The challenge of consistently moving the ball downfield on a variety of dink-and-dunk passes against an NFL defense makes every offensive coordinator covet the presence of a deep-ball specialist on the perimeter. Pass catchers capable of delivering explosive plays (25-plus yards) are not only given a separate column on the play-call sheet, but they are frequently featured as the focal point of special play designs on game day. Thus, it's no surprise these home-run threats are targeted early and often in big games.
Given the growing importance of big-play specialists around the league, I thought I would dig into the All-22 Coaches Film to pick out the five most dangerous deep threats in the game today. Here's my list:
5) Kenny Stills, Miami Dolphins
Stills' inclusion on this list will surprise some observers, but defensive coordinators around the NFL are well aware of his explosiveness and big-play potential as the Dolphins' new vertical threat. Stills averaged 16.5 yards per catch and amassed 11 receptions of 40-plus yards during his first two NFL seasons, both with the New Orleans Saints. In Miami, he should have plenty of opportunities to get behind the defense, with Ryan Tannehill intent on taking more shots downfield in 2015. Stills is a dynamic route runner with explosive speed (he clocked a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine) and stellar stop-start quickness. He specializes in running double moves on the perimeter (stutter-go, out-and-up and post-corner-post), but also displays the acceleration and burst to run past defenders on basic vertical routes. With the Dolphins poised to take advantage of his skills as a vertical threat, Stills could finally get the attention he deserves as one of the NFL's premier playmakers.
4) Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bryant hasn't cracked the Steelers' starting lineup, but he has already impressed coaches around the NFL. Despite suiting up in only 10 games as a rookie, Bryant scored eight touchdowns and posted five catches of 40-plus yards. The 6-foot-4, 211-pounder routinely blew past defenders on vertical routes, exhibiting a combination of size, speed and leaping ability that makes him an extremely tough cover on the perimeter. Although he remains a work in progress as a route runner, Bryant's ability to impact the game as a downfield playmaker creates issues for defensive coordinators intent on slowing down the Steelers' triplets (Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) with aggressive schemes. Considering the lack of depth and talent in most defensive backfields, the prospect of getting the ultra-explosive Bryant a one-on-one matchup with a CB3 or CB4 should make coordinator Todd Haley giddy as a play caller.
3) T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
It is easy to miscast the Colts' diminutive WR1 as a one-trick pony on the perimeter, due to his slender frame (5-9, 178 pounds) and explosive speed, but few NFL receivers have a more complete toolbox than Hilton. The fourth-year pro is an electric route runner with a keen understanding of when to use his speed to fly by defenders on vertical routes. As a result, Hilton already has tallied 17 catches of 40-plus yards, including six in 2014. Even more impressive: Hilton has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and dominated opponents despite facing some form of double coverage on nearly every snap. With the Colts adding a few more playmakers to the receiving corps during the offseason (veteran Andre Johnson and rookie burner Phillip Dorsett), Hilton could face more one-on-one coverage, leading to better efficiency and production on the perimeter. If Hilton gets more optimal opportunities as the Colts' top target, he could emerge as the top dog on this list by the end of the season.
2) Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
It is uncommon for a big receiver with speed and quickness to develop into a polished route runner, but that's what separates Nelson from others at his position. Checking in at 6-3, 217 pounds with solid speed, the eighth-year pro is one of the NFL's premier playmakers on the perimeter due to his extraordinary ability to just get open down the field. Nelson routinely wins on carefully scripted double moves, exhibiting patience and body control while setting up defenders with deft fakes at the top of the route. Nelson displays the burst to separate from coverage and track down balls thrown along the boundary. Considering Nelson's 43 touchdowns and 22 catches of 40-plus yards over the past four seasons, it is hard to dispute his standing as one of the top deep-ball specialists in the NFL.
1) DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins
Say what you want about Jackson's flamboyance, but there is no denying his impact as the NFL's most explosive deep threat. The 5-10, 178-pound pass catcher has torched the league from Day 1 of his career, producing 48 catches of 40-plus yards over seven seasons -- including an NFL-best 13 in 2014. Jackson's speed and burst make him nearly impossible to defend on vertical routes. Remarkably, Jackson rarely utilizes complex moves (stutter-steps or head fakes) at the top of his routes to set up defenders, yet he consistently gets behind the defense -- despite the presence of a safety over the top on most downs. With Jackson also possessing exceptional ball skills and tracking ability to complement his extraordinary acceleration, he deserves to sit atop this list.