Few plays are as exciting in football as the well-thrown deep ball hurled down the field to a wide receiver cutting through an opposing secondary. Big plays can turn the tide of a game and completely flip field position. It's why we see teams every offseason chase players who can bring that added dimension to an offense.
Creating plays in the deep game goes beyond pure speed. The league's best deep threats don't just run past defender -- they use deception in their route-running to elude defenders and the ability to track the ball in the air to win down the field. With the help of the Next Gen Stats data collected via the chips in every player's shoulder pads, we can now quantify some of those skills to learn who is the most dangerous wide receiver on downfield passes.
Using a composite score of several receiver stats accumulated on deep targets, we'll examine the top 10 deep threats from the 2017 season. Here are the qualifiers for these rankings:
» Only wide receivers who saw 10 or more deep targets qualified for the rankings. Next Gen Stats defines a "deep pass" as a throw that travels 20-plus air yards.
» The final ranking was established by assessing which wide receivers had the best score in the following four categories:
-- Passer rating when targeted on deep throws.
-- Catch rate on deep targets.
-- Percentage of total yards accumulated on deep passes.
-- Touchdowns scored on deep throws (lower deep targets broke ties between identical numbers).
» A composite score of the best players in all four categories was used, so that the rankings provided a balanced view of how the subjects performed this year. The lowest score signified the top performer.
**Passer rating:** 138.9 (second).
**Catch rate:** 54.2 percent (second).
**Percentage of yards:** 53.1 percent (second).
**Deep touchdowns:** 6 (second).
It would have been a surprise if anyone else had ended up as the top player on this list. Hill emerged as a dangerous playmaker during his rookie season in 2016. Last offseason, the team severed ties with Jeremy Maclin and elevated Hill to the No. 1 receiver role for 2017. The former fifth-round pick thrived as the Chiefs' primary receiver and was particularly effective downfield, where he demonstrated the ability to win. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound wideout also tracked the ball in contested situations, catching seven of his 13 tight-window targets for 25.7 yards per reception.
**Passer rating:** 121.5 (sixth).
**Catch rate:** 50 percent (third).
**Percentage of yards:** 51.6 percent (third).
**Deep touchdowns:** 5 (fourth).
The most dangerous wide receivers in the NFL win on contested throws and make big plays. With that in mind, it's notable that Jones finished No. 2 in both the rankings of the best wideouts on tight-window targets and the top deep threats. Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter molded Matthew Stafford to fit into a system that revolves around up-tempo short passing, but when the former No. 1 overall pick reverts to his gunslinger ways, Stafford's eyes go to Jones. Their connection down the field evolved into a true weapon in the receiver's second season with the team. Jones recorded 15 deep receptions in 2017, trailing only Brandin Cooks. While he might not check the boxes of a traditional No. 1 receiver, Jones provides rare proficiency in both the vertical and contested-catch games.
**Passer rating:** 135.4 (third).
**Catch rate:** 50 percent (fourth).
**Percentage of yards:** 40.8 percent (eighth).
**Deep touchdowns:** 3 (10th).
The long-time NFL speedster moved from the Panthers to join the NFC South-rival Saints last offseason and filled their need for a deep threat. Even at 32 years old, Ginn proved to be one of the best vertical threats in the NFL in 2017. Of his four scores, three came on passes that traveled 20-plus yards in the air. He wasn't as prolific as former Saint Brandin Cooks, who was traded to New England last year, but the veteran wideout filled the shot-play role in the always-high-flying Drew Brees passing game. Ginn has two more years left on his deal with New Orleans, and while the team will add more weapons this offseason, the 12th-year pro will help the Saints continue to operate as one of the league's premier aerial attacks as his career winds down.
**Passer rating:** 97.1 (15th).
**Catch rate:** 44 percent (sixth).
**Percentage of yards:** 40.6 percent (ninth).
**Deep touchdowns:** 7 (first).
One of 2017's top breakout receivers, Anderson emerged as a true difference-maker on a Jets offense that was expected to be among the league's worst headed into the regular season. The former undrafted free agent's vertical ability -- of which we saw signs during his rookie season in 2016 -- became fully formed in his second NFL campaign. All seven of Anderson's touchdowns in 2017 came on deep passes, and he led all wide receivers in the category. Still just 24 years old, Anderson clearly has the ability to be one of the best vertical wideouts in the game for years to come, though he's also set a troubling pattern of behavior off the field. Anderson's January arrest in Florida was his second arrest in less than a year's time. Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News wrote that the Jets aren't ready to give up on Anderson, but that he's in danger or running out of chances and could face a league-mandated suspension in 2018.
**Passer rating:** 97.0 (16th).
**Catch rate:** 45.7 percent (fifth).
**Percentage of yards:** 55.5 percent (first).
**Deep touchdowns:** 3 (14th).
While he switched teams in 2017, moving from New Orleans to New England, little changed about Cooks' ability to make plays as a vertical threat. Cooks led all wide receivers with 16 catches on throws that traveled 20-plus yards in the air, while he added a big-play element the Patriots' offense hasn't had since the days of Randy Moss. Cooks' presence brought a noticeable difference, as Tom Brady saw his intended air yards average rise to 9.4 last season after finishing at 8.6 in 2016. Cooks, who will enter the final year of his contract in 2018, will almost certainly be a priority for the team to extend after being the rare successful wide receiver to immediately take to the system, outside of Chris Hogan, since the Moss and Wes Welker years.
**Passer rating:** 126.2 (fourth).
**Catch rate:** 38.9 percent (12th).
**Percentage of yards:** 39.1 percent (10th).
**Deep touchdowns:** 3 (12th).
After the likes of Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins are scooped up on the free-agent market, teams in need of an X-receiver will turn their attention to yet another 2014 draft pick. Richardson emerged as the second-best wideout on the Seahawks behind Doug Baldwin last year, serving as Seattle's primary downfield threat. Russell Wilson had a 126.2 passer rating when targeting Richardson on passes that traveled 20-plus yards in the air. The lanky wideout hauled in seven deep balls for 275 yards and three scores. Teams will have questions about Richardson's injury history, including a twice-torn ACL that kept him from cracking the passing rotation until Tyler Lockett was hurt late in 2016. However, he's a soon-to-be 26-year-old deep threat who is more than comfortable fighting for the ball with defensive backs right in his hip pocket. Those traits make him an ideal target for offenses in need of help out wide.
**Passer rating:** 139.2 (first).
**Catch rate:** 54.5 percent (first).
**Percentage of yards:** 33.6 percent (21st).
**Deep touchdowns:** two (17th).
It's hard to overstate what a tremendous rookie season Smith-Schuster had from an efficiency standpoint. The USC product swiftly blew past the competition on the depth chart, including once-celebrated deep threat Martavis Bryant, to become the No. 2 receiver in Pittsburgh, across from Antonio Brown. Even with all the off-field noise generated by Smith-Schuster's personality, he made more than enough plays on the gridiron for that to be the story of his inaugural pro campaign. His prowess on deep targets was wildly impressive. Smith-Schuster's 139.2 passer rating and 54.5 percent catch rate when targeted on throws that traveled 20-plus air yards led all qualifying receivers. The Steelers wideout won't turn 22 until late November. He has every chance to be one of the league's bright young stars for years.
**Passer rating:** 97.0 (17th).
**Catch rate:** 42.3 percent (seventh).
**Percentage of yards:** 34.7 percent (19th).
**Deep touchdowns:** 4 (seventh).
What makes Baldwin -- one of the two or three best slot receivers in the NFL -- different from the rest of the league's crop of short-area interior receivers is his ability to also get loose down the field. Baldwin got on the scene with his ability to show up with big plays in big moments, especially on plays where Russell Wilson broke structure to improvise. These attributes still make him one of the more dangerous players at his position. Baldwin snagged 11 deep passes for 344 yards and four of his eight touchdowns in 2017. Baldwin has racked up 3,188 yards as the Seahawks' top pass catcher over the last three seasons. He's the rare wide receiver who has sustained success while playing with the unconventional Wilson. The former undrafted wide receiver simply doesn't get enough credit as one of the most well-rounded players at the position.
**Passer rating:** 81.9 (23rd).
**Catch rate:** 33.3 percent (21st).
**Percentage of yards:** 47.8 percent (fourth).
**Deep touchdowns:** 4 (fifth).
There was a moment in time last season when Fuller was one of the most dangerous wide receivers in the NFL. During the four-game span when Fuller (who didn't play until Week 4 because of a broken collarbone) and Deshaun Watson (whose season ended after Week 8 because of a torn ACL) were on the field together in Houston, Fuller scored seven touchdowns. The former first-round pick racked up an outrageous 202 yards and four touchdowns on just five deep passes in 2017. Fuller was bullied over and over again during the draft process for his deficiencies, mostly his subpar hands and propensity for drops. Yet, that brief moment in the sun -- when Fuller was paired with a gifted young quarterback playing at an elite level -- showed the value of a player with a trump card. Yes, Fuller has flaws, but his ability to get downfield and win on deep routes is unmatched among his peers at the wide receiver position. Hopefully we see Watson and Fuller stretch out their excellent 2017 output into a full-season showing, which would likely vault the speedy wideout up this list.
**Passer rating:** 99.0 (14th).
**Catch rate:** 37.5 percent (15th).
**Percentage of yards:** 35.8 percent (15th).
**Deep touchdowns:** 3 (ninth).
After Agholor's first two NFL seasons, the idea that he'd find himself on a top-10 list like this would have been nearly unfathomable. Yet, here we are. A move to the slot revived the wideout's career in his third pro campaign, and he enjoyed a breakout season for the eventual Super Bowl champions. Agholor looked at home running routes from the inside and began to demonstrate the big-play ability that made him a first-round selection back in 2015. While just 16.8 percent of Agholor's catches in 2017 came on deep passes, he made them count, totaling 275 yards and three touchdowns. The USC product heads into his fourth NFL season as a well-established top piece in the Eagles' well-oiled offensive machine. Agholor is now the poster boy of why you shouldn't write off a young player when his career gets off to a slow start.
A pair of young wideouts, Detroit's Kenny Golladay and Washington's Josh Doctson, finished just behind Diggs on the list. Both are big wideouts who win contested catches, making their deep-game ability all the more intriguing. Neither played a full season last year, and both are just getting accustomed to the NFL field, but they'll be ticketed for bigger roles in 2018. Keep your eye on these receivers.
In any other year, Tampa Bay receiver DeSean Jackson, who has been one of the league's premier vertical receivers over the last decade, would have pushed for the list. However, in 2017, his numbers showed just how much communication, timing and chemistry with your quarterback matter when working in the deep game. Jackson ranked 44th on this list, as he caught just five of 26 deep targets from both of the quarterbacks to start for the Bucs, who had a paltry 19.2 passer rating when throwing to him. Working the deep game is a two-way street.