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Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
To borrow a term from baseball, an NFL home run threat is quite rare.
The baseball term, though a mixed metaphor, is a bit fitting though. For a few select players who are dangerous with the ball in their hands, no matter the scenario or field position, a simple “touchdown” description doesn’t do their talents justice.
Home run threats are all over the place in terms of style. Some wideouts are shifty, juking-defenders-out-of-cleats machines; others bully defensive backs at the high point of a target and after the catch. Some running backs are one-cut threats before kicking into gear; others mow over any defender in their way before ripping off massive gains.
Like anything at the NFL level, there isn’t any one stat that can reliably predict if a player will be a home run threat. But a proven track record doesn’t hurt, nor does a wicked combination of testing and measurement numbers.
The following players can score at a moment’s notice and cause defensive coordinators to lose sleep.
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Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press
Someone has to take the mantle at tight end with Rob Gronkowski gone, right?
George Kittle more than looks the part.
The fifth-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 scored twice in a quiet rookie year. But his sophomore leap catapulted him into the realm of the elite: he put up 88 catches on 136 targets for 1,377 yards (a single-season record among tight ends) and five touchdowns, averaging 15.6 yards per catch.
And it gets better. Not only did Kittle put up a massive amount of yardage per catch, his longest play checked in at 85 yards, he put up 20 plays of 20+ yards (tied for eighth) and tied for second in the league with six plays of 40+ yards, something only Antonio Brown, Mike Evans and a handful of others could match by tying the mark.
Also, try to keep in mind Kittle did most of this with Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard taking the majority of the snaps under center. He’s a star and just getting started.
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Gregory Payan/Associated Press
New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara scored eight rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns as a rookie, which was a clear-cut sign he was going places.
Now there isn’t any dispute he’s one of the most dangerous players in the league with the ball in his hands.
Kamara followed up a strong rookie year with 883 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground and caught another 81 passes for 709 yards and four scores. Only one running back scored more rushing touchdowns.
But this isn’t just about sheer production at face value. Kamara ranked top-five in first-down plays and did all of his damage despite facing eight-plus men in the box 22.16 percent of the time.
Think about that—even with Drew Brees under center, defenses threw eight or more men in the box more often than the majority of the backs in the league, which says everything about his home run ability.
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Gregory Payan/Associated Press
At this point, Saquon Barkley doesn’t really need an intro.
Last year’s second-overall pick ran for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging five yards per carry. He saw 121 targets through the air and reeled in 91 of them for 721 yards and four more scores, meaning he was one of those bullies mentioned in the intro who merely bulldozed his way over players asked to stop him.
The deeper dive is even more impressive. Barkley ran for an NFL-leading 16 carries of 20-plus yards and also led the way at the 40-plus mark with seven. He did this while facing eight-plus men in the box 22.99 percent of the time.
Were this a case of Barkley being ineffective through the air, he wouldn’t make the list. But he was effective in both phases while Eli Manning struggled and Odell Beckham Jr. hardly hit the 1,000-yard mark.
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Matt Rourke/Associated Press
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
DeSean Jackson might be 32 years old but he’s far from slowing as one of the NFL’s deadliest weapons. He’s past the 10,000-yard mark at this point in his career, has scored 53 touchdowns and averages 17.4 yards per catch.
Incredibly, Jackson spent 2018 putting up eye-popping numbers despite a dire situation in Tampa Bay. He caught 41 passes, turning them into 774 yards and four scores while averaging an NFL-best 18.9 yards per catch among guys with at least 40 catches.
Thirteen of Jackson’s catches went for 20-plus yards and five were of the 40-plus variety. While quarterbacks often get the most attention when they don’t dip in production as they age, Jackson is right up there as remaining elite despite being well past the dreaded age of 30.
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Bill Feig/Associated Press
It shouldn’t be any surprise to see another member of Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints make a list like this.
Michael Thomas, a second-round pick in 2016, has 1,100-plus yards in all three of his seasons so far and he’s bookended the three with nine-touchdown campaigns.
In 2018, Thomas set a new career high with 1,405 yards to complement his nine scores and 75 first downs, with a long of 72 yards.
But this isn’t simply some result of playing in a Brees-led offense. Thomas makes plenty of plays on his own before, and after, the catch and as a result, ranked in the top 10 in yards per game and went for 20-plus yards 17 times, good for a top-15 mark. Not only did Thomas have a 30.26-percent share of his team’s air yards, he also caught an NFL-leading 85.03 percent of his targets, which is incredible given that Brees thew his way 147 times. It’s no wonder that he led the league with 125 catches.
With the efficiency of a slot possession guy and the explosiveness of a deep-ball threat, Brees’ favorite weapon is one of a kind.
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Darron Cummings/Associated Press
T.Y. Hilton hasn’t had a hard time getting himself on lists like this in the past.
Hilton, a third-round pick in 2012, has 1,000-plus yards in all but two seasons and has scored 40 times since entering the league. He not only averages 16 yards per catch on his career, he’s tallied 46 or more first downs in all but two seasons.
Last year, Hilton only made it on the field 14 times, yet caught 76 passes for 1,270 yards and six touchdowns, moving the chains 55 times in the process. He averaged north of 90 yards per game and put up gains of 20-plus yards 22 times (fifth in the league) and 40-plus yards six times (tied for second).
Hilton’s ability to house nearly anything thrown his way has made him one of the game’s most intriguing weapons, even if he is the quiet sort.
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Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
At this point, it is well established that DeAndre Hopkins is one of those guys who defies the conventional wisdom that often isn’t so enlightening.
Hopkins ran a ho-hum 4.57-second time in the 40-yard dash at his combine and is all of 6’1″.
That hasn’t stopped him from amassing north of 7,000 yards, 47 touchdowns and just over 14 yards per catch since 2013.
Last year alone, Nuk put up 1,572 yards and 11 touchdowns, his third time in four seasons hitting the double-digit mark in touchdowns.
He ranked fourth in the NFL with 23 of his catches going for 20-plus yards and also had four go for 40-plus. He was second in the league at 98.3 yards per game and accounted for an incredible 44.04 percent of his team’s air yardage.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Tyreek Hill’s numbers all of three years into his career are staggering.
Over those three seasons, Hill has 3,000-plus receiving yards with 25 touchdowns. On the ground, he’s got 477 yards and four more scores. As a returner, he’s taken four punts and one kickoff back for scores.
Hill’s third season was spent racking up career-highs in receptions (87), yards (1,479), touchdowns (12) and yards per catch (17.0)—which isn’t a surprise given the arrival of Patrick Mahomes. That wasn’t necessary to make Hill effective, but it sure didn’t cause any problems.
For those keeping count, Hill also led the league in gains of 20-plus catches at 27 and in the 40-plus category at eight. He also grabbed 60 first downs. Deployable in any situation and only bumping his numbers after Mahomes’ arrival, the eventual ceiling for Hill is tops on a list like this.
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Ron Schwane/Associated Press
The Cleveland Browns are getting plenty of hype for a reason.
Odell Beckham Jr. arrives five seasons into his career sitting on four instances of 1,000 yards or more, the exception being his four-game campaign in 2017. He’s scored 44 times over 59 games, averaging 14 yards per catch and moving the chains a staggering 255 times, including 51-plus times in four seasons.
Despite missing four games a year ago in a run-based New York Giants offense while Eli Manning struggled, Beckham totaled 1,052 receiving yards with six scores, tallying 17 catches of 20-plus yards and three 40-plus gains in the process.
Even while missing those four games, Beckham accounted for 33.29 percent of his team’s total air yards while inhaling 62.1 percent of everything thrown his way. To say the odds of a sophomore slump for Baker Mayfield just went down in a big way would be an understatement.
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Jason E. Miczek/Associated Press
It doesn’t get better than Julio Jones.
The only times Jones has failed to reach 1,000 yards since entering the league as the sixth pick in 2011 have been when he’s missed at least three games. He’s hit the achievement in six of eight seasons, scoring six or more touchdowns in six of eight seasons as well. He’s averaged 15.4 yards per catch throughout his career, is healthily past the 10,000-yard mark and moved the chains 495 times, with a high of 93 times in a single season.
And that’s just getting started. Jones casually hit 1,677 yards last year, which led the league but wasn’t even a career high. He scored eight times and tallied 80 first downs. Of his catches, 24 went for 20-plus yards, two went for 40-plus yards and he caught 66.47 percent of the targets thrown his way.
Keep in mind that Jones also ranked first in the NFL in share of team’s air yards at 45.64 percent, which is eye-opening in an offense that attempted north of 600 passes and contained other weapons like Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley.
It doesn’t matter who Jones lines up against—the NFL’s best singlehandedly changes games.