The Coleumn: Is this the year of the 2,000-yard receiver?

Travis Kelce, tight end for the Chiefs. Kelce holds the single-season receiving yards record among tight ends. Photo by All-Pro Reels/Flickr

Three games into the 2023 season, the Miami Dolphins lead the NFL with 1,651 total yards of offense and 550.3 per contest, miles above the second-place Los Angeles Chargers. Although they scored 70 points against the Denver Broncos on Sunday behind a 350-yard rushing attack and five touchdowns, the Dolphins’ secret ingredient behind their second-straight 3-0 start to the season has been their lethal passing game. 

Wide receiver Tyreek Hill has 412 of fourth-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s 1,024 yards, 215 of which came in the season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers, with a league-best four touchdowns. That puts Hill on pace for 2,335 yards in a 17-game season, a significant improvement from his career-high of 1,710 set in 2022 at 28 years old. Despite his strong start, the eighth-year wide receiver out of West Alabama does not lead the league in receiving yards; 2022 Offensive Player of the Year Justin Jefferson holds that distinction with 458 yards, good for almost 2,600 across an entire season. 

Players have come close very recently, but is 2023 finally the year when an NFL receiver records a 2,000-yard season? This question solely highlights yards collected through the air and not combined with those gained on the ground, so the 71 instances where a player recorded 2,000 yards from scrimmage (most recently Josh Jacobs’ 2,053 last season) will not be considered. 

It happened once in college football when Nevada’s Trevor Insley had 2,060 in 11 games as a senior in 1999, but he did not finish in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting that year. Former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson has been the closest to the mark at the professional level, racking up 1,964 yards in 2012 and finishing third in Offensive Player of the Year voting. Over the last two seasons, Jefferson and 2021 Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp finished within 200 yards of 2,000 at 1,809 and 1,947, respectively. 

Across the 2010s, Julio Jones’ 1,871 yards and Antonio Brown’s 1,834 in 2015 are the two other instances where a wide receiver got within 200 yards. Those make up five of the six times a wide receiver concluded their career-best campaigns in that range, with only all-time receiving yards leader Jerry Rice’s 1,848 occurring before 2010. From those single-season performances, only Kupp did not have a game where he recorded less than 50 yards—his season low was 64 in Week Four two years ago—additionally being the lone receiver without one performance with 170+. 

Also consider that a tight end like Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews or George Kittle could be the league’s first 2,000-yard receiver, but they are built more like an additional blocker than a speedy modern-day receiver. Through three weeks, the Detroit Lions’ Sam LaPorta leads all tight ends with 186 receiving yards (on pace for 1,054 yards in a 17-game season), while TJ Hockenson and Evan Engram are not far behind at 179 and 173, respectively. Kelce holds the single-season receiving yards record among tight ends with 1,416 in 15 games in 2020, but that falls 548 shy of Johnson’s 11-year-old record. 

Transitioning from a run-heavy offense to one prioritizing passing in the last 23 years has created the possibility of this feat happening in the imminent future. Out of the 53 all-time instances where a wide receiver recorded 1,500+ yards in one campaign, 38 have been since the turn of the millennia, with seven receivers exceeding that number more than once. In that same span, a quarterback has thrown over 5,000 yards 14 times, 11 of which exceed Dan Marino’s 5,084 set in 1984. 

But no matter how long the NFL season goes, whether it is 16 games or 17, every attempt at reaching that mark has come up short thus far; bad stretches that one may have in the middle of the season are part of the cause. Each of the six wide receivers who finished within 2,000 yards had at least a two-game span where they did not record 100+ yards, with four of them extending that skid by one additional week. 

Injuries and inconsistent play also factor into why hot starts early in the year usually do not result in a 2,000-yard season. Kupp picked up where he left off in 2022 with consecutive 100-yard games, but sustained an ankle injury against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10 and has not played since. 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase missed four games with a hip injury midway through the 2022 season after he recorded 129 receiving yards in the season opener. Although not injured at any point, Amari Cooper had a season-high 139 yards for the Dallas Cowboys in their 2021 season opener and had one more 100-yard game the rest of the year. 

Should someone achieve that feat this season, whether it be a wide receiver or a tight end, they should be the odds-on favorite for the MVP award. It happened four times when a running back crossed that single-season milestone on the ground, the most recent being Adrian Peterson with 2,097 yards in 2012, so it only makes sense that a wide receiver gets the same treatment. If a quarterback wins the award like they do time and time again, however, that receiver should almost unanimously win Offensive Player of the Year. It happened for seven of the eight running backs who sprinted for over 2,000 yards in one year, with Pro Football Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson reaching that single-season milestone at the same time Marino became the first quarterback with 5,000+ passing yards. 

Combine everything together, and there is a very real chance someone breaks the ice and gives the NFL its first-ever 2,000-yard receiver in 2023. If that does not end up being the case this year because of the possible aforementioned hurdles, however, that mark will surely be shattered in the near future. 

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