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The NFL's most targeted WRs by situation: Packers' Davante Adams and Rams' Cooper Kupp dominate in the red zone

Dec 22, 2019; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) during a post game interview following a win against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

We often look at efficiency numbers for wide receivers that explore how effective they are after the ball comes their way. Drawing targets is a skill in itself, though. To be targeted at a high rate, a receiver must consistently separate from his defender and earn the trust of his quarterback by showing him that he can come down with the pass even if the separation isn’t there.

These were the players who excelled in those areas, drawing targets on the highest percentage of their routes in 2019.

Note: The minimum route threshold used was 25% of the maximum routes run in the group being examined. For example, Curtis Samuel ran more routes than any other wide receiver in 2019, with 647 routes run. The minimum route threshold was set to 25% of 647 (162).

All routes: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

Player Routes run Targets Target rate
1. Michael Thomas 599 180 30.1%
2. Davante Adams 427 124 29.0%
3. Julio Jones 572 149 26.0%
4. DeAndre Hopkins 584 146 25.0%
5. Tyreek Hill 351 87 24.8%
6. Keenan Allen 596 147 24.7%
7. Steven Sims 213 52 24.4%
8. Allen Robinson 630 153 24.3%
9. T.Y. Hilton 276 67 24.3%
10. Alshon Jeffery 286 69 24.1%

In terms of raw targets, Thomas’ total of 180 dwarfed the rest of the NFL, sitting at 27 more than the next closest wide receiver ─ Allen Robinson ─ who also shows up on this list. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Thomas leads the way as the only qualifying wide receiver to be targeted on over 30% of his routes in 2019. 

Similarly, Davante Adams should once again see a lion’s share of the targets for the Green Bay Packers after their only move at the position this offseason was to bring in Devin Funchess.

There aren’t many surprises in this top-10, but the name that would win out in a contest of “which of these names is not like the others” would be Steven Sims of the Washington Redskins. As an undrafted free agent rookie out of Kansas, Sims played a big role in the offense after coming on late in the season in a slot role. His PFF grade wasn’t all that impressive (64.4), but Sims had clearly earned the trust of quarterback Dwayne Haskins. He should get every opportunity to build on that campaign in 2020 with an uncertain depth chart behind Terry McLaurin.

Lined up in the slot: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

Player Routes run Targets Target rate
1. Michael Thomas 179 64 35.8%
2. DeAndre Hopkins 211 57 27.0%
3. Cooper Kupp 375 99 26.4%
4. Julio Jones 127 33 26.0%
5. Julian Edelman 413 101 24.5%
6. Allen Robinson 259 63 24.3%
7. Robert Woods 211 51 24.2%
8. Keenan Allen 308 71 23.1%
9. Sterling Shepard 184 42 22.8%
10. Steven Sims 168 37 22.0%

Thomas lined up in the slot on just over a quarter of his routes in 2019, but when he did, he dominated the target market with 64 targets on his 179 routes. That target rate of 35.8% was over eight percentage points higher than the next closest wide receiver ─ DeAndre Hopkins. Thomas converted on a high percentage of those targets, as well. He caught 52 of the 64 passes thrown his way in the slot.  

If you go through this top-10, you’ll see plenty of wide receivers who spend most of their time outside. NFL teams have increasingly moved their No. 1 wide receiver around in recent years to exploit matchups, and that includes bumping inside to the slot. When players like Thomas, Hopkins and Julio Jones move inside, it creates matchup problems, particularly for teams that don’t like to send their top cornerbacks into the slot in shadow coverage. Targets tend to follow. 

As for true slot wide receivers, Cooper Kupp and Julian Edelman each drew heavy looks from the slot. There is no reason both guys won’t continue to in 2020 with the Rams losing Brandin Cooks and the Patriots’ offense boasting few proven targets heading into next season. 

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Lined up outside: Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs

Player Routes run Targets Target rate
1. Tyreek Hill 164 50 30.5%
2. Michael Thomas 420 116 27.6%
3. Davante Adams 309 84 27.2%
4. Keenan Allen 287 76 26.5%
5. Julio Jones 445 116 26.1%
6. T.Y. Hilton 197 50 25.4%
7. Mike Evans 355 89 25.1%
8. Allen Robinson 368 89 24.2%
9. Michael Gallup 443 107 24.2%
10. Tyler Boyd 220 53 24.1%

We have finally reached a category where Thomas doesn’t lead the way, though he does follow closely behind in second place. Hill missed some time with injury in 2019 and alternated his time between the slot and out wide in the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense. Still, he was the only wide receiver in the NFL to draw targets on over 30% of his outside routes over the course of the regular season.

The two biggest surprises on this list come at the bottom in Michael Gallup and Tyler Boyd

Gallup broke through last season with over 1,100 receiving yards in total, and the fact that he was among the top-10 wide receivers in the NFL in both target rate when lined up outside and yards per route run bodes well for his prospects. The Dallas Cowboys have quite the trio of receivers heading into the 2020 season with Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb slated to join Gallup in three wide-receiver sets. 

Boyd is someone who has spent his fair share of time in the slot, and despite being targeted at a high rate outside, he had much more success inside. Boyd averaged 13.9 yards per reception and 1.92 yards per route run from the slot (65% of his routes) compared to 8.4 yards per reception and 1.23 yards per route run when lined up outside. 

Third/fourth down: Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams

Player Routes run Targets Target rate
1. Cooper Kupp 169 52 30.8%
2. Alshon Jeffery 90 27 30.0%
3. Steven Sims 81 24 29.6%
4. Adam Thielen 72 21 29.2%
5. Tyreek Hill 95 27 28.4%
6. Michael Thomas 150 42 28.0%
7. Hunter Renfrow 118 33 28.0%
8. Tajae Sharpe 68 19 27.9%
9. Keenan Allen 169 47 27.8%
10. Stefon Diggs 135 37 27.4%

Kupp is a guy who popped in several categories last season for the Rams. Jared Goff and Sean McVay’s offense pumped him the ball, and that held especially true in high leverage situations such as this one ─ third- and fourth-down plays. Not only did Kupp’s 30.8% target rate lead the way at the position, but he was very effective when the ball did come his way. Kupp’s 29 first downs or touchdowns led all wide receivers on this subset of plays, and his 135.4 passer rating when targeted was one of the best marks in the league.

The next group of wide receivers ─ Alshon Jeffery, Steven Sims, Adam Thielen and Tyreek Hill ─ all did it on a smaller sample due to injuries and, in Sims’ case, limited playing time early.

One name I do want to highlight here is Hunter Renfrow. In the flurry of strong seasons from rookie wide receivers in 2019, Renfrow’s name might fly a little under the radar. That shouldn’t be the case. His 76.5 receiving grade trailed only Terry McLaurin and A.J. Brown among all rookie wide receivers, and he’s already shown himself to be a reliable slot option that can be counted on for plays on key downs. 

Quarterback under pressure: Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams

Player Routes run Targets Target rate
1. Cooper Kupp 198 48 24.2%
2. Jarvis Landry 193 43 22.3%
3. Tyreek Hill 96 21 21.9%
4. Allen Robinson 208 45 21.6%
5. Jamison Crowder 222 48 21.6%
6. Hunter Renfrow 84 17 20.2%
7. Preston Williams 99 20 20.2%
8. Mike Williams 193 38 19.7%
9. Julian Edelman 183 35 19.1%
10. Keenan Allen 211 40 19.0%

The first thing that sticks out here is that there are a lot of slot wide receivers on this list. The only wide receivers in this top-10 who didn’t run at least 50% of their routes from the slot in 2019 are Allen Robinson, Preston Williams and Mike Williams. The target rates aren’t also quite as high as in some other categories, with Kupp leading the way at just 24.2%. That points to the idea that quarterbacks aren’t as occupied with finding their top guy when under duress as they are with finding just any open player ─ and that arrow often points to the slot. 

The other interesting note is that Preston Williams makes an appearance as an undrafted free agent in 2019 who only played the first half of the season before going down with an injury. With the state of the Miami Dolphins’ offensive line, pressure wasn’t a rarity. His return after leading the team in targets through Week 9, coupled with the emergence of DeVante Parker towards the back end of last season, creates an intriguing dynamic at wide receiver heading into next year, albeit one that still has plenty left to prove. 

Red zone: Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers

Player Routes run Targets Target rate
1. Davante Adams 51 23 45.1%
2. Preston Williams 28 10 35.7%
3. Cooper Kupp 63 21 33.3%
4. Steven Sims 27 9 33.3%
5. Hunter Renfrow 42 12 28.6%
6. Michael Thomas 90 25 27.8%
7. Allen Robinson 75 20 26.7%
8. Courtland Sutton 76 20 26.3%
9. Mike Evans 61 16 26.2%
10. Jamison Crowder 61 16 26.2%

Adams has been the best red-zone receiving threat in the NFL over the past several seasons — and it’s been by a relatively comfortable margin. Earning 23 targets on his 51 red-zone routes this past season only strengthens that claim. His 91.2 receiving grade in the red zone since 2017 leads all players with at least 100 routes run, and his 23 red-zone touchdowns are also more than any other player over that three-year span. Aaron Rodgers likes to look his way when the field gets tight, and for good reason. 

Beyond Adams, there are plenty of names that have shown up on multiple occasions in this article, including a crop of slot receivers in Kupp, Sims, Renfrow and Crowder.

From a volume perspective, no wide receiver was able to match Thomas in 2019. His 20 receptions on plays that began in the red zone were more than any other player, and his eight receiving touchdowns matched Mark Andrews and Marvin Jones Jr. for the NFL lead last season. It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again, Thomas’ combination of volume and efficiency was something to behold in 2019.

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