Ranking NFL team WR, TE, RB talent for 2024 season: Top players

From left to right: Josh Jacobs, George Kittle, Jaylen Waddle and George Pickens ESPN

It's the peak of summer, which means one thing for me: It's time to rank the NFL's offensive playmakers. Every year, right around this time, I take stock of every move franchises have made to surround their starting quarterbacks with talent as they hope to parlay a hot offseason into a Super Bowl victory.

On one hand, you could argue the 2023 season proved teams can win without great playmakers, as the Chiefs spent most of 2023 begging any of their wide receivers to catch the football. I'd also point out they got plenty out of future Hall of Fame tight end Travis Kelce, saw Isiah Pacheco blossom in a full season as the starter and got just enough out of Rashee Rice & Co. in the postseason to advance through the AFC bracket. The guys on the other side of the field in Super Bowl LVIII might have done enough to turn their quarterback into the league MVP with another great start or two down the stretch, too.

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If a team has Patrick Mahomes, it can probably survive without a great set of playmakers. What about one of the 31 teams trying to beat him in 2024? Well, it'd be nice to be close to the top of this list. Let's run through the guys who catch and run with the football and how each team is positioned to take advantage of good quarterback play in 2024, going from worst to first.

Before you fire off that angry tweet, though, consider the ground rules I went through in compiling this piece:

This is just about running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. In other words, imagine if every set of offensive skill position players got a chance to play with the same average quarterback in an average scheme with average weather, average luck and at an average pace. Who would have the league's best offense?

This is only about on-field performance during the 2024 season. While I talk a lot about contract value and long-term impacts in evaluating the league, all of that doesn't matter once the games start. This is strictly considering what each player might do this season, not what will happen years down the line.

I'm using each player's recent level of play and various advanced metrics to get the best sense of how they performed while attempting to adjust for the context around each of them. Aging curves matter here; we know players in their early-20s are more likely to improve than players in their 30s. When it comes to draft picks, I'm leaving my own feelings about each player out of the equation and relying more on historical performance for draftees in their respective ranges during their rookie seasons. In other words, to estimate what Chargers wideout Ladd McConkey will do in his rookie season, I'm looking at the typical performance by receivers chosen early in Round 2.

Injury histories and suspensions matter. Injuries are impossible to project. (If you had Aaron Rodgers tearing his Achilles on the first series of the season, I know a few NFL teams that might want to hire you.) At the same time, a player's injury history might lead us to lean in a direction and discount some of their projected performance for the likelihood of being injured. Deebo Samuel hasn't played a full season once as a pro; it seems likely he'll miss a couple of games in 2024.

I'm projecting players who are recovering from serious injuries, such as tight ends Tyler Higbee and T.J. Hockenson, to be absent for meaningful chunks of the regular season. While we don't have official word on his case for 2024, the expectation that Rashee Rice will be suspended has me keeping him out of the lineup for a few games. On the other hand, I'm expecting CeeDee Lamb and other players who will be "holding in" during training camp for new deals to be on the field in Week 1.

Wide receivers are weighted more heavily than running backs or tight ends. I'm just following the NFL's lead here. Justin Jefferson makes $35 million per season. Christian McCaffrey is the only back making over $15 million per year. Twenty different wide receivers are making more than $20 million per season, a figure no running back or tight end can match.

This is a league in which elite wide receivers are treated as more valuable than ever before. As a result, my rankings reflect that sentiment, weighing wideouts as more valuable than players at other positions.

The focus is on elite players and a team's top five contributors. Depth matters, but teams would probably rather have Jefferson and four other replacement-level receivers than, say, five guys such as Darnell Mooney or DJ Chark. Having a player who can beat any coverage is extremely valuable, and these rankings lean toward valuing teams that have game changers at one position or another.

Since teams can play five playmakers at any one time, I looked toward each team's five best players as their primary arguments for these rankings. I won't mention every single player in every writeup, but the players outside the top five were mostly used for tiebreakers between closely ranked teams, given how unlikely they are to make an impact in 2024.

Efficiency matters. I've done my best to try to normalize differences between what players can do and how their team played, which aren't always the same thing. Pace is one key factor. Owing to a great defense and a middling offense, the Browns ran a league-high 1,187 plays last season, 50 more than any other team. And on the other end, without a great defense, the Seahawks ran just 995 offensive snaps. That's 11 extra plays per game for the Browns, all of which added to their players' cumulative stats. It doesn't reflect better performance.

As a result, you'll see a lot of metrics that use averages as opposed to cumulative performance. Two that come up often for receivers are yards per route and target share. Yards per route is the average number of yards a receiver gained when he ran an eligible route, regardless of whether he caught the ball or was even targeted on the play. Target share is the percentage of the time a pass catcher was targeted when he ran a route. Neither stat is perfect, but each will help us get a sense of whether a receiver was able to create opportunities when he was on the field. I'll also use ESPN's advanced receiver tracking metrics, which use data from NFL Next Gen Stats to estimate their impact on a moment-by-moment basis.

With all that out of the way, let's start getting through our teams. In 2022 and 2023, the Texans were the last-placed team in these rankings. Spoiler: They're not 32nd this time. Instead, a team that consistently landed in the top 10 has plunged to the bottom of the playmaker charts:

Jump to a team:
NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF

32. Los Angeles Chargers

2023 rank: 5 | 2022 rank: 6

Gulp. Virtually every significant player who placed the Chargers in the top five before last season took a major step backward, left town and weren't replaced with a player of similar caliber. The most notable player who remains is Quentin Johnston, who averaged 0.94 yards per route run as a rookie even after Mike Williams' injury cleared out a spot in the starting lineup. The only first-round wideouts since 2007 who were worse in their rookie campaigns were Nelson Agholor and Darrius Heyward-Bey.