The 2020 NFL season has been a unique one, but what has long been common in this game is the excitement generated by the big play, and we've seen plenty from some of the league's finest in this campaign.
In fact, as my colleague Cynthia Frelund pointed out this week, teams are having success like never before when throwing deep.
So, which players have been the best at making these plays downfield through Week 5? Based on their performances this season -- and this season alone -- we're taking a look at the league's top deep threats. A few have made much of their hay in as little as one game, leading to some rankings on this list that might surprise you. So, scroll down to find the NFL's best downfield pass catchers so far this season because as we all know, nothing whets the football appetite quite like a long completion for a huge gain -- and sometimes, a touchdown.
NOTE: All stats are current heading into Week 6.
If you've watched the Seahawks on a weekly or near-weekly basis, you know why he's here.
DK Metcalf has quickly transformed from a big-bodied receiver with uncertain potential into a big-play threat and Russell Wilson's favorite receiver. Look no further than the second-year veteran's role in Seattle's come-from-behind Week 5 win, in which Metcalf caught a crucial deep pass from Wilson on fourth-and-10 to keep the Seahawks alive and later made the game-winning touchdown grab on fourth-and-goal. The latter was from six yards out, but the former is the one that fits the topic of this article, and it's a perfect example of how Metcalf has blossomed in 2020.
With two Vikings defensive backs around him, Metcalf came down with the 39-yard catch that had a competition probability of just 31.3 percent. The pass covered 32.8 air yards, earning the Seahawks a fresh set of downs en route to an improbable victory.
Metcalf has been that type of weapon for Wilson all season, leading the league in receiving yards gained on deep targets (20-plus air yards) by a wide margin (his 296 yards lead the No. 2 receiver, Calvin Ridley, by 95 yards). He also tied for the NFL lead in deep receptions (seven) and deep-target touchdowns (three). Metcalf would own the lead in the latter category by himself had he not pulled up early on a long reception in Week 3 against Dallas, which resulted in a fumble and touchback.
That blunder aside, Metcalf has been magnificent for the 'Hawks as a deep threat who can also make an impact on shorter throws. He complements the smaller Tyler Lockett, balancing Seattle's receiving corps and helping Wilson to the best start of his career in what is shaping up to be an MVP-caliber campaign.
Gallup leads the NFL in total go routes run with 71, and ranks third in the league in yards gained on deep receptions with 190 (on just nine total deep targets). Each of those 190 yards have been gained on go routes, with Gallup catching five of nine targets on such routes. Gallup has found the end zone on a deep target once this season, all while existing in a receiving corps that also includes Amari Cooper and rookie CeeDee Lamb, proving his ability to carve out a niche for himself among stellar teammates.
It's fair to wonder if this type of production will decrease now that Dak Prescott is out for the season, but Gallup's best play of 2020 came after Prescott departed Sunday's game with an ankle injury, when backup Andy Dalton lofted a perfectly placed pass to Gallup with the game's result hanging in the balance.
Facing first-and-10 with just 31 seconds left in a tie game, Dalton dropped back, stepped into the oncoming pass rush and heaved a pass toward the sideline as Gallup streaked down the field with Giants cornerback Ryan Lewis in hot pursuit. Gallup leapt, snagged the pass, tapped both feet on the turf inbounds and fell forward as Lewis came down around his ankles, putting the Cowboys in field-goal range and sending the crowd at AT&T Stadium into a frenzy.
The catch stunned everyone except Gallup, who called it "automatic" afterward.
"You just put the ball up anywhere close to him, and he's been able to come down with them," Dalton said after the game, via DallasCowboys.com.
Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein drilled the game-winner shortly after, permanently opening the eyes of the NFL world to Gallup's potential as a deep threat.
While the Falcons’ 0-5 start resulted in the recent firings of coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, Ridley has flourished in 2020.
A major reason for his success: Matt Ryan is looking Ridley's way down the field. Ridley leads the NFL in total deep targets (16), gaining the second-most receiving yards on deep completions (201). He's averaging 28.7 yards per catch on deep targets and has helped Ryan post a 110.1 passer rating on such attempts.
"Whatever I can do for the win," Ridley said, via The Ringer. "I just wanna win games and put the team into position to go to the Super Bowl and playoffs. If that's me catching two, three touchdowns a game, that's what I'll do."
So far, the Falcons are asking Ridley to go deep, and he's proving their requests wise with his play. When paired with a healthy Julio Jones, Atlanta has itself quite a receiving duo.
It's not crazy to sit back and wonder if Ruggs might be No. 1 on this list had he been available for each of Las Vegas' first five games (Ruggs missed two games due to injury). Nevertheless, the rookie burst onto the scene in Week 5, gaining 72 of his 163 total deep yards this season on one play, a long touchdown pass from Derek Carr that helped fuel the Raiders' upset of the Chiefs.
Ruggs soared up draft boards earlier this year because of his freakish athleticism and top-end speed (4.27-second 40-yard dash). It was only right for the organization that has traditionally valued speed over almost everything else to spend the 12th overall pick on Ruggs. His speed is striking fear into the hearts of opposing defenses, with Ruggs racking up 163 of his 177 total receiving yards on deep targets.
"Well, yeah, I mean we didn't bring him in here to run hitch routes," Jon Gruden told the media following Las Vegas' 40-32 win over Kansas City. "He can really run and we've got to be better at getting him the ball in other areas because he's a great route runner."
Ruggs is averaging a league-best 32.6 yards per deep target (minimum five deep targets) and he's creating an average of 3.3 yards of separation on deep targets (second-most in the NFL).
Interestingly, Ruggs is doing so by running more than just go routes. He's gained 72 of his yards on post routes, compared with 46 coming on go routes. One of his longest receptions, a 45-yard gain in Week 1, came on a deep crossing route. Ruggs isn't reliant on just running a go toward the promised land, which should excite Raider Nation about the receiver's future.
Jefferson is proving to be reliable beyond his years when Kirk Cousins decides to air it out.
Jefferson has caught four of five deep targets, gaining 150 yards and scoring a touchdown in the process. Jefferson is averaging 30 receiving yards per deep target in 2020, the second-highest rate in the NFL (minimum five deep targets), and his catch rate of 80 percent on deep targets is the highest in the entire league.
He's also outperforming the receiver he replaced, Stefon Diggs, in deep targets, gaining 33 more yards on such attempts. And here's a shocking fact: Jefferson has gained just 31 of those 150 yards while running go routes, which have accounted for exactly one of his deep receptions.
Jefferson is still green, but he's making quick money in purple with the Vikings.
The Cooks-Deshaun Watson connection didn't start to show its full potential until Week 5, but the diminutive speedster was still making an impact in the season's first month. His 157 yards gained on deep targets is good for sixth in the NFL, his five deep receptions are tied with Adam Thielen and Michael Gallup for third-most in the NFL, and his 62.5 percent catch rate on deep targets is the third-highest in the league (minimum five deep targets).
Cooks made three of those catches on Sunday in Houston's first win of the season. He and Watson teamed up early and returned to that connection late to put the game away. Long known as a receiver capable of taking the top off a defense, Cooks appears to be finding his footing in his first season with the Texans, and if Houston's offensive line can give Watson time, this could become a lucrative pairing.
Claypool arrived in Pittsburgh this spring as the projected No. 3 receiver with enough athleticism to make a highlight play here and there, but few, if any, were expecting this. Powered by a stellar Week 5 performance in which he caught seven passes for 110 yards and three scores (he also ran for a TD), Claypool is suddenly the Steelers' new big-play threat.
Claypool has logged the eighth-most yards on deep targets (147) in the NFL through five weeks, and is tied for the third-most touchdowns on deep targets with two. He's earning extra yards with his feet, gaining 61 yards after the catch on deep targets, good enough to tie for second-most in the NFL with Ruggs. Those 61 yards gained after the catch account for 41.5 percent of his yards gained on deep targets, the second-highest rate in the league (minimum three deep receptions).
Ben Roethlisberger returned this season with a rehabilitated throwing arm and a new, exotic car in his garage. Claypool is a big reason why the Steelers moved to 4-0, and why their offense is as dangerous as it has been since the All-Pro days of Antonio Brown.
It should be no surprise to see him on this list. Known as a burner, Hill has caused defenses to adjust their game plans throughout his career because of his ability as a deep threat. He made the 44-yard catch on the consequential Super Bowl LIV play known as Jet Chip Wasp, but that's only one example of how he can change a contest with one big play.
Though Kansas City has shortened its offense a bit in 2020 compared with past seasons, Hill is still flourishing in the deep-passing game. He's caught four deep targets for 137 yards and two scores, and he's making the difficult look easy. Of Hill's 11 deep targets, 27.3 percent have come with two defenders within two yards of him, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL (minimum five deep targets).
Defenses know what's coming from Hill and Patrick Mahomes, but they're still struggling to stop it.
Anderson made the jump from the Jets to the Panthers in free agency this offseason, and he's become part of a happy union with new offensive coordinator Joe Brady.
Brady has done an excellent job of scheming up an offense that takes advantage of Anderson's big-play ability and Teddy Bridgewater's quarterbacking talents. Anderson has caught three deep passes for 143 yards and a touchdown, and he's gained 64 of those deep-target yards after the catch, the most in the NFL through five weeks. Nearly half of his deep receiving yards (44.8 percent) have come from yards after catch, the highest rate in the NFL (minimum three deep receptions).
It seems as if these Panthers are just scratching the surface offensively, and it's produced three straight victories since the loss of Christian McCaffrey to an ankle injury. Instead of dumping it off to the do-everything back, the Panthers have been forced to look elsewhere, and Anderson is benefitting.
Kirk Cousins has proven he's unafraid to target Thielen when going deep, and while it has resulted in a pair of interceptions, it's also helped the Vikings find the end zone three times, tied for the most scores on deep targets in the NFL. Thielen has gained 122 yards on deep targets, and while his catch percentage on deep targets is below 50 percent, the Vikings have proven it's still worth looking in his direction when aiming well beyond the sticks.
Thielen is making plays in adverse conditions, finding himself in tight-window situations on 58.3 percent of deep targets (eighth-highest rate among receivers with at least five deep targets). That helps explain Cousins' two interceptions when targeting Thielen deep, but his catch rate above expectation of +11.3 percent on deep targets shows he's making the improbable look easy.