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Next Gen Stats' top 10 pass catchers by CROE: Tee Higgins, Christian Kirk top the board!

I'm back with another Next Gen top 10 that is sure to rile up some fans of air attacks.

Apparently, we got it right with deep passers to start the series. I haven't received much outrage on that front. But the selection of these receivers -- and their placement -- is going to raise some eyebrows. No doubt about it. That's fine. It comes with the territory. But before you scroll down in search of your favorite team's top pass catcher, first consider a quick explanation of the methodology used to build these rankings.

As I did a year ago, I set some baselines with these rankings. In order to qualify, a pass catcher (running backs not included) had to have: 50 targets, 50 receptions and 300 routes run.

From there, it was all about separating players via Next Gen Stats' catch rate over expected (CROE) metric, which measures the difficulty of completion using a number of factors: separation from nearest defender, depth of target, speed, etc. Players boasting higher CROEs have consistently made difficult, unlikely catches more often than the rest. These are the ones who you can count on to make the tough grabs, which is what we all want in our pass catchers, right?

Here's my top-10 list, based on Next Gen Stats' metrics from the 2021 season:

Adam Thielen
Minnesota Vikings · Age 31
  • Catch rate: 70.5%
  • Expected catch rate: 64.7%
  • Catch rate over expected (CROE): +5.8%

Thielen makes a repeat appearance on this ranking, but unlike last year, he won't be joined by his younger teammate, Justin Jefferson. That's a surprise, considering Jefferson finished with the second-most receiving yards in the NFL (1,616). But Thielen outranks him because of the degree to which he exceeded expectations. (Jefferson finished with a CROE of +2.4 percent.)

Thielen has been doing this for a while now; since 2018, he owns a CROE of +11.4 percent outside the numbers and +25.7 CROE in the red zone. Those two marks are good for second and first among all qualifying pass catchers in that span. 

He was once again reliably effective in a variety of situations in 2021. Thielen helped Vikings passers post a passer rating of 145.8 when targeting him against man coverage, tying for the best mark in the league. And even as he's shifted to more of an outside receiver role (after being aligned wide on 44 percent of snaps in 2018, he was wide on 72 percent in 2021), he's proving to be an effective target, regardless of situation. That CROE of +5.8 percent (on 95 targets) confirms it.

Ja'Marr Chase
Cincinnati Bengals · Age 22
  • Catch rate: 63.3%
  • Expected catch rate: 57.1%
  • CROE: +6.2%

This darling of the 2021 season (and winner of the Offensive Rookie of the Year award) certainly earned his spot here, resetting the rookie record for most receiving yards in a season (1,455). He also keyed an unlikely run to the Super Bowl for the Bengals, setting another rookie receiving record (most postseason receiving yards: 368) in the process.

Chase sits relatively low on this list because of how his catch rate over expected and overall catch rate compare to those above him. None of that should diminish what Chase accomplished in his first NFL campaign. He became the first rookie in the Next Gen Stats era (beginning in 2016) to lead the league in receiving touchdowns on deep passes (seven), set an NGS record for the most receiving yards on go routes (542) and led the league in receiving yards (923) and touchdowns (11) outside the numbers.

A good chunk of those robust receiving totals came after the catch. Chase finished second in the NFL in yards gained after catch over expected with an astounding +356, but surprisingly, only +73 of those came on go routes. This brings to mind one signature play: Chase's 82-yard touchdown in a Week 7 blowout of Baltimore. Operating with 2 yards of pre-snap cushion, Chase ran a slant, won inside leverage, caught an on-time pass from Joe Burrow, then put three Ravens defenders in a blender before taking off for the end zone. The expected yards after catch was 3.2. He gained 76.2, making for a +73 YACOE on that play alone, equaling his entire total for the season on go routes.

Chase is special. He's another player who would have posted a higher CROE with fewer targets. (Each of the top four on this list fell below 78 total targets.) He's going to be a star for a long, long time. 

Davante Adams
Las Vegas Raiders · Age 29
  • Catch rate: 72.8%
  • Expected catch rate: 66.6%
  • CROE: +6.2%

Like Ja'Marr Chase, Adams ended up with a surprisingly low ranking here because his CROE was suppressed by his high target total. Adams was targeted on 30 percent of Green Bay's total passes last season, the second-largest target share of any pass catcher in the NFL (minimum 200 routes), and the reasoning is simple: He is a premier receiver, no matter the route and location. Need proof? Well alright ...

Adams tied for the most receptions when targeted on go routes, tied for the most receiving touchdowns on slant routes (three), led the NFL in receptions (77) and yards gained down the seams (914), finished third in yards per route run, tied for fourth in touchdown receptions outside the numbers (six) and finished fourth in yards after catch (667). He also was not slowed by physical defenders, finishing in the top five in receptions and yards versus press coverage.

Davante does it all, and he'll be expected to do more of the same in Las Vegas. If he'd owned a lower target share in 2021 -- and perhaps a less accurate quarterback than Aaron Rodgers -- Adams would've landed higher on this list.

George Kittle
San Francisco 49ers · Age 28
  • Catch rate: 75.5%
  • xCatch: 68.9%
  • CROE: +6.6%

Allow me to take this moment to welcome a premier tight end back to the top 10. Kittle missed this group one year ago due to injuries, but he's back with a vengeance after another Pro Bowl campaign.

We'll keep this brief, because the explanation is simple: Kittle is a run-blocking beast ... and just as rugged a player with the ball in his grasp. His production when aligned tight -- not flexed out, where other athletic tight ends tend to find themselves these days -- amounted to the second-best marks in yards per target (10.8) and yards per route (3.3). He's an every-down threat no matter the play call, and he's excellent at making the difficult look easy.

Cooper Kupp
Los Angeles Rams · Age 28
  • Catch rate: 75.9%
  • xCatch: 69.2%
  • CROE: +6.8%

Rhett Lewis is definitely going to come after me for this one. And frankly, I get it. There's no shortage of impressive figures from Kupp's triple crown season. The Rams star set Next Gen Stats' single-season record for most receiving yards gained on out-breaking routes (527), and caught the game-winning touchdown pass on such a route in Super Bowl LVI.

But since we're ranking these pass catchers by catch rate over expected, well, this is where Kupp lands. Kupp's gross statistics are astounding. He recorded the most receiving yards when aligned in the slot (1,321) in the Next Gen era by a wide margin (no other receiver has broken 1,000), and his 89 receptions and nine touchdowns out of the slot also top the charts in the NGS era. Matthew Stafford's 2021 passer rating when targeting Kupp out of the slot was also the highest ever at 141.9, and Kupp was uber-reliable when opposing defenses send the blitz, helping Stafford post a perfect passer rating when targeting Kupp against extra pressure. Kupp's eight touchdown receptions against the blitz, unsurprisingly, were also tied for the most by any player in the history of Next Gen Stats.

The résumé is sterling. The production is obvious. The ring is going to need polishing. But as a result of a massive number of targets -- his 191 were the most in the NFL -- Kupp's catch rate over expected was lower than others on this list.

Hunter Renfrow
Las Vegas Raiders · Age 26
  • Catch rate: 80.5%
  • xCatch: 71.7%
  • CROE: +8.8%

The third-down master and route-running wizard stepped up in a big way for the Raiders in 2021, leading the team in receiving yards (1,038) despite averaging just 10.1 yards per reception.

What we already know about Renfrow shined through in the numbers: His sure hands made him an easy go-to target for Derek Carr, no matter where his routes originated, and the way he ran his routes made him a problem for defenses in almost every situation. Renfrow finished fourth in average target separation when aligned wide, racked up the sixth-most receiving yards (643) when aligned in the slot, and tied for 10th in receiving touchdowns caught outside the numbers (five).

When this guy lined up in a bunch formation, he was devastating. Renfrow ran 17 more routes than the next-closest player out of bunch sets, saw 11 more targets, caught 11 more passes and gained 49 more yards than the next-closest receiver. It's no surprise, then, that he led the NFL with four touchdowns on out routes, catching 23 of 29 targets for 195 yards.

No matter where he lined up, Renfrow was a tough cover and an easy target. He's not a burner and won't torch defenses downfield, but he'll make plenty of money with his skill set. Add in the sure hands and you have a top-five receiver at exceeding expectations.

Kendrick Bourne
New England Patriots · Age 26
  • Catch rate: 78.6%
  • xCatch: 69.6%
  • CROE: +9%

Now here's a surprise. Perhaps we can chalk this up to New England's reversion to a run-first offense of eras past, as the Patriots finished eighth in the NFL in rushing yards per game in 2021. That helped open things up for Bourne to make a difference at a variety of depths, posting the league's best catch rate over expected on passes of 10-plus air yards (+31.9 percent) while also gaining an NFL-leading 9.5 yards per target on passes of fewer than 10 air yards. Catch-and-run was the name of Bourne's game, as he tied for fourth in yards gained after catch over expected at +156.

Bourne isn't a name you expect to see on this kind of list, but the combination of his ability to make an impact at a number of depths, his run-after-catch threat and New England's unpredictability -- even with a rookie at quarterback -- all help explain Bourne's placement.

Tyler Lockett
Seattle Seahawks · Age 29
  • Catch rate: 68.2%
  • xCatch: 59%
  • CROE: +9.2%

In the past, Lockett was a speedster who made an impact in the middle portion of the field (between the numbers). In 2021, that changed a bit. Lockett became a sideline stud, catching 13 boundary targets (less than 2 yards from the sideline) -- the most such receptions in the entire league. That total was the most in a single season for Lockett during the Next Gen Stats era (dating back to 2016), and stands as proof of skill progression for a receiver who already boasts the highest catch rate over expected on targets outside the numbers since 2018.

Considering Lockett set a new career high for receiving yards (1,175), it should come as no surprise that he landed on this list's podium. He remains a downfield threat, owning the most receptions (51) and receiving yards (1,790) on throws of 20-plus air yards since 2018. Defenses reacted accordingly in 2021, giving him plenty of cushion, but it didn't help much. Lockett caught 67.1 percent of his 73 receptions with cushion of 5 or more yards, and he finished sixth among all receivers and tight ends in completed air yards (886), accounting for 75.4 percent of his total receiving yards.

The inclusion of more perimeter targets is the defining shift in Lockett's overall receiving résumé. He ran corner routes at the highest percentage in the NFL (10 percent) -- and thanks in part to that aforementioned cushion, he averaged a route depth of 13.9 yards.

What we're seeing from Lockett is a receiver who has become a complete pass catcher capable of making a difference all over the field. Defenses are wise to give him space -- they just better cover it faster than they did in 2021. Lockett, meanwhile, will have to hope the Seahawks find a quality replacement for Russell Wilson.

Christian Kirk
Jacksonville Jaguars · Age 25
  • Catch rate: 74.8%
  • xCatch: 65.4%
  • CROE: +9.4%

Two plays essentially defined Kirk's final season in Arizona, and they came in the first two weeks of the campaign. Lined up as a slot in a trips formation in Arizona's Week 1 trouncing of Tennessee, Kirk ran a fade route that eventually registered as a corner route (in Next Gen Stats' route-tracking database), thanks to Kirk using outside leverage against cornerback Kristian Fulton -- playing man coverage in a single-high safety look -- to his advantage. With six pass rushers bearing down on Kyler Murray, the quarterback lofted a pass to Kirk, who won the race toward the back corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

A week later, he did it again in the win over Minnesota, running a streak toward the middle of the field against another single-high look and leaving cornerback Mackensie Alexander in the dust, giving Murray an opportunity to deliver a pass with seven rushers closing in on him for a hugely important 35-yard gain on fourth-and-5.

That was Kirk's maximum value in Arizona. He was a slot receiver used predominantly downfield, running the fourth-deepest routes on average when aligned in the slot among all receivers (minimum 200 slot routes) while also finishing first in catch rate over expected (+11.8 percent), third in receiving expected points added (+40.6) and fourth in receptions (59) and receiving yards (722) out of the slot. He averaged 14.6 yards per target on passes of 10-plus air yards, including 11 yards per target versus press coverage.

It was all about attacking defenses with Kirk's speed from the slot in 2021. He'll attempt to do the same -- with a healthier bank account -- in his first season with the Jaguars.

Tee Higgins
Cincinnati Bengals · Age 23
  • Catch rate: 67.3%
  • xCatch: 57.5%
  • CROE: +9.8%

We spent much of 2021 raving about the record-breaking debut season for Ja'Marr Chase, but the Bengals didn't get to the Super Bowl on the strength of the rookie alone. While Chase victimized defenders down the sideline, Higgins played an important role in the often-overlooked (but ever-important) intermediate portion of Cincinnati's passing attack.

Higgins' catch rate didn't land near the top of the league, but the most important metric in these rankings -- catch rate over expected -- separates him from the rest. As a receiver who operates in the most congested area of the field, Higgins consistently exceeded expectations, finishing with the sixth-most receiving yards (503) and fourth-most expected points added on intermediate targets. And in that traffic-filled region of the field, Higgins proved to be an ideal target to find open space, settle in and catch accurate passes for positive gains, with 73 percent of his total receiving yards coming via air yards (801).

All of this combined to help Higgins post the league's top catch rate over expected at +9.8 percent. It certainly helps to have Joe Burrow as your quarterback, but Higgins proved he's pretty darn good at playing the position, too.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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