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NFL Draft

Building The Best Wide Receiver In NFL

  • The Draft Network
  • May 16, 2020
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Building the best wide receiver, trait by trait, isn't an easy task. 

The position overflows with talent, and every year young, exciting players are added into a mix of esteemed, polished veterans. There are a few receivers who belong on a top-10 list of overall talents at the position — Odell Beckham Jr., Tyreek Hill and A.J. Green — that failed to win a single category here, though if you swapped them in and another out, I'd be hard-pressed to argue with you.

I put my stamp on my nine, using the same traits I grade when I'm evaluating receiver prospects, along with the top player for each receiver trait. I also listed a young player who I believe has the best shot to take the crown in the next few years; that list is perhaps as exciting as the list of winners when you consider the tremendous ceiling as the position rife with young stars.

Have disagreements or qualms? Drop your ire on Twitter.

Route Running: Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills

Picking the best route runner in the league is tricky; they are built differently. There are sexy separators, who snap off double-moves and post-corner-posts like human joysticks. There are physical bullies, who initiate contact just to shove corners aside as the ball arrives, and savvy slots, who always get to the exact same spot at the exact same time, regardless of the coverage they’re facing. Many players have mastered one play style but few are adept at all three. Of those, Stefon Diggs is the most dynamic.

No other receiver has a wide range of routes available to them as Diggs does. From both the outside and the slot, Diggs is regularly able to create separation and leverage in his stem. He then parlays that initial leverage into even greater separation after a break, a double move, a head fake or any combination of release moves. Diggs' loose, springy frame is well-suited to snapping off quick breaks, and his instant acceleration emphasizes the embarrassment of corners who try to defend him.

In a couple of years: Terry McLaurin, Washington Redskins

Release: Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers

Davante Adams deserves much more of a run in the conversation for the top-10 receivers than he currently gets. The most exciting part of his generally under-appreciated game is his ability to get off the line of scrimmage against press coverage; those quick, explosive wins allow him to dominant in the quick game with good routes and hands as well as downfield with nice track and adjust abilities.

What stands out about Adams is his ability to adjust tempo and manipulate spacing. Route running is often illustrated with the analogy of telling a story to the defender, and Adams' knack for slow-playing his initial footwork and letting cornerbacks think he's well-positioned, only to snap across their face or up the field and immediately generate leverage, is unique. Snappy really is the word for Adams at the line of scrimmage; he's extremely sudden, but his play strength and handiwork remain top-shelf as well, leading to some of the best releases in the league.

In a couple of years: Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons

Physicality: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

Michael Thomas is a wicked competitive player in all facets of his game, and accordingly, few receivers are as willing or eager to initiate contact and play as Thomas does. He is by no means a small receiver. Thomas is listed at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, but he doesn't win on outside jump balls the way a lot of big receivers are expected to. He frequently wins on quick-breaking routes at the shallow and intermediate levels of the route distribution. That unique usage for his frame is the result of his willingness to body corners in the contact window and fearlessness when asked to catch through contact.

Thomas is a bully; there are no two ways about that. He's got a patient style of route running that allows for, and almost invites, contact because he knows he'll be able to throw it off and immediately separate given his blend of hip sink and play strength. There's a cockiness to the way he accosts smaller corners that often play him in the slot. It's just plain mean.

In a couple of years: A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans

Hands: DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals

There's no way to be imaginative or introduce a dark horse to this conversation; there is nobody in the league with better hands than DeAndre Hopkins. Other players make similar spectacular catches, have consistent hands across the middle or through contact and humongous catch radii. Nobody has all the three the way Hopkins does, and that's why he's in the conversation for the top spot on any ranking of NFL receivers.

While Hopkins has improved as a route runner over the course of his career, he has always been elite as a late separator, regularly clearing his hands at the last possible moment to always address the ball away from his frame and the defender. Hopkins' catch technique at all angles or body positioning is consistent and optimized, which is what leads to many of his spectacular catches. It's not just a skill; it's a practiced technique.

In a couple of years: Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Functional Athleticism: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

Julio Jones remains the exemplar for wide receiver athleticism even at his ripe old age of 31. Jones was the only player within a stone's throw of Calvin Johnson when it came to athleticism expressed at wideout, as both were capable of running away from defenders, running through them or running circles around them. The routes which Jones is capable may look like ones from Diggs and Adams above, but Jones is playing with a couple of extra inches and at least 10 extra pounds.

Of course, the reality of functional athleticism is that it depends particularly on the function. The athletic ability that Mike Evans uses is markedly different than the athletic ability Hill uses. Even though both are running a nine route, Evans is looking to play physically and maintain outside leverage for a back-shoulder fade or a jump ball while Hill is looking to use his quickness to get off of the press and his long speed to generate a downfield stack. A lot of players could be discussed as winners here.

In a couple of years: Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs; D.K. Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks

Yards After Catch: Golden Tate, New York Giants

Much like the conversation of who has the best hands, there might be a temptation to name a different player here, but nobody really has as strong of a case for yards after the catch (YAC) as Golden Tate, who has held this title for most of the decade. The only true challenger is Godwin, who has finished top-10 in NFL Next Gen Stats' YAC metric in two of the last three seasons and took first in 2017.

Tate has been top-10 in all four seasons the statistical measure has existed.

Tate has running back-like instincts in the open field with a tremendous vision for defenders closing in behind him or in pursuit. It's his ability to make the second player miss while still handling the first would-be tackler that stands out as particularly rare for a receiver, but his lightning-quick first step, thick frame and junkyard dog competitiveness are all necessary physical traits to bring his stellar YAC plays to reality.

In a couple of years: Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers

Catch Radius: Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Nobody better fills the "skyscraper" prototype as Evans, who remains the most physically imposing receiver to stare down at the line of scrimmage. Evans stormed through the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine at 6-foot-4 and 3/4 inches and 231 pounds with 35 1/8 inch arms. He is impossible to actually cover for any cornerbacks; they just occupy as much real estate of his frame as they can and hope the ball doesn't arrive at the parts they couldn't get to.

What Evans also has that truly elevates his catch radius is instinct and vision — his track and adjust. Evans frequently finds the ball before the defender and can even locate it successfully when he's late turning his head or dealing with contact down the field. Given his pterodactyl reach and punishing strength, he boxes out like a stretch four and puts himself in a position where only he, among all NFL receivers, could get to the football.

In a couple of years: Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos

Track & Adjust: DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles

Track and adjust, much like functional athleticism or route running, looks different from different prototypes of receivers. Just take young stud Kenny Golladay, who I've highlighted as potentially the future king of this trait. He plays the game totally differently than Jackson does, but both remain extremely instinctual and intelligent players who locate the ball quickly and always get into a position to make a play. With Jackson, the premiere speed threat of the last 10 years of football, the track and adjust come in his uncanny ability to extrapolate a deep ball’s landing point while it's still at the apex of its trajectory.

This trait makes Jackson more than just a speed threat. He's an inaccuracy eraser who quarterbacks can just throw up a prayer and let him run under it. While the trait wouldn't be as valuable without the advantage offered him by his explosiveness and long speed, Jackson will always be distinct from the Will Fuller’s and Marquise Brown’s of the league because of how many bad footballs he can successfully get to and then catch. That's truly a quarterback's best friend.

In a couple of years: Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions

Blocking: Robert Woods, Los Angeles Rams

Why does Robert Woods perennially pop up among those players considered most underrated by league analysts? Because he's such an excellent blocker, and that really ends up mattering for his teams. Woods is the king of the little things among NFL receivers in regards to detailed routes and smart YAC plays. And his extra effort on screens, crackbacks or even lead blocks create hidden yardage for the offense. Put a replacement player in for Woods, and the entire team gets worse.

In a couple of years: Miles Boykin, Baltimore Ravens

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