Who Is the Most Dangerous Receiving Threat in the NFL?

There is a new paradigm in the NFL, and passing is king. But is a tight end actually the most lethal receiver of all?

The NFL is a new league.

The increased emphasis on passing in the NFL has redefined the tight end position, and wide receivers are putting up bigger numbers than ever before.

But who is the best receiver of all? That Calvin Johnson has been the most dominant receiver in recent history is an easy argument to make, but Demaryius Thomas has been surging, A.J. Green has been consistently elite - right? - and Dez Bryant might be the best red zone threat of any receiver in the league.

Add in Josh Gordon, Julio Jones, and Jordy Nelson, and the best of the best gets very cloudy.

To make this more of a complex issue, the advent of the dominant tight ends - Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Julius Thomas - has given legitimacy to the notion that the deadliest receiver is actually not a receiver at all, but a tight end.

But is there any way to crown a singular winner?

I don't know. Probably not. But digging through the numbers indicates that a few players have been putting up better numbers than the rest, and some of the players in the best-of-the-best discussion really aren't able to compare.

The research will mainly center on Net Expected Points (NEP), which is our way of quantifying how much a player adds to his team by identifying how well he plays above or below expectation.

Defining the Approach

No foolproof plan is in place for trying to figure out who really is the deadliest weapon in the NFL, and as far as I know, no groundwork or precedent really exists, either. Yard per catch, touchdowns, reception totals, and yards after catch all accumulate differently for different players within the wide receiver position, and the tight end conundrum makes things worse. Also, looking solely at the 2014 season would be shortsighted. Digging too much deeper into the past dilutes the relevance of what's going on right now.

So I've decided to segment off some data and compile a conclusion at the end. Ultimately, I have decided to rely on just three season's worth of data, 2012-2014, but use it in an overlapping manner. Some benchmarks, like minimum Reception NEP scores, may seem arbitrary, but they are both inclusive and purposive. For example, in 2012, Jimmy Graham's Reception NEP per target was lower than my original threshold, but this isn't academia, so I was lenient - but consistent - with the cut-offs.

My two periods of analysis are (1) 2012 and 2013 combined and (2) 2012, 2013, and 2014 through Week 13 combined. Relying too heavily on 2014 could have skewed numbers and make, for instance, Antonio Brown appear more lethal than injury-plagued players such as A.J. Green or Calvin Johnson.

2012 and 2013 Numbers

So, while I don't want to focus too much on the past and I really didn't want Tony Gonzalez making an appearance on the list (spoiler: he does hit the benchmarks for these seasons), I also didn't want to overlook the fact that football has been played prior to the 2014 season.

The cutoffs to be included in this first set were only two. The wide receiver or tight end (which I'll group together as "receiver(s)" for simplicity) had to post a Reception NEP greater than 50.00 and a Reception NEP per target greater than 0.65 in each season. This may seem random, like I said before, and without context, it's sort of useless.

To justify, in 2012 and 2013, 146 instances of a receiver's recording a Reception NEP greater than 50.00 has occurred. Of those 146, the top 98 - roughly the top two-thirds - secured a Reception NEP per target better than 0.65. Why dig so low, then? Jimmy Graham's Reception NEP per target of 0.67 in 2012 was very low, and I didn't want to be unnecessarily exclusive with an arbitrary cut-off because I wanted to generate plausible discourse.

Of those 98 instances, 25 players met the threshold both years. Factoring out Tony Gonzalez, we have a 24-player set to examine.

Here is where things really start to get tricky.

If we look solely at Reception NEP, the winner is obvious: Megatron. Of the 24 receivers, only Calvin has a combined Reception NEP greater than 300. His is 306.12. Only one other receiver, Brandon Marshall, is over 250. His is 263.21. Those two also happen to be the only receivers with over 200 catches in that span who fit the criteria, and I saw that Reception NEP largely correlates with receptions. This may sound obvious, but Wes Welker-types don't necessarily earn a high Reception NEP.

Here is a graph of the 11 receivers with a Reception NEP greater than 200 in the 2012-13 span.

Because of this, it's unfair to look at just Reception NEP. Doing so penalizes guys who don't see as much volume - such as tight ends or deep threats - or players who were hurt. So we can pivot to Reception NEP per target, which more accurately measures efficiency of production.

Calvin (0.85) is near the top still, ranking 6th out of 24. Marshall (0.74), though, drops to 16th. The top five is now comprised of some touchdown-makers. Jordy Nelson (0.93), Rob Gronkowski (0.92), Demaryius Thomas (0.86), Marques Colston (0.85), and Eric Decker (0.85) round out the top five.

Of note, Jimmy Graham (0.76), Dez Bryant (0.74) and AJ Green (0.69) rank 14th, 17th and 22nd, respectively.

But, if you look at the graph above, you'll notice that Green's Target NEP and target total is basically the peak and the valley of the graph. This indicates that Andy Dalton has had fruitless and counterproductive throws toward Green. It's similar for Dez and Marshall, but not the case for two Broncos: Demaryius and Decker. Therein lies the trouble with looking at targets: receivers are at the mercy of their quarterback, and those who play with Peyton Manning are rewarded nicely.

So what about looking solely at catches? We run into the volume problem, but by looking at Reception NEP per catch - something we rarely deal with because it's a mite redundant - a surprising name finds himself at 22nd of the 24, wedged between two unlikely qualifiers (James Jones and Scott Chandler): Dez Bryant.

The top five on a per-catch basis look like deep-play threats until we get to number five. Vincent Jackson (1.66), Torrey Smith (1.54), Josh Gordon (1.49), Calvin (1.49), and Gronkowski (1.42) sit in the top five over the past two years. Graham (1.23) is a lowly 15th, and Green (1.22) and Marshall (1.21) fall directly behind him at 16th and 17th, respectively.

Making a crude composite ranking of Reception NEP per target and Reception NEP per reception, possibly the fairest way not to penalize players for lack of volume or injuries, Gronkowski grades out as the top option and is the only player with top-five ranks in each. Nelson ranks second, and Calvin, Vincent Jackson, and Demaryius round out the top five. Other interesting names typically in the conversation fall throughout the list: Gordon (6), Graham (14), Marshall (17), Green (19), Bryant (20).

Even with limited playing time and volume relative to the traditional wide receivers, Gronkowski had been the most efficient threat in the past two years.

But this isn't "Who was the best receiving threat in the past two years?" Factoring in 2014 is necessary, of course.

Recent Production

Some intriguing names happened to qualify for either 2012 or 2013, but not both for one reason or another. Notable names not in the above discussion but who did qualify in 2012 include Andre Johnson, Antonio Gates, Emmanuel Sanders, Julio Jones, Malcom Floyd, Randall Cobb, and T.Y. Hilton.

The 2013-only receivers who could be in the conversation to some degree are Alshon Jeffery, Antonio Brown, Keenan Allen, and Kenny Stills.

I do realize including Stills and Floyd in the conversation is a bit odd, but they are two of the most efficient, per-target players in recent history according to our NEP data.

The complexity of this question really becomes obvious when trying to pin down how far back to go and who did enough to qualify for being considered for this always-debatable title.

I figure, then, it's best to err on the cautious side. My criteria of qualification are quite attainable. There are really only three. The receiver must (1) fit the 50.00/0.65 baseline in either 2012 or 2013, (2) have 30 receptions this year (to weed out very efficient, low-volume players), and (3) rank inside the top 30 in Reception NEP or Reception NEP per target this year.

This seems like a reasonable way, to me, to balance recent history without excluding players simply for being hurt or putting too much stock into 13 weeks of one season. This also means rookie receivers are excluded.

31 receivers qualified under these criteria, so I don't think this method was too exclusive.


Compiling the numbers for the qualified receivers from 2012-2014 sounds a lot like what I just did in the prior section, but this will not only include this season's data but also allow for the players who didn't qualify in both seasons to be examined. For example, Julio Jones' 2012, 2013, and 2014 production will be considered, and he won't be neglected because of a short 2013 season.

I'll do pretty much the same thing I did for the last set of data and look at Reception NEP, Reception NEP per target, Reception NEP per reception, and a crude composite score for per-target and per-reception NEP data.

This time, though, I'll provide a table of the top 12 in each of the first three categories.

RankPlayerRec NEPPlayerRec NEP/RecPlayerRec NEP/Tar
1C. Johnson376.35Torrey Smith1.58Kenny Stills1.11
2D. Thomas355.33Kenny Stills1.56Mal. Floyd0.93
3B. Marshall323.15V. Jackson1.55J. Thomas0.93
4Alshon Jeffery316.17Calvin Johnson1.48R. Gronkowski0.93
5V. Jackson309.12Mal. Floyd1.45Jordy Nelson0.92
6Dez Bryant306.66R. Gronkowski1.44Randall Cobb0.89
7Antonio Brown303.91Jordy Nelson1.41D. Thomas0.85
8A.J. Green292.03D. Jackson1.38M. Colston0.84
9Jordy Nelson286.81T. Williams1.36C. Johnson0.84
10Anquan Boldin281.01T.Y. Hilton1.34Anquan Boldin0.82
11Jimmy Graham272.85M. Colston1.31D. Jackson0.82
12T.Y. Hilton269.37D. Thomas1.30T.Y. Hilton0.82

Coincidentally, I felt that I had to justify including, specifically, Stills and Floyd in the intriguing name list, but they actually have the best composite ranking for efficiency marks (per-target Reception NEP and per-catch Reception NEP). Calvin, Jordy, Demaryius, and Hilton are the only other receivers to have top-12 ranks in each of the three categories.

If you're wondering, Graham ranks outside the top 20 in both Reception NEP per target and per reception, and his composite ranking is 22nd. Other notable names outside the top five are Julius Thomas (6th), Torrey Smith (7th), DeSean Jackson (8th), Demaryius (10th), Hilton (11th), Cobb (14th), Vincent Jackson (15th), Julio Jones (16th), Dez (18th), Alshon (20th), Green (23rd), Antonio Brown (25th), Marshall (27th), and Emmanuel Sanders (29th).

So, Wait. Who Is the Best?

Of course, this is the question. But the answer truly depends on your opinion of what makes for a dangerous weapon. Hopefully I've provided enough information for you to draw your own conclusion on the matter, but I'll obviously share what I feel to be the appropriate way to view the information.

Of the qualified receivers, nobody actually adds more points to his team's output on each catch than Torrey Smith does, but Smith ranks just 25th in receptions. Still, on each catch, Smith is the most dangerous receiver over the past three seasons.

Per target? That's Stills, but Stills ranks last in targets, so his big plays elevate his Reception NEP per target score. Stills - Floyd, too - is proving himself to be the most productive player when he gets the ball thrown his way, but factoring in volume, Stills may not constitute as the clear top option.

There are multiple ways to interpret the data, and you have to decide for yourself how much to factor in volume. Either way, it has become evident that guys who would usually be in the conversation - Dez, Graham, Green, Julio - just don't compare to Gronkowski, Calvin, and Jordy. There may not be one obvious choice, but there is a hierarchy that has emerged and some surprising names just don't belong as the most dangerous receivers in all of football.