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On the Monday Morning NFL Podcast, before analyzing Antonio Brown on the trade market Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling discussed how you define a “No. 1 receiver”…

GARY: It used to be, if a wide receiver prospect was considered a “No. 1 receiver” at the next level, he had to have a certain blend of size and speed. You had to be taller than 6' 2", you had to be a downfield threat. Look at the league now. Around the league, they come in all shapes and sizes at this point. They come in different roles. What do we consider a No. 1 receiver? What warrants someone being called a No. 1 receiver? Is it statistical production? Is the role they play? Is it the way defenses react to them?

ANDY: I think it’s the way defenses react to them. Statistical production so often gets mistaken for it. I don’t think it’s that at all. Often it’s going to correlate though, the best guys who the defenses react to a certain way, they’re going to have big statistical production, but it’s because of some of the attributes and the context of their attributes they present. Just so we can figure out who we see as a No. 1 receiver—T.Y. Hilton for example, he supports what you said about, Hey, they’re not all big, they’re not all strong receivers anymore, some of these more unconventional body type guys. Do you see T.Y. Hilton as a No. 1 wide receiver?

GARY: I’ll say yes. I guess that’s another question: How many No. 1 receivers do we think are in the league right now? On Hilton I’ll say yes because you have to devote a safety to defend against him so you’re already devoting two defensive players to him.

ANDY: I agree with that. The counter to that argument is, T.Y. Hilton can be eradicated with good strong press coverage. You might still have a safety over the top—in fact you probably are, because if you’re jamming a guy, being very aggressive at the snap as a cornerback, if you lose on that jam, you’re going to get beat right away so it’s better to have a safety rolling over the top. That’s why Cover-2 you see some of the most aggressive jams out of Cover-2 because there’s always a safety rolling over the top. The counter to T.Y. Hilton is, yeah you do need a safety with him to help, but you can also eliminate him off the line of scrimmage, which means the Colts have to find specific ways to get him clean access. They have to put him in motion, they have to put him in a minus split, they have to put him in the slot which he doesn’t do a whole lot, but you can’t just line him up by himself on the backside as an X-Iso and say, “T.Y. Hilton, go win for us,” the way that you can with an Antonio Brown for example. A few years ago, I would’ve said, “Well, T.Y. Hilton, I guess he’s not a No. 1 wide receiver then.” The way offenses are playing now with how good they’ve gotten. Look at the Rams for example and how they help their receivers with minus splits every single snap. I’m a little less inclined to say that you have to be a guy that can win out wide by himself in order to be a #1 wide receiver. I think there are some guys that are exception to that rule. Tyreek Hill is another one.

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GARY: Shorthand, for the purposes of our definition of a No. 1 receiver, you wouldn’t say an effective X-Iso receiver equals a No. 1 receiver?

ANDY: I would not say that anymore. I would say a No. 1 receiver, the passing game goes through him and therefore the pass defense goes through him. To kind of put it back to Hilton for example, when I went to the Bengals with Vontaze Burfict for a day, I got to sit in on all their installation and game-planning on Wednesday. The guy whose name came up the most by far, every conversation began with T.Y. Hilton, and I think the Bengals felt Hilton and where he lined up tipped off some of the Colts’ plays, but that goes to show you he’s a big part of the offense. The scheme revolves around where Hilton was so there’s no way you couldn’t come away from that meeting thinking he’s not a No. 1 receiver because I just watched a defense dedicated one out of three game-planning days entirely to him almost.

GARY: I want to go back to 2017 real quick and I want to talk about that Rams offense. I realize we’re going too far back in time at this point. Obviously a very effective offense in Sean McVay’s first year. Sammy Watkins probably would’ve been the guy, at least going into the year, who you would’ve said, Well he’s their No. 1 receiver. He did that X-iso stuff, he wasn’t particularly effective though, is that fair to say?

ANDY: Well yeah, he’s not there anymore. There’s a reason he’s not there and someone else is. Watkins is not a true No. 1 receiver but he was used that way and there were portions of the season where defenders and defenses responded to him that way. Remember we were saying Watkins was better than his numbers. There were opportunities there and his chemistry with Goff wasn’t always great. Brandin Cooks is clearly a better player than Sammy Watkins. Is Brandin Cooks a true No. 1 receiver because he’s another one of those darting, little, quick guys.

GARY: I feel like he’s a little more complete—well that’s probably not fair about Hilton anymore, sort of a stereotype at this point, but I’d put him in the same class as T.Y. Hilton.

ANDY: Oh, I think he’s above TY Hilton talent-wise. I think he’s scarier than T.Y. Hilton. See this is where it gets hard now. Brandin Cooks does not a run a lot of in-breaking routes, he’s not great at that. He’s not a natural catcher of the ball on in-breakers. So quick slants, where the ball gets on you faster, those aren’t in his wheelhouse. If you have limitations on part of your route tree, can you be a No. 1 receiver or do you have to have all 9 branches of your route tree strong and firm?

GARY: What about a guy like DeAndre Hopkins? He’s not a great route runner, he thrives solely on contested catch stuff. I don’t want to say it limits what you do, but I guess you have to have a quarterback that trusts him to be effective playing that style of football.

ANDY: Absolutely, because Hopkins, he’s going to win almost every snap but he’s not going to win taking the path you want him to take necessarily. He gets there his own way. His route running has a bit more artistic freedom to it. He encourages physicality, he wants you to put your hands on him. He doesn’t want to get free from you necessarily, he wants to out-leverage you mechanically and with his body. He’s so different from so many receivers and you’d be a fool not to accommodate your game to him because he’s so good. He has to be a true No. 1 receiver, but you’re right, it takes a certain kind of quarterback to be willing to play with him, but maybe that’s true with anyone. It’s the “Alex Smith Test,” I guess. If Alex Smith can get you 1,300 yards, that’s the definition of a true No. 1 receiver, because Alex Smith’s not going to make those tight window throws the way Deshaun Watson does. Is that a fair test or are we getting too deep in the weeds?

GARY: I guess that just comes down to chemistry and making sure your receiver talent fits with your quarterback’s preferences.

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