NFL News & Analysis

NFL’s 10 highest-graded wide receivers against zone coverage: Vikings’ Justin Jefferson and Raiders’ Davante Adams make two of the top three

2KE2466 Landover, MD, USA. 6th Nov, 2022. Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) walks from the huddle during the NFL game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington Commanders in Landover, MD. Reggie Hildred/CSM/Alamy Live News

  • Tyreek Hill leads the way: The speedy receiver led the league with an outstanding 3.57 yards per route run when facing zone coverage, and no other player even cracked 3.00.
  • Justin Jefferson not far behind: The former first-rounder joins Hill as the only two wide receivers with more than 90.0 receiving grade when facing zone coverage.
  • Davante Adams culminates top three: He got it done more against zone coverage, however, as 107 of his targets came against that coverage with just 33 targets coming against man coverage.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

To be a successful wide receiver in today’s NFL, players have to have a good understanding of zone coverage and how to get open against it. Man coverage is not as in-vogue as it used to be, as teams are playing more zone coverage to attempt to muddy the picture for offenses. In this article, we used PFF's premium stats to identify our top 10 receiving grades when facing zone coverage last season.

1. Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins

Receiving grade vs. zone coverage: 91.5

It is obvious that putting a corner in man coverage one-on-one against Hill is not the best plan due to his game-breaking speed and quickness; however, zone coverage does not work any better. Hill has the unique ability to just outrun coverage defenders dropping into zones. Single-high or split safety looks, it really does not matter, as his twitchy movement in and out of breaks is simply unfair for a defense.

Hill led the league with an outstanding 3.57 yards per route run when facing zone coverage. No other player even cracked 3.00 —the next closest was Davante Adams at a 2.73 figure. Not just that, Hill also led the way with 1,302 yards and 57 first downs against zone coverage.

2. Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings

Receiving grade vs. zone coverage: 90.2

Jefferson joins Hill as the only two wide receivers with more than 90.0 receiving grade when facing zone coverage. He is also the only other wide receiver with over 1,000 yards against zone coverage alone, recording 1,067 yards coming when facing that style of defense. Jefferson had 52 first downs when facing zone coverage, which proves he and Hill are virtually unstoppable when facing zone schemes.

These are ranked by our receiving grades, but the yards per route run figure shows the same top three with a minor switch — Hill leads the way in both, but Adams and Jefferson are the next two on the list in yards per route run – at 2.73 and 2.72, respectively. Jefferson has been a dominant force ever since he stepped foot in the league, and he shows no sign of slowing down whatsoever.

3. Davante Adams, Las Vegas Raiders

Receiving grade vs. zone coverage: 89.4

Adams was bound to be on one of these lists, as the nine-year veteran is a true nightmare for defenses — zone or man coverage, it does not matter. His release packages are second-to-none and at this point, as he has seen everything a defensive coordinator could throw at him.

In his first season as a Raider, he posted another elite receiving grade — a 90.5 overall, which makes it three consecutive seasons with a 90.0-plus receiving grade. He got it done more against zone coverage, however, as 107 of his targets came against that coverage with just 33 targets coming against man coverage. This led to 946 of his 1,516 yards coming against zone, as well as being tied first with Tyreek Hill and CeeDee Lamb with five touchdowns.

4. Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams

Receiving grade vs. zone coverage: 87.7

One year removed from his historic triple-crown season, Kupp was dominant when facing zone coverage. When looking at his receiving grades by coverage scheme, he actually had a small bump last season with an 87.7 compared to an 87.2 when facing zone coverage in 2021. He wins because of his consistency and ability to constantly find holes in zones.

His season was, unfortunately, cut short due to injury, but he still put up impressive numbers. He dropped zero passes on his 63 targets, catching 54 of those opportunities. Despite just playing in nine games, Kupp forced 10 missed tackles versus zone — sixth among qualified wide receivers.

5. Drake London, Atlanta Falcons

Receiving grade vs. zone coverage: 85.2

London is the first rookie appearance on the list, but he will not be the last. His agility at his size is special, and he showed off his incredible ability in his debut season. London was one of eight receivers to post an 80.0 or higher receiving grade versus both man and zone coverage.

London led all rookies with 34 first downs gained when facing zone, which also ranked right outside the top 10 among qualified receivers, tied with Mike Evans. London was targeted 74 times in zone coverage, bringing in 51 of those opportunities for 632 yards.

6. Terry McLaurin, Washington Commanders

Receiving grade vs. zone coverage: 84.8

Out of these exceptional 10 receivers, McLaurin led them all with 16.1 yards per reception. He has consistently won down the field in his time in Washington despite not having the best quarterback play. Another thing that just pops when watching McLaurin is his ability to play much bigger than his 6-foot stature. He brought in 68.4% of his contested catch opportunities in zone coverage, an impressive 13-of-19.

He averaged 2.34 yards per route run last season against zone schemes, which ranked top 10 among qualified receivers. McLaurin also had 836 of his yards come against zone coverage, which ranked just outside the top five. He did this on a 13.9 average depth of target, showcasing his ability to be one of the better deep threats in the NFL.

7. Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers

Receiving grade vs. zone coverage: 83.7

Samuel is a yards-after-catch machine, leading all qualified receivers against zone coverage with 496 yards after the catch. This has been Samuel’s calling card dating back to his days at South Carolina. Samuel also consistently produced on a low average depth of target, and when facing zone coverages, his five-yard figure in that department was one of the five lowest of any receiver in this data set.

Samuel is electric with the football in his hands, and head coach Kyle Shanahan is extremely aware of that. He is hard to bring down, as his 26 missed tackles forced was far-and-away the league high among receivers versus zone coverage — the next closest was 13. Samuel has proven that regardless of quarterback, just get the ball in his hands and sit back to watch the fireworks.

8. Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills

Receiving grade vs. zone coverage: 83.1

Diggs is ultra-reliable for quarterback Josh Allen, as he recorded a 119.2 NFL passer rating when targeted in zone coverage – leading all qualified receivers. Diggs is one of the best route runners in the league and knows how to get open versus any coverage. Of his 1,578 receiving yards last season, 794 of them came against zone schemes.

Diggs is the ultimate chain-mover, as his 38 first downs versus zone were tied for sixth. He was tied for first with 29 first downs when facing man coverage as well. Every superstar quarterback has a superstar receiver, and it doesn’t get much better than the Allen-Diggs connection.

9. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit Lions

Receiving grade vs. zone coverage:  82.7

St. Brown had his true breakout performance last season in Detroit. He is one of just three receivers that ranked top 10 in receiving grade versus zone and man coverage. Primarily working from the slot, St. Brown posted a 90.7 PFF grade last season, joining an elite group of Hill, Jefferson and Adams as the only four receivers over a 90.0 PFF grade.

Like Samuel, St. Brown thrived underneath, as his 6.3-yard average depth of target against zone was one of the 10 lowest figures among qualified receivers. That did not stop him from ranking 10th with 35 total first downs. St. Brown also ranked in the top 10 among yards per route run (2.26) and yards after catch (316).

10. Chris Olave, New Orleans Saints

Receiving grade vs. zone coverage: 82.2

As the second rookie that made this list, Olave made some incredible plays down the field against zone coverage in his debut season for the Saints. Joining London on this list, Olave actually led all rookies with a 2.67 yards per route run number facing this particular scheme. It cannot be understated how tough it is to be the No. 1 target on your team as a rookie, and Olave did just that.

He consistently won down the field as well, as he was one of just 11 receivers that had over a 15.0-yard average depth of target when facing zone coverage. Of those particular 11 receivers, Olave’s 82.2 receiving grade was about 10 points higher than the next player. New Orleans hit on a talented wideout in Olave, and if Michael Thomas can return to full strength, this could be one of the best duos in the NFL.

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