The easiest way for a receiver to end up on the highlight reel is by winning a difficult pass in tight coverage and contested situations. While the catch is the part that garners our wonder, there are layers of skills that go into being in position, dealing the physicality from the cornerback and timing to win passes in tight coverage. It also takes the help of a quarterback able to put the ball in the area code of the targeted receiver.
Here we will use the NFL's Next Gen Stats tracking data to see which receivers caught the highest percentage of their targets when they had less than a yard of separation from the defender covering them. The 10 receivers on this list all showed an ability to work through tight coverage to win 50/50 balls and make the tough catches.
Notes: The minimum threshold for the Top-10 was 15 total targets with less than a yard of separation. The NFL average for catch rate on targets with less than a yard of separation is 40.5 percent.
1) Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers (69.6 percent catch rate)
It was a bounce-back season for Davante Adams, who struggled in his second season but nearly broke 1,000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns this year. Back in 2015, Adams was a player who struggled to get open and routinely whiffed at the catch point. This year he appeared more confident and healthy a year removed from an ankle injury that slowed him down in his sophomore campaign. Adams also benefitted from Jordy Nelson's return and no longer being asked to deal with top outside coverage.
One of the clearest notes of improvement in Adams' game from 2015 to 2016 was his ability to win the ball in tight coverage. Adams led all receivers this year with a 69.6 percent catch rate on targets (23) where he had less than a yard of separation. He and Aaron Rodgers' pristine chemistry on tight windows was on perfect display in a Monday night win over the Eagles where Adams posted 113 yards and two touchdowns on five catches. According to Pro Football Focus, the third-year wideout still dropped nine passes this season, but unlike in 2015, Adams has made the spectacular plays to counteract any negative ones. Rodgers begged the football media world this offseason not to give up on Adams, and the young receiver showed us why this year, making a number of highlight real contested catches, particularly in scoring position. Adams tied for third in the NFL in targets inside the 10-yard line.
2) Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears (60.9 percent catch rate)
It was a strange year for Alshon Jeffery. Yes, he had to catch passes from three different quarterbacks, but even at the beginning of the year with Jay Cutler on the field, he took a back seat in target distribution to an inexperienced Kevin White. And this was after Alshon Jeffery led the NFL in targets per route run in 2015. He ended up being suspended for four games toward the twilight portion of the season and finished with just two touchdowns on the year.
While he did not have the contract year he wanted playing under the franchise tag for the Bears this year, he will nevertheless command a ton of attention on the free agent market as a highly talented receiver. One of Jeffery's best assets, of course, is his ability to play the ball in the air in contested situations. Jeffery posted 60.9 percent catch rate on targets (23) where he had less than a yard of separation. He averaged 21.1 yards per reception on those targets, and 14.9 air yards per target on the season. He'll bring a dynamic downfield threat who can win contested catches to a new team should he leave Chicago.
3) Marvin Jones, Detroit Lions (59.3 percent catch rate)
After a hot start to the season where he totaled 480 yards in the first four games, Marvin Jones crawled at a snail's pace to end the season with 930 yards. One of the reasons Jones slowed down late in the year was the due to the Lions consistently asking him to win on low-percentage routes down the field and near the sideline. Jones averaged 14.6 air yards per target, compared to 8.9 for Golden Tate and 8.5 for Anquan Boldin. Those plays swung his way in the early part of the season, but as defenses adjusted he failed to provide a counterpunch. Nevertheless, Jones did show an ability to win the ball in tight coverage, hauling in 59.3 percent of his targets (27) where he had less than a yard of separation. Winning contested catches has always been his best trait.
4) Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons (58.8 percent catch rate)
A superstar by all measure, it is no surprise to see the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Julio Jones show up as one of the best receivers at winning the ball in tight coverage. Jones converted on 58.8 percent of his targets (34) where he had less than a yard of separation. The Falcons offense didn't need to feature Jones to quite the degree they did last season, where he averaged 12.7 targets per game to 9.2 this year. However, that doesn't speak any ill of his individual performance, as he still made these sort of tough contested catches all year.
5) Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings (58.3 percent catch rate)
Nagging injuries were the only roadblock that slowed down Stefon Diggs during a breakout campaign that saw him finish with 84 catches for 903 yards and three scores in 13 games. While Diggs isn't the biggest receiver, standing at six feet tall and 195 pounds, he's a tough player who can win the ball in contested situations. Diggs maintained a 58.3 percent catch rate on targets (24) where he had less than a yard of separation from the nearest defender. While injuries also cost him, Diggs also had to change his role midseason to become a short-area slot receiver to get the ball out of Sam Bradford's hands when the Vikings offensive line fell apart. He ended up averaging just 8.8 air yards per target on the year. Hopefully, Minnesota can fix their pass protection woes and get Diggs working downfield once again, because make no mistake, the team has a star on its hands in this receiver.
6) Anquan Boldin, Detroit Lions (56.7 percent catch rate)
Anyone who has watched football for the last seven years is not surprised to see Anquan Boldin pop up on this list. In fact, there's some utility to considering naming this metric "The Boldin Score" going forward. Boldin has long been known for winning contested catches despite rarely creating requisite separation. Boldin created an average of just 0.61 yards of separation on the 30 targets he saw this year where he had less than a yard of separation, the 15th-lowest this year. Yet, he still hauled in 56.7 percent of those targets, which has been the story of his career. The veteran receiver came over as a late free agent addition to the Lions and ended up filling in a valuable role for a team that ultimately made the playoffs, finishing fourth in the NFL in red zone targets.
7) Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints (56 percent catch rate)
At one point the Saints were rumored to be interested in signing the aforementioned Anquan Boldin to help offset the burn from the end of the Marques Colston era. The fact that it never happened ended up being a non-issue as they found a player who can do everything Boldin can and more. New Orleans' second-round pick Michael Thomas led all rookies this year with 92 catches in 15 games. Thomas was a dynamic threat in all phases of the game, but particularly at winning the ball in tight quarters. The rookie handled 25 targets where he had less than a yard of separation and maintained a 56 percent catch rate. His biggest impact to the Saints may have been as a red zone threat, and he turned six of his seven catches inside the 10-yard line into touchdowns. It appears all but certain Thomas is on the path to NFL stardom and is a perfect fit with Drew Brees.
8) Kenny Britt, Los Angeles Rams (54.8 percent catch rate)
The Rams' first season in Los Angeles was a lost one, especially on offense. Yet, there was a lone bright spot in the resurgence of veteran wide receiver Kenny Britt. In his eighth NFL season, Britt registered the first 100-target and 1,000-yard season of his career. He did all this despite playing with two subpar quarterbacks who, at least in Case Keenum's case, he actually helped post a strong completion percentage into tight windows. Britt saw 31 targets where he had less than a yard of separation with a catch rate of 54.8 percent. The Rams will need to make an effort to keep Britt this offseason, as his contract runs out in March. He was easily their best player on offense this season.
9) Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals (52.5 percent catch rate)
The future Hall of Famer just keeps on chugging. Larry Fitzgerald posted a 52.5 percent catch rate on his targets (40) where he had less than a yard of separation. Fitzgerald still operates mostly in the short areas of the field as the Cardinals possession receiver and he averaged just 9.6 yards per reception on those 40 targets. With John Brown struggling through injuries and illness all year and Michael Floyd underperforming before a late-season DUI saw him hit waivers, Fitzgerald continued to shoulder the bulk of the load in the passing game. Yet, this was the third straight year he closed the regular season on a low note, recording more than 70 yards just once after Week 10. The Cardinals can still count on him as a contested catch threat next season, should he decide to return, but they'll need better play from their younger receivers next year.
10) A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals (52 percent catch rate)
A.J. Green was having a marvelous season before a hamstring injury forced him out after two snaps in Week 11. The Pro Bowl receiver was on a 105-catch, 1,542-yard, six-touchdown pace before his injury, which would have been a career year in the reception and yardage departments. Instead, it was the first year he did not record 1,000 yards. Yet, don't allow his absence to make you misremember what a dynamic year it was, filled with a litany of spectacular catches. Green posted a 52 percent catch rate on targets (25) where he had less than a yard of separation.
To accentuate just how incredible his year was, we should note that not only was his 0.52 average yards of separation on those 25 targets the lowest of any receiver this year, his 22.8 yards per reception was the highest among any receiver on this Top-10. Not only was Green winning high-degree of difficulty catches, he was doing so deep down the field. Here's to hoping we get a full 16 games out of Green next year, because it will likely end in All-Pro nods.
Four bonus notes:
Tyler Lockett had a 58.3 percent catch rate on 12 targets. He did not qualify for the Top-10 because of the minimum threshold, but his performance was notable enough to make the bonus notes. It was a star-crossed year for Tyler Lockett as a PCL injury slowed the start and a broken fibula sacrificed the end. He's a dynamic player who can not only create easy separation but one who can win the difficult ones in tight coverage.
Allen Robinson led all receivers with 50 targets where he had less than a yard of separation. Marqise Lee was also in the top half of the league with 28. None of Robinson (34 percent), Lee (42.9 percent) or Allen Hurns (25 percent) has a catch rate above the NFL average. When they are all registering so poorly, it might be time to look for the common denominator.
Emmanuel Sanders (50 percent), Doug Baldwin (50 percent), T.Y. Hilton (48.5 percent) and Antonio Brown (48.1 percent) all had catch rates above the NFL average. All of those players are under six feet tall and weigh less than 200 pounds. Size is not always the best asset at winning in tight coverage.
DeVante Parker just missed the Top-10 with a 50 percent catch rate. The Dolphins need to see a full season of consistently strong play from Parker, as he brings another dimension with his ability to win the ball in the air as an outside receiver. There's reason to critique Parker, but he showed signs of being an asset this season.