As we hurtle toward free agency and the 2019 NFL Draft, now is the time when every NFL team takes a long, hard look at its personnel makeup. With that in mind, Cynthia Frelund examines the current state of all 32 receiver groups, slotting each situation into one of five categories.
UPGRADES NEEDED ACROSS THE BOARD
Baltimore Ravens: Free agent John Brown averaged the fifth-most air yards per target last season (16.3), primarily catching passes from the departed Joe Flacco before Lamar Jackson took the reins in November. With Brown hitting the open market and Michael Crabtree getting released, which remaining receiver logged the highest snap count last season? That'd be Willie Snead, who started 10 games, logging 62 catches for 651 and a touchdown. Going forward, Baltimore needs to find the right kinds of receivers to allow Jackson -- who's still developing as a passer -- to flourish.
Buffalo Bills: Last season as a group, Buffalo receivers had the lowest catch rate in the NFL (51.4 percent). Given the (ultimately fruitless) flirtation with an Antonio Brown trade, it's clear the Bills believe they need to add a true No. 1, but they would also benefit from acquiring a complementary WR2 in order to align their coaching philosophy and developmental strategy for second-year quarterback Josh Allen. In this case, my model shows a strong upgrade would be achieved with a true No. 1 receiver and a proven pass-catching tight end or a consistent and complementary WR2.
New England Patriots:Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett are all free agents. The only contributing receiver from last season who's signed is Julian Edelman, who turns 33 in May. This isn't to say the Patriots are going to switch their "type" (like, perhaps, Baltimore will be doing), but rather that this is going to be an area they will be making moves in (because they have to).
New York Jets: Last season, Jets receivers caught the second-lowest rate of deep targets (snagging just 19.2 percent of balls that traveled 20-plus yards, according to Next Gen Stats, equaling a 33.6 passer rating). But this figures to be an active offseason for the franchise, as Gang Green has the second-most cap space in the NFL this offseason ($93.1 million, according to Over The Cap). If I were advising this team based on my models, I would recommend investing in the O-line first, then structuring the pass catchers to complement Sam Darnold's developing skill set. While Jermaine Kearse is set to hit the open market, Robby Anderson is a restricted free agent, and the Jets have placed a second-round tender on the 25-year-old. Look for New York to target a proven deep threat.
Oakland Raiders: The Raiders traded Amari Cooper to Dallas during their Week 7 bye, which adversely affected their spacing in the passing game. Oakland receivers averaged 12.9 yards per reception in Weeks 1-6 (15th in the NFL), but just 10.6 yards per reception after the trade (31st). A large factor here was the Raiders' scheme, as targets to WRs averaged just 9.3 air yards, the fewest in the NFL. Acquiring a true No. 1 wideout would help redefine this offense's spacing, creating more big plays. Raiders receivers had just 12 receptions of 20-plus yards after trading Cooper (T-27th).
San Francisco 49ers: The most common offensive personnel in the NFL last season? Three-receiver sets. But the 49ers only deployed this configuration on 38.6 percent of their snaps -- the lowest mark by nearly six percentage points, according to Next Gen Stats. Granted, San Francisco boasted the most productive tight end in football, with George Kittle earning his first Pro Bowl nod after leading the position with 1,377 receiving yards, but the Niners still need to improve their receiving corps this offseason. With Jimmy Garoppolo returning from injury and San Francisco owning the sixth-most cap space ($66.7 million), it is logical to assume Kyle Shanahan will look to create the exact offense he envisions, with the blend of receivers he wants.
Washington Redskins: No team fared worse last season in the deep passing game than the Redskins. Next Gen Stats show a 15.8 percent catch rate and 25.8 passer rating on balls thrown 20-plus yards. This isn't shocking, given all of the injuries -- Paul Richardson played just seven games, while free agent-to-be Jamison Crowder only managed nine -- and the fact that Alex Smith (who missed six games of his own after a catastrophic leg injury) isn't known as a consistent deep-ball thrower. Building this offseason with Smith likely out the entire 2019 campaign, Washington will need to come up with a plan that creates a consistent source of value and efficiency in the passing game.
LACKING A TRUE WR1
Arizona Cardinals:Cardinals wide receivers averaged the fewest yards after the catch last season (3.5 yards per reception) and no Arizona wideout has logged more than nine deep receptions since 2016. (Yes, it was future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald in that year.) I'm not going to pretend I know first-time NFL head coach Kliff Kingsbury's strategy, but generally speaking, a true WR1 would help create more space for his quarterback (whoever that might be ...) to work with, giving the Cards greater potential to notch first downs and touchdowns.
Carolina Panthers: To be fair, 2018 first-round pick D.J. Moore could end up being a true WR1. As of right now, though, it's still unclear. Even though running back Christian McCaffrey did have more total receiving yards than Moore last season (867 versus 788), Moore did rank third among wide receivers in yards per target (11.8, per NGS) last season. Piecing together the strategic possibilities of a healthy Cam Newton combined with other receivers like Curtis Samuel, Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright (Devin Funchess is set to hit free agency), the Panthers' win projection increases the most by either adding a true No. 1, or -- if Moore really emerges in Year 2 -- a WR2.
Denver Broncos:Emmanuel Sanders' torn Achilles tendon ended his season last December, after the Broncos had already traded away Demaryius Thomas, leaving rookies Courtland Sutton (a second-round selection) and DaeSean Hamilton (a fourth-rounder) to catch the ball. It will be interesting to see how Denver's passing game changes with the offseason addition of Joe Flacco. The X-factor is whether or not Sanders will be able to get back for the beginning of the season and produce at previous levels. If he can, the Broncos can look for one of their youngsters to emerge and/or add an affordable option this offseason. Think of the Sanders-Thomas combination of the past, where the target split was close to even, as an ideal outcome. In other words, the Broncos don't need to break the bank for a WR1 to improve a great deal quickly.
Detroit Lions: Trading away Golden Tate significantly changed the available receiver space in Detroit midway through the 2018 season. (Think of available space as what happens when defenses have to respect multiple receivers at the same time, or the pass and the run. When an offense has more space to work with, it is more likely to earn first downs and score points.) Now, in fairness to the Lions, the run game was starting to be more reliable at the time of the trade, but shortly thereafter, rookie RB Kerryon Johnson was sidelined by injury. Kenny Golladay is coming off his first 1,000-yard season, but is the 25-year-old poised to take the next step into becoming a true No. 1 option? The Lions, who finished 25th in points per game in 2018 (20.2), need to create more space, and a bona fide WR1 would help achieve this.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Jacksonville receivers caught the lowest rate of passes against press coverage in 2018: 32.7, per Next Gen Stats. New Jags offensive coordinator John DeFilippo called plays in Minnesota last season that focused on short passes, as Vikings WRs covered the second-fewest yards per route (21.8) before DeFilippo was fired in mid-December. There's plenty of speculation that the Jaguars will sign Nick Foles in free agency. With that in mind, tempo combined with explosive-play potential maximizes Foles' skill set. Thus, adding a true No. 1 would increase the potential of D.J. Chark, Dede Westbrook and Marqise Lee.
Miami Dolphins: Last season, Miami receivers gained the second-most yards after the catch per reception (5.9). One of the reasons why their YAC was so high? Creative play design, especially early in the season with Albert Wilson, who didn't play after Week 7 due to a hip injury. With the Dolphins presumably moving on from Ryan Tannehill, it's unclear how the new coaching staff will look to design the passing attack. But whoever's under center, a true WR1 would obviously help. Of course, the receiving corps isn't completely devoid of talent -- for example, Kenny Stills posted the third-highest air yards per attempt (16.4, per NGS) -- but a top dog could tie everything together and allow the Fins to dramatically improve their passing attack (30th in 2018) and third-down offense (31st).
Tennessee Titans: Tennessee finished just one slot above the Dolphins in passing offense at No. 29, averaging 185.9 aerial yards per game. The Titans' leading receiver, Corey Davis, ranked 25th among pass catchers last season with 891 yards. Adding a No. 1 -- and in this case, as elite a No. 1 as they can afford (either in free agency or the draft) -- could be a very impactful addition, especially with their primary pass-catching tight end (Delanie Walker) recovering from a serious ankle injury. My model projects Davis' impact to increase with the addition of at least an above-average WR1.
SEEKING A COMPLEMENTARY WR2
Dallas Cowboys: The addition of Amari Cooper after Week 8 significantly changed the space Dallas' offense had to work with. In Weeks 1-8, Next Gen Stats show that Cowboys receivers averaged 2.3 yards of separation per target (ranking last in the NFL). In Weeks 9-17, that number went up to 3.0 yards per target (seventh). Dak Prescott's passer rating to Cooper against press coverage was 126.2 (the third-best mark in the NFL) -- and the yards per target was 12.7 (second). Getting a consistently productive No. 2 receiver would further increase Cooper's impact and -- combined with the return of Jason Witten, even if in a limited snap capacity -- boost the Cowboys' win projection more than any other single offensive offseason move.
Houston Texans: Last season, the Texans deployed three-receiver sets on the third-fewest percentage of plays in the NFL (44.8, per NGS), a figure that was obviously impacted by injuries. Will Fuller missed nine games last year (after missing six in 2017). On the plus side, Houston wideouts caught balls at the second-highest rate in the NFL (70.5 percent), a mark that was bolstered DeAndre Hopkins having the most receptions (115) without a drop in a season since Pro Football Focus started charting these stats. That part isn't really predictive, but it's an awesome stat, so I had to work it in. The more forward-looking reality: Complementing Nuk with a reliable No. 2 would result in the biggest uptick in efficiency of all the offseason receiving corps options.
Indianapolis Colts: My model strongly suggests that the Colts should look to solidify the No. 2 spot and seek more depth at the position, especially considering both Dontrelle Inman and Ryan Grant are free agents. This isn't a deeply contextualized stat, but just looking at season-long receiving yard totals, T.Y. Hilton earned 1,270 and tight end Eric Ebron contributed 750. The next two? Chester Rodgers at 485 and then running back Nyheim Hines at 425.
New Orleans Saints: The great thing about a group of receivers earning the highest catch rate in the league (75.8 percent) is that it really, really helps with earning first downs and touchdowns. (Not coincidentally, New Orleans ranked third in scoring at 31.5 PPG.) The downside here is that, when one elite WR1 has a big target disparity, it's really hard to sustain. Michael Thomas caught 125 of 147 targets for an 85 percent catch rate, while the next-most-targeted receiver was Tre'Quan Smith with 44 targets (he caught 28 of them). Thomas is an elite WR1, and between the Saints' scheme and their future Hall of Fame QB's ability to spread the ball around in the red zone (Drew Brees threw touchdown passes to 15 different players last season, the most in the NFL), the addition of even an above-average WR2 would be a sound investment.
Philadelphia Eagles: It's logical to assume the Eagles traded for Golden Tate midway through last season to give Alshon Jeffery a strong running mate. With Tate now hitting free agency and quarterback Carson Wentz returning to the starting role, it's logical to assume Philadelphia will look to fill that WR2 void ASAP, to optimize chemistry by making use of training camp and preseason activities -- something the Eagles weren't able to do last offseason, when Wentz was still recovering from injury (the QB didn't play until Week 3 of 2018). Setting up the opportunity for offensive diversity early projects to give Wentz the best opportunity to perform at his 2017 level, when he threw touchdown passes to 10 different receivers and emerged as a top MVP candidate.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Yes, Antonio Brown appears to be on his way out. I am saying that JuJu Smith-Schuster is a No. 1 and the Steelers need to find the next No. 2 to keep facilitating the situations that earn a team the most yards after the catch in the league (Steelers receivers netted 1,461 last season). One of the ways that having a great 1-2 receiver combination shows up in stats is in deep passing. Last season, Brown had the most touchdowns on deep targets (eight, per NGS) and Smith-Schuster had the seventh-highest passer rating on deep targets (125.5). One more strategic note: Pittsburgh used four wide receivers on the highest percentage of snaps in 2018 (9.7). Thus, the Steelers have the most congruent philosophy with their quarterback's proven skill set when they have a strong 1 AND 2.
COULD USE SOLID ROLE PLAYERS (WR3/WR4)
Cincinnati Bengals:Bengals wideouts earned the fewest yards per route run (2.4) of any receiver group last season, which pretty much just reinforces the impact of not having your true No. 1 (A.J. Green missed seven games) and shows how injuries to the corps as a whole (Tyler Boyd missed two games, John Ross missed three) change the strategy. Full seasons from Green and Boyd would clearly boost production of this receiving corps. And while it has been rumored that the Bengals are looking to trade Ross, his reception percentage of 36.2 last season would be highly replaceable. A receiver better suited for Cincy's 2019 scheme could be a better fit as the team's WR3 or WR4.
Cleveland Browns: When Freddie Kitchens took over play-calling duties last season in Week 9, the Browns offense deployed more spread concepts and went from 24th in passing yards per game to fourth over the rest of the season. Cleveland completed 68.2 percent of passes with Kitchens holding the play sheet, up from 55.7 percent in Weeks 1-8. Here's another case of strategy being a key factor in determining the team category here, as my models do not rank Jarvis Landry as an elite No. 1 receiver (i.e., a Julio Jones type). However, the net impact of Landry, Antonio Callaway and Rashard Higgins, taken in the context of projected 2019 usage and the team's cap space, means the Browns have the flexibility to either seek a true No. 1 receiver if there's one they think is priced correctly or add depth to their corps and still maintain a high level of efficiency.
Kansas City Chiefs: Would you be surprised if I told you that the Chiefs' receivers earned the most yards after the catch per reception (5.9) in the 2018 season? How about if I told you Next Gen Stats showed they earned the second-most yards of separation per target (3.3 yards)? Nope? Me neither. For fun: Tyreek Hill notched nine touchdowns and averaged 3.7 yards run per route from the slot (both tops in the NFL, per NGS). K.C. has already shown signs of creating more options at WR3 and WR4 (e.g. picking up Sammie Coates), but depth additions here would go a long way to fortifying efficiency in the passing game.
Minnesota Vikings:Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were really efficient together last season. Among duos with the highest volume rankings (as in, they were on the field together), Diggs and Thielen were on the field for the third-most first downs and touchdowns. Diggs and Thielen ranked third (67.5) and fourth (66.7), respectively, in reception percentage against press coverage. Do you see where I am going here? The duo was quite effective. But adding depth here could mean increasing Minnesota's overall efficiency.
New York Giants:Odell Beckham Jr. was targeted on 26.9 percent of the Giants' routes last season (the eighth-highest mark among receivers with at least 50 targets). Sterling Shepard was targeted on the third-most passing attempts last season (107), with running back Saquon Barkley seeing 121 targets in 16 games (OBJ had 124 in 12 games). Adding depth to the receiving corps would not only help make the receivers more efficient by taking pressure off OBJ and Shepard, but also create higher-probability opportunities (greater potential yardage) for Barkley in the passing game.
Seattle Seahawks: When Tyler Lockett was targeted on deep passes last season, Russell Wilson earned a 158.3 passer rating (best in NFL, min. 10 deep passes) and found the end zone seven times (second-most in NFL). Overall, Seattle's receivers caught 54.4 percent of deep targets and earned Wilson a 131.8 passer rating on such throws (both NFL bests). With Lockett and Doug Baldwin returning in 2019 -- and David Moore having shown flashes in 2018 -- adding depth to Seattle's roster at receiver is a strategically sound play. Pete Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer's philosophy of efficient rushing paired with the constant threat of explosive plays means receiver depth gives Wilson even more tools to make use of his deep passing expertise (and the constant threat of his own rushing).
IN GOOD SHAPE
Atlanta Falcons:Falcons wideouts earned the second-most yards after the catch (1,405) last season. Next Gen Stats show that Julio Jones averaged 12.2 yards per target against press coverage (second-most among wide receivers with at least 25 press targets) and earned Matt Ryan a 127.4 passer rating (third-highest) on these types of plays. Rookie receiver Calvin Ridley added six red-zone touchdowns (of his 10 total). Based on the categories I have outlined, the Falcons check all the receiver boxes: They have a true No. 1, a complementary No. 2 and depth at 3 and 4. Their overall receiver group efficiency (explained in a previous article) ended up fourth-best for the 2018 season, and they have minimal free-agent exposure (only Justin Hardy).
Chicago Bears: I can't create a list like this without factoring in team strategy. Next Gen Stats reveal that Chicago's wide receivers covered the second-fewest yards per route (21.6) last season, but the context here is that it was by design. While I am not calling Allen Robinson comparable to Julio Jones as a No. 1, the Bears' wide receiver group as a whole (Robinson, Anthony Miller and Taylor Gabriel) is strategically sound and has developmental upside as the team's young signal-caller evolves.
Green Bay Packers: Only one other team deployed three-receiver sets more often than Green Bay's 75.8 percent usage rate last season, and that team also falls within this category. Packers receivers also earned the fourth-most yards after the catch in the NFL (1,261). Davante Adams solidified himself as one of the best receivers in the game, netting 1,386 yards (seventh in the league, and 389 more than his previous career high). Even if Randall Cobb does not return (he's a free agent), the development of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Geronimo Allison and Equanimeous St. Brown means the Packers -- and their star quarterback -- project to prioritize other positions higher than wideout this offseason.
Los Angeles Chargers: Both Los Angeles teams ranked in the top five last season in my receiver position group efficiency metric. They did achieve this in different ways, though. The Chargers had a more dominant WR1. A fun stat to help illustrate this: Keenan Allen averaged 2.1 yards per route from the slot (third-most among WRs with at least 150 slot routes run). As a group, Chargers wideouts caught tight-window passes at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL (42.6 percent -- Next Gen Stats defines this as less than 1 yard of separation). It's worth noting that Tyrell Williams is a free agent, and his loss would mean subtracting a big-play contributor who averaged 15.9 yards per reception (ninth among qualified receivers last season).
Los Angeles Rams: The Rams achieved exceptional WR efficiency by using three-receiver sets more than any team in the league (91.2 percent of snaps, per NGS) and distributing the ball opportunistically. Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp all averaged 70-plus receiving yards per game and more than 14 yards per reception (Kupp, of course, only played eight games due to injury). Overall, Rams wideouts netted the third-most yards after the catch in the NFL (1,264). None of L.A.'s receivers are free agents.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: No receiver group was targeted on more total air yards (5,432) in the NFL last season than the Bucs. Next Gen Stats show that DeSean Jackson averaged the most air yards per target (19.1). Jackson (18.9) and Mike Evans (17.7) ranked first and third, respectively, in yards per reception. What these metrics don't outwardly show is that defenses were forced to account for both Evans and Jackson, which created more favorable matchups for all of their pass catchers. I would feel better about this categorization if Adam Humphries weren't a free agent, however, my projection models still rank the Bucs wide receiving corps near the top of the league for next season. After all, I haven't even mentioned Chris Godwin, who just logged 842 yards and seven touchdowns in his second NFL season.