Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and DeAndre Hopkins are the three best receivers in the NFL. Yet if everything was evened out, who’s number one?
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Julio Jones: He’s fast, he’s strong, and he’s a great route runner. Jones is the epitome of consistency after being an elite wideout for the past decade. He’s got big play potential anytime he catches the football, and his best asset is his ability to control his body while in the air. He’s up among the best sideline toe tap catchers in the NFL, and he’s a great possession catch guy. His ability to get two feet down, secure the football, and use his body to ward off defenders is second to none. Additionally, he was on the field about 10 percent less than Thomas was and 20 percent less than Hopkins was in 2019, so talk about making the most of your opportunities. Plus, he’s the best deep threat out of the top 3 receivers.
In 2019, he ranked 12th in contested catch rate, 85th in drop rate, and his 90.6 PFF player grade was higher than both Michael Thomas’ and DeAndre Hopkins’.
But at the end of the day, he’s 31, he’s had Matt Ryan his entire career, and his lack of touchdown catches does pose questions if he’s the best NFL wideout. In 2019 he ranked 55th among wideouts in quarterback passer rating when targeted, and although that shows that he’s making his quarterback better, he doesn’t do it at the same level as the other elite NFL wideouts.
Michael Thomas: He’s the most physical and driven wide receiver of the top three. He’s a master of efficiency, and over the past few seasons he has the best stats of any receiver in the NFL. If he’s a yard or two out from the end zone with two defenders on him, he’s bouncing off both of them and taking it in for a score. He broke the single season record for catches in 2019, so he’s a catch machine. He’s one of the NFL’s best route runners and he uses his strength and speed to fool defensive backs. Plus, after Drew Brees went down with injury last season, he proved he could work with any quarterback after being productive with Teddy Bridgewater.
In 2019, Thomas ranked 8th in quarterback rating when targeted, 101st in drop rate, 4th in contested catch rate, 1st in red zone receptions, 3rd in yards after contact, and he earned a 90.4 PFF player grade.
Yet for Thomas to put up his crazy numbers, he does have some unfair advantages too. He’s had Drew Brees his entire career, and is by far the best option on his team meaning he’s getting the most targets. With Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley is a legitimate second target, and even then Michael Thomas has enjoyed better quarterback play than Jones and Hopkins. Plus, he’s got Sean Payton calling the plays who is one of the best offensive minds in the NFL.
DeAndre Hopkins: Hopkins is an athletic freak. He’s got the best hands in the league, and his ability to catch the football anywhere makes him so hard to defend. I consider him the best all around wide receiver meaning he’s good at everything, but that doesn’t mean he’s the BEST receiver. Hopkins is a yards after the catch king, and he also has the size and strength to be an elite jump ball receiver. He’s also shown that he can perform with subpar quarterback play after being a huge difference maker for Houston before Deshaun Watson stepped into the limelight.
In 2019, Hopkins earned an 87.3 PFF player grade, and he ranked 16th in contested catch rate, 83rd in drop rate, and 28th in quarterback rating when targeted.
Hopkins doesn’t really have any weaknesses, but just because he’s good at everything doesn’t mean he’s the best at anything. Hopkins is an elite wide receiver, but he’s not better than Julio as a deep threat, and he’s not better than Michael Thomas as a catch and reception king. Nor is he the NFL’s best yards after catch guy. Hopkins’ greatest asset is his freakish athleticism and great hands. Although Hopkins is the best all around guy, when you average things out he’s not a better wideout than Jones and Thomas.
So it comes down to Julio Jones and Michael Thomas. Statistically Thomas is better, but in large part based on opportunity and offensive scheme. Over the past few seasons, Drew Brees has been better than Matt Ryan and Sean Payton has been better than Steve Sarkisian and Dirk Koetter. Plus, Calvin Ridley is a legit second option whereas Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook are questionable second options. If everything was evened out, I think Julio Jones’ skillset is better in today’s game.
He’s been consistently a top wide receiver for the past decade, and although he doesn’t have Thomas’s strength and physicality, that doesn’t mean he can’t win in other places. As a deep threat and a guy who can stretch the field, Jones is superior. He’s the best wide receiver in the NFL at controlling his body while in the air, and this helps him get two feet down and keep possession of the football on contested catches. Although he isn’t the red zone monster Thomas is, he can still put up six or seven touchdowns per year without relying on his effectiveness in the red zone for production. His ability to score from anywhere on the field is also an added bonus. Both Thomas and Hopkins are great, but Julio’s been doing it for longer and at the end of the day, he’s just a more talented player.