It’s become a truism to say that the passing game has become increasingly important in today’s game. It seems that annually we see more and more passes being thrown, and more and yards being gained. Perhaps the most obvious sign of this fact has been the steadily increasing use of sub-packages on the defensive side of the ball to counter the proliferation of three- and four-wide-receiver sets.
When a team has one particular wide receiver on the roster that stands head and shoulders above the rest, that can have a serious impact on record books from sheer workload alone, and we saw some of the most productive individual seasons from a receiving standpoint in NFL history just last season.
Of course, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones shared in tying for the second-most receptions in a single season in NFL history when they both finished their final regular season games with 136 receptions.
Jones finished the year with 1871 receiving yards, the second-most all-time, and Brown ended up with 1834 yards, which, after Jones’ mark, became the fourth-most in a season in NFL history. Meanwhile, Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins also finished with excellent marks, racking up 111 receptions for 1521 while dealing with erratic quarterback play.
All three wide receivers shared one thing in common, and that is that they were largely the focal point of their offense, and in fact served that role in a way uncommon in the history of the game. In fact, going back over the past decade at the very least, all three ranked in the top four of the most-targeted players over that span.
Sources seem to vary, but Jones has been credited with as any as 204 targets last season, and while I haven’t exhaustively done the legwork, that seems to fall behind only Calvin Johnson’s 205 targets (as credited by ESPN) during the 2012 season when he set the record for the most receiving yards in a single season.
Brown, meanwhile, was credited with 195 targets, and Hopkins was targeted 192 times, with all numbers being attributed to ESPN. Pro Football Focus’ data, among other sites, varies somewhat, but according to their data charts, Jones, Brown, and Hopkins all fall in line behind Johnson as the top four most-targeted seasons in the nine seasons that they have tracked data, and likely beyond that, perhaps all time.
It’s somewhat remarkable to think that such prolific offensive explosions could all coalesce in the same season, to find three players at the same position essentially being utilized in a way that has been exceedingly rarely in history all at the same time, yet that is what the 2015 season produced.
All three players faced unique circumstances, of course, and those circumstances have changed since then, so it would be difficult to predict a repeat performance. But given the nature of the game today, it wouldn’t be surprising to see 200-target seasons become more common in the near future.