The NFL's Next Gen Stats tracking data allows us to objectively measure the separation between a receiver and the defenders covering them. Over the last two weeks we've looked at some of the premier wide receivers in the league along with the top complementary No. 2 wideouts to uncover which players earned the most separation on their targets.
For this portion of the end of season rankings, we will look into the ability of some of the top ancillary receivers and discover who the top 10 No. 3 receivers are in terms of separation at target. A number of these players have the talent to take on bigger roles in their offense, while there is also a healthy mix of veteran contributors and surprises.
*Notes: The definition of "No. 3 receiver" was a player who finished with less than 100 targets on the season and saw at least 50 percent of their targets when lined up out wide. The average separation score among this group was 2.66 yards. There were 39 receivers in total who met the qualifications. *
1) Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs (3.52 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 3.12 (56.6 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 4.02 (40 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 8.4
The Kansas City Chiefs struck gold by selecting Tyreek Hill in the fifth-round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Hill's guilty plea following a disturbing domestic violence arrest in 2014 saw him fall to Day 3 of the college draft process and noted second-chance enthusiast Andy Reid and the Chiefs front office ended his fall with the 165th overall pick. While we should never ignore Hill's past, no matter how unavoidably uncomfortable it may make us feel in conjunction with his rising stardom, it would also be inappropriate to not rightly laud his on-field accomplishments as a rookie in the NFL.
It's clear that the Chiefs got an extreme value in the versatile Hill, who also found success as a rusher and a kick returner. His best asset is his elite speed, as he owns the fastest recorded time in the NFL in 2016 by clocking in at 23.24 MPH on a kick return that was called back in Week 3. That trait, along with some noticeably strong technique, helped him post strong separation numbers as a receiver. Hill saw the majority of his targets (56.6 percent) when lined up out wide, and averaged 3.12 yards of separation. Of course, many of his targets are "designed touches" that get the ball in his hands in open space. Targets of this variety certainly help boost his separation numbers, which is reflected in his lower air yards per target, and you can feel free to assign an asterisk next to his separation score if you please. Hill did show an ability to run some clean NFL-level routes at times this season:
Viewing Hill's two biggest receiving yardage games in conjunction helps us see a variety of routes the speedy receiver is capable of executing, including not only the deep post and go-route, but also several out-breaking and slant patterns. The Chiefs will likely task Hill with mastering more patterns in the playbook next season in order to expand his usage in the offense, as he clearly brings a dimension they never possessed at any other period in the Andy Reid/Alex Smith era.
2) Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks (3.38 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 3.29 (77.3 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 3.68 (22.7 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 11.3
2016 was meant to be a breakthrough season for second-year wideout Tyler Lockett. Seattle had a vacancy open for a playmaking outside receiver with Doug Baldwin in the slot and Jimmy Graham back at tight end. Lockett's season was derailed early with a PCL injury suffered in Week 2 that dogged him for much of the season. Once he finally got back to full speed, showed his ability and displaced Jermaine Kearse as the No. 2 receiver in the offense he, unfortunately, suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 16. If he returns fully healthy next season, this young receiver should be ready to resume establishing himself as one the NFL's premier playmakers. A dangerous deep threat with frightening open-field ability, Lockett's wildly high 3.29 yards of separation on his targets lined up out wide serves as a reminder that he's a precise and detailed route-runner. He also showed up with one of the best catch rates in tight coverage, proving he wins in contested situations despite his size. Lockett has it all. Hopefully, we get to see that for a full 16 games in 2017.
3) Chris Hogan, New England Patriots (3.28 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 3.41 (67.2 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.68 (38.2 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 12.8
Chris Hogan will likely be remembered by the mass public as the unlikely hero of the AFC Championship game, but his season-long separation scores remind us he was making plays for this team all year. Hogan was a vertical threat for the Patriots as his 12.8 air yards per target was the highest of any pass-catcher working with Tom Brady. Hogan will count just $3 and $3.5 million against the cap for the Patriots the next two seasons, and he should remain a fine cog in the engine for Brady's passing game. The question in New England will be what slice of the passing pie does 2016 rookie Malcolm Mitchell inherit next year. Mitchell flashed signs of being a game-in, game-out starter at times in his first season, something that rarely happens for inexperienced receivers in New England. Mitchell saw a higher rate of his targets outside (89.6 percent) than any other receiver on the team and averaged a healthy 2.7 yards of separation. Together, Hogan and Mitchell give the Patriots a combination of skilled exterior receivers, something they haven't had in the majority of Tom Brady's later seasons.
4) Quinton Patton, San Francisco 49ers (3.26 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 3.09 (65.1 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 3.59 (34.9 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 10.2
Of all players on this list, Quinton Patton's place at fourth in the top 10 is the most surprising. Through four years, the 2013 fourth-round pick has just 73 career catches and has scored just once. His 2016 stat line added just 408 more yards to his resume. Nevertheless, Patton's separation numbers are intriguing, especially as his usage isn't one of a gadget player. Patton's 10.2 air yards per target are within striking distance of the 10.4 NFL average. The 2017 season will bring Patton's first opportunity to play for another NFL team, as his contract is set to expire in March. We've seen receivers like Michael Crabtree and even Steve Johnson resurrect their careers after down seasons in San Francisco within the last four years. Torrey Smith's production has also eroded while playing there. Patton's separation numbers should at least encourage another team to kick the tires and see if they can deploy him as a useful rotational receiver.
5) Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota Vikings (3.16 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.98 (81.2 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 4.09 (18.8 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 6.1
The promise that Cordarrelle Patterson entered the 2014 regular season with was never fully realized. The last three years saw him become one of the NFL's best kick returners, but he caught just 35 passes from 2014 to 2015. However, rather quietly, Patterson re-emerged as a useful ancillary piece in the Vikings offense this past season, catching a career-high 52 passes. The Vikings didn't put much on his plate, as he accumulated 63 percent of his receiving yards lined up at right wide and focused on short routes.
Patterson's low 6.1 air yards per target show he's still a limited player in what he can be asked to do as a route-runner. Yet, he averaged 2.98 yards of separation on his targets out wide, showing he still has something left to offer in the NFL. Patterson will be eligible to enter free agency this offseason and could find a new home more open to being creative with him.
6) Taylor Gabriel, Atlanta Falcons (3.16 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.94 (76 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 3.86 (24 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 11.9
Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan brought Taylor Gabriel to Atlanta after the Browns waived him prior to the season. Gabriel made an instant impact with Cleveland in 2014, Shanahan's lone season as their play-caller, recording 621 yards as an undrafted free agent. The talented speedster once again became a steal for Shanahan as a surprising and exciting playmaker with the Super Bowl-bound Falcons. Gabriel averaged 11.9 air yards per target, showing that he was used as a short-area threat to make plays in the open field and after the catch, but also in the vertical game. His legitimate game-breaking speed, topping out at 21.5 MPH as a ball-carrier (28th among receivers), makes him one the most difficult covers in the NFL. It's no surprise to see Gabriel average over three yards of separation on his targets. A key cog in a Falcons team that scored 540 points this year, expect the front office to do all they can to keep the 2017 restricted free agent. A high tender will likely be slapped on Gabriel to ward off other teams from making him an offer, especially Shanahan should he indeed take the head job in San Francisco.
7) John Brown, Arizona Cardinals (3.02 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 3.05 (65.8 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.97 (34.2 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 14.9
It could not have been a more frustrating season for John Brown after he recorded his first 1,000-yard campaign and tacked on seven touchdowns in 2015. His 2016 got off to a rocky start when he missed nearly all of training camp with a concussion, an absence that took him almost a month to get back up to speed from. Just when it appeared he was recapturing momentum with a 10-catch, 144-yard game in Week 4, lower-body injuries began to creep up. It was eventually discovered that Brown had a sickle cell trait and he tried to battle all season. More often than not he was only permitted to play fewer than 30 snaps per game. Despite all that negativity, Brown's separation at target scores do still objectively show he is a talented receiver and a strong route-runner.
There's no doubting that Brown's outlook for 2017 is cloudy with his disease in tow. The Cardinals need wide receiver help after jettisoning the disappointing Michael Floyd after a DUI in December. Brown's ability is such that we shouldn't rule out a rebound from him, but whether that actually comes to pass is anyone's guess.
8) Travis Benjamin, Los Angeles Chargers (3.02 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 3.18 (65.3 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.70 (32 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 13.1
The Chargers only got 14 games and eight starts out of Travis Benjamin after signing him as a free agent from Cleveland last offseason. He posted a handful of big games in the early going in the team-wide effort to replace the injured Keenan Allen, but eventually got stung by the same PCL malady that limited Tyler Lockett all season. He topped 70 percent of the team's snaps in just two games once he returned in Week 13. For the second-year in a row, Benjamin showed he was more than just a go-route specialist with an ability to get open on crossing and out-breaking routes, posting a whopping 3.18 yards of separation out wide. Benjamin will join a suddenly crowded receiving corps next season with a hopefully healthy Keenan Allen, 2016 breakout Tyrell Williams, and the solid Dontrelle Inman.
9) Ted Ginn, Carolina Panthers (3.01 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 3.02 (84.2 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.94 (15.8 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 13.2
The Panthers certainly didn't want to end a second consecutive season with Ted Ginn playing the lead role in their wide receiver group, but that's essentially what happened. Ginn finished with just nine fewer catches than Kelvin Benjamin and held near equal volume to the 2014 first-rounder by the last month of the season. Ginn has shown utility for the Panthers as a deep threat, but the rest of their wideouts continue forcing them to use him on more than just vertical routes.
Benjamin (1.8 yards) and Devin Funchess (2.05) both finished in the bottom four in yards of separation at target among receivers with 40 or more. Benjamin at least finished with a slightly above-average contested catch rate (42.2) but Devin Funchess' 31.6 was below the 25th percentile, showing why he rarely gets on the field. Their lack of ability to create consistent separation oftentimes makes Ginn the only viable option in the wide receiver group. Their separation scores provide a stark contrast to his 3.01 average.
10) Chris Conley, Kansas City Chiefs (2.94 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 3.03 (89.7 percent of targets)
Slot separation: 2.23 (10.3 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 10.8
Chris Conley has garnered 100 targets through two seasons after being drafted in the third round in 2015. His style of play as a vertical threat along the boundary was always a curious fit with the ultra-conservative Alex Smith. Conley was an intriguing athlete coming out of college, measuring in the 98th percentile of SPARQ athletic testing. Perhaps we just haven't seen the most out of Conley yet due to his surroundings. His Next Gen Stats separation metrics would seem to hint at that. Conley saw 89.7 percent of his targets out wide, more than any other receiver in this top 10, and averaged 3.03 yards of separation. Conley appears to have strong hands as well. There's reason to believe he could impress in his next home, or if the Chiefs ever change their offensive approach to more align with his skills.
Four bonus notes:
Rookie Corey Coleman averaged 2.75 yards of separation on his targets for the Browns. He also averaged 15.4 air yards per target, working downfield plenty in his first season. Coleman should be able to enjoy a breakout season if the Browns improve their quarterback play in 2017. The team will need that even more if they are unable to re-sign Terrelle Pryor.
Adam Thielen surprised with 2.73 yards of separation on 64 outside targets. His emergence likely contributed to first-round rookie Laquon Treadwell having no impact in 2016. Thielen never seemed to get the credit he deserved for a strong season, but his separation marks show he is a legitimate player.
Nelson Agholor averages 2.32 yards of separation on his targets, ranking 33rd out of 39 receivers sampled. He also led the NFL with over 38 percent of targets coming when he had less than a yard of separation. Agholor could still be salvageable if he no longer permits his drops and mental mistakes to get into his head, but his career is well on the way in the wrong direction.