Who Was the Best Wide Receiver in the NFL Last Year?

With so many big wide receiver seasons last year, which one was actually the best?

Death, taxes and arbitrary sports debates. Those are the only certainties in life. 

We were fortunate to watch some pretty spectacular wide receiver play last year. Antonio Brown went nuts as the security blanket in the Steelers offense, Dez Bryant was an efficiency machine within the run-heavy Cowboys' offense, and Odell Beckham emerged as one of the most unique pass-catching talents we've ever seen.

But who was best?

In a sports world where -- thanks to television and social media -- debates are everywhere, let's try to figure this one out so you can school your buddies at the bar this weekend with some straight-up analytical knowledge. 

Defining the Best

There are a few ways we can look at who the best wideouts were a season ago. Are we trying to find who the most efficient receiver was? The one who could handle the most volume? Or what about the receiver who simply put up the best reception, yardage and touchdown stat line?

Regardless of how it's defined, we need to be objective. Which is why I'll be using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric to aid in this process.

If you're new to numberFire, you might not know what NEP's all about. In essence, it's a way to show how well a player performs versus how he's expected to perform. 

You see, a gain of 15 on 3rd-and-20 really isn't as impactful as a gain of 15 on 3rd-and-14. In a box score, the 15-yard gain looks identical. In terms of NEP, one's extending a drive while the other isn't. Meaning, one's generating a lot of expected points for a team, while the other one isn't doing much at all, especially if the play didn't even put a team into field goal range.

For more on NEP, check out our glossary.

There are a few ways to measure NEP at the wide receiver position. If you look strictly at catches only, we've got Reception NEP, which measures expected points on all receptions, not incomplete passes. Target NEP factors in all targets, so incompletions and interceptions matter. And then there's Reception NEP per target, which helps show efficiency.

Clearly the best wide receiver in the NFL last season isn't going to be one who saw few targets. So while Kenny Stills was the most efficient wideout on a per target basis last year, much of that had to do with the fact that he was targeted 83 times. And, many times, his targets were deep down the field -- when he actually caught the ball, it was a big play.

The best wideouts in the game have to see a lot of volume. Setting that mark at 120 -- rather arbitrary, but that's 7.5 targets per game -- seems reasonable.

That brings us to 25 wide receivers from 2014. Let's start with there.

Winning the Volume Game

As I said, one of the ways we can measure wide receiver success is through how well each pass-catcher performed on every catch they made. That, after all, can tell us how many points (expected points) the guy actually added for his team.

Among the 25 wide receivers mentioned above, below is a chart showing the top 10 in Reception NEP from a season ago.

Player Reception NEP
Antonio Brown 151.91
Julio Jones 142.69
Demaryius Thomas 140.59
Jordy Nelson 140.05
Dez Bryant 127.79
Emmanuel Sanders 125.70
Randall Cobb 119.13
Odell Beckham 118.01
Jeremy Maclin 111.21
T.Y. Hilton 108.36

There's obviously going to be a strong correlation between volume and Reception NEP -- a cumulative statistic -- but wide receivers who receive a lot of volume are generally going to be top-tier talents to begin with.

Antonio Brown led the league last year in Reception NEP, but he was second in targets behind Demaryius Thomas. In other words, given these numbers, he was more efficient than Thomas. Moreover, Brown's quarterback play wasn't as strong as Thomas' according to Passing NEP, as Peyton Manning finished the year with about eight more expected points scored than Ben Roethlisberger.

So from a pure volume and contribution standpoint, Brown is our man. It's just that getting a lot of catches and doing what he did last year doesn't always define the best.

Winning the Efficiency Game

Antonio Brown was awesome a season ago, but he wasn't the most efficient high-volume wide receiver in the league. That title goes to Dez Bryant, according to our per-target Reception NEP data.

Player Reception NEP per Target
Dez Bryant 0.9396
Randall Cobb 0.9381
Jordy Nelson 0.9275
Odell Beckham 0.9078
Emmanuel Sanders 0.8915
Julio Jones 0.8754
Antonio Brown 0.8393
T.Y. Hilton 0.8272
Calvin Johnson 0.8206
Mike Evans 0.8155

Dez's play last year shouldn't be overlooked. Since 2000, 338 wide receivers have had 100 targets in a single season. Bryant's 0.94 Reception NEP per target ranks 12th among these players.

It's not shocking to see the two Packer receivers right below Bryant in efficiency, as Aaron Rodgers -- the league's MVP -- put up unicorn-like numbers last year and was by far the most effective quarterback with a Passing NEP total of 188.41. Rookie Odell Beckham was impressive too, but what's interesting is that, on almost the exact same number of targets, Bryant beat him in essentially every statistic we use to measure effectiveness.

Dez Bryant is your efficiency king.

Who's the Best?

Based on this, you could probably go two ways: Antonio Brown or Dez Bryant. It depends on what you're trying to show. Browns added the most points when volume is considered, while Dez, per target, was the best in the league.

But considering Bryant's fifth ranked Reception NEP to go along with his crazy-good efficiency, he'd be my winner.