PFF’s 2022 NFL season preview is underway, and today we are turning our attention to one of the most valuable positions in football: wide receiver.
A true WR1 can be a difference-maker for any team. And pairing a true No. 1 with other highly-ranked pass-catchers can spur a franchise to a Super Bowl-winning season.
Tier 1: Elite
The former Green Bay Packer is at the top of his game as he makes the move to the Las Vegas Raiders. Adams earned a career-high 92.7 PFF grade in 2021, his second consecutive mark above 92.0. He has also generated 1.43 PFF Wins Above Replacement (WAR) since 2020, the most by a wide receiver over that span my more than a quarter of a win.
Kupp has a feel for the position that very few can match: He understands coverages, how to set up defenders and find space after the catch, traits that helped the 2021 Triple Crown winner produce at an astonishing level in the Rams’ Super Bowl run last year. Not only was his 93.0 PFF grade the best in the NFL for the year, but it was one of the highest we have ever given out across a full season.
Hopkins' nagging injury meant that the Cardinals couldn’t get the most out of him in 2021. And now they’re guaranteed not to have him for a minimum of six games due to an offseason suspension for a positive PED test. Still, there’s no denying that the 10th-year pro is one of the NFL’s best when healthy.
Hopkins finished sixth or better in receiving grade in five of the six seasons between 2015 and 2020, seasons filled with highlight-reel toe-tappers, contested wins and spectacular grabs from off-target throws. Since joining Arizona in 2020, his 1.8% drop rate is the second-best in the NFL.
Diggs is one of the best route-runners in the game, but he is also one of the league's best at the catch point. Since joining Buffalo in 2020, Diggs ranks seventh or higher in separation rate against single coverage, contested-catch grade and grade versus man coverage.
An underrated aspect of his game is how good Diggs is when the play starts to break. There’s no quit — he finds a way to get open and gives quarterback Josh Allen an opportunity to make a play. Diggs’ 26 receptions on plays outside of the structure of the offense since 2020 are six more than any other pass-catcher in the NFL.
Hill is known for his game-breaking speed, as he can take the top off a defense and break open for a deep ball like few others can. He has led the NFL in virtually every deep receiving stat — including receptions (65), yards (2,574) and touchdowns (27) — since 2017.
However, Hill showed that he was more than a deep threat this past year, serving as a high-quality possession receiver for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, handling a high volume of targets and consistently moving the chains. His 75 combined first downs and touchdowns tied for the third-most among wide receivers in the regular season, but his average depth of target dipped to 11.0 yards, his lowest since his rookie campaign.
Miami will be able to use Hill in various ways, but expect an increase in schemed touches to get the ball in his hands and let him work in space.
Chase was widely pegged as a generational prospect coming out of the 2021 NFL Draft, but expectations were tempered ahead of his rookie year because he'd opted out of the 2020 college football season. Well, the Tiger-turned-Bengal hit the ground sprinting as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.
He is a complete wide receiver in every sense, but his impact as a deep threat is what really helped the Bengals to the Super Bowl. Chase led the league in deep receiving touchdowns as a rookie (8) and finished second in total deep yards (576).
The big concern with Jefferson coming out of LSU in 2020 was his ability to effectively defeat press-man coverage on the outside. After two years in the league, it’s safe to say that’s no longer a concern, and even that it's now the 6-foot-1, 202-pound wide receiver’s greatest strength — only Davante Adams has produced a higher grade against press-man coverage since 2020.
Jefferson has been incredibly productive against press-man, averaging 3.55 yards per route run (second) and 21 explosive receptions of 15 or more yards (tied for first). He’s the definition of a big-play threat and someone who could rise into Tier 1 to dethrone some of the veterans up top.
Evans has played through several injuries over the last couple of seasons. And while that has played a part in career-lows in a few advanced PFF metrics, it still didn’t stop him from tying for 10th in PFF WAR generated at the position in that span.
His 83.3% contested catch rate (15-of-18) in regular-season play was over 10 percentage points higher than anyone else in the NFL. Evans has been the go-to red-zone threat for quarterback Tom Brady the last couple of seasons, posting 19 total touchdowns inside the 20-yard line, the third-most among wide receivers.
Tier 2: Young talents on the cusp of Tier 1
Since the end of the 2021 season, Samuel’s status as a 49er has been in flux. But while San Francisco may not be the team that will pay him the most money, it is the one that can best utilize his dynamism.
Previously self-dubbed a “wide-back,” Samuel can make plays both as a receiver and runner, and he was one of four wide receivers to earn an elite PFF grade above 90.0. He averaged an NFL-leading 10.8 yards after the catch per reception while shedding 27 tackles. On the ground, Samuel picked up 14 explosive runs of 10-plus yards and broke 28 tackles on 86 carries.
The 2022 NFL offseason featured several blockbuster moves, including the trade of wide receiver A.J. Brown from the Tennessee Titans to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The birds now have one of the most productive wide receivers in the NFL. Throughout his three-year professional career, Brown ranks top-five in both receiving grade and yards per route run. He is an excellent complementary piece to 2021 first-round pick DeVonta Smith.
Metcalf possesses a freaky size-speed combination that makes him one of the biggest vertical threats in the NFL. Since entering the league in 2019, Metcalf has racked up the second-most receiving touchdowns (11) and third-most contested catches (12) from passes thrown over 20 yards downfield. His physical frame also helped him rack up the sixth-most receiving yards after contact (532) and ninth-most broken tackles after the catch (35).
His 2022 output will be something to monitor, given that he'll be going from Russell Wilson to Geno Smith or Drew Lock at quarterback. But if it does go down significantly, it’s almost certainly not going to be his fault.
Lamb was pigeonholed to the slot as a rookie in 2020 but was given an outside job in 2021, where he showcased his best play. Lined up out wide last season, the former Oklahoma Sooner was the sixth-highest-graded receiver in the NFL.
Lamb needs to get better with defeating press coverage, but he ate when given a free release. The 6-foot-2, 191-pound receiver also attacks the catch point well and is strong after the catch. He ranked top-five at the position in both contested catch rate (70% — 14-of-20) and broken tackles after the catch (19) in 2021.
Higgins is one of the rising possession receivers in the NFL. His sophomore year in the professional ranks ended in him being one of the 10 highest–graded wide receivers in the NFL.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound pass-catcher can make some difficult grabs over the middle of the field and use his large catch radius to reel in slightly inaccurate targets. Even Joe Burrow — one of the most accurate passers in the league — can misfire from time to time, but Higgins can help him out. His eight explosive receptions of 15-plus yards on inaccurate targets were tied for the fifth-most last season.
McLaurin’s 2.8% drop rate since 2020 is the ninth-lowest in the NFL, while his rate of catchable targets ranks 59th (70%). Needless to say, he’s been doing whatever he can to deal with a bad quarterback situation.
McLaurin did see far more contested targets in 2021, and his 25 contested catches led the NFL and helped him record the fourth-best catch rate on such plays at the position.
McLaurin has shown he can produce at a higher level than this ranking — his 2019 rookie campaign when he tied for sixth in PFF grade at 85.7, for example — but sustaining that is another thing.
Tier 3: Former Tier 1 veterans eyeing a bounce-back/getting healthy
In 2019, Godwin was the highest-graded and most valuable wide receiver in the NFL. But he has since been unable to sustain that level of production, with consistent injuries playing a major part in that. Godwin has still been at a WR1 level, ranking 21st in PFF WAR since 2020, but his 0.60 mark in that metric over those two years is less than what he accrued in 2019 alone. It won’t be easy for him to get back to his Tier 1 form in 2022 as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered late in the 2021 season, but there’s no denying the 26-year-old has all the potential to return to such heights.
Thomas missed over half of 2020 and all of 2021 due to a lingering ankle injury. The 2020 season was the worst campaign of his career from both a grading (78.9 receiving grade) and production standpoint (1.93 yards per route run), aided in part by him seemingly rushing back onto the field following an injury. Even with that down year baked in, Thomas still ranks top three among NFL wide receivers in both receiving grade and yards per route run since entering the league in 2016. He is a physical, reliable possession receiver who has proven to be elite when healthy.
It’s no secret Robinson was stuck in a bad situation last year and didn’t look like his normal self. The 6-foot-3, 211-pound wide receiver ended up with the lowest single-season PFF grade and yards per route run average of his eight-year NFL career in 2021. It was far below his 2020 form, which ended in him being one of the five most valuable wide receivers in the NFL, according to PFF WAR. Now with the Los Angeles Rams — who field arguably the best offense in the NFL — Robinson will look to bounce back. And if he can get there, the reigning Super Bowl Champions will likely roster the best wide receiver tandem in the league.
Allen is coming off the second-lowest-graded season of his nine-year NFL career, ahead of only his 2014 sophomore campaign. Before the down season, Allen was on a four-year run of producing an 80.0-plus PFF grade, all ranking inside the top 15 at the position. Even if he doesn’t get back to Tier 1 status, he is still going to be a valuable piece for quarterback Justin Herbert and one of the better receivers in the league. He’s a technician, evidenced by his separation rate against single coverage since 2017 that ranks top five at the position.
Thielen has already endured several up-and-down swings throughout his NFL career and will be eyeing another bounce-back in 2022. The Minnesota Viking was a top-five-graded wide receiver in 2018, but injury played a part in a double-digit grading swing downward in 2019 after his limited time on the field. Thielen came back to form in 2020 with the sixth-highest PFF grade but took another tumble in grading in 2021, some of which can be attributed to injury down the stretch. When Thielen is healthy, his advanced route running makes him a clear Tier 1 player.
20. JULIO JONES, FREE AGENT
No matter what happens with Jones in 2022, he’s still going to be one of the best players PFF has ever seen, regardless of position. He missed half of each of the past two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans. Before those injury-plagued years, Jones went on a five-year run of elite single-season PFF grades above 90.0 from 2015 through 2019, all of which ranked top three at the position for the season. While he didn't reach those levels in the past two years, Jones has still been one damn good receiver. He has earned an 85.0 receiving grade and notched 2.24 yards per route run over the past two seasons.
OBJ was reborn with the Los Angeles Rams. After producing at an elite level with the New York Giants to start his career (92.6 receiving grade throughout his time with the team), Beckham fell flat with the Cleveland Browns. He recorded a 72.3 receiving grade in his time with the team while battling constant miscommunication with quarterback Baker Mayfield.
After being cut midway through 2021, Beckham landed with the Rams and was a vital piece to their Super Bowl run. He posted an 84.7 receiving grade, 2.55 yards per route run and a 141.3 passer rating when targeted in the team's postseason run. Beckham is a vertical route specialist, and a large chunk of his production came from such concepts. He caught eight of his nine vertical route targets for 151 yards and two scores in the 2021-22 postseason. That’s the most vertical route receptions in a single postseason run since Anquan Boldin with Baltimore in 2012 (nine).
Beckham remains a free agent after suffering a torn ACL in the Super Bowl, but he has a chance to reestablish himself as a top NFL pass-catcher once he gets healthy.
Tier 4: Maybe not elite, but high-quality pass-catchers
With Cooper’s PFF grade and per-route production declining each year he was in Dallas, the Cowboys brass dealt him to Cleveland for a fifth-round pick to free up cap space. While Cooper did fail to grow as a Cowboy, his route-running chops still shined. His separation rate against single coverage since 2020 stands at the 76th percentile among NFL wide receivers.
Lockett was on the receiving end of one of the NFL’s best QB-WR connections over the past handful of years with Russell Wilson. Thanks to Lockett’s downfield ability and Wilson’s deep ball, the two combined for the second-most deep receiving yards and the highest passer rating since 2018. Unfortunately for Lockett, the dynamic duo is now separated, with Wilson being traded to the Broncos. Lockett will still bring his explosive ability and infallible hands to Seattle’s offense in 2022, but there’s no longer a proven quarterback there to take full advantage of his skill set.
Bodying defensive backs in tight coverage is where Williams wins. Since 2018, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound wide receiver ranks third in contested catches (66) and second in yards coming from tight coverage targets (1,016). His ceiling is well known given his inability to win elsewhere, but with a complementary piece like Keenan Allen, that’s perfectly fine. Williams can still generate value for the Chargers' offense, as he has done by finishing top 25 in PFF WAR generated at the position in three of the past four years.
Moore has battled bad quarterback play his entire NFL career. His rate of catchable targets over the past three seasons, in particular, ranks 62nd of 78 qualifying wide receivers. Despite that, Moore has still managed to rack up the fourth-most explosive receptions of 15-plus yards (84). The 2018 first-round pick earned a top-30 PFF grade in each of the past three seasons, with his best being an 82.2 mark in 2019.
Houston's limitations at quarterback in 2021 kept Cooks from fully utilizing his deep ability, but he was still a productive piece for Houston. His PFF grade dropped just a few points year-over-year to 77.4, a top-30 mark in the NFL. Cooks saw his second-lowest single-season average depth of target for his career (11.1), catching the most passes of his career coming less than nine yards downfield (63). The latter also ranked 13th in the NFL in 2021.
Renfrow is among the league’s best slot receivers. He turned in the seventh-best slot receiving grade in 2021 and brought in 96.5% of his catchable targets when on the inside. Renfrow also doesn’t get the recognition he deserves as a route runner. The 5–foot–10, 184-pound receiver’s separation rate last season stood at the 95th percentile among qualifying NFL receivers.
Boyd is one of the most underappreciated players in the NFL. While the attention is on the young teammates Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, the veteran Boyd is still producing at a high level for the Bengals' passing attack in the slot. The inside receiver has surefire hands and a knack for dissecting zone coverage. His 1.3% drop rate since 2020 leads the NFL, and he also ranks third among slot receivers over that span in total yards against zone coverage.
Sutton broke out in his second-year 2019 season with a top-10 PFF grade. Unfortunately, a torn ACL and MCL in 2020 derailed him from building on that. And Sutton only slowed down as 2021 went on. He produced an 80.9 PFF grade through Week 7 but stood at 59.1 from Week 8 on. Assuming he stays healthy, there’s reason to believe his best football is still ahead of him with new quarterback Russell Wilson now in Denver. Sutton may not have the speed of D.K. Metcalf, but he has the same size/physicality and could be Wilson’s new big-bodied downfield target. Sutton racked up 743 deep receiving yards in 2019 and 2021 combined despite poor quarterback play — the sixth-most when combining just those two seasons.
Tier 5: Up-and-comers
Waddle got off to a slow start in his 2021 rookie campaign, but he soon looked like a reliable vet. From Week 6 on, he was one of the 10 highest-graded wide receivers in the NFL. And the scary part about that is Waddle still has even more untapped potential on top of it.
The 5-foot-10, 182-pound receiver was mostly force-fed underneath targets just to get the ball in his hands as opposed to the team relying on his elite speed down the field. While Waddle made the most of those shallow opportunities by earning a top-five grade on targets under 10 yards for the entire season, he is capable of more.
New head coach Mike McDaniel will surely take after the Kyle Shanahan ways of scheming touches to his playmakers underneath in 2022, and expect him to utilize Waddle’s deep threat potential, too.
Like his former Alabama teammate Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith kept getting better as his rookie campaign progressed. From Week 9 on in 2021, he ranked 11th in receiving grade (81.9) while not dropping a single one of his 56 targets. He finished the year as the 18th-most valuable wide receiver in the NFL, according to PFF WAR. Smith was heavily utilized downfield over that span, generating the fifth-highest average depth of target, and he held up his end of the bargain.
Many in the NFL community were concerned about how the 6-foot-1, 175-pound wide receiver would handle physicality in NFL with his thin frame, but it wasn’t an issue in Year 1. Smith is capable of taking a leap into one of the top tiers of talents at the position in the coming seasons.
Mooney has gone from a fifth-round pick out of Tulane to a budding WR1 in a couple of years' time. Between his deep speed, route running and after-the-catch ability, he can win in a variety of ways. Last year, Mooney tied for sixth in total receptions over 15 yards downfield (20), finished sixth in separation rate against single coverage and was one of 22 wide receivers with double-digit broken tackles after the catch (10).
There’s reason to believe that Mooney’s production is only going to improve from here as he gets comfortable with quarterback Justin Fields. Don’t be surprised if the Fields-Mooney connection soon morphs into one of the better young tandems in the NFL.