During the Week 13 "Sunday Night Football" tilt between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens, Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth hypothesized that Steelers receiver Mike Wallace(notes) was the NFL's fastest at his position. It's an easy assumption to make when you see Wallace play; there are very few players in the league who can get downfield to make an impact play as quickly as he can.
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But it got us thinking of what might be the best way to measure legitimate receiver speed. We could go by the 40-yard dash times players ran at the scouting combines and at their pro days, but players not wearing pads on varying surfaces? That doesn't really fit the bill when it comes to actual football speed. Perhaps the best way to measure speed that has in-game value is to see which receivers are asked to create the highest number of yards per completion before they even catch the ball -- or, in this case, right when they do catch it. Looking at what we might call "Air Yards" -- the number of yards a ball travels between the time it leaves the quarterback's hand and the moment a receiver catches it -- seems to be a good indicator.
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By that standard, Michaels and Collinsworth were almost right; and Wallace does lead the league with 21.7 yards per reception. But for pure downfield speed to catch, one guy stands alone.
Brandon Lloyd(notes), Denver Broncos (16.3 Air Yards per catch)
[Photos: Denver's Brandon Lloyd]
Lloyd has been perhaps the most surprising part of Denver's unexpectedly efficient aerial game this year; the former career bust leads the NFL in pass plays of 20 yards or more with 20, and only Reggie Wayne(notes) and Roddy White(notes) have amassed more first downs this season.
Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers (16.0 Air Yards per catch)
[Photos: Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace]
Overall, the most frightening deep receiver in the league right now; has an uncanny ability to break from coverage at the last millisecond, and he's betting better at shorter inside routes. Nearly a complete receiver, not just a speed guy.
DeSean Jackson(notes), Philadelphia Eagles (14.7 Air Yards per catch)
[Photos: Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson]
If Wallace is the scariest deep receiver, the combination of Jackson and quarterback Michael Vick(notes) is the most unstoppable twosome from an aerial perspective. Factor in Vick's ungodly ability to flick a ball 50 yards with deadly accuracy, and you've got an attack nobody wants to deal with.
Nate Washington(notes), Tennessee Titans (13.1 Air Yards per catch)
[Photos: Tennessee's Nate Washington]
Washington benefitted from Vince Young's(notes) deep ball, and it's hard to know what's going to happen to Tennessee's passing game. But Washington has the jets to make the deep game go.
Johnny Knox(notes), Chicago Bears (16.3 Air Yards per catch)
[Photos: Chicago's Johnny Knox]
Since he came into the league, Knox has been known as an underdeveloped receiver with demon speed and a raw skill set. But as Jay Cutler(notes) is finally getting protection and is able to get things going in Mike Martz's offense, Knox has become more of a factor.
The second five, based on Air Yards:
Steve Breaston(notes), Arizona Cardinals (12.7 Air Yards per catch)
Lee Evans(notes), Buffalo Bills (12.4 Air Yards per catch)
Braylon Edwards(notes), New York Jets (11.4 Air Yards per catch)
Greg Jennings(notes), Green Bay Packers (11.1 Air Yards per catch)
Dwayne Bowe(notes), Kansas City Chiefs (10.9 Air Yards per catch)
They have a stat for everything, AIR YARDS!!!