It’s hard to argue that Antonio Brown and Julio Jones are the class of the league when it comes to NFL receivers.
They’ve consistently landed in the top five in yards, landing there in each of the last four years. Both have also led the league in the category, with Brown doing so in 2014 and 2017, Jones in 2015.
But who can challenge them for supremacy this year?
While the field might not be as crowded as it is at running back, it seems the margin for victory here is razor-thin. Look no further than T.Y. Hilton, who led the league in 2016. And DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, and a healthy Odell Beckham have all toyed with the top spot as well.
So, when considering who the best of the best will be, I considered a lot more than just Brown and Jones’s yards of past. Targets, yards-per-reception (YPR), and yards-after-catch (YAC) were big factors.
The performance or signings of other receivers were also measured, along with the play of their quarterbacks and the execution of the coach’s offense. How much the receiver’s team ran the ball in that offense was also a small indicator.
Lastly, injury concerns and production trajectories were noted, as there are several receivers ready to break out and break down. As for the tight ends, none were added here. Although Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski are incredible athletes, no TE has ever led the league in receiving. That will stay that way.
With all that out of the way, here are the front-runners, dark horses, and longshots.
*Odds courtesy of Bookmaker.eu
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers: +265
It’s no real surprise seeing AB here. It takes a career year from someone (aside from Jones) to take this guy down.
Brown led the league last season in yards despite having key receiving pieces like RB Le’Veon Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Martavis Bryant placed around him.
He has finished 1st, 5th, 2nd, 1st, and 2nd in receiving over the past five years, averaging 1,569 yards during that time. Both figures blow everyone else out of the water.
And with Ben Roethlisberger still passing at similar rates, there should be plenty of deep-balls thrown Brown’s way in 2018. James Washington has drafted in the second round to give the quarterback a big target, but Bryant has been traded.
Brown was the second-most targeted receiver last season, so it’s clear Roethlisberger isn’t sharing the wealth as much as people would think.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons: +460
Though I may have proven Brown to be quite the beast (not that he needed me to), Jones can’t be underestimated either.
After all, over the past four years, he only finished eight yards (1,579 to 1,587) behind Brown in average receiving yards. He also had comparable YAC numbers from last year and higher yardage per-catch (16.4 over Brown’s 15.2).
People say Brown is the best deep-threat in the game, but Jones does well for himself too. While Brown had 27 receptions of 20 or more yards, Jones was in third with 23. And he managed to put up all these numbers without being in the top-five in targets.
With Matt Ryan having first-round pick Calvin Ridley to throw to now, the number of targets Jones gets could dip a little. Or it could just mean that Ryan’s ranking of 10th in passing attempts last year could be going way up.
In their second year in Steve Sarkisian’s offense, the Falcons should be rolling. Jones will still by far be the biggest piece to that development.
Potential Dark Horses
DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans: +856
There is a slew of options past Brown and Jones who are ready to break through.
Hopkins may lead this group, having finished in the top four twice in the past three years. He rebounded well from a down 2016 and will likely have a bump in his numbers this year thanks to being paired with rising QB Deshaun Watson for a full season.
Knowing what Hopkins will do on a weekly basis is a little up in the air. For instance, he only had two receptions and 19 yards against the lowly Browns last season, only to burn Seattle for 224 the next game.
But one thing that can be expected from Hopkins is for him to stay on the field. He’s only missed one game over his five-year career.
If he finds more consistency—as he should having Watson (hopefully) for a full year—then he could be looking at a career-best performance.
Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers: +908
Anyone who misses a whole year due to an ACL tear and then proceeds to put up 1,393 yards on 102 receptions has to be taken seriously.
Allen has fought injuries that could’ve derailed his status as a top-tier receiver. Now he’s blossomed and may not be at his peak just yet.
He was the fifth most-targeted receiver last year. Those numbers should only jump this year with the solid 64.2% catch rate (better than Brown and Jones) he posted last season. He’s also only 26, so he may just now be entering his prime.
With 570 or more attempts in each of the past four years, don’t expect Chargers QB Philip Rivers to slow down even at 37. With that in mind, Allen could easily top 1,400 yards this season.
Odell Beckham, New York Giants: +1230
It’s hard to know what to expect from Beckham in 2018.
He’s coming off the first major injury of his career. But he’s also in a contract season, so there’s extra incentive to put up gaudy numbers. And he did so in his first three seasons, going over 1,300 yards in each.
With RB Saquon Barkley coming aboard and Eli Manning passing less (attempts have fallen over the past two years), expect the Giants to run more. The days of 600 passes from the youngest Manning brother are over.
But Beckham is far and away the Giants best receiving option. While Jones has Ridley and Brown has Schuster, Beckham’s No. 2 will be the far-less implemented Sterling Shepard.
A new scheme run by former Minnesota offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and current Giants OC Mike Shula will be a possible drawback. Shurmur’s offenses have never been elite in passing (two top 10’s in the past decade).
Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints: +1519
It’s hard not to include a guy like Thomas considering how powerful the Saints offense is.
He has quietly finished in the top 10 of receiving both years he’s been in the league. He has Drew Brees, who has led the league in passing seven times, throwing him the rock. And Thomas also has a catch rate over the past two years well over 70%.
The New Orleans wideout may not be as flashy as Brown or as much of a freak physically as Jones. But he’s opened with two seasons that no one besides Odell Beckham could’ve matched in recent memory.
He may have to share the firepower of this offense with a pair of standouts at running back and other complimentary pieces. But the fact Thomas had nearly 150 targets (149, one more than Jones) shows he’ll be fed more than enough to make a run at the receiving crown.
A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals: +1550
If A.J. Green were playing with an elite passer, he’d likely be putting up Julio Jones-like numbers.
But with Andy Dalton, that hasn’t recently been the case. The quarterback has been league-average at best over his career and recently has had a non-existent run-game to make matters worse.
Tyler Eifert at tight end was supposed to bring Green some relief in the passing game. So was speedster John Ross. But neither has been able to stay on the field thanks to injuries. That’s left Green fighting off coverages that know they only need to focus on him.
It’s easy to forget that Green finished eighth in receiving in 2015 and followed it up with 964 yards in just 10 games the next season. His average in the latter year was second only to Jones.
He can do something special in 2018 if he has other pieces to pitch-in and help create space for him. But otherwise, his 52.4% catch rate likely won’t improve much with tight coverage.
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: +1762
There’s a reason the Bucs gave Mike Evans a fat contract in the offseason. He’s not only been one of the most productive receivers since entering the league but also hasn’t gone into any slumps.
He’s put up over 1,000 yards each of his first four seasons and isn’t even near his ceiling. If Jameis Winston (suspension) could keep himself on the field and have consistency while there, Evans could threaten 1,500 yards.
But he didn’t have his QB for a spell last year due to injury. And now Winston will miss the first four games of this season.
Still, with the running game slowly trying to get reestablished, expect Evans to get a lot of targets. He was only 11th in the league last year in the category, but first the year before when he had over 1,300 yards.
T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts: +1955
Hilton’s success will be predicated on a few different aspects of the Colts offense.
The offensive line, which the Colts improved on this offseason, must take a couple steps forward to properly protect QB Andrew Luck. If that happens, the QB could put up career numbers. And a lot of those will be racked up by Hilton.
The receiver had career figures in 2016 when he led the league with 1,448 yards. Even with his production slipping thanks to a Luck injury, Hilton was 4th in the NFL in YPC.
Luck back anchoring the offense and having two reliable tight ends could take some of the pressure off Hilton on the outside.
Several wildcard options also exist for this prop. While these receivers have nowhere near the history of the top candidates, they all have specific reasons for getting a huge bump in production.
First of these longshots is the Vikings’ Adam Thielen (+2085), who is an incredible value for finishing 5th in receiving last season. With a better passer like Kirk Cousins now at quarterback, Thielen should rack up huge numbers once he is synchronized with his new throwing mate.
While he’ll be acclimating to a new QB, Davante Adams (+3149) will be more than glad to get his old one back.
Aaron Rodgers is healthy and his number one target should be Adams this year, not Randall Cobb. With Jordy Nelson now in Oakland, the Packers will be relying a lot more on Adams. But it’s a fair criticism to note he has yet to break 1,000 yards in his career.
From a game-changer in Green Bay to one in Kansas City, Tyreek Hill will be a major home run threat again. Though the Chiefs have the NFL’s leading rusher in Kareem Hunt, that won’t keep QB Patrick Maholmes from airing it out a ton to Hill.
His YAC was 3rd among receivers last year. With some extra targets (He’ll be sharing them with All-Pro-caliber TE Travis Kelce), Hill could expand well above 1,000 yards this season.
And the last option is to take the field (+2630). There’s plenty of intriguing options here. A dynamic rookie wideout like Calvin Ridley or D.J. Moore would be on this list. So would Marvin Jones, who was 9th in receiving last year in pass-happy Detroit, with the best YPC in the entire league.
Another player considered in “the field” is Brandin Cooks. He’s been a proven commodity the last three seasons, all in which he went over 1,000 yards.
His catch rate has gone down each of those years. But he’ll still be the number one option for the Rams this year, a team that should throw a lot more.
None of the longshots make much sense.
Cooks is somewhat intriguing but must share the targets with WR Cooper Kupp (869 yards in 2017) RB Todd Gurley (788 yards), and Robert Woods (781).
The dark horses are for the most part all in contention. Evans and Green won’t quite get there simply because of who they have throwing to them. Beckham isn’t a safe bet but is one of maybe only four receivers who could break 1,500 yards this season.
Brown and Jones are still the class of the league. They’ll be safer bets for sure. But there’s another offensive threat who’s been waiting for the right passer to have a career year with. And that’s DeAndre Hopkins (+856) with Deshaun Watson.
Hopkins will once again be in the running for the most-targeted receiver in the game. Except it should be with Watson under center all year. But even in a season where Watson only started seven games, Hopkins was still 4th in receiving.
If he’d played in a 16th game like Jones and Keenan Allen, he likely would’ve jumped both of them. He only needed 68 yards to pass the former, and even less (15 yards) to pass the latter.
And if a guy like draft pick Keke Coutree (4.3 40-yard dash) can blow the top off the defense like the team thinks, watch out. It could open a lot more room for Hopkins to work and provide him with a little less attention in the process.
Yes, Brown is the easy choice to make. But the value of Hopkins can’t be denied.