Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
— A playoff contender that should seriously think about whether or not to replace its first-round rookie QB.
— An AFC team that has rediscovered its winning identity.
But first, a look at the best wide receivers in the game today …
The pass-centric nature of the NFL has made the wide receiver position one of the marquee spots on any given team, with elite squads possessing a five-star pass catcher who can take over games and help light up the scoreboard.
Think of Michael Thomas last season, capturing the 2019 Offensive Player of the Year award as the driving force of the New Orleans Saints’ offense. The Pro Bowler’s achievement shed light on both his spectacular individual accomplishments and on how an elite, electric perimeter playmaker can impact an offense.
With the 2020 NFL regular season coming to a close, this is the perfect time to look at the wide receiver position and determine which pass catchers are the most impactful playmakers in the game. You’ll notice that the emergence of a few young stars has prompted me to reshuffle the deck since the last time I put together a top-five list, over the offseason.
Here is my new list of the top five wide receivers in 2020:
2020 stats: 13 games | 109 rec | 1,328 rec yds | 12.2 ypc | 17 rec TD
The emerging front-runner for the 2020 Offensive Player of the Year award deserves a spot at the top of this list after putting up Hall of Famer-type numbers this season. Adams is one of just four receivers in NFL history to average 100-plus receiving yards per game (102.2) with at least 17 touchdowns in the same season, joining Don Hutson, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch and Randy Moss. All three of those players earned gold jackets for their efforts, meaning it’s high time to consider Adams one of the greats at the position. He is a dazzling route runner with exceptional balance and body control, and the burst to run away from defenders at the top of routes. With Adams posting historic numbers in spectacular fashion despite missing two games this season, the Packers’ WR1 is the undisputed champion at the position.
2020 stats: 15 games | 120 rec | 1,459 rec yds | 12.2 ypc | 8 rec TD
Perhaps Diggs had to move to Western New York for the football world to appreciate his greatness as a playmaker extraordinaire in the passing game. The sixth-year pro has crushed his debut season with the Bills — to whom he was traded by the Vikings in the offseason — displaying a well-rounded game that deserves appreciation. He is an A+ route runner with exceptional stop-start quickness and creativity. Diggs consistently separates from defenders at the top of his routes, and that space has enabled Josh Allen to find him whenever the Bills need a critical play in the passing game. As a crafty No. 1 receiver with the capacity to lead the league in catches (he ranks first so far) and receiving yards (where he also ranks first) while also producing enough big plays (20 receptions of 20-plus yards) to keep defenders honest, Diggs is the perfect anchor to a dynamic passing game.
2020 stats: 15 games | 87 rec | 1,276 rec yds | 14.7 ypc | 15 rec TD
The most explosive receiver in football scares the living daylights out of defensive coordinators around the league due to his ability to put the ball in the paint and produce explosive plays. Hill is instant offense on the perimeter, represented by his 15 receiving touchdowns and 20 big plays (receptions of 20-plus yards). The 5-foot-10, 185-pound speedster blows past double coverage with ease and is a legitimate threat to score whenever Patrick Mahomes tosses one in his direction. Whether it is on a streak or deep crossing routes, Hill’s speed is a problem that few defensive coordinators or defenders have been able to solve. As the Chiefs attempt to march toward a second consecutive title, the electric speedster will continue to torment defenses with his big-play ability.
2020 stats: 15 games | 111 rec | 1,372 rec yds | 12.4 ypc | 6 rec TD
The three-time All-Pro pass catcher is the master of the Hail Mary as a sensational jump-ball specialist. Hopkins possesses extraordinary hands, eagle-eye vision and ballerina-like coordination. He makes acrobatic catches look routine, and his ability to consistently win 50-50 balls makes him a viable option on every route. Despite playing in a half-court Cardinals offense that features few deep shots, Hopkins continues to post big numbers as a mid-range shooter. He wears opponents out on short- and intermediate routes, then converts those catches into big gains as a dynamic YAC playmaker (he has 512 yards after the catch this season, per Next Gen Stats, seventh-most in the NFL). With Hopkins posting the third season in his career of 110-plus catches and 1,300-plus receiving yards, the sticky-fingered pass catcher was a no-brainer in this discussion.
2020 stats: 14 games | 82 rec | 1,322 rec yds | 16.1 ypc | 9 rec TD
If you haven’t been paying attention to the Dirty Birds this season, you’ve probably missed the emergence of one of the young superstars at the position. The 26-year-old Ridley has not surpassed a healthy Julio Jones as the Falcons’ No. 1 playmaker in the passing game — Jones’ injury-riddled campaign dropped him off this top five — but he has snagged a VIP pass into the club as a five-star receiver. The third-year pro is a spectacular route runner with a dazzling array of moves that makes him nearly impossible to defend on the perimeter. Ridley is one of the few receivers in the game capable of winning with speed, quickness or wiggle in routes. He sets up defenders with a series of moves off of the same stem, frequently leaving them guessing at the breakpoint. As a big-play machine (23 receptions of at least 20 yards) with a consistent game (eight 100-yard games), Ridley deserves a spot on this list, whether you recognize his name or not.
Where’s DK Metcalf? The exclusion of Metcalf will draw the ire of fans in the Pacific Northwest who view the Seahawks’ star as Megatron 2.0 based on his flashes of Calvin Johnson-like brilliance as a super-sized playmaker on the perimeter. The 6-foot-4, 229-pounder is a freak athlete with a rare combination of size, speed and strength as a pass catcher. He has dominated corners this season with his superior athleticism, amassing 1,282 receiving yards and 10 scores on 80 catches. Despite those impressive numbers, Metcalf falls just outside my top five due to the one-dimensional nature of his game. He is a straight-line, vertical stretch playmaker with a limited repertoire as a route runner. Although he might be the best in the business in that role, he is not in the same class as the top five receivers on this list in an overall sense. The relative lack of artistry on Metcalf’s part doesn’t stand out on the stat sheet, but more creative route runners do have an advantage in matchups against elite defenders.
Perhaps I’m nitpicking Metcalf’s game, but the standard is high for the elites at the position. And the Seahawks’ WR1 falls just outside of the exclusive club at this point.
DINK AND DUNK
Should the Dolphins draft ANOTHER quarterback in 2021? Perhaps the Miami Dolphins believe Tua Tagovailoa will eventually become the kind of elite quarterback who can lead the franchise to a Super Bowl title, but if general manager Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores have any doubts about Tagovailoa, they must consider selecting a quarterback with the top-five pick they’re receiving from the Houston Texans in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Don’t @ me on Twitter suggesting that I’m fanning flames as a hot-take artist. The truth is, the Dolphins owe it to themselves to compare the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to the top quarterback prospects in the Class of 2021. The next wave at the position includes potential Pro Bowl-caliber players who could challenge or supplant Tagovailoa as the QB1 of the future, based on their combination of athleticism, arm talent and passing skills. Grier and Flores must project Tagovailoa’s ceiling against the talent and promise of the newcomers, evaluating every play from practice and games to determine if the rookie QB is significantly better than the other options at hand. As a playoff contender holding a lottery ticket that could net a blue-chip talent, the Dolphins must be honest in their assessment of Tagovailoa, to avoid bypassing a potential franchise cornerstone.
In studying Tagovailoa, he is an efficient quick-rhythm passer with a conservative approach from the pocket. He has posted the second-best touchdown-to-interception ratio (10:2) by a rookie in league history, per NFL Research. And he has the lowest interception percentage (0.9%) of any quarterback in NFL history with 200-plus pass attempts.
Most importantly, Tagovailoa is one of four quarterbacks since 1950 with a .750-plus win percentage and an interception rate below 2.0 in the same season. Considering that puts him in the company of Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, who’ve accounted for five NFL MVP awards, 18 Pro Bowl selections and seven Super Bowl titles, it is hard to dismiss his potential as a high-level winner.
That said, the rookie has been benched twice due to performance, with his inability or unwillingness to throw the ball down the field standing out as a major concern. Does Tagovailoa possess the arm strength and confidence to challenge elite defenses? Can his ultra-conservative playing style win against the elite quarterbacks in the AFC in a shootout?
The Dolphins must answer those questions while comparing Tagovailoa’s talent to the 2021 quarterback class, with his showing in Sunday’s win-and-in regular-season finale (without safety blanket Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday, to lean on) serving as another key data point. If they don’t believe their current QB1 gives them the best chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, the Dolphins should pull the trigger and upgrade the quarterback position in April.
Ravens rediscover their offensive identity. Don’t look now, but the Baltimore Ravens are surging down the stretch behind an offense that’s returned to its ground-and-pound roots. After losing four of five games in Weeks 8-12, the Ravens have reeled off four straight wins, with their run-centric offense leading the way, to jump back into the playoff picture.
Since Week 13, the Ravens lead the NFL in points per game (37.0) and rushing yards per game (233.3). Those numbers are not only significantly higher than the dismal production produced during Weeks 8-12 (20.6 points per game and 149.6 rushing yards per game) but it tops their output from 2019, when the unit led the league with 33.2 points per game and 206.0 rushing yards per game.
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film, it’s clear the Ravens’ resurgence is tied directly to their commitment to the read-option game and its many iterations. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has taken a couple of core concepts (power and counter) with “pull” action (in which the backside offensive guard and offensive tackle pull around to kick and lead the running back through the hole) and added a read component. QB Lamar Jackson will simply read the backside defensive end or outside linebacker to see if they chase the pullers or stay at home to protect the edges. The play concept is plucked straight from a high school playbook, but the Ravens add a variety of creative pre-snap motions and shifts to the play to daze and confuse second-level defenders at the snap.
My NFL Network colleague Brian Baldinger broke down some of these concepts on a recent “Baldy’s Breakdown” on Twitter. Check it out:
@Ravens ate the best rushing football team in the #NFL and the @Giants had no answers for the combination of misdirection, power, and Ravens speed. Can they run to the playoffs and if they do; how dangerous will they be? #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/XyUyc9pghM
The beauty of these power- and counter-read concepts is that inside-outside pathways are available to the running back and quarterback. The Ravens lead the NFL in rushing attempts (316), rushing yards (1,850), and yards per rush (5.9) on runs outside the tackles, per Next Gen Stats. In addition, the Ravens have three of the top four players in rushing yards gained on read-options, per Pro Football Focus, with Jackson ranking first with 506 yards, J.K. Dobbins ranking second with 322 and Gus Edwards ranking fourth with 251.
And the Ravens’ complementary play-action passing game is potent with Jackson pulling the trigger; the reigning MVP has the sixth-highest passer rating (119.2) on play-action passes. Although he’s struggled on non-play-action passes for most of the season, Jackson has improved on non-play-action throws over the last three games, with a 72.7 percent completion rate, 9.0 passing yards per attempt, a 4:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 120.9 passer rating during that span.
While Jackson’s passing prowess certainly will be needed going forward, the Ravens’ success is dependent on their ground game and their unwavering commitment to it. The Ravens’ running game is their superpower, and they’re an unstoppable force when they stick with it. With a four-game winning streak serving as proof, the Ravens have the capacity to run through the tournament — if they stay true to their identity.
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