Pittsburgh Steelers: The Top 10 Wide Receivers in Team History
I have always been a huge fan of wide receivers.
First, the speedy “Bullet” Bob Hayes of the Dallas Cowboys—the only person to earn an Olympic gold medal and win the Super Bowl—caught my eye and then it was Otis Taylor of the Kansas City Chiefs who started a lifelong fascination with the position.
But no teams in my youth had as dynamic a 1-2 combination of wide receivers like Pittsburgh did with John Stallworth and Lynn Swann who quickly became the prime targets for quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
And my love affair with the Steelers soon began.
Four decades later, here are my top 10 favorite wide receivers to ever suit up in the black-and-gold uniform.
10. Roy Jefferson
Roy Jefferson played his first five NFL seasons for Pittsburgh and made three Pro Bowls for the AFL despite having Kent Nix, Bill Nielsen, Dick Shiner and Terry Hanratty as his quarterbacks.
The 6’2”, 195-pound player from the University of Utah led the NFL in receiving yards (1,074) then followed with his best season a year later in 1969 with 67 catches and 1,069 yards and became the first Steelers receiver in history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
Jefferson had a total of 199 receptions for 3,671 yards and 29 touchdowns with Pittsburgh in five seasons (1965-1969) before heading to the Baltimore Colts after a conflict with head coach Chuck Noll.
He finished his career with the Washington Redskins.
9. Plaxico Burress
The Steelers drafted Plaxico Burress in 2000 with the No. 8 pick in the NFL draft but an wrist injury hampered the 6’5”, 234-pound wide receiver in that first year and limited him to just eight games.
Burress was a star at Michigan State University where in his first year he set a record for most passes (65) caught in a single season by a member of a Big Ten team.
In 2001, Burress exploded onto the scene with the Black and Gold, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark (1,008) with six touchdowns as he and teammate Hines Ward became the first pair of Steelers to both top the 1,000-yard mark in a single season.
Burress had his best year in the Steel City in 2002 when he caught 78 passes for a career-high 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns and against the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 10 in a 34-34 tie. He set a team franchise record with 235 receiving yards on nine catches with two touchdowns.
Burress played five seasons with Pittsburgh (2000-2004) where he totaled 261 catches for 4,164 yards and 22 touchdowns, earning him the ninth spot on my list.
Off the field, Burress gained a reputation for being a bit of a problem child after showing up late to team meetings and skipping a training camp program without informing the Steelers.
After a playoff loss in January of 2005, Burress said he was leaving the Steelers and two months later he signed a six-year, $25 million contract to play for the New York Giants, where he played for four years before leaving for the New York Jets last season.
8. Mike Wallace
Although he is basically just starting out his career with the Black and Gold, there is no way I could keep the Steelers fastest receiver ever, Mike Wallace, off the list.
Drafted out of Ole Miss, the 6’0”, 199-pound Wallace finished his rookie year in the Steel City (2009) with an NFL-high 19.4 yards per catch. Head coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger knew they had something special on their hands.
In 2010, Wallace earned a selection to the Pro Bowl and became one of the NFL’s top deep threats, thanks in great part to his blazing speed (4.28 40-yard dash), which actually ranks among the tops in recorded history.
He’s that fast.
In his three seasons with the Steelers, Wallace has 171 catches for 3,206 yards and 24 touchdowns and could become the best statistical pass catcher in franchise history if he can stay in Pittsburgh and keep his head on straight.
According to AOL Sporting News, Wallace will reportedly miss workouts and training camp due to a dispute with management over his 2012 contract.
Not a good way to start the season for the team or Wallace, who could climb all the way to the top of this list and has the potential to become the Steelers greatest receiver ever if he puts up the numbers he has for another six or seven seasons.
7. Santonio Holmes
Although Santonio Holmes only had one great season—in 2009 when he had 57 catches for 1,248 yards and five touchdowns—for the Steelers in his four years (2006-2009) with the club, the 5’11”, 192-pounder from Ohio State made some pretty decent memories in that short span.
After struggling with fumblitis as a kick returner in his rookie year in 2006 after being the team’s 25th pick in the first round, Holmes found his groove and really exploded onto the scene in the 2008 postseason where he helped lead the Steelers to their record sixth Super Bowl win.
The most important play and best memory ever created by a Steelers wide receiver has to be Holmes’ six-yard touchdown catch catch from Roethlisberger where he leaned over the end zone sideline to snatch the football (above picture) with just 35 seconds left to help defeat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
Holmes had nine catches for 131 yards in the game including four receptions for 73 yards on that historic game-winning touchdown drive and earned the honor of the game’s MVP.
Before heading to the New York Jets, Holmes racked up up 235 catches for 3,835 yards and 20 touchdowns in Pittsburgh.
6. Yancey Thigpen
An unheralded player in high school, Yancey Thigpen attended Winston Salem State University and was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in 1991 in the fourth round.
The 6’1”, 203-pound wide receiver came to the Steel City in 1992 where he had three pretty mediocre years before finding his Steeler groove.
In 1995, Thigpen made his first Pro Bowl with a breakout season (85 receptions, 1,307 yards, five touchdowns). Then, after being hampered by an injury, he had a similar great year in 1997 (79 receptions, 1,398 yards, seven touchdowns) where he was again rewarded with his second inclusion in the Pro Bowl.
Thigpen was known for his prowess of going over the middle and played six seasons for the Black and Gold (1992-1997) where he amassed 222 receptions for 3,651 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Had Thigpen played with a top-notch quarterback like Bradshaw or Roethlisberger, his career numbers and legacy would have been better, but at the No. 6 spot on my list, he has nothing to be ashamed about and certainly made his mark.
5. Louis Lipps
If there were an all cool name team for the Steelers , Louis Lipps and Lynn Swann would no doubt be the wide receivers (and Frenchy Fuqua would be the fullback).
The 5’10” Lipps was drafted out of Southern Mississippi in 1984 and played eight seasons (1984-1991) for Pittsburgh and all but one yard and one reception of his gaudy career totals (359 receptions, 4,165 yards, 38 touchdowns) came in a black-and-gold uniform.
In 1988, Lipps made one of the Steelers most famous catches, dubbed the Steel City Wonder, when he caught the ball in his facemask and scored against the Houston Oilers.
Another guy who made the most out of mediocre quarterbacks, Lipps had only two career fumbles and co-hosts a weekly Steelers-themed radio show on ESPN 1250 AM in Pittsburgh.
After that one season with one catch for one yard with the Saints in 1992, Lipps retired a Steeler in 1993.
4. Buddy Dial
Buddy Dial is the only member on the list from the black-and-white television era and probably the only wide receiver fans 50 years old and under haven’t heard of.
Acquired in a trade from the New York Giants after they drafted the All-American in the second round in 1959 from Rice University, the 6’1, 185-pound Dial played five seasons with the Steelers (1959-1963) and put up some pretty incredible numbers.
Dial had 229 receptions (fourth all-time for Pittsburgh), 4,723 yards and 42 touchdowns (fourth) in his illustrious career. His 1,295 yards in 1963 ranks as the sixth highest for the Steelers while his 235 receiving yards against the Cleveland Browns in 1961 is the second highest in club history.
Dial is also still tied for the most touchdown receptions in a season by a Pittsburgh wide receiver (12) and was named to two Pro Bowls.
He was traded to the Dallas Cowboys and retired after the 1966 season.
Worth noting, is that Dial played in the NFL when regular season schedules were only 12 games, making his numbers all that more impressive. And even crazier is the fact that he had no fumbles in his career. That’s right, zero.
Dial died in 2008.
3. Lynn Swann
Lynn Swann was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to poetry on a football field.
Pittsburgh drafted Swann out of USC in the first round in 1974, a famous draft for the Steelers who had four players selected that season in the NFL Hall of Fame in Swann, Stallworth, Lambert and Webster.
In his rookie season, Swann had 577 yards on punt returns, a franchise record.
Swann quickly developed into one of league’s most talented and graceful wide receivers and his catch against the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X (pictured above) is one of the most memorable in NFL history.
Although the 5’11”, 180-pound Swann never had a single season with over 1,000 receiving yards, his No. 3 spot on the list is justified for his contributions to the team’s success during his nine seasons in Pittsburgh.
Because the Steelers balanced attack during those years featured a solid running game with Franco Harris, Frenchy Fuqua and Rocky Bleier and a great passing attack with Swann and Stallworth, his numbers aren’t as great as some below him on the list but his impact justifies this No. 3 spot.
Swann finished his career (1974-1982) with 336 catches, 5,462 receiving yards and 51 touchdowns and is a three-time Pro Bowl player, a four-time Super Bowl champion and was named the game’s MVP in Super Bowl X.
Swann was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
2. Hines Ward
I was very, very, very tempted to put Hines Ward in the top spot.
His numbers are unparalleled. When you think of what it means to be a Steeler and what it means to be a football player, Ward and other former Black and Gold legends Jack Lambert and Mike Webster immediately come to mind.
The 6’0”, 205-pound Ward was drafted out of the University of Georgia and played an unbelievable 14 seasons for Pittsburgh before retiring (the hard way) after last season.
Ward was known for going over the middle and blocking and is as vicious as any wide receiver in league history.
And his numbers are utterly mind-boggling. 1,000 career receptions. 12,083 career yards. 85 touchdowns. And just seven fumbles in 14 years. Simply epic. And no doubt, the Hall of Fame is waiting.
Ward also played in four Pro Bowls, was a three-time team MVP, played on two Super Bowl winning teams, one where he was named the game's MVP (Super Bowl XL).
Off the field, the affable Ward has also been a big success as he won the reality television show Dancing With The Stars in 2011. He will also appear in The Dark Knight Rises out later this year on the silver screen.
Few players in NFL history have had as consistent and relatively injury-free seasons as Ward did during his long run. And some, possibly even Ward himself, think he could still probably play another year.
1. John Stallworth
John Stallworth gets the top spot from me for his long career, his durability, his ability to make the clutch catch and his presence on the franchise that won four Super Bowls (IX, X, XII, XIV) over his 14-year run.
Drafted in 1974 in the fourth round out of Alabama A&M, the 6’2”, 191-pound Stallworth quickly evolved into one of the NFL’s best receivers.
Stallworth made four Pro Bowls and had three 1,000-yard receiving seasons, including 1984 when he was named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year (80 catches, 1,295 yards).
Only Ward has better career numbers than Stallworth, who ended with 537 catches for 8,723 receiving yards and 63 touchdowns when it was all over. And in 14 years, Stallworth had no fumbles.
Stallworth holds the Super Bowl record for career average per catch (24.4 yards) as well as single-game average (40.33 yards in Super Bowl XIV).
He also had 12 touchdown receptions and a string of 17 consecutive games with a
reception in postseason play and scored touchdowns in eight straight playoff games from 1978 to 1983, still an NFL record.
Stallworth was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
It’s no coincidence the best franchise in the NFL with the best owners (The Rooney family), the best coaches (Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin) and the most loyal fans has more Super Bowl wins than any other team.
And much of that success has come from the consistent depth at the wide receiver position as well as the Black and Gold’s renowned defenses over the last four decades.
The career statistics for the Steelers wide receivers ranked No. 6 through 10 are pretty close and those players could very well have been ranked anywhere in those spots. No.’s 4 (Dial) and 5 (Lipps) could be reversed and the players I have ranked 1-2-3 (Stallworth-Ward-Swann) could also be ranked in any order on top.
Players worth an honorable mention who didn’t make the list include Charles Johnson (who would likely be No. 11 with 247 catches, 3,400 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns), Ernie Mills, Ron Shanklin, Cedric Wilson, Dwight Stone, Kordell Stewart, Antwaan Randle El and Antonio Brown, who I expect big things from in the future after his 69-catch, 1,108-yard season last year for the Steelers.
And in the end, the only negative thing I can say about the Steelers in terms of the wide receiver position is that they haven’t retired the jersey No.’s 82, 86 and 88.
I’m guessing that it’s simply because if the franchise started retiring jersey numbers, they might not have that many left to choose from down the road.
Follow me on Twitter: @KevinStott11