THE TRUE NUMBER ONE RECEIVERS
From Mike Sando of The Athletic:
Julio Jones’ rare size, speed, hands and route-running versatility make him a prototypical No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL. Not many would contend otherwise. Odell Beckham and Tyreek Hill are special talents with explosive play-making ability. DeAndre Hopkins dominates in his own way. Michael Thomas’ consistent production cannot be ignored. But as passing proliferates in the NFL, raw numbers can blur lines between true No. 1 wide receivers and lesser talents with outstanding production.
Over the past few months, I’ve asked coaches and evaluators around the NFL what makes a true No. 1 wideout in their minds. Some of their answers were as nuanced as the receivers themselves, but their input provided a framework for categorizing the top wideouts.
“A No. 1 receiver to me is someone who can take over a game, someone you need to double-cover the whole game,” a general manager said. “Like Julio, you have to have a safety over him the whole game, and the minute you don’t, he is going to run by you and take it to the house.”
Another GM thought true No. 1 receivers should be able to win matchups on the perimeter while showing enough versatility to play effectively from the slot as well. “He has very good speed, at least,” this GM said. “Not necessarily always size, but the athletic ability and explosiveness to change a game.”
And a third GM said true No. 1 receivers must be able to beat zone or man coverage.
“To be a No. 1,” this GM added, “you have to be able to make contested catches because we have to be able to throw the ball to you when everybody knows it’s coming.”
So who are the NFL’s true No. 1 receivers? I’ve posed that question to more than a dozen coaches and evaluators. Some of the results might surprise you.
No. 1 wide receivers (Superhuman division)
Coaches and evaluators thought these receivers possessed special traits to go along with proven production.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 220 | Slot: 19%
Jones ranks second to Antonio Brown in receptions since entering the NFL in 2011. He needs only seven yards to overtake Brown for the most receiving yards over that same period. Only Calvin Johnson averaged more yards per game since then.
“Here is the thing about him,” a GM said. “Third-and-3, third-and-4, something is coming to him. You don’t know which route. If it’s always a slant, we can drift a backer over there. He can run back-shoulder, he can run 9-stop, he can run a dig, he can run a slant and you know what? You can play him man, you can play him zone, he can make contested catches, he’s got enough speed to get over the top and he can run a variation of routes. Even if you try to bracket him, he can still find a way to get open.”
One evaluator thought Jones, 30, wasn’t quite what he once was, but since the start of the 2017 season, the six-time Pro Bowler is one of only three players to average at least 90 yards per game.
“You can battle your ass off and Julio still makes the play,” a former GM said. “When you watch people play him, they are fighting like crazy. Any incompletion is a celebration, whether you really covered him or not.”
Odell Beckham, Cleveland Browns
Ht: 5-11 | Wt: 198 | Slot: 21%
Beckham’s stock has suffered recently, but he’s such a special talent that placing him lower in the hierarchy didn’t seem right.
“Odell can do it all,” a personnel director said. “Other than Julio, he is the most complete of everybody you just mentioned — Hill, Hopkins, Michael Thomas, those guys. It’s simple, if you are going off ability, Odell has the most ability of the guys you mentioned, outside of Julio, hands down.”
Beckham has missed 16 of 37 games since the start of the 2017 season. He owns one big game from a production standpoint this season, against the Jets.
“Actually, I think he is playing better,” an evaluator said heading into Week 4. “I don’t know if there is anybody in the league right now that is getting out of breaks quicker and smoother and creating separation better than him. Rex Ryan wasn’t 100 percent wrong on his criticisms of the quarterback there.”
Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 185 | Slot: 37%
You want speed? You want versatility? Hill’s your guy, especially with Andy Reid designing the offense.
“He can do anything he wants to do,” a veteran coach said. “No one can question anywhere you put him on that list. He’s definitely in the top group because he is so dynamic. He can do outside receiver things and inside receiver things, and return things, and you can hand it off to him.”
An evaluator raised what he called the “million-dollar question” regarding Hill.
“If Tyreek were with the Cincinnati Bengals, would he still be a No. 1?” this evaluator asked. “He is a little bit more of a gadget-type player who benefits in Andy Reid’s offense. But when you talk about true No. 1s having traits that clearly separate them, he has that. You cannot deny he is the fastest player in the NFL.”
No. 1 wide receivers (Human Division)
Many coaches and evaluators anointed these guys with the No. 1 label, but they didn’t always see special traits to push them into the superhuman division.
DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 212 | Slot: 16%
Some think true No. 1 receivers should carry a vertical fear factor. Hopkins doesn’t have that kind of speed.
“There are different types of 1s,” an offensive coach said. “Randy Moss was not a great route runner, but everyone knows he was a 1.”
Hopkins seemingly can turn 50-50 balls into 100-0 balls.
“When the ball is up in the air, when it is either yours or mine, he is unbelievable,” an evaluator said. “I sat there and watched our guy (cornerback) play his butt off against him, but he just didn’t have the ball skills.”
Brown, Jones and Hopkins are the only wide receivers averaging at least 90 receiving yards per game since 2017.
“They are different guys,” an offensive coordinator said. “There are guys who beat people because they are just better, and guys who cannot separate but have the hand-eye coordination and competitiveness. It’s the difference between Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins, or Odell Beckham and Keenan Allen. With Hopkins, all his stuff is contested and he catches everything, but you don’t fear him like you fear Odell or Julio.”
Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 212 | Slot: 22%
Thomas leads the league in receptions with 366 since entering the NFL in 2016. Hopkins (320) is next on that list.
“Everyone wants to make him a No. 1, but he catches a lot of balls because they do not throw to anyone else,” a coach said. “He is the real deal, though. He’s got such great production and he’s so smart and he has everything but the great speed.”
“Michael Thomas, yes, I would say he is a No. 1,” a former GM said. “It’s just, does he have the game-changing ability?”
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ht: 6-5 | Wt: 231 | Slot: 16%
Evans is on pace for his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season to start his career. He’s averaging 20.4 yards per reception this season, up from a career-high 17.7 average in 2018. Evans also has four scoring receptions through five games, but New Orleans shut him out Sunday as cornerback Marshon Lattimore won the latest installment of their NFC South rivalry.
“I think he is a No. 1 and he is great down the field, but to me, when you are talking about Julio and Hopkins and Antonio Brown, I mean, that is a different level,” a GM said.
No. 1 wide receivers (…if you say so)
Coaches and evaluators acknowledged the talent and/or production, but a larger number weren’t willing to fully anoint for various reasons.
Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys
Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 225 | Slot: 20%
Cooper in his final 16 games with Oakland: 58 catches, 850 yards, seven touchdowns.
Cooper in his first 16 games with Dallas, counting the playoffs: 98 catches, 1,408 yards, 12 touchdowns.
The talent is obviously there, and if Cooper continues producing the way he has since Dallas acquired him, his stock will keep rising.
“Last year threw me off,” a GM said. “When they were shopping him, you start looking at what is going on and I just think (Jon) Gruden got in his head. I think the guy is a 1.”
Cooper has five scoring receptions in the Cowboys’ first five games this season.
“I would say he is 1A,” a former GM said. “I think he has good explosiveness. I don’t think he is as strong or as explosive as Hopkins, Julio, Antonio Brown. He is not like that. Those guys are on another level to me.”
Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 225 | Slot: 17%
In recent years, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has targeted wide receivers at a far higher rate than other top quarterbacks have targeted them. Running backs and tight ends simply haven’t been a big part of the passing game.
“I think you saw when Davante Adams hurt his toe on Thursday night (against the Eagles), there went the offense,” an evaluator said. “I think he is a true No. 1. Not that big, not that fast, but makes a lot of plays. To me, when it is third-and-6 and we have to keep the chains moving, that guy gets open.”
Others were not so sure, but some of that was because different coaches and evaluators defined No. 1 receivers in different ways. Adams doesn’t check as many boxes as some of the others.
“I think a 1 is a guy you have to actually scheme to take out of the game,” a longtime exec said. “You have to commit additional resources to it. If you go one-on-one, he is going to beat you, so you have to game-plan around him. I don’t think you have to game plan for this guy. Doesn’t mean he won’t catch a lot of passes.”
T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 183 | Slot: 26%
Only Brown, Jones and Hopkins have more receiving yards than Hilton since 2013.
“Underrated receiver,” an evaluator said. “He just always makes plays. I don’t know if he gets his due. To me, that is a guy who I don’t think defenses would think they have to double and maybe think they have to stop coming into a game. He is just a consistently good fricking little receiver who makes plays.”
The relative lack of size does hurt Hilton in the eyes of some.
“I know if we are playing him, we are probably going to have a safety (over the top) a lot because of the speed,” a GM said, “but the size and the physicality … I think you can push him around a little.”
Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers
Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 211 | Slot: 45%
Allen is on pace to surpass 1,500 yards this season with the best production through the first five games of a season in his five-year career.
“He is really good in the slot, but I think outside, you can take him away,” a GM said. “I think he is really good, though. One of the best inside, instinctive, savvy players. I just think if they left him outside, he would be a ho-hum guy.”
Allen caught nine passes for 128 yards and a touchdown when aligned wide against Houston in Week 3. The Texans’ secondary has been a problem spot, however.
“He’s their best receiver, but is he on the level of those other guys?” a former GM said. “I don’t know. Even though the stats are really good, off the charts, a lot of times if you have a good quarterback and he’s throwing to you, that helps too.”
Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings
Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 200 | Slot: 42%
Like Allen, Thielen aligns in the slot more than No. 1 receivers typically do. Coaches and evaluators thought Thielen was more 1A than true No. 1.
“He is somewhere in between and needs other people around him,” a veteran coach said. “Thielen is probably closer than I give him credit for, but like some receivers who always get the second DB, if you are in the slot, that helps with matchups.”
The Last Word
…on some receivers who may or may not belong in the No. 1 conversation (if I left off someone you’re interested in, it probably meant I didn’t have a comment worth sharing).
A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 210 | Slot: 14%
“At one time, I would have put him in that group with Julio. He is just banged up. To say he is a 1 today, I don’t know that. I think he is trending down. Let’s see how he comes back.”
Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings
Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 191 | Slot: 24%
“I actually think Diggs is a better receiver than Thielen even though Thielen has the stats. I think you can line up Diggs inside and outside to get open. I think Diggs can do what Davante Adams can do, but they don’t use him in that role. The more outside Thielen is, I think you can cover him.”
Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles
Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 218 | Slot: 13%
“He is hard to cover and when he gets singled up, he beats the guy who singles him up, but I don’t see him playing like a 1 consistently.”
Brandin Cooks, Los Angeles Rams
Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 183 | Slot: 16%
“I think he’s a one-trick pony a little bit — vertical, straight line, small. But everywhere he goes, he is a key contributor to a winning team. He can be overlooked. I’d rather have him than Sammy Watkins.”
Robert Woods, Los Angeles Rams
Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 195 | Slot: 33%
“If they lost Woods, that would hurt more than if you took Cooks off, because Woods to me is the guy who moves the chains, runs the precise routes, that the quarterback is always going to know where he’s at. If you are going to play soft and not give up the home run, Woods is going to catch eight passes for 110 yards and a touchdown or two.”
Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks
Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 182 | Slot: 50%
“I think he’s got a little T.Y. Hilton in him, but I don’t think they schematically use him in that role, whereas I think he could be that guy.”
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 215 | Slot: 53%
“Everyone is looking at you. The opportunity is there. Does he seize it? It’s a different deal without Antonio Brown there, and then obviously the quarterback situation is a factor.”
Jarvis Landry, Cleveland Browns
Ht: 5-11 | Wt: 196 | Slot: 60%
“He is Michael Thomas in a little man’s body who can’t play outside. He plays tough — you gotta love the guy — but might be in that category where he is never going to be anything but good.”
Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears
Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 220 | Slot: 35%
“If he had not gotten injured that one year (2017), I think he could have been on pace with a Thielen. Is he good enough on a week-to-week basis to separate and be a true No. 1? I don’t know if he has enough. There is a separator between the true No. 1s and the vast majority of guys that are good but not great.”
Josh Gordon, New England Patriots
Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 225 | Slot: 12%
“I don’t think he runs as great as he used to, but he’s a good 2.”
Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions
Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 214 | Slot: 16%
“I think Golladay is a legit No. 1 receiver. He is not going to beat you on speed, but he could be a Mike Evans-type player. Golladay has physical ability to beat corners one-on-one on a down you need it most. He is just bigger and stronger.”
Sammy Watkins, Kansas City Chiefs
Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 211 | Slot: 34%
“I don’t know what he is, but it’s tough to say he is a 1. You are still taking him off what you thought about him in the draft. He just has not been consistent enough.”
Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 209 | Slot: 30%
“Reliable, tough player you can count on, with the ability to play inside and out. His max potential could be like a Michael Thomas or Adam Thielen – a 1 for some teams but probably best as a 2.”
Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 198 | Slot: 53%
“I wish there was another category of guys that are just consistently good, consistently solid. I would not say Julian is a No. 1. I think he is a darn good slot.”
Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams
Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 208 | Slot: 52%
“Kupp is like a machine. He is like the Carolina running back (Christian McCaffrey) of slot receivers. He just goes and goes.”
D.J. Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars
Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 198 | Slot: 22%
“Chark is the real deal. His performance (Sunday against Carolina) was the best I’ve seen in a while. Really good athlete. Right now, he is putting up No. 1-type numbers.”
A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans
Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 226 | Slot: 6%
“I think he can be a 1 and I think he can be the best receiver on that team. He has the all-around ability.”
Marquise Brown, Baltimore Ravens
Ht: 5-9 | Wt: 170 | Slot: 30%
“Durability was my biggest concern and he did get hurt in the Pittsburgh game. He can sure run and make plays, not just on offense but on special teams, too.”
D.K. Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks
Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 229 | Slot: 14%
“It is crazy to me that he fell so late in the second round. He has traits that are ridiculous. He will just line up and beat you. I think he can become a 1.”
Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers
Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 215 | Slot: 16%
“Don’t be surprised if in Year 2 or Year 3, guys like Deebo Samuel and Parris Campbell (of the Colts) suddenly emerge. I see them in that next category (below the true No. 1s).”
Terry McLaurin, Washington Redskins
Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 210 | Slot: 16%
“I love him but don’t view him as a true No. 1. To me, at his best, he is more of a slot receiver who will make big plays for you when you need them most.”
Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos
Ht: 5-11 | Wt: 180 | Slot: 38%
“Sanders is a great example of a solid guy that has always been a really good No. 2-type receiver. In some ways, he is their No. 1 right now in Denver. Speaking of Denver, he still hasn’t flashed to his true potential, but I think Courtland Sutton has the potential to be that guy.”
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 218 | Slot: 58%
“DeAndre Hopkins at the point reminds me a little of Larry Fitzgerald at one time, except Fitz maybe had more run-after-catch.”