It is once again top-10 week here at CBSSports.com. On Monday, my colleague Cody Benjamin walked through the top 10 quarterbacks for the 2021 season. On Tuesday, Patrik Walker unveiled the top 10 running backs.
In the space below, we'll reveal the top 10 wide receivers. The natural question when attacking a question like this is, are you trying to rank of the league's best receivers in a vacuum, or the receivers you expect to have the best/most productive 2021 season?
When in doubt, the tiebreaker was the phrase for the 2021 season. We're trying to predict which players will be the best, given their talent, situation, and history. Some guys might be "better" football players in a vacuum, but due to a combination of factors, not appear on the list.
About those factors: The process of culling this list involved far too much film-watching, plus a statistical look at how the league's best wideouts have performed in their current role (and how long they have been in that role), the context surrounding that performance (including but not limited to their quarterback, play-caller, offensive scheme, and competition for targets and touches), all kinds of narrower statistics to highlight different parts of their respective skill sets, what we can reasonably expect from them this season, and more.
In the years we've done this exercise, it has never been more difficult to limit the list to only 10 players. I could make an entire second group of 10 and feel really good about all of them and still have a bunch of guys who missed the cut that I would be annoyed didn't make it.
If you're making a top-10 receivers list in 2021, then by rule, at least 12 of the following players will not be on it (alphabetical order so at not to spoil things): Davante Adams, Keenan Allen, Odell Beckham, A.J. Brown, Amari Cooper, Stefon Diggs, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins, Justin Jefferson, Julio Jones, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Lockett, Terry McLaurin, DK Metcalf, D.J. Moore, Calvin Ridley, Allen Robinson, Adam Thielen, Michael Thomas, and Robert Woods.
Even that list leaves out players that are really good, like Robby Anderson, Tyler Boyd, Kenny Golladay, Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and more. And that's before we get to guys with a chance to break into the top 10 sometime soon like Chase Claypool, Jerry Jeudy, Tee Higgins, and CeeDee Lamb, or any of this year's rookie wide receivers. It's a nearly impossible exercise, made more difficult by the fact that, ya know, we can't actually predict the future.
With all of that in mind, let's get to the list...
10. Michael Thomas
This spot came down to eight different players, and I must have typed in and then erased each one of them about 10 different times apiece: Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Julio Jones, Tyler Lockett, Allen Robinson, Adam Thielen, and Thomas. Ultimately, the combination of Thomas' likely sky-high target rate and otherworldly efficiency throughout his career won out.
Cooper has produced at an extraordinarily high level since arriving in Dallas, but never on the type of volume Thomas can handle. Neither Evans nor Godwin is targeted nearly as often as Thomas, and that seems likely to continue in 2021, given that they are on the same team and Tom Brady isn't going to force-feed anybody the ball (except Antonio Brown, for some reason). Those guys are better real-life players than their production will likely indication. Jones is changing teams, going to a much lower-volume passing offense than the one he's played in his entire career, and increasingly dealing with injury issues. Lockett and Thielen each seem likely to be supplanted as their team's No. 1 option by younger receivers. (The same could also happen for Cooper, as well as Jones.) And Robinson might be just as talented as any of them, but he's held back by his quarterback play.
Which brings us back to Thomas. He only played seven games last season, but remember what he did in the three prior seasons: 378 catches for 4,375 yards and 23 touchdowns, with a 78.6 percent catch rate and 50.7 percent of his targets turning into first downs. There are questions about who will be under center for the Saints, but whoever it is, they are going to funnel the ball his way a ton.
9. Keenan Allen
Allen has been remarkably consistent over the last four years. He caught 102 passes in 2017, 97 passes in 2018, 104 passes in 2019, and 100 passes in 2020 despite missing two games. He remains the reigning president of the Always Open Club, and is arguably the league's most technically-refined route runner.
The chemistry he instantly developed with Justin Herbert was marvelous, and the duo should benefit from the new offense being installed by former Saints assistant coach Joe Lombardi, who is L.A.'s new offensive coordinator. Comments from minicamp indicate that the pass game will use a lot of the same New Orleans concepts, and marry them with a Shanahan-style zone rushing attack. That's ideal for the modern NFL. There is no threat to Allen's status as the top receiving option on the team, so he should receive heavy volume all year.
8. Justin Jefferson
When you are a second-team All-Pro as a rookie, there might be nowhere to go but down. Except that, well, there is still one more step up. And he should have every opportunity to take it.
Jefferson finished last season with the most receiving yards for a rookie in NFL history, and he did that despite not entering the team's starting lineup until Week 3. Even then, he didn't hit a 90 percent snap rate until Week 10. His 16-game average from that point forward was 105-1458-9. He consistently created explosive plays all year, drew a target on 23 percent of his routes run, and due to his and Thielen's respective ages, is likely to take on a larger share of the offense moving forward.
7. A.J. Brown
Brown plays in a lower-volume passing offense than most other top receivers in the league, but that only makes his ridiculous efficiency stand out more. His 2.66 yards per route run average is second in the league over the last two seasons, surpassed only by Thomas, who of course missed considerable time last year.
In his short career, Brown has become one of the premier downfield and after-catch threats in the league, turning 23.2 percent of his targets into explosive gains, per Tru Media. He has also scored a touchdown on more than 10 percent of those targets -- an absurd rate. While his target share could dip a bit due to the presence of Julio Jones, he should only be able to operate in even more space than before, which will just make him even more dangerous due to his physical style of play.
6. Calvin Ridley
Ridley already had his full-on breakout third year, and now he gets to play for the coach who helped turn Brown into one of the league's most explosive and efficiency producers, and as the clear-cut No. 1 option after that team traded Jones to Brown's team. He is going to be an absolute target machine in what should be a considerably higher-volume passing unit than the Titans teams of the last two years, given the personnel on hand. Considering the level at which he already produced, the ceiling might as well be the roof for this year.
5. DeAndre Hopkins
Hopkins was the rare wide receiver to change teams and miss exactly zero beats. Despite reasonable expectations of his sky-high target rate dipping with a new team, that, uh, did not happen. Kyler Murray peppered him with an average of 10 targets a week (Hopkins drew a target on 24.6 percent of his routes, one of the highest rates in the NFL), and Hopkins did considerable damage with those throws.
The only thing keeping him out of the top four here is his declining yards per catch and explosive play rates over the last several seasons. He is being used more often as a short passing game weapon than he used to be, and while that might be good for his team's offense on occasion, it's not the best for his individual production and it makes him a bit less efficient on a per-route basis than he was at his peak.
4. DK Metcalf
Metcalf has produced at a level on par with the league's premier receivers, despite not being targeted nearly as often as those players just yet. That should change this year. He's clearly a full-time player now, having increased his snap rate to 92 percent last season. He does not turn 24 years old until December of his year. He is 6-foot-4, 229 pounds, and likely the single most athletic player in the NFL.
Despite being targeted on only 19.7 percent of his routes last season, he finished with an 83-1303-10 receiving line. He is efficiency, averaging over 2 yards per route run. He is an elite big-play threat, turning 21.8 percent of his targets into explosive gains. He is a first-down machine, generating a new series on nearly 51 percent of those targets. He is attached to an elite quarterback in Russell Wilson, who trusts him to come down with the ball every time he puts it up in the air.
We know the Seahawks want to commit to the run game, but we also know they want to play faster and new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron appears to be installing a friendlier offensive system that should scheme players open both more often and more quickly than they have been in the past. All of that points toward Metcalf's best season yet.
3. Stefon Diggs
Another of the rare wide receivers to change teams and dominate, Diggs led the NFL in both receptions and receiving yards during his first year in Buffalo. The Bills figure to remain an uptempo, high-volume passing offense, and Diggs is still the clear lead receiver there. As both he and Josh Allen get even more comfortable with Brian Daboll's offense, they could find even more layers to add to their attack, which will only make Diggs even more dangerous. He was a cinch top-three pick here.
2. Tyreek Hill
Hill is simply the most explosive player in the NFL. In the four seasons he's been a full-time starter, he has averaged a 16-game receiving line of 85 catches for 1,324 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has turned 21.2 percent of his targets into explosive gains, per Tru Media, and 9.1 percent of them into touchdowns. And he's not just a big-play guy. He's really efficient, catching 68.4 percent of passes thrown his way and averaging 2.36 yards per route run. He and Patrick Mahomes have magical chemistry, and there is no reason not to expect them to continue tearing up the league.
1. Davante Adams
We're operating under the assumption that Aaron Rodgers will be on the Green Bay Packers, largely because they have not given us reason to believe otherwise. Sure, Rodgers has enough money to hold out for the entire season and try to push for a trade again next year. But he only has so many years left to win another Super Bowl, the Packers have the talent to win one, and it is really freaking hard to turn down $22 million, which is what Rodgers has coming his way in base salary and roster bonuses this season.
So, Adams will be the WR1 for one of the best quarterbacks in the league today and all-time, and he has simply been dominant in that role. Over the last three seasons, Adams has drawn a target on 28 percent of his routes run, tops in the league. He's caught 71.5 percent of the passes thrown his way, an elite mark. He has 36 receiving touchdowns, meaning passes have turned into scores 8.3 percent of the time they have been thrown in Adams' direction. The league average during that time is 4.7 percent. Adams has first-down and explosive-play rates on par with his fellow top receivers during that time, and his 2.43 yards per route run average is third-best in the league during that time.
At the moment, he presents an unrivaled combination of volume and efficiency, and he's paired with an elite quarterback in a very good offense. That makes him the best receiver in the league.