Justin Jefferson vs. Tyreek Hill: Who Reigns Supreme in the Race To Break Calvin Johnson’s Receiving Record?

Justin Jefferson and Tyreek Hill are the league's leading receivers on a per-game scale through 10 weeks. Which receiver would you rather have?

Justin Jefferson made one of the best catches we’ve ever witnessed on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. In a do-or-die situation on fourth-and-18, he reached a single paw up between the outstretched Cam Lewis and somehow gripped and controlled the ball the whole way through the ground. His 10-catch, 193-yard performance put him on a better per-game pace than Tyreek Hill, who before Sunday was outpacing Calvin Johnson’s per-game pace from 2012.

Receiving output is entering another level in the modern league. Passing is more efficient than running the ball, and savvy offensive minds are finding ways to get their best playmakers on the outside into good matchups and force-feeding them the ball.

Justin Jefferson vs. Tyreek Hill

For a long time, DeAndre Hopkins, Devante Adams, Julio Jones, Stefon Diggs, and Cooper Kupp a season ago have been touted as the best in the game. But the truth is, Jefferson is the best receiver in the NFL and was heading into the season. Meanwhile, Hill has been consistently overlooked as a receiver.

Narratives flow like a river, and there’s no telling when it will wash ashore. Hill has been a legitimate, complete receiver for a while, yet he’s still reduced to being a “weapon” because of his speed. That’s changing now that he’s left Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.

Which one of these dynamic receivers would you rather have on your football team? We’ll pit each of their traits and production against one another to decide.

We’ll start with each player’s production profile over the past three seasons since Jefferson entered the league and their current pace in 2022. Then, we will get into each essential characteristic that goes into receiver play to see where the advantages lie.

All data is provided by TruMedia.

Production profiles

The pace Hill is on is otherworldly. His 3.61 yards per route would shatter any number since that tracking data began. Last season Cooper Kupp (3.12) tied Julio Jones (2016) and Geroge Kittle (2019). What Hill is doing is unbelievable from a volume and efficiency perspective. Justin Jefferson ranks third behind Stefon Diggs with 2.8 yards per route.

And we must also explore past just Hill and Jefferson a bit to provide some context to some of these numbers. For example, Hill averages 0.46 EPA per target, while Jefferson sits at 0.38. But Jaylen Waddle, on Hill’s own football team, is averaging an astonishing 0.76 EPA.

What is EPA? The 33rd Team explains it nicely here.

The fact is the Dolphins’ offense is a robotics-based manufacturing plant. It’s an efficiency machine. And up until Week 10 against Cleveland, it looked like that efficiency was primarily going to come between Hill and Waddle alone.

Still, it’s fun to pit the numbers from both Hill and Jefferson’s potential record-breaking seasons against one another.

Target %: Hill (33.3%), Jefferson (26.5%)
Target % man coverage: Hill (36.5%), Jefferson (25.2%)
Target % zone coverage: Hill (34.1%), Jefferson (27.1%)
Target EPA: Hill (49.21), Jefferson (37.67)
Routes: Hill (318), Jefferson (378)
YAC/reception: Hill (4.32), Jefferson (5.68)
20+ receptions: Hill (20), Jefferson (18)

From looking at advanced efficiency metrics, it’s impossible to come away thinking that Jefferson is having the better season. He simply is not. However, Kupp had a near record-breaking year last season, and no reasonable person actually believed he was the most talented WR in the league, even for how talented he is.

What we’re seemingly finding this season is that the situation surrounding players, and in particular quarterbacks, matters more than their own skill. Hill has never come close to this type of efficiency, even with Mahomes and Reid.

Jefferson entered the league in Minnesota with Kirk Cousins and has gone through Gary Kubiak, Clint Kubiak (hello nepotism), and now Wes Phillips as his offensive coordinators. How do the two players’ numbers stack up since Jefferson entered the league?

Yards/route: Hill (2.45), Jefferson (2.68)
EPA/target: Hill (0.42), Jefferson (0.44)
Target %: Hill (26.8%), Jefferson (25.8%)
Target EPA: Hill (166.42), Jefferson (172.74)
Routes: Hill (1495), Jefferson (1519)
YAC/reception: Hill (4.4), Jefferson (5.05)
20+ receptions: Hill (53), Jefferson (68)

Mike McDaniel has found a way to squeeze every inch of productivity out of his passing attack, and it shows in how efficient they’ve been with Tua Tagovailoa in the lineup. It’s also important to note that Hill is on this torrent pace while missing his starting QB for multiple weeks, while Jefferson has seen Cousins under center every week.

And with Hill’s efficiency this season, if I had to put my money on one of the two to break Johnson’s receiving yards and yards per game record, it would be Hill.

Trust the Tape

Wide receiver is a bit different than playing quarterback. Receivers don’t touch the ball every play. There are times (far too often) where either Hill or Jefferson are running free and don’t get the target. That’s just the way the proverbial cookie crumbles. It is damn fun to watch these two play. And while there are obvious differences in their games, they may not be as far apart as many believe they are.

Route Running

Jefferson is known as arguably the best route runner in the entire league. Last season Davante Adams said Jefferson reminded him of a six-year veteran. The third-year receiver has the entire package. His release repertoire is outrageous, and his ability to manipulate stride length and seamlessly pair it with insane flexibility and intelligence makes him impossible to mirror consistently.

Not to mention he’s an explosive athlete in his own right, posting a 9.69 RAS.

Route running is not a one size fits all entity. The way Jefferson moves as a lanky 6-foot-2 receiver is inherently different than the stocky 5-foot-8 on a good day Hill. Jefferson is the best in the more pure or traditional fashion. He feels like an elite route runner.

Hill is different but no less effective. First, his unrivaled (outside of his own team) explosiveness makes it so he doesn’t have to be as technically proficient as Jefferson or Diggs. But what many lose in this conversation is that speed and explosiveness alone do not equate to the ability to separate.

Hill is a professional route runner. He has learned to dominate against zone coverage, finding soft spots and attacking leverages with his speed to force a safety or cornerback vertical before snapping off a route in their blind spot.

How many “next Tyreek Hill” comps have we seen over the years during the NFL Draft season? Every sub-5-foot-11 WR that’s fun to watch with the ball in their hands has been likened to the All-Pro. The only one that’s actually made any sense is his teammate, but I digress.

Having lightning-quick feet and a compact build won’t make someone Hill. Many have tried and failed at the NFL level because NFL-level route running is a skill crafted, not a trait born with. Too many college prospects will all the creativity in the world after the catch struggle to separate from a plastic bag.

It took Hill time. But in Year 7, he is a complete receiver and one of the most dangerous route runners in the NFL.


Advantage: Jefferson

Hands/Ball skills

Before 2022, this would have been considered one-sided. However, Jefferson’s sure-handedness from LSU and his rookie season has taken a step back. He posted a 7.7% drop rate in 2021 and is at 6.8 this season.

Meanwhile, Hill’s drop rate has declined over the past three seasons, and the pint-sized receiver is playing like he’s 6-foot-3 when elevating for Tua’s passes. That has been an outstanding, and possibly unsustainable, development so far, given his lackluster history of finishing in contested situations.

Jefferson just made arguably the most impressive catch of all time. For each of his first three seasons, he’s hovered around the 50% mark in contested catch rate. He’s currently finishing them at a 60.9% rate. Right now, only Mike Evans (64.7), Terry McLaurin (62.5), and Hill (60) rival him among receivers with 15 contested targets. Jefferson is third in the NFL with 23 such targets.

Neither player struggles to catch the football. While Hill has looked scary good so far this season, it would be prudent to take the larger sample size here.

Advantage: Jefferson

Big-Play Ability

Call up Aaron Rodgers, get yourself a shaman, and take a little ayahuasca journey because you need to throw out all of your prior for this one.

Remember, Jefferson has 15 more 20-plus yard plays since entering the league than Hill! Jefferson is averaging more yards per reception, more yards after the catch, and their air yards per target are nearly identical over that time period. Therefore, every statistical measure would tell you that Jefferson, and not Hill, is the more dangerous downfield receiver.

There’s just one issue with that sentiment. We have eyes. And while not everyone can see the game outside of a spreadsheet, most only see the game through the lens of their television or computer monitor.

There is no more terrifying entity in the NFL than Tyreek Hill. Watching how safeties play him compared to above-average NFL receivers is pure hilarity. Eddie Jackson intercepted Dak Prescott on an in-breaking route from Michael Gallup. In a similar coverage and a similar route from Hill, he never dreamed of driving downhill before the ball was thrown by Tua.

Hill’s speed is his greatest weapon. It allowed Mahomes to unlock a part of the field that didn’t really exist before it, tossing passes 50-plus yards downfield off-script to watch Hill freestyle away from coverage and run underneath for huge gains. And even though Tua doesn’t have near that arm talent, defenders still respect the man running the routes.

Jefferson is no slouch! He possesses outstanding speed and the ability to elevate. That 15-play cushion of 20-plus yards from Hill is the same or more for the rest of the league. Kupp also has 53 such plays over the three seasons. But Jefferson sits alone at the top.

If defenses played Hill the way they play most, would his number be higher? Almost surely. It’s why Miami is able to attack the middle of the field with such ferocity. Nobody strikes fear in the hearts of defensive backs and defensive coordinators the way Hill does, even if Jefferson should be more terrifying than he’s given credit for.

It’s reminiscent of Hill’s lack of respect as a route runner.

Advantage: Hill


If we were building a team from the ground up and you didn’t choose Jefferson over Hill, I’d drag you to the institution myself. The five-year age difference makes this no contest. That, and Jefferson’s skill set is one that shouldn’t run dry until he’s well into his 30s. We’re building an entire franchise around a talent like him. Hill realistically has five-plus seasons of high productivity left as well, but his game is more reliant on athleticism than Jefferson’s.

The real question is who you would throw more money at on a new four-year deal. Who would you want to build an offense around for a five-year title run? Or who would you rather have for 2023? Those are the important questions.

Of the over 1,400 voters on Twitter, the slight majority chose Hill over Jefferson.

Justin Jefferson is the best wide receiver in the NFL. The pace he’s on to begin his career has a first-ballot Hall of Fame trajectory. He is as aesthetically pleasing as they come in nearly every facet of receiver play. And for transparency purposes, he is this writer’s favorite receiver in the league.

But over the length of a new contract, I’m giving the slight edge to Tyreek Hill if I’m the coach or general manager starting a team. There will be situations where the names flip, but if we’re starting a roster from scratch, Hill is the pick.

Jefferson can dictate coverages, but Hill can create a void the size of Montana for your QB to throw to. His impact on the other weapons on the field cannot be understated. There’s a reason Waddle is shattering EPA models when targeted. And while there is a yo-yo effect between the two speedy Miami receivers, Hill is the CEO, and Waddle is the CFO.

Even though Jefferson carries the edges in the first two categories and has been statistically more significant as a big-play weapon during his time in the league, the threat Hill is to a defense is unimaginable. It’s why he’s been so efficient this season.

Speed kills, and Hill has the most of it.

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