Julio Jones Says He's the Best Receiver in the NFL. Does He Have a Case?
Julio Jones is a wide receiver, and as a wide receiver, he's contractually obligated to believe that he's the best at what he does. After all, it's his job to fly past defenders on a weekly basis, believing that they have no hopes of stopping him.
But this week, he made that belief public, telling Pete Prisco of CBS Sports that he feels he is "the best receiver in the league." He clarified that he thinks every receiver should feel the same, and that he's "good at what he does" just like A.J. Green (another of the league's consensus top receivers) is good at what he does.
But can Jones really be considered in the discussions for "best receiver in the league?" Is he even close? Well, he'll have to become the best receiver on his own team first.
Since 2011, when Jones entered the league, his best season (2012) doesn't even crack the top 40 seasons using Reception Net Expected Points, numberFire's metric which determines the overall production for receivers on passes they catch. Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Jordy Nelson and Vincent Jackson are among those with multiple seasons since 2011 better than Jones' breakout 2012 campaign.
Another man with two seasons better than Jones since his arrival in the NFL is his teammate, Roddy White. In fact, since White entered the league in 2005, the five best seasons by a Falcon receiver have been posted by the UAB product. Jones' 2012 season finishes sixth over that time.
So how do White and Jones compare head-to-head? Jones has a slight advantage in per-target Reception NEP, earning 0.79 NEP per look while White only has 0.73 since 2011. But White makes up for that with a much better Success Rate, which measures how often the player earns a positive NEP play. White's worst season since 2011 saw him successful on 89% of his chances, while Jones' best season registered a success rate of only 88.61%. White's two other seasons were above 90%, while Jones' two other seasons were in the high seventies.
In other words, Jones isn't even the best receiver on his own team, as he and White are neck and neck at best. But White also has an experience advantage over Jones, so let's put the former Alabama speedster up against other young receivers. How does Jones stack up against his recently-drafted peers?
Looking back over the past three years, and considering promising young wide receivers who were in their first or second years and caught more than 50 passes, we find a good set of players to compare Jones against. Let's take a look at the numbers and consider what they mean.
|Year||Full Name||Rec||Rec NEP||Targets||Rec NEP/Target||Rec Success Rate|
We see that Jones' first two seasons, his two healthiest, match up with an average season among his peers on a per target basis. Young stars like T.Y. Hilton, Keenan Allen and Doug Baldwin all pass him by when judging by Reception NEP per target, and with no clear advantages at the quarterback position between that set of players, it's a pretty fair comparison to make. His overall production in 2012 was relatively strong, but his Reception NEP still falls short of Josh Gordon, A.J. Green and Alshon Jeffery's second seasons. So whether he's being compared on a target-by-target metric, or on overall measures of productivity, Jones still doesn't measure up as the "best" at anything. In fact, he's best described as a "run of the mill" top young receiver.
There's no shame in that, as Jones is still among the best at his position and capable of changing a game in an instant. But he's behind the pace of his peers, even when setting aside his inconsistent availability due to health. The question you may be wondering now is why doesn't Jones match up using our statistics?
As Prisco points out in the article linked above, Jones is criticized by many for being just an outside player who is limited over the middle. And when looking at the most productive seasons in recent history, players who thrive in the middle of the field appear prominently. Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson have all but one of the top seven seasons since 2011 in terms of Reception NEP, and all four of those players are happy to go over the middle and move the chains for their offenses.
The success of Victor Cruz in 2011 or Desean Jackson in 2013 along with Jones' 2012 campaign prove that deep threats can earn good marks using numberFire's metrics, but the majority of the productive seasons in recent history have come from receivers who pose a threat over the middle of the field as well. So the path to being the best for Jones must involve proving that he's capable in all facets of the wide receiver game.
There's tremendous athletic ability contained within Jones, similar to many of the other top receivers in the NFL. He just hasn't produced consistently over the course of a season at an elite level yet, whether that's due to inexperience or health.
Jones is an explosive athlete with good size, and has all the ingredients to live up to his claims as the best receiver in the NFL. But nothing he's done so far in his career supports his comments. It's too early to rule out the eventually possibility of Jones taking the crown from Megatron or A.J. Green, but for now, his claim to be the best receiver in the NFL is little more than a byproduct of the nature of his position.