Thursday October 29th, 2015

With NFL offenses putting a greater emphasis on throwing the ball with each passing year, it’s never been more important for each team to field a competent receiving corps. Take a look around the league. Ten of the 12 teams currently occupying playoff spots have elite receivers on the roster (maybe 11, if you’re a fervent Stefon Diggs believer).

But sometimes, we get caught up in marveling over the spectacular athleticism without getting down to the crux of the matter—which wideouts are the best at completing their primary objective? Which receivers are best at catching the ball? Yesterday, I reviewed 10 guys who have strong cases for possessing the worst hands in the league, and will be examining the other end of the spectrum here.

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Instead of simply using catch rate to determine which wideouts are most reliable, I’ve leaned on a modified version of Catch/Drop Rate Difference (CDRD), which is calculated by subtracting a receiver’s drop rate from his catch rate. I increased the weight on drop rate five-fold in this equation to do two things: Firstly, to help weed out the guys who attain high catch rates by running a bunch of short routes while still dropping a fair amount of their targets. Secondly, to lessen the advantage for players who have high catch rates simply because they play with top-tier quarterbacks. 

And since we’re trying to pinpoint the receivers who have proved their mettle across a high volume of throws, the qualifications for this list are stricter than the 25-target threshold used for the Worst Hands ranking. To qualify here, they must have been targeted at least 80 targets since the beginning of the 2014 season. That narrows the field down to 66 candidates, or roughly two receivers per team.

One last clarification: these rankings aren’t meant to measure which receivers have exhibited the best hands across their career. It’s supposed to be a litmus test on recent history—the last two regular seasons, to be exact.

Without further ado, it’s time to shine the spotlight on the 10 wideouts you can almost always count on to haul in those supposed “50/50” balls.

Note: All dropped pass statistics obtained from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

10. Malcom Floyd, Chargers

2014–15 Catch Rate (rank out of 66 qualified receivers): 57.5% (55th)
2014–15 Drop Rate (rank out of 66 qualified receivers): 0.8% (1st)

Floyd’s poor catch rate is hard to ignore. But that figure is so low because Floyd is a rarity in this league—a 34-year-old in his last professional season who relies almost exclusively on long balls (his rate of 18.6 yards per catch is fourth-highest in the NFL).

So let’s marvel at Floyd’s microscopic drop rate, which comes from just one drop on 120 targets since the beginning of 2014.

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9. Antonio Brown, Steelers

2014–15 Catch Rate: 71.7% (8th)
2014-15 Drop Rate: 3.7% (19th)

Brown’s otherworldly raw production numbers from 2014 have come down to earth, and his catch/drop rates have gotten a little worse, too. Though the 2.8 percent decrease in catch rate could partially be attributed to Pittsburgh’s quarterback carousel, the uptick in drop rate from 2.8 percent to 6.1 percent is no one’s fault but his own.

Still, there’s no question Brown is among the elite at his position. Even with Michael Vick and Landry Jones throwing him passes for four of the Steelers’ seven contests, he’s managed to hold a spot in the top five of receptions (46), receiving yards (671) and first downs (29).

8. Kenny Stills, Dolphins

2014–15 Catch Rate: 76.8% (2nd)
2014–15 Drop Rate: 4.2% (26th)

In switching teams from New Orleans to Miami, Stills has gone from averaging 4.2 receptions per game in 2014 to averaging 1.7 catches this season. With only 15 targets in 2015, we don’t have much data to draw sweeping conclusions from how the transition has affected his efficiency.

But after Stills racked up 931 receiving yards with a ridiculous 78.8% catch rate last year, it’s clear his skills are being vastly underused in South Beach. The 23-year-old has been thrown to as often as a clearly washed-up Greg Jennings.

7. Brandin Cooks, Saints

2014–15 Catch Rate: 72.7% (5th)
2014–15 Drop Rate: 3.3% (15th)

On the other hand, maybe it was Drew Brees propping up Stills during his New Orleans tenure. Of the 66 wideouts qualified for this article, two of the top three in 2014 catch rate donned the black and gold last season. Cooks topped the leaderboard with a robust 81.5% of his targets marked down as completions.

The Brees-Cooks connection hasn’t been quite as efficient in 2015, however, as they’ve only connected on 58.3% of their passes. It’s possible that with Stills and Jimmy Graham gone, New Orleans’ opponents are making sure Cooks is contained.

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6. Odell Beckham Jr., Giants

2014–15 Catch Rate: 68.6% (14th)
2014–15 Drop Rate: 2.1% (5th)

You had to know that Beckham was going to land somewhere close to the top. Had OBJ maintained his terrific rates from last year (70.5% caught, 1.6% dropped), he would rank second on this list. But they’ve both taken a turn for the worse, to 64.6% and 3.1%, respectively.

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5. Jeremy Maclin, Chiefs

2014–15 Catch Rate: 63.6% (33rd)
2014–15 Drop Rate: 1.0% (2nd)

Maclin is another wideout who changed zip codes in the offseason. And while it would be extremely difficult to follow up his stupendous 2014 campaign (85 receptions, one drop on 140 targets), he’s shown he has the skill to put up elite numbers even with perhaps the least weakest-armed quarterback in the sport slinging him passes.

Maclin’s catch rate has increased from 60.7% to 70.9% this year, something likely helped by a steadier diet of short routes. Still, we’re nearly halfway through the 2015 season, and Maclin only has one drop on 55 targets. His status as a No. 1 wideout is legit, even if his ceiling is limited with Alex Smith as his quarterback.

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4. Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos

2014–15 Catch Rate: 68.5% (16th)
2014–15 Drop Rate: 2.0% (4th)

Despite Peyton Manning’s rapid descent, Sanders is on pace to log virtually the same raw numbers he did last year (101 receptions, 1,404 yards). Seriously – if you extrapolate his 2015 stats to 16 games, they come out to 101 receptions and 1,405 yards.

Even Sanders has been marginally affected by Manning’s decline, though. After posting a 72.1 percent catch rate in 2014, that figure is down to 60.3 percent this year. Even so, Sanders has proven to be more efficient than teammate Demaryius Thomas, who has a 63.1 percent catch rate and 5.2 percent drop rate between 2014-15. 

3. Jarvis Landry, Dolphins

2014–15 Catch Rate: 77.4% (1st)
2014–15 Drop Rate: 3.2% (13th)

Though Landry is one of the early breakout stories of the season, his hands have actually been a bit less reliable this year. He ranks 11th in catch rate (72.0 percent) among the 66 receivers examined in this article.

However, he built up enough goodwill to rank in the top three by dropping just two of his 105 targets last year. And though some will attribute his astronomically high catch rate to Ryan Tannehill feeding Landry a ton of short, catchable passes, it’s not that simple. With 145 YAC this season, Landry ranks 25th among wide receivers—so it’s not like his legs are doing all of the work. Give some credit to this man’s hands, too.

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2. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals

2014–15 Catch Rate: 68.6% (15th)
2014–15 Drop Rate: 1.3% (3rd)

Some figured 2015 might signal a sharp decline for the 32-year-old Fitzgerald, but he’s shown he has plenty left in the tank. In fact, he’s made a decent case that he’s still one of the best three or four receivers in the league. After three straight seasons with less than 1,000 yards, he’s incredibly on pace to post career highs in receptions (105), yards (1,422) and touchdowns (14) in his 12th NFL campaign.

That’s quite a way to rebound from a mediocre 2014 catch rate of 63.0%, which we can now safely attribute to Fitzgerald partnering with Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley for longer than anyone of his stature should have to.

Fitzgerald’s catch rate is all the way up to 78.0% this year. That ranks below just one of the 66 wideouts qualified for this article, who also tops my modified version of CDRD:  

1. Doug Baldwin, Seahawks

2014–15 Catch Rate: 76.4% (3rd)
2014–15 Drop Rate: 2.4% (7th)

It’s been proclaimed by many that Seattle doesn’t possess an elite wideout. And maybe that’s true—but we know that the Seahawks’ receivers have solid hands, at the very least.

Baldwin is one of just four wideouts with at least 30 targets to not drop a pass this year, along with Malcom Floyd, Travis Benjamin and teammate Jermaine Kearse. Where Baldwin separates himself is his knack to haul in all types of passes.

His 84.8% catch rate this year (28 catches on 33 targets) is simply fantastic, ranking first among all receivers with at least 30 targets this year. And yet, Russell Wilson has looked to him less often this year with Jimmy Graham and Tyler Lockett cutting into Seattle’s share of targets.

Baldwin has the hands, speed (4.47 40-yard dash) and savvy to take his game to the next level. Are his height (5’9”) and admittedly imprecise route-running the only things holding him back? If Baldwin can fix the latter through more experience, Russell Wilson could soon have a legit No. 1 WR at his disposal.

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