Best NFL receivers against man and zone coverages

Inglewood, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp warms up before playing against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Elite wide receivers win in all areas of the game, as their game translates to all levels of the field and against all coverages which is why they’re the top guys. Some receivers specialize in certain aspects of the trade, which can have knock-on effects on the type of defense they are effective against.

Here, we are going to look at data available in PFF Premium Stats to “Elite” subscribers to see who the best receivers were last year against man and zone coverage.

Man Coverage

Man coverage is what most imagine when they think about coverage most of the time — even though pure man coverage utilization has diminished over the years as defenses pivot to zone and matchup-zone concepts.

It’s also the most difficult type of coverage for receivers to win consistently against, and when we look at the best PFF grades, it’s populated by the best receivers in the league in 2021.

Player PFF Rec Grade YPRR WR Rating
Cooper Kupp 93.9 4.33 145.8
Justin Jefferson 92.6 3.3 140.9
Davante Adams 91.2 2.96 127.2
D.K. Metcalf 90.9 3.3 129.2
A.J. Brown 90.7 3.31 117.3
Ja'Marr Chase 86 3.38 114
Antonio Brown 84.4 3.37 115.7
Mike Evans 84.1 2.35 144.3
Russell Gage 83.2 2.84 110.7
Bryan Edwards 82.5 2.31 118.1

Kupp posted a record-setting season last year, leading the league in receiving yards, receptions and touchdowns. It shouldn’t be any surprise that to achieve such a level of dominance, he was also regularly destroying man coverage.

Kupp was the best-graded receiver against man coverage, and he entered the league as a player who was expected to be restricted to playing in the slot because of his limitations. He still lined up inside on 65.5% of his snaps, but whether he was playing inside or outside, Kupp couldn’t be contained by man coverage, beating it for an average of 4.33 yards per route run over the regular season. That figure is the highest yards-per-route-run figure among receivers with more than 20 targets against man coverage, and the most outright among receivers that weren’t designated deep threats in their offense.

Chase is the next higher-volume receiver in yards per route run (3.38). Chase ranks a little lower in PFF grade thanks to the big-play nature of his game as a rookie, but he is still ranked extremely high if you filter out all of the lower-volume receivers.

Jefferson and Adams are represented in the best PFF grades as two of the best and most complete receivers in the game. Adams has been at that level for years, but Jefferson’s immediate rise to that echelon has been remarkable to watch given how he was thought of as a prospect. 

Brown also shows well, and that trio was also well represented when we looked at the best receivers against press coverage. There is, of course, considerable overlap between man coverage and press coverage. The bottom line is that those receivers are unquestionably among the best in the league.

New Bucs receiver Gage also shows well on the list, further punctuating the notion that he is a very underrated receiver across the board and could have a big year with Tom Brady throwing him the football.

Player PFF Rec Grade YPRR WR Rating
Jalen Reagor 51.9 0.4 31.3
Marquise Brown 52 0.91 64.9
A.J. Green 52.9 0.59 38.7
Ray-Ray McCloud III 54.6 0.63 56.3
Nelson Agholor 55.7 0.69 56.8
Zach Pascal 60.3 1.19 97.7
Robby Anderson 61.4 0.76 78.1
Cole Beasley 62 1.02 56.3
Deebo Samuel 62.1 2 75.9
Laviska Shenault Jr.  62.3 0.98 52.8
Tyler Boyd 63.7 1.25 61.7

Taking a quick look at the other end of the scale, the permanent tie between Jefferson and Reagor's careers finds another connection. Jefferson ranks among the best receivers in the league against man coverage, but no receiver posted a lower PFF grade than Reagor in the entire league in 2020.  

Green’s decline shows up clearly in this grade (52.9) also. He may still be able to find some production, but the days where Green can dominate one-on-ones appear to be over. 

Perhaps worryingly for Arizona, Brown recorded the second-lowest PFF grade in the NFL against man coverage last season, averaging just 0.91 yards per route run. In Brown’s defense, his quarterback situation wasn’t always great with Lamar Jackson getting hurt and the Ravens having to cycle through some backup options. Still, Brown has just one above-average season against man coverage, and it was his first.

Zone Coverage

For some reason, people tend to think of zone coverage differently from the man variety, making it a kind of cop-out that doesn’t really count when evaluating players on either offense or defense. Nonetheless, zone coverage is the majority of what teams play in the league; therefore, it is the majority of what receivers face on any given play. Stefon Diggs led the league with 59 targets against man coverage in the regular season, but 24 different receivers had more targets than that against zone coverage, and Kupp earned 96 in total.

Zone coverage requires a different skill set than man coverage, on both sides of the ball. So while that skill set might be physically less demanding, one could argue that it’s mentally more demanding. There are players that thrive in or against man-heavy schemes that don’t have the more subtle feel for zone coverages.

The flipside of that is there are players that can make up for physical or athletic shortcomings with feel, and players that are excellent at dealing with zone systems but will struggle when man coverage becomes a bigger factor.

Player PFF Rec Grade YPRR WR Rating
Davante Adams 91 2.83 100.6
Deebo Samuel 90.8 3.62 119.3
Cooper Kupp 86.9 2.73 97.4
CeeDee Lamb 84.5 2.22 80.3
Tee Higgins 82.7 2.4 122
Hunter Renfrow 82.3 2.18 107.8
Justin Jefferson 81.7 2.72 106.1
Tyreek Hill 80.3 2.26 102.7
Ja'Marr Chase 78.6 2.64 123.3
Stefon Diggs 78.2 2.01 76.1

Adams, Kupp and Jefferson show well against zone coverage as well as their work against man, highlighting why they are some of the very best receivers in the game. Kupp has been known for his intelligence and feel for coverages over his entire career and has had to prove that he can win one on one as well. However, the other two receivers have almost done it in the other direction, dominating with route-running and proving that they have the mental chops to exploit holes in coverage schemes as well.

Green’s split between poor PFF grades against man coverage but good ones against zone (82.0) perfectly illustrates his skill set at his age. Green isn’t the physical force he once was, but he still has the mental chops he developed over a decade to exploit space in zones with the best of them. Green averaged 2.34 yards per route run against zone coverage last season (more than Hill), but just 0.59 against man coverage.

Other players with notable splits are Samuel (62.1 PFF grade against man, 90.8 against zone) and Brown (52.0 and 73.2).

Deebo’s grade, in particular, is likely down to some dropped passes against man coverage, as his sample size is relatively small. He recorded just 21 targets against man coverage and caught nine of them for 212 yards and a score. 

One player worth highlighting that misses out on the rankings due to a low sample size but was extremely well-graded and productive in both areas is Deonte Harty (formerly Harris), who is an explosive playmaker for the New Orleans Saints despite being undersized and has shown that he deserves a bigger role within the offense.


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