NFL News & Analysis

Ranking the 25 best wide receivers from the 2021 NFL regular season

Outside of the quarterback, wide receiver is the most important position on a football field. Getting a true WR1, paired with a top quarterback, can take a team to contention status. The 2021 Cincinnati Bengals are a prime example.

The position comes with a lot of debate, particularly regarding who the best receivers in the game are, but with the help of PFF’s advanced database — which is used by all 32 NFL teams — we can rank the league's best wideouts.

Below are the top 25 wide receivers from the 2021 NFL regular season. This is not a forward-looking list, nor is it considering what a player accomplished prior to this season. These rankings are solely analyzing the performance and impact of every receiver in the NFL from the 2021 regular season.


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1. DAVANTE ADAMS, GREEN BAY PACKERS

The highest-graded wide receiver of the 2021 regular season was none other than Davante Adams, who accomplished the same feat in 2020. The Packers star puts out teaching tape every week with his elite route-running and release package. He’s shredded single coverage better than anyone in the NFL this season, according to PFF receiving grade.

An underrated aspect of Adams’ game is his reliability when Aaron Rodgers targets him. The wide receiver hauled in 96.1% of his catchable targets this season, the second-highest rate among players with at least 100 targets.

2. COOPER KUPP, LOS ANGELES RAMS

No pass-catcher was more productive than Kupp — better known as the engine of the Los Angeles Rams' offense — in the 2021 regular season. His 3.12 yards per route run this year not only led the position, but it also tied for the best in a single regular season in the last decade with Julio Jones‘ 2016 campaign. Kupp’s 33 explosive receptions of 15 or more yards from the slot were 14 more than any other wide receiver this season.

His ability to recognize and dissect coverages is truly special, as is his propensity to win at the goal line. The Eastern Washington product had been a high-quality, productive receiver in the NFL up until this point, but he clearly took his play to a whole new level in 2021.

3. DEEBO SAMUEL, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Samuel is the single biggest riser at the position since the start of 2021. He is the biggest after-the-catch threat in the NFL, with a league-leading 10.2 yards after the catch per reception, and is an explosive play waiting to happen.

He ranks third in the NFL in the percentage of targets that result in a 15-plus yard gain (31%). And that isn’t even taking into account what he accomplished in the ground game. Samuel sees a steady dose of snaps at running back and racked up 13 runs of 10-plus yards, 20 broken tackles and 4.7 yards after contact per attempt on 59 carries in the regular season.

4. JUSTIN JEFFERSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Jefferson handled press-man coverage like a seasoned veteran in his 2020 rookie campaign, despite that not being his forte in college, and 2021 was no different. When going toe to toe with press coverage on the outside this season, Jefferson generated an NFL-leading 3.29 yards per route run. In second place was his former teammate Ja’Marr Chase at 2.77. Jefferson earned a 90.7 receiving grade on such reps this season, making him the lone receiver in the NFL to surpass an 85.0 mark on those plays.

5. JA’MARR CHASE, CINCINNATI BENGALS

Only two wide receivers — Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings and Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers — earned a higher grade than Chase against single coverage this season. Chase’s 868 receiving yards on such plays led the NFL this regular season.

The former LSU star looked like the complete package in college during the Tigers' historic 2019 campaign, and that’s carried into his rookie campaign. With his play strength, route-running, deep speed, releases, ball skills and after-the-catch ability, Chase is destined to be a routine top-five wide receiver in the NFL.

6. CEEDEE LAMB, DALLAS COWBOYS

Lamb bounced back and forth between the outside and inside this season, and there was a noticeable difference in his play at the two positions. He was at his best on the outside, earning the fourth-best receiving grade and averaging the ninth-most yards per route run this season.

Either way, though, Lamb’s toughness showed on the field. He caught 14 of his 20 contested opportunities and broke 19 tackles after the catch across 80 receptions.

7. STEFON DIGGS, BUFFALO BILLS

Diggs ran more routes against press-man coverage this season than any other wide receiver in the NFL. Still, he managed to finish as one of the 10 most valuable wide receivers in the league.

He earned an 82.1 PFF grade in the 2021 regular season, the second-best of his career behind only last season — his first in Buffalo. He did see a decline in production in the second half of the campaign, but at the end of the day, only a handful of other wide receivers were more valuable to their respective teams than Diggs was to Buffalo, according to PFF WAR.

Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) is forced out of bounds by New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) during the first quarter of the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium. Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

8. TYREEK HILL, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Hill went away from his deep threat ways a bit in 2021 and instead was a high-quality possession receiver for quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He handled a high volume of targets and consistently moved the chains. His 75 first downs plus touchdowns tied for the third-most among wide receivers in the regular season. Hill’s average depth of target did dip to 11.0 yards, which is his lowest since his rookie campaign.

He hauled in 74 passes less than nine yards downfield, 22 more than in any other season of his career and the sixth-most among wide receivers. The speedster is no longer just a deep threat.

9. TEE HIGGINS, CINCINNATI BENGALS

Four of Higgins’ highest-graded games of the year came in his last six outings of the regular season. From Weeks 12 through 18, the 2021 33rd overall pick was a top-five graded receiver in the NFL. Across the entire regular season, he caught the fourth-most passes over 10 yards downfield (37) and produced a top-10 receiving grade on such targets. He’s done a good job of using his size on go-balls while also making plays over the middle of the field.

10. HUNTER RENFROW, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS

Renfrow was a magnet in the slot. He caught 96.5% of the catchable targets thrown his way from that alignment — the fourth-highest rate in the NFL — en route to earning the seventh-best slot receiving grade. The 2019 fifth-round pick has established himself as one of the better route-runners in the game. Renfrow’s separation rate against single coverage placed at the 93rd percentile for the 2021 season.

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11. D.K. METCALF, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

The 6-foot-3, 229-pound Ole Miss product was one of the best wide receivers in the league against man coverage. He ranked top three in both receiving grade (91.7) and yards per route run (3.64) versus such looks. Metcalf also recorded five touchdowns on vertical routes against man coverage, tying for the most in the league.

12. TYLER LOCKETT, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Lockett was once again a reliable target for quarterback Russell Wilson in 2021. He led all wide receivers in percentage of catchable passes caught this season while producing the best deep numbers in the game. Lockett’s 20 deep receptions and 740 deep receiving yards both led the position by a comfortable margin.

13. CHRIS GODWIN, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Godwin surprisingly finished the regular season with the second-most underneath receptions (40) among wide receivers — behind only rookie Rondale Moore. The 6-foot-1, 209-pound Buccaneer transitioned to an almost slot-exclusive role in the offense that saw his average depth of target dip nearly three yards year over year to 7.6.

He had fewer opportunities to go one on one against a single coverage defender as a result, but he still shined on such plays. Godwin's receiving grade against single coverage stood at the 86th percentile before he went down with a season-ending injury in Week 15.  

14. A.J. BROWN, TENNESSEE TITANS

Brown was again one of the most productive wide receivers in the league. His 2.50 yards per route run ranked inside the top 10 among qualifying wide receivers in the regular season. Brown was actually one of eight receivers to record over 2.0 yards per route run in the slot and out wide this season. And he did all that while battling injuries at four different points from the preseason to the regular season’s end.

15. TERRY MCLAURIN, WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

McLaurin went from getting open at one of the highest rates in the NFL to hardly doing so in 2021. Over 37% of his targets this past season were contested, compared to 21% in his first two NFL seasons. The good news is that McLaurin managed to excel in those scenarios. His 25 contested catches led the NFL and helped him record the fourth-best catch rate on such plays at the position.

McLaurin boasts surefire hands too, with the third-lowest drop rate among wide receivers with at least 100 targets (2.5%).

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16. MICHAEL PITTMAN JR., INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Pittman was one of the 10 most productive wide receivers in the NFL against zone coverage this season. He generated 2.17 yards per route run against zone and finished with the seventh-most yards (458) by finding soft spots. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver also stood strong in contested scenarios, catching 18 of 28 such targets.

17. DEANDRE HOPKINS, ARIZONA CARDINALS

Hopkins was limited to only 10 games this season due to injury, but when he was on the field, he looked like his normal self — the ultimate possession receiver. Hopkins converted over 54% of his targets into a first down or touchdown, ranking second among qualifying wide receivers. Overall, he earned an 81.1 receiving grade across his 10 outings.

Hopkins’ ball skills are a cheat code and an incredibly valuable asset to the Cardinals when he is healthy enough to play. 

18. JAYLEN WADDLE, MIAMI DOLPHINS

Waddle took off after a subpar first month, as the 2021 sixth overall pick was one of the 10 highest-graded wide receivers in the NFL from Week 6 on. His grade on targets thrown less than nine yards downfield ranked fifth-best in the 2021 regular season.

And there’s still a lot of untapped potential with the speedster, specifically on deep balls, as he caught only four passes targeted 20 or more yards downfield this season.

19. MIKE WILLIAMS, LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Williams is one of the best in the business when it comes to winning the 50-50 battle downfield. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver's receiving grade against tight coverage tied for sixth at the position this past season. He was one of nine wide receivers to catch at least half of their contested targets (minimum 25 such plays).

20. KEENAN ALLEN, LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Allen’s play down the stretch left a lot to be desired, but he still finished the year with a 77.5 receiving grade that ranked inside the top 25 at the position. The nine-year Charger spent more time in the slot this year than in any other season of his career, and his production slid. Allen’s receiving grade and per-route production were both higher on the outside than in the slot, ranking in the top 20 at the position in each metric.

Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) celebrates his touchdown scored against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half at SoFi Stadium. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

21. MIKE EVANS, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Evans was a catch-point king in 2021. He posted the highest contested catch rate in the NFL (83.3%) and used his 6-foot-5, 231-pound frame to his advantage in the red zone. Evans’ eight touchdowns inside the 10-yard line were the second-most in the league, behind only Cooper Kupp. He may have posted a career-low PFF grade, but there were still plenty of positives from his 2021 campaign.

22. BRANDIN COOKS, HOUSTON TEXANS

The Texans used Cooks’ skill set a little bit differently in 2021 due to limitations at quarterback. Houston still gave the speedy receiver plenty of downfield routes, but Cooks didn’t see as many catchable deep passes. Instead, he was presented with more shallow targets. Despite the offense being unable to fully tap into his deep speed, Cooks still managed a 77.3 receiving grade for the season, as he saw a career-high 24.6% target rate.

23. DEVONTA SMITH, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

The Eagles utilized Smith as a downfield threat, as he generated the sixth-highest average depth of target in the NFL (15.2 yards). He held up his end of the bargain with the fifth-most deep receptions (12) of over 20 yards downfield. Interestingly, the 2020 Heisman winner dominated on hitch routes this year. His receiving grade and 298 yards on hitch routes both ranked in the top three among wide receivers.

24. DARNELL MOONEY, CHICAGO BEARS

Mooney took a step forward in 2021 and produced a solid 74.9 receiving grade for the season amid inconsistent quarterback play. The 5-foot-11, 175-pounder flashed his route-running prowess and generated separation against single coverage at a 78th percentile rate among wide receivers.

In addition to getting open in the first place, Mooney was excellent in adjusting to off-target throws downfield. He caught 11 passes over 10 yards downfield that were inaccurate, which was tied for the fifth-most at the position.

25. AMON-RA ST. BROWN, DETROIT LIONS

St. Brown went from fourth-round pick to a top-25 wide receiver in one year. Over the last six weeks of the regular season, he ranked third in PFF grade at the position — behind only Cooper Kupp and Davante Adams. While he may not have been beating press-man coverage on the outside, St. Brown did an excellent job finding soft spots in zone from the slot. He also didn't drop a pass from Week 3 onward and caught half of his contested opportunities.

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