News & Analysis

Who is each remaining NFL playoff team's most explosive playmaker?

Dec 26, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) scores a touchdown as Detroit Lions cornerback Darryl Roberts (29) pursues during the third quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL playoffs are in full swing entering the Divisional Round. We’re down to our final eight teams, each of which has impressed to varying degrees all season long.

Making it to the second round of the playoffs is grounds for a team-wide celebration regardless of how things wind up. Still, there have obviously been certain individual standouts along the way who have helped instill all kinds of fear into opponents week in and week out.

What follows is a list of every remaining team’s most explosive playmaker. The goal here is to rank the big-play ability of these various talents ahead of the next round. I crafted the following formula to at least give us a baseline idea of each player's explosiveness and ability to create big plays:

  • Playmaker rate: ((15 yard rushes * 3) + (20 yard receptions * 3) + (TDs * 6) + (forced missed tackles)) / (targets + rush attempts)

Limitations of the formula include the lack of passing metrics or QB inclusion (sorry Lamar Jackson), kick/punt return touchdowns counting without those touches being included (there were only 15 return scores anyway), and the reality that certain players are schematically utilized in more big-play friendly roles. Finally, all statistics refer to regular season totals only.

The top overall players in total “Playmaker points” this season were Alvin Kamara, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Tyreek Hill and Nick Chubb, although their respective large workloads that featured plenty of ho-hum carries limited their “Playmaker rate.” I'll consider both factors in the following ranks but will ultimately lean toward those who have produced big-plays at a more efficient rate compared to those who have benefited from immense volume.

Every team’s most explosive playmaker remaining in the 2020-21 playoffs is listed below.

Baltimore Ravens WR Marquise Brown

2020 big plays: 13 receptions of 20+ yards, 8 receiving TDs, 4 forced missed tackles

The 2020 season didn’t start off too well for the artist known as Hollywood. Sure, 5-101-0 and 6-77-1 performances against the Browns and Bengals were more than fine, but six additional games with fewer than 40 total yards wasn’t exactly what fans were hoping for from the speedy second-year receiver.

Fast forward to January and Brown has truly looked the part of a high-end receiver. Defenses of all shapes and sizes have had trouble slowing down the Ravens’ field-stretching talent over the past month and a half:

  • Week 12: 4 receptions-85 yards-1 TD
  • Week 13: 5-39-1
  • Week 14: 2-50-1
  • Week 15: 6-98-0
  • Week 16: 4-25-1
  • Week 17: 5-41-2
  • Wild Card: 7-109-0

The Ravens also managed to feed Brown two rush attempts during their Wild Card victory over the Titans, which he converted for 19 scoreless yards. Good things usually happen when this offense gets the ball to their No. 1 WR, but this hasn’t always been any easy task. One of just 14 receivers with a catchable deep-ball rate under 40% among 48 qualified targets, Brown’s solid 2020 campaign could’ve been far bigger with a little luck.

Hollywood checks in with our ninth-highest playmaker rate among 153 players with at least 50 touches this season. I maintain the Ravens have done Lamar Jackson a disservice by not attempting to surround him with additional high-end receivers, but clearly Brown is someone capable of demanding plenty of attention from opposing secondaries in his own right.

Honorable mention: Mark Andrews 

Andrews is averaging 2.31 yards per route run over the past two seasons including playoffs. That's easily the best mark on the Ravens and third among 47 tight ends with at least 50 targets since 2019.

Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs

2020 big plays: 20 receptions of 20+ yards, 8 receiving TDs, 21 forced missed tackles

At this point, any top-five WR argument without Diggs is just a waste of time. Nobody had more 15-plus yard receptions than Diggs (22) against single coverage during the regular season; attempting to guard this man with a mere mortal without safety help is basically surrendering defeat.

Josh Allen’s BFF/No. 1 WR joins Marvin Harrison as the only players to catch at least six passes in 15 games during a single season. Diggs’ playoff encore has started well enough, as he caught six of nine targets for 128 yards and a score against the Colts’ overmatched secondary during the Bills’ Wild Card victory.

Diggs actually only comes in at No. 39 in playmaker rate among 153 qualified players, but this is more of a factor of his ridiculous workload. Even with an astronomical 170 targets this season, Diggs has remained one of the league’s most-efficient ballers: Davante Adams, George Kittle, A.J. Brown, Justin Jefferson and Julio Jones join him as the only six players to average more than 2.5 yards per route run.

Honorable mention: Gabriel Davis

Lowering our touch threshold from 50 to 25 boosts Davis to No. 2 in playmaker rate among 243 qualified players. Sure, Davis only had 35 catches this season, but he managed to account for seven scores and rack up 10 receptions of 20-plus yards. Madness.

Cleveland Browns RB Nick Chubb

2020 big plays: 15 rushes of 15+ yards, 12 rush TD, 1 reception of 20+ yards, 64 forced missed tackles

It truly is ridiculous just how special Chubb is with the ball in his hands. Arguably the single-best RB in the NFL, the Browns’ featured back has ridiculous balance, lateral ability and breakaway speed for a man his size.

There simply aren’t many RBs that can compete with Chubb in most tackle-breaking metrics:

  • PFF rushing grade: 92.2 (No. 2 among 97 RBs with 100 carries since 2018)
  • Yards per carry: 5.2 (No. 3)
  • Yards after contact per rush: 4 (tied for No. 2)
  • Forced missed tackles per attempt : 0.24 (tied for No. 2)
  • Total forced missed tackles on carries: 166 (No. 2)

Yes, Chubb won’t be confused with Alvin Kamara or Austin Ekeler in terms of pure receiving ability anytime soon. Also yes, Chubb (six drops on 91 targets) hasn’t been any more of a liability in terms of pure catching skill than Kareem Hunt (six drops on 93 targets) on the Browns over the past three seasons.

Chubb comes in at just 52nd overall in playmaker rate, but this is due to RBs not scoring all that well in general because of the position’s excess volume. Only Kamara posted a better playmaker rate than Chubb among all qualified RBs. The Browns are incredibly blessed to have two fantastic backs; just realize it’s fairly clear at this point which one is better with the ball in his hands.

Honorable mention: Jarvis Landry

It was a minor miracle that Landry was able to suit up to start the season after undergoing offseason hip surgery. Forced to function as the undisputed No. 1 WR with OBJ sidelined, Landry has a six-game streak with at least five receptions and 50-plus yards and has looked as slippery as ever from the friendly confines of the slot.

Green Bay Packers TE Robert Tonyan

2020 big plays: 9 receptions of 20+ yards, 11 receiving TDs

Look, we all know that Davante Adams is the No. 1 receiver in Green Bay and probably the entire NFL. The reality of the situation is that only Mike Evans and Tyreek Hill achieved a better playmaker rate than Tonyan among 153 players with at least 50 touches; this sort of extreme efficiency is just tough for a pure target-hog WR like Adams to beat. All in all, Tonyan caught 52 of 59 targets for 586 yards and 11 scores.

Seven incompletions and 11 TDs is absolutely wild. We’ve literally never seen another player have more receiving TDs than incomplete targets since 1992. Specifically, 3,639 players have had at least 50 targets in a season over the past 28 seasons and only Tonyan (+4) has had a TD-to-incompletion ratio better than zero.

Yes, Tonyan hasn’t necessarily had the same Rick flair as others on his way to finding the end zone, but this absurd efficiency is simply too tough to ignore. Credit to Big Bob on the excellent season, and don’t be surprised if he finds his way back to the end zone on more than one occasion during the rest of the playoffs.

Honorable mention: Marquez Valdes-Scantling

MVS ranks fifth in playmaker rate among 243 players with at least 25 touches this season. Either of these “honors” could have easily gone to Adams; Aaron Rodgers just managed to feed the offense’s complementary receivers absurdly fantasy-friendly roles all season long. It’s a minor miracle that Valdes-Scantling managed to finish as high as he did considering the amount of yards that he left on the field in 2020.

Kansas City Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill

2020 big plays: 20 receptions of 20+ yards, 15 receiving TDs, 3 rushes of 15+ yards, 2 rushing TDs, 19 forced missed tackles

There probably isn’t a more impactful skill-position player in the NFL than Hill considering the lengths that defenses must go to in order to even somewhat contain his game-breaking speed. Only once did he finish with fewer than 50 yards and zero trips to the end zone in 2020, and that 25-yard effort against the Bills was more due to a putrid four combined targets and carries than anything that the defense managed to accomplish.

The tricky part about dealing with Hill is that he’s so good both down the field as well as with the ball in his hands. Nobody has more deep-ball targets than Hill (25) when considered open or wide open over the past three seasons. Only Robert Woods (7.1 yards per carry) has been more efficient than the Hill (6.9) as a rusher.

Only Mike Evans had a higher playmaker rate than Hill this season in our 153-player sample. Only the 49ers and Ravens utilized more motion than the Chiefs in 2020; having a weapon like Hill screaming across the formation before the snap is enough to make any defensive coordinator feel lightheaded. Patrick Mahomes is the engine of the Chiefs offense and will be for at least the next decade; just realize Hill is the added fuel that makes this unit borderline unfair at times.

Honorable mention: Travis Kelce

There’s an argument to be made that Kelce is more important than Hill to this offense. After all, literally only Stefon Diggs had more receiving yards than Kelce in 2020, regardless of position. Kelce’s status as an honorable mention is simply due to Hill grading out so favorably; the Chiefs’ longtime stud TE still comes in with a more than respectable 17th-place finish in playmaker rate. 

Los Angeles Rams WR Robert Woods

2020 big plays: 11 receptions of 20+ yards, 6 receiving TD, 3 rushes of 15+ yards, 2 rush TDs, 13 forced missed tackles

Woods has been a model of consistency over the past three seasons as both a receiver *and* rusher:

  • 2018: 86 receptions-1,219 receiving yards-6 receiving TDs; 19 carries-157 rush yards-1 rush TD
  • 2019: 90-1,134-2 receiving, 17-115-1 rushing
  • 2020: 90-936-6 receiving, 24-155-2 rushing

Woods has never averaged over 15 yards per catch during his career, and 2020 marked the first time that he scored more than seven times in a season. Flash has never been the key part of Woods’ game, but he came through with another plenty solid season this year when needed most with the front office largely declining to find a high-end replacement for Brandin Cooks.

Woods and Cooper Kupp have formed a 1.A/1.B situation as the offense’s No. 1 pass-catcher for the better part of the past two seasons. Still, Woods has far and away been the featured option in terms of who Sean McVay has consistently looked to feed the ball to, as only Curtis Samuel (68) has more rush attempts than Woods (60) among all WRs since 2018.

We’re used to seeing rushing QBs and receiving-friendly RBs serve as fantasy football cheat codes thanks to their dual-threat roles; Woods is a rare WR capable of racking up production on the ground. This role was good enough to earn him the 49th-highest playmaker rate in 2020 inside of a Rams offense that has largely been in search of an offensive identity all season long.

Honorable mention: Tyler Higbee

Higbee’s status as the second-highest scoring Rams player in playmaker rate is more of an indictment on their offense’s general lack of big-play success than anything he accomplished. Still, five scores are five scores, and the Rams’ fifth-year TE deserves credit for routinely making his presence felt as a run blocker.

New Orleans Saints RB Alvin Kamara

2020 big plays: 12 rushes of 15+ yards, 16 rush TD, 9 receptions of 20+ yards, 5 receiving TDs, 59 forced missed tackles

Death, taxes, Kamara finishing as one of the league’s most elusive players with the ball in his hands:

  • 2020: 65 Elusive Rating (No. 13 among all RBs with 100-plus carries)
  • 2019: 70.6 (No. 8)
  • 2018: 44 (No. 26)
  • 2017: 108.5 (No. 1)

Kamara has always been the first-team all-swag RB, and he added to his trophy case by taking home PFF’s Best Fantasy Championship Game Performance honors in 2020. Sometimes it almost seems too easy for Kamara, until you remember some of the bonkers balancing drills that he does throughout the offseason.

No RB posted a better playmaker rate than Kamara in 2020. There wasn’t much room for error with both Drew Brees and Michael Thomas banged up throughout the season; Kamara didn’t disappoint. Here’s to hoping his 116-yard effort in the Saints’ Wild Card victory over the Bears was the start of a special playoff run.

Honorable mention: Jared Cook

Cook, like Tyler Higbee, is on the list more so because of the Saints’ general lack of explosive playmakers than because he had an incredible season. Credit to Cook for reeling in seven scores, but he took a step back in basically every meaningful efficiency metric otherwise.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans

2020 big plays: 20 receptions of 20+ yards, 13 receiving TDs, 5 forced missed tackles

TB12 and the Buccaneers haven’t had the smoothest transition in their climb to the top of the NFC, but the one constant has been Evans’ dominance. Among 153 players who had at least 50 touches this season, none posted a better playmaker rate than the Buccaneers’ No. 1 WR.

All in all, Evans converted nine of his 14 targets inside the 10-yard line into scores on the season. He’s been playing through a bum ankle through most of the year, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the first player in NFL history with at least 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first seven seasons.

Evans isn’t the twitchiest receiver with the ball in his hands, but his YAC-filled score against the Rams demonstrated the reality that the 6-foot-5, 230-pound monster is still a handful for any defensive back to get to the ground. Throw in Evans’ nearly unparalleled ability to win 50/50 balls, and he deserves to be treated as the most feared playmaker remaining in the playoffs. 

Honorable mention: Rob Gronkowski

It took Gronk a few weeks to find his legs, but he wound up catching a position-high eight passes thrown at least 20 yard downfield. He averaged a career-low 8.1 yards per target; that didn’t stop the future Hall-of-Famer from finding the end zone on seven separate occasions. This is clearly not the same monster that we saw help revolutionize the position in the early 2010s, although it’s tough to discount Gronk as someone that defenses still must account for down the seam and in the red zone. 

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