NFL teams don’t need a No. 1 receiver and here’s why

Jordan Love of the Green Bay Packers is one of the NFL’s most highly-regarded young quarterbacks, and that’s in part because of the performance he put on in the second half of the 2023 season. From Week 10 through the Packers’ 24-21 divisional round loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Love completed 254 of 374 passes (67.9%) for 2,904 yards (7.8 yards per attempt), 25 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a passer rating of 107.7.

Moreover, Love did all of that without the benefit of what most people would consider a true No. 1 receiver. The Packers did have estimable targets in Jayden Reed, Romeo Doubs, Tucker Kraft, and Dontayvion Wicks, but there’s nobody in that receiver/tight end group who scares opposing defenses to the point where defenses will be automatically arrayed against them.

And furthermore, that’s the way Love wants it.

“I think you don’t have to have a No. 1 receiver,” Love said on June 4. “I think it works out well when you can spread the ball out and you’ve got different guys making different plays and you can put them in different areas.

“I think it puts a lot more stress on the defense and the calls that they can get in, so I think in the long run it helps us not having a No. 1 guy, a true No. 1 guy, but I think all those guys can step up and be the one any given day.”

For Love, it gives him the freedom to hit the guy who’s open in the progression, as opposed to leaning too often on the alpha dog.

“I can just play the play.”

During an appearance on Colin Cowherd’s show on July 19, Tom Brady presented the hypothetical alternative: What if you have a No. 1 receiver, and you have to throttle your entire passing game around him?

“You always felt like you had to do something to get them the ball,” Brady said about the specter of a true No. 1 guy. “I want him to keep running hard. I want him to be ready for when the ball does come.”

“The last thing you want is your No. 1 receiver to go two-and-a-half quarters into a game and not see a ball… ‘cause he’s going to get discouraged.”

“He’s got to go out there and break the huddle, run out 25 yards to his alignment, run down the field as fast as he can and try to get open, then back to the huddle. It’s a lot of effort that he’s putting in to not getting the ball… reward that guy earlier in the game.”

It’s interesting that for the most part, Brady got his thing done at a GOAT level without the benefit of a true No.1 receiver. Yes, he had Randy Moss for a few seasons, and there was Rob Gronkowski at his best, but the best quarterback ever to play the position had as many seasons without those force multipliers as he did with them.

Brady’s comments about how that true alpha receiver affects the quarterback’s mindset are interesting in that the NFL seems to be trending away from the No. 1 receiver as a must.

How do we define a ‘No. 1 receiver’?

True No. 1 receivers aren’t always aligned outside in isolated situations, but there needs to be enough of that to make it obvious that this is the guy. They must be able to beat press coverage at the line of scrimmage, and they need to be able to run away from tight match coverage against the NFL’s best cornerbacks. If they’re bracketed by an opposing defense, they must have answers against it. And whether it’s through demon speed or incredible route acumen (ideally both), they need to be the one guy their quarterback can always go to.

Here’s the problem: It doesn’t always work. And even if it does, how many true top guys are there at any given point in the league? Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings. Ja’Marr Chase of the Cincinnati Bengals. Tyreek Hill of the Miami Dolphins. Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Davante Adams of the Las Vegas Raiders. Depending on how broad you want to be with the definition, there are at most maybe 10-15 receivers in the league at any time who are true field-tilters in that sense.

NFL teams are realizing this, and instead of going all in on one guy in the hope that he’s The Guy, they’re moving their resources around, and relying more on advanced schemes and concerts to get it done.

Making No. 1 receivers out of the aggregate

“It’s more about the collective unit of all those guys and just the rapport that they’re building with Jordan throughout the course of the offseason,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said of his receiver group, right around the time Love made his interesting proclamation. “I’m excited to get to training camp with them.

“All those guys had their moments where they were the leading receiver in a game. I feel really good about the collective unit. The hardest part is we feel so good about them, it’s hard to get everybody the amount of touches that you’d like to get, but that’s a good problem to have.”

It’s a good problem to have when you’re not dependent on one receiver, and you can scheme your receivers open to their best abilities. Last season, Jayden Reed and Romeo Doubs tied for the Packers’ lead in receptions on passes of 20 or more air yards – nine each, and on 19 targets each. LaFleur used Reed’s sneaky get-up speed to exploit opposing defenses in motion concepts, as shown on this 32-yard catch against the Bears in the regular-season finale.

Doubs got more outside targets than Reed did, and his ability to leverage his route precision against cornerbacks and safeties made him an ideal foil in that regard. Here against the Dallas Cowboys in last season’s wild-card win, the Packers ran a similar concept with Reed running motion. But in this case, Doubs ran the out-cut at 15 yards while Reed and Bo Melton ran the vertical routes. It was a great beater for the Cover-3 defense the Cowboys were running, and it resulted in a 39-yard gain. Is the lack of a No. 1 receiver a freeing component for the Packers’ offense? The tape seems to back it up.

You can win a Super Bowl (several, actually) without an alpha dog

The Kansas City Chiefs just won their third Super Bowl in the last five seasons, and without Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, they might not have even made the playoffs. Patrick Mahomes had to make a lot of chicken salad out of other things in the 2023 campaign, because outside of Travis Kelce, it could be argued that the Chiefs didn’t even have a consistent No. 2 receiver. The Chiefs tried to bring more to that equation in free agency with Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, and in the draft with Texas’ Xavier Worthy, but it remains to be seen whether either Brown or Worthy can be an alpha dog in Andy Reid’s offense.

It also remains to be seen whether Reid sees it as a priority.

Last season, per Sports Info Solutions, the Chiefs led the NFL in dropbacks with pre-snap motion with 546. Mahomes completed 336 passes in 489 attempts with motion for 3,389 yards, 1,219 air yards, 23 touchdowns, eight interceptions, and a passer rating of 109.9. Without motion, Mahomes completed 169 of 257 passes for 1,845 yards, 850 air yards, 10 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a passer rating of 88.4. The Chiefs knew they didn’t have the kinds of receivers who could consistently separate without schematic help, so they gave them as much schematic help as possible.

Mahomes also had the NFL’s most passing attempts with three tight ends on the field – 46, of which he completed 30 for 391 yards, 115 air yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 88.2. Not the best numbers, but the point remains: If the Chiefs didn’t have ideal targets, they were going to do their level best to transcend that with deployment and scheme.

How else do coaches work around a lack of alpha receivers?

San Francisco 49ers fans might argue the point that their team doesn’t have a true No. 1 receiver, but unless you think that Brandon Aiyuk is one, it’s a tough point to contend. I think that Aiyuk is an ideal 1A receiver – he does a ton in Kyle Shanahan’s concepts, and one of those concepts is condensed splits that allow receivers to find more room on the outside of the formation. Per Pro Football Focus, the 49ers led the league with 829 snaps in formations where receivers were tighter to the formation. The Los Angeles Rams ranked second with 730, and that’s another team where the No. 1 receiver argument becomes complicated.

285 of San Francisco’s passing plays came out of condensed formations last season, and the reasoning was clear. Brock Purdy had 20 explosive completions out of those tighter splits in the 2023 season.

Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has been turning down head coaching jobs of late – perhaps because he realizes that as much as he’s done with his playbook to amplify Detroit’s offense, he’ll be able to pick his spot in a relative sense. Now, some might say that Amon-Ra St. Brown is a No. 1 receiver. The Lions certainly paid him that way with the four-year, $120.01-million contract extension with $77 million guaranteed St. Brown got in April, but St. Brown presents an Aiyuk-like case of a very good receiver whose efforts are amplified by scheme. That’s not to denigrate Brown at all – it’s more a realistic analysis of his attributes.

In Johnson’s offense, the Lions ran a lot of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers). They ranked third in 3×1 formation snaps behind the Chiefs and the Washington Commanders with 515, and they ranked third in 2×2 formation snaps behind the Philadelphia Eagles and the Indianapolis Colts with 627. Factor in Johnson’s multi-faceted run game, and there isn’t one book on the Lions’ offense – making everything more difficult to read.

And in the end, maybe that’s the whole point in today’s NFL. More than ever, the league is about spacing and matchups more than this set of routes versus that kind of coverage. NFL offensive coordinators are trying everything possible to win those particular battles, and without a true No. 1 receiver, and all the advantages and limitations therein, maybe it’s that much more difficult for defenses to understand what a passing game is trying to accomplish.

In a game where milliseconds play out like minutes, any kind of hesitation is a big deal.

So yes, it’s great to have a No. 1 receiver if you can identify, develop, and keep one. But more and more, the NFL’s best offensive minds are looking for workarounds to that formerly incontrovertible ideal.

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