The most valuable asset an NFL team can possess is widely considered to be a top-tier quarterback on a rookie contract, and the argument can be made that there is no greater aid to any signal-caller than a receiver who can engineer separation without assistance.
This era of football is filled with talented offensive play-callers who can make life easy on their quarterbacks by putting their weapons into space through their play design.
However, offenses cannot rely solely on their coordinator’s ability to create space, meaning a premium is still placed on receivers who can get themselves into the open field by defeating man coverage with their route-running.
NFL teams were more than happy to pay that premium this offseason, which saw the wide receiver market explode with stunning trades and huge paydays for some of the game’s elite.
Not every receiver in the headlines over the last few months is worthy of being considered among the top route-runners in the game, but a couple feature in our look at the players who are deserving of that tag.
What makes a great route runner?
Before we look at the receivers themselves, it’s important to set some parameters as to what makes an elite route-runner.
Helping us do so is former Detroit Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg, who also served as an offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets, and the Baltimore Ravens.
“What are the two most important aspects of playing receiver at a high level in the NFL? The ability to catch the football on a consistent basis. The second item in the NFL, which is different certainly than high school and certainly than college, is the ability to defeat bump and run on a consistent basis. If you have that ability, everything else will fall into place with hard work,” Mornhinweg tells The 33rd Team.
“Then comes the ability to be a great route-runner and there’s really two types of great route-runners: the man that can get in and out of a break within two steps, so he can burst off the ball and run and then burst at the top and he is in and out of that thing in two steps ala the great Jerry Rice.
“Then you have these route-runners that are very, very fast and they look to be smooth, and you know they’re fast, but you really don’t know how fast they are until the game starts. Desean Jackson was one of these people, it would be bombs away early in the game before their opponents could even understand how fast they really were. You can see it on film, you can hear about it and all those things, but you don’t know until you’re really on the field with them.”
In our select group, there are route-runners who fit each description. However, while this list is not serving as a ranking, the first two players on which we will focus each have additional characteristics that have seen them established as two of the premier offensive weapons in the NFL.
The Las Vegas Raiders paid an exorbitant price to take Adams from the Green Bay Packers, trading their first and second-round pick in this year’s draft before signing him to a five-year, $141.25 million deal.
Adams’ play during his stellar career suggests he should emphatically justify that investment. Since 2018, no player has amassed more receiving yards (5,310) or touchdowns (47) than Adams.
He has become renowned for defeating coverage with his release, which, as former Cleveland Browns head coach Chris Palmer explained, helps him substantially in getting down the field.
“He’s a guy that has a knack of getting down the field. He puts tremendous pressure on getting down the field,” said Palmer. “He comes off and the first thing the DB thinks is that the guy’s going deep and then he’ll get the DB to turn his hips and he’ll run his route accordingly.
But Adams’ extraordinary success is not simply down to the footwork, head fakes and change of direction quickness that are features of his releases.
“I think he plays bigger than he is at times, he’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong, he plays the ball so well in the air, he’s got excellent leaping ability, very strong hands, great body control in traffic or in tight coverage,” says former NFL MVP Quarterback Rich Gannon.
“He’ll go get the ball; he doesn’t wait on it. He plays faster than his 40 time when you study him and watch him. He’s not going to overwhelm you but I think he does a great job understanding the concepts so well, he’s been in that [Green Bay] system for so long, he’s got an elite quarterback that can make every throw, can fit it into tight windows, it’s not like it has to be great separation and he’s going to a place that’s got a quarterback that has similar arm talent, maybe not as complete and well-rounded as Aaron [Rodgers] but Derek Carr’s got a cannon as well.”
Adams finished the 2021 season with 84 receptions for a first down and, though he will be playing in a different offense in 2022, the intelligence he has displayed throughout his career should ensure he will rediscover his rapport with former college teammate Carr and produce at a similar level for the Raiders. The only man ahead of him on the first-down receptions list had 89 in 2022, and his awareness and football IQ have played a substantial role in his ascension to the same plane as Adams.
Though Matthew Stafford was the final piece of the puzzle for the Los Angeles Rams last season, there would have been no hometown Super Bowl celebration if not for Kupp and his remarkable prowess as a route runner.
Kupp secured the receiving Triple Crown in his Offensive Player of the Year season in 2021, consistently getting open for Stafford when it mattered most, with his proficiency in that regard a product of his smarts and his mentality, according to Gannon.
“He’s a physical route-runner for a guy his size, got great balance in and out of his breaks. I think the thing that’s really impressive about Cooper Kupp, he’s got great patience. Here’s a guy that understands the type of coverage, he understands how he’s being covered, is it man, is it zone, is it a combination? He understands the situation, the down and distance, is it red zone, is it two-minute?
“He’s just a great understanding of the game. For a guy that’s in the slot so much he’s got great vision. He rarely fools the quarterback. If it’s zone he’s not going to run through with his eyes on the quarterback and take the head-on collision. He’s just really a very smart football player.
“I think he’s got a blue-collar mentality, every day, every week, every game, you know what you’re going to get with this guy. He obviously doesn’t have top-end speed but, I played with Jerry Rice and Tim Brown – two Hall of Fame receivers – in their late 30s and, while they didn’t have the top-end speed, they beat you with their experience, their creativity, their ingenuity, their understanding of the opponent, like Cooper understanding the concepts, situations, those type of things. They know how to create separation. I think he’s that type of player.”
Ex-New York Jets and New Orleans Saints cornerback Kyle Wilson echoed Gannon’s assessment.
Asked what makes Kupp so hard to defend, he replied: “I would say his timing and understanding of coverages and really good acceleration out of breaks. Understanding option routes and leverage, pushing hard against the leverage, another fake and then breaking the opposite [direction].”
Kupp would not be able to push so hard against leverage and sell fakes were it not for his superb change of direction quickness. As Gannon adds: “His suddenness, his moves, his patience, he might not hit you with one move, he’ll hit you with three or four in a five-yard release. He’s got some real shake and wiggle to him that is special.”
Straight-line speed is one of the few attributes not necessarily associated with Kupp, but it is a trait that has been integral to the success of the next receiver on our list.
Diggs had a stellar first season with the Buffalo Bills following his trade from the Minnesota Vikings. He registered 20 receptions of 20 yards or more, good for the fifth-most in the NFL, and led the league with 1,535 receiving yards in the 2020 campaign. However, he took something of a backseat to Kupp and his other contemporaries in 2021.
Yet few receivers make it look as smooth and easy when working downfield, with quarterbacks able to have complete confidence in Diggs’ ability to regularly gain a step on his defender on vertical routes.
That is reflected by his average depth of target, which – per Pro Football Reference – has been over 10 yards in each of the last three seasons.
“He’s a vertical threat, playmaker, tremendous athlete, good versatility, he can contribute in a number of ways offensively with the end-arounds, the reverses, the bubble screens,” Gannon says of Diggs.
“Very good quickness, acceleration, and speed, especially when the ball is in the air. When the ball is in the air, you see him oftentimes, he’ll be stride for stride with a corner and the ball is in the air and he picks up three or four feet or two or three yards, he has that straight-line speed.
“I would say rare and unusual top-end speed when you look at him. I think he does a great job creating separation at the top of the route.”
The Vikings opted to send Diggs to Buffalo in 2020 but succeeded in replacing him with a receiver who possesses that same smoothness and arguably has an even more diverse skill set.
No receiver over the last two seasons has more receiving yards than Jefferson’s 3,016, and the former LSU star is seemingly well on his way to establishing himself as one of the most complete route-runners in the NFL.
Equally impressive in a straight line and when changing direction, Jefferson excels against physical coverage. Indeed, according to Pro Football Focus, Jefferson has averaged 3.55 yards per route run against press-man coverage since 2020, the second-most in the league.
“He’s got great change of direction ability and suddenness in and out of breaks, he’s very shifty,” says Gannon of Jefferson.
“The quickness and the moves in short areas, whether it’s press, whether he’s on the boundary, down in the red zone, I think allows him to create some separation. Extremely productive, excellent eyes to locate the ball in traffic, does a good job attacking the ball, plucks the ball out of the air with ease, confident hand-catcher, doesn’t let the ball get on his body.
“Really smooth and easy acceleration on the deep routes, especially the go’s, the corners and the posts, it seems like it’s effortless with this guy.”
For all the praise both Diggs and Jefferson have rightfully received, the man who drafted them both believes another Vikings star is perhaps superior to each of them.
Jefferson is now the undisputed leading light of the Vikings’ offense yet, when it comes to route running, former Minnesota Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman has the greatest fondness for the gem he unearthed as an undrafted free agent.
“The other one to me was always Adam Thielen,” Spielman told The 33rd Team.
“Those other guys can run, they’re very good athletes, they’re great as far as, I guess when I look at route-running is being able to climb on top of the defensive back quickly to get him back on his heels and then being able to drop your weight into and out of your route without breaking stride.
“To me you find out the route-running ability with routes that come back to the quarterback because that is acceleration, deceleration and then acceleration again.
“Straight-line fast guys, they can run nine routes or go balls all day, but sometimes when you watch them and they have to do routes like a comeback route or anything back to the quarterback, it takes them about three or four steps to gear down before they can eek out of their plant and then start and then start accelerating again.
“These guys [Diggs, Jefferson and Thielen] do it effortlessly without having to gear down. Adam Thielen to me was, these guys were all probably faster than Adam, but guys that are able to run great routes but run a 4.5 but they’re such precise route-runners, they have just as big an effect on getting open as these more athletic guys because they’re so precise in their routes.
“Adam, he’s not going to run by you on the deep go ball but he’s going to go up and make a catch or he’s going to be able to use some double move or something to get deep because he has unbelievable hand-eye coordination.
“If you compare how he runs routes to the same guys that you’re talking about but not probably as fast or overall athletic, he is just as good or precise of a route runner because of his ability to play at the same speed throughout the route.”
Seven of Thielen’s 10 receiving touchdowns in 2021 came from inside the red zone, illustrating that, while injuries have hindered his overall production in recent years, the precise route running Spielman refers to continues to allow him to thrive in the most congested area of the field.
At age 31, Thielen’s prime may be behind him but – so long as he retains that precision – he should still have a long shelf life as a productive NFL receiver.
Head of Content Michael Schottey contributed to this report