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Top 3 NFL wide receivers by route: Michael Thomas reigns

We've already provided a metrics-based breakdown of the best players at key positions this summer, but the geniuses at Next Gen Stats don't rest on their laurels.

The data wizards are back again with another new way to break down some of the game's top weapons. We know the Saints' Michael Thomas and Seahawks' Tyler Lockett are great receivers, but how do they perform on a per-route basis?

We've split up the route tree and looked at all of the advanced receiver metrics available to us -- including target percentage, reception percentage, yards per route run and separation -- to examine who excelled in 2019.

Below, we'll reveal the top three receivers for eight different routes, and tell you why the No. 1-ranked player for each was the best running that particular route.

NOTE: The two players ranked below who changed teams this offseason -- Bills WR Stefon Diggs and Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins -- are listed with the teams they played for last season, since these rankings are based on their performance in 2019.

CROSSING ROUTE

Rank
1
Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas
New Orleans Saints · WR

Get used to seeing his name: Thomas is the top-ranked player in half of these categories.


He was historically productive in 2019, in large part because he is excellent in the short game on routes like the cross (a.k.a. the drag). He led the league lead in catch rate above expectation (actual catch percentage compared to expected catch percentage), but among the top 25 wide receivers in that category (minimum 50 targets), he's the only one who averaged fewer than 10 air yards per target (8.1).


Among those top 25 receivers, no receiver was pressed at a higher rate at the line than Thomas (42%), and only one was pressed as much: Stefon Diggs. How can a pass catcher win vs. press? By running away from the pressing defender, not through him. A receiver can win with inside leverage against an outside corner who is trying to keep him from going deep, leaving the defender in the dust as he runs across the field at a shallow depth. This creates chances for catch-and-run opportunities. Thomas was pressed 49% of the time on crossing routes, yet he posted a catch rate that was 24.9% above expectation on 29 targets. Thomas' air-yards-per-target average was higher on crosses than his aforementioned overall average (9.6 to 8.1), and his catch rate above expectation was second to only Lockett among those with at least 20 targets on crosses. Thomas wins the yardage battle between the two (382 to 318), helping us find some separation between a couple of receivers that are incredibly dangerous when running shallow routes over the middle.

Rank
2
Tyler Lockett
Tyler Lockett
Seattle Seahawks · WR
Rank
3
Cooper Kupp
Cooper Kupp
Los Angeles Rams · WR

GO ROUTE

Rank
1
DeVante Parker
DeVante Parker
Miami Dolphins · WR

This route is a little easier to explain, primarily because of one infallible truth: Everyone loves the long ball.


Parker went deep plenty in 2019, running 155 go routes and seeing 36 targets on those routes. However, he finds himself atop this list because of his league-leading 396 receiving yards and five touchdowns on go routes, which came as a result of 13 receptions and a 4.6 percent catch rate above expectation on such routes. His reception total was also the most in the NFL on go routes (minimum 75 total targets, regardless of route). Simply put, no one was more prolific on the go route than Parker.


Rank
2
D.J. Chark
D.J. Chark
Jacksonville Jaguars · WR
Rank
3
Stefon Diggs
Stefon Diggs
Minnesota Vikings · WR

POST ROUTE

Rank
1
Stefon Diggs
Stefon Diggs
Minnesota Vikings · WR

Stefon Diggs can make the seemingly impossible a reality.


No, we're not talking about the Minneapolis Miracle. We're referring to his productivity on post routes in 2019. Diggs led the league in catch rate above expectation (minimum five targets on post routes) last season at +39.9 percent, turning unlikely plays into big gains. His 207 yards gained on post routes ranked sixth in the league, and he was one of only two receivers to break 200 yards on less than 10 receptions on post routes in 2019 (the other was DeVante Parker, who ranks second in this grouping). The most important stat for us in relation to Diggs' post-route productivity: touchdowns. Only Terry McLaurin was as productive in the scoring department on post routes as Diggs (three TDs apiece), which is why the Washington receiver makes the top three in this group. You can't go wrong with any of these guys when throwing deep over the middle.

Rank
2
DeVante Parker
DeVante Parker
Miami Dolphins · WR
Rank
3
Terry McLaurin
Terry McLaurin
Washington Football Team · WR

OUT ROUTE

Rank
1
Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas
New Orleans Saints · WR

We're back to the short routes, which means we're again seeing Thomas at the top of the list.


The Saints' WR1 gained 326 yards while running outs, the most in the NFL. He also posted a catch rate above expectation of +14.7 percent on those routes. These were somewhat shorter outs, averaging just 8.3 air yards per target, but Thomas still found a way to make the most of them, gaining an average of 2.72 yards after the catch on routes that are typically assigned to finish near the sideline.


The numbers that propelled Thomas to the top here were his yards, of course, but also his efficiency. Thomas caught 87.9 percent of his targets, landing in the top five in that category. In fact, if we instituted a minimum of, say, 15 receptions on out routes, only DeAndre Hopkins (86.4%) and Calvin Ridley (80%) even come close to Thomas' catch rate.


An interesting note is how close a call it was between Thomas and Ridley for the top spot in the rankings, which should excite Falcons fans about the potential of the former Alabama star. He was close to unseating Thomas and very well could take the next major step in his third NFL season.

Rank
2
Calvin Ridley
Calvin Ridley
Atlanta Falcons · WR
Rank
3
Julian Edelman
Julian Edelman
New England Patriots · WR

CORNER ROUTE

Rank
1
Allen Robinson
Allen Robinson
Chicago Bears · WR

Robinson's 206 yards gained on corner routes led all receivers (minimum 75 total targets, regardless of route), and a lot of those yards were gained on catches he wasn't expected to make, per NGS. Three receivers who met the 75-target minimum were targeted at least 10 times on corner routes: Robinson, Keenan Allen and Robby Anderson, who each saw 12 targets on such routes. While Allen and Anderson finished below catch-rate expectation, Robinson shattered his, posting a mark of +37.9 percent and making it pretty easy to see who was best in this department.

Rank
2
Tyler Lockett
Tyler Lockett
Seattle Seahawks · WR
Rank
3
Courtland Sutton
Courtland Sutton
Denver Broncos · WR

IN ROUTE

Rank
1
A.J. Brown
A.J. Brown
Tennessee Titans · WR

As soon as I saw A.J. Brown streak across the field at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland in Week 1 last season, I knew he was going to be a problem for defenses in this league.


At 6-feet, 226 pounds, Brown wins with size, speed and power. He's no DK Metcalf (his 6-4, 229-pound former Ole Miss teammate), but that actually works to his advantage, as his 226 pounds are well-packed into his frame to allow him to box out defenders, catch the ball and then outrun them to the end zone, with a stiff-arm packed in as a complimentary parting gift.


The aforementioned play from last year's season opener came on a deep in route by Brown. It wasn't his frame but his footwork -- a fake outside, an adjustment upfield and a sharp cut at the top of the route -- that created the space necessary for a 51-yard catch-and-run on that play.


Those types of opportunities vaulted Brown up this list. Of his 301 total yards on in routes, 181 were gained after the catch. The next-closest players in that category were the Rams' Cooper Kupp (99) and the Browns' Jarvis Landry (96). Brown's two touchdowns on in routes also tied for the most in the NFL, and while his catch rate above expectation wasn't the best (+12.8%, ranking 11th among receivers who were targeted at least five times on in routes), his league-leading yards per reception on such routes (27.4) cements his status as the top player in this category.

Rank
2
Michael Gallup
Michael Gallup
Dallas Cowboys · WR
Rank
3
D.J. Moore
D.J. Moore
Carolina Panthers · WR

SLANT ROUTE

Rank
1
Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas
New Orleans Saints · WR

Tired of Thomas yet? His opponents surely are, but you can't say they weren't warned: Thomas makes it clear with his Twitter handle that he can't be guarded.


Seriously, though, it can't be much of a surprise to see these three players at the top for this route. An offense is going to try to do whatever it can to get the ball in the hands of its best players, and Thomas fits the bill, as do DeAndre Hopkins and Amari Cooper (Nos. 2 and 3 on this list). To do this successfully, it takes a receiver who can win off the line, cut inside at an angle and catch a bullet from the quarterback for a solid gain. For the best in the game, these plays will occasionally pop for huge gains because of their elite speed and run-after-catch ability. Of Thomas' league-leading 299 yards gained on slants, 162 came after the catch. For Hopkins, 125 of his 257 came after the catch.


However, Thomas is ranked atop this group because of his three touchdowns scored on slants, and his catch rate of 87.9 percent is also best among any receiver with 10 or more targets in the NFL. It's pretty simple: Thomas wins in the short game and will make you pay if you don't stop him.

Rank
2
DeAndre Hopkins
DeAndre Hopkins
Houston Texans · WR
Rank
3
Amari Cooper
Amari Cooper
Dallas Cowboys · WR

HITCH ROUTE

Rank
1
Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas
New Orleans Saints · WR

Look, there he is again! We've discussed Thomas' ability until we're nearly blue in the face -- although cardio while masked seems to have improved this writer's lung capacity -- but we're tasked with justifying one final appearance atop a list of excellent route runners.


Let's see ... Thomas led all wide receivers in yards gained on hitches. His YAC on hitches was second-best in the NFL, trailing only Keenan Allen. Thomas did this while fighting through press coverage on 34 percent of his targets, too. Seems like he has a strong case, even without a touchdown scored on a hitch.


John Brown also has a compelling case here, but he was edged out by Thomas in a close battle. Brown trails in yards (306 to 282) but posted a better catch rate above expectation (+22.5% to +7.9%), although he saw 14 fewer targets than Thomas.


While he didn't make the top three, one of my favorite receivers to watch run a hitch route is Odell Beckham Jr. because of how pronounced yet quick he is in his breakdown at the top of the route. With hitches, there's some uncertainty for cornerbacks: Is their man running a hitch or is it going to be a go (or fade) route? They won't know it's a hitch until it's a hitch -- if the route is run well. Receivers like Thomas and Beckham run them well, and to great success.

Rank
2
John Brown
John Brown
Buffalo Bills · WR
Rank
3
Allen Robinson
Allen Robinson
Chicago Bears · WR

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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