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The NFL is a passing league. You know this. I know this. Everyone in and around the league knows this. And because it's a passing league, the wide receiver position has never been more important than it is right now. Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that there are seemingly more young, good wide receivers populating the league than at any time in recent memory. 

With that in mind, we're going to use this space over the next few weeks to highlight of the league's up-and-coming wideouts. Because I'm a little obsessive about this kind of stuff, we're going to break the players down into distinct categories that capture their on-field roles: Speed Demons and Deep Threats (here), Slot Mavens and Offensive Weapons (here), Possession Receivers (below), and after finally recovering some data from the laptop, the Technicians and All-Around Monsters (next Friday, Jan. 1). 

A couple of quick notes before we dive into the first category of players:

  1. The only receivers we're looking at here at players who are still on their rookie contract. That means no Davante Adams, no Julio Jones, no DeAndre Hopkins, no Keenan Allen, no Tyreek Hill, etc. We already did our in-depth look at those guys before the start of the season. While there is one player who made our top-10 list (and two who were honorable mentions) that will be featured during this series, for the most part, we are just looking at the youngsters, which means focusing on players whose future is likely brighter than their present. 
  2. We're not exclusively looking at the best receivers, but instead all of the receivers still on their rookie deals who fit a certain mold, and have already proven to be at least nominal contributors to their offenses. Basically, anyone who has at least 15 targets this season qualifies.

Without further ado, let's dig into the possession receivers (with 2020 statistics, via Pro Football Focus and Tru Media)...

PlayerAgeYrsRteRecTgtYdsTDYds/RteTgt %
Auden Tate23393142115001.6122.6%
Chad Hansen254122141621211.7413.1%
Corey Davis254330607794552.8623.3%
Diontae Johnson2424427712175361.7027.4%
Michael Pittman231314355043711.3915.9%
N'Keal Harry232267304928921.0818.4%
Scotty Miller232279314748231.7316.8%
Tee Higgins211460619680951.7620.9%
Travis Fulgham252321356049741.5518.7%

With a couple exceptions, this is the most nondescript group of players we're going to look at throughout this series. You can find guys like Auden Tate, Chad Hansen, N'Keal Harry, and Scotty Miller pretty much anywhere. The Texans actually did find Hansen pretty much anywhere. He was a former Jets draft pick who didn't played a game in 2018 or 2019 before landing with Houston this year. The Eagles found Fulgham after he was cut by the Lions. Tate was a seventh rounder and Miller was taken in the sixth. Of course, Harry was a first-round pick, and that's part of the reason the Patriots offense is struggling so badly once again. 

The fact that this type of player is seemingly available all over the place is exemplified by a deeper look at the rate statistics compared with the other types. Possession receivers don't have the highest target share, but don't have the lowest. They create first downs just about as often as slot receivers and offensive weapons, despite running routes that break an average of 1.6 yards further downfield. They do not tend to make very many explosive plays, perhaps because in addition to running relatively short routes, they tend not to create all that many yards after the catch, either. 

TypeTgt %Depth1st %Expl %YAC/Rec

That's why I want to dig a little deeper on the other four players, who are each exceptions in their own way: Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman, Diontae Johnson, and Corey Davis. 

PlayerTgt %Depth1D/TgtExpl %YAC/RecDrop %Yds/Rte
Tee Higgins20.9%8.3948.0%18.8%4.84.2%1.76
Michael Pittman15.9%7.6335.8%16.0%7.26.0%1.39
Diontae Johnson27.4%5.9231.7%11.6%4.79.9%1.70
Corey Davis23.3%9.9959.5%31.2%4.61.3%2.86

Higgins mostly stands out for how perfectly he exemplifies this positional archetype. He has been targeted on 20.9 percent of his routes during his rookie season, compared with an average of 20.4 percent for the group as a whole. His average route has broken 8.39 yards downfield, compared with 8.41 yards for the group. He's turned 18.8 percent of his targets into explosive plays, a rate right in line with the group's 17.9 percent average. His first-down rate of 48.0 percent, though, is more in line with the players in our all-around monsters group, perhaps a sign that he has some untapped potential if the Bengals look to get him the ball more often, and further down the field. 

Pittman, meanwhile, has shown an ability to create plays on his own. Despite being used like a combination of a deep threat and a possession guy, he has done his best work after the catch. Some of those figures are skewed by a couple big plays, but ... that's what YAC ability is all about: creating big plays. The Colts don't throw deep very often with Philip Rivers. It's a lot of slants and short crossers. Despite running the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds, Pittman has flashed more than enough speed to pull away from defenders in the open field, as well as the requisite vision to get himself there in the first place. Indy's spread-the-ball system means he may take a while to ascend to a star-level target share, but if he ever does, he may be able to out-perform his positional archetype by making things happen after the catch. 

Then there's Johnson, who is perhaps the strangest receiver in the league. In keeping with Pittsburgh's weirdo offense, he runs incredible short routes -- even shorter than the players in out slot mavens and offensive weapons group. It is not uncommon to see him run in a straight line down the line of scrimmage to get the ball on a crosser with blockers in front of him. Johnson also has an astronomical 9.9 percent drop rate. He leads the league in drops, and has been benched twice for dropping too many passes in a game. And yet, when he's on the field, Ben Roethlisberger just cannot seem to stop targeting him. He has been targeted on a ridiculous 27.4 percent of his routes. That is the highest mark among any wide receiver still on his rookie contract. It's second-highest among all wideouts, period, behind only Davante Adams.There doesn't appear to be much that he does all that well, other than get thrown the ball all the time.  It's not like he creates a ton of yardage after the catch or gets a lot of first downs or springs for any big plays, so it's all pretty puzzling. 

Davis is just having what can only be described as a monster breakout year. He's played just 12 of Tennessee's 14 games, which means his current 60-945-5 line puts him on pace for an 80-1260-7 mark over a 16-game season. That's not No. 2 receiver stuff. That's "1A alongside A.J. Brown" stuff. (Brown is on pace for 75-1175-13. He's hilarious.) He's Pro Football Focus' No. 3 graded receiver this season. His 2.86 yards per route run are tied with Davante Adams for the best mark in the league among players with at least 50 targets. His 59.5 percent first-down rate (the percentage of targets that result in first downs) is the best in the league among the same group of players. The next-closest guy is Julio Jones, all the way down at 52.9 percent. He is, essentially, turning into the type of player the Titans envisioned when they made him the No. 5 overall pick back in 2017. That's a very valuable player, and he's likely going to cash in when he hits free agency this offseason.