We are currently in the golden age of NFL wide receivers. As we sort through the landscape of ascending wide receivers, it can be overwhelming to determine how good these guys really are. Today we will break down some wide receivers whose stocks soared in 2020 and others who are on the rise as we head into 2021. Let’s break it down.
The first group of wide receivers ascended to new heights in 2020 with little room left to grow
When the Vikings traded Stefon Diggs to Buffalo, there was a lot of grumbling and complaining over the landing spot. That reaction did not last long once he got on the field with Josh Allen, however. Diggs led the league in targets with 166, receptions with 127, and receiving yards with 1535, all career highs for the Maryland product.
Diggs, finishing as the WR3 in PPR scoring, wasn’t any more efficient than he’s been in the past, but his usage as the Bills number one WR skyrocketed. He only saw less than nine targets in three out of 16 games, while he saw less than nine targets in 12 of 15 games last season. Diggs’ value will never be higher, but his production isn’t going anywhere either. He remains a high-end WR1 going into 2021.
Corey Davis was widely considered a bust until his 2020 breakout campaign. Davis fell just short of a 1,000-yard season, registering 984 on the season, a career-high by nearly 100 yards. He did so on just 86 targets. For reference, Davis saw 112 targets in 2018 when he tallied 891 yards. As you can see, his usage didn’t increase. In fact, it has gone down since A.J. Brown has joined the team, but he has been far more efficient and created more big plays than ever before. Davis finished with 15.1 yards per reception, the best of his career.
Davis is a free agent, but I’m not sure there’s a better landing spot than Tennessee, where he benefits from defenses keying on King Henry and A.J. Brown. Considering his increased efficiency and pending free agency, his value really hinges on his landing spot.
2020 was the year we saw a changing of the guard at the wide receiver positions in Atlanta. Calvin Ridley has surpassed Julio Jones as the WR1 in Atlanta with a 1,374-yard season on 139 targets and a PPR finish of WR5. Ridley is a big play machine, finishing fifth in the NFL with 16.1 yards per reception. Jones was in and out of the lineup all season, helping aid Ridley’s breakout season. Ridley’s 2021 will be somewhat dependent on Julio’s ability to stay healthy. Still, mostly it will depend on whether Matt Ryan remains under center or not. He’ll be in the WR1 conversation next season.
The following wide receivers ascended in 2020 but have plenty of room to grow in 2021
Justin Jefferson notched 1,400 receiving yards, the most by a rookie in the super bowl era. Yes, he could be in the group above, but this rookie’s business is boomin’ and can boom even more next year.
Jefferson is already one of the best wide receivers in the league at the ripe age of 21. He caught 88 balls on 125 targets. Neither are earth-shattering, but his 11.2 yards per target and 2.7 yards per route show his elite efficiency. Jefferson has incredibly quick feet and excels as a route runner, as shown below at the bottom of the screen.
Adam Thielen saw 96.6% of snaps while Jefferson saw 86.7% but Thielen will be 31 by next season and has had back issues. Jefferson will likely jump Thielen in snaps next year, leaving a clear path for him to be the WR1 in Minnesota, and possibly in the NFL. Jefferson was ranked second in the NFL with a PFF grade of 90.4, after all. Wheels up for the LSU product.
Scary Terry, a third-round pick out of Ohio State, flashed potential and big-play ability as a rookie, leading the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. He produced long receptions of 75 yards in his rookie season and 68 this past season. His route running ability helps him shake loose, and his elite speed takes the top off defenses.
McLaurin didn’t take quite take the leap we had hoped for this year as his yardage total went from 919 to 1,118, and his touchdowns fell from seven to four. McLaurin has the ability to be an elite receiver in the NFL. Still, the quarterback situation in Washington is holding him back. There was some hope he could develop chemistry with his college teammate Dwayne Haskins, but as we know, Haskins was as bad as it gets. Haskins led the league with bad throws on 22.4% of his passes and was on target just 69.6% of the time. Alex Smith was accurate on just 66.1% of his targets, which was fifth-worst in the league.
The other downfall is that McLaurin turns 26 at the beginning of next season, which is on the older side for a third-year player. Because of that, McLaurin was already a polished route runner when he entered the league. The sky is the limit for this Football Team stud. He finished as the PPR WR20 even with the dreadful play at quarterback. He should top that mark next year with any sort of improvement at the quarterback position.
Dionate Johnson was my favorite buy of the offseason and became a popular breakout pick as the season approached. As a rookie, he produced 680 yards and five scores with Mason and Duck under center, imagine what he could do with Big Ben. This season, we got our answer. The Toledo product tallied 923 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, good for a finish of WR21 in PPR scoring.
While this is a solid season for a young wide receiver, there is another level to unlock for this youngster. JuJu Smith-Schuster is a free agent and may not return, which could open additional targets. But Johnson was already eighth in the NFL with a whopping 144 targets last season. He finished first overall in hog rate at 20.7%, which measures the number of targets per snaps.
His average depth of target was just 7.9 yards, which is alarming when you consider Johnson’s ability to get open downfield. To put things into context, this speaks more to Roethlisberger’s increasing inability to throw the ball downfield. His air yards per completion was third lowest in the league at 4.6.
So much hinges on who is throwing him the ball next season, but the talent is so clearly there for Johnson to take a third-year leap. We’ve seen his consistent ability to get open with elite route running. Unfortunately, Johnson led the league with 13 drops and was seventh with a 9% drop rate. We’ve also seen him make the tough contested catches, however.
If he can clean up some of the drops and get a higher average depth of target, prepare for takeoff next season.
We already knew that D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown were on their way to being certified studs, but both increased their production from their rookie seasons. Metcalf jumped up from 900 yards and seven touchdowns to 1,303 yards and ten touchdowns, while Brown went from 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns to 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns. Brown posted these numbers playing in just 14 games. Due to this, Metcalf received 129 targets to Brown’s 106.
As long as the Titans are a run-first team, Brown will be a tad limited in volume. However, he still finished second in yards per route run with 2.76. Metcalf also saw a higher target quality rating and finished the season sixth in receiving yards and seventh in total touchdowns per touch (12.0% rate). He was still just 19th in target share and 14th in targets overall, so he has room to increase. Metcalf has entered the conversation for the dynasty WR1, and A.J. Brown isn’t far behind him.
The following wide receivers are on the cusp of a big breakout and should take flight in 2021
Tee Higgins was not expected to be a significant producer in his rookie season. Still, he responded by posting 908 receiving yards to go along with six touchdowns in 14 games, leading the Bengals in both categories. Not to mention, he did so with Burrow throwing him the rock in just nine of those games. After being inactive in week one, Higgins showed why he was selected at the top of the 2020 NFL draft.
The Bengals targeted him 11 times in the red zone and fed him 24 deep targets, good for 10th in the NFL. These are the two areas where Higgins truly excels, as does the soon to be departed A.J. Green. Green will be leaving behind his 25 deep targets and nine red zone targets, with many of them likely to go Higgins’ way.
The 6’4” Clemson product is not overly explosive, but he turns heads with length, athleticism, and ability to track and high point the ball. Perfect traits to pair with fellow rookie and gunslinger Joe Burrow, who threw the ball just over 40 times per game, good for second-most in the NFL. If they get a full season together, Higgins will finish the season as a top 15 wide receiver.
The 49ers first-round pick was mediocre through his first five games, averaging 33 yards per game. Aiyuk stepped on the gas in week seven when he exploded for 115 yards, averaging over 83 yards per game from there on out. Aiyuk is bound to further breakout in year two with more stability at the quarterback position after seeing a mixed bag of Garoppolo, Mullens, and Beathard in 2020.
The former Sun Devil is explosive and smooth with the ball in his hands. Kyle Shanahan found many ways to get Aiyuk the ball, even with the questionable quarterback play. Aiyuk saw many short-area targets resulting in an average depth of target of just nine yards. That was good for 72nd in the league, seeing just 12 deep targets, which placed 50th in the league. He even saw six carries, which he turned into 77 yards and two scores. To sum it up, Aiyuk is an elite playmaker with the ball in his hands.
The 49ers will continue to find creative ways to get Aiyuk the ball. Still, when the average depth of target increases and they start getting him more downfield targets, you’re going to wish he was on your roster.
Many predicted a breakout from Moore in his third season and were quickly disappointed as Robby Anderson stole the show. Anderson averaged 86 yards per game through the first eight weeks, while Moore averaged 77.8 yards per game. Anderson was suddenly considered the WR1 in Carolina, but the second half of the season told a different story. Over the second half of the season, Anderson only produced 51 yards per game while Moore shot up to 81.5 yards per game. Simply put, this is because Moore is a far better player. While Anderson was solid during the first half of the season, the second half results are more likely to continue in 2021.
The fantasy football community was collectively down on Moore for most of the season. Yet, he still manufactured 1,193 yards through the air and four touchdowns in 15 games. If we extrapolate Moore’s second half of the season to a full 16 games, it puts him over 1,300 yards. This is where I expect him to be next year, especially considering it will be year two with Teddy two gloves, Matt Rhule, and Joe Brady. Get back on the bandwagon before it’s too late.
My number one wide receiver entering the 2020 NFL Draft, Lamb entered a difficult situation to predict. He landed in a great offense, but one that was flush with weapons. Even with that, and after Dak went down in week five, Lamb still posted 935 yards and four touchdowns. With Dak under center, Lamb was on pace for a 1,385 and six TDs line.
Assuming Dak returns to the Boys, there’s no reason Lamb can’t post those numbers next season. Lamb saw just a 68.6% snap share, but he ran the second most slot snaps in the NFL with 621. If and when Dak returns, and the Cowboys start slinging it again, his snap share will go up, and he will be one of the best in the business.
Laviska Shenault checked all the boxes coming out of Colorado. Built like A.J. Brown at 6’1” and 227 pounds, sporting an early breakout age of 19.9, flashing positional versatility as he carried the ball out of the backfield, caught passes out of the slot, and on the outside, Shenault had it all. Much of that hype came crashing down when Viska performed at the NFL Combine with an injured core muscle, which he would later have surgery on. He ran a 4.58 40-yard dash, which put him in the 37th percentile. This scared some teams away, as he appeared much slower than he is.
Fast forward to the present. Shenault finished his rookie year with 600 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games. He also added 91 yards on 18 rushing attempts, showing off that positional versatility. Viska’s 89.2% true catch rate topped the list of rookies, as did his impressive 56.2% contested catch rate. He saw just 15.3% of his team’s target share, but that number should increase dramatically next season, as all of Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook, and Chris Conley are free agents. That leaves just Viska, D.J. Chark, and Collin Johnson. And finally, I can’t believe it took this long to mention his name. Still, barring a major upset, we will see Trevor Lawrence in a Jags uniform next season, which will really open this offense up. Viska is one of my favorite breakout picks of 2021.
Claypool popped off the screen early and often in his rookie campaign. No one ever doubted his physical tools. Standing 6’4” at 238 pounds and running a 4.42 40, he is the prototypical NFL wide receiver.
I, however, have a few issues with Claypool. First, for being a big and athletic guy, his 19.2% contested catch rate is very underwhelming, as is his true catch rate of 80.5%. We are also not certain who will be throwing him the ball next season, either a new guy or a laboring Ben Roethlisberger.
That said, JuJu Smith-Schuster is a free agent, opening an opportunity for Claypool to build on his 16.7% target share next year. And most of all, the tape doesn’t lie, and the tape says Chase Claypool is a bad dude on the football field.
Another second-year guy with a strong breakout chance is Jerry Jeudy. The argument can be framed in different ways, for or against Jeudy. He finished with 856 yards and three touchdowns with inconsistent quarterback play, facing the challenge of a measly 62.8% catchable target rate. He had 965 unrealized air yards, good for second in the league. Then again, he also suffered ten drops, good for third in the league. He saw a 21.2 % target share, which is pretty good and may dip when we get a healthy Courtland Sutton back, and if we get a full season from K.J. Hamler and Noah Fant.
The bottom line is that much of Jeudy’s questions will depend on the quarterback play. Jeudy is an elite route runner who gets open, and drops can undoubtedly be corrected; I’m not too worried about that. The bigger question is, will his catchable target rate get better? I love the talent, but let’s stay cautiously optimistic with Jeudy.
Looking forward to 2021
All these wide receivers are good bets to produce in 2021, but Tee Higgins, Brandon Aiyuk, and Laviska Shenault are my favorites to truly breakout next season. Let me know what you think in the comments below or on Twitter @tweetsbychad.
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