Quick: who are the best cornerbacks in the NFL?
It’s a difficult conversation. Over the last six years, we’ve seen so many peaks of dominance wane quickly into slides back into quality, but unspectacular play: Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Chris Harris Jr., Desmond Trufant, Darius Slay, and Casey Hayward all still play in the league, and play pretty well. But they’ve been ousted from the upper echelon of players.
With wide receivers, this isn’t as muddled. Once the Era of Megatron ended, the clear top crop of NFL receivers emerged: Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, and Antonio Brown were about as clearly dominant as it got. Brown is out of the NFL now, but for a few years there, you couldn’t start a list of the top NFL receivers without those three names.
There are many ways to stack receivers against each other—film work and statistical output are both being parsed with finer lenses than ever before. But in terms of pure dominance, it doesn’t get much simpler than this: who led the NFL in receiving yards? Certainly, NFL receivers care about efficient routes and a low drop rate and breaking tackles, but at the end of the day, they just wanted to catch more balls for more yards than anyone else.
Which begs the question: who has a shot to top the league in 2020? I make the case here for Green Bay WR Davante Adams, who has been quietly productive for his now veteran career in Green Bay, and steps into perhaps his best opportunity yet in the upcoming season.
In shocking news, of the last 10 players to lead the NFL in receiving yards, six were also the best in the NFL in receiving yards per game. Some, like Brown in 2017 or Josh Gordon in 2013, didn’t even put together full seasons when they won the award, as they were so productive on a per-game basis that it only took 14-game seasons for them to pace the league.
Receiving yards per game, then, can help us identify players who could have made the push this season for bigger total volume, if not for the time they lost. Michael Thomas, 2019’s leading receiver, also led the NFL in yards per game. Second was Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin, with teammate Mike Evans joining him at fourth overall.
Both Godwin and Evans are interesting players to consider, in that, should one get injured early on, the other has a tremendous chance of pushing for the award. But without Jameis Winston spraying it all over the field, and the fact that we’ve yet to see Tom Brady jel in the new system in Tampa Bay, I’m cautious on both.
Third on the list is Julio Jones, who’s always a great bet. Jones has already bested the NFL twice (2015, 2018), which many before him have done—most recently Brown (2017, 2014) and Calvin Johnson (2011, 2012). The most recent three-peater was Jerry Rice, who actually led the NFL in receiving yards six times across the course of his career. That’s pretty nuts.
But the real interesting player is fifth on this list: Davante Adams. On a 12-game season last year, Adams failed to hit the millenia mark, meaning he only has one season of over 1,000 yards in his career (but three seasons over 996 yards). But on a per-game basis, Adams was extremely productive on a stunning amount of volume. On the same list of five producers, only Thomas had more targets per game than Adams.
Of course, this means Adams was less efficient than Evans, or Julio, or Godwin. But efficiency isn’t really the name of the game here.
Raw output does not reflect maximization of opportunity, and as such, the leader in receiving yards has to be decently efficient, but really not much beyond that—such is the nature of an ever-passing league. From 2010 to 2013, Brandon Lloyd, Johnson (twice), and Gordon all averaged over 16 yards per reception when they led the league in receiving—but only 2011 Johnson caught more than 60% of his targets.
Since then, every winner has been below 16 yards per reception. T.Y. Hilton, in 2016, was the closest—and he was also the only winner to catch fewer than 60% of his targets, as the winners before him had.
In short, the meta for producing a ton of receiving yards is shifting. On generally equivalent volume, the deep threats aren’t excelling anymore—it’s the steady, reliable, predictable catchers who can win at all three levels. This is how Thomas, with a feeble 11.6 yards per reception in 2019, still led the NFL in receiving yards. He feasted on 185 targets and caught a stunning 80.5% of them. It’s how Adams could win it too: last season, he caught 65% of his targets at 12 yards per reception.
The same opportunity will not be present for Thomas in 2020, as Emmanuel Sanders becomes the best WR2 with which he’s ever played, and receiving threat Alvin Kamara presumably returns to full health. Volume will likely still be present for Adams, as the Packers famously did not draft a wide receiver for their depleted room and pleading veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Concerningly, the Packers did draft with a different offensive philosophy in mind: running the football. LaFleur wants to bring a Shanahan/Tennessee model to his Green Bay tenure, which means using heavy and diverse run action to open up a play-action passing game. Here, Adams may have fewer targets than his competitors, though his targets will have good depth to it. It’s worth noting that, even as Adams missed four games on the season, he still led the Packers’ receiving threats in the share of targeted air yards he demanded, given his high volume relative to Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s occasional deep shots. But his average depth of target (10) remained below both Lazard (13.8) and Valdes-Scantling (16.6), which was second-best in the NFL. If LaFleur leans hard into the philosophy of few, but deep passes, Adams could fall out of favor.
But if your offensive philosophy tells you to throw fewer passes to Davante Adams and more passes to Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard, your offensive philosophy is not going to put many points on the board, and something will need to change. It seems likely to me that Rodgers, who is a notoriously… determined quarterback when it comes to setting a direction for the offense, will continue to feed Adams regardless, as he's been the sixth-most targeted receiver in the NFL over the last four seasons.
With Adams I have volume, and I have enough efficiency to capitalize on that volume. What I don’t have is health, as Adams hasn’t churned out a 16-game season since 2016, only the second time in his six-year career. It’s mostly been minor stuff—he’s never played fewer than the 12 games he played last year—but it still seems to indicate that a full season from Adams is an unreliable proposition.
This is the risk in projecting such dominance from Adams—but everything else is there for him to make a statistical leap. The passing game is Adams’ and Adams’ alone in Green Bay, and the guy slinging the pill isn’t half-bad. With some health and some offensive flexibility, he’ll be among the league leaders in receiving yards come 2020.