Who Will Lead the NFL in Receiving Yards in 2021?

Who Will Lead the NFL in Receiving Yards in 2021? article feature image
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Hannah Foslien / Getty Images. Pictured: Justin Jefferson

Who will lead the NFL in receiving yards in 2021?

Of all the major season stat leader awards, the books think this race is the most wide open. That means lots of longer odds and plenty of upside for bettors if we can make the right ride, so let’s sort through the top options on the list and see if we can narrow things down and find a winning position.

We’ll consider a few “favorites” first, then run through all the other names of note. Let’s start by ruling out some names that can’t win or aren’t worth betting at their number, then take a look at a few interesting long shots and playable picks before identifying our Receiving Yards best bets.

Be sure to check out the other season leader bets if you haven’t already:

Note: I’ve included the best odds available for each player at either DraftKings, FanDuel, or BetMGM at the time of publishing on September 1.

Sizing Up the Favorites

Normally on a season leader prop, there’s at least one favorite at +500 or shorter, so our first decision is whether or not to bet the name at the top.

In this case, there’s no singular favorite. At most books, there’s no name with shorter odds than +1000. DeAndre Hopkins, Stefon Diggs, Calvin Ridley, Davante Adams, and Tyreek Hill top the list at most books, but there’s not one specific favorite to make a decision for or against.

Diggs led the league last year with 1535 yards, and every season leader since 2006 has recorded at least 1448 yards. In fact, seven of the last 10 season leaders had at least 1646 yards — and that was in only 16 games. With the extra game, we surely need any candidate to get to 1500 yards to even enter the conversation. Let’s rule out some key names who can’t even get there.

Guys Who Probably Can’t Win

Davante Adams (+1300 FanDuel)

As great as Adams is, yardage has never been his specialty. The Packers are another team with a volume problem. Green Bay is one of the league’s slower teams and also runs the ball a lot. Aaron Rodgers ranked only 24th in pass attempts last year — he was just insanely efficient when he did throw.

Adams hasn’t made it through a full season healthy in any of the past four years, missing two, one, four, and two games. This Packers receiving corps is a bit deeper too, which should mean a decreased target share for Adams. He also caught 77% of his targets last year, a huge leap from his more typical 65%.

Adams isn’t a huge volume guy, and he usually averages only around 12 yards per catch. The TD production is awesome, but there are too many limiting factors when it comes to yardage. He will fall far short of 1500 yards.

Calvin Ridley (+1000 FanDuel)

Ridley has been one of the most popular picks on this award. After being a sleeper earlier this year, he’s now a co-favorite at most books, now that Julio Jones has been traded and Ridley looks ready to be The Guy in this offense.

That may be an overreaction, though. Jones was not much of an impact player a year ago anyway. He had only 51 catches and three TDs and missed nearly half the season, so Ridley was already playing as the WR1. He had 90 catches for 1374 yards and racked up 143 targets in 15 games, already by far highest on the team. He had a huge 15.3 YPC, which should regress.

But the biggest problem is volume. Ridley will have a huge target share on this offense, but he’s getting a big piece of what might be a small pie. New Falcons coach Arthur Smith comes over from the Titans, who threw the third fewest passes in the NFL last year —  just 485.

Matt Ryan, on the other hand, led the league with 626 attempts. That’s a whopping 8.8 fewer passes per game. And while the Falcons don’t exactly have Derrick Henry, Smith will feature the run, and that limits Ridley’s volume too much. Add in the YPC drop and Ridley may top out under 100 receptions and short of last year’s yardage total.

A.J. Brown (+1600 BetMGM)
Julio Jones (+2400 FanDuel)

While Ridley’s volume may be suppressed by the addition of Arthur Smith, Smith’s old team in Tennessee could still be a volume problem too. The Titans may not pass quite as rarely as they did a year ago but are still running mostly the same offense. Ryan Tannehill averaged only 30 throws a game last season, and it’s tough to put up a huge yard totals when some QBs are hitting 40.

The limited volume along with a decrease in efficiency without Smith should leave this offense under 4000 passing yards. And while Julio Jones is an awesome talent, his addition to this team may just end up cannibalizing A.J. Brown and leaving them both outside the mix here.

Last year, Brown had 1075 yards while Corey Davis had 984. Jones replaces Davis, but both of those lines are a far cry from competing here, so it would probably take a major injury blowing up this receiving corps to free up the other guy to compete — and even then the volume probably leaves a glass ceiling.

They Could Win, But the Odds Are Not in Our Favor

Stefon Diggs (+850 DraftKings)

Diggs is the reigning yardage king, so he can obviously win this, but you should know that only Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson have gone back-to-back as yardage leaders since the great Jerry Rice led the league from 1993 to 1995.

Diggs is coming off an absolutely monster season, his debut year in Buffalo, in which he led the NFL in both receptions and yardage at 127 for 1535. He did that on 166 targets and saw his volume leap from a career 66 yards per game in Minnesota to 96 per game last year.

While Diggs did catch some deep balls, his 12.1 YPC is nothing special and makes it clear that this was simply a volume win. That is, those 127 catches are what led to the yardage win.

Last year was also the first totally healthy year for Diggs as a pro. It’s a concern that he pretty much always misses a game or two, and Buffalo also added Emmanuel Sanders, another receiver who’s great against man coverage, so that could water down Diggs’ target share a bit.

If everything goes right again, Diggs could top even last year’s total, but it’s just not smart to bet on history to beat itself in this award. With production so volatile, +850 isn’t worth it.

DeAndre Hopkins (+1300 FanDuel)

Volume certainly won’t be the problem with Hopkins. He’s had 150 or more targets in six straight seasons and consistently hits double-digit targets per game over his career. Arizona plays at one of the fastest paces in the league, so there will be plenty of passing attempts.

Not all targets are created equal, though. This Kliff Kingsbury offense is in love with bubble screens and curls, force feeding the ball Nuk’s way at the cost of efficiency, and you see it in the numbers.

His YPC has dropped from 13.6 in Houston to 12.2 in Arizona, and his catch rate has leapt from 60 to almost 72% with the Cards. That’s what happens when your route tree profile changes drastically, but it doesn’t necessarily mean good things.

The targets and volume will be there for Hopkins, but some of these targets just aren’t as valuable as they seem. And while Larry Fitzgerald has finally retired and vacated his targets, A.J. Green should soak up many of those.

Hopkins will top 100 receptions easily if he stays healthy, but the YPC is a problem. If he tops out around 12.0 YPC, he needs 125 catches just to get into this conversation at 1500 yards. Totally doable, but not worth our action.

DK Metcalf (+1400 DraftKings)

Which version of this Seahawks offense is real? Over the first eight games last season, Seattle let Russ cook, and Wilson had a monster first half with 2451 yards and 28 TDs. But defenses adjusted to take away the deep ball, and Wilson dropped to 1671 yards and 12 TDs over the final eight games.

Naturally, DK Metcalf’s numbers aligned accordingly. He had 43 catches for 788 yards and 8 TDs the first eight games, an awesome 18.3 YPC. The volume was still there in the second half at 40 catches, but he dropped to 515 yards, plummeting to 12.9 YPC.

Metcalf isn’t likely to top this group in receptions, so he needs to connect on those long balls at a high YPC to put up a huge number. Maybe things change under new OC Shane Waldron, but right now we need to see the return of the DK deep ball before he’s worth our investment.

Travis Kelce (+1500 BetMGM)

Kelce is a beast, and he’s been a beacon of consistency over the last three years with Patrick Mahomes. He had 103-1336-10 in 2018, 97-1229-5 the following season, and 105-1416-11 last year. Kelce is awesome, and there’s a reason he’s going first round in your fantasy draft now. Any tight end you can just pencil  in for 100 catches, 1300 yards, and double digit TDs is insane.

The problem is we’re looking for outlier production, not consistency. The Chiefs offense has already ranked near the top of the universe these last three seasons, and the passing volume was already high.

Kelce is already putting up a huge YPC for a tight end and racking up monster targets. He’s not the right Chief to bet on, and unless Tyreek Hill misses a long stretch of time, Kelce will have to settle for continuing to be awesomely consistent.

Keenan Allen (+2000 BetMGM)

We don’t really know what Allen will look like in this new Joe Lombardi offense, because we don’t know if Justin Herbert will take another step forward, or if the Chargers will still rank near the top of the league in passing attempts. Drew Brees used to be a volume monster under Lombardi, but the Saints became a more balanced and even run-centric attack under him more recently.

That makes it difficult to know what to expect right now from the Chargers. Allen has had a huge target share in the past and could be a threat to get to 120 or more catches, but even if the volume remains, it won’t be enough unless the role changes.

Allen’s YPC has fallen each of the last three seasons, and he was under 10 for the first time in his career with Herbert last year. All the targets in the world won’t get you to 1500 yards at that pace.

Longshots Worth a Sprinkle

Tee Higgins (+6000 PointsBet)

If you want to get wild, Tee Higgins could be an intriguing sleeper. Higgins quietly had a great rookie year with 67 catches for 908 yards and 6 TDs, though he was better the second half of the year once Joe Burrow was already out injured. That’s not necessarily an indictment of the connection as much as it showed Higgins taking a bit to settle in but quickly taking the WR1 mantle.

That’s no small feat with A.J. Green still around. Green is gone now, and Ja’Marr Chase may not just settle in at WR1 as good as Higgins looks in this offense. Burrow actually led the league in pass attempts as a rookie before getting injured, so this offense could have a ton of passing volume.

Chase and Tyler Boyd could mean all three cannibalize each other a bit, but Chase hasn’t looked great thus far and may take some time to adjust after not playing at all a year ago. Higgins was over 13.5 YPC and getting 8-9 targets a game even while Cincinnati passed less frequently while Burrow was out. He has 1500-yard upside.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (+20000 PointsBet)

Is this crazy? It’s probably crazy. Here’s another WR who’s part of a talented trio, and that could scare bettors away. But is it possible JuJu Smith-Schuster is still the best receiver on this team?

Diontae Johnson was a targets monster last season but didn’t have a good catch rate and struggled badly with drops all year. That’s a good way to fall out of favor quickly, especially when there are other talented options.

Chase Claypool closed the year strong but had a miserable 57% catch rate. Neither of those guys have anything like the year JuJu had in 2018 when he put up 111 catches for 1426 yards on 166 targets.

Pittsburgh led the league in passing attempts last season, and Ben Roethlisberger has been a big volume guy late in his career. What if he and JuJu revive their connection, or what if new OC Matt Canada chooses to feature Smith-Schuster in the offense?

He’s had huge numbers in the past and might be fighting for his career at this point after falling off, so if he bounces back, he could really bounce. This one could easily be D.O.A., but at 200-1, we just need the tiniest sign of life to take a shot.

Playable If You Believe

Tyreek Hill (+1200 FanDuel)

If you’re going to bet on a Chief, Tyreek Hill is the more likely winner. You know Mahomes will throw a ton, and Kansas City lost Sammy Watkins and Damien Williams this year so Hill might see even more of a target share.

Cheetah is not like any other receiver in the NFL. He’ll catch a one-yard bubble screen on one play, then run a 75-yard bomb the next, but he can always bust that bubble screen for a score too. If you bet on Hill, you’re betting on him to pile up enough of those game-breaking plays to put you over the top.

Tyreek had a career-best 1479 yards in 2018, his first season with Mahomes, which is also his only fully healthy season. The moderate injury risk combined with the way Hill goes missing for stretches when the defense schemes him away make this too risky a play at +1200. But a healthy Hill in the league’s best offense could probably name his yardage total, so the upside is clearly there.

Amari Cooper (+1900 FanDuel)

It’s always impossible to know what to expect from the Cowboys, but the upside on this offense is alarming. Dallas played at the league’s fastest pace last season, and Dak Prescott looked set to obliterate the record books before his injury. Through four games, he was on pace for 6760 yards and 46 TDs and over 50 pass attempts and 422 yards per game.

Amari Cooper had a huge start in those four healthy Dak games. He caught 37 balls for 401 yards, a pace of 148 catches and 1604 yards, both of which would’ve led the league. That would’ve been one catch short of the NFL record, and his 204-target pace would presumably have been a record too.

Obviously we can’t expect that pace, but Cooper has a healthy 69% catch rate in Dallas with a career 13.8 YPC, so there’s big upside here. If he gets 150 targets, that could mean 100+ catches for over 1300 yards. If he gets to 175 targets, that could get him to 120 catches, 1600 yards, and a yardage crown.

Amari Cooper can just win this. There’s just one problem — he might not even be the best receiver bet on his own team.

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Best Bets

CeeDee Lamb (+2600 FanDuel)

Lamb was the best playmaker in the 2020 draft, and everyone’s raving about him as he steps into his sophomore season. He could be ready to take over the WR1 mantle in Dallas. Lamb had a big start with Prescott last year his first few games as a pro, piling up 433 yards in five games, a 1386-yard pace.

He finished with 74 catches for 935 yards, his pace slowing significantly once he didn’t have a real QB to throw him the ball. But Lamb had an impressive 72% catch rate and already looks elite with the ball after the catch, so he’s a guy who can break some long ones. He averaged 14.9 YPC with Dak before dropping to just 11.2 without him.

And in the end, this is a volume play. If Lamb is really as good as the rave reviews, it could be he, not Cooper, who grabs 150 or 175 targets. Lamb is younger and unproven, but the high-end upside is jaw-dropping, maybe something in the range of 175 targets, 120 catches, and 1700 yards. At 26-1, that makes CeeDee Lamb must-play and the better of the two Dallas options.

Terry McLaurin (+2000 BetMGM)

We’ll stay in the division for our second best bet. Terry McLaurin is ready for a breakout campaign, and he actually has a QB now. Last season, McLaurin was catching passes from Uncle Rico and your neighbor down the street but still managed to snag 87 passes for 1118 yards. His efficiency fell off though, his catch rate down and his YPC dropping from 15.8 as a rookie to 12.8 last year.

Ryan Fitzpatrick could be just what the doctor ordered. OC Scotty Turner loves to air it out aggressively, and that’s music to Fitzmagic’s ears. He’s a turnover king but also loves to throw deep and go for the big play, and that gives McLaurin huge upside.

He could bounce back to 15 YPC with Fitz and should see significantly more volume with a better quarterback and, frankly, and offense that doesn’t go right back off the field after three plays.

McLaurin should clear 150 targets with ease if he stays healthy. He could hit triple-digit receptions, and if he does that and also sees his YPC bounce back in this aggressive downfield attack, he could be a surprise yardage leader.

Justin Jefferson (+1400 FanDuel)

Jefferson was awesome last season, with 88 catches for 1400 yards as a rookie, but he actually started slow. Over the back half, Jefferson averaged double-digit targets and racked up 54 catches for 773 yards, a 1546-yard pace.

What’s wild is that Minnesota barely even passed the ball. The Vikings ranked 27th in pass attempts, hiding Kirk Cousins and focusing on the run game. That probably won’t change drastically, but it shows latent upside since an increase in passing volume can only help Jefferson’s numbers, especially in a division with Chicago and Detroit, two of the three worst sets of corners in the NFL.

Jefferson had a 70% catch rate, fantastic for any rookie but especially on so much volume, and he should get a huge target share. Adam Thielen has slipped the last couple years, and the Vikings don’t really have a WR3, plus starting TE Irv Smith is out injured.

Jefferson could clear 175 targets, even on a run-based team, and that’s another volume out — Dalvin Cook has always been injury prone, and his absence could also lead to more passing.

If Jefferson approaches that sort of target level, he could surpass 120 catches. It’s not fair to expect him to match his 15.9 YPC, and that number dropped as his volume increased, but he was still at 14.3 YPC over the final eight games.

That could mean 100 yards a game, over 1700 yards over a full season, and that could go even higher if Jefferson’s YPC doesn’t drop or if Minnesota starts passing more often. He has a different level of upside than anyone else in the league right now.

Receiving Yards Verdict

Place your biggest bet on Justin Jefferson at +1400, but add to your position with CeeDee Lamb +2600 and Terry McLaurin +2000.

And don’t be afraid to sprinkle a little on a couple longshots: Tee Higgins +6000 and JuJu Smith-Schuster +20000.

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