Before NFL teams begin reshaping their rosters via free agency and the draft, Cynthia Frelund uses analytics to break down the wide receiver situations of all 32 squads, presented in alphabetical order below.
Last season, Cardinals receivers averaged just 8.9 air yards per target, the lowest rate in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. This was due in part to scheme and in part to poor offensive line play, but it's fair to assume that in his second NFL season, quarterback Kyler Murray would benefit from an additional big target with high yards-after-the-catch aptitude, especially with last year's leading receiver, Fitzgerald, turning 37 in August ... and it wouldn't hurt to have scheme familiarity (for my thoughts on what my models project Arizona should do with the eighth overall pick, check out my analytics-based mock draft.
Atlanta's receivers were targeted 421 times in 2019, the most in the NFL. Only the Chiefs called more passing plays on first down in the first half of games (64.2%) than the Falcons (55.3%) which gives us some clues about how their playbook works. This offseason is likely to be centered on defense, which will help increase the impact of this passing game's efficiency. With Jones -- whose 77 receiving first downs ranked second in the NFL in 2019 -- signed through 2023 and Ridley under team control through 2022, improving the Falcons' passing game is less of a priority than other positions with respect to projecting wins.
Don't let the fact that Ravens receivers were targeted only 182 times, the fewest in the NFL, fool you -- the value of the space they created on the field far exceeded what can be captured by traditional stat-sheet metrics. In terms of measuring the impact of a WR when they aren't the intended target, I factor in down, distance, score, defensive alignment and personnel to create an off-ball "score" that helps quantify the likelihood that a team will earn a first down or touchdown. Brown's off-ball score increased over the course of his rookie year to the point that his score over the last seven games of the season would have ranked in the top seven if extended over a full season. It's also worth noting that Baltimore leaned extensively on its tight ends; Mark Andrews led the team with 64 catches, 852 receiving yards and 10 touchdown receptions, while Ravens tight ends collected 42.5 percent of the team's targets (180 of 424) and 43.3 percent of its receptions (125 of 289).
One of the lesser-hyped but very efficient 2019 acquisitions was the Bills' signing last offseason of Brown, who had a career-high 72 receptions and 1,060 receiving yards in 2019. Overall, Buffalo averaged 4.9 attempts of 20-plus air yards per game last season (tied for seventh-most) and 9.3 air yards per attempt (tied for fourth-most) -- while also posting the second-lowest completion percentage (58.4). This suggests there's an opportunity for the team's decision-makers to layer in more high-probability passing plays (shorter plays, or on downs where the defense has to account for the pass and the run) and either add a free agent or draft a wide receiver to help convert them.
The Panthers posted 1.2 yards per route run on plays where the wide receiver was targeted, second to last in the NFL in 2019, per NGS. With new head coach Matt Rhule, who has a history of using a pass-heavy offensive strategy, at the helm, it's unlikely that Carolina will repeat as the owner of the NFL's lowest passer rating (74.7 in 2019). It remains to be seen if running back Christian McCaffrey once again tops the team in catches (116 for 1,005 yards and four TDs).
Bears wideouts averaged only 3.3 yards after the catch per reception in 2019 (second to last), per NGS. Part of the reason for this was that their hips were facing toward the line of scrimmage on down-field passes at the third-highest rate; another factor was the fact that 23.6 percent of the Bears' passes were thrown behind the line of scrimmage (eighth most in the NFL). Both stats suggest that the level of pass-catching talent in Chicago is of less concern than the quality of quarterback play.
With injuries hampering the starters -- including A.J. Green, who did not play a snap -- throughout the season, it's not overly surprising that the Bengals' wide receivers managed only a 47.2 reception percentage on third down (31st in the NFL). Presuming Green returns, the talent potential for having the seven-time Pro Bowler share the field with John Ross and Boyd is very high. But other pieces of the offensive puzzle, including the offensive line and as-yet-unfilled quarterback position, must come together for the receiving corps to really shine.
If I would have told you ahead of the 2019 season that the combination of Beckham and Landry would be part of a receiving corps that had the NFL's lowest reception percentage on third down (43.6%), would you have believed me? I know I wouldn't. I spent a lot of time tracking Cleveland's play-calling last season, and it didn't seem to strategically maximize the potential of the offensive personnel. We'll see what new head coach Kevin Stefanski has in mind in terms of fully unleashing Beckham and Co.
Cowboys wideouts dropped 29 passes in 2019, the most in NFL, per Pro Football Focus. With Cooper, Cobb and Tavon Austin all headed for free agency, and given the likelihood that quarterback Dak Prescott's contract will be a priority, this receiver corps is likely to see an infusion of new talent, probably via the draft. Thus, the franchise is positioned as a Jenga piece for the league-wide offseason receiver picture.
The trade of Emmanuel Sanders to the 49ers ahead of Week 8 seemed like a signal that the Broncos were looking ahead to rebuilding their receiving corps. And then Courtland Sutton proceeded to rack up 1,112 yards (17th among receivers), creating WR1 cachet. Furthermore, Broncos WRs dropped just eight passes in 2019, tied for the fewest, per PFF. In other words, Denver now has options and leverage, having landed a third-round pick in exchange for Sanders without necessarily entering the offseason in obvious need of receiver talent.
Despite ranking last in the NFL in terms of average yards of separation (2.3) in 2019, the Lions' wideouts did manage to earn the second-most receiving touchdowns (22). The lack of immediate need at the position -- buttressed by last month's re-signing of Amendola -- means they will likely focus elsewhere in free agency and the draft. This also could bolster Detroit's ability to extract the maximum value of the third overall pick via potential trade.
Green Bay Packers
Last season, the Packers' offense threw passes behind the line of scrimmage at the third-highest rate in the NFL (26.2%), which is why their second- and third-ranked pass-catchers in terms of total catches were both running backs (Aaron Jones caught 49 passes for 474 yards and three scores; Jamaal Williams had 39 catches for 253 yards and five scores). Adams led the team with 83 receptions in just 12 games, but no other Green Bay receiver had more than 35 receptions in 2019. Since last year's offseason was heavily focused on defense, it's probable that this offseason will be spent reinforcing the offense, especially with regard to finding a complement for Adams.
Last season, on third down, Texans wide receivers -- thanks most notably to the connection between QB Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins -- earned a 65.5 percent catch rate, the highest in the NFL. The oft-injured Fuller is headed into the final year of his rookie deal. When healthy, he unlocks Houston's deep passing game, but the combination of Fuller's availability questions and an especially strong receiver market will come into play as the team decides what to do with him going forward.
Colts wide receivers caught just six deep passes in 2019, the fewest in the NFL by four. It follows that they also had the lowest catch percentage on deep passes (17.6). Given how strong the offensive line and run game already are heading into 2020, optimizing the passing game is likely a main priority. Yes, this will involve deciding whether Jacoby Brissett or someone else is the best fit at quarterback -- but it should also include complementing Hilton with reliable positional depth.
Kansas City Chiefs
No team called passing plays more on first down in the first half of games than Andy Reid's Chiefs (64.2 percent). Usually, this drives a lower yards-per-play mark. However, the Chiefs averaged 8.05 yards per passing play on first down in the first half of games. Further, Chiefs receivers led the NFL with 5.8 yards after the catch per reception in 2019, per NGS.
Las Vegas Raiders
It's extremely likely that the Raiders will either use free agency or one of their two first-round picks to improve their receiving corps. This shouldn't be a surprise, though, especially considering Raiders wideouts were only targeted 13 times in the end zone last season, tied for the fewest in the NFL, per NGS.
Los Angeles Chargers
Despite Allen ranking in my top 10 in terms of wide receiver win share, the Chargers' receiver corps combined for only eight touchdown receptions in 2019, the fewest in the NFL. (Running backs Austin Ekeler, Melvin Gordon and Troymaine Pope and tight ends Hunter Henry and Virgil Green accounted for the other 16 TD catches.) In the wake of longtime QB Philip Rivers' departure, the Bolts could significantly improve the receivers' scoring mark by creating the right fit and scheme strategy between the new starting QB and the receivers, and by adding depth in the form of wideouts who can execute this strategy with Allen.
Los Angeles Rams
Receiver is a strong position group for the Rams, in part because of how well they execute their route-running. Last season, they led the NFL with an average of 3.3 yards of separation, per NGS. Between scheme, execution and the fact that their key receivers are all under contract, the Rams can focus elsewhere this offseason.
One of the positive surprises of last season for Dolphins fans was Parker's breakout season, which saw him set new career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns and earn a new contract. No other wideout on the team had more than Williams' 428 yards (Williams only played in eight games before going down with a torn ACL). The team will likely want to bolster this position group to further the ability to create and execute the offensive scheme envisioned by coach Brian Flores and his regime.
In 2019, the Vikings' receivers averaged 15.6 yards per reception, second only to the Bucs (16.0). They are in good shape at the position group -- unless rumors of a potential Diggs trade come to fruition, severely limiting their deep passing ability and throwing this WR balance (and value) off significantly.
New England Patriots
Predictability in the Pats' passing game was a limiting factor in terms of their ability to earn first downs and touchdowns. New England receivers had 116 receptions when lined up in the slot (second most), compared to 96 when lined up out wide (24th), per NGS.
New Orleans Saints
Quick, short passes were a huge foundation of the Saints' offense -- because they worked. The wide receivers caught 83.3 percent of targets of fewer than 10 air yards (highest in the NFL, per NGS). Thomas' 91 receiving first downs led the NFL (by 14). Adding another sure-handed option in the passing game might bring Thomas' individual numbers down, but it would increase the team's ability to extend drives.
New York Giants
Improving the opportunities on the offensive perimeter is one area where new head coach Joe Judge and his staff will look to help quarterback Daniel Jones as he enters his second NFL season. In 2019, Giants wideouts had a passer rating of 76.4 when aligned wide and 97.5 when aligned in the slot, per NGS.
New York Jets
Playing with my projection models, I learned that no team forecasts to benefit more from upgrading its receivers than the Jets (note that the O-line matters here, too). Last season, the Jets' receiving corps only had four touchdown receptions when aligned wide (tied for the second-fewest in the NFL). Anderson, who is a free agent, had three, while Crowder had the other, per NGS.
Eagles receivers ranked last the NFL in yards after the catch last season -- at 2.8 yards per reception, they were 0.5 yards less than any other team. Of course, the injuries that limited Jeffery, Agholor and DeSean Jackson do factor into that stat. The good news is, with so many potential additions available in both free agency and the draft, and with the Eagles on hand (Agholor is headed for the market) presumably returning to health, Philly isn't that far from making this position a source of strength.
With the return of veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed most of 2019, this young group has the potential to get very efficient very quickly. I am not ready to talk fantasy football yet, but I can almost assure you that Johnson will be one of my favorite targets/sleepers. One note on last season: Steelers receivers caught 44 passes when lined up in the slot (31st in the NFL, ahead of only the Vikings at 36, per NGS).
San Francisco 49ers
Last season, Niners receivers caught 55 percent of their deep targets (highest in the NFL by 6.1 percent, ahead of the Vikings' mark of 48.9 percent). It follows that their 3.1 yards of separation on deep passes was also the best in the league. Apart from deciding whether to re-sign Sanders, who was a trade acquisition last season, the Niners have a surplus of receiving talent under team control for 2020 and beyond, and they could leverage that surplus via trade to address other needs.
With Lockett and Metcalf both under team control through at least 2021, and with Moore being a restricted free agent, the Hawks will likely not need to focus too much energy on this position. As far as complementing what Russell Wilson does well, consider that Seahawks wideouts caught 32 deep passes in 2019, the most in the NFL, per NGS.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No wide receiver duo created a higher win share in my model than Evans and Godwin last season. The Bucs are another team that doesn't need to devote huge resources to changing the receiving corps, especially considering the Tampa receivers' air yards-per-target mark of 13.9 ranked best in the NFL, per NGS. And also, there's Bruce Arians.
Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith's architecture, the resurgence of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Brown's rookie breakout created a more efficient passing game than we all expected ahead of last season. (And, yes, the team got a big assist in that area from Derrick Henry's impact on the ground.) Titans receivers dropped just eight passes all year, the least in the NFL, per PFF. Adding scheme fits to the receiving corps is likely a second-tier priority after figuring out who the pass-thrower will be (and also settling Henry's contract status).
Washington is not likely to use the second overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on a wide receiver, but the team could employ a trade strategy to acquire more picks and improve a group that averaged just 11.6 yards per reception in 2019 (30th in the NFL). While McLaurin was a productive rookie last season and forecasts to improve in 2020, new head coach Ron Rivera will likely want to increase the potential at this position.