Ranking 47 impending free agent wide receivers from best to worst, based on an accumulation of their 2020 statistics.
Using an agglomeration of five different key statistics, I ranked the 47 impending free agent wide receivers that played at least 200 offensive snaps in 2020. This is the first in a series of articles that will rank all of the qualified free agents at key positions of need for the New York Jets.
The players were ranked according to their average percentile ranking among 163 qualified wide receivers in these five statistics:
Receiving yards per game: This is the only stat of the five that is volume-based rather than efficiency-based. I decided to include it in order to prevent players who produced at a high level of efficiency on a very low volume from ascending too far up the list.
Overall Pro Football Focus grade: PFF’s overall offensive grade accounts for most aspects of the position, taking into account volume, efficiency, drops, the difficulty of catches made, extra production created after the catch, and run blocking. Altogether, it does a good job of separating receivers who create their own production through fantastic individual efforts from receivers who are a product of their surroundings and rack up easy production. Poorly-graded receivers tend to drop a high rate of passes, win a low percentage of contested-catch situations, and consistently fail to create yardage after the catch beyond what is presented to them.
Yards per route run: Formula: receiving yards divided by routes run. The average amount of receiving yards gained per snap in which the player ran a route on a passing play. This stat combines per-target efficiency with target volume for a solid all-encompassing number regarding yardage production.
Percentage of routes gaining a first down or touchdown: It is important to look beyond solely yardage totals when evaluating receivers. Yardage doesn’t tell us everything, as not every yard carries the same value. A receiver can gain one yard on a go-ahead touchdown or gain six yards on a fourth-and-7 catch that yields nothing of value for his team.
Yardage totals also tend to favor explosive-play receivers who make a handful of big plays over quick-hitting chain-movers who make an abundance of solid plays. A receiver can have a 90-yard game with one catch while another receiver can dominate a game with six first downs and two touchdowns while only gaining 80 yards. The second receiver was clearly better, but the yardage totals suggest otherwise.
Including one per-route stat for yardage and one per-route stat for conversions gives all different types of receivers a chance to fly up the leaderboard.
DVOA: Defense-adjusted value over average, via Football Outsiders. This stat estimates the true impact of all targets thrown in a receiver’s direction by using factors such as down, distance, field position, game situation, and the quality of the opposing defense.
Here it is: 47 of the top 2021 free agent wide receivers, ranked.
Corey Davis is a legitimate top-tier option
Regardless of the numbers, I will not argue that Davis is a better player than the likes of Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay or Allen Robinson, but he certainly should be considered in the same ballpark as those three receivers and the rest of the premier names on the market.
Davis took his game to an entirely new level in 2020, making a star-level impact through an absurd level of efficiency. Despite ranking 51st in the NFL in targets (92), Davis ranked 25th in receiving first downs (49) and 20th in receiving yards (984). Among the 43 wide receivers with at least 90 targets, Davis’ average of 10.7 yards per target ranked second behind only Justin Jefferson (11.2). Davis led that bunch with a first down or touchdown on 53.3% of his targets. Travis Kelce was the only player in the league to post a better rate over at least 90 targets (60.7%).
The big questions for Davis are his consistency and his ability to handle a larger volume. On the consistency front, it is concerning that Davis had three zero-yard performances in 2020 (including the Titans’ Wild Card loss to Baltimore). In terms of his capability of being a team’s top dog, Davis’ relatively low target volume – 6.6 targets per game in 2020 and 6.0 for his career – is a red flag. Top receivers typically see 7-8 targets per game at the very least. It’s also worth noting that he had the luxury of playing alongside an elite receiver in A.J. Brown.
Whether or not Davis can be a true “No. 1” type of receiver and maintain his production over a larger volume remains to be seen, but it cannot be debated that he was one of the most efficient players in football at any position in 2020. He’s going to get paid by some offense-needy franchise out there. Will that team get a strong return on its investment?
Rashard Higgins, Allen Lazard, Isaiah McKenzie highlight potential steals
Three particular players stand out with excellent efficiency over a smaller volume – Higgins, Lazard and McKenzie.
Higgins’ raw totals don’t pop out – 599 yards and four touchdowns over 13 games – but he made the most of his opportunities. Racking up that production over only 52 targets, Higgins ranked second in the NFL among qualified players in yards per target with a mark of 11.5, trailing only Will Fuller‘s 11.7. His DVOA of +29.4% ranked third among wide receivers with at least 50 targets, trailing Fuller (+41.2%) and Julio Jones (+29.7%).
While one must be wary when evaluating Lazard’s production due to the simple fact that he played with Aaron Rodgers, his numbers are impressive nonetheless. If we knock the filter down to 40 targets, Lazard’s DVOA of +27.4% ranked fourth at his position behind Higgins, Julio, and Fuller. Lazard recorded a conversion on 23 of his 46 targets (50.0%), catching 33 passes for 451 yards (9.6 per target). Over two playoff games, Lazard picked up 158 yards over 14 targets (11.3 per target).
Averaging only 17.6 receiving yards per game in the regular season, McKenzie is the ultimate wild card of the group. He was a conversion machine. McKenzie picked up 17 conversions (5 touchdowns and 12 first downs) over just 142 routes run, a 12.0% rate that placed seventh among qualified wide receivers behind only DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, Corey Davis, A.J. Brown and Davante Adams. That rate barely edged Stefon Diggs‘ 11.9% rate, which checked in one spot below McKenzie on the list.
Standing at five-foot-eight and 173 pounds, McKenzie is primarily a slot weapon, but not exclusively. He ran 68.3% of his routes out of the slot. The slot is where he did most of his damage, though, catching all five of his touchdowns from a slot alignment. Doing that over just 97 routes out of the slot, McKenzie’s average of 19.4 slot routes per touchdown reception ranked second among qualifiers behind only Antonio Brown (17.0).
JuJu Smith-Schuster may be fool’s gold
Smith-Schuster does not offer the production to match the hype that he typically generates. While he scored a career-best nine touchdowns in 2020, Smith-Schuster still landed in the position’s bottom half of overall PFF grade, yards per route run, and DVOA while landing only slightly above the median in conversion frequency.
The explosiveness that Smith-Schuster was once known for went out the window this season. Entering the year with a strong average of 13.7 yards per reception, he averaged a paltry 8.6 yards a pop in 2020, resulting in a career-low 6.5 yards per target. Pittsburgh peppered him with quick throws, as his 4.4 air yards per reception ranked fourth-lowest among wide receivers with at least 40 targets, but Smith-Schuster did little with those short throws. He tied for 86th among wide receivers in yards after catch per reception (4.2) and 124th in broken tackles per reception (0.04 with 4 on 97 catches).
This is the second consecutive disappointing season for Smith-Schuster since he broke out in 2018 with 111 catches for 1,428 yards and seven touchdowns at just 22 years old. In 2019, Smith-Schuster averaged only 46.0 yards per game while recording a conversion on a lowly 32.9% of his targets.
Since Antonio Brown skipped town, Smith-Schuster has averaged 49.4 yards per game and 7.0 yards per target with a conversion on 35.9% of his targets.
Not turning 25 years old until November, Smith-Schuster is the second-youngest wide receiver in the entire 47-player group (older than only the Jets’ Jeff Smith), so he has as much time as any fifth-year player to find his groove. However, as things stand, there will be plenty of receivers on the market who offer a more reliable track record of performance than Smith-Schuster – many of them coming at a much cheaper price tag.
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