The NFL is now more pass-heavy than ever, and the very best teams are the ones that are able to move the ball through the air effectively.
When ranking pass-catchers, there’s a balance between identifying teams with elite No. 1 options and those groups that run three or four deep. In today’s NFL, the top teams have several passing-game options, and they’re able to keep defenses off balance with a variety of different playmakers. It's that kind of depth that earns favorable consideration in PFF's receiving corps rankings.
Here are the best pass-catching units in the NFL heading into 2021.
The Bucs showed the value of offensive-weapon depth and how putting multiple effective playmakers on the field puts defenses in a bind.
It starts with a wide receiver room that features Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, the best trio in the league. Evans has graded at 80.0-plus in all but two years of his career, and he finished with over 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns (including the playoffs) despite battling injuries throughout the season. He could be even more dangerous with a healthy 2021.
Godwin returns on the franchise tag after grading at 75.0 or better in his four years. He’s been one of the most sure-handed receivers in the league since 2017, though he went through a difficult stretch in the playoffs, with seven of his 13 career drops all occurring during the Bucs' 2020 playoff push. Like Evans, Godwin battled injuries and may be even better this season.
Brown was the highest-graded receiver on the team last year despite not seeing action until Week 9. He has been one of the best receivers in the league throughout his career, and he was a key target down the stretch as he got more acclimated to the offense.
Beyond the top three, Scotty Miller is one of the league’s fastest receivers — he picked up 312 of his 581 yards on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield. Fifth-rounder Tyler Johnson also made a few key plays, and 2021 fourth-rounder Jaelon Darden adds speed and quickness to the slot.
The tight end room is just as deep, with Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate and the returning O.J. Howard. Gronkowski is no longer the best tight end in the league, but he can turn it on in spurts. He finished with 53 catches for 733 yards (13.8 yards per reception) and nine touchdowns last season. Brate recorded 42 receptions and 457 yards of his own, while Howard earned an 85.3 receiving grade prior to his season-ending injury. This trio is as good as it gets in the NFL.
The Bucs are loaded up and down the roster, but their group of playmakers not only has the potential to dominate but has the depth to handle injuries just as it did in 2020.
Dallas features one of the best receiver trios in the league in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. The actual grades weren’t great last season, but this group can separate and create after the catch.
Cooper has been open on 59.9% of his single-coverage targets since 2018, good for the 81st percentile among receivers. He pairs that figure with the 12th-best receiving grade against single coverage during that time.
Gallup has been strong at the catch point, ranking 18th in contested-catch percentage since entering the league. Lamb did most of his damage from the slot last year, as he ranked second in slot yards with 877. He’s primed for an even bigger role, but he must cut down on the nine drops.
Also battling for snaps are Cedrick Wilson and fifth-round rookie Simi Fehoko. Wilson produced a 61.1 receiving grade in limited action last season, while Fehoko had one of the draft’s most intriguing combinations of size and speed, sparking an “unpolished D.K. Metcalf” comparison in the PFF 2021 NFL Draft Guide.
At tight end, Blake Jarwin was limited to just 25 snaps, and Dalton Schultz took advantage with 63 catches, though he averaged just 9.8 per reception. The duo returns this year, with Jarwin providing more of a vertical threat and Schultz the sure-handed possession option.
Dallas once again has one of the best receiving units in the league, and their production will look much better with Dak Prescott back under center.
The Chiefs may have the best wide receiver-tight end tandem in the league in Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Hill is nearly unstoppable down the field; he could even dominate as a possession receiver if that was the desired role. Since 2017, Hill has over 700 more yards on deep passes than any other receiver in the league.
Kelce is one of the best mismatch weapons in the league and incredibly ranked second in the NFL with 1,416 receiving yards a year ago. The Chiefs rightfully use Kelce all over the formation, and he’s dominant both as a route-runner and after the catch.
The question in Kansas City is what happens after the big two. Mecole Hardman has sprinkled in his fair share of big plays out of the slot and on gimmick plays. Demarcus Robinson has 194 targets since 2017, but he’s yet to grade above 61.9 as a receiver. Byron Pringle also returns after grading at 63.4 and 55.3 as a receiver in each of the last two years, respectively. The Chiefs drafted Cornell Powell in the fifth round, and he has a legitimate opportunity to compete for snaps on the outside right away. He brings good releases and size to the equation and he graded at 75.1 overall last year at Clemson.
The Chiefs are as good as it gets at the top of the receiving depth charts, but their dominance will be determined by the development of reliable third and fourth options.
Last season, Bills wide receivers earned the second-highest receiving grade in the league at 89.0, and they’ve done a fantastic job of building this group of playmakers. Stefon Diggs was the final piece last year, as he dominated at all levels of the field and finished with the No. 2 receiving grade in the league. Meanwhile, Cole Beasley led the league with 948 yards in the slot, and he’s best open on 70.2% of his targets against single coverage since 2018, best in the NFL.
With John Brown moving on, Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis will both see plenty of playing time, as the Bills used the second-most four-wide receiver sets in the NFL last year. Sanders is a good route-runner who can still produce in a possession role, even at age 34 years of age. He’s graded at 70.0 or better in all but two of his 11 years in the league. Davis, on the other hand, was a productive vertical threat, averaging 17.5 yards per reception. He’ll be counted on for more of the same in 2021, as his size and game speed was a valuable asset as a rookie. Isaiah McKenzie also returns as the screen/jet sweep option.
Bills tight ends finished with a receiving grade of just 59.0 last season, good for 26th in the league. A Year 3 breakout from Dawson Knox would help, given that he’s graded in the ’50s as a receiver in his first two seasons. Jacob Hollister will compete for snaps as a move tight end who can separate in one-on-one situations.
The Bills have one of the best receiving units in the NFL once again, and more production out of their third and fourth options along with better play at tight end could put them at No. 1 by the end of the season.
A year ago at this time, no one knew if 2020 first-rounder Justin Jefferson could replace Stefon Diggs, but he did just that and more. Jefferson posted the second-highest grade among receivers at 90.4 overall while ranking eighth in the league with 58 first downs. Jefferson made a smooth transition from college slot receiver to outside receiver in the NFL, and his emergence was the catalyst for Vikings receivers posting the league’s highest receiving grade.
Adam Thielen was his usual, dependable self last year, finishing the campaign with an 87.9 receiving grade that was good for seventh in the league. He tied for third with 14 touchdowns, and last year marked the third time in four years he finished with a top-11 receiving grade.
The Vikings have perhaps the top receiving duo in the league, but the third spot remains a question mark. Chad Beebe ranked third among Minnesota receivers with 201 yards last year, though he graded at just 57.4 overall. Olabisi Johnson has been solid, but the Vikings would like to see fifth-rounder Ihmir Smith-Marsette emerge as his 4.43 speed brings a good complement to Jefferson/Thielen.
At tight end, Irv Smith, Jr. earned a 75.4 receiving grade on 41 targets last season, and he’ll have even more opportunities now that Kyle Rudolph has moved on. Tyler Conklin will be asked to replace some of Rudolph’s production, but he’s graded in the 50s in each of his three years in the league.
The Vikings have one of the best groups of pass-catchers in the NFL, and they could be even more dangerous if a No. 3 option emerges.
The Broncos' wide receivers have as much potential as any in the league, but they had some growing pains last season. They ultimately graded at just 66.7 as a unit, good for 30th in the NFL.
Courtland Sutton was limited to just 31 snaps last season, and his return will be a huge boost, given that he graded at 80.5 while averaging 15.4 yards per reception in 2019.
First-rounder Jerry Jeudy was as advertised as a playmaker, but he dropped 12 of his 64 catchable targets. That should be better this season. Make no mistake, Jeudy has a big Year 2 in him.
Fellow rookie K.J. Hamler went through drop issues of his own as he let seven of his 37 catchable targets hit the ground. Hamler is a dynamic playmaker who has the speed and quickness to win down the field and in the short game, while Tim Patrick is one of the most underrated receivers in the league. Patrick showed it last season, earning a 75.6 receiving grade and catching 67% of his contested targets, tied for seventh-best in the league. He did all of this without dropping a single pass.
Denver also adds sixth-rounder Seth Williams, who came in at 137 on the PFF draft board and brings an impressive highlight reel of spectacular catches.
Noah Fant is one of the league’s fastest tight ends, and he had a strong second year in the league, grading at 80.3 as a receiver, sixth-best at the position. Albert Okwuegbunam is the backup after grading at 83.2 on just 86 snaps as a rookie.
The Broncos may have the best top-four wide receivers, and when combined with their tight ends, they have one of the best receiving units in the league.
The 49ers have built a dangerous group of playmakers; it’s just a matter of keeping everyone on the field this season. Deebo Samuel has been used everywhere in this offense. He excels on “space” plays, as he’s averaged 9.6 yards after the catch per reception in his two years in the league, and he is also adept at working the intermediate route tree when lined up on the outside. Former first-rounder Brandon Aiyuk has similar YAC ability, but he was used in a more traditional role last season on his way to an 80.8 receiving grade, second-best among rookies.
After Samuel and Ayiuk, the wide receiver snaps are up for grabs to a plethora of options. Travis Benjamin has played just 189 snaps since 2019, but at his best, he has take-the-top-off-the-defense speed that has led to 14.9 yards per reception in his career. Richie James Jr. has created plenty of big plays himself, averaging 18.1 yards per reception in his 38 career catches, but he also has five drops. Former third-rounder Jalen Hurd is a wild card after he showed early promise during the preseason as a rookie, but he’s yet to take a regular-season snap.
George Kittle is the league’s best all-around option at tight end; he’s one of the few options who can run block effectively in-line while keeping defenses off balance with his route-running and after-the-catch ability. Kittle has graded at 84.0 or better in each of the last three seasons, including an incredible 94.4 grade in 2019. Ross Dwelley will battle 2020 sixth-rounder Charlie Woerner for the backup job.
The 49ers have an excellent trio of pass-catchers in Samuel, Ayiuk and Kittle, but it’s all about health and one more target emerging to move them into the upper echelon of the league.
Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp lead this receiving corps as two of the best route-runners in the league. Woods has been open on 62.1% of his targets against single coverage over the last three years, 11th-best in the NFL, and he’s only dropped 34 of his 596 catchable passes in his career. Kupp has been open on 59.5% of his single-coverage targets, 21st in the league since 2018, and he’s posted a receiving grade of 76.0 or better in each of his four years.
Van Jefferson earned a solid 68.1 grade as a rookie and should be more of a vertical threat moving forward. The Rams added the ultimate vertical threat in DeSean Jackson, though he’s only been on the field for 245 snaps over the last two years. When healthy, he’s an all-time great deep threat, and he could add much-needed juice on the outside. At worst, Jackson is a mentor for second-rounder Tutu Atwell, who is similarly diminutive and speedy. Atwell will be a weapon in the jet sweep game while being able to line up all over the formation.
Tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett each saw 59 targets a year ago, but with Everett moving on, Higbee will take on a bigger workload. He’s graded “in the green” in each of the last three years, including an impressive 86.1 effort in 2019. Johnny Mundt will compete for backup snaps with Brycen Hopkins. Mundt has played just 391 career snaps since 2017, while Hopkins didn’t play offensive last year as a rookie, but he came out of the 2020 draft as one of the better vertical threats at tight end.
The Rams have one of the deepest receiving units in the league, and they have even more big-play ability with the additions of Jackson and Atwell.
The Dolphins are suddenly loaded with speed and playmakers after adding Will Fuller V in free agency and drafting Jaylen Waddle with the sixth overall pick. Fuller is coming off a career-high 86.2 overall grade, and as one of the best deep threats in the NFL, he’s consistently made his offenses better. Waddle brings similar potential after averaging 18.9 yards per reception in college while averaging a gaudy 9.8 yards after the catch per reception.
The Fuller/Waddle duo will put defenses in a bind and open things up for DeVante Parker, who adds the size and catch-point skills the speedsters lack. Parker put up the seventh-highest contested-catch percentage in the league over the last two years at 53.1%. The Dolphins also have two other playmakers defenses must account for in Jakeem Grant and Lynn Bowden Jr. Both players are dangerous with the ball in their hands in the short game.
We’ve seen Mike Gesicki emerge as a receiving weapon at tight end since late in 2019, and he had the No. 7 receiving grade among his peers during the regular season last year at 79.4. The backup snaps will be a battle between Durham Smythe, Adam Shaheen and third-rounder Hunter Long, who was one of the better all-around tight ends in the draft.
Overall, the Dolphins are much improved at receiver, and they go from one of the weaker groups to playmakers to one of the fastest and most dangerous.
10. Seattle Seahawks
Last season, Seahawks wide receivers graded at 79.2, eighth-best in the league. D.K. Metcalf has become one of the most difficult covers in the NFL, as his size/speed combination is a nightmare for defenses. He led the league with 480 yards on 20-plus-yard passes, and he could have had even more if he hadn’t dropped three of his 15 catchable deep passes.
Lockett has been incredibly productive in his six-year career, generating a passer rating of 125.7 when targeted. He has done much of his damage from the slot over the last two years, but don’t be fooled by his 5-foot-10 frame — Lockett is a downfield threat who has caught an impressive 56.1% of his contested catches since 2017.
The big question in Seattle is what happens beyond the big two, and that’s why they spent a second-round pick on D’Wayne Eskridge. Eskridge adds even more speed to the mix, given that he ran a 4.38 40 at his pro day, but he also adds the route running and quickness to expand the Seattle passing attack horizontally. He’ll compete with Freddie Swain, Penny Hart and John Ursua for No. 3 snaps, while a pair of undrafted free agent rookies Tamorrion Terry and Cade Johnson will also be in the mix.
At tight end, Gerald Everett comes over from the Rams, where he had an up-and-down career. He’s effective with the ball in his hands and is another necessary piece as the Seahawks look to expand their passing attack. Will Dissly also returns as a solid backup option, as does Colby Parkinson and his 6-foot-7 frame that could become effective in the red zone.
The Seahawks have one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL, but they need a third and fourth option to emerge if they’re going to take their passing attack to the next level.
11. New York Giants
One of the biggest offseason storylines is the overhaul of New York’s pass-catchers. They signed Kenny Golladay, perhaps the best catch-point receiver in the NFL, and he’ll immediately add a necessary vertical threat. Since entering the league, Golladay has caught 53.6% of his contested targets, the fourth-best in the NFL.
The addition of Golladay takes the pressure off Darius Slayton, who has been an explosive playmaker in his own right. He’s averaged 15.2 yards per reception in his two years, and he pairs with Golladay to form one of the better vertical duos in the league.
The Giants then drafted Kadarius Toney in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and he can make an immediate impact in the slot and on gimmick plays. Toney is dynamic with the ball in his hands; he’ll battle veteran Sterling Shepard for slot snaps after Shepard posted the top receiving grade on the team at 79.4 a year ago while ranking second with 37 first downs. That gives the Giants four receivers with different skill sets who can all contribute in their own way. They also took a flier on speedster John Ross, who has a couple of plays per year that remind you of his top-10 ability and 4.22 speed.
At tight end, Evan Engram returns after posting the lowest grade of his career at 60.5. Still, he’s a solid option in the passing game, and the addition of free agent Kyle Rudolph will help. Rudolph is more of a traditional tight end, and he’s a big-bodied red-zone threat who is at the tail end of a good career.
The Giants have made one of the biggest transformations in the passing game this offseason, and their variety of playmakers give them top-five potential.
Chase adds an outside threat who can win as a route-runner and at the catch point, all leading to a 91.1 grade back in 2019. His familiarity with Joe Burrow is only a bonus. Higgins earned the No. 3 receiving grade among rookies last season at 79.0, and his massive catch radius makes him a mismatch threat as the depth chart gets stronger. Having Chase and Higgins takes the pressure off Boyd, who has become one of the league’s most dependable receivers. He’s posted a receiving grade of 72.0 or better in each of the last three seasons, and he’ll continue to work out of the slot, where his 739 yards were third-highest in the NFL in 2020.
Auden Tate returns as a contested-catch specialist. He has the lowest percentage of open targets over the last two years, but he knows how to use his 6-foot-5 frame to add another mismatch option on the outside.
Like many teams around the league, the receiving corps is strong, but tight end has few legitimate receiving threats. Last season, Bengals tight ends posted a receiving grade of just 51.1, good for 29th in the league. Drew Sample and C.J. Uzomah return with Sample leading the way with 40 catches for just 349 yards (8.7 yards per reception) a year ago.
The Bengals have an excellent group of receivers, but they could use a better threat at tight end to round out their group of pass-catchers.
13. Cleveland Browns
Last season, Browns wide receivers tied for ninth in receiving grade, including the playoffs, and that’s with No. 1 option Odell Beckham Jr. playing in just seven games. He returns, but there are already question marks surrounding his play because the Browns offense did improve after his injury. Regardless, Beckham can win at every level of the field when healthy, and he has graded at 85.0 or better as a receiver four times in his career, though two of his worst grades have come in Cleveland over the last two years.
Jarvis Landry remains as dependable as it gets, last year grading at 84.7 overall and picked up 52 of the Browns 218 first downs through the air. He’s a classic possession slot receiver and has posted a receiving grade of 80.0-plus in five of the last six years. Rashard Higgins returns as the No.3 option after a career-high 72.8 receiving grade to go with 715 yards at 16.3 yards per reception. Higgins continues to produce on the outside when given opportunities. He’ll battle 2020 sixth-rounder Donovan Peoples-Jones for snaps after Peoples-Jones showed off his big-play ability as a rookie with 16 catches for 335 yards, good for 20.9 yards per reception. There’s more speed on the way in rookie third-rounder Anthony Schwartz, a legit track star who can be an immediate weapon on jet sweeps and go-balls while he develops as a receiver.
The Browns rely heavily upon their tight ends, and they’re one of the few teams in the league with some depth. Austin Hooper may not be worth the hefty contract, but he posted a solid 72.0 receiving grade and ranked second on the team with 32 first downs. Former fourth-rounder Harrison Bryant caught 24 passes as a rookie, and he’s more of a move tight end in a backup role, while 2017 first-rounder David Njoku is still on the roster after years of trade rumors and he added 24 catches for 279 yards a year ago. Cleveland will tap into their tight end depth in their system.
The Browns had an effective receiving unit and 2020, and they could be even better if Beckham bounces back to previous levels.
Davante Adams has been one of the league’s best for a while, but last year he posted the top receiving grade at 92.2 and was unrecoverable all over the field. Adams meshes smooth releases with sharp route running to keep cornerbacks off balance, all leading to 73 first downs plus touchdowns, second-best in the league.
Last season, we saw Allen Lazard emerge as an Aaron Rodgers‘ favorite, as he posted career highs with 40 receptions for 609 yards and a 69.7 receiving grade. Lazard runs solid routes for 6-foot-5, so he’s more than just a big frame on the outside.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling had his ups and downs last season, but his ability to get behind the defense outweighed his seven drops on just 48 attempts. Valdes-Scantling avenged 20.4 yards per reception and fulfilled the defense-must-account-for-him deep role that every offense covets.
Beyond the top three options, Devin Funchess is also back in the fold after playing just 36 snaps since 2018. Third-round receiver Amari Rodgers brings a true slot receiver into the mix, and he’ll be used on gadget plays and in the short area game as he gets acclimated to the offense.
One of the big stories for the Packers last year is the emergence of tight end Robert Tonyan, who caught an incredible 90.9% of his targets (60-for-66) for 668 yards and 12 touchdowns, including the playoffs. Marcedes Lewis is back once again to fulfill his role as a blocking tight end, while 2020 third-rounder Josiah Deguara will be counted upon as a move tight end after playing just 39 snaps as a rookie.
The Packers have developed their complementary options around Adams, but it’s still a fragile group of playmakers if they were to lose their star for any reason.
The Chargers return their entire wide receiver corps. It is led by Keenan Allen, who caught 100 passes a year ago. He only gained 9.9 yards per reception, but he converted 61 first downs, good for seventh among receivers. Allen is one of the slickest route-runners in the league.
Mike Williams is more of a downfield threat, averaging 16.6 yards per reception over his career while grading “in the green” in each of the last three seasons. The big surprise was Tyron Johnson, who caught 20 of his 26 targets for 398 yards (19.9 yards per reception) and an 81.2 receiving grade. He continued to get behind the defense and became a big-play target for QB Justin Herbert.
Jalen Guyton was another surprising downfield threat, as he averaged 18.3 yards per reception, though he also dropped six of the 34 catchable passes thrown his way. Third-rounder Josh Palmer adds more size and yet another downfield threat to round out the depth chart.
The big question is replacing TE Hunter Henry, who moves on to the Patriots. Jared Cook comes in after a solid two years in New Orleans; the 34-year-old has posted a receiving grade of 70.0 or better in four of his last five seasons. Donald Parham just started tapping into his monster 6-foot-8 frame and three of his 10 catches went for touchdowns last year. The Chargers also drafted Tre' McKitty in the third round to compete for snaps with an eye toward starting in the future.
The Chargers have a well-rounded group of route runners, size, and speed and they could be even more dangerous if the young receivers take another step forward this season.
16. Atlanta Falcons
Note: For this exercise, we have assumed that Julio Jones gets traded ahead of the 2021 campaign.
Falcons wide receivers had the fourth-best receiving grade in the NFL last season, but it’ll be a different look in 2021. With Jones potentially moving on, Calvin Ridley will look to step into the No.1 role. He’s coming off a career-high 84.9 grade that saw him pick up 1,374 yards while converting 65 first downs, the eighth-highest in the NFL. Ridley is a fantastic route-runner who continues to improve.
Russell Gage was a pleasant surprise, tallying 72 catches and a 73.7 receiving grade last season, though he’s best in a No. 3 role. Olamide Zaccheaus flashed big-play ability with 20 catches for 274 yards and a 70.1 receiving grade. The rest of the wide receiver snaps are wide open with Christian Blake, Tajae Sharpehttps://www.pff.com/nfl/players/frank-darby/40988/draft-profile and rookie Frank Darby competing.
Tight end suddenly becomes a strength with the addition of Florida's Kyle Pitts. Pitts is a game-changer who can line up all over the field and cause nightmares for defenders who can’t match up with his size, length and quicks. Many tight ends take time to acclimate to the league, but Pitts earned the highest grade we’ve ever seen from a college tight end last year. He should be a big part of the passing game immediately. That allows last year’s starter, Hayden Hurst, to slide down the depth chart as one of the better No. 2 options in the league. He caught 56 passes for 571 yards, though he only graded at 58.9 overall last season. Lee Smith is also on the roster filling his usual role as an extension of the offensive line in the run game.
The Falcons' pass-catching corps will likely look different this season, but the hope is that Pitts can replace Jones' game-changing ability if he is traded. Still, the wide receiver depth is an issue for this Falcons team.
Last year’s addition of DeAndre Hopkins boosted the receiving corps, but there’s room for even more growth in Arizona. Hopkins played more of a possession role, finishing with a career-low 9.0 average depth of target, but he also led the league with 75 first downs plus touchdowns. On the other side, A.J. Green comes in to replace Cardinals legend Larry Fitzgerald, but Green is coming off a career-low 66.3 overall grade. His injury issues caused him to look like a completely different receiver last season, so unless he’s back to his previous self, Green looks like another possession option after a career as one of the best downfield threats in the NFL.
Christian Kirk played on the outside last season and was counted on to be Arizona’s deep threat with a career-high aDOT of 13.2. However, he finished with just 12.9 yards per reception while catching just six of 19 deep passes for 282 yards. He’ll compete with second-round rookie Rondale Moore for those downfield targets. Moore brings a tiny frame but he’s an explosive playmaker who could line up all over the field, including becoming a weapon on jet sweeps and out of the backfield. Andy Isabella, a 2019 second-rounder, has had a few highlight-reel plays, but the consistency hasn’t been there as he’s graded below average on his 463 career snaps.
The tight end position is a secondary option in Arizona’s offense, and they had the second-fewest routes run among tight end groups in the NFL last season. Maxx Williams’ 81.3 run-blocking grade is second-best in the NFL since 2017 and he’s a solid receiver when called upon.
The big questions are Green’s health and who emerges as an explosive playmaker — both questions need strong answers if the Cardinals are going to complement Hopkins, who remains one of the league’s best receivers.
Last season, the Steelers struggled to create explosive plays, but they have the pieces in play to improve in that department in 2021. Chase Claypool had a strong rookie season with peaks that rival the best downfield threats in the league. He led all rookies with nine receiving touchdowns, and his size and speed should be used more often this season.
Diontae Johnson is one of the better route runners in the league, but his 2020 was marred by 14 drops on just 102 catchable passes. Drops tend to be an unstable stat, so expect that number to fall and Johnson to settle in as one of the most effective short and intermediate receivers in the league. JuJu Smith-Schuster returns after flirting with other teams in free agency. He averaged a paltry 9.0 yards per reception, far below his career average of 12.0. He remains a solid slot option. James Washington is also in the mix as his quest for consistency continues. H graded at 69.3 in 2019 and 63.8 last season. Ray-Ray McCloud III will be used in the jet sweep game after averaging just 3.9 yards per reception on his 20 catches last season.
The Steelers need better production from the tight end position where Eric Ebron graded at just 57.5 overall in large part due to his nine drops on just 72 catchable passes. They drafted Pat Freiermuth in the second round, and he was perhaps the best all-around tight end in the draft. Freiermuth is a good route runner with after-the-catch ability, so look for him to contribute early in his career.
The Steelers have a well-rounded group of playmakers, but they just need to better tap into everyone’s strengths while cutting down on the drops this season.
Last season, Washington wide receivers graded at just 65.9, but they’ve taken steps to turn that around. Terry McLaurin is the No. 1 option, though he was used as more of an underneath option after his explosive rookie year. McLaurin is a sure-handed deep threat who should have more opportunities for big plays, in part due to the addition of Curtis Samuel in free agency. Samuel had a breakout 2020 season as the Panthers properly tapped into his skill set as a slot receiver. He had a career-high 76.4 receiving grade while catching 77 passes for 851 yards.
Adam Humphries adds a slot skill set as well — he’s caught 73.1% of his slot targets over a six-year career. Third-round rookie Dyami Brown adds another vertical threat after averaging over 20.0 yards per reception in each of his last two seasons at North Carolina. Cam Sims had an effective 2020 with 581 yards, though he dropped five of his 44 catchable passes. Last year's fourth-rounder, Antonio Gandy-Golden, didn’t do much as a rookie, but his size will keep him in the mix to break out.
At tight end, Logan Thomas broke out with 77 catches for 744 yards and six touchdowns last season. He had a 64.8 receiving grade and projects similarly as a possession type at the position. The backup role is a battle between Deon Yelder, Temarrick Hemingway, Ricky Seals-Jones and fourth-rounder John Bates.
Washington has added some help for McLaurin, and their group of playmakers has much more potential than it had during the last two seasons.
Panthers wide receivers went from grading 26th in 2019 to eighth last season thanks to the addition of Robby Anderson and a breakout year from Curtis Samuel, who moved on to Washington. Anderson took to a new role as he moved around the formation and lined up in the slot more than ever, responding with career highs in receiving grade at 76.0 and yards per route at 1.99.
D.J. Moore had another strong season, this time as a deep threat who ranked fifth in the league with 463 yards on 20-plus yard passes. Anderson and Moore make up one of the better 1-2 punches in the league, and the No. 3 role will be a battle between David Moore and rookie second-rounder Terrace Marshall. Moore has been a good complementary vertical threat in his four years in the league, while Marshall adds another big body with contested catch ability and toughness in the middle of the field. Marshall came in at No. 28 on the PFF draft board and had the highest contested catch percentage in the draft class over the last two years.
The tight end situation was bleak in 2020 as only the Patriots had less than Carolina’s 27 receptions from the position. They also had the lowest tight end receiving grade at 39.5. Dan Arnold brings a big-bodied threat from Arizona, where he caught 32 for 444 yards last season, while rookie third-rounder Tommy Tremble is a fantastic run blocker and a potential H-back who can line up all over the formation. Ian Thomas also returns, though he’s yet to grade above 57.3 as a receiver in his three years in the league.
Even with the loss of Samuel, the Panthers have the pieces to be one of the better receiving units in the NFL once again.
21. Chicago Bears
The Chicago receiving corps has been carried by Allen Robinson II over the last three years, and he returns after a career-high 88.5 receiving grade in 2020. Robinson is one of the best all-around pass-catchers in the league — he can win along the route or at the catch point and does so at all levels of the field.
The question for the Bears is the No. 2 spot where 2018 second-rounder Anthony Miller hasn’t progressed as expected. He’s coming off the lowest grade of his career at 58.2. Last year’s fifth-round pick, Darnell Mooney, was a pleasant surprise, as the speedster caught 61 passes for 631 yards on his way to a 67.3 receiving grade.
The Bears added more speed to the mix in Marquise Goodwin and Damiere Byrd, both 4.3 guys who will compete to add a vertical component to the offense. Goodwin did his best work in 2017 with a 77.1 grade, while Byrd has averaged just 12.0 yards per reception during his career despite his 4.31 speed. Riley Ridley, Javon Wims and rookie sixth-rounder Dazz Newsome are also in the mix competing for snaps.
At tight end, Jimmy Graham returns, but he’s nothing more than a short-area threat with the occasional flash of high-end play at this point in his career. Last year's second rounder, Cole Kmet, graded at 57.7 as a rookie while averaging just 8.4 yards on his 31 receptions.
Chicago must get better production out of their complementary pieces if they are going to rise up the pass-catcher rankings.
22. Baltimore Ravens
After Baltimore wide receivers posted the fourth-worst receiving grade in the league last year at 68.5, the Ravens have added Sammy Watkins in free agency and Rashod Bateman in the first round. Watkins once looked like one of the next great receivers in the league, but his 89.8 overall grade in his second season is the best of his career and he’s coming off a career-low 64.5 grade. He still shows flashes of brilliance, but Watkins was clearly a step slower while battling injuries last season.
Bateman adds a potential No. 1 threat as his slick releases and a 55% contested catch percentage landed him at No. 17 on the PFF draft board. His presence takes pressure off former first-rounder Marquise Brown, who can play to his strengths as a downfield threat. Brown has 675 yards on deep (20-plus yard) passes in his two years in the league.
WR Miles Boykin has disappointed with receiving grades in the high-50s in each of his two seasons, so look for rookie fourth-rounder Tylan Wallace to compete for snaps, especially as another vertical threat. Devin Duvernay, a 2020 third-rounder, had just 20 catches as a rookie, but he’ll have a role in the slot and in the underneath game.
At tight end, Mark Andrews is one of the league’s best, and his 2.22 yards per route rank fourth among tight ends over the last two seasons. TE Nick Boyle is one of the best run-blockers at the position, but there was a clear dropoff with last year’s departure of Hayden Hurst to the Atlanta Falcons.
The Ravens have the pieces to improve as a receiving unit, but much of their hope lies in Watkins’ health and how quickly Bateman adjusts to the NFL.
If looking just at the receivers, the Jaguars have the potential to take a big jump up this list. D.J. Chark had a breakout 2019 season and is tied for 21st in receiving grade on 10-plus yard throws over the last two years. That will play well with rookie QB Trevor Lawrence, as will the addition of free-agent receiver Marvin Jones. Jones has the sixth-highest contested catch rate in the NFL over the last three years and his catch-point brilliance will mesh well with Lawrence’s downfield accuracy and aggressiveness.
Last year’s second-rounder Laviska Shenault is the wild card, as he had a solid rookie year with a 71.8 receiving grade but the fifth-lowest average depth of target at 6.7 — and there may be a better-rounded receiver in there if he can stay healthy. The 6-foot-6 Collin Johnson is also battling for targets after a promising finish to his rookie season in which he graded at 73.4 overall on 237 snaps.
The biggest question mark is at tight end where Chris Manhertz and James O’Shaughnessy sit atop the depth chart. Manhertz has yet to grade above 60.0 in a season as a receiver, while O’Shaughnessy is a career backup who caught a career-high 28 passes last season. Fifth-rounder Luke Farrell caught just 34 passes in his college career, and his best path to contributing early is as a run blocker. It’s also unlikely that a 33-year-old former quarterback will add much to the passing game, so the Jaguars go into the season with one of the worst tight end situations in the league.
Overall, there’s plenty of potential with this group of pass-catchers, and the Jaguars would be wise to lean on more three and four wide receiver sets.
The Colts return their entire wide receiver depth chart that graded at 71.3 last season, good for 25th in the NFL. T.Y. Hilton led the receivers with a 75.2 receiving grade last season, and he does his best work at the valuable intermediate (10-19 yard) level. While he’s still effective, Hilton is not as explosive as he once was, and he’s best used as a complementary piece at this point in his career.
Next to Hilton are Zach Pascal and Michael Pittman, who finished with identical 62.3 receiving grades in 2020. Pascal played primarily out of the slot last season and has been a fine contributor in his three years in Indianapolis, while Pittman did a nice job as a possession receiver in the short game as a rookie. There’s still some potential with 2019 second-rounder Parris Campbell, who has played just 259 snaps in his career but is still raw as a route runner and his speed may be best used on YAC-driven plays.
Tight end Mo Alie-Cox had a breakout 2020 season, catching 87.5% of his targets while grading at 79.9 as a receiver, sixth-best in the NFL. Jack Doyle has been incredibly consistent with four straight years of receiving grades between 65.0 and 68.3. Rookie fourth-rounder Kylen Granson adds some versatility as a potential H-back.
The Colts group of pass catchers is best described as solid and dependable across the board, but they need multiple players to take big steps forward in order to move toward to the top of the league rankings.
Patriots wide receivers and tight ends have the third-worst receiving grade over the last two years, hence their aggressive moves to rectify that this offseason. They add Nelson Agholor who is coming off a strong 2020 season with 896 yards and 18.7 yards per reception. Agholor has graded above 70.0 just twice in his six-year career, so there is some risk with his signing given a history of drops and inconsistency.
Kendrick Bourne is a solid possession option who has graded at 70.0-plus as a receiver in each of the last two years. Jakobi Meyers has been fantastic when given an opportunity in his two years, and he graded at 78.6 last year while leading the Patriots with 37 first downs. He’s an excellent route runner who works best as a No. 2 or No. 3 option. N’Keal Harry has struggled in his two seasons with route running being a big issue. Harry has been open on just 25.5% of his targets against single coverage, 99th out of 100 qualifiers. Gunner Olszewski adds depth.
Patriots tight ends had a league-low 18 catches last season, but that will certainly change after they signed both Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith in free agency. Henry once looked like the next great young tight end, but he’s settled in as a solid option with a 72.5 overall grade since 2018, 20th-best in the league. Smith has the No. 17 receiving grade during that time, and he’s averaged an impressive 6.7 yards after the catch per reception in his four-year career. New England now has the pieces to add the tight ends back into their passing attack. Henry and Smith push a pair of 2020 third-rounders, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, down the depth chart.
The Patriots have had one of the slowest and most ineffective groups of pass-catchers in the league over the last few years, and they’ve taken great strides to rectify that this offseason.
Raiders wide receivers finished 26th with a 70.4 receiving grade, and leading receiver Nelson Agholor moves on to New England. Agholor ranked sixth in the league with 444 yards on deep passes, emerging as one of the league’s best downfield threats, a role the Raiders are hoping 2020 first-rounder Henry Ruggs III will fill in 2021. Ruggs showed his explosiveness at times, finishing with 452 yards and 17.4 yards per reception, but three drops and ball security issues led to just a 55.6 receiving grade.
Las Vegas made a shrewd investment in John Brown in free agency, a strong deep and intermediate threat in his own right. Brown had a 74.2 receiving grade and over 1,000 receiving yards in 2019, but last year he battled injuries and graded at just 66.2 as a receiver. When healthy, he’s a fine complementary option in a good passing attack. Hunter Renfrow will man the slot — he had the highest receiving grade on the team last year at 75.0, his second straight year grading in that range. Renfrow works the underneath route tree effectively.
The Raiders have one of the few mismatch tight ends in the league in Darren Waller, who gained 1,196 yards and posted a 90.9 receiving grade last season, both good for second among tight ends. Backup Foster Moreau has been extremely productive in his two seasons, catching 28 of his 33 targets for 314 yards and seven touchdowns.
Las Vegas has one of the league’s best at tight end, but they need better production from their top two receiving options if they’re going to jump into the top half of the league’s pass-catchers.
There’s some turnover with the Saints group of pass-catchers, but Michael Thomas returns, and he has the highest receiving grade in the league since 2017. Thomas is dominant up to 20 yards and has become the most dependable chain mover in the NFL. The big question in New Orleans is around him, where Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook have moved on. Tre’Quan Smith has been a solid No. 3 option in his three years, but his best receiving grade of 67.7 came back in 2018. Marquez Callaway had a fine rookie year as a possession receiver, catching 21 of his 24 targets for 213 yards and a 68.2 receiving grade. Deonte Harris is the wild card as the Saints return specialist, but he has the dynamism to be a weapon down the field or after the catch. Lil’ Jordan Humphrey and Juwan Johnson are both 6-foot-4, and they’ll be competing for snaps, as well.
At tight end, Adam Trautman will take on a bigger role after a good rookie season. He caught 16 of his 18 targets and was excellent as a blocker in the run game. Nick Vannett comes in as well, but he’s only graded above 60.0 as a receiver once in his career. Of course, the other wild card is Taysom Hill, who will likely see time at tight end if Jameis Winston is indeed the starter.
For a New Orleans roster that remains strong across the board, wide receiver and tight end are two of the biggest question marks on the team and they need multiple options to step up to complement Thomas.
28. New York Jets
Jets receivers and tight ends had the lowest receiving grade in the NFL and rank just 29th since 2018. The overhaul starts with free agent Corey Davis, who is coming off a career-high 86.9 overall grade. Davis may have disappointed as a fifth-overall draft pick, but he’s a solid outside receiver who does his best work at the intermediate (10-19 yard) level. Last year's second rounder Denzel Mims averaged 15.5 yards per reception on his way to a 70.4 receiving grade in his nine games as a rookie. He’ll likely pair with Davis as the starting outside receivers. Jamison Crowder has been an excellent slot receiver in his career and has posted 70.0-plus receiving grades in three of the last four years.
The Jets spent another second-round pick on Elijah Moore, an explosive playmaker who does his best work in the slot but can contribute as a vertical threat on the outside. The starting four provides a promising mix of size and speed to go with positional versatility. Keep an eye on free agent Keelan Cole, who comes over from Jacksonville after a solid four years in a complementary role.
The tight ends are a question mark after Chris Herndon went from one of the league’s most promising options to an injury-plagued 2019 and an overall grade of just 57.6 last season. The Jets need him back to his 2018 self when he worked the seam well and posted a 78.7 receiving grade. Competition for the backup role will be provided by Ryan Griffin, Tyler Kroft, and Trevon Wesco, with Kroft’s 64.3 overall grade the best any of that trio has produced in recent years.
Jets pass-catchers have improved, and their final 2021 ranking will be determined by how their young players develop combined with Davis building upon his career year.
29. Tennessee Titans
With WR Corey Davis and TE Jonnu Smith moving on, it’s A.J. Brown and a bunch of question marks in Tennessee. Brown has been dominant in his two years in the league, capable of getting behind the defense and creating explosive plays after the catch. He’s averaged 17.1 yards per reception to go with 20 receiving touchdowns in his two-year career. The question now becomes who complements Brown, especially given Davis’ dependability as a No. 2 option. Free-agent Josh Reynolds will get the first shot opposite Brown, but he’s yet to grade above 67.4 in his four-year career and finished at 65.5 overall on a career-high 896 snaps a year ago. The rest of the wide receiver depth chart includes unproven talent such as Cameron Batson, Chester Rogers, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and late-round rookies Dez Fitzpatrick and Racey McMath.
Tight end features similar questions with Anthony Firkser expected to take on a bigger role. Firkser is more of a “move” tight end, but he has the highest grade among tight ends when targeted in single coverage on a small sample size over the last two seasons. Veteran Geoff Swaim has just one year grading above 70.0 in his career, while 2020 undrafted free agents Jared Pinkney and Tommy Hudson are also competing for playing time.
The Titans are taking a big risk with few reliable options behind A.J. Brown. The team has a dangerous duo in Brown and Jones, but an emerging third receiver or tight end would put them in the conversation for a top-three pass-catching unit in the league.
Eagles wide receivers have ranked last in receiving grade in each of the last two years, so there’s plenty of room to improve for this unit. They’ve now spent back-to-back first-round selections on receivers, putting the pressure on Jalen Reagor and DeVonta Smith. Reagor graded at 64.0 overall as a rookie in 2020, picking up 396 yards on 31 catches. It was a slow start, but he has the explosiveness to develop as an outside vertical threat. Smith is a better all-around receiver, and that was on display in one of the best seasons in college football history. He can separate to all levels of the field and is dangerous with the ball in his hands, so look for Smith to develop as the high-volume threat in this offense.
One of the bright sides of last season’s struggles was the emergence of Travis Fulgham, who had bounced around with several teams before posting an impressive 71.2 overall grade and leading the Eagles with 539 receiving yards. Beyond that top three, Greg Ward may have a role in the possession game, as he’s averaged 8.3 yards per reception in his career. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside has disappointed as a former second-rounder with just 26 career targets. And 2020 fifth-rounder John Hightower adds another speed component.
At tight end, Dallas Goedert showed that he’s the No. 1 option going forward after grading at 79.5 overall, sixth-best among tight ends. He’s one of the league’s best all-around tight ends — he and George Kittle are the only two tight ends to grade at 80.0-plus both as receivers and as run blockers. Zach Ertz remains on the roster for now, but he’s on the trading block after a career-low 57.3 overall Grade. Ertz has been one of the best route runners in the league in his eight-year career, so he still has something to offer in a complementary role. When and if Ertz is moved, the backup snaps will have heavy competition between Caleb Wilson, Jason Croom, former QB Tyree Jackson and former WR Hakeem Butler.
While Eagles pass-catchers are coming off a couple of rough seasons, Smith provides hope and there are pieces in place to turn things around.
31. Detroit Lions
The roster overhaul in Detroit has hit the receiving unit hard, and they will have a completely different look in 2021. They’ve become one of the biggest groups in the league with the additions of 6-foot-4 Tyrell Williams, 6-foot-2 Breshad Perriman and 6-foot-3 Geronimo Allison. Williams last played with the Raiders in 2019 and has been an effective big-play threat throughout his career, averaging 16.1 yards per reception.
Perriman is a big-play threat of his own, having averaged 16.5 yards per reception in his career. He has two years with 70.0-plus receiving grades in 2018 and 2019, and this will be another opportunity to show that he can handle a bigger workload. Allison will compete for the No. 3 spot after grading at 61.4 or lower over the last three years. Last year's fifth-rounder Quintez Cephus and 2021 fourth-rounder Amon-Ra St. Brown will also be in the mix at receiver.
At tight end, T.J. Hockenson has developed nicely and graded at 75.4 overall last season, good for 10th-best among tight ends. Darren Fells also joins the Lions after a career-high 69.4 grade last season with the Texans. He adds even more size to the mix, as the 6-foot-7 270-pounder has developed into a good red-zone threat.
The Lions have overhauled one of the better groups of pass-catchers in the league, and while the names don’t stand out on paper, there’s plenty of potential — and size — in this group.
32. Houston Texans
The Texans roster overhaul will offer several players opportunities to contribute at receiver this season. Brandin Cooks returns as the top option, and he has graded at 80.0-plus in two out of the last three seasons. Cooks has legit speed, solid hands with only 29 career drops on 541 catchable passes and a history of efficient play in his seven years in the league.
Randall Cobb returns and remains a solid threat out of the slot, but he’s heading into his 11th year in the league and the Texans are in full rebuild mode. Donte Moncrief will get a shot on his fifth team in five years, but he hasn’t graded above 70.0 since 2016.
Rookie third-rounder Nico Collins will certainly get every opportunity to play after Houston gave up a massive haul to trade up for him. Collins adds a big, physical receiver that has been lacking since the departure of Deandre Hopkins. Keke Coutee is also vying for snaps, as his speed and quickness have been an asset when healthy, but he’s yet to play more than 338 snaps in a season during his three years in the league.
At tight end, Jordan Akins had a career year in 2020, grading at 71.8 overall and dropping just one pass. He’s the No. 1 option heading into the season. Ryan Izzo comes over from New England after posting a 52.0 grade last year. Fifth-rounder Brevin Jordan should also see the field on passing downs, as he’s a nifty route runner with after-the-catch ability.
Like the rest of the Houston roster, the receivers are a big unknown. There are a plethora of options, and they’ll need the emergence of new stars to move up the rankings by the end of the year.