The continued evolution of the passing game has helped protect Eric Dickerson’s fabled single-season rushing record. The advent of the 17-game regular season, however, might finally lead to the breaking of a record the Hall of Fame running back has owned for 37 years. The extra game may also lead to Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving record falling in 2021, the same year that Johnson will have his career immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The former Lions receiver made history by recording 1,964 yards in 2012. The record was previously owned by Jerry Rice, who is often regarded as the greatest receiver in league history. Fresh off of his third Super Bowl victory, Rice recorded 1,848 yards during the 1995 season. And while Julio Jones was able to pass Rice with 1,871 yards during the 2015 season, he wasn’t able to catch Johnson, who also caught a league-high 122 passes during his record-breaking season.
With the 2021 season on the horizon, CBS Sports decided to take a look at receivers with the best shot at breaking Johnson’s record in 2021, starting with the league’s reigning receiving champion. Who knows, maybe one of these players will become the NFL’s first 2,000-yard receiver.
The league’s receiving champion in 2020, Diggs also led the NFL in receptions during his first season in Buffalo. After posting three 100-yard receiving games through the first 12 games of the season, Diggs had three consecutive games of more than 100 yards during the final month of the regular season. Diggs had an immediate rapport with Josh Allen, who also enjoyed a breakout season that included 37 touchdown passes and eight touchdown runs. Allen and Diggs came in at 10th and 12th, respectively, in NFL senior writer Pete Prisco’s annual list of the league’s top 100 players.
The duo of Diggs and Allen should continue to be one of (if not the) league’s most prolific in 2021. That being said, it will be interesting to see how the addition of Emmanuel Sanders impacts Diggs’ production. Sanders may very well take some of Diggs’ targets, but his presence should probably opening things up even more for his younger teammate.
Despite dealing with hamstring and ankle injuries, Adams caught a league-high 18 touchdowns in 14 games in 2020. He also led the NFL with an average of 98.1 receiving yards per game. If healthy, Adams should be considered among the front-runners to win the NFL receiving title in 2021.
Adams has impeccable chemistry with Aaron Rodgers, who after months of speculation will be back in Green Bay for the upcoming season. Rodgers completed 77.2% of his passes to Adams, a Pro Bowler each of the last four years. A healthy Allen Lazard, the return of Randall Cobb and the selection of former Clemson wideout Amari Rodgers should further open things up for Adams, who should challenge Jordy Nelson’s franchise single season receiving record this season.
In 15 games last season, the explosive Hill caught 15 touchdowns while recording 1,276 receiving yards. Hill is capable of putting up monster stat lines, as evidenced by his 269-yard, three-touchdown performance in Kansas City’s regular-season win over Tampa Bay. If he can improve his catch rate (he caught 64.4% of his targets in 2020), Hill could definitely challenge Johnson’s record in 2021.
With Sammy Watkins now in Baltimore, look for Hill to receive more targets in 2021. Hill will continue to compete for targets with Travis Kelce, the Chiefs’ leader in receptions and receiving yards last season.
In his first year in the desert, Hopkins finished in a tie for second in the NFL in receptions and third in receiving yards. Hopkins may have won his first receiving title last season if not for multiple injuries to Kyler Murray during the second half of the season. With Murray battling injuries, Hopkins had 55 or fewer receiving yards in five of the Cardinals’ last seven games. He did put up a season-high 169 yards on nine receptions in Arizona’s Week 15 win over Philadelphia.
The Cardinals have put more weapons around Hopkins as he enters his second season in Arizona. They signed veteran A.J. Green, a seven-time Pro Bowler during his time in Cincinnati. Arizona then spent a second-round pick on Rondale Moore, who caught 178 passes in just 20 games at Purdue. A deeper receiving corps should create more space for Hopkins, who eclipsed 1,500 receiving yards on two different occasions during his time with the Texans.
For several reasons, Metcalf edged out Justin Jefferson for the final spot on our list. For starters, Metcalf has the luxury of playing with perennial Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson and also gets to play alongside Tyler Lockett, who actually caught more passes than Metcalf did in 2020. With respect to Adam Thielen (who caught a career-high 14 touchdowns last season), Jefferson will likely receive extra attention from opposing defenses this season following his ridiculous rookie campaign.
While not as crazy, Metcalf also enjoyed a successful rookie year that saw him record 900 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He took a big leap in 2020, as he caught 83 of 129 targets for 1,303 yards and 10 scores en route to his first Pro Bowl selection. Metcalf possess a rare blend of size and speed that has quickly made him one of the NFL’s biggest big-play threats. Metcalf’s success will largely depend on the health of his supporting cast. If Wilson, running back Chris Carson, and fellow wideouts Lockett and rookie D’Wayne Eskridge are healthy, teams won’t be able to focus entirely on Metcalf, which was largely the case during the end of the 2020 season.