Last week was quarterback rankings week. We talked about Deshaun Watson’s place in the NFL world, and the importance his play will have on the 2019 season. Ranking quarterbacks and talking about quarterbacks is cool and fun and all, but have you ever ranked wide receivers? Personally I haven’t, but Robert Mays over at the Ringer set out with his keyboard to find out who is the best receiver in football. He made the case for DeAndre Hopkins:
Nuk doesn’t play like the ideal modern receiver. Space is the currency in today’s NFL, and unlike most of the league’s great wideouts, Hopkins doesn’t trade in it. His game isn’t predicated on creating separation, exploiting the middle of the field, or dominating with speed. And that’s what makes him so damn special.
At its most basic, playing receiver is about catching footballs, and no one in the world is better at that right now than Hopkins. PFF credited him with zero drops in 2018; no throw his way last season that should have been completed wasn’t. For a guy who finished with 159 targets and 115 receptions, that’s stupefying. Hopkins is the most natural catcher in the NFL, and in his case, that means more than making spectacular plays. The physics-defying catches are nice, but what sets Hopkins apart is how casually he makes the somewhat-difficult receptions. Whether he has to reach away from his frame or subtly move back toward a throw that’s just a bit off-target, no one makes the challenging look routine quite like Hopkins.
The ease with which he catches the ball makes Hopkins the most dangerous sideline receiver in the NFL. Because he snags throws with such little effort, he can spend a disproportionate amount of his mental energy on controlling both his feet and his body. There’s a reason that quarterbacks are throwing the ball between the numbers more often than ever: Fitting balls down the sideline and asking receivers to negotiate tight spaces is difficult. Apparently no one told that to Hopkins. Including the playoffs, Hopkins hauled in 62.2 percent of his passes between 10 and 20 yards downfield and outside the numbers last season.
Hopkins is more than just a sideline artist, though. He caught 58 passes between the numbers (regular season and playoffs combined), and you need look no further than his performance in the Texans’ 37-34 win against the Colts in Week 4 to see how he can dominate the middle of the field. Against Indy’s zone-heavy defense, Hopkins was a monster, dicing up the soft areas in the defense for 10 catches and 169 yards. Hopkins can hurt defenses anywhere as the most reliable receiver in the league.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’m going with Hopkins. Any one of the five has a fair claim, and the margins here are razor-thin. Thomas plays with the most accurate quarterback in the NFL and doesn’t stretch the field like his elite contemporaries. Beckham was dinged up a bit in the past two years. Brown’s on-field connection with Roethlisberger ideally suited his game, and it’s hard to ignore how last season ended for him off the field in Pittsburgh.
When it came down to it, the choice for me was between Jones and Hopkins. No two receivers carried a larger load for their respective offenses last year. Jones led the NFL in percentage of his team’s air yards with 45.64; Hopkins came in second at 44.04. No other receiver topped 38.2 percent. It was essentially a toss-up between the two, and what gave Hopkins the slight edge goes beyond any statistical metric. Right now, when a ball is thrown in the NFL, there’s no one in the league I trust more to come down with it than DeAndre Hopkins. That’s not the only factor involved in playing wide receiver at the highest level, but Hopkins sets himself apart by the way he can do everything: He’s a vertical threat, a middle-of-the-field threat, and a threat along the sideline. There’s no spot where he doesn’t make plays, and he makes them more reliably than any other receiver in the league. If Jones and Hopkins ran the same route, with the same separation (they both averaged 2.5 yards of separation per play, according to Next Gen Stats), with the same pass, I have more faith in Hopkins to come down with the ball. That may seem like an inexact science, but when you’re dealing with a race this close, sometimes that’s the only way to decide.
Personally, I would put Hopkins at #3 with Julio Jones being 1A and Antonio Brown being 1B. Both players have the ability to turn a slant route into a long touchdown with their ability to scorch the Earth after the catch. Hopkins doesn’t have the same absurd quickness and speed these two have. However, I do think Hopkins is the most skilled wide receiver in the league, his ability to get open inside of an electrical closet, how he contorts his body when the ball is in the air to highpoint it, the mandibles he crushes the ball with, and the fact that he wins on the sideline in 1v1 close quarter combat situations, can carry an entire passing offense on his own, and his spectacular no matter who his quarterback is, or who the skill players are surrounding him. He’s the most unique, interesting, and skillful wide receiver, but he is just like the third best receiver, not the first.
Anyways, what do you think? Is Hopkins the best receiver in the league?