The 5 Toughest Receivers I’ve Ever Covered


At least 80% of interceptions start in bed. Or in a recliner. I’m serious. Monday through Friday, all I do is watch film on receivers. On Monday nights, I watch our upcoming opponents’ last three games. Every single snap in the All-22 film. That gives me a head start going into the week. I try to walk into the facility the next morning already knowing most of their offense before the coaches tell me. Then on Tuesdays, I start breaking down the first- and second-down passing plays they like to run. On Wednesdays, I break down their preferred third-down plays.

In the NFL, anticipation is everything. It’s very, very hard to make an interception if you are just reacting to what you see after the snap. It’s already too late at that point. NFL receivers are too fast, too physical.

If you want to get a jump on a route, you have to start making the interception on Monday. My first pick this season, against the Panthers, was straight film. Based on their formation, and their personnel, and the down and distance, I had in mind a few plays they might run as soon as they broke the huddle. But then I saw Cam flip the running back from the right side to the left side, and I knew exactly what was coming.

The thing about the NFL is, even though I anticipated the three-step slant and jumped it at the right time, Kelvin Benjamin is so big and physical that I was only able to get one hand on the ball. Luckily, it tipped high enough into the air that I had a second chance to dive and grab it. I’d say at least 10 hours of film went into that one pick.

The Players’ Tribune asked me to break down the best receivers I line up against for their 5 Toughest series. I’m going to try to make this a little more in-depth than what you see on TV.

Rob Gronkowski
Yeah, he’s technically a tight end, but I’m including Gronk, because when I think about the toughest guys to line up against, he’s the first name that comes to mind. Yes, he’s physically bigger than everybody. That’s a given. But the thing people don’t appreciate enough is that he’s got amazing hands. What makes him so difficult is that he’s 6′ 6″, 265, but he also has the route running ability and hands of a wide receiver.

He’s not a stereotypical tight end because the Patriots use him in all kinds of ways — sometimes he’s split out wide, sometimes he’s in traditional blocking formations. It’s hard to predict where he’s going to line up and what the Pats are going to run out of those sets, so it keeps you on your toes.

The best way to defend him is to not let him get started. You gotta put hands on him early so he has to stop and start again. The thing is, you can’t go overboard and play too physical. Because the officials are gonna let Gronk play football. You don’t want to get into a wrestling match with him. When you bump him, you have to keep him at arm’s length. If you get too aggressive and get up in his face, he’s going to use the 50-50 battle to push off on you, and then you’re in trouble.

His signature route is the vertical seam route right down the middle of the field. Gronk lines up in the slot and uses his strength to beat the first man, then he splits the soft spot between the corner/linebacker and the safety. The thing about the seam route is, the receiver knows he’s probably gonna get popped. He’s gotta catch the ball right in front of that patrolling safety. Gronk is able to take the punishment and hold on to the ball.

Just to prove to you how real we’re gonna keep it in this article, I’ll even show you an example against us.

This was from two years ago in New England. Gronk runs the seam route and catches it with one hand between three defenders. We actually played it well, but Brady fit it into the window and Gronk made an impossible catch.

At the end of the clip, check me out at the bottom of the screen putting my hands on my head, like, Are you serious?

Antonio Brown
AB is the best pure route runner in the league. He runs so many different routes with precision, but just like with Gronk, it’s the unpredictable ways Pittsburgh uses him that makes him so difficult to defend.

Let me explain what I mean by “great route runner.” It’s not exactly like Madden. Route running is an art, not a science. A lot of wide receivers, they always run their routes at 100% speed. As a DB, that allows you to get a feel for how you need to play them. But Antonio changes up his speed so that you never know what his tempo is going to be coming in and out of his cuts. It’s kind of like in basketball when a point guard uses a little hesitation crossover to freeze the defender before exploding to the hoop.

AB’s body control in the air is second to none. An NFL field is 160 feet wide, but with the way Antonio is able to control his body, it’s like he makes it 165 feet wide. The toe-tap sideline catch against the Raiders last year comes to mind.

When you add Roethlisberger to the equation, it becomes a real challenge to stop Pittsburgh. AB has a lot of freedom to be patient with his routes, because Big Ben is able to buy a lot of time in the pocket. Against most NFL teams, when a play breaks down and a quarterback is scrambling, that’s a win for your defense. But when you’re playing the Steelers, Brown and Roethlisberger have such good chemistry that those extended plays become a real problem to defend.

AB’s signature route is a straight vertical go. Big Ben is probably the best quarterback in the league at throwing the deep ball, and AB will set you up for it by hitting you with a lot of short routes early in the game. So maybe AB was running at 85 or 90% speed on his last five routes. He’s switching up the tempo. He’s lulling you to sleep. You think you’re locked in step for step with him. And then … bam. He hits you with a go route.

Guess what? Now he’s going flat out 100% down the sideline. That’s a problem.

T.Y. Hilton
T.Y. is a guy who can really hurt you when the Colts line him up in the slot. Again, I’m going to sound like a broken record, but it’s true — T.Y. is another guy who can line up all over the field, which makes him very unpredictable.

Similar to AB, he’s a guy who is very patient in his routes, but the thing that sticks out the most is that he takes very precise angles.

When I’m watching film of a receiver, the first thing I notice is the angles he takes in his breaks. Does he slow down a little bit and round his angles? Or does he make a sharp break? A lot of young receivers will round off their angles, which allows DBs to make a break inside toward the ball. The best route runners make very sharp, precise breaks at full speed. T.Y. is phenomenal at this. He doesn’t just plant and make a cut, he explodes into his breaks. T.Y. has an extra takeoff gear that not a lot of guys have.

Typically, when a receiver is lined up in the slot, he’s going to run a lot of short routes. So as a DB, it makes your life a little easier, because your mentality is, Alright, I’m just gonna be physical and defend my box. But you can’t have that mentality with T.Y., because he’ll take you deep from the slot.

A guy like Julian Edelman, another great slot receiver, will find the holes in the zone and move the chains on you. But T.Y. is the rare big-play slot guy who can run 20-yard routes from the middle of the field.

His trademark is the deep over route. T.Y. starts on one side and runs all the way across the field. The DB is typically going to be one-on-one against him with no help over the top, so it’s very difficult. You’re basically in an isolated foot race. The key is to get your hands on him early, right at the line, but if you miss and he gets a step on you, it’s gonna be a huge play.

Yes, he really held on to that. That’s a tough, tough grab.

DeAndre Hopkins
Oh, man. DeAndre is a different beast. Antonio and T.Y. are going to create that half yard of separation to make a clean grab on you. But DeAndre is a guy who can turn a 50-50 jump ball into a 70-30 ball.

He’s able to make those leaping catching over DBs along the sideline and still get his feet down inbounds. Everybody talks about his athleticism, but watch his feet. You still have to come down with it inbounds, and DeAndre’s footwork is phenomenal.

Against DeAndre, you have to be ready to play the ball in the air at its highest point. This is why you need a good vertical jump as a corner. Shoot, in the offseason we spend entire days just defending jump balls. In terms of spectacular catches, I’d put Hopkins right up there with Odell right now. He does things on the field that make you say, “Wow!”

When the Texans have the ball in the red zone, you know there’s a very good chance you’re going to see a jump ball to the corner of the end zone. Stopping it is another story. In real time, Hopkins makes the 50-50 ball look easy. But watch him in slo-mo here. Keep an eye on the ball as he goes up and gets it at the highest point.

DeAndre reminds me of a lot of the next guy on this list.…

A.J. Green
A.J. is another guy who can consistently come down with 50-50 balls. DeAndre might have better leaping ability, but A.J. has a little more speed. A lot of people forget about him because he’s a quiet guy who just goes about his business, but he’s elite. Look at his numbers the last five years. He’s put up 1,000 yards every season despite getting double-teamed since he was a rookie. Everybody knows he’s getting the ball, but he’s still productive. That’s the mark of an elite receiver.

Green can run every kind of route in the tree, but his staple route is the post. He’s made a living off the deep post. What makes that route so dangerous is that Green combines speed with length. Because of his wingspan, his “window” is huge. Even if you anticipate the post and you’re fast enough to keep up with him stride-for-stride out of his break, he can still extend his arms and create enough separation to make the catch.

I think a lot of people see how skinny he is and think the answer is to be physical against him, but he’s really strong. You wouldn’t expect it, but he’s got some muscle. A lot of guys with his height (6′ 4″) and speed just make their living down the sideline, but what makes Green so tough is that he’s not afraid to go up for a ball over the middle.

The difference in body type between A.J. Green, Rob Gronkowski and T.Y. Hilton is pretty crazy, but if there’s a common thread between all these guys, it’s unpredictability. They can hurt you all over the field, and you never know where they’re going to line up.

I hope everybody enjoyed this. If I missed your favorite receiver, maybe I’ll be back again for a Part 2 in the future. Until then, you can hit me up on Twitter @ChrisHarrisJr.