Team of the Decade: Wide Receivers
With the NFL Draft over and the 2019 season fading into the past it is time to take stock of the last decade of NFL action with The Touchdown’s Team of the Decade. This team will be based on a statistical analysis of the past 10 years, looking back at how each player performed overall and on a per game basis. In order to make this a true representative of the decade, only players who have played in 40 regular-season games (a quarter of the decade) will be included, with that being 40 games started for the quarterback position.
In this second article we will be looking at the wide receiver position, which has been a truly evolving position over the last decade, stretching the bounds of athleticism and possibilities. The stats in this article will be from the regular-season only, unless specifically stated. We will be looking to select five wide receivers for our Team of the Decade, so let’s get down to business.
It is inevitable that some very good receivers are going to be missed out here. The last decade has seen so wonderful players grace the field of the NFL. However, the 13 names in this article are the ones that stand out when it comes to the numbers.
The story of Edelman is one of the true underdog stories of this decade. Drafted in the seventh round in 2009 as a quarterback out of Kent State, Edelman has racked up 848 targets, 562 receptions, 6148 yards and 35 touchdowns in the decade. Those numbers do not blow you away, but Edelman is the only receiver to have won a Super Bowl MVP in the past decade, as well as making crucial plays in two other Super Bowl victories.
The initial reaction to Fitzgerald being just an honourable mention is likely shock. However, his best years did not come in this decade. Longevity wise he is hard to ignore, having played in 158 of 160 regular-season games and leading the position in targets. Unfortunately, on a per game basis he just does not stack up with the other names in this article, ranking 31st in yards per game, 34th in touchdowns per game and 42nd in catch percentage.
Putting Evans here was the toughest call of the article. Evans ranks sixth in yards per game and has eclipsed 1000 receiving yards in every season of his career. However, he ranks a lowly 21st in yards per target and 78th in catch percentage. Those numbers are simply too low in combination for a player to be in true consideration for our Team of the Decade.
If you were the safety blanket for two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time then you deserve a mention in this article. In 2011 and 2012 Welker was targeted a whopping 347 times by Tom Brady, before seeing a further 111 targets in just 13 games with Peyton Manning in 2013. His numbers do not blow you away and his career faded away badly at the end, but Welker is arguably the man who shaped the role of the slot receiver in this decade and that deserves recognition.
A.J. Green - Cincinnati Bengals
Despite the injury prone tag, Green has played in 111 games this decade, including at least 15 games in four of his eight seasons. His dominance on the field is in his ability to find the end zone, as he ranks 5th in the decade when it comes to touchdowns per game (0.57). Green is also one of just seven players to have over 1000 targets in the decade, which is an impressive feat in longevity.
In terms of yards per game he is up there with the best (seventh) but his downfall comes when we look at his yardage totals on a per reception and per catch basis. He ranks 19th in yards per reception and 21st in yards per target, with a catch percentage under 60. However, when we look at Pro Football Reference’s approximate value metric, Green ranks an impressive sixth, surrounded by names you will find further down on this list.
Antonio Brown - Pittsburgh Steelers
Before his career took a downward spiral in 2019, Brown was generally considered one of the most dominant receivers in the NFL. Ranking second at the position in targets, Brown was a focal point of the Steelers offense throughout the decade, and it is testament to his ability to go and get the ball that he also ranks second in receptions per game.
In terms of yards per game, Brown ranks fifth, which is supplemented by a fourth ranking in touchdowns per game. On top of that he is the only receiver to have four First-Team All-Pro selections in the decade and ranks joint-fourth in approximate value per game. With seven 1000-receiving yard seasons in the decade, Brown is going to be a hard player to leave out of our Team of the Decade starting lineup.
Calvin Johnson - Detroit Lions
The man that the Detroit Lions ineptness robbed from us far too early. Calvin Johnson’s retirement at 30 years old in 2015 perhaps shook the NFL world as much as anyone not named Andrew Luck. Simply point to a category and you will find Johnson’s name near the top.
He ranked top at the position in targets per game and touchdowns per game. He was then in top 10 at the position in receptions per game, yards per reception, yards per game and approximate value per game. Perhaps the only knock was that he only pulled in 57.7% of his targets as reception. However, given the way he dominated elsewhere and his role in the Lions offense, that is a small negative in a great decade that saw him top 1000-receiving yards in every year he played.
DeAndre Hopkins - Houston Texans
Hopkins was an incredible borderline call because his numbers in certain areas are not that great. However, when you put into context some of the quarterbacks he played with in his career then it is understandable why he struggled to rank highly in some areas.
Hopkins has been one of the most targeted receivers of the decade, ranking seventh in targets per game including a massive 192 targets in 2015. In terms of touchdowns per game he ranks 12th, but is a relatively lowly 16th in approximate value per game. He just gets the nod as a full nomination over Mike Evans, but that is as far as his path will go in this Team of the Decade.
Dez Bryant - Dallas Cowboys
Bryant is another controversial figure here as while his career had some impressive highs, the longevity of those highs is not that great. With just three seasons over 1000 receiving yards it falls to the touchdowns to make Bryant’s case for him. In terms of touchdowns per game he ranks second, behind just Calvin Johnson.
Beyond that Bryant’s case is relatively weak, as he ranks just 21st in targets per game, 25th in receptions per game, 32nd in yards per reception and 15th in approximate value per game. This is a simply a nod to one of the best touchdown scorers at the wide receiver position, but in this elite company you need to be much more than that.
Julio Jones - Atlanta Falcons
If you were going to pick any receiver to put up against Calvin Johnson as the best of the decade, Jones would be that guy. Jones has played in 126 games in the last decade and ranks third in both targets and receptions per game. He may sit just 27th in catch percentage, but for someone with so many targets and whose role is a relatively deep one, that is a very impressive number.
On a yards per reception basis he is an impressive 13th, which translates to leading the position in yards per game. His biggest knock is arguably his ability to find the end zone as he ranks just 17th in touchdowns per game. However, with the second highest approximate value per game of the decade, he is deservedly in the discussion for not only the Team of the Decade but the top spot on our depth chart.
Michael Thomas - New Orleans Saints
When you lead your position in catch percentage, which has the main focus of catching the ball, you immediately deserve recognition for any Team of the Decade. When you lead it by close to seven percent while averaging the sixth most targets per game at the position you are almost locked in.
On a per game basis, Thomas ranks third at the position in yards, 10th in touchdowns and first in approximate value. Quite simply there is no safer pair of hands in the game, but Thomas is also a play maker to go with that safety. Right now he is arguably the best receiver in the entire game, which when paired with an offense like the Saints have in New Orleans is a scary and impressive thing to watch. That has been reflected in his two First-Team All-Pro selections in just four seasons in the league.
Odell Beckham - New York Giants/Cleveland Browns
Beckham is the only player on this list whose team essentially gave up on him in his prime, which is a concern. However, he is undoubtedly talented, and his teams are not afraid to throw him the ball, as demonstrated by his second overall rank in targets per game and fourth-placed ranking in receptions per game.
Additionally, he ranks fourth in yards per game and third in touchdowns per game, demonstrating he is a do-it-all type threat at the position. Among the best at the position he ranks seventh in approximate value per game and has some highlight catches that even put the other greats on this list to shame.
Tyreek Hill - Kansas City Chiefs
Hill deserves recognition on this list for the way he has taken over the NFL in the past couple of season. Hill has electrifying speed and has used that to devastating effect. On a per target basis he ranks second in the league, meaning that despite receiving just 7.57 targets per game on average he still ranks 13th in yards per game.
When it comes to finding the end zone he is also devastating, ranking seventh at the position, despite relatively small stature. Despite only being in the league four years he has been selected to the All-Pro First-Team twice and ranks third in the decade in approximate value per game.
Wide Receiver Selections for The Touchdown’s Team of the Decade:
Starters: Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Michael Thomas
Backups: Tyreek Hill, Antonio Brown
The top five was actually a very simple decision in the end with only Odell Beckham coming close to cracking it. Ultimately, these five receivers have at one point or another been considered one of the two most dominant receivers of the decade.
Jones gets the nod at the top of the depth chart for longevity and Michael Thomas slots in third as the more possession type receiver. Tyreek Hill’s incredible speed makes him impossible to ignore and with one or two more years in the league he could even have supplanted Calvin Johnson statistically.
Head of NFL Content
BEN IS THE HEAD OF NFL CONTENT FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. YOU CAN ALSO FIND HIS WORK AT; ODDSCHECKER US, ACTION NETWORK, PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK & ROTOBALLER. FOLLOW BEN @BENROLFE15 ON TWITTER.
Image credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports, Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports, David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports, Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports & Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports