There isn’t much debate about who the NFL’s top-ranked players are at most offensive skill positions. Tom Brady is generally considered the sport’s best quarterback - some people believe he’s the greatest in the game’s history - and running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Rob Gronkowski sit comfortably atop the thrones of their respective positions.
Any discussion about the league’s top wide receiver, however, usually focuses on two players with equally convincing arguments to be No. 1.
There’s Antonio Brown, the jitterbug Pittsburgh Steelers receiver who last year led the NFL in receiving yards for the second time in his career. And then there’s Julio Jones, the towering Atlanta Falcons weapon who led the NFL in receiving yards per game in 2015 and 2016 and has more receiving yards than any NFL player since the start of 2015.
Brown turned 30 on Wednesday, and Jones turns 30 in February. They have strikingly different pedigrees and body types, despite their similar level of dominance.
A sixth-round pick from Central Michigan, Brown is 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds. He erupted in 2013, his second Pro Bowl season, catching 110 passes for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns. The following season, he made the first of four straight All-Pro teams, leading the NFL with 129 catches for 1,698 yards to go along with 13 touchdowns.
The Falcons nabbed Jones - a 6-foot-3, 220-pound specimen - at No. 6 overall in 2011, giving up a future first-round pick and more to climb up from 27th. The former Alabama star ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at the combine while posting an event-best 135-inch broad jump and 11.07-second 60-yard shuttle.
Over the past three seasons, both have averaged around 103 yards per game (Jones is at 102.7 with 4,724 receiving yards over that span; Brown, who’s played one fewer game, is at 103.4 with 4,651 yards).
In the NFL Network's annual NFL Top 100 list, voted on by players, Brown was named the league’s second-best overall player, with Jones fourth. In the latest Madden video game rankings, Brown registered a 99 overall rating - one of just seven players to earn the distinction - while Jones came in at 98. Football analytics website Pro Football Focus recently ranked Jones as the league’s third-best overall player and Brown as No. 4.
Without much clearly separating Brown and Jones, we asked some folks who follow the league closely and break down game tape to answer the question: Who’s the NFL’s best receiver?
"There are a few layers to that one. When both are healthy, I’ll take Julio because it’s just so hard to find guys with his speed, his legs, his strength, his route agility for a guy that size, and his playmaking ability, both after the catch and down the field. The biggest issue with him is the hands - they’re above average, but they’re not great. He’ll have some (Terrell Owens)-type drops. But to me, he’s the closest thing to T.O. right now when you talk about Hall of Fame size, speed, run after the catch.
"Antonio is more versatile. He’s more of a savvy, crafty guy. His hands are actually better, which is funny because usually guys with smaller hands (have more drops) … He’s just got such good hands, ball skills. It’s really close. I would take Julio by a hair."
"These two couldn’t look any different. Jones is the prototype. If you drew up a wide receiver from scratch, it would be Jones. And you can see why the Falcons would sacrifice major draft capital to move up a long way in the first round to select Jones, who also was coming out of the NCAA’s top football factory in Alabama. Brown is the opposite. Although highly productive at Central Michigan, he is clearly undersized and certainly didn’t blow scouts’ doors off from an athletic testing perspective. Most thought Brown might contribute as a slot receiver (at best) as well as returning punts.
"Brown is the slightly superior player because he is the slightly more difficult receiver to cover. Both are great, of course, and can destroy a defense in so many ways, but the one trait that sets Brown, an unbelievably hard worker, apart is the way he comes out of his breaks. It is amazing that Brown loses little to no speed when breaking off his route. The best comparison is thinking about driving your favorite sports car and not having to touch the brake pedal to make a turn. Brown is that sports car."
"They’re totally different receivers because of their physical differences. One guy is a huge, huge man. You’re dealing with a huge man. Antonio is a smaller guy. He’s well-built, but he’s a smaller guy. They’re both special in certain different ways. Jones’ movement ability at that size is fairly rare. Not a lot of guys at that size have that explosive movement. There may not be a better wide receiver in football running routes from the outside in. He’s outstanding working from outside in, particularly against man (coverage) because he can run away from people. It looks remarkable on tape.
"Antonio Brown’s game is built more on dynamic quickness. His route-running ability and his ability to get in and out of breaks with explosive, dynamic quickness are second to none in the National Football League. He just looks different than Julio when he makes those cuts. It’s like watching those old cartoons where they speed up the rabbit. It’s almost, what would you prefer? That’s a hard question. I think most people - taking nothing away from Antonio Brown - most people would prefer big and fast to small and fast. I would probably take Julio, but we’re nitpicking."
"That’s a good debate. Antonio, he might be the most targeted receiver in the league. (Brown’s 858 targets over the past five years are tops in the NFL. Jones is fourth with 702.) Some days he’s getting 18 to 20 targets. That’s unheard of. Now, he also wins - there’s no way to bracket him or over him. But you can say the same thing about Julio. It’s just like, would you rather have an (NBA) small forward or big, power forward?
"You get a faster, bigger, stronger player in Julio, but ... nobody can actually do more than what Antonio does. From a route-running standpoint, there’s nobody who could stay with him one on one. Julio has had a number of seasons where he’s been nicked up consistently, a lot of bad ankles. To me, I would take Antonio."
“To me, it’s clearly Antonio Brown ... The pace he’s on the last five years, he’s on pace to be the second-best wide receiver of all time. If he’s able to keep that up long enough we might have to have the conversation about Antonio Brown and Jerry Rice. He’s the most consistent skill position player - I’m not talking quarterback, like Brady - but he’s the most consistent skill position player at running back, tight end, or wide receiver that I can remember. The guy is amazing.
"I think Julio Jones is more of a physical specimen. Honestly, the one edge that I would seemingly give him is contested catches, but Antonio Brown somehow always makes the contested catch. It’s crazy. I think it’s Antonio Brown and there’s no hesitation. There are injury issues with Julio and the week in, week out - Julio will have a few games where he’s got three catches for 30 yards or something."
Geoff Mosher is an award-winning sports reporter, radio host, and TV personality with more than 20 years of experience covering all major sports and leagues. He also hosts regularly on 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia and co-hosts 'The Sports Shop' on Facebook. You can find him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.
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