have to respect Barkley on every down. This should help lift New York's earned first downs mark from 18.6 per game (second fewest). Increasing their perimeter threat would help quarterback Daniel Jones in Year 3 and raise the Giants' potential to earn passing touchdowns, as they tied for fewest in the NFL last season with 12.
The Jets earned the second-fewest first downs through the air (146) and tied with the Eagles for the lowest yards per passing attempt (6.2). This position group was quite banged-up all season, and first down was an area where things started to unravel; the Jets completed just 61.3 percent of passes on first down (fourth-lowest), and in many games, inefficiency on that down led to more difficult subsequent downs. New York receivers caught just 57.5 percent of all targets (third lowest).
As a team, the Eagles had the lowest completion percentage (55.9) and tied for the fewest yards per attempt (6.2) last season. Specifically, receivers only caught 56.7 percent of passes tossed their way, which was the second-lowest rate for any team. Philly will have to bring in the right mix of receivers to complement whoever takes over at QB1 (whether it's Jalen Hurts or someone else) after the trade of Carson Wentz, and to potentially make up for the loss of a really key pass-catcher (tight end Zach Ertz, who is a cut candidate). In so doing, the Eagles might have to shell out -- this is one team my model flags as in danger of potentially overpaying, because they have needs where the projected available free agents are expected to fetch a high price. They hold the sixth overall pick, meanwhile, but that's likely not quite high enough to leverage a strong return from quarterback-needy teams.
Pittsburgh will have some decisions to make, with Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner both set to become free agents (and that doesn't even start to factor in the defensive players headed for the market). If there's one thing that my models can prove, it's that Mike Tomlin has an eye for receivers he can develop. Last season, the Steelers paced the NFL with third-down receptions that resulted in first downs (64). However, they do need to increase the efficiency in the pass-catching game. The Steelers tied with Washington for the third lowest yards-per-passing-attempt mark (6.3). This is because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, in his age-38 season, changed his style to reflect quicker, shorter passes, with strategic deep passes peppered in. (The Steelers receivers hauled in 12 touchdowns on deep passes, which ranked first in the NFL.) This strategy worked for awhile, then defenses caught on. Being able to consistently stretch the field -- or at least convince opponents they can -- will be a big factor in the Steelers' offensive success. Improving their drop rate will also help. Johnson had 14, the most in the NFL, and the Steelers WRs had the most as a group, with 26, per PFF.
On passes of 10-plus air yards last season, the Niners' receivers only caught two touchdowns versus seven interceptions; that was the fewest such touchdowns among receiving groups in the NFL, per NGS. Wideouts aligned wide, meanwhile, only caught three touchdowns, which is tied for the second fewest. One area the Niners excelled at was yards after the catch per reception; their mark of 6.4 yards was the most in the NFL.
Last season, Seahawks wideouts earned 17 touchdowns on targets of 10-plus air yards, which tied for third most, per NGS. Wide alignment was also a source of success in terms of generating touchdowns, as they led the NFL with 21. Moore is set to become a free agent, but with both Lockett and Metcalf secured, the Seahawks have strategic flexibility at the position.
I feel like Godwin's return will be secured in the near future, either via the franchise tag or -- as soon as the Bucs' front office and Godwin's camp can make good on one -- an extension. Regardless, deep passes and the combination of Godwin and Evans specifically (with Brown and Scott Miller adding on a less-consistent basis) created the space for Tom Brady to crush opponents with deep passes. The Bucs' WRs tied for the third-biggest cushion on attempts of 20-plus air yards (6.3 yards) and the second-most total air yards amassed on such attempts (2,071). Their 17 touchdowns on targets of 10-plus air yards was tied for third (with the Seahawks, Chargers and Texans).
Arthur Smith's offensive game-plan as the coordinator in Tennessee helped land him the head coaching job in Atlanta this offseason, and part of his success had to do with how he used his wideouts. No team had a higher yards-per-target average for receivers aligned wide (10.7) or receiving yards run per route (2.1, per NGS). It does not seem like Davis will still be a Titan come mid-March, so it will be interesting to see how Tennessee adds to the good thing it has going with Brown and Humphries as new offensive coordinator Todd Downing begins his tenure. Selecting at 22nd overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, it's unlikely a depth-building receiver will be the pick (I have edge rusher as the Titans' highest-probability choice here), so look for this team to be a player in free agency.
(UPDATE: NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported Thursday that the Titans are releasing Humphries.)
Washington has its WR1 set: McLaurin's 49 targets and 22 receptions on passes of 10-plus air yards led the team. The rest of the group combined only saw 58 such targets and hauled in 23 (per NGS). The good part about having a guy with McLaurin's skill set -- and a potential trajectory that puts him near the top of the league in the things that matter for his position -- on a rookie contract is that you don't have to worry about overpaying to acquire a player with those qualities. You know how math people like to talk about solving for X? Well, Washington has done that with McLaurin. The hard part now is figuring out Y and Z. As an outsider, the apparent uncertainty at QB makes it trickier to determine which specific receivers might add the most to Washington's bottom line. WFT's 7.1 receiving yards per target and four touchdowns from receivers aligned wide was the fourth lowest rate per target in 2020.