NFL

The art of separation: Which NFL receivers excel at defeating man coverage?

By Sports Desk November 20, 2021

The NFL is a passing league. If a team has a quarterback who can elevate those around him and an offensive line that can protect him, chances are they will be well-positioned to contend for the playoffs.

Though the elite quarterbacks in the league can fit the ball into tight windows on a consistent basis, the odds of success on that side of the ball are much higher when those signal-callers are paired with receivers who can defeat man coverage and get into open space.

Excelling at finding the soft spot in zone coverage is also important, while the top play-callers in the NFL frequently engineer space for their receivers.

Yet receivers who can win one-on-one are a tremendous help to quarterbacks, especially those who can defeat the blitz regularly with their ability to efficiently read the field and find the open man.

While determining the 'best' receiver in the NFL is a subjective process that can hinge on an affinity for certain styles of play, success in beating defenders in coverage can be quantified.

Stats Perform has done so with its open percentage metric, which tracks how often a receiver gets open when they're matched up against man coverage and have enough time to run a route. Plays that break down before a matchup with a defender can take place or scramble drills where a receiver uncovers after running his initial route are discounted.

So who are the best and worst in that regard? Here we look at the top performers, some surprise names uncovering more often than perhaps expected and those who rarely separate from defenders.

THE ELITE

A year in which Cooper Kupp leads the NFL with 1,141 receiving yards has seen him established as arguably the premier route runner in the NFL.

That is reflected by his open percentage of 57.75, which is the highest of any player with more than 10 coverage matchups.

Getting open on 41 of his 71 matchups, Kupp has consistently excelled at creating separation. His burn percentage, which measures how often a receiver wins his matchup with a defender when he's targeted, of 65.2 is above the average of 60.3 for wideouts (min. 10 targets), while he is fourth in the NFL in burn yards per route (4.2).

Joining Kupp near the top of the tree is Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings. Proving his record-breaking rookie year was no fluke, Jefferson has faced 108 coverage matchups and got open on 55 of them, good for an open percentage of 50.93. 

Eleventh among receivers with a burn percentage of 73.4 and averaging 3.3 burn yards per route, there has been no sign of a sophomore slump from Jefferson, whose combination of separation ability and prowess at the catch point has turned him into one of the most dependable and dynamic receivers in the league.

Keenan Allen (53.16) is Kupp's closest challenger, the Los Angeles Chargers veteran underlining his status as one of the NFL's most underappreciated receivers by getting open at a rate that may only heighten frustrations around his team's underperforming offense.

Kansas City Chiefs star Tyreek Hill (47.78) boasts an elite open percentage that belies his underwhelming big play rate of 28.0 per cent, with Stefon Diggs' (47.62) success at getting open dispelling the notion of a drop-off from last year's receiving leader. Davante Adams (45.65) is unsurprisingly also among the league's best, yet he is accompanied by some eyebrow-raising names.

SURPRISE STUDS

It has been tough to watch an uninspired Pittsburgh Steelers offense this season and think anyone is getting open.

Almost every passing play the Steelers run seems to end in a contested catch, yet a wideout who thrives in those situations is also winning the vast majority of his coverage matchups.

Indeed, second-year wideout Chase Claypool ranks behind only Kupp and Allen in open percentage, uncovering from a defender on 35 of his 68 matchups (51.47). 

However, a burn yards per route rate of 2.5, just above the average of 2.3, and his struggles in the burn yards per target metric (10.30) indicate that, while Claypool is separating from coverage, he is not putting significant distance between himself and defenders. He will likely need to continue relying on his superiority at the catch point.

As with the Steelers, you won't find too many people who draw a sense of excitement watching a Teddy Bridgewater-led Denver Broncos offense.

There is no doubting the talent on Denver's attack. With Jerry Jeudy hurt and Noah Fant so far failing to take the second-year leap many expected, Courtland Sutton has shone brightest and is on course for a 1,000-yard season, though Tim Patrick's impact has been comparable.

Save for Kendall Hinton (47.83 on 23 matchups), it is the relatively unheralded Patrick who has proven Denver's best at separating, his open percentage of 44.44 from 90 matchups level with Dallas Cowboys star Amari Cooper.

A below-average burn yards per route of 2.0 speaks to a paucity of substantial separation, but Patrick is using the distance he is able to put between himself and defenders to create explosive plays, his big-play rate of 36.7 per cent comfortably above the average of 29.2.

Again leading tight ends in receiving yards (747), most would expect Travis Kelce of the Chiefs to top the list at that position for open percentage. Instead, it is a former AFC West standout in ex-Charger Hunter Henry.

Scoring seven touchdowns in as many games prior to being kept out of the endzone in Thursday's win over the Atlanta Falcons, Henry possesses an open percentage of 48.15. However, he has not been double-teamed this season.

Darren Waller has a double-team percentage of 17.2 and has still managed to get open 46.75 per cent of the time. The attention the Las Vegas Raiders star draws and his ability to succeed despite it illustrate his position as one of the league's biggest matchup nightmares and arguably the gold standard at tight end.

NO ROOM FOR MANOEUVRE

The Packers' offense has stuttered by its own high standards in recent weeks, with their underwhelming numbers not just a product of Jordan Love's struggles against the Chiefs.

Since Week 6, the Packers are averaging 213.2 net passing yards per game – 20th in the NFL. For the season, they are 16th in yards per pass play (6.46).

That mediocrity can, in part, be attributed to a lack of receiving depth beyond Adams, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling's issues getting open encapsulate that problem.

Valdes-Scantling is supposed to be the Packers' deep threat who can stretch defenses with his ability to separate vertically.

Open on only five of his 38 coverage matchups – a percentage of 13.16 – Valdes-Scantling is not fulfilling his role. The Packers will likely need to be more explosive in the playoffs if they are to go all the way, meaning Valdes-Scantling must up his game.

Bryan Edwards is in a similar situation in Las Vegas. Scarcely utilised last season, Edwards has seen a bump in targets in 2021, the Raiders often going to him downfield. 

Edwards' average depth of target is 17.2 yards, but he has found deep separation hard to come by, uncovering on 17 of his 111 matchups (15.32 per cent). Yet with a gaudy burn yards per target average of 15.01 and a big-play rate of 50.7 per cent that is third among receivers (min. 10 targets), Edwards is a player who takes full advantage of the little separation he gets when Derek Carr looks his way.

Edwards' former South Carolina team-mate San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel is performing at the highest level of his young career. Samuel is second behind Kupp with 979 receiving yards and already has seven total touchdowns this season.

However, Samuel ranks near the bottom of the league in open percentage (15.07), with the difference between that number and his overall production a reflection of how he is used by San Francisco.

His average depth of target is 8.6 yards, below the NFL average for receivers of 11.0, speaking to the Niners' reliance on him on screens and short passes that are an extension of the run game.

Third in burn yards per route and leading all wide receivers with an average of 9.6 yards after catch per reception, Samuel takes advantage of those short targets with his speed, elusiveness and power, while he can win at the catch point downfield even without separation. The 49ers often get Samuel in space in the backfield but, for one of the league's most unique players, separation is not always a requirement.

Related items

  • Individual feats 'secondary' to wins for Wembanyama Individual feats 'secondary' to wins for Wembanyama

    Victor Wembanyama wants victories, not individual feats, after he joined Michael Jordan in the NBA record books.

    Wembanyama became just the second NBA rookie, after Jamaal Tinsley in 2001, to post at least five points, five rebounds, five assists, five steals and five blocks in a single game. He is just the second player to have five blocks and as many steals in successive games, after the great Jordan.

    However, his efforts proved fruitless for the San Antonio Spurs, who lost 113-108 to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday.

    Wembanyama finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, five steals and five blocks. He is just the 15th player in the NBA to record a 5x5.

    But for the overall number one draft pick, wins are the priority.

    "To me, it's secondary," Wembanyama said. "Hopefully in the future, and think this is a good performance, but as of today, I can't be satisfied with a loss."

    LeBron James returned from injury to score 30 points for the Lakers, while Anthony Davis had 28 points and 13 rebounds.

    "Of course it was challenging [going against] one of the best duos in the league," Wembanyama said of facing two of the NBA's star players.

    "But still, I think it's a lot of teams we beat if we play this way.

    "But I think it came down to maturity at the end because each and every one of us was making a mistake each of the times.

    "Little mistakes, missing a layup, turning the ball over. We went down, we went back to down four, down seven multiple times and that's when we did mistakes. So yeah, it's maturity."

    Even though the Spurs have lost 10 of their last 11 games, James believes the sky truly is the limit for Wembanyama.

    "He doesn't have a ceiling," James said.

    "He can do whatever he wants to do with his career. It seems like he enjoys the game. It seems like he puts in the work. Just from the outside looking in, I'm not with him on a day-to-day basis, but I said a long time ago how special he was, and it's literally that simple.

    "There are guys in our league that you have to account for any time you get around the rim or around the perimeter in our league history, and he sits right at the top of it, [if not] around the top, with all the greats.

    "He's one of them to have like a stellar rookie season. Guys that have come in and [dominated]. But, it's, can you sustain it? We've had guys that have come in and [have] just been really damn [good]."

    The Lakers returned to winning ways following their loss to the Golden State Warriors, but coach Darvin Ham was not entirely satisfied with the performance.

    "You want your team to constantly look within and try to make plays and force the other team to put you in uncomfortable positions," Ham said.

    "Not you put yourself in those uncomfortable positions, whether it's not sprinting back in transition or allowing teams to get two or three offensive rebounds. Or, you know, fouling because we're not in position because we're not doing our work early. And then going down the other end and not trusting the execution.

    "We've got a bunch of weapons, but they're useless if we don't do the little things, sprinting hard when we get the ball in transition, not turning it over, maintaining spacing, making sure we get hits on screens to create an advantage and making the simple, easy play."

  • Atletico Madrid 5-0 Las Palmas: Llorente and Correa get hosts back on track Atletico Madrid 5-0 Las Palmas: Llorente and Correa get hosts back on track

    Marcos Llorente and Angel Correa both scored twice as Atletico Madrid thrashed Las Palmas in a huge 5-0 home win to get back on track in LaLiga.

    Javi Munoz hit the woodwork for the visitors early on, but Diego Simeone's men soon assumed full control when Llorente scored twice in a five-minute span to put them two goals up inside 20 minutes.

    Atletico ensured they warmed up for Tuesday's Champions League last-16 first leg against Inter in style when Correa struck 73 seconds into the second half, before doubling his tally from the penalty spot just after the hour mark. Substitute Memphis Depay then put the icing on the cake with a late long-range strike.

    The hosts were beaten by Sevilla in their last league match and had suffered an away loss to Las Palmas in November's reverse fixture, but they have now won four in a row at home and sit five points clear of fifth-placed Athletic Bilbao and level with Barcelona, who face Celta Vigo later on Saturday.

    Data Debrief: Home dominance continues

    Atletico are unbeaten at home in La Liga this season, with 12 wins and one draw from their 13 league matches in front of their own fans. Looking further back, they have now gone 24 such games without defeat dating back to January 2023.

    Llorente's double was his first since scoring twice in a match against Eibar in April 2021, while Correa – who also registered an assist – had not scored in more than two months prior to this fixture. Atleti were worthy winners, accumulating 2.29 xG to Las Palmas' 0.59.

  • One dead and more than 20 injured in shooting near Kansas City Chiefs parade One dead and more than 20 injured in shooting near Kansas City Chiefs parade

    One person has died and more than 20 others have been injured after shots were fired near the scene of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl parade.

    A video on social media showed armed officers rush into Union Station on a day supporters gathered near the building at the end of the parade route to celebrate Sunday’s victory with the team’s players and staff.

    The Kansas City Police Department said at least 22 people suffered gunshot wounds, including the fatally injured victim, and confirmed three people had been taken into custody.

    Radio Station KKFI said on social media that one of their presenters, DJ Lisa Lopez, was killed in the shooting.

    KKFI said in a statement: “Our hearts and prayers are with her family. This senseless act has taken a beautiful person from her family and this KC Community.”

    Kansas City Police Department chief Stacey Graves said at a press conference: “At the conclusion of the Chiefs’ rally today, there were shots fired on the west side of Union Station.

    “Immediately, officers responded to the area, took two people into custody and also immediately rendered life-sustaining aid to those victims.”

    At a later briefing, she added: “We have confirmed there is one deceased person. Our gunshot total has went up to 22.

    “Right now, we’re still working on the total number of victims. This is still an active investigation.

    “We do have three persons detained and under investigation for today’s incident.

    “Our investigators are working with all of the surviving victims to connect them with loved ones. We are also working to identify our deceased victim so we can notify their family as soon as possible.”

    The Kansas City Chiefs confirmed their players, coaches and staff were all safe and accounted for.

    “We are truly saddened by the senseless act of violence that occurred outside of Union Station at the conclusion of today’s parade and rally,” the team said in a statement.

    “Our hearts go out to the victims, their families, and all of Kansas City.

    “We are in close communication with the Mayor’s office as well as the Kansas City Police Department.

    “At this time, we have confirmed that all of our players, coaches, staff and their families are safe and accounted for.

    “We thank the local law enforcement officers and first responders who were on-scene to assist.”

    Kansas City players and staff were celebrating beating the San Francisco 49ers in Las Vegas on Sunday to become the first back-to-back Super Bowl champions in 19 years.

    Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes took to social media, saying: “Praying for Kansas City.”

    Travis Kelce wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, saying: “I am heartbroken over the tragedy that took place today. My heart is with all who came out to celebrate with us and have been affected. KC, you mean the world to me.”

    Linebacker Drue Tranquill posted: “Please join me in prayer for all the victims in this heinous act. Pray that doctors & first responders would have steady hands & that all would experience full healing.”

    Offensive lineman Trey Smith thanked first responders, adding: “You’re the ones who should be celebrated today.”

    A statement from the NFL read: “We are deeply saddened by the senseless shooting that occurred today near the end of the rally in Kansas City for the Chiefs. Our thoughts are with the victims and everyone affected.

    “We are grateful for the quick and thorough response of law enforcement and emergency personnel.”

    Earlier, the city had been in party mode as Super Bowl MVP Mahomes and team-mate Travis Kelce took centre stage on a platform near Union Station.

    Mahomes had told a cheering crowd the Chiefs were going for a “three-peat” next season while Kelce led the supporters in some chanting.

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.