Playing and succeeding against press coverage is one of the biggest challenges for NFL receivers, and often the biggest thing separating otherwise excellent prospects at draft time.
The ability to defeat press coverage regularly is the difference between a player who can make an entire receiving corps function and a player who will need a role carved out for them and a foil to enable them to thrive.
To understand which NFL receivers are the best at beating press coverage right now, we’ll dive into the PFF database, which records press coverage both on a team level as well as on an individual basis.
Looking at the past two seasons combined, here are the best receivers in the league ranked by various categories.
|10||Will Fuller V||Dolphins||86.3||35||24||3.1|
Let's start with one player who just missed out: The Atlanta Falcons’ Kyle Pitts. Nominally a tight end, Pitts was such a unicorn as a prospect because of the belief that he could line up as a true X receiver and defeat press coverage. At least through one NFL season, that’s being borne out. Pitts ranked 11th in PFF grade against press coverage, averaging 2.99 yards per route run — a figure that could have been even better but for a pair of dropped passes. Pitts may be every bit that unicorn player.
No receiver has been better against press coverage than the Minnesota Vikings’ Justin Jefferson, who boasts the highest PFF grade and has caught 72 of the 109 targets thrown his way against press coverage since entering the league. That’s notable in part because prospective teams weren’t sure if Jefferson could thrive on the outside, leading him to be the fifth wideout drafted in 2020. He was coming off a college season in which he dominated from the slot, but how a receiver fares on the outside against press coverage is what largely determines their NFL ceiling and whether they can be that No. 1 threat in an offense.
Kupp is a notable name because of how much he plays from the slot. He doesn’t face nearly as much press coverage as some other elite receivers (70 fewer targets against press than Stefon Diggs over the past two seasons), but he torches it in those instances. Kupp’s 3.33 yards per route run against press is the best mark in the NFL over that span.
Tyler Lockett once again proves that this skill set is not necessarily driven by size or imposing physical tools, and his PFF grade is narrowly ahead of his teammate D.K. Metcalf despite paling in comparison in terms of size and physicality.
Yards Per Route Run
|3||Will Fuller V||Dolphins||86.3||35||24||3.1|
Cooper Kupp and Justin Jefferson are the two most productive receivers in the league against press coverage over the past two seasons in terms of yards per route run, but Will Fuller is the major standout here, showing why he continues to be coveted despite all of his injuries. Fuller can take the top off a defense as a deep threat and also defeat press coverage to make that happen. He is an extremely dangerous receiver with that combination, just one who can’t stay on the field.
Kyle Pitts has been more productive than most elite receivers in the league against press coverage, albeit on a much smaller sample size after just his rookie year. Pitts has elite wide receiver traits as well as the ability to play tight end, and that makes him a truly unique prospect in the NFL.
Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase is the second player to appear on this list after their rookie season. Chase’s impact on the Bengals' offense was obvious, and his ability to destroy even elite coverage was evident throughout the 2021 season. Teams lined up against him in press coverage quite often but were typically made to pay for that aggression.
Antonio Brown also appearing on the list shows why he continues to have an impact on any offense he’s a part of, at least until the seemingly inevitable implosion and messy divorce.
Passer Rating When Targeted
|RANK||PLAYER||TEAM||PFF GRADE||TGTs||RECs||PASSER RATING|
|1||Will Fuller V||Dolphins||86.3||35||24||149.4|
Will Fuller again shows the kind of impact that he has on defenses when healthy. When Fuller faces press coverage and the ball comes his way, very good things happen for his offense.
A more interesting name is the player just behind him on that list: Allen Lazard, somebody almost emblematic of the failures of the Green Bay Packers‘ receiving corps in recent seasons. Lazard has been exceptionally productive against press coverage, aided in no small way by having Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback in those situations. Rodgers is arguably the best signal-caller in the league at taking advantage of single coverage, and Lazard's far smaller sample size on such plays against press compared to former Packer Davante Adams helps boost him here.
Kendrick Bourne and Van Jefferson are two new names to the list, though neither has more than 40 targets to their name against press over that time. Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews has also been successful against press coverage but, again, has seen it far less often.
|NAME||TEAM||PFF GRADE||PRESS SNAPS||REC TD||TD RATE|
Adam Thielen is a touchdown machine — a player with a disproportionate volume of scores relative to his target share within the Vikings' offense — and that trend continues against press coverage, where he has the best touchdown rate as either a percentage of targets or as a rate relative to snaps against press coverage.
Thielen has five fewer scores over the past two seasons than Mike Evans, but given how much less he sees press coverage, his scoring rate is significantly higher — and by far the highest in the league.
Tyler Lockett is the next most likely receiver to score a touchdown against press coverage, and he and Thielen are the only two receivers to score on greater than 4% of their snaps against press.
Tyreek Hill is perhaps predictably dangerous from a scoring perspective against press, as is Davante Adams.
|NAME||TEAM||PFF GRADE||PRESS SNAPS||TGT||TGT %|
The last thing to look at is which receivers are most likely to see the ball come their way when they face press coverage.
Just making the target threshold is Michael Thomas, who often plays lined up inside away from press. But when he does see that coverage, it doesn’t stop the ball from going his way.
Predictably enough, Davante Adams is the most prolific receiver in the league in terms of the ball coming his way against press coverage when we adjust for volume. Adams has seen 122 targets over the past two seasons against press, and he has the highest target rate in the league after Thomas.
Adams singled up was a near-automatic green light to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who now has to adjust to life without his best receiver.
A.J. Brown is tied with Cooper Kupp for the next best mark, even if neither player has seen as much press as some of the receivers on this list. Diontae Johnson and Stefon Diggs are the only receivers in the league who have seen more targets against press coverage than Adams, and Johnson has seen more snaps of press coverage than any receiver in the league.