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Tyreek Hill is an elite WR, and I’ll prove it

Let’s get this out of the way immediately: When I say a player is elite, that depends on what position I’m talking about and how many players exist at said position. It’s a percentage issue. There are a lot more wide receivers than there are quarterbacks. So if you’re one of the best 10 receivers, you fall into a much smaller percentage than being one of the best 10 quarterbacks.

What specifically do I mean when I say a receiver is an “elite” wide receiver? I mean he’s one of the best 6-7 in the entire league. Now we’ve got that out of the way...

Tyreek Hill is an elite wide receiver. Oh yes, he is, whether you want to talk in terms of statistical output or skillset. If you don’t believe it now, you will in 10 minutes. First, let’s start things off with one of the dozens of great plays Hill has made this season, which emphasizes his most dangerous weapon: out of this world speed.

All right, I told you I would prove to you that Hill is an elite receiver. While basic stats (yards, TDs, etc) don’t necessarily prove anything, when you peel back the layers a bit you can get more information. So we’re going to start with numbers.

When you’re trying to determine who the best wide receiver is numbers-wise, it’s not smart to just go with who has the most yards and stop there. Why? Because total yards are, in large part, a function of factors beyond a receiver’s control, such as number of targets. Obviously, the more targets a receiver has, the more opportunities to gain yards.

Here’s a simple example. Let’s say Player A and Player B both have five catches for 100 yards and a touchdown in a given game. However, Player A was targeted seven times, while Player B was targeted 12 times. Who had the superior game? Well, without viewing certain aspects of film we can’t say definitively, BUT the fact that Player A accomplished the same amount despite having way fewer opportunities tells us a lot. Efficiency matters. In that way, yards per target can function very similarly to the way yards per carry do for running backs.

It’s with that type of thinking (going beyond the surface of stats) that I wanted to use to discuss why Hill, statistically, is an elite receiver in the NFL in just his second year as a player and his first year as a full time receiver.

For starters, it’s worth noting that while Hill is tied for 25th in the NFL in targets, he’s sixth in the league in receiving yards. So we already know from the get-go that he’s done more with less than the vast majority of other players.

But how does he stack up against the other (yes, other) best wide receivers in the league, efficiency-wise? In short, would it be an accurate statement to say “Tyreek Hill is productive at an elite level,” when comparing him to guys who are widely regarded as the best in the league?

As always, I couldn’t let a question like that go unanswered. So I looked at the numbers of the other top 12 receivers in yards (12 because my time is SOMEWHAT finite, but I wanted to be comprehensive) in order to see how he stacks up.

But first, another Tyreek route demonstrating a specific skillset to sooth your eyes, this time the ability to stop/turn on a dime,

All right, let’s talk numbers. I looked at the top 12 WRs in yards and tracked the following:

  1. Yards per target- explained above, the most important metric in my opinion.
  2. Catch per target, or catch percentage- How often did the receiver catch the ball per target thrown? Obviously the higher the percentage (shown as a decimal), the better.
  3. Touchdowns per target- How often did the receiver find the end zone per target? This is part luck, part usage, and part skill. Also shown as a decimal.
  4. Targets per 40+ yard play. How often did the player create a huge play that flipped the field? Presented on a “number of targets per 40+ yard play” format.

Obviously, these numbers are not the end-all-be-all for any receiver, but they are ABSOLUTELY a better indicator of a receiver’s efficiency, effectiveness when thrown at, and explosiveness. So let’s look at the list, with Hill at the top followed by everyone else.

(for the sake of inclusiveness, I included Odell’s 2015 season, his very best)

I’ll let you take a look at the numbers for a minute, then tell you what I take from them. Go ahead, let them soak in. Because these numbers absolutely ASTOUNDED me.

The reason? Because they show that, objectively, Tyreek Hill is literally the most productive wide receiver in the group on a per-target basis, and it’s not particularly close. In short, when you view the stats in light of efficiency and compare Hill to every single one of the receivers people talk about when they discuss the “best” in the league (besides maybe Mike Evans, who is also way behind Hill in these categories by the way), Hill isn’t just AMONG the best. He IS the best.

Hill is the best in yards per target by a wide margin, 1.3 yards (a massive distance when measuring this type of stat) ahead of his closest competition (Julio and Marvin Jones). He’s also at the top with regards to reception per target, and near the top in TD’s per target. He also has huge plays more frequently than any other player, again by a margin that isn’t close in most cases. The only players close are Cooks and Hilton, who are considered the premier deep threats in the league.

Why is Hill at the top of the mountain? In short, because he has more huge plays (his frequency of 40+ yard plays) COMBINED with his high catch frequency (over 70 percent) show that he’s utterly unique among wide receivers in that he can hit the home runs and the singles. In other words, Hill can torch you for huge plays down the field...

BUT he can also make you die the death of a thousand paper cuts in the short game, as corners give him massive cushion and bail deep for fear of getting beat for a big play.

Hill is, quite literally, the best deep threat in football. This should not even be a controversial statement at this point. No one makes big plays down the field as frequently as Hill on a per-target basis.The only players who come close (Cooks and Hilton) aren’t as capable in the short game as Hill, so their catch frequency suffers (as the deep ball is naturally less likely to be completed frequently).

If you gave Tyreek Hill the same number of targets as, say, Antonion Brown received, AND assumed Hill would only be 90 percent as efficient with increased targets (which isn’t necessarily true, but we’ll do for the sake of argument), Hill would have 1,633 yards and 10 TD’s, both well above what Brown managed this year. Again, that’s assuming a full 10 percent drop in his efficiency just to make it fair. THAT’S how good he’s been on a per-target basis this year: so good that 90 percent of what he’s done is superior to the consensus best WR in the NFL.

Of course, the Steeler fan will counter “Hill would get that many targets if he were open.” Of course, if you watch the Chiefs at all you recognize that argument for what it is: a non-factual attempt at trying to create an excuse as to why Hill is the most efficient receiver in the league. Because if you watch the Chiefs, you know that Hill is quite often open and not targeted for one reason or another (sometimes due to the quarterback, sometimes due to scheme or other issues). The idea that he isn’t open quite often, quite frankly, absurd.

And then, of course, one might make the argument that Hill has Alex Smith, a very accurate quarterback, throwing him the ball and is so at an advantage. Of course, that argument is easily discarded by simply reviewing the film and finding multiple big plays lost like this one (though Alex has been most quite good this season, this snap is demonstrative of the fact that Hill loses his fair share of opportunities due to misplaced throws).

In short, no, Tyreek is not uniquely advantaged to be more efficient than other wide receivers. He’s just that good already, and any argument to the contrary is simply an attempt at hanging on to the preconceived notion that he’s merely a gadget player or some other such nonsense. It’s just not true if you watch more than a few dozen of his snaps.

So statistically, Tyreek Hill is not only in elite company, he IS the elite company. Now, am I claiming Hill is the best wide receiver in the league? No. All I’m saying is that, on a per target basis, he is statistically literally the best wide receiver I could find in the NFL. Take from that what you will.

But the important thing, for me, is to break down HOW Hill has managed to climb the mountain so quickly to elite status. After all, we are used to seeing receivers take at least a few years to reach lofty heights like the word elite. The reason Hill has done it so quickly is because he possesses several traits that are at or near the absolute top of the NFL, and does not have any corresponding weaknesses that drag him down.

Of course, there’s his deep speed. You’ve seen that multiple times already, but here it is again just for fun.

We can start the “Tyreek Hill is an elite WR” conversation by pointing out, again, that he’s the best deep threat in the league. No one can get behind defenses as quickly or with as frightening results. He’s the fastest player out there every time he steps on the field. Having a trait where you’re literally the best in the NFL is a good start to being elite, to be sure.

Of course, Hill’s ability as a deep threat doesn’t end with “he’s really fast.” Hill is also superb at tracking the ball in the air and adjusting to it, whether on deep shots or on shorter routes. He can do this while running full speed, which gives him a massive advantage over corners and safeties who simply lack the body control, and balance to watch the ball, run, and adjust all at the same time.

This play is a perfect demonstration of why Hill isn’t just some fast guy on deep shots (or any type of pass).

Here, the corner actually does a very good job sticking with Hill down the field initially, showing great speed and staying in his pocket. Hill is able to get perhaps a half step of separation, but nothing serious.

However, when Alex throws the ball, it winds up short (I’m guessing due to Alex getting creamed as he threw. Side note: I LOVE that he still threw it up there for Hill to make a play. Love it). It’s as the ball arrives here that you see Hill demonstrate another elite skill ... seeing the ball, adjusting to the ball, and showing the body control to get his feet down despite having to jump awkwardly for the ball (after slowing down from a full sprint and letting the defender go by).

That’s a wildly difficult catch to make, and one that the vast majority of NFL wide receivers simply cannot do. That’s why there aren’t more elite deep threats despite the league being full of fast guys: most of them can’t adjust to the ball like that AND control their bodies in order to come down with the ball in bounds. Think Donnie Avery. He was insanely fast (though not as fast as Tyreek), but lacked the ball skills. Hill has them in spades, and you see it time after time.

Many deep threat WR’s need a perfect or very good ball thrown to them to bring it down. Hill needs neither. You don’t need to be 6’4 to be a great jump ball receiver, you just need the ability to track and adjust to the ball better than the defender. Hill can do that better than nearly anyone else in the league.

And no, that ability to adjust to the ball and make tough catches isn’t limited to deep shots. And yes, this was a catch.

I think I’ve proven my point.

So now we have two wildly important areas (speed and ball tracking) in which Hill is among the very best in the league. That alone would make him quite dangerous, but we’re not done yet.

The common theme I hear from those who believe Hill isn’t among the league’s best is that he isn’t a good route runner. I’ve never had anyone actually present to me the evidence for this, but it’s taken as fact for... well, some reason. I assume it’s because Hill is in his first year as a full time receiver and has openly discussed how he needs to improve his routes. However, the idea that he’s a poor route runner is outdated.

This is not the type of route you see from a guy who is necessarily “limited” in his routes. Watch each step of this route. He explodes into the route initially, getting the defender on his heels. He then jabs inside with a single step, then moves into a cut outside (slightly rounded, to be fair), THEN stops on a dime for a comeback.

This is a multi-layered route, and one that requires some nuance and proper steps from a receiver before it can even be called. And it’s not the only time this season you’ll see multi-step routes like this for Hill. He’s drastically improved on his double moves, lessening his false steps and creating a nightmare for defenders who are afraid to get beat deep but also don’t want to get shook for easy first downs.

Hill’s ability to turn on a dime is underrated, and has only gotten better as he’s cut his false steps out.

Turn on any Chiefs game and you’ll see Hill run a much, much more complete route tree than he was last season. A lot of his yards come on shorter in/out/curl/comeback plays in which he takes advantage of the fact that defenders have to respect his deep speed and uses his newly-refined route running to get easy separation.

Another trait Hill has shown is the ability to make contested catches under duress, a highly valuable trait for receivers and one that isn’t often attributed to smaller receivers.

Hill’s unique body control and ability to adjust to the ball, which we’ve discussed at length here, allow him to be a guy who can come down with a contested catch despite being a small wide receiver.

We’re running out of time and words, but I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss Hill’s yards after catch ability, which is underrated given his other remarkable strengths. Hill is, of course, fantastic with the ball in his hands with regards to finding open space to run to (being the fastest guy on the field helps), but he also has very underrated toughness and strength to grind out for a few extra yards when necessary.

In short, Hill is has elite speed, very-near elite quickness, elite tracking and adjusting, good hands, exceptional contested catch ability, elite YAC ability, and solid (ever-improving) route running.

To put it another way, Hill is elite in multiple important facets of wide receiver play, with no real weaknesses to his game. The only possible complaint I could see about him is that he’s not yet savvy in finding holes in zone coverage. However, a quick browsing of his film from last year to this year shows improvement in this area as well.

I just spent nearly 2,700 words explaining this all, but only because preconceived notions (like Tyreek Hill not being an elite receiver) are incredibly difficult to change. Because of that, I attempted to remove every possible argument one could make. From a statistical standpoint, Hill holds his own (and actually leads the way) against every single “elite” receiver in the league. On film, he demonstrates multiple elite traits. When a guy is elite statistically AND on film, it’s time to just acknowledge the truth.

Hill came to Kansas City amidst a great deal of controversy, and deservedly so. His domestic violence conviction will (and should) follow him for his entire career. Thus far, he has continued to keep out of trouble, expressed remorse for his past, and has been a positive presence in the community off the field. Those are all important issues that must continue to be monitored given his history, and people will likely debate the rest of his career as to whether he should be given the shot has has in the NFL.

However, ON the field, the debate is rapidly closing: Hill has become an elite receiver, and considering it’s his first full year at the position, that should utterly terrify the rest of the NFL.

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