The NFL’s top 15 outside receivers

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·16 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

One of the more common clichés about the modern NFL, or the modern game of football at any level, is this: Passing is king.

Teams have to throw the football to win. Of course that puts a lot of pressure on the players passing the ball, but that also makes those catching the football vitally important for offenses. Particularly the receivers on the outside, often operating without a “two-way go,” facing elite cornerback with high-level press coverage skills, and even safeties rotated in their direction.

Which makes what these players do so special.

Now, astute observers likely recognize that instead of 11 top outside receivers, we have included 15. That is a nod not only to the talent level of the position, but also the importance of the position. This is a tweak that will be made for the quarterbacks as well. Plus, trying to trim this list to 15 was hard enough, getting to 11 was darn near impossible.

Here are the NFL’s top 15 outside receivers.

(Oh, and before anyone asks, the last player out was Keenan Allen of the Los Angeles Chargers. But fear not Chargers fans, he got his accolades in Doug Farrar’s list of the top slot receivers).

D.K. Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks

(Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports)

There is an old adage in life: Do one thing and do it well. In that vein we kick off the countdown of the top 15 outside receivers with D.K. Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks. Since entering the league Metcalf has been one of the most dangerous vertical receivers in the NFL, and 2020 was no exception. He was targeted on 29 passes of more than 20 yards last season, according to charting data from Pro Football Focus, and turned those targets into 12 receptions for 480 yards and four touchdowns. You'll see that deep-game prowess show up in these videos: https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1310991349345386496 https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1313211616469680147 The pairing of Metcalf with Russell Wilson, a great deep-ball thrower, is perfect for the Seattle offense.

Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

There are some who believe that Tom Brady is due for an even better 2021 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and I count myself among those holding such a belief. Beyond the fact that he will now be in his second year in the system, Brady will have the benefit of some familiar faces around him, including one of the NFL's best receiving duos in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Both players check in on this list, with Evans appearing first. Last season was Evans' seventh-straight year with over 1,000 receiving yards, as he posted 81 receptions for 1,210 yards and 15 touchdowns, a career-high mark for scoring. He also earned a spot in the "Tom Brady Circle of Trust," and you'll see that in this video on the switch concept as Brady attacks the middle of the field to Evans who for his part executes the play perfectly: https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1341126296328290304

Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings

(Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)

We turn to another top receiving duo in the league, as the Minnesota Vikings place two players of their own on this list. The first is Adam Thielen, who enjoyed a great season in 2020 as he hauled in 74 passes for 925 yards and a career-high 14 touchdowns, the first time he dipped into double-digits in that mark. Like many of the top receivers on this list and in the NFL today, Thielen's combination of footwork, route-running and ability at the catch point is a big reason why he produces at such a high level, and why he appears on lists like this one. He showed all three of those traits on this touchdown from last season: https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1330651447831117825 With some questions in the rest of the division -- particularly the status of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- the Vikings could be in position to make a run at the division title. The presence of Thielen on the roster, as well as his teammate Justin Jefferson who we will see in a moment, is a big reason why.

Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys

(Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

I'll admit to being a huge fan of Amari Cooper's dating back to his time at Alabama. He was my top wide receiver in that draft class, thanks in large part to his ability to offer an NFL offense the entire route tree coming out of college, as I dove into in this profile. As a rookie in the NFL he showcased his "full-body route-running" on this touchdown and when the Dallas Cowboys acquired him from the Raiders via a trade, you saw an almost immediate payoff in the play of quarterback Dak Prescott, given Cooper's ability to get consistent separation on his routes. Cooper's ability to separate continued last season, and it showed up on plays like this touchdown against the Cleveland Browns: https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1312808983300775938 Cooper aims for the outside shoulder of the cornerback, which creates space on his break to the inside and widens the throwing window for Prescott. Cooper then accelerates into and out of his break, showing perfect concentration for the score.

Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

By almost any measure, 2020 was a down campaign for Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints. Thomas suffered a high ankle sprain in the season opener and did not return until the second half of the season, missing nine games. He also endured a torn deltoid in his shoulder, and as a result he will require multiple surgeries according to a report from ESPN's Adam Schefter. Beyond that, and coming off a season where he was held to 45 receptions for 511 yards and a single touchdown, the Saints are transitioning to life without Drew Brees under center. Still, when healthy Thomas has some of the route-running, footwork and change-of-direction skills you want from a top NFL wideout. Look at the separation Thomas gets on this dig route: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/ThomasDigSeparation.mp4">[/video] Thomas's break here against man coverage creates a huge window, and only a late throw from the QB makes this play close in the end. Thomas can also win downfield, as he did in the playoffs on this vertical route against the Chicago Bears: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/ThomasVertical.mp4">[/video] There is every reason to believe that a healthy Michael Thomas will ease the transition to a post-Brees era in New Orleans.

Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

Joining teammate Mike Evans on this list is Chris Godwin, another elite weapon for Tom Brady in the passing game. Ask Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans who is the better receiver of the two might elicit some differing opinions, but for my money, Godwin gets the nod. Why? A few reasons. First, there is a bit more nuance and subtlety to Godwin's route-running. He understands leverage very well and uses releases, angles and footwork very effectively. Take this example against the Washington Football Team, as he uses a little hesitation at the top of his stem to set up a touchdown: https://twitter.com/iJordanMoore/status/1348090551669821442 But Godwin also can deliver in the deep passing game, and his versatility is a great asset. There was this play from the NFC Championship game, when Godwin skied above the secondary to deliver a huge play early: https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1353444185773273090 Then this moment from the regular season: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/BradySlotFadeVideo5.mp4">[/video] Godwin's acceleration and ball-tracking skills stand out on this touchdown, and are part of the reasons he is one of the NFL's top receivers.

Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons

(Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

I am never a fan of relying on a single play to summarize an NFL player. But if I were force to pick just one to demonstrate what Calvin Ridley does as an NFL wideout, it would be this catch-and-run against the Kansas City Chiefs: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/RidleySlant.mp4">[/video] Facing press alignment, Ridley is able to cross the defender's face off the line of scrimmage with incredible change-of-direction skills. He then is forced to throttle down and adjust to the throw from the quarterback, and as he does so he avoids a huge collision with the lurking free safety. From there, Ridley races ahead for a 54-yard gain. Most impressive. But these are the kinds of plays that Ridley delivers. Take this example on a dig route against the eventual Super Bowl champions: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/RidleyDig.mp4">[/video] Ridley gets a ton of separation off his break, and again adjusts to the throw, spins away from a lurking safety, and turns this into a huge play. Last season was by far his most productive NFL campaign, as he set career-high marks in targets (137), receptions (90), yards (1,374) and yards per reception (15.3). With the departure of Julio Jones, there is every reason to think that next year could be even bigger. https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/2021/05/24/calvin-ridley-julio-jones-falcons-trade/

Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings

(Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports)

In the run-up to the 2020 NFL draft, there were some who looked at LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson and questioned his value in the first round. Why? Because the LSU Tigers used him almost exclusively out of the slot in his final year in college, with tremendous results. But is a slot receiver worthy of a first round pick? Absolutely, when he also has the ability to play on the outside, as some argued. Jefferson had a huge rookie season, catching 88 passes for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. Those receiving yards set a record for rookie WRs, and he was also named to a Pro Bowl for his efforts. As you'll see in these videos, Jefferson is already among the game's best thanks to his combination of footwork, releases and concentration. https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1318366311009914885 https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1310714678386057217 https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1336129584392269824

Julio Jones, Tennessee Titans

(Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

One of the biggest stories of this past off-season was the decision by the Atlanta Falcons to not only draft Kyle Pitts with the fourth-overall selection -- a move that would indicate they are in a "win now" mode -- but to then pair that with a trade sending Julio Jones out of town. Of course, there were financial reasons for such a move, but moving on from Jones does seem in contrast with the selection of Pitts. To be sure, Jones is in the back half of his career. He appeared in just nine games season, posting pedestrian numbers by his standards. But looking ahead to 2021 there is reason to believe that Jones will produce at a high level: The scheme fit in Tennessee with the Titans. Here's a look at how the Titans might utilize Jones in the season ahead: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yp3Yhu1SBiY As you can see, he is perhaps a perfect fit for what the Titans do conceptually, and his ability to get separation on that "blaze out," manufacturing a two-way go with his ability to threaten leverage and then exploding away from defenders, remains an elite trait.

A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans

(Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

One of the joys of having this job is getting to watch some of the best athletes on the planet do what they do on a weekly basis. As someone who focuses on quarterbacks, I'm blessed to get paid to watch players like Tom Brady, Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and more each week. But I also get to study some incredible wide receivers, and someone who became must-watch for me over the past season is A.J. Brown from the Tennessee Titans. Brown's ability to attack the middle of the field without fear or reservation is critical not only to Tennessee's offensive philosophy, but also the huge numbers he puts up for the Titans. Last season was a career year for the second-year receiver, as he caught 76 passes for 1,158 yards and 12 touchdowns. In this video breakdown you'll see that fearlessness over the middle -- and how that fits into the Titans offense -- as well as what he can do in the vertical passing game: https://twitter.com/TheScoutAcademy/status/1326963025409150977

Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills

(Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)

Since breaking out with the Minnesota Vikings a few seasons ago, Stefon Diggs has been one of the most impressive wide receivers to study. His combination of athleticism and footwork makes him such a difficult receiver to cover, as Diggs can sink into and out of breaks with the best in the game. This was something I highlighted a few years back when he was with the Vikings. But last season with the Buffalo Bills Diggs enjoyed his beast year as a professional. He caught 147 passes for 1,846 yards and ten touchdowns, all of which represented career-high numbers. Part of what makes him so dangerous right now is the relationship he immediately forged with quarterback Josh Allen. The feel between QB and WR is a critical part to success, and you see that in this upcoming video: https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1344066979179728896

Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears

(Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

How excited should fans be about the pairing of Allen Robinson and Justin Fields? Very excited. And not just Chicago Bears fans, but all fans of the sport. Because over his career -- and dating back to college -- Robinson has been an elite talent at the position while playing with some inconsistent passers. Still, Robinson's footwork and ability to offer a complete route tree makes him a threat on the outside, even while his passers might struggle. You saw that show up last season as he set career-highs in targets (157) and receptions (108) while the Bears offense fluctuated between Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles: https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1341120481315975173 Robinson's ability to win at all levels thanks to his route-running makes him one of the game's most complete players at the position: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/RobinsonVideo1.mp4">[/video] [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/RobinsonVideo2.mp4">[/video] And that ability is a reason why the future could be bright in Chicago with Fields throwing him the football.

Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs

(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

We know that "speed kills" in the NFL, and that mantra has propelled Tyreek Hill to the top of most rankings of wide receivers. Hill's ability to stress defenses to all levels with elite speed is chief among the reasons he is the kind of weapon that keeps opposing defensive coordinators up at night. 2020 was a huge year for him, as he posted career high marks in receptions (111), yards (1,631) and touchdowns (15). As you'll see in these next few videos, is his somebody that you have to account for as an opposing defense: https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1333527725751947264 https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1325978633031331840 Of course, Hill benefits from playing with Patrick Mahomes. But this is a mutually-beneficial relationship, and the QB benefits perhaps as much -- if not more -- than the WR.

DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

One of the terms that gets thrown around in wide receiver evaluation is "winning at the catch point." Now, you might think you know where I am going with this, as that trait is certainly a calling card with DeAndre Hopkins. But no, I am not talking about the Hail Murray play in Arizona's win over the Buffalo Bills. I'm talking about moments like this: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/HopkinsCatchPoint.mp4">[/video] I love everything about this play from Hopkins. First, the route, as he shows an outside move and sells it by looking to the outside, getting the cornerback to turn his path ever so slightly to the boundary. From there Hopkins accelerates upfield, and when the throw is high and the backside cornerback looks to replace the safety in the middle of the field, the receiver skies above everyone to make the catch. Winning at the catch point. The ability to beat press is another trait that evaluators salivate over, and here is an example of Hopkins doing just that: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/HopkinsPress.mp4">[/video] Not only does Hopkins have the upper body strength to shrug off the press with an arm swipe, he then subtly uses an arm bar at the top of the route to get separation and pull in the throw. In the year ahead I'll be looking to see if Kliff Kingsbury moves him around in the formation. Late in the year Steven Ruiz of For the Win pointed out that the Cardinals were much too static with Hopkins' alignments. Down the stretch it seemed like they were making the necessary adjustments: https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1338562881864994818 If that continues into 2021, the Cardinals could be very dangerous.

Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers

Being a great wide receiver, particularly on the outside in the face of press coverage, often begins with the feet. Footwork helps propel Davante Adams to the top of this list. Whether beating press coverage, making players miss after the catch, or working double-moves, Adams flashed his tremendous footwork throughout the 2020 season, en route to career-high numbers. Adams caught 133 passes for 1,507 yards and 20 touchdowns, all of which were single-season high numbers. You saw those feet show up on plays like this: https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1324550951894614016 On on plays like these from the NFC Divisional Round: https://twitter.com/GBPdaily/status/1351301425385664513 Sure there are questions about the quarterback position in Green Bay, given the saga of Aaron Rodgers. But whoever is throwing the football has a premier talent on the outside in Adams.

1

1

1

1

1

1