The Myth of the “#1 WR” in Modern NFL Offense

Dan Essien takes a look at what the true value of a #1 wide receiver is and if the Jets need one as bad as many think.

The concept of a “true #1 wide receiver” has been around for a while. It’s one of those buzzword categories we usually tack into every team’s checklist, similar to “shutdown corner.” But with the current direction of offenses in the NFL, it’s worth re-examining what the value of a “#1  wide receiver” really is now. To do so, let’s look at the top scoring offenses in the NFL and what role a true #1 receiver does or does not play. Then we’ll examine where the Jets situation on offense stacks up.

Defintion

So what is a true #1 wide receiver? Traditionally, the first thought is a player with all the key facets of the position. They have reliable hands, they’re a red zone threat, they can take the top off of a defense, and they can make plays after the catch. These attributes usually lead us to look first at the physical aspects. In the past, the first players that typically come to mind are receivers like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Calvin Johnson, prime Larry Fitzgerald, etc. Those were all players that were physical rarities first and then combined that hard work to reach a hall of fame level.

However, not every dominant receiver is elite when it comes to size and speed. I discussed the paradox of this last season with Joe Caporoso on an episode of Buck The Trend titled “Freaks vs. Geeks.” There’s guys like, Jerry Rice, and Marvin Harrison who weren’t exactly elite athletically but were dominant route runners and always got themselves open no matter what.  Although not many receivers without eye opening physical abilities produce enough to make the hall of fame, many of them significantly contribute to successful NFL offenses. That’s especially true today.

In the modern NFL, our true number ones are players like Deandre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas, etc. They’re all go-to players that can carry their respective offenses. Their individual talent is unquestionable. It makes sense to want players like that. This piece will not be about convincing you that they’re not desirable. Instead the question becomes: does every team need one?

Statistical Overview

As always, we’ll approach this from the perspective of team success. After all, the goal is to make the postseason and to win Super Bowls.  So, first, let’s take a bird’s eye view from a statistical perspective. Of the players that finished in the top 10 in receiving yards, only 3 playoff teams were represented: Chiefs with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce (we’ll discuss this later), Texans with DeAndre Hopkins, and the Saints with Michael Thomas. Of the top 10 scoring offenses in the NFL, 4 of them had what we would consider a traditional #1 wide reciever: Saints (Michael Thomas), Steelers (Antonio Brown), Chargers (Keenan Allen), Falcons (Julio Jones). At the same time, in the bottom 10 scoring offenses in the NFL, only the Cardinals have a receiver that could even come close to being considered a true #1 wide receiver and he’s 35 years old (Larry Fitzgerald).

Having a true #1 wide receiver is a clear benefit but even in today’s pass heavy NFL, there are offenses succeeding without one. So what is its true value? Let’s examine some of the best offenses in the NFL and how they’ve succeeded without a true #1 receiver.

Succeeding without a #1

In the modern NFL, its not as easy to find opportunities to isolate your star wide receivers and have them make plays. There are better athletes on defense and better game-plans to take away specific players. You have to be more strategic, and you have to have balance at your skill positions to make the most out of your offense. This is true of the offenses that are succeeding without a traditional #1 wide receiver. The skillset that can be found in just one star receiver can be just as, if not more, effective spread out through multiple players.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs have turned Tyreek Hill into a star wide receiver but make no mistake: he’s not a traditional #1 receiver. He’s a deep threat with incredible ability after the catch, and he’s added more complete route running ability to his game. But, on most other teams, his full potential wouldn’t have been realized. On some other teams, he’d be wasted at running back or as a return specialist at 5’10” 185 lbs. The key to his effectiveness and the overall success of the Chiefs offense (before Mahomes and now with him) has been the strategic usage of players’ strengths to attack multiple levels of the field.

The Chiefs have a balanced attack. It centers around the deep threat of Hill, the short/intermediate and red zone threat of Travis Kelce, and pass catching/YAC ability from the backfield that they had with Kareem Hunt before Damian Williams transitioned into that role. The supporting receivers, like Sammy Watkins or Chris Conley (853 yards, 8 TD’s combined last season), augmented the offense with their ability to make impact plays on occasion. This type of balanced offense succeeded with Alex Smith in 2017 and then exploded with Pat Mahomes last season in 2018.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts had a similar situation last season. They finally got Andrew Luck back to full health but many wondered if they had enough around him offense. The Colts answered that question with an emphatic yes. They were the 5th best scoring offense in the NFL. So how’d they do it?

They had the deep threat receiver in T.Y Hilton, who has also rounded out his game to threat at all levels of the field (sound familiar?). They also had Eric Ebron threatening in the short/intermediate/redzone (13 TD’s) and a running back that was effective catching passes out of the backfield in Nyheim Hines. Around them they had reliable supporting contributions from Chester Rogers, Dontrelle Inman, and Ryan Grant (1123 yards and 6 TD’s combined). Their diversified attack also saw them finish the season as the best 3rd down offense in the NFL last year.

Los Angeles Rams

The easy cop-out for the Rams is to just say they have Sean McVay and end the conversation. But there’s still a string of consistency with how they’ve succeeded on offense without a true #1 receiver and the other teams I’ve mentioned. The Rams have the deep threat with Brandon Cooks. They have Todd Gurley who not only is effective on the ground but has also been over 50 catches the last two seasons. The biggest difference is with their intermediate and red zone threats. Instead of a star tight end, for that they have Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Woods and Kupp aren’t physical phenomenons. They’re the type of receivers we mentioned before, who can always get open, no matter what. The type of receivers that we constantly overlook. They both had a team-high 6 receiving touchdowns and Kupp only played in 8 games.

In support, they have Josh Reynolds and Gerald Everett who combined for 722 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns last season. As a whole, the Rams had the 2nd best scoring offense in the NFL.

New England Patriots

Yes, I’m aware this is team Tom Brady plays for. But even they fit the model with the rest of these teams in how they generated their offense without a true #1. Last season their deep threat was Josh Gordon for most of the season. They had Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman in the short, intermediate and red zone passing game (9 touchdowns combined). They also had James White catching 87 passes out of the backfield for 751 yards and 7 touchdowns. Again, like the others, their supporting cast was reliable. Chris Hogan, Cordarelle Patterson, and Phillip Dorset combined for 1069 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns. They had the 4th best scoring offense in the NFL.

It’s also notable that after losing Gronkowski to retirement, they didn’t rush to get another impact tight end. Perhaps they noticed how the Rams generated that same middle of the field and red zone value with Woods and Kupp and decided to do the same. Goff had 5 more redzone touchdown passes than Brady last season, and had a higher redzone completion percentage (58% vs 55%).

Elevate not Regulate

In recent years, the offenses that fail with #1 wide receivers are those that solely dependent on them. A.J Green and Odell Beckham Jr. have put up great numbers with the Bengals and Giants respectively. However, that hasn’t consistently resulted in team success. The Bengals offense has only finished in the top 10 in scoring 2 times in A.J Green’s 8 NFL seasons. The Giants only had 1 top 10 finish with Odell Beckham Jr. from 2014-2018. Quarterback play is a huge factor in these cases but it’s also about over-reliance, and lack of effective balance. The Bengals were 1-6 without A.J Green last season. The Giants offense finished 31st in 2017 when OBJ only played 4 games before beyond lost to injury.

The best value for a #1 wide receiver is to elevate an offense that could still be somewhat potent without one. The Saints are one of the best example of an offense performing at its peak  with a true #1 receiver (3rd best scoring offense in 2018). Michael Thomas led the NFL in targets, but despite that, in the 4 games in which Thomas had  4 or fewer catches, they were 4-0. Their offense is strong enough to succeed whether defenses successfully scheme him out of the game or not. What makes them click is similar to the previous successful teams we went through that don’t have a #1. It’s all about balance and the ability to attack defenses at multiple levels. Despite Michael Thomas’ monster season, they were actually ranked higher as a rushing team than passing. On top of that, Kamara caught 81 passes out of the backfield.

New York Jets

So how do the Jets stack up? Many aren’t very high on the Jets’ collection of receivers. But given the examples of teams that are succeeding without a #1, let’s take a closer look at the Jets current situation on offense.

The Jets have their deep threat with Robby Anderson. He’s also been rounding out the rest of his route tree to threaten at other levels of the field. His game by game production needs to improve to be as effective as someone like Brandin Cooks in this role, though. The Jets could also improve their usage of him from last season. Josh Gordon had a higher catches per game average than Anderson last season on fewer targets per game. Gordon also had only 32 fewer yards receiving despite playing in 3 fewer games and having 26 fewer targets. The Jets need to keep Anderson involved to get the most out of his role.

The Jets also now have the ability to support their passing attack from the backfield, particularly with Le’Veon Bell. He’s a better overall than many of the other running backs we previously mentioned. Bell has already had 3 seasons with 75 catches or more in the NFL. He’s also not just a dump off pass catcher. He’s an adept route runner who excels with option and wheel routes (specialties of Alvin Kamara as well) out of the backfield but also can split out wide and take advantages of mismatches.

The Jets also have their short, intermediate and red zone targets with Quincy Enunwa, Jamison Crowder, and Chris Herndon. It’s easy to forget how good Enunwa was in 2016 with all the injuries that followed. But he finished 2016 averaging nearly 15 yards per catch. He also reminded us last season how good he is after the catch. The Jets need a full season out of him in 2019. Enunwa is a unique weapon in the Jets’ offense.

Jamison Crowder has had two seasons over 750 yards receiving, so he’s not unfamiliar with a significant role from the slot. He already seems to have developed good chemistry with Darnold. Herndon’s development was one the most exciting stories last season. He averaged nearly 13 yards a catch, with a 70% catch rate per target. Unfortunately, the Jets are likely to be without Herndon for the first 4 games of the season so they’ll have to get a bit more creative, particularly in the red zone. Thankfully a player like Enunwa can compensate for the physical presence needed.

Where the Jets could struggle is with their supporting cast. They’re going to need the occasional significant contribution from a player or two behind Crowder. Whether it’s Deontay Burnett, Deonte Thompson, and Josh Bellamy, or a camp surprise, the 4th and 5th wide receiver spots should not just be giveaways. They need reliable depth. That goes for Ty Montgomery and Bilal Powell as well, behind Le’Veon Bell.

All things considered, I believe the Jets are closer to a potent offense than many would assume. The biggest difference between their offense and some of the best in the NFL in recent seasons has not been the presence of a true #1 wide receiver but more-so the ability to effectively attack the defense with legitimate offensive weapons from multiple levels. The qualities of a #1 divided into separate effective roles is a very achievable direction for the Jets right now with the additions they made in the offseason. The question now is: can Gase put all the pieces together and can Darnold take a Goff-like step forward in year 2?