Ranking the NFL’s best wide receivers for the 2021 season from 1-30
If the best quarterbacks around the NFL are the conductors of explosive passing games, then their top wide receivers would be the first chairs. Not every receiver uses the same instruments for harmonious success, but when they turn big catches into big plays, it’s the sweet sound of consistency.
For a wideout to dominate, he requires some of that “diva” nature — the confidence he will make something happen for his QB when targeted and getting his hands on the ball often. But along with that flashy style, all-around substance separates the true reliable playmakers from the occasional ones.
Weighing their most recent production from 2020 and looking at their upside for the upcoming season, here are Sporting News’ latest reality rankings of the league’s top wide receivers:
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Adams, 28, came back from an injury-curbed season to light it up as big-time scorer again in 2020 setting a career high for touchdowns. He has great hands and route-running. His ability to get open on intermediate routes everywhere through the red zone makes him the best overall target reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers has had in his career. Adams is line for a massive new contract that should make him the NFL’s highest-paid wideout.
2020 stats: 115 receptions on 149 targets, 1,374 yards, 18 TDs, 11.9 yards per catch
Diggs, 27, got out of Minnesota in a co-No. 1 situation and emerged as the dominant go-to guy for Buffalo, getting the high volume he desired. He immediately established awesome chemistry with young gun QB Josh Allen and seamlessly toggled between speedy deep threat and after-catch playmaker..
2020 stats: 127 receptions on 166 targets, 1,535 yards, 8 TDs, 12.1 yards per catch
“Nuk” has made it work with different quarterbacks throughout his career, spiked by Deshaun Watson, so it was no surprise he revved up for his new team with another exciting young moble passer, Kyler Murray. Smooth is the best word to describe how Hopkins, 29, works himself open and sets up defenders. Still special after several years in the league, it was difficult to separate him, Diggs and Adams after similar all-around seasons.
2020 stats: 115 receptions on 160 targets, 1,407 yards, 6 TDs, 12.2 yards per catch
Hill, 27, is the most dangerous deep threat in the game, enhanced by having a QB, Patrick Mahomes, who has the high-velocity downfield arm to catch up to his speed. Hill is underrated as a route runner with great inside-outside versatility. He can take over games and also break free in a big-play moment even when teams scheme to try to take him out of games.
2020 stats: 87 receptions on 135 targets, 1,276 yards, 15 TDs, 14.7 yards per catch
Robinson, 27, hasn’t had the best QB breaks in his career, going back to his 2015 breakout season with Blake Bortles in Jacksonville. He has rebounded and evolved his game during three seasons in Chicago, despite catching passes from Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles. Robinson excels outside but like all terrific No. 1s, his usage is set be expanded to create mismatches in the slot in 2021.
2020 stats: 102 receptions on 151 targets, 1,250 yards, 6 TDs, 12.3 yards per catch
Brown is ready for a massive third season at only 24, now flanked by former Falcons go-to guy Julio Jones. Brown is a terror in stretching the field, both with his ability to track deep balls from Ryan Tannehill and bursting downfield after the catch. Like Jones and former Ole Miss teammate DK Metcalf, Brown is a special physical specimen. Look for improved routes and hands to boost Brown’s catch rate this season.
2020 stats: 70 receptions on 106 targets, 1,075 yards, 11 TDs, 15.4 yards per catch
Jefferson is still only 22 after winning Sporting News offensive rookie of the year and bringing up immediate-impact memories of Randy Moss in Minnesota. Jefferson was an amazing replacement for Diggs with his speed and quickness, proving to everyone he could have a successful transition from dedicated slot at LSU to regular perimeter status n the NFL. Jefferson only scratched the surface of all-around skills with more consistency and scoring ahead in Year 2.
2020 stats: 88 receptions on 125 targets, 1,400 yards, 7 TDs, 15.9 yards per catch
Thomas, 28, is still feeling the effects of the ankle injury that marred his 2020 after three seasons of ultimate durability as the game’s premier intermediate possession receiver. Should he return healthy soon, Thomas’ combination of size, hands and routes should be a big factor helping Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. It won’t be quite the same as his locked-in connection with Drew Brees, but Thomas will keep excelling with his unique style of play.
2020 stats: 40 receptions on 55 targets, 438 yards, zero TDs, 11.0 yards per catch
At 32, Jones is changing teams and trying to shake off some more issues with soft-issue injuries. When on the field, he still has a rare combination of physicality and flat-out explosive speed. The future Hall of Famer makes up for what he doesn’t get in short-area touchdowns with long-ball intimidation and execution.
2020 stats (with Falcons): 51 receptions on 68 targets, 771 yards, 3 TDs, 15.1 yards per catch
Ridley, 26, elevates to unquestioned No. 1 status in Atlanta with Jones moving on to Nashville. Ridley has been a shifty route runner made to deliver on third downs and the red zone, but he has expanded his repertoire with a healthy dose of big downfield plays for Matt Ryan.
2020 stats: 90 receptions on 143 targets, 1,374 yards, 9 TDs, 15.3 yards per catch
Evans, 27, is one of NFL’s greatest matchup nightmares with his size to dominate smaller defenders in the red zone and vertical speed to also hit home runs. He could be a little more consistent with his hands and routes to be more active all over the field, but he will always catch Tom Brady’s eye in key scoring spots.
2020 stats: 70 receptions on 109 targets, 1,006 yards, 13 TDs, 14.4 yards per catch
Godwin, 25, is right behind his teammate as Brady’s latest slot ace. Godwin developed some durability issues last season but still remained valuable as a short-to-intermediate targets, complementing Evans well with his reliable hands and route running. His catch rate has seen signficant improvement with every year in the league.
2020 stats: 65 receptions on 84 targets, 840 yards, 7 TDs, 12.9 yards per catch
Allen, at 29, also has the calling card of precise route-running, using his strong frame well to get open. His hands are excellent too, right behind Thomas as a medium-range target with high volume. He will be key for futher development of Justin Herbert in Year 2, already having made the nice transition from Philip Rivers.
2020 stats: 100 receptions on 147 targets, 992 yards, 8 TDs, 9.9 yards per catch
Metcalf, only 23, combines being ripped as a physical specimen with blazing track-star speed. Like Evans, he is a terrific big-play threat who also can win plenty with his size in the red zone. Between the vertical and short area, Metcalf has room to improve his technical game so he isn’t more boom-or-bust in games.
2020 stats: 83 receptions on 129 targets, 1,303 yards, 10 TDs, 15.7 yards per catch
When healthy over the past five seasons, Thielen has been one of the NFL’s most consistent and complete receivers. He hasn’t slowed down too much going into his age 31 season and his production is big in relation to his team’s run-heavy attack, now complementing Jefferson instead of Diggs. Thielen also has emerged as a savvy red zone force with 20 TDs in his past 25 games.
2020 stats: 74 receptions on 108 targets, 925 yards, 14 TDs, 12.5 yards per catch
The 25-year-old, whether known as “Scary Terry” or “F1 McLaurin,” has elite speed and continues to develop into a trusted route runner. His limitations in the offense have been tied to quarterback play in two seasons, but that should change with Ryan Fitzpatrick giving him the true No. 1 treatment. He can explode in Scott Turner’s scheme with better complementary weapons.
2020 stats: 87 receptions on 134 targets, 1,118 yards, 4 TDs, 12.9 yards per catch
Will Chase be immediately this good in the NFL at age 21? The top rookie wide receiver is worth the hype and has the potential to follow his former LSU explosive teammate Jefferson with a stellar splash of his own. After opting out of his final college season, Chase will pick up where he left off, catching a ton of key passes for Joe Burrow all over the field, often stretching the field.
2019 stats (at LSU): 84 receptions, 1,780 yards, 20 TDs, 21.2 yards per catch
Cooper, 27, steps into his veteran prime knowing he will have Dak Prescott as his quarterback for a long time. Cooper is a fine route-runner who can be trusted all over the field, but the limited big plays and TDs, especially when drawing a tough corner assignment, is what keeps him down here. He will be helped by second-year stud CeeDee Lamb getting attention from using his own alignment versatility.
2020 stats: 92 receptions on 130 targets, 1,114 yards, 5 TDs, 12.1 yards per catch
Golladay’s final season in Detroit before free agency didn’t go as planned, as a lingering hip injury sidelined him for 11 games. He is the classic lanky deep threat with some of same red zone qualities of Evans and Metcalf. Golladay, 27, made it work when Matthew Stafford wasn’t healthy, but now needs a successful transition with Daniel Jones to pick up where he left off, making the Pro Bowl in 2019. His big-play element needs to come through in a deep, revamped receiving corps.
2020 stats (with Lions): 20 receptions on 32 targets, 338 yards, 2 TDs, 16.9 yards per catch
The former Giants superstar, 28, hasn’t totally rocked yet in Cleveland as some durability issues have followed him. Last season, it was a torn ACL in his left knee that cut short his season after only 9 games. In 2019, he played the full year with a core muscle injury. OBJ still has sky-high upside as a long-ball threat and scorer. Back to near full health for Baker Mayfield’s ideal passing offense, don’t be shocked if Beckham can re-establish himself among the top-tier wideouts again.
2020 stats: 23 receptions on 43 targets, 319 yards, 3 TDs, 13.9 yards per catch
Lockett, who turns 29 in September, has been Russell Wilson’s most reliable all-around target for three seasons. He’s had an interesting evolution from pure speedy deep threat to high-volume quick slot possession ace. They have an uncanny chemistry and precision efficiency when connecting. Lockett also offers fine inside-outside versatility.
2020 stats: 100 receptions on 132 targets, 1,054 yards, 10 TDs, 10.5 yards per catch
Sutton’s 2020 season was wiped out before it really started as he tore the ACL in his right knee early in his first game against the Steelers. He was primed for a big third year, or when many No. 1 types with his size and speed put it all together. Sutton, only 25, returns to a much deeper receiving corps to help support him, led by second first-rounder Jerry Jeudy. He just needs a top QB connection to emerge with either Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater for a big rebound.
2019 stats: 72 receptions on 142 targets, 1,112 yards, 6 TDs, 15.4 yards per catch
The 22-year-old second-year first-rounder would have challenged Jefferson for status of top rookie receiver had Prescott stayed healthy last season. Dallas got him going early by making him a primary slot receiver between Cooper and Michael Gallup. The team plans to expand Lamb’s role to more work on the outside all over the field to create more diversity. Lamb is in for a big leap in one of the league’s most explosive passing attacks.
2020 stats: 74 receptions on 111 targets, 935 yards, 5 TDs, 12.6 yards per catch
Aiyuk, who turned 23 in March, adds to the sophomore excitement following his splash as another rookie first-rounder. Even with a QB mess and early hamstring injury, Aiyuk displayed his dynamic skills in full. He is dangerous anywhere near open field with the ball in his hands and plays bigger than his size with his hands and reach to make tough catches. Between Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance, Aiyuk will break out as the No. 1 in San Francisco, with plenty of support from George Kittle and Deebo Samuel.
2020 stats: 60 receptions on 96 targets, 748 yards, 5 TDs, 12.5 yards per catch
Davis was a late bloomer, but at 25 last season, he lived up to the potential of being the No. 5 overall pick in 2017. He profiles as a prototype No. 1 with his size and speed and will get that opportunity flying downfield in New York as Zach Wilson’s outside go-to guy. The improved hands and route-running helped him turn the corner to efficient target.
2020 stats (with Titans): 65 receptions on 92 targets, 984 yards, 5 TDs, 15.4 yards per catch
Woods, at 29, has been outstanding in Sean McVay’s offense for four seasons in transitioning from the Bills. He excels in any role he’s called upon to do, from stretching the field to being an extension of the rushing attack as a runner and short-area receiver. His recent numbers were affected by the decline of Jared Goff, so Matthew Stafford and his big arm is a welcome boost for “Bobby Trees” outside.
2020 stats: 90 receptions on 139 targets, 936 yards, 6 TDs, 10.4 yards per catch
Kupp is a lot more than a quick slot receiver. He uses his athleticism well as an absolute technician running routes inside and out. The 28-year-old’s size also allows him to cause coverage problems everywhere. Like Woods, his stats took a final dip with Goff, so Stafford should deliver the ball to him better to raise his big-play quotient, too. Kupp should go back to delivering more in the red zone as well.
2020 stats: 92 receptions on 124 targets, 973 yards, 3 TDs, 10.6 ards per catch
Johnson, who turned 25 in early July, is primed for a big third NFL season. He was drafted knowing he profiled like Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders in terms of size and skill set. While JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot volume man and Chase Claypool is the heavy home-run hitter, Johnson is Pittsburgh’s most complete receiver when it comes to doing everything needed outside.
2020 stats: 88 receptions on 144 targets, 923 yards, 7 TDs, 10.5 yards per catch
Landry, like his college throwback friend OBJ, also has battled injuries of late that have kept him from delivering like the premier slot man he quickly became in Miami. The 28-year-old has great toughness and quickness and proved he could also have impact outside when needed for Mayfield last season. Landry’s catch rate has increased with his QB with every year. Watch for Beckham and Landry to be more like the Jefferson and Thielen in Kevin Stefanski’s offense again.
2020 stats: 72 receptions on 101 targets, 840 yards, 3 TDs, 11.7 yards per catch
Samuel thinks Aiyuk can be a breakout dynamo, too, but he shouldn’t forget that he has special similar qualities for the outside as a third-year second-rounder at 25.. He also can do plenty of damage after the catch with his quickness and cutting ability. If Samuel can stay healthy, San Francisco would have dominant duo in a better QB situation. Samuel should go back to adding to his big-play promise as a rookie.
2020 stats: 33 receptions on 44 targets, 391 yards, TD, 11.8 yards per catch
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