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The Greatest Receiver Debuts Since Randy Moss

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Image by Bill Wippert/Buffalo Bills.

Welcome back to Sports Obsessive. Today, I will be ranking the greatest receiver debuts since Randy Moss. This season, receivers Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins set the league on fire in their debuts with their new teams. Their performances were so impressive that they recalled one of the greatest receiving seasons we have ever seen: Randy Moss’ historic 2007 season, which also happened to be his first season with the New England Patriots. While Moss only finished 8th in catches, he finished 2nd in receiving yards and set the NFL record for most touchdown receptions in a season.

Moss’ success helped propel Tom Brady to his first NFL MVP award, the Patriots to an undefeated regular season, and a record-setting offense that outscored every other team in the league by 134 points. Diggs and Hopkins’ success in similar situations to Moss got me thinking: what were the best receiver debuts since Moss’ 2007?

In this list, I am only considering NFL veterans that switched teams in the off-season by trade or free agency, so rookies are not being considered. I tried to balance stats and team success in my rankings. I also to considered how much the player’s addition improved the team’s success and performance from the previous year, although I otherwise tried to only consider the season in question. Without further ado, let’s get started!

Honorable Mention: Wes Welker, New England Patriots, 2007

Welker doesn’t technically qualify for this list, as his breakout Patriots debut ran concurrently with Moss’. I felt that he still had to be mentioned here, though, as he was a key contributor to the same undefeated, record-setting team that Moss was. Welker’s 112 catches tied for the league lead, kicking off a stretch with five 100-catch seasons in six years.

7. Vincent Jackson: 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Vincent Jackson makes a catch in front of a Detroit Lions defender. Jackson's first season with the Bucs was one of the best receiver debuts of all time.
Image by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers/buccaneers.com.

Coming in at the seventh slot is Vincent Jackson. Jackson’s 2012 was a deserved Pro Bowl year, but there are several factors keeping him from rising higher in these rankings. While the Bucs record improved from the previous year, they still finished only 7-9, last in the NFC South. Jackson led the league in yards per reception with an incredible 19.2 and was 5th in receiving yards. However, he was outside the top 10 in receptions (25th) and touchdowns (t-15th).

That said, Jackson’s addition to the offense helped the Bucs score 102 more points than they did the previous season, jumping from 27th in points to 13th. They also jumped from 21st in total yards and 26th in passing touchdowns to 9th and 8th, respectively. While his numbers and team success aren’t eye-popping, his performance deserved him a spot on this list. Consider this more of a “good to be nominated” award.

6. Golden Tate: 2014 Detroit Lions

Golden Tate looks towards the camera during a game in New Orleans. Tate's first season with the Lions was one of the best receiver debuts of all time.

After four solid, if unspectacular, seasons with the Seahawks, Tate broke out in his first season with the Lions. His 99 receptions (6th most in the league), 144 targets (8th), and 1331 receiving yards (7th) remain career highs, and he made the only Pro Bowl of his career.

Under new coach Jim Caldwell, not only did the Lions finish with their first winning season in 3 years, their 11-5 record remains their best record in the last 25 years. They made the playoffs for only the second time since 2000 but lost in the Wildcard round to the Dallas Cowboys. While Tate put the Lions on the board first with a 51-yard score, he added only 5 more catches for 38 yards the rest of the eventual playoff loss.

Tate obviously played a major role in the Lions’ success; however, he has a few things working against him in these rankings. While he finished the year as the Lions’ leader in receptions and receiving yards, Calvin Johnson was the true lead receiver on the team, He likely would have led the team in those categories if he hadn’t missed three games due to injury. In the three games that Johnson missed, Tate averaged an 8/116.3/0.7 receiving line, compared to just 5.8/75.5/0.2 line the rest of the season.

Also, the Lions’ offense fell from 6th in total yards, 13th in points, and 3rd in passing yards in 2013 to 19th, 22nd, and 12th, respectively, in 2014. This difference isn’t all on Tate, of course, with the shift in coaching philosophy from Schwartz to Caldwell being the primary culprit. Tate also scored by far the fewest touchdowns of anyone on this list with only 4 on the season.

5. DeAndre Hopkins: 2020 Arizona Cardinals

DeAndre Hopkins goes up to catch the now famous Hail Murray pass in between 3 Bills defenders. Hopkins' first season with the Cardinals was one of the best receiver debuts of all time.

Hopkins brought the same elite level of production he displayed in Houston with him to Arizona. There was a lot of weird symmetry in Hopkins numbers: his 115 receptions were tied for both the second most of his career and the second most in the league. His 1407 receiving yards were both the third most of his career and the third most in the league. He also chipped in the immediately legendary “Hail Murray.”

That said, there are a couple of knocks on Hopkins’ season that relegate him to a lower, although still prestigious, spot on this list. The Hail Murray alone may have been enough by itself to guarantee Hopkins a spot, but it was also one of only six touchdowns he scored on the year, the fewest he’s had since 2016. There were also questions raised about his usage and whether the Cardinals were properly using his prodigious speed and jumping ability. Hopkins was targeted a lot closer to the line-of-scrimmage than he had been in previous seasons, evidenced by his average targeted air yards (defined by Next Gen Stats as “the vertical yards on a pass attempt at the moment the ball is caught in relation to the line of scrimmage) being by far his lowest since 2016 (the first year of NGS).

On average, Hopkins was only 9 yards away from the line of scrimmage on his targets. While this number compares favorably to fellow stud receiver Davante Adams (9.1 TAY), Hopkins’ TAYs this season were the lowest of his career by 1.3 yards, which is another 1.6 TAY lower than the next lowest (meanwhile, Adams’ number usually hovers in this range).

The change in Hopkins usage could account for the only moderate offensive gains that the Cardinals attained: they only raised from 16th to 13th in points scored, 24th to 17th in passing yards, and 25th to 14th in passing touchdowns.

These rankings seem like a colossal failure when considering the optimism that surrounded the team after they pulled off what was, at the time, considered one of the most lopsided trades in NFL history. The Cardinals improved by 2.5 wins over their previous season, but still only finished outside of the playoffs at 8-8. So while Hopkins still had a productive and deservedly Pro Bowl season, it is hard to put him much higher on this list.

4. Emmanuel Sanders: 2014 Denver Broncos

Emmanuel Sanders makes an athletic, diving catch with the Denver Broncos. A Colts defender is in the foreground. Sander's first season with the Broncos was one of the best receiver debuts of all time.
Image by Gabriel Christus/denverbroncos.com.

Golden Tate and Emmanuel Sanders had nearly mirror beginnings to their careers: both came into the league in 2010, and had minimal production their first two years, modest production their next two, and major breakouts after changing teams in their fifth seasons. Incredibly, their stats for their first 4 years are nearly identical, with Tate recording a 165/2195/15 receiving line to Sanders’ 161/2030/11 line during that span.

That said, Sanders clearly had the superior season when he debuted for the Broncos. Sanders’ 101 receptions (5th in the league), 1404 receiving yards (5th), and 9 receiving touchdowns (t-16th) remain career highs. Like Tate, it’s a stretch to call Sanders the top receiver on his own team, as Demaryius Thomas recorded a 111/1619/11 receiving line.

While the Broncos took a “step backward” from 2013, it’s not really fair to categorize them like that. The 2013 Broncos were an historic offense, with four players recording double-digit receiving touchdowns on the way to Peyton Manning’s record-setting 55 touchdown passes. The 2014 Broncos offense was merely less-historic: they still finished 2nd in points, 4th in yards, and 2nd in passing touchdowns.

The Broncos finished 12-4, the second best team record for any player on this list. The elimination of the first-round bye for the 2 seed makes the Broncos the only team on this list to have a first round bye, as well as the only team (to date) on this list to make it out of the Wildcard round. Unfortunately, they still didn’t win a playoff game, losing to Peyton Manning’s previous team, the Indianapolis Colts. Sanders was quiet in the playoff loss, converting a whopping 15 targets into only 7 catches for 46 yards.

Luckily for the Broncos (and unfortunately for my Carolina Panthers), they came back to win the Super Bowl the following year, despite fielding a much less effective offense. Their Super Bowl 50 win also means that Sanders is the only player on this list to win a Super Bowl with his new team to date. 

3. Brandon Marshall: 2015 New York Jets

Brandon Marshall makes a leaping catch in the endzone while on the Jets. A Patriots defensive back tries to break up the catch. Marshall's first season with the Jets was one of the best receiver debuts of all time.
Image by the New York Jets/newyorkjets.com.

Brandon Marshall was so good that he actually cracks this list twice. His first season with the Jets is almost as good as the one higher on the list, except for a few extenuating factors that we will get into below.

Marshall’s Pro Bowl 2015 season included 109 catches (t-5th in the league) and 1502 receiving yards (t-4th), both of which were the second highest totals of his career. He also set a career high and tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns with 14.  

Marshall’s production helped the Jets record their first winning season since 2010 and more than doubled their win total from the year before. Marshall helped QB Ryan Fitzpatrick have the best full year of his career, with career highs in yards, touchdowns, and QB wins. The combination for Marshall, Fitzpatrick, and Eric Decker helped raise a moribund offense that was 28th in scoring and 22nd in yards, 32nd in passing yards, and 30th in passing touchdowns the year before to 11th in scoring, 10th in yards, 13th in passing yards, and 8th in passing touchdowns. 

The 2015 Jets had an up-and-down year, which is to be expected with Ryan Fitzpatrick (as much as we all love him). After starting 4-1, the Jets lost 4 of 5, ripped off 5 straight wins, and lost in the final game of the year to miss the playoffs. Marshall was a key contributor to the 5-game winning streak that almost put the Jets into the playoffs, averaging 7.8 catches, 117.2 receiving yards, and more than a touchdown per game in the last 6 games of the season.

2. Stefon Diggs: 2020 Buffalo Bills

Stefon Diggs runs away from a Dolphins defender as he sprints down the field. Diggs' first season with the Bills was one of the best receiver debuts of all time.
Image by Bill Wippert/Buffalo Bills.

A real argument could be made that Diggs should be in the first slot in this list. Depending on what happens in the playoffs, Diggs’ arrival to the Bills may end up being one of the most impactful roster additions at any position in NFL history. A Bills Super Bowl win this season would unquestionably move Diggs into the top spot.

Diggs’ 127 receptions and 1535 receiving yards shattered his previous career highs, and both numbers were the most in the league. He also chipped in 8 receiving touchdowns, tied for 15th in the league. Diggs is the first Bills player to lead the league in either receptions or receiving yards and the first veteran since 1970 to lead the league in receiving yards in his first year with a new team.

Diggs’ positive impact on quarterback Josh Allen cannot be understated. Allen went from having worthwhile questions swirl around him to a legitimate MVP candidate on the way to setting franchise records for passing yards, passing touchdowns, and completions in a season. Allen’s efficiency passing down the field greatly improved with Diggs. Without Diggs in 2019, Allen had one of the worst air yard differentials in the league last season at -3.2 (37th on the year, ahead of only Mason Rudolph and, weirdly, Aaron Rodgers, while behind lesser players like Sam Darnold and Kyle Allen), compared to -1.9 in 2020 with Diggs (16th in the league). For the year, Allen’s average completed air yards was the seventh in the league, up from 15th.

With Allen and Diggs’ success came success for the Bills. His numbers go well beyond individual performance, however. The Bills improved by three wins from 2019, finishing 13-3—the best team record for any player on this list—and securing the 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. On the way, they became the first team since 2014 to enter the playoffs winning 6 straight games all by double-digits.

The Bills’ offensive rankings skyrocketed, from 23rd to 2nd in points, 24th to 2nd in yards, 26th to 3rd in passing yards, and 24th to 3rd in passing touchdowns. Without a doubt, Diggs had one of the most impressive seasons that we’ve seen from any receiver in recent memory, let alone in their first year with the team. Despite this, I still think that there’s one receiver that was even more impressive…

1. Brandon Marshall: 2012 Chicago Bears

Receiver Brandon Marshall stands with arms outstretched after catching a pass. He is facing away from the camera. His first season with the Bears was one of the greatest receiver debuts of all time.
Image by the Chicago Bears/chicagobears.com.

Marshall’s 2015 season was incredibly strong, but his magnum opus is his 2012 season. Marshall set career highs with 118 catches and 1508 receiving yards. He finished the season second in receptions (Calvin Johnson had 122) and third in receiving yards (behind Johnson’s record-setting 1964 and Andre Johnson’s 1598). His 11 touchdowns were the third highest total of his career, tied for the 4th highest total in the league that year. Marshall was named first-team All-Pro for the only time in his career.

Marshall’s incredible 2012 Bears debut takes the top slot because there was literally no other legitimate option outside of him on the team. Marshall’s yardage total accounted for nearly half of the team’s passing yards, 3298. No one else on the 2012 Bears had more than 375 receiving yards. Marshall wasn’t the only option on the 2015 Jets, with Eric Decker putting up a 80/1027/12 receiving line, and that’s what gives his Bears season the edge.

In 2012, Marshall actually accounted for a significantly higher percentage of his team’s receiving yards (45.7%) than record-setting Calvin Johnson (38.2%). Marshall was also the first 1000-yard receiver for the Bears in 10 years (Marty Booker, 2002). Marshall’s 118 catches set the record for receptions by a player in their first year with a new team, which was only eclipsed this year by Diggs’ 127.

The Bears started 7-1, almost matching the 8 wins they recorded the year before. Unfortunately, they faded down the stretch, winning only 3 more games to finish 10-6 and missing the playoffs. The Bears’ disappointing finish can hardly be blamed on Marshall, who had a 59/797/7 receiving line in the first half of the year and a 59/711/4 line in the second half.

Final Thoughts

That’s our list! Who did we miss? Anyone you would move up or down? Whether you agree or disagree with us, we’d love to hear what you think! Let us know your takes in the comments below and on Twitter/Facebook @SportsObsessive.

Written by Nick Luciano

Nick Luciano received a Master’s in Music Theory from the University of North Carolina Greensboro. He is a film editor at 25YL and cohosts the 25 Yards Later fantasy football podcast for SportsObsessive.

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