I know he had an amazing, arguably perfect year, but let’s chill out on the talk of Cooper Kupp being the greatest receiver in the game.
There’s a reason Jerry Rice is considered the greatest receiver of all time. The distance between Rice and the No. 2 receiver ever, Larry Fitzgerald, is 5,403 yards — about the same distance between Fitzgerald and No. 27, Hines Ward. Rice wasn’t the fastest, or the strongest guy out there, but dadgummit, no one could rack up yardage the way he could. Rice performed at that elite level year after year after year. Cooper Kupp has done it once and that’s not enough to call him the best receiver in the league.
There are other receivers who are faster, stronger, run better routes, and have better hands. Objectively speaking, Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, DeAndre Hopkins, and maybe even guys like Keenan Allen and AJ Brown are better in most, if not all, of those categories. But that’s not my point. So why don’t they put up similar numbers? Why haven’t they been able to reach 1900 yards and lead the league in touchdowns during the regular season? That’s when we get into the real crux of the case against Kupp.
Kupp doesn’t face opposing team’s top corners. During the 2021 regular season, Kupp lined up in the slot or in tight to the line 806 times. The largest total by a wide, wide margin. While other great receivers like Justin Jefferson also line up in the slot a good amount (437 times), Jefferson has proven himself on the outside. In the limited amount of time Jefferson did spend in the slot this past year, he actually outperformed Kupp stats-wise.
Let’s look at their blind resumés in the slot. I’m going to offer averages, not totals because obviously Kupp has better numbers total-wise because he spent nearly 400 more snaps in the slot or tight than Jefferson did.
WR1: 18.06 yds/rec, 6.71 rec/TD
WR2: 13.77 yds/rec, 8.54 rec/TD
In case you couldn’t tell based on the narrative I’m obviously trying to push, Jefferson is WR1 and Kupp is WR2. There are several other factors that come into this like average depth of target, target quality, and target share when lined up in the slot, but from a base statistical standpoint, which is exactly how most Kupp defenders like to look at things, Jefferson has the edge over Kupp when lining up in the slot.
To be fair, Kupp had better hands in the slot. Both guys had three drops in the slot all year, but Kupp had his three drops on hundreds more slot alignments. Kupp also received tons of targets due to his chemistry with quarterback Matthew Stafford. You could see on several of their connections this year that Stafford would just throw the ball to an empty space before Kupp had turned to locate the ball, and Stafford just trusted that Kupp would be there. That takes a phenomenal amount of faith in your receiver and Stafford doesn’t make those throws if he doesn’t think Kupp is talented enough to get them.
That being said, what is the likelihood that Kupp is able to create space the way he does if he lines up against elite cornerbacks? Probably still good, but definitely not as high. Sean McVay literally designs plays and motion in order to get Kupp into the best possible matchup because he knows Kupp is really good in open space and if they can create a matchup that allows Kupp to break away, he’ll be dangerous. Essentially, he needs Kupp to line up against lesser competition in order for his system to work. That’s a great offensive mind making a great receiver even better, but that does not mean Kupp is the best wide receiver in football.
What were Kupp’s best plays in the postseason? Probably those touchdowns in the Super Bowl and that huge gain in the Divisional Round against Tampa Bay to set up the game-winning field goal, right? Who was he lining up against on those plays? I’ll answer for you. In the Super Bowl, it was Eli Apple. On that play in the divisional round, it was a safety, Antoine Winfield Jr.
I’m not denying his ability to make those guys look silly, but these are guys he should be able to thrive against. It’s expected of someone with Kupp’s talent. Safeties aren’t meant for man-to-man coverage, yet the Bucs decided that’d be the best way to defend the NFL leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. That’s just bad game-planning.
A great receiver can make the best corners fall over with remarkable route-running and the ability to make circus catches when their team needs them to. Kupp doesn’t line up against the best corners. That doesn’t mean Kupp isn’t great. I still consider him top-three in the league, at worst top-five, and he should be the first wide receiver off everyone’s board during fantasy draft season next year. However, we can’t compare Kupp’s stats to those of other receivers, because, as I explained, when other great receivers are put in the same situations as Kupp, they tend to do just as well.
Maybe after another season of absolute domination from Kupp I’ll be willing to move him up my list, but until then, he’ll have to settle for being ranked just behind Adams and Jefferson.