Who Is the Best Young Wide Receiver?

Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) as the Tennessee Titans take the field before their game against the Baltimore Ravens to start in Nashville on January 10, 2021. Titans Ravens 049

In the last couple of years, we have gotten spoiled with the wide receiver talent that has entered the league. We have seen players like AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, Justin Jefferson, to name a few, who have caused an immediate impact on their teams. The 2021 class looks to add on this, with three receivers drafted in the top 12. With this many talented receivers entering the league, we’re witnessing a new generation of star receivers who will take the league by notice. The question is, who is the best one of them all? PFF tweeted out yesterday an answer of their own.

There are so many young receivers that it’s hard to go wrong with any choice. However, we can look at all of the options and see which one comes out on top for ourselves.

AJ Brown

The second-year star for the Tenessee Titans followed up his strong rookie season with another stellar season. Despite missing a couple of games early in the season with an injury, Brown still finished with 70 receptions for 1075 yards and 8 touchdowns on 106 targets. Brown did this despite Derrick Henry rushing for 2000 yards and another receiver, Corey Davis, finishing with 65 receptions for 984 yards on 92 targets. The Titans were a run-heavy offense, rushing on 51.8% of their snaps, making these numbers for Brown even more spectacular. After the season, it was revealed that he played most of the season with lingering injuries and needed surgery after the season ended. Brown is a star in the making, and the argument for him being the best young receiver right now is a valid one.

DK Metcalf

Another second-year player, Metcalf, has also been insanely good his first two seasons in the league. On a team with one of the best deep-ball throwers in the league in Russell Wilson, Metcalf’s abilities have been maximized, even with Tyler Lockett across from him. This past season, Metcalf caught 83 balls on 129 targets for 1303 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was a focal point on the Seahawks offense, which was electric the first half of the season. Unlike the Titans, the Seahawks were less of a run-first team, only rushing on 42.2% of their plays. Metcalf’s deep threat abilities allow him to be a home-run threat on every play, which defenses have to account for. And with Wilson as his quarterback, expect more of the same every year. 

Terry McLaurin

Over his first two seasons, all McLaurin has done is produce, despite having sub-optimal quarterback play. This season he had 134 targets, which he turned into 87 receptions for 1118 yards and 4 touchdowns. McLaurin did this despite the Washington Football Team having multiple quarterbacks start games. His route running abilities and yards after catch abilities allowed him to succeed, however, and put up the numbers that he did. McLaurin was also safe with the ball, only dropping three balls throughout the season. Compared to the others on this list, McLaurin is on the older side, turning 26 in September. Nonetheless, he is an emerging star in this league and will be in the conversation of best receivers every year. 

Justin Jefferson

Jefferson did not start the first two games of his rookie season, but he immediately showed off his special talent once he did. Week three against the Titans, Jefferson went for 7 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown on 9 targets. Jefferson continued this to finish the season with 88 receptions for 1400 yards and 7 touchdowns on 125 targets. These numbers were enough to break the rookie record for receiving yards in a season. Jefferson put up these numbers with his already elite route running abilities and a knack for yards after the catch. Like Brown, he was also on a run-first team, as Dalvin Cook rushed for 1557 yards. Jefferson also had to share targets with Adam Thielen, who was targeted 108 times and finished with 925 yards himself. After one season, Jefferson has already put the league on notice, and he will only get better. 

Final Verdict

All four of these receivers are incredible in their own right and will be dominating the league in a few years. There are also others, such as Brandon Aiyuk, CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, Tee Higgins, and many others, who also are young and talented. However, as of right now, the choice is between AJ Brown and Justin Jefferson. Both Brown and Jefferson tied for 2nd among receivers per PFF, with a 90.4 grade. They both also landed in the top three for yards per route run, per PFF. Jefferson had a 1.6% drop rate compared to Brown’s 4.7%, but Brown had 5.4 receptions per broken tackle compared to Jefferson’s 9.8. Both Brown and Jefferson were also in the top three for receivers in YAC over expectation per Next Gen Stats. Both are great receivers, and you cannot go wrong by picking either. 

Brown and Jefferson are both very similar per these statistics, and as of right now, they are for sure the top two young receivers in the game. However, Jefferson will only be 22 going into the 2021 season, while Brown will be 24. Because of that, if we had to pick between the two, Jefferson would be the choice. Brown does have a higher passer rating when targeted, with an over 126 rating both seasons. Jefferson had a 112.1 passer rating when targeted last season. Jefferson, on the contrary, is the better receiver against press coverage, as a tweet from Austin Gayle shows.

It’s a close decision, but Jefferson’s age and route running are what eventually sets him apart in this decision. Expect both Brown and Jefferson to dominate the league over the next decade, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all if, by the end of their careers, Brown does outproduce Jefferson.