NFL Power Rankings: Top 50 Active Wide Receivers
Being a great wide receiver is more than just being able to catch a lot of passes and score a lot of touchdowns.
The best of the best wide receivers are the ones who force defenses to ultimately change the way they play the game. They get open consistently, they catch the ball when it’s thrown to them, they can block, and most importantly, they’re playmakers. They keep defensive coordinators up at night.
Just ask Donovan McNabb about the importance of wide receivers. After three years of falling short with James Thrash and Todd Pinkston, the Philadelphia Eagles reached the Super Bowl in their first year with Terrell Owens.
Tom Brady set the single-season record for passing touchdowns in his first season with Randy Moss, and Joe Montana and Steve Young both benefited greatly from Jerry Rice, arguably the greatest to ever play the game.
Nineteen of the guys on the list are first-rounders. Five are undrafted. Some had careers that were seemingly over several years ago, but they’ve managed to resurrect their NFL life.
No. 50 to No. 46
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His return to the NFL was very successful, as he caught 45 passes for 612 yards and eight touchdowns as the No. 2 receiver.
Those are pretty good numbers for a 34-year old who spent two years out of football.
49. Robert Meachem, New Orleans Saints
He’s not worth the first-round pick the New Orleans Saints spent on him in 2007, but he’s a good part of the mix for Drew Brees. Robert Meachem totaled 40 receptions for 620 yards and six scores in 2011.
48. Jacoby Ford, Oakland Raiders
Few players in the NFL can match Jacoby Ford’s straight-line speed. He had an injury-plagued 2011 season with the Oakland Raiders, but he could have an Antonio Brown-type breakout season in 2012, especially with Carson Palmer under center.
47. Deion Branch, New England Patriots
He spent five years with the Seattle Seahawks, the last three very unproductive, before a return trip to New England seemed to rejuvenate his career.
Deion Branch has caught 702 and 706 yards the last two seasons, and he’s one of just two active players (Jabar Gaffney is the other) to have over 5,000 career receiving yards without ever having a 1,000-yard season.
46. Steve Breaston, Kansas City Chiefs
Steve Breaston has been a very serviceable receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs. He totaled 61 catches for 785 yards and two touchdowns in 2011, and he has a 1,000-yard season under his belt.
No. 45 to No. 41
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45. Jonathan Baldwin, Kansas City Chiefs
His numbers weren’t anything special in his rookie season, but he has the physical tools to be a future star in the league.
Check out this catch over Brian Dawkins for proof of that.
44. Laurent Robinson, Dallas Cowboys
It looked like his career was over when the St. Louis Rams cut him before 2011. Actually, it had never really gotten started.
But he had a surprise breakout season with the Dallas Cowboys this year, catching 11 touchdowns in just 14 games.
43. Johnny Knox, Chicago Bears
Imagine how much better Jay Cutler would be if he had a stud wide receiver and an offensive line that could block. Johnny Knox is an up-and-coming young player who suffered a career-threatening injury in Week 15, although it turns out he should be healthy enough to play in 2012.
Knox is Cutler’s best deep threat, as he averaged 19.6 yards per catch on his 39 receptions.
42. Mario Manningham, New York Giants
He’s now the third receiver because of the emergence of Victor Cruz, which makes Mario Manningham arguably the best No. 3 wide receiver in the league. He had a lingering knee injury in 2011 and finished with just 523 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
41. Lance Moore, New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees was amazingly successful throwing the ball to Lance Moore this season, completing 72.2 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s a passer rating of 135.6.
No. 40 to No. 36
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40. Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks
Doug Baldwin barely played in college and went undrafted in the 2011 NFL draft but made an immediate impact as a rookie free agent with the Seattle Seahawks.
Baldwin led the team in receptions (51), yards (792), and touchdowns (4).
39. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
He was labeled as a bust for the first year-and-a-half of his NFL career but started to break out late in 2011.
Demaryius Thomas gained national attention for his 80-yard touchdown grab in overtime to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs. With better play at quarterback from Tim Tebow, Thomas could approach 1,000 yards in 2012.
38. Nate Burleson, Detroit Lions
Nate Burleson is a former 1,000-yard receiver who has bounced around the league as a productive No. 2 receiver. He caught 73 passes for 757 yards and three scores from Matthew Stafford in 2011.
37. Malcom Floyd, San Diego Chargers
His older brother—also named Malcolm, although spelled differently—played in the NFL for the Houston Oilers in the mid-1990s.
This Malcom Floyd had his best year in 2011, setting career highs in yards (856), and yards per catch (19.9). If Vincent Jackson leaves in the offseason, Floyd may need to step up as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver in 2012.
36. Austin Collie, Indianapolis Colts
He and Peyton Manning hooked up on an incredible 82 percent of passes in 2010, the highest rate by far of any quarterback-receiver combo in the league.
Collie’s play dropped off with the switch to Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky at quarterback this past year. If Manning returns in 2012, Collie could put up the first 1,000-yard season of his career, especially if Reggie Wayne departs in free agency.
No. 35 to No. 33
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35. Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
Not many men get to say they scored three touchdowns in their first NFL start, let alone three in the first quarter of their first NFL start.
Torrey Smith showed the world he was a deep threat with a 133-yard, three-score first quarter against the St. Louis Rams.
He finished the year with seven touchdowns and an impressive 16.8 yards per catch.
34. Nate Washington, Tennessee Titans
The injury to Kenny Britt allowed Nate Washington to emerge as a 1,000-yard receiver for the Tennessee Titans, as the seventh-year veteran turned in a career year. If he can duplicate his 1,023 receiving yards when Britt returns in 2012, it will go a long way to help young quarterback Jake Locker.
33. Santana Moss, Washington Redskins
His career is getting lost just like Steve Smith’s was with Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen. If the Washington Redskins draft Robert Griffin III, Santana Moss could see a rejuvenation in his numbers.
32. Michael Crabtree
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He hasn’t amounted to the All-Pro player the San Francisco 49ers thought they were getting when they picked him 10th overall in the 2009 NFL draft.
Between his record-long holdout and multiple foot fractures, Michael Crabtree’s first two seasons were mired by injuries and inconsistencies.
He set career highs in receptions (72) and receiving yards (874) in 2011, while adding four touchdowns through the air, although he was then vastly ineffective in the postseason.
Crabtree is a big, physical receiver who can make the tough circus catch in traffic. He can get the jump ball and was actually compared most often to Larry Fitzgerald in Crabtree’s pre-draft days.
If he can turn the corner and emerge as the team’s true No. 1 receiver in ’12, it will go a long way to making life easier for quarterback Alex Smith.
31. Mike Williams (TB)
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As a rookie in 2010, Mike Williams emerged as a star at wide receiver, catching 65 passes for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Very few rookies have that kind of impact in their debut season in the league, and Williams was looking like he could crack the top 10 list by the end of his sophomore season in the NFL.
Williams failed to build upon his great rookie year, though, and his decline coincided with that of quarterback Josh Freeman.
He’s had some character issues in the past, but if he can keep working hard, he’s got the size and the speed to turn it around in 2012.
30. Santonio Holmes
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He’s truly been a playmaker during his career, but like many great wide receivers, his character comes into question.
Santonio Holmes was recently said to have been the cancer of the New York Jets locker room during the 2011 season, with teammates claiming he quit on them in the final game against the Miami Dolphins.
Holmes had just signed a five-year, $50 million deal with the Jets prior to last season, but the team may cut him now or trade him for a low draft pick like the Pittsburgh Steelers did after 2009.
When he’s behaving himself, Holmes is a borderline No. 1 receiver with a superb ability to perform in the clutch.
Holmes’ numbers themselves don’t justify his contract, as he had just 51 catches for 654 yards last year. He also rated as the worst blocking receiver in the NFL, and while the Jets aren’t paying him to block, they are paying him to rack up yards, and he didn’t do that well enough.
29. Sidney Rice
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It’s starting to look like Sidney Rice’s 2009 season in which he caught 83 passes for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns was the exception, not the rule.
In four other NFL seasons, Rice has never topped 484 yards, and he’s struggled to stay healthy with an assortment of injuries.
There was the hip injury he suffered in the 2009 NFC Championship game that carried over to 2010, the torn labrum on his shoulder this past season, and eventually the concussion that ended his season.
Two major surgeries for a 25-year-old receiver is not good news, and Seattle Seahawks fans can’t be too happy that their team dished out $41 million over five years for Rice.
Rice does have the size and playmaking ability to be an effective No. 1 when he is healthy and paired with a good quarterback.
With Brett Favre in ’09, Rice’s numbers put him in the Pro Bowl, and he came through with three touchdown grabs in the first playoff game. Rice has a lot to prove in 2012, but he’s not going to be able to prove a lot with Tarvaris Jackson behind center.
28. Anquan Boldin
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He’s averaged nearly 80 receptions and just over 1,000 yards per season since he broke into the league in 2003.
Anquan Boldin will complement Torrey Smith well in Baltimore, as Boldin is a big, physical receiver who is almost more of a tight end at this phase in his career.
He totaled 57 catches for 887 yards and three touchdowns in 2011, pretty good numbers for a 31-year-old in his ninth professional season.
Boldin is a similar player to Derrick Mason, a receiver the Baltimore Ravens let go of after 2010.
27. Percy Harvin
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In terms of his ability to run, catch and return kicks, Percy Harvin is one of the most dangerous playmakers in the NFL.
He has steadily increased his receiving totals all three seasons in the league, topping out at 87 receptions for 967 yards and six touchdowns last year.
Harvin has blazing speed that allows him to beat defenders on deep passes, and he has the potential to be a Pro Bowl wide receiver for years to come.
He will be extremely helpful to young quarterback Christian Ponder.
26. Antonio Brown
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He showed flashes of breakout potential last year in the playoffs and carried that over to 2011 with a 1,108-yard season.
Antonio Brown was able to push Hines Ward out of the starting spot and make Pittsburgh Steelers fans forget about Santonio Holmes.
Much of that is because defenses focused so much on Mike Wallace, but Brown still had a strong campaign, especially for a sixth-round draft pick.
He only scored two touchdowns, but that total will go up, and Brown also offers service as an elite kick and punt returner, finishing with over 2,200 all-purpose yards.
25. Brandon Lloyd
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I’m not sure what to make of Brandon Lloyd’s strange breakout season in 2010, one in which he caught 77 passes for a league-best 1,448 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
Before that, he had never caught for more than 733 yards in a season on four different teams over a seven-year span.
The list of receivers who have led the NFL in receiving yards since 2000 includes primarily the best of the best: David Boston, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt twice, Muhsin Muhammad, Steve Smith, Chad Ochocinco, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson twice and Calvin Johnson.
Lloyd is by far the worst of the group—he’s the only one who had never had a 1,000-yard season previously.
Whether Lloyd can keep up his production will be interesting. He finished with just 966 yards in 2011, but he was in unfavorable situations on losing teams in Denver and St. Louis, and even Randy Moss in his prime wouldn’t have put up good numbers on the Rams.
Lloyd becomes a free agent, and whichever team signs him will be taking a risk, given that he’s had just one great season and a bunch of mediocre ones.
24. Jeremy Maclin
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His role may increase next year if DeSean Jackson signs elsewhere.
Jeremy Maclin played well his first two seasons but didn’t take the much-anticipated leap in production many third-year wide receivers see.
Maclin still hasn’t topped 1,000 yards, and he made several costly plays this year that kept the Philadelphia Eagles out of the playoffs.
Many Eagles fans already feel Maclin is a better receiver than Jackson. While he is a better blocker and a much more complete player, Jackson rates higher on this list because of the way he forces opposing defenses to game-plan around him, which makes him more valuable.
Maclin actually ran the same time in the 40-yard dash (4.29) as Jackson, although he doesn’t play as fast.
Maclin has the physical set and the potential to jump into the top 10 on this list next year.
23. Steve Johnson
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He’s one of just four AFC wide receivers to have caught 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons.
Stevie Johnson is a free agent as of this March, and the only thing that may keep him from getting a big payday is his character.
Aside from that, Johnson is good enough that the Buffalo Bills should try to re-sign him.
He’s averaged 79 receptions, 1,039 yards and 8.5 touchdowns the past two seasons as the focal point of the Bills passing offense.
That’s pretty good production for a guy who was an afterthought as a seventh-round pick in 2008. It also makes Johnson the first player in Bills history to catch 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
22. Miles Austin
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He was unofficially pushed down to the fourth option on offense, behind Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and waiver-wire pickup Laurent Robinson, who emerged as a touchdown machine.
It’s very doubtful Robinson will reproduce his great 2011 campaign, but Miles Austin is now the second-best wide receiver on the Dallas Cowboys, even with Dez Bryant not having had his best year yet.
Austin is a former undrafted free agent who has spent six years in Dallas, the last three as a star.
He made Pro Bowls in 2009 and 2010 before spending this past season dealing with a hamstring injury that cost him six games.
Austin and Bryant—when healthy—are among the top three or four best wide receiver duos in the NFL.
Even though Austin was hurt for some of this season, Tony Romo had seven touchdowns to no interceptions when throwing in Austin’s direction.
21. Kenny Britt
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Kenny Britt was having a fantastic season in 2011 before tearing his ACL in the third game of the season.
He finished with 289 yards and three touchdowns, numbers that would put him on pace for nearly 1,600 yards and 16 scores.
There’s no way he would have maintained that pace, although it was his third season, which is traditionally the breakout year for young wide receivers.
Britt was a first-round pick in 2009, a year that featured some pretty good wide receivers (Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace) outside of Darrius Heyward-Bey as the seventh overall pick. Nicks is the best of that group so far, but Britt still has a lot of upside.
He’s a big receiver who can go across the middle of the field. Britt is good enough that he will draw a lot of double-coverage in 2012, and he’s a physical presence that can pick up yards after the catch.
He is a Pro Bowler in waiting (assuming he has no difficulties recovering from his torn ACL), and he and Nate Washington should be a good 1-2 duo for the Tennessee Titans next year.
20. Julio Jones
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The Atlanta Falcons saw a lot of reason to believe they made the right choice by trading away a whole slew of draft picks for the playmaking Julio Jones.
Jones put up 959 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie, topping 100 yards in five separate games.
He’s a 6'4" receiver with an incredible vertical leap and 4.39 speed.
Check out this catch in warmups to see why the Falcons traded so much for him.
He’s going to be a Pro Bowler by 2012, and he could be a top-five wide receiver in the NFL in three seasons.
19. Dez Bryant
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Dez Bryant was a first-round pick in the 2010 draft, falling to the Dallas Cowboys at the 24th pick because of character issues, much like Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings in the 1998 draft.
Bryant showed flashes of greatness as a rookie before breaking his ankle late in the season.
He took over as the No. 1 wide receiver in 2011 when Miles Austin missed six games due to a hamstring injury.
Bryant finished with 928 yards and nine touchdowns, dropping just one pass.
He is big and physical and a great downfield threat. He has the tools to be an absolute force for many years, and if he and Tony Romo develop their chemistry together, Dez Bryant can be anything he wants to be.
18. Marques Colston
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Marques Colston has gone through his entire college and now NFL career without ever being flashy, but he’s a pretty underrated receiver.
The former seventh-round pick has five 1,000-yard seasons in his six-year career (without having made a Pro Bowl).
He’s been Drew Brees’ best receiver and caught 80 passes for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011, even with the emergence of superstar tight end Jimmy Graham.
17. Reggie Wayne
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Reggie Wayne saw his streak of seven straight 1,000-yard seasons and five straight Pro Bowl selections end with the injury to Peyton Manning.
Forced to play with the likes of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky, Wayne’s numbers fell from a career-high 111 catches plus 1,355 yards in 2010 to just 75 catches and 964 yards in 2011.
He’s 33 years old and a free agent, and whether he returns to Indianapolis will likely depend directly on whether the Colts bring back Manning for 2012.
16. A.J. Green
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With an offseason cut short by the NFL lockout, Green stepped right into the offense as the No. 1 receiver and caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns.
He made life substantially easier for rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and actually helped the surprising Bengals all the way to the playoffs.
Green is a quarterback’s dream, as he’s fast with great hands and unbelievable leaping ability. He should be on the AFC Pro Bowl squad every year for the next decade.
15. Jordy Nelson
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Only one other receiver with as many catches as Jordy Nelson (68) had as high of a completion percentage on passes thrown to him (73.9).
Nelson may have shown signs that a breakout season was coming in last year’s Super Bowl, as he caught nine passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in Green Bay’s 31-25 win.
Nelson played well enough this past year that he was able to keep Greg Jennings under 1,000 yards—Nelson finished with 1,268 yards (ninth-best in the league) and 15 touchdowns, more than anyone except Rob Gronkowski and Calvin Johnson.
He topped 100 yards five times, posted four multiple-touchdown games, and ended the year with 277 yards and five scores in his final two games.
14. Vincent Jackson
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Vincent Jackson has topped 1,000 yards in three of the last four seasons, just missing out in his injury-plagued 2010 season.
He caught 60 balls for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns this past year, averaging an impressive 18.4 yards per catch.
Jackson is a free agent and the San Diego Chargers will assuredly want him back, especially after games like the one he had against the New York Jets in the 2009 AFC playoffs—seven catches for 111 yards, despite being covered by Darrelle Revis all game.
13. DeSean Jackson
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Fifty-eight catches for 961 yards and four touchdowns won’t earn DeSean Jackson a new contract, but the sheer numbers themselves don’t account for Jackson’s overall value to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Simply put, the Eagles are a different team without him.
Jackson was benched for the Arizona game last year, and the offense failed to move the ball as it normally did.
Jackson deserves much of the blame for missing the team meeting that led to his benching, but when he’s not being a clubhouse cancer, he’s one of the most talented receivers the game has ever seen.
His speed is matched by very few players in the National Football League—Jackson is simply too fast for any defender to cover. He forces teams to play their safeties 20 yards deep against him, which opens up underneath routes for his teammates.
The Eagles may choose to go a different way from Jackson, but good luck to them to replace his 12 60-yard touchdowns in four seasons.
12. Mike Wallace
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Mike Wallace is an extremely similar player to DeSean Jackson, but he rates one spot higher because he is not as one-dimensional as Jackson.
Wallace is every bit as valuable as Jackson on a deep route, but he’s more consistent and tougher, and he doesn’t drop as many passes.
Wallace averaged a league-best 19.4 yards per catch as a rookie in 2009, then followed it up with an astonishing 21.0 average in 2010.
He caught a career-high 72 passes this year and still stayed at 16.6 yards per catch, numbers that will cause defenses to double-cover him every time.
11. Dwayne Bowe
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He’s the top player on this list to be hitting free agency, and the Kansas City Chiefs had better re-sign Dwayne Bowe if they want to win football games.
Bowe has totaled 1,000 receiving yards each of the past two years, and he led the NFL with 15 touchdown catches in 2010.
His decline to five scores in 2011 wasn’t so much Bowe dropping off as it was the emergence of rookie Jonathan Baldwin and the addition of veteran receiver Steve Breaston.
Bowe has also done most of his work with mediocre to bad quarterbacks (Damon Huard, Brodie Croyle, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko). If he could get a big-time quarterback, Bowe would be mentioned among the league’s absolute elite receivers.
10. Victor Cruz
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I can’t ever remember a player coming out of nowhere as much as Victor Cruz did this year for the New York Giants.
Cruz spent 2010 on the roster as a rookie undrafted free agent, failing to record a single catch. In the first two games this season, he had just two catches for 17 yards.
And then he exploded onto the scene with three catches for 110 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles, including a jump ball over $60-million corner Nnamdi Asomugha.
For the season, Cruz totaled 82 catches for a franchise-record 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. He topped 100 yards seven times, added his name to the record books with a 99-yard touchdown and earned a Pro Bowl selection and second-team All-Pro honors.
Was Cruz a one-year wonder? Well, we will find out in 2012, but I highly doubt it.
The way he excelled at jump balls, the way he and Eli Manning just seemed to be in sync with each other, Cruz should be just as good next year. No player averaged more yards after the catch (min. 60 catches) than Cruz’s 7.3.
Cruz’s 16 missed tackles were more than any other wide receiver in the NFC. He had a Cinderella season, but it should soon turn into a Cinderella career.
9. Greg Jennings
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The emergence of Jordy Nelson as a bona fide playmaker cut into Greg Jennings’ yards, and he failed to reach 1,000 for the first time since 2007.
Jennings still caught 67 passes for 949 yards and nine touchdowns, though.
He made his second straight Pro Bowl and helped Aaron Rodgers set the single-season record for passer rating.
Jennings doesn’t drop too many passes, he’s extremely consistent and he turned in a super 2010 postseason, totaling 21 catches for 303 yards and two touchdowns in the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl championship.
8. Steve Smith
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Steve Smith has had an up-and-down career since being drafted in 2001, more so because of the Carolina Panthers’ constant inconsistencies at the quarterback position.
With Cam Newton now under center, Smith has his best quarterback yet, although the 32-year-old Smith probably doesn’t have too many years left.
Smith should be a prime candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, though, after a stellar 2011 season in which he caught 79 passes for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns.
He also played in all 16 games for the first time since ’05 and earned his fifth Pro Bowl selection.
He’s only listed at 5'9", 185 pounds, but he plays the game as if he were much bigger. Smith isn’t afraid to go across the middle, and he’s good enough on jump balls despite his short stature.
7. Roddy White
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Roddy White had a miserable rookie season back in 2005, dropping too many passes and failing to justify the first-round selection the Atlanta Falcons spent on him in the draft.
By his third season, he had it all figured out, and now he’s put together five straight 1,000-yard seasons.
Since ’07, White has averaged 94 catches and 1,284 yards per year. The only wide receivers with more catches during that span are Brandon Marshall and Wes Welker, and Larry Fitzgerald is the only player with more receiving yards.
White still has some things to work on. He led the NFL in dropped passes (15), and Matt Ryan threw seven interceptions on passes intended his way.
That being said, White was targeted more often than any other wide receiver in the league, and he made life easier for both rookie receiver Julio Jones and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez.
6. Hakeem Nicks
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Before he was drafted, Hakeem Nicks drew comparisons to both Hines Ward and Anquan Boldin for the physical style of football he plays.
Nicks is quickly establishing himself as one of the premier receivers in the NFL—in just three years, he has topped 1,000 yards twice and averaged eight touchdowns per season.
He has size 4XL gloves, and his freakishly large hands help him grab any pass near him.
Nicks is still the Giants’ best option despite a breakout season from Victor Cruz.
Nicks is having a phenomenal postseason—he had 115 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Atlanta Falcons, 165 yards and two more scores in the huge upset over the Green Bay Packers, and then five more catches for 55 yards against the San Francisco 49ers.
5. Brandon Marshall
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It’s my opinion that if Brandon Marshall had a top-10 quarterback throwing to him, he would be a perennial candidate to lead the NFL in receiving yards.
As it is, he has still averaged 95 catches and 1,188 yards over the past five seasons while catching passes from Jay Cutler for two years, and a year each of Kyle Orton, Chad Henne and Matt Moore.
Marshall is one of the toughest guys in the league to bring down one-on-one.
He holds the league record for receptions (21) in a single game, he’s one of just five players in history to record 100 receptions for three straight years, and he’s done all of his work in Miami without a good No. 2 receiver or tight end to complement him.
4. Wes Welker
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Wes Welker is an intriguing case.
He’s a phenomenal story—he wasn’t recruited to play college football because it was said he was too small, and he wasn’t drafted after a stellar collegiate career at Texas Tech because it was still thought he was too small.
Welker was cut from the San Diego Chargers, and even though he had incredible success with the Miami Dolphins—he had more all-purpose yards in his first three NFL seasons than any player in league history except Gale Sayers—he was traded to the New England Patriots for second- and seventh-round picks.
With the Patriots, Welker has been nothing short of amazing.
He has been to four Pro Bowls and earned four All-Pro selections in five years. He has led the NFL in catches three times, averaged 1,221 yards and six touchdowns per season and caught a league-record-tying 99-yard touchdown pass.
Welker excels from the slot, where he’s quick enough that he can be Tom Brady’s primary option.
It’s been said before that Welker is the Patriots’ running game. He picks up yards after the catch like it’s his job—his 732 in 2011 topped all other wide receivers by a full 137 yards.
His 554 receptions since ’07 are just nine short of Marvin Harrison for the most ever in a five-year span, and Welker is the only man in history to record three seasons of at least 110 receptions.
3. Andre Johnson
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In my opinion, the top three wide receivers on this list are interchangeable.
All three players are game-breakers, all are capable of dominating the best cornerbacks in the league, and all are receivers who can stretch the field and draw constant double- and even triple-teams.
All three were also picked in the top three picks in the whole draft—just an interesting fact.
Andre Johnson broke into the league in 2003 and was a Pro Bowler by 2004. He has compiled five Pro Bowl invitations in nine years and is the only active player to have led the league in receiving yards in consecutive seasons.
In fact, the only other man ever to do it is Jerry Rice, putting Johnson in pretty good company.
Three times Johnson has led the league in receiving yards per game—the only things keeping him from supplanting Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson as the game’s premier wide receiver are his touchdowns and his injuries.
The touchdowns may be nitpicking, but Johnson has never scored 10 in a season and has 21 fewer than Fitzgerald in the same amount of games (124). Calvin Johnson has just three fewer touchdowns in 47 fewer games.
The other reason is injuries. Andre Johnson missed nine games in 2011 with a hamstring injury, three games in 2010, seven in 2007 and three in 2005. He’s missed 22 games due to injury, an average of 2.4 per season. Fitzgerald misses 0.5 games per season, and Calvin Johnson misses 0.8 games per season.
2. Larry Fitzgerald
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Larry Fitzgerald—who recently inked an eight-year, $120 million contract, the largest contract for a wide receiver in NFL history—is a six-time Pro Bowler and a four-time All-Pro.
He’s just 28 years old but already has nearly 10,000 career receiving yards, and he has a chance to go down as one of the five best receivers to ever play the game.
At 6'3", 225 pounds, Fitzgerald is a huge target on jump balls, but he’s also physical enough to go across the middle.
He had an absolutely unreal 2008 postseason, catching three touchdowns in the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game and then two more in the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In six career playoff games, he has averaged seven catches for 118 yards and 1.5 touchdowns. That’s out of this world.
Fitzgerald caught at least three passes in all 16 games this past season, topping 100 yards six times, despite getting subpar play from his quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and John Skelton.
Fitzgerald has also maintained his status as a top-three receiver in the NFL despite Anquan Boldin going to the Baltimore Ravens and Steve Breaston signing with the Kansas City Chiefs, putting all the more pressure on Fitzgerald as the lone playmaker in the passing game.
1. Calvin Johnson
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I almost had Larry Fitzgerald ahead of Calvin Johnson on this list.
And then I remembered some of the things Calvin Johnson can do on a football field—things that no one man should be able to do, like this catch in triple-coverage against the Dallas Cowboys.
Johnson entered the NFL in 2007 with enormous expectations, and he’s now the best receiver in the game.
His 1,681 receiving yards in 2011 was the seventh-highest single-season total in the league’s history, and he had eight 100-yard games. He had at least 211 receiving yards three times in a span of 21 days—Jerry Rice has done that three times in his career.
Johnson ended the season with 11/244/1 and 12/211/2 games. It’s anyone’s guess what he would have done had he gotten to play one more game.
His playoff debut was a smashing success, as he became just the second man in history with at least 12 catches, 200 yards and two touchdowns in a single postseason game.
Johnson is virtually uncoverable one-on-one. It’s tough to stop him with two men, and as the Cowboys saw, sometimes three men on him won’t stop him.
Megatron helped Matthew Stafford pass for just the fourth 5,000-yard season in history, and at 6'5", 239 pounds and only 26 years old, Johnson can do anything he wants out there on the football field.