Cooper Kupp dominated this season as a wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams. He is only the fourth receiver in NFL history to capture the receiving triple crown, leading the NFL in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
We knew that the NFL’s move to a 17-game season would lead to some records falling — and for a while it looked like Kupp was going to break some of those records. He didn’t end up breaking conventional records, but he did set records in advanced metrics by combining incredible efficiency with high volume.
Football Outsiders measures receiver value with DYAR, or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This metric compares success on each of a receiver’s targets with a baseline set at replacement level, defined as roughly the level of a typical fourth receiver on a team.
DYAR has a number of advantages over conventional stats. It’s normalized for each year, recognizing that passing numbers have gone up over 40 years but yards per reception have generally gone down. It’s adjusted for schedule. It incorporates the value of first downs, an oft-ignored but important stat for receivers, and it incorporates the big gains from drawing defensive pass interference (DPI) flags.
We’ve also added in value from rushing attempts, although nobody in our top 10 is quite Deebo Samuel.
After all those are factored in, we end up with a stat that balances efficiency with volume to find the most valuable receivers of each season and of the 38-year period for which we have play-by-play data.
Below, we’ll take a look at the top 10 wide receiver seasons since 1983 using DYAR. First, let’s take a look at two other seasons where someone won the receiver triple crown but was ranked far from the top 10.
Stats: 100 catches for 1,502 yards, 13 TDs and a 57% catch rate (326 DYAR); Triple crown
Rice is the greatest wide receiver of all-time and was the first player to win the receiving triple crown in the modern NFL. But this season ranks 213th among all wide receiver seasons since 1983 ranked by Football Outsiders DYAR. Partly because of his sub-60% catch rate, Rice has eight other seasons that we rate with more value than his 1990 campaign, including three more seasons that you’ll find further down this list.
And yet, that doesn’t mean that Rice’s triple crown was somehow misleading. Rice still led the NFL in receiving DYAR. He put up over 200 yards more than any other receiver. He had 100 catches when only one other receiver had more than 80. He scored 13 touchdowns when only one other receiver had 10. It just wasn’t a great season for great receiving seasons. That’s how good Rice was: the best season out of any wide receiver in 1990 was just an average season for Rice.
Stats: 108 catches for 1,461 yards, 13 TDs, 67% catch rate (390 DYAR); Triple crown
Although Sharpe won the receiving triple crown in 1992, he did not win the receiving DYAR crown, finishing second behind Michael Irvin of the Cowboys.
Irvin did not have as much volume, with 41 fewer targets and 30 fewer catches, but he came out with much more efficiency. Irvin gained 17.9 yards per catch compared to just 13.5 for Sharpe. Irvin gained a first down or touchdown on 61.5% of his receptions, compared to just 42.3% for Sharpe. Add on four defensive pass interference calls for 70 yards, and Irvin narrowly gained more total yards than Sharpe as well, 1,466 to 1,461.
Sharpe had an excellent season in 1992 but it falls short of the all-time greats despite winning the receiving triple crown.
Stats: 84 catches for 1,492 yards, 10 TDs, 62% catch rate (544 DYAR)
Morgan had a fantastic year as a deep threat in 1986. His 62% catch rate was the highest for any receiver with at least 100 targets, but Morgan also averaged 17.8 yards per reception. As a result he was the No. 1 receiver in value per play (DVOA), which over 135 targets also made him the No. 1 receiver in total value (DYAR).
The No. 2 wide receiver of 1986 by DYAR was Jerry Rice in his second season, and he almost won the triple crown in that year as well. Rice led the NFL with 1,570 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, and he led all wideouts with 86 catches, but tight end Todd Christensen of the Raiders had 95 catches. A lower catch rate and first-down rate, plus two fumbles, put him below Morgan in our stats.
Stats: 103 catches for 1,563 yards, 12 TDs, 69% catch rate (544 DYAR); Triple crown
It’s hard to undersell the greatness of Smith’s 2005 season. It was the third season in modern NFL history with a receiving triple crown but comes out much higher than Rice’s 1990 or Sharpe’s 1992 in our advanced metrics.
Like Morgan in 1986, Smith had the highest catch rate among receivers with at least 100 targets (69%). And like Morgan, Smith led all receivers (minimum 50 targets) in value per play (DVOA), which is a rare achievement for a receiver with 150 targets like Smith had in 1986. Plus, Jake Delhomme may have been the weakest quarterback of any receiver on this list.
However, Smith got the triple crown with ties atop the leaderboard in catches (Larry Fitzgerald also had 103) and touchdowns (Marvin Harrison also had 12).
Stats: 122 catches for 1,848 yards, 15 TDs, 69% catch rate (550 DYAR)
The 1995 campaign might have been the best season for wide receivers in NFL history. Four different receivers that year had 1,600 receiving yards. Eight had 100 catches. And eight had at least a dozen touchdowns.
Rice is one of two receivers from 1995 who appear in our all-time top 10. He led the NFL with 1,848 receiving yards, while 122 catches and 15 touchdowns each finished second. The main reason Rice was just second in FO stats in 1995? He had just 79 first-down conversions, while the receiver you’ll find listed below had 98 first downs with fewer catches.
Stats: 129 catches for 1,697 yards, 13 TDs, 71% catch rate (559 DYAR)
Brown’s two best seasons come out very high in our metrics, with his 2015 season just missing this list at No. 11. Brown had higher totals in 2015, with 136 catches for 1,841 yards. However, he had more touchdowns in 2014 and was slightly more efficient overall: 90 first downs including 13 touchdowns on 129 catches in 2014, compared to 91 first downs including 10 touchdowns on 136 catches in 2015.
Brown had 18 more catches than any receiver in 2014 and also led the league in receiving yardage, but Dez Bryant beat him out with 16 touchdowns.
Stats: 98 catches for 1,482 yards, 23 TDs, 61% catch rate (568 DYAR)
Reggie Wayne gained more receiving yards than Moss in 2007, and a number of other receivers had more catches, including his teammate Wes Welker. But 23 is a lot of touchdowns, and Moss did this against a schedule that was harder than the league average. Moss also led the NFL that year with 80 first-down conversions (including both touchdowns and DPI flags).
Stats: 96 catches for 1,680 yards, 16 TDs, 61% catch rate (575 DYAR)
Johnson had only five touchdowns when he set the all-time receiving yardage record in 2012, so our advanced metrics prefer the previous season. Johnson led the NFL with 1,680 receiving yards and led all wide receivers with 16 touchdowns. He also was near the top of the league with 17.5 yards per reception.
Stats: 82 catches for 1,483 yards, 17 TDs, 64% catch rate (581 DYAR)
Here’s another year where Rice almost won the receiving triple crown, leading the NFL in both receiving yardage and touchdowns but falling behind a handful of other players in total receptions. He had 18.1 yards per reception and gained a first down or touchdown on over 50% of his targets. Rice had 17 receiving touchdowns when nobody else had more than 12.
Stats: 112 catches for 1,499 yards, 13 TDs, 74% catch rate (591 DYAR)
By 1994, Rice had developed into a different type of receiver, combining a high catch rate with a lower average of yards per reception compared with earlier in his career. Rice caught 74% of listed targets in 1994 but only for 13.4 yards per reception. Once again he led the NFL in two of three categories to win the receiving triple crown — only Sterling Sharpe’s 18 receiving touchdowns kept Rice from another triple crown title.
This season would be lower in our metrics if we counted receiving value only, but Rice added seven carries for 93 yards and two rushing touchdowns.
Stats: 111 catches for 1,603 yards, 10 TDs, 67% catch rate (591 DYAR)
This is the best pure receiving value we’ve ever measured in a 16-game season, and the reason is Irvin’s ability to move the sticks. Other receivers had more catches, more yardage and more touchdowns. But Irvin drew 10 defensive pass interference flags for 202 total yards. Add on DPI flags and touchdowns to first downs and Irvin moved the sticks 98 times, the second-highest total of all time.
The only receiver with more first downs was Herman Moore of the Lions in the same 1995 season, but Moore needed 206 pass targets to gain 99 first downs. Irvin needed only 165 pass targets to gain 98. No receiver in history converted his targets into first downs quite as well as The Playmaker. Irvin also gets moved up a little bit because the Cowboys played a difficult schedule of opposing defenses in 1995.
Stats: 145 catches for 1,947 yards, 16 TDs, 76% catch rate (615 DYAR); Triple crown
Here we have our new champion for the season with the most receiving value. Once again, first downs are a big part of Kupp’s value. Including DPI flags and touchdowns, Kupp moved the sticks 92 times, one of the top 10 totals of the past 40 years. Kupp also ended up second to Calvin Johnson’s 2012 season in receiving yards and second to Michael Thomas’ 2019 season in total receptions.
Yes, obviously the 17-game season was important in helping Kupp reach these record totals. His 16-game pace would have come out at 579 DYAR, which would rank him fourth on this list between Rice’s two great seasons and Johnson’s 2011 season. Even at 16 games, Kupp was having a season for the ages.