The deep ball took off at this time last year, and in the pass-happy NFL, we’re back to confirm it is again a popular mode of moving the football.
We’re diving into the league’s top deep threats a tad earlier than a year ago, for good reason: A long-ball hero of the last decade put together a vintage performance Sunday. DeSean Jackson made his first memories as a Ram in Los Angeles’ win over Tampa Bay, catching three passes for 120 yards, including a 75-yard completion Jackson took for a touchdown. The scoring strike tied Jackson with Lance Alworth for the most receiving touchdowns of 75-plus yards in a career (nine), per NFL Research, and prompted legendary ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman to aptly summarize it as such: “He came into the league fast, he’ll leave the league fast!”
Jackson is far from the only fast player in today’s NFL. Let’s take a look at who fills out our top 10 players who make defenses pay downfield through three weeks.
Lockett’s outlook for 2021 appeared to be in danger when he was tackled awkwardly Sunday against the Vikings, but thankfully for the Seahawks, he avoided serious injury. That’s good news for Russell Wilson, who has again displayed a preference for targeting the speedy Lockett deep. Wilson has sent the long ball in Lockett’s direction seven times this season, connecting with him four times for 206 yards and three touchdowns. All three of those marks rank first or tied for first in the league through three weeks. As history has told us and continues to reinforce, it’s smart to find Lockett downfield.
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That preseason narrative about Chase being unable to locate the stripe-less NFL ball was clearly overblown, because he’s shredding defenses in his first month as a professional. Chase has already broken 10 receptions, catching 11 passes for 220 yards and four scores. Three of those end zone trips came in highlight-reel fashion, starting with a beauty of a connection between Chase and former LSU mate Joe Burrow in Week 1. In total, Chase has three catches on deep passes for 126 yards. All three have gone for touchdowns, making Chase the first rookie in the Next Gen Stats era (established in 2016) with a deep touchdown reception in three straight games. Defenses are quickly learning to respect No. 1 downfield.
Cooks landed on this list last year, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see him here, even if he’s returned by catching passes from two quarterbacks who are certainly not Deshaun Watson. Cooks remains a deep threat because of lightning quickness, speeding past a generous average cushion of 6.6 yards to catch four of his seven deep targets for 146 yards in his first three games. Targeting Cooks deep has proven to be a wise move for both Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills, as the two have enjoyed a combined passer rating of 101.8 when throwing in Cooks’ direction downfield. Houston hasn’t shied away from this approach, with Cooks tying with four other players for the most deep targets and with Lockett for most deep receptions. Though the Texans still face an uphill climb in 2021, Cooks has made the going a bit easier thanks to his effectiveness when it comes to making big plays.
We welcome the surprise selection to the top 10! Eagles fans will tell you Watkins’ performance isn’t shocking, but simply inevitable thanks to his top-end speed. The second-year receiver showed it off in the preseason and has carried it into the regular season, becoming the only player in the entire league with 50-plus receiving yards per target (66) on deep passes with more than one such target this season, per NGS. Watkins has caught both of his deep targets for an eye-popping 132 yards but has yet to reach the end zone. Just wait until he finishes these deep receptions — then we won’t be able to forget his name.
You don’t get the nickname Cheetah by being average in any area. Hill, as we all know by this point, is far from average. The Chiefs speedster is tops among all players in deep receiving touchdowns in a career with 27 since 2016, leading the next closest pass catcher by five deep touchdowns. He’s gotten there with his blinding speed and continues to push the limits of player tracking, reaching 20-plus miles per hour on four touches in 2021 — twice as many instances as the next closest wide receiver. Statistically, he’s on par with where he was around this time last year, catching three deep targets for 125 yards and a game-changing touchdown in Kansas City’s Week 1 win over Cleveland. The Chiefs’ high-flying offense simply wouldn’t be as dynamic if Kansas City didn’t have Hill, who will likely own a spot on this list for the majority of his career.
That new Rams offense is looking pretty good right now, isn’t it? Matthew Stafford hasn’t wasted much time in getting familiar with key pass catchers, and Kupp is benefitting. Kupp currently leads the NFL in receiving yards with 367 and receiving touchdowns with five, doing so in a variety of ways, but it’s intriguing (and exciting for Rams fans) to discover he’s also proving to be devastating downfield. Kupp, the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for September, has racked up 122 receiving yards on three deep receptions, helping Stafford post a perfect passer rating when targeting Kupp downfield. Kupp’s excellent route running has shined in this department, with the receiver creating an average of 8.8 yards of separation on deep targets and gaining 40.7 yards per deep target, leading the league in both categories. Simply put, Kupp is on fire, and that includes when he’s streaking downfield.
Ruggs, a first-round pick in 2020, didn’t produce much of a return on the investment as a rookie, but 2021 is shaping up to be a much different story. Selected for his rare explosiveness, Ruggs is using that to his advantage this season, getting himself open on 60 percent of his deep targets — the fourth-highest rate for any player with two or more deep receptions this season. It’s produced a dagger of a touchdown in a Week 2 win over Pittsburgh, and it also has Ruggs among the league leaders in receiving yards gained on deep targets at 121 on three receptions. Derek Carr’s passer rating is stellar when throwing the deep ball to Ruggs, currently standing at 143.8. And if his college tape at Alabama is any proof, Ruggs might just be getting started in a receiving corps that’s filled with capable pass catchers running routes for a team unafraid to let it fly.
Sometimes more of the same isn’t good, but it’s undoubtedly great for Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers proved that to be true when he needed to move the ball quickly to put the Packers in field goal range in Sunday night’s win over San Francisco, and he’ll be turning toward Adams plenty in the weeks (and maybe years?) ahead. So far this season, Adams has placed himself among the league’s top deep threats by catching three of his six deep targets for 106 yards, but there’s room for growth. Adams is the only player on this list whose quarterback doesn’t own a passer rating over 100 on deep throws when targeting them, but the respect he commands from opponents is more telling when it comes to his impact. No receiver sees more of a cushion on deep targets than Adams, who has been given an average of seven yards of space before he begins his deep route. It appears as if the Packers are just starting to get into a rhythm through the air, and Adams will certainly be a focal point going forward.
Carolina’s 2021 rejuvenation has drawn plenty of praise for Sam Darnold, but we should take a moment to applaud those catching his passes, starting with Moore. The fourth-year receiver has been dependable in traffic and downfield, catching contested passes better than anyone else on this list. His catch rate over expectation on deep targets is +39.8 percent, which leads the league among receivers with three or more deep receptions. His three catches for 82 yards on deep targets have helped Darnold post a passer rating of 116.7 when throwing downfield in his direction. The Panthers hope to keep this train rolling, and Moore will definitely be there to help fuel it.
The inclusion of two Raiders on this list is undoubtedly a product of the team’s desire to air it out in 2021. Derek Carr leads the league in passing yards (1,203) entering Week 4, and only Tom Brady has thrown more passes than Carr thus far. Enter Edwards, a second-year pass catcher who has 10 catches for 210 yards in his first three contests. When it comes to the deep ball, Edwards has used his blend of size and speed to make defenses pay, especially when they decide to get physical with him. Eighty percent of Edwards’ deep targets have come against press coverage, and he’s caught half of those four targets, gaining 66 yards. Of the 10 receivers on this list, no one has been given less of a cushion (just 2.9 yards per deep target) at the line than Edwards, but that hasn’t kept him from beating defenses deep.
ALSO CONSIDERED: Emmanuel Sanders, Buffalo Bills; Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos; Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers; DeSean Jackson, L.A. Rams.
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