Analysis

Next Gen Stats' top 10 pass catchers of 2020: Stefon Diggs and Davante Adams rank high, but not No. 1 ...

The Stefon Diggs trade sent shockwaves through the NFL just before the start of free agency in 2020. More than a year later, we know it paid off -- for both sides.

Minnesota sent Diggs to Buffalo in exchange for a first-round pick that eventually became LSU wideout Justin Jefferson. Both had banner seasons in new homes last year, landing in the league's top four in receiving yards.

After taking a deeper look at the advanced metrics, our previous thoughts on the two have been confirmed. Diggs and Jefferson both landed among the league's top pass catchers, according to Next Gen Stats.

Using catch rate (the percentage of targets caught) and expected catch rate (average completion probability when targeted), we've determined the top 10 pass catchers across the league from the 2020 season.

After two tight ends earned a spot on last year's list, only one made the cut this time around. He probably isn't the one you expect -- and he certainly holds a loftier ranking than you'd anticipate. Meanwhile, popular tight ends like Travis Kelce and Darren Waller didn't earn a slot here, though Kelce and Waller weren't too far outside of the top 10. And George Kittle's injury-hampered season doomed his chances of landing on this list.

Among all qualifying players (minimum of 50 targets, 50 receptions and 300 routes run), these guys were the best in pro football at hauling in passes in 2020.

Rank
10
Tim Patrick
Wide receiver

Catch rate: 64.6%

Expected catch rate: 57%

Difference: +7.6%


We spent nearly an entire offseason raving about Denver's passing potential after the Broncos added Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler to a corps that already included Courtland Sutton, yet we didn't spend more than a few seconds on Patrick, one of the pleasant surprises of 2020. Patrick didn't light up the league in yardage totals -- only Robert Tonyan had fewer receiving yards than Patrick among players in this list -- but he was frequently right where Broncos passers needed him to be and rarely disappointed. Patrick just barely made it into the qualifications for this list, finishing with 51 catches, but posted the fourth-highest yards per reception (14.5) of those in this top 10. People who watched the Broncos on a weekly basis will likely speak highly of Patrick, who scored six touchdowns and made nearly half of his hay on deep passes, recording 310 of his 742 yards on downfield strikes. He racked up that total by doing the unexpected, posting a catch rate over expectation of +17.8 percent on deep targets (20-plus air yards), the third-highest mark in the league. He was also quite dependable along the boundary, recording 134 yards on sideline targets (within 2 yards of the sideline at the time of catch), the eighth-highest total in the league.


Patrick isn't a household name, but he gained plenty of supporters in Denver in 2020 -- and he'll pick up even more if he keeps this up in 2021.

Rank
9
Will Fuller
Wide receiver

Catch rate: 70.7%

Expected catch rate: 63.1%

Difference: +7.6%


Fuller's totals likely would have been higher had he not been suspended for the final five games of the season (plus, one more in 2021) for violating the league's substance abuse policy, which might have deflated his catch-rate difference, but with comparable targets and receptions to a few other receivers in or just outside this top 10, we'll take his numbers in a shortened season at face value. Prior to his suspension, Fuller was leading the league in touchdowns on go routes (five), which comes as no surprise considering his blazing speed. As opposing defenders learned, pressing Fuller might slow him momentarily, but it wasn't the answer to stopping him, evidenced by his 423 receiving yards gained against press coverage. That mark was the second-most in the league behind only DK Metcalf through Week 12.


As we've come to learn (though we wish we'd see more consistently), Fuller has a nose for a big game, too. His 125 receiving yards versus press in his final game of 2020 (Week 12 versus Detroit) was the second-highest single-game total posted by any player last season, trailing only one other receiver who also made this list: Davante Adams. Fuller has relocated to Miami in 2021 and still has the lingering portion of a suspension to serve, but he proved in 2020 that -- when on the field and healthy -- he's a serious threat.

Rank
8
Tyler Lockett
Wide receiver

Catch rate: 75.8%

Expected catch rate: 67.8%

Difference: +8%


Lockett's appearance on this list is no surprise, but his placement is. Typically a catch-rate-difference monster -- he landed at No. 2 on this list last season, and owns the highest catch-rate difference in Next Gen Stats history -- Lockett's differential dropped by more than four percentage points from 2019 to 2020. This, of course, coincides with the supreme emergence of DK Metcalf, who undoubtedly commanded more attention from opposing defenses and lightened Lockett's load, making for a higher expected catch rate from 2019 (61.9 percent) to 2020 (67.8 percent). That doesn't mean Lockett wasn't still highly effective; his catch rate actually increased, going from 74.5 percent in '19 to 75.8 last year. 


The diminutive speedster again took advantage of his physical gifts in 2020, recording 32 receptions, 342 yards and three touchdowns on 37 crossing route targets, the most in the NFL in each category on such a route. Lockett again proved to be a trusty target for Russell Wilson when under duress, recording 11 catches (on 13 targets) for 118 yards and two touchdowns on scramble drills, tying for the second-most yards in such situations in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. He also made a little history late in the season when he became the first receiver since 2016 to record six or more receptions and score a touchdown while aligned both wide and in the slot in a single game in Seattle's Week 17 game against San Francisco. Though Seattle's offense devolved from a sprint to a limp down the stretch, Lockett showed he's still a dependable and productive option for Wilson and the Seahawks.

Rank
7
Justin Jefferson
Wide receiver

Catch rate: 70.4%

Expected catch rate: 61.3%

Difference: +9.1%


Jefferson came to Minnesota as the heir to the throne vacated by Diggs, and somehow, he exceeded those expectations while nearly winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. It's no surprise that he also exceeded expected catch rate by a margin that was among the best in the league, and only ever so slightly behind that of his entrenched teammate, Adam Thielen.


Jefferson's output can't be explained in any way other than simply admitting he's very good in every area of the field. The rookie recorded 100 or more receiving yards on seven different routes in 2020, one of only two players to do so in the entire league, with the other being Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. The difference between the two: Jefferson doesn't benefit from potential mismatches produced by creative alignment or personnel mismatches that Kelce enjoys from the nature of his position. No matter for Jefferson, who also couldn't be stopped by physical defenders, recording 606 yards versus press coverage, most in the NFL. Pressing doesn't work against Jefferson, which explains his 380 yards gained on deep receptions, the seventh-most in the NFL, and neither does a change in alignment. In fact, like another receiver on this list (Davante Adams), Jefferson benefitted from moving around, recording 187 deep receiving yards from the slot, the third-most in the league.


We can only come to one conclusion: Jefferson is a nightmare for opposing defenses -- and he's only just getting started.

Rank
6
Adam Thielen
Wide receiver

Catch rate: 68.5%

Expected catch rate: 59.3%

Difference: +9.2%


Though he didn't land on it last year, Thielen is no stranger to this list. The seasoned vet posted another highly productive season in 2020 while welcoming a new running mate in Jefferson. The two were remarkably similar in terms of efficiency, with Thielen edging the youngster by the slimmest of margins in catch-rate difference while seeing slightly fewer targets. He finished with fewer receptions as a result, but exceeded expectation at a premier level, posting the sixth-best catch rate over expectation at +9.2 percent. While opposing defenses keyed on the dynamite rookie, Thielen remained a consistent scoring threat, finishing second among our top 10 receivers in touchdown catches with 14. Thielen did so with an interesting mix of old and new, maintaining his dominance in the face of adversity along the boundary, extending his outbreaking route effectiveness to a catch rate over expectation of +15.2 percent since 2018, the highest rate in the entire league. While Thielen was dependable outside, his inside usage decreased from nearly 50 percent in 2018 to 26.4 percent in 2020, the second season in which he fell below 28 percent. Interestingly, though, Thielen remained very effective at making the unlikely a reality from the slot, posting a catch rate above expectation of +13.6 percent from the inside alignment while owning a rate of +7.2 percent outside.


A change in offensive coordinator ended up maintaining the status quo for Minnesota with Thielen, and naturally, it sure helped that the Vikings replaced Diggs with another receiver capable of commanding plenty of attention. But above all, Thielen remained effective by winning outside while exceeding expectation from the slot, even if he isn't used on the inside as much anymore.

Rank
5
Corey Davis
Wide receiver

Catch rate: 70.7%

Expected catch rate: 61%

Difference: +9.7%


Davis needed a breakout year in the final season of his rookie contract in Tennessee, and boy, did he deliver. After struggling to make even the expected catches in his first two pro seasons, the former first-round pick broke through to the positive side of catch-rate difference in 2019 at +2 percent, then made a massive leap into the top 10 of the league in 2020 at +9.7 percent, the fourth-highest rate among wide receivers. That came in a career year for Davis, who racked up single-season highs in touchdowns (five) and receiving yards (984).


Out routes played a big role in Davis' improvement, as the big-bodied target racked up 218 yards on outs in 2020, the fourth-most in the league. Davis also became a reliable downfield threat, averaging the third-most air yards per target among our top 10 guys in this list at 12.3, and passers didn't throw a single interception when targeting him in 2020. Davis' catch-rate difference is even more impressive when considering he enjoyed the lowest amount of separation (2.4 yards on average) of any player here. It's proof that size and time to develop do matter in today's NFL, and Davis' lavish new deal with the Jets stands as a testament to year-to-year growth and what it can do for a player's trajectory in just one season.

Rank
4
Davante Adams
Wide receiver

Catch rate: 77.2%

Expected catch rate: 67.2%

Difference: +10%


No player made more out of his routes run in 2020 than Adams, who averaged 3.1 receiving yards per route run, the most in the NFL with a minimum of 150 routes. Few were as versatile as Adams, too, as the receiver set a new single-season personal high for percentage of routes run out of the slot at 29.9 percent. In those instances, Adams was highly productive, catching 83.6 percent of his targets (the second-highest rate in the NFL, minimum 25 slot targets) and scoring seven touchdowns. Adams wasn't just a weapon on the inside, though, as the receiver recorded 32 catches for 231 yards and eight scores on 37 targets on outbreaking routes (which includes routes in the flat, out routes and corner routes), tying for the most touchdowns and third-most receptions on such routes in the NFL.


Incredibly, Adams did this while receiving a ton of defensive attention. Of the players in our top 10, only one saw a higher press rate than Adams, who faced press coverage on 30.3 percent of all targets. Defenses were well aware of his threat, yet he still achieved well above expectation (+10 percent) while also enjoying just 3.2 yards of average separation.


No matter how hard opponents tried to limit him, Adams was still highly successful in the latest portion of what is becoming a truly stellar career.

Rank
3
Chris Godwin
Wide receiver

Catch rate: 77.4%

Expected catch rate: 67%

Difference: +10.4%


Tom Brady's arrival made fans of high-flying offense salivate. With all of the weapons at TB12's disposal, how could defenses ever figure out how to stop the new-look Buccaneers?


The offense didn't take off initially, but once Tampa Bay got going, there was little opponents could do to shut it down -- and Godwin was a huge part of that. Thanks to the presence of Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski and a late arrival from Antonio Brown, the Penn State product enjoyed less attention from defenders, seeing press coverage on just 10.5 percent of routes run in 2020, the fifth-lowest rate among receivers running at least 300 routes in the league. Once seen as a weapon primarily down the deep middle of the field -- Godwin caught 14 passes for 362 yards and a touchdown on 24 post targets since 2019 (the third-most post targets in the league in that span) -- Godwin flourished by doing it all in 2020, posting a catch rate 10.4 percent above expectation while also catching 10-plus receptions on crosses, screens and hitches in 2020 (and nine on out routes). Godwin was a highly productive option for Brady, too, helping him post a 131.1 passer rating when targeting the receiver in their first season together.


With Godwin consistently exceeding expectation, he put together an excellent season as a secondary option in Tampa's loaded offense.

Rank
2
Stefon Diggs
Wide receiver

Catch rate: 76.5%

Expected catch rate: 64.8%

Difference: +11.7%


Diggs led the league in receiving yards (1,535) partially because no one saw a greater volume of targets in the NFL than him. Diggs' 166 targets produced a league-best 127 receptions. He did so by catching passes at a rate that was 11.7 percent higher than expectation, per Next Gen Stats. Diggs was the only qualifying receiver to break 11 percent, and did so with an interesting combination of tactics. Diggs recorded the most receiving yards (685) on play-action targets in the NFL, and also caught 50 passes for 490 yards on hitch routes -- a simple 5-yard, start-and-stop route designed to deliver passes quickly to the receiver when opposing defenses are typically playing softer coverage. Diggs' hitch totals were the most receptions and yards by any player on any route in 2020, per Next Gen Stats.


As anyone who watched the Bills in 2020 will acknowledge, Diggs was a threat any time he was on the field, especially when aligned on the perimeter. The veteran caught 93 passes for 1,173 yards and five touchdowns on 120 targets when aligned wide, the second-most receptions and yards in the NFL. He's also been an incredibly tough cover for the last half-decade, helping quarterbacks record a 97.4 passer rating when targeted in tight windows since 2016, the second-highest rating among all pass catchers.


Diggs is good, he's been good and he was unquestionably the best in the NFL a year ago. It's no surprise Buffalo took a massive step forward in its first season with Diggs in the fold. 

Rank
1
Robert Tonyan
Tight end

Catch rate: 88.1%

Expected catch rate: 71.4%

Difference: +16.7%


Tonyan barely made the qualifications used for this exercise, finishing with 52 catches on 59 targets. That also meant his efficiency was incredible last season, posting the highest catch-rate difference among all pass catchers by a wide margin. His 16.7 percent difference was not only the best in 2020, but the second-best in the history of the Next Gen Stats era, which dates back to the start of the 2016 season. Lower totals undoubtedly contribute to a higher difference -- of the top seven players in catch-rate difference since 2016, only one has exceeded 100 targets (the Saints' Michael Thomas, who posted top-seven differences in 2018 and '19) -- but playing a position that traditionally sees fewer targets shouldn't diminish Tonyan's achievements in 2020.


It helps to play with Aaron Rodgers, of course, but Tonyan proved he was also a tough cover. Tonyan generated 4.2 yards of separation per target in 2020, the second-most of any player since 2016, helping him post a league-leading six receiving touchdowns and a +12.8 percent catch rate over expected when aligned tight. This effectiveness made Green Bay's offense that much more dangerous, because the Packers didn't need to split Tonyan out to put him in advantageous situations, adding to their offensive unpredictability. Tonyan made the most of it with his production -- including his 11 TD receptions -- in 2020.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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