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ESPN’s Bill Barnwell’s 2024 NFL Offensive Playmakers Rankings



ESPN’s Bill Barnwell’s 2024 NFL Offensive Playmakers Rankings

Bill Barnwell of ESPN has issued his annual “NFL Playmakers” rankings. The Cardinals have gained some ground on the field from last year. But according to Barnwell, they still have some catching up to do in the NFC West.

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

2023 rank: 30 | 2022 rank: 15

The easiest fit in April’s draft was Marvin Harrison Jr. going to the Cardinals, so it’s no surprise Arizona eventually landed the likely successor to Larry Fitzgerald with the fourth overall pick. I’ll repeat my concerns about expecting rookies to excel from day one — remember that Fitzgerald himself only had 780 yards as a rookie and was overshadowed by a stunning debut campaign from second-rounder Anquan Boldin — but Harrison is as good of a wide receiver prospect as they come.

There’s nominally a big three here with Harrison, Trey McBride and James Conner. With Zach Ertz out of the picture, McBride more than tripled his receiving yardage as a sophomore, although much of that came in garbage time; the only player who caught more passes on plays in which his team already had a win expectancy below 5% was Adam Thielen.

Conner, on the other hand, had his best season as a pro, posting a career-high 5.0 yards per carry and 211 rush yards over expectation, the latter of which ranked third behind Christian McCaffrey and De’Von Achane. He also went all season without fumbling for the first time as a starter. He deserved to go to the Pro Bowl. Sure, 29 feels ancient for running backs in the modern era, but he isn’t slowing down as he approaches his 30s. Rookie third-rounder Trey Benson is in reserve if Conner gets banged up, although the depth chart at wideout is perilously thin behind Harrison.

2023 rank: 23 | 2022 rank: 7

It helps when a team finds two of the most valuable contributors at their positions on Day 3 of the draft. Kyren Williams and Puka Nacua emerged as stars last season, accelerating Los Angeles’ offensive rebuild and helping create a path forward for a team that had been overly reliant on Cooper Kupp. When Kupp, Nacua and Williams all were on the field together, Matthew Stafford posted a 72.1 QBR. That would have been the third-best mark in football over the full season, within one point of leaders Brock Purdy and Dak Prescott.

I’m a little hesitant to push the Rams higher out of concerns surrounding two of those standouts. Kupp was on the way to repeating (or at least approximating) his stunning 2021 campaign during the first half of 2022, but he wasn’t on the same level after returning from his ankle injury. He averaged a whopping 3.2 yards per route run in 2021 and 2.5 in 2022, which would still be elite performance. He was down below 2.0 yards per route run last season, and while that’s still starting-caliber work, he is 31 and also missed time with a hamstring injury.

Williams is also an injury concern. After breaking his foot as a rookie, Williams was held back from OTAs with another foot issue. Coach Sean McVay said the injury is nothing to be concerned about, but McVay isn’t exactly known for being truthful about injuries, even as games are going on in real-time. Williams has missed time in both of his seasons with ankle injuries. I’m hoping he plays 17 games in 2024, but that can’t be the expectation heading into camp.

There’s a big drop-off from that top three, at least on paper. Demarcus Robinson was fine as the third wideout in 2023, but the next wideout up would be Tutu Atwell. Rookie Blake Corum is the primary backup behind Williams. And at tight end, while the Rams signed Colby Parkinson to a surprisingly large deal in free agency, Tyler Higbee tore his ACL during the postseason and probably won’t be ready for Week 1. L.A. can be elite if everyone is on the field, but I’m a little nervous about that happening consistently.

2023 rank: 4 | 2022 rank: 13

The Seahawks are returning the vast majority of what got them into the top five a year ago, but the projections across the board are a little dimmer. At running back, Kenneth Walker improved his success rate, but he wasn’t quite as explosive in his second season and fell from 103 rush yards over expectation to minus-27 in 2023. Zach Charbonnet was solid in his debut campaign and might project for more of an even timeshare this season.

DK Metcalf continues to stay on the field and pump out solid seasons, but he hasn’t come close to matching the 1,303-yard, 10-touchdown campaign he put together in 2020. He had a 58% success rate on his targets that season and has been closer to 50% in each of the three ensuing campaigns. There’s nothing wrong with what he has been doing — he has averaged 2.2 yards per route run — but each good season recalibrates our expectations of how likely he is to be great in the upcoming one.

Tyler Lockett took a step backward, as his 1.7 yards per route run were the worst mark he has posted since 2017. It was also his worst catch rate since that season. ESPN’s advanced analysis has mixed feelings; it still ranks Lockett as 19th in Open Score, but the 31-year-old wideout was tied for 124th in YAC Score. Lockett took a pay cut to stay with the team this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was his last season in Seattle if things don’t improve.

Nominally, the Seahawks drafted Jaxon Smith-Njigba last year to be the replacement for Lockett in two-wideout sets, but Smith-Njigba had a disappointing start to his career. He failed to top 70 receiving yards in a game even once, dropped six passes and ranked 14th among 2023 draftees in yards per route run. It’s too early to be concerned, but he wasn’t able to immediately command a large share of the Seattle passing game. If we’re still at this level a year from now, it’ll be a problem. With Colby Parkinson and Will Dissly both leaving this offseason and Ryan Grubb taking over as offensive coordinator, I wonder if Seattle will live in three-wideout sets in 2024. It was already there more than 63% of the time a year ago.

2023 rank: 1 | 2022 rank: 3

There’s a chasm between the 49ers and everybody else in the league in terms of their playmakers and explosiveness. They can afford to lose Deebo Samuel or George Kittle for stretches and still challenge for the top of this list. On other teams, Jauan Jennings would be a trendy breakout candidate after he had 221 receiving yards during the postseason and scored two touchdowns in the Super Bowl. Here, he might be the fourth wide receiver behind Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and rookie first-round pick Ricky Pearsall.

The day will come where the 49ers will likely need to move on from Aiyuk or Samuel, but until that happens, they can enjoy an embarrassment of riches. Aiyuk further developed into a superstar last season, as the 26-year-old put up 1,342 receiving yards and averaged 3.3 yards per route run, the third-highest mark in football. He topped ESPN’s receiver metrics, ranking in the top 10 in both Open Score (tied for eighth) and Catch Score (first). If you think that’s solely a product of Brock Purdy and/or Kyle Shanahan, consider that Samuel ranked 128th in Open Score and 116th in Catch Score. Samuel is the best run-after-catch receiver in the game by a considerable margin, so he’s still a valuable player, but Aiyuk is special in his own right.

And then you have Christian McCaffrey. The 2023 campaign wasn’t even a dominant receiving season by CMC’s standards, but he unsurprisingly has become a more efficient runner in Shanahan’s offense. He comfortably led the league with 349 rush yards over expectation, the third-highest mark a back has posted in a single season since 2016. He was also healthy for most of the season for the second year in a row, a major positive in projecting him to play a significant portion of San Francisco’s snaps in 2024.

You don’t need me to tell you San Francisco has great playmakers. The only concerns to be raised here are with injuries, but the 49ers can feel good about what they have in reserve. The team is excited about Pearsall, and Jennings has proven he can step in and be productive. Elijah Mitchell averaged nearly 5.0 yards per carry as the primary back in 2021 before the 49ers traded for McCaffrey. There’s no replacement for Kittle, who is one of one as a blocking tight end in today’s NFL, but they could survive if they had to move to more three-wide sets and/or use Kyle Juszczyk as more of a full-time player. Given the draft picks they’ve used on players who haven’t worked out, they have spent a lot of draft capital and cash on their playmakers. It hasn’t led them to a Super Bowl, but about 28 other franchises would be pretty happy with what the Niners have accomplished over the past few years.

ROTB Polls:


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