The Top 25 Wide Receiver Debuts on New Teams in NFL History
Whether as a free-agent signing or part of a trade, wide receivers have been running routes from city to city during the NFL offseason. This puts many faces in new places for the 2013 season.
The notable moves include trades for Percy Harvin (Seattle) and Anquan Boldin (San Francisco), and free-agent signings Mike Wallace (Miami), Wes Welker (Denver), Danny Amendola (New England) and Greg Jennings (Minnesota).
Five of those six teams made the playoffs last season, so expectations are high on the new receivers to help put them over the top.
But there are serious risks with going after a wide receiver this time of year. The system, quarterback and supporting cast the receiver played with on his old team had a major impact on his performance, and now teams must hope he adapts to their situation, which is all but guaranteed to differ in at least one area.
Sometimes you end up with instant successes like Brandon Marshall (Chicago) and Vincent Jackson (Tampa Bay) were last season. Other times you end up with David Boston (2003 Chargers) and Peerless Price (2003 Falcons).
Sometimes even the same receiver can have vastly different results after hitting the open market, such as Javon Walker in Denver (2006) compared to Oakland (2008).
With so many big names moving to a new team this year, chances are some will be a smashing success, and at least one will be a huge failure.
With optimism in mind, we are going to look at the top 25 seasons by a wide receiver on a new team in NFL history. These are players that were either traded or a free agent that previously played for a different team.
Impact is the goal, and that is both about individual production and making the offense better. You will see some players who merely had good stats vs. others who changed the dynamic of his team’s offense.
Which flashy new receiver has the best chance of making this list for his 2013 season? We predict that following the list.
The list of honorable mentions was nearly as long as the top 25 itself, but rest assured there is little else of value to talk about in NFL history beyond the players included here. The following 15 seasons are listed in chronological order.
Bob Shaw (1950 Cardinals): 48 receptions for 971 yards and 12 TD
This is as old school as it gets here. Originally, Bob Shaw had made the top 25, but after finding out he scored five of his 12 touchdowns against the 1950 Baltimore Colts, one of the worst teams ever, he belongs in the honorable mentions.
Still, it was a Pro Bowl season and 20.2 yards per reception is a healthy average. Shaw did little on the Rams prior to joining the Cardinals and he actually went straight to the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders in 1951.
Would a 30-year-old who led the league in touchdown catches jump ship to another league today? Of course not. That is why you have to judge these old seasons differently.
Bake Turner (1963 Jets): 71 receptions for 1,009 yards and 6 TD
A 12th-round pick by the NFL’s Colts in 1962, Bake Turner finished his rookie season with the jaw-dropping stat line of one reception for 111 yards and a touchdown. It appears he had a 74-yard touchdown catch and must have gained the remaining 37 yards as a recipient on a lateral.
Regardless, he found himself on the Jets in the 1963 AFL, and immediately had his finest season, making the Pro Bowl in the process.
Tommy McDonald (1965 Rams): 67 receptions for 1,036 yards and 9 TD
Another future Hall of Fame receiver, Tommy McDonald was on his third team in three seasons, and at age 31, he made his final Pro Bowl and registered his final 1,000-yard season. He led the team with nine touchdown catches.
Paul Warfield (1970 Dolphins): 28 receptions for 703 yards and 6 TD
As a premier deep threat, Paul Warfield came over from the Cleveland Browns to the Miami Dolphins when the leagues merged in 1970. Though he only caught 28 passes, Warfield had a career-best 25.1 yards per reception and made the Pro Bowl.
It cost a first-round pick by Miami to get him in the trade, but it would pay off with Warfield starring on Miami’s three Super Bowl teams (1971-73).
Drew Hill (1985 Oilers): 64 receptions for 1,169 yards and 9 TD
Years before Houston’s run-and-shoot offense came together, the Oilers paired Drew Hill with Warren Moon in 1985. It took two low-round picks in a trade to acquire the former Rams receiver, who had a career-high 1,169 yards that season. The nine touchdowns were the second-highest total in his 14-year career.
Anthony Miller (1994 Broncos): 60 receptions for 1,107 yards and 5 TD
John Elway was looking for a receiver. San Diego’s Anthony Miller was looking for a quarterback. They combined in 1994 for a solid season, with Miller averaging a career-high 18.5 yards per catch. Miller would have made the top 25 if his second season (14 touchdowns in 14 games in 1995) in Denver were his first.
Mark Carrier (1995 Panthers): 66 receptions for 1,002 yards and 3 TD
As part of the expansion Panthers in 1995, Carrier led the team in receiving with just his second 1,000-yard season. Carrier could be quite the answer to a trivia question for who was the first Panther to hit 1,000 receiving yards.
Keenan McCardell (1996 Jaguars): 85 receptions for 1,129 yards and 3 TD
As a 12th-round pick (by the Redskins) in 1991, Keenan McCardell averaged just 30.6 yards per game for the Cleveland Browns. But as a free agent in 1996, he joined an offense with Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith to lead the Jaguars to the AFC Championship in just their second season.
McCardell made the Pro Bowl even though unheralded teammate Smith had better numbers. But the duo did help the Jaguars quickly become a contender.
Tony Martin (1998 Falcons): 66 receptions for 1,181 yards and 6 TD
Adding to the one-year-wonder allure of the 1998 Atlanta Falcons, Tony Martin came from San Diego to team up with veteran Terance Mathis for a dominant big-play passing game with Chris Chandler at quarterback.
Yes, those things really happened. Martin averaged 17.9 yards per catch and the Falcons reached the Super Bowl. But it would not continue as the team released him following his off-field issues with a charge for helping a drug dealer launder money, of which he was acquitted.
Tony Martin (1999 Dolphins): 67 receptions for 1,037 yards and 5 TD
After Martin was acquitted, he went to the Dolphins and had another solid “debut” (he first played for the Dolphins in 1990) with 67 receptions for 1,037 yards in 1999.
Rocket Ismail (1999 Cowboys): 80 receptions for 1,097 yards and 6 TD
With Michael Irvin nearing his end in Dallas, the Cowboys brought in the “Rocket” for the 1999 season. He made an incredible first impression by catching a 76-yard touchdown in overtime to beat the Redskins in the season opener.
Qadry Ismail (1999 Ravens): 68 receptions for 1,105 yards and 6 TD
Keeping with the Ismails, Qadry Ismail’s season could be a perfect example of why consistency matters. While his overall numbers were solid, especially given he had no catches for the Dolphins (1997) and Saints (1998), consider how much he inflated his numbers with one great stretch.
In Games 12-14 of the season, all wins, Ismail amassed 18 catches for 486 yards and four touchdowns. That is 44.0 percent of his yards for the season coming in three games.
It was highlighted by a 258-yard game in Pittsburgh, in which Steelers fans simply refer to as “The Qadry Ismail Game.” He scored three touchdowns, all of 50-plus yards, in the third quarter in the 31-24 win.
Outside of the three big games, Ismail never had more than 76 yards in any game, and that came right before the three-game run. He was held to 65 yards or less in the other 12 games in 1999.
So was it a great season or a great three games? Let’s go with the latter.
Derrick Mason (2005 Ravens): 86 receptions for 1,073 yards and 3 TD
Getting on in years (31 in 2005), Derrick Mason signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Ravens. He immediately fit in to have another solid Mason season, which usually meant 80 catches and 1,000 yards. But the lack of touchdowns, however much impacted by poor quarterback play, leaves this outside of the top 25.
Javon Walker (2006 Broncos): 69 receptions for 1,084 yards and 8 TD
While Javon Walker carries a negative stigma as a high-priced free agent that epically bombed, he was very good in 2006 for the Broncos. He suffered an ACL injury after one game in 2005, ending his time in Green Bay. The Packers then traded Walker to Denver for a second-round pick.
He returned with strong receiving numbers, while also rushing for 123 yards and a score. However, the five-year deal worth $40 million was never fulfilled as the team released a banged-up Walker after the 2007 season.
That is when Oakland swooped in with a terrible six-year, $55 million contract that people remember much more than the Denver stint. In 2008, Walker only played eight games, catching just 15 passes for 196 yards as a Raider.
Catching 15 passes for $21 million over two years would make for a nice retirement present for Walker.
Antonio Bryant (2008 Buccaneers): 83 receptions for 1,248 yards and 7 TD
Finally, an interesting one as Antonio Bryant was not even in the league in 2007 due to a failed drug test. With a troubled past, he was at his best with the Buccaneers in 2008.
He had 200 yards on a Monday Night Football game in Carolina, including a touchdown catch for the all-time highlight reels. Bryant exceeded 100 yards in six games in 2008.
25. Don Maynard (1960 New York Titans)
Acquired: Free-agent signing. Don Maynard played in the Canadian Football League in 1959 and was free to sign with any team. The Titans picked him up.
Debut-season stats: 72 receptions for 1,265 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Summary: When the AFL began playing games in 1960, some “NFL rejects” found instant success. A few of these players have made the top 25, though their season is somewhat diminished by the fact they had few expectations going into a league that was much more about throwing the ball.
Maynard was one of those rejects, flaming out with the Giants in 1958 and playing one year in the CFL. But on the 1960 Titans, which was the inaugural season for the Jets, he exploded for big numbers alongside receiver Art Powell.
It would be the first of 13 seasons with the team that eventually led to Maynard’s induction into the Hall of Fame.
24. Wes Chandler (1981 San Diego Chargers)
Acquired: Traded by the Saints four games into the 1981 season to San Diego.
Debut-season stats (12 games): 52 receptions for 857 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Summary: This is a rare one as the Saints traded Wes Chandler after four games to San Diego, who was trying to replace John Jefferson. Chandler was a huge success.
Though the Saints could not compare on offense to the Chargers, Chandler averaged 4.3 receptions per game in 1981 in both cities, while averaging nearly identical yards per game: 71.3 in New Orleans; 71.4 in San Diego.
His overall season was fantastic, but in terms of the 12 games he played for the Chargers, it can only rank 24th.
Chandler’s first “full” season (a strike-shortened season in 1982) would have ranked higher for sure, seeing as how he averaged 129.0 yards per game in eight games. But technically 1981 was his debut season in San Diego.
23. Patrick Jeffers (1999 Carolina Panthers)
Acquired: Carolina sent a fifth-round pick to the Cowboys to get restricted free agent Patrick Jeffers in 1999.
Debut-season stats: 63 receptions for 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Summary: It is one of the great one-year wonder seasons, and one of the several unexpected breakout seasons from a wide receiver in the 1999 season.
Steve Beuerlein’s big-time passing season of 1999 would not have been as good without Jeffers’ 12 touchdowns and 17.2 yards per reception. He even missed a game and was only a starter for 10 of them.
But the long-term success was never possible after a torn ACL the following year. Jeffers only made 14 more catches in his NFL career, but his 1999 season will always stand out.
22. Eric Metcalf (1995 Atlanta Falcons)
Acquired: Cleveland moved up from No. 26 to No. 10 in the draft in a swap of first-round picks with Atlanta so the Falcons could get the versatile Eric Metcalf in 1995.
Debut-season stats: 104 receptions for 1,189 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Summary: How would the Falcons replace an All-Pro like Andre Rison, who went to Cleveland? They added Metcalf, who was mostly a return specialist and running back in his career. But he moved to wide receiver for the Falcons and lit up the league with 104 receptions on a run-and-shoot offense.
There is more on Atlanta’s offense from this period later, but for Metcalf, 1995 was really an outlier in his career. He never had more than 63 catches or 614 receiving yards in any other season of his career.
21. Del Shofner (1961 New York Giants)
Acquired: The Giants traded a first-round pick to the Rams for Del Shofner in 1961.
Debut-season stats: 68 receptions for 1,125 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Summary: Like he was with the Rams, Del Shofner was an All-Pro receiver in his first season with the Giants in 1961. But the big change for the team was acquiring Y.A. Tittle at quarterback, who would go on to have an incredible run of success with the team the next three seasons. Shofner was the primary beneficiary of that success.
With the Tittle-to-Shofner connection clicking, the Giants played in three straight NFL Championship games, but lost them all.
20. Laveranues Coles (2003 Washington Redskins)
Acquired: Washington traded a first-round pick (13th overall) to the Jets for Coles, who was a restricted free agent in the 2003 offseason. He signed a seven-year, $35 million contract, but in usual Washington fashion, did not last more than two seasons with the team.
Debut-season stats: 82 receptions for 1,204 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Summary: What Coles did his first year in Washington was nearly replicate his production with an inferior quarterback situation than he had with Chad Pennington on the Jets.
Coles became the first receiver in NFL history to surpass 80 receptions and 1,200 yards in back-to-back seasons for different teams. Only Brandon Marshall has since matched that feat.
How differently did Coles have to play to achieve those numbers in Washington? Consider these differences in stats:
- In 2002 with the Jets, Coles caught 66.4 percent of his targets and gained 29.0 percent of his yards after the catch.
- In 2003 with the Redskins, Coles caught 51.9 percent of his targets and gained 40.6 percent of his yards after the catch.
In several ways, Coles’ 2003 season is more impressive than what he did in 2002.
19. Plaxico Burress (2005 New York Giants)
Acquired: Free-agent signing. Plaxico Burress signed a six-year deal for $25 million after five seasons with the Steelers.
Debut-season stats: 76 receptions for 1,214 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Summary: Though a favorite receiver of Ben Roethlisberger in his rookie season, Burress took the big dollars from the Giants to play with Eli Manning. The two instantly hit it off in 2005 as the Giants won the NFC East and made the first of four consecutive postseasons.
While his all-time highlight will be the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII, Burress’ 2005 season featured the most catches and yards he had in his four seasons with the team.
Burress may have blown his shot out of New York, but he was well worth the free-agent signing and made an immediate impact.
18. Charlie Joiner (1976 San Diego Chargers)
Acquired: Charlie Joiner was traded by Cincinnati to San Diego for defensive end Coy Bacon in 1976.
Debut-season stats: 50 receptions for 1,056 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Summary: From the “Some Things Never Change” file, the Bengals traded a 29-year-old Joiner, coming off his best season, for 34-year-old defensive end Coy Bacon. While Bacon played two Pro Bowl seasons for the Bengals, Joiner became a durable, Hall of Fame receiver in San Diego.
Though it was not time for “Air Coryell” in San Diego just yet, Bill Walsh was there as offensive coordinator. Dan Fouts was in his fourth season and Joiner helped him finally emerge into a solid starting quarterback.
Joiner made his first Pro Bowl with a career-high 1,056 yards, averaging 21.1 yards per catch, which is the second-highest average of his 18-year career. He finished his last 11 seasons with the Chargers, putting up even bigger numbers once the team hired Don Coryell as coach.
But the 1976 season ranks as one of Joiner’s very best given Fouts was not fully there yet, and receiving talent like Kellen Winslow, John Jefferson and Wes Chandler were not there to help take coverage away from him.
17. Irving Fryar (1996 Philadelphia Eagles)
Acquired: Free-agent signing. After playing three years in Miami, Irving Fryar signed another three-year deal with the Eagles in 1996.
Debut-season stats: 88 receptions for 1,195 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Summary: At 34 years old, Fryar enjoyed arguably his best season ever with a career-high 88 receptions. His 11 touchdowns were also the highest of his career, catching passes from Ty Detmer and Rodney Peete on a 10-6 playoff team.
Fryar repeated his success in 1997 with another Pro Bowl season. By then, age had caught up with him and he retired after the 2000 season, playing two years for Washington after his three years were done in Philadelphia.
It was also a good debut for Fryar in 1993 when he joined the Dolphins. He made the Pro Bowl that year, catching 64 passes for 1,010 yards and five touchdowns with Dan Marino missing most of the season.
But superior production with lesser quarterback play beats that out, and that is what Fryar had with the Eagles in 1996.
16. Andre Rison (1990 Atlanta Falcons)
Acquired: Andre Rison was part of a blockbuster trade between the Colts and Falcons leading up to the 1990 draft.
- Colts received No. 1 overall pick to take quarterback Jeff George and a fourth-round pick from Atlanta.
- Falcons received wide receiver Andre Rison, offensive tackle Chris Hinton, the Colts’ first-round pick in 1991 and a fifth-round pick in 1990.
Debut-season stats: 82 receptions for 1,208 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Summary: Rarely do you see a first-round wide receiver get traded after his rookie season, but the Colts were all in on Jeff George. Rison improved on his rookie success with an All-Pro season in Atlanta in 1991.
Immediately stepping up as a No. 1 receiver, Rison’s 1,208 yards ranked third in the league. His 82 receptions were the second most, as were his 10 receiving touchdowns. It would be the only first-team All-Pro season of Rison’s career.
Rison was still in Atlanta when the Falcons ended up with George anyway in 1994. However, Rison would go to the Cleveland Browns in 1995, becoming the highest-paid receiver in NFL history.
But that move did not work so well with “Bad Moon” Rison only gaining 701 yards and three touchdowns. It was the worst season of his career to that point. So Rison went packing again, spending 1996 with Jacksonville and Green Bay, winning a Super Bowl with the latter.
Rison went to Kansas City in 1997 and again had a debut season worthy of honorable mention here. He made the Pro Bowl with 72 receptions for 1,097 yards and seven touchdowns on the team with the best record (13-3) in the AFC.
A man of many different NFL debuts, Rison never inspired more instant hope than he did in 1991 with Atlanta.
15. Terance Mathis (1994 Atlanta Falcons)
Acquired: Free-agent signing. A sixth-round pick of the Jets in 1990, Terance Mathis signed in that inaugural year of modern free agency in 1994 with the Falcons.
Debut-season stats: 111 receptions for 1,342 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Summary: The reason Rison became expendable in Atlanta was the emergence of Mathis. After serving as a return specialist and part-time receiver with the Jets, he exploded on the Falcons and their run-and-shoot offense, catching 111 passes at a time when that would be considered historic.
The 111 receptions are still the third-most ever by a receiver on a new team.
It was the best season of Mathis’ career and his only Pro Bowl. The reason his season did not rank higher is that the Falcons threw the ball 629 times in 1994 and only scored one more point with one more win compared to 1993.
Mathis played eight more seasons in Atlanta, but rarely ever was as dominant as he was in 1994.
14. Wes Welker (2007 New England Patriots)
Acquired: New England traded a second- and seventh-round pick to the Miami Dolphins for Welker in 2007.
Debut-season stats: 112 receptions for 1,175 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Summary: The player to first surpass Mathis for most receptions on a new team was Welker in 2007. As part of the Patriots’ offensive overhaul, Welker was the perfect receiver to match up with Randy Moss. While Moss could go down the field, Welker was there to gobble up the underneath coverage.
His usage in New England has practically rebranded the slot receiver in the modern NFL.
The impact of Welker could be seen immediately. On the first drive of the 2007 season, Tom Brady targeted him four times, completing three passes and ending with a touchdown on a 3rd-and-8 situation.
That first season together was arguably the most potent as teams were dumbfounded with how to defend this offense. Welker caught 77.2 percent of his targets in 2007, which is the highest catch rate of his career.
Welker helped the 2007 Patriots set the all-time scoring record with 589 points and starting 18-0 before their loss in Super Bowl XLII. Since then, the Patriots have continued to score at a prolific rate, and Welker had five seasons with at least 110 receptions for them.
13. John Gilliam (1972 Minnesota Vikings)
Acquired: In 1972, the St. Louis Cardinals traded John Gilliam and a second-round pick (No. 34 overall) to the Vikings for quarterback Gary Cuozzo.
Debut-season stats: 47 receptions for 1,035 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Summary: The Vikings sure fleeced the Cardinals on this trade. Cuozzo went just 1-5 as a starter before retiring while Minnesota brought back Fran Tarkenton, who instantly found a connection with Gilliam.
With the Cardinals, Gilliam was a very productive receiver for three years, but putting him with Tarkenton enhanced his game, especially for big plays.
Gilliam led the league in 1972 with an average of 22.0 yards per reception. His 1,035 yards ranked second in the league, and no other Viking receiver even had 300 yards.
It was the first of four straight Pro Bowls for Gilliam in Minnesota, but he was at his best right away in 1972. He would later help the team reach two Super Bowls.
12. Harold Jackson (1973 Los Angeles Rams)
Acquired: Harold Jackson was part of a desperate trade between the Eagles and Rams in 1973.
- Eagles received quarterback Roman Gabriel.
- Rams received wide receiver Harold Jackson, running back Tony Baker, the Eagles’ first-round picks in both 1974 and 1975, and a third-round pick in 1975.
Debut-season stats: 40 receptions for 874 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Summary: This was another trade in the 1970s between a team who knew what it was doing (Rams), and a team who was fishing for ideas (Eagles). Gabriel, 33 years old in 1973, played solid football for the Eagles, but the team around him was subpar, producing a record of just 12-25-1 when he started.
The Rams won 12 games in 1973 alone.
Jackson, who could arguably make this list twice, was a 12th-round pick by the Rams in 1968, but only played two games for the team before they traded him to the Eagles.
In that first year (1969) with Philadelphia, Jackson had 65 receptions for 1,116 yards and nine touchdowns. He led the league in receptions (62) and receiving yards (1,048) in 1972.
A prolific receiver, Jackson became an All-Pro for the Rams in 1973. He only had 40 receptions, but averaged 21.9 yards per catch (second-highest average of his career). He led the league with 13 touchdown catches. That total was never surpassed by anyone from 1970-79.
The Rams only threw 271 passes with John Hadl as the starting quarterback. Once part of a connection with Lance Alworth in San Diego, Hadl and Jackson both were selected on the All-Pro team for 1973.
Jackson spent the next five seasons (1973-77) with the Rams, but he was never better than he was in 1973, his only All-Pro season.
11. Joe Horn (2000 New Orleans Saints)
Acquired: Free-agent signing. A sixth-round pick by the Chiefs in 1996, Joe Horn spent four years in Kansas City before signing as a low-key free agent with the Saints in 2000.
Debut-season stats: 94 receptions for 1,340 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Summary: Not many people were aware of Horn after his 53 receptions for 879 yards and seven touchdowns in 49 games with the Chiefs. But the Saints found themselves a steal to finally get a No. 1 receiver.
Horn ranked seventh in the league in receptions (94) and eighth in yards (1,340) in 2000. Both marks were franchise records. Horn surpassed Eric Martin’s team receiving record by 250 yards.
Horn’s 1,340 yards are the fourth most in a season debut by a free-agent receiver on a new team in NFL history.
Horn provided a consistent target for Jeff Blake and Aaron Brooks. The Saints went 10-6, making the playoffs and ranking in the top 10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
New Orleans beat the Rams in the NFC Wild Card, registering the first playoff win in team history. Horn actually did not catch a pass in that game, only seeing one target, but his unexpected season was critical to what became a groundbreaking season for the Saints. It would be the only playoff season for the Saints in this era.
Horn paired up with Brooks to produce four 1,000-yard seasons. He was still a starter for one more year with the team once they transitioned to the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era.
10. Jerry Rice (2001 Oakland Raiders)
Acquired: Free-agent signing. After 16 seasons in San Francisco, even the greatest wide receiver ever became a cap casualty and was released. It did not take long for Oakland to sign him.
Debut-season stats: 83 receptions for 1,139 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Summary: It would not be a top wide receiver list without Jerry Rice making the top 10. Did other players have better stats? Sure, but there are few things better than a determined Rice.
After failing to surpass 830 yards his last two years in San Francisco, Rice was let go by the 49ers, who were already moving on with Terrell Owens as the featured receiver. Rice was even offered a cool million to retire, but he still had the desire to play.
So at age 39, Rice went across the bay to Oakland to play with Rich Gannon. Tim Brown was the main attraction for the Raiders for years, but Rice fit in and delivered another stellar season.
Did it result in a Pro Bowl or All-Pro selection? No, but consider how historic the performance was.
Rice caught 83 passes for 1,139 yards in his age-39 season. All other players in NFL history have combined to catch 55 passes for 636 yards in their age-39 (or older) season. That even includes three quarterbacks and a kicker making one reception.
The only other players with multiple receptions at age-39 (or older) were Charlie Joiner (34 receptions for 440 yards), Joey Galloway (12 receptions for 173 yards) and fullback Tony Richardson (five receptions for 31 yards).
Rice in Oakland could have been one of those forgettable finishes like Tim Brown in Tampa Bay, but instead he was a major factor on a playoff team. The Raiders lost in the Tuck Rule game that season, but Rice somehow returned at age 40 and put up even bigger numbers as the Raiders made the Super Bowl.
All players dream they could age as gracefully as Rice.
9. Lionel Taylor (1960 Denver Broncos)
Acquired: Free-agent signing. After one season on defense in Chicago, Lionel Taylor moved to the AFL for the first season in Denver Broncos’ history in 1960.
Debut-season stats: 92 receptions for 1,235 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Summary: This one almost should not even count. He missed two games in a 14-game season. His Broncos threw 508 passes (most in the league), playing catch-up ball in a 4-9-1 season. He came with zero expectations and zero career receptions.
Yet, all Taylor did was convert from linebacker to receiver and averaged 102.9 receiving yards per game. That is the highest average for any player on a new team.
It was no fluke either as Taylor became the first player ever to hit 100 receptions in 1961. He led the AFL in receptions five times in his career.
Beyond receptions, the 1,235 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1960 were career bests for Taylor.
So why not rank Taylor higher? Again, it comes back to having virtually no expectations as a first-time receiver at the professional level, and the fact it was the earliest days of the AFL.
The competition was not everything it could be, and certainly not up to the level of the modern NFL. Taylor would have never sniffed these numbers even on a good franchise like the Bears.
8. Vincent Jackson (2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Acquired: Free-agent signing. After seven seasons and one holdout in San Diego, Vincent Jackson got his wish as a free agent last year. He signed a five-year deal for $55.55 million.
Debut-season stats: 72 receptions for 1,384 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Summary: So far, this is exactly what you want out of a free-agent signing these days. Jackson immediately gave Josh Freeman a big target down the field and had the best season of his career. Tampa Bay’s offense was prolific for part of the season with Jackson adding that downfield threat.
Jackson led the NFL with an average of 19.2 yards per reception. He is the first player to average over 19 yards per reception with a minimum of 70 receptions since Torry Holt in 2000.
Jackson’s 95-yard reception against New Orleans was the longest pass play of the 2012 NFL season. It is also the only pass play of 90-plus yards since 2000 not to go for a score as Jackson was tackled at the one, but let’s not digress.
With 1,384 yards, Jackson had the second-most yards ever by a free agent on a new team in NFL history. Jackson’s 72 receptions were also the most in his career. He expects to be a central part of the offense for the next several years.
Now fixing the defense is another issue for the Buccaneers.
7. Bobby Mitchell (1962 Washington Redskins)
Acquired: In an infamous trade, the Redskins moved No. 1 overall pick Ernie Davis to the Browns for Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Jackson in 1962. Mitchell became the first African-American player to play for the Redskins.
Debut-season stats: 72 receptions for 1,384 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Summary: As an explosive runner saddled behind Jim Brown in Cleveland, Mitchell went to Washington to be a star flanker. Paired with second-year quarterback Norm Snead, the two created a deadly passing combo right away in 1962.
Mitchell had an All-Pro season, leading the league in receptions (72) and yards (1,384). The 72 receptions were a career high, as were the 11 receiving touchdowns.
His first season as a full-time wide receiver may have been his very best. Mitchell played seven seasons in Washington and was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
6. Henry Ellard (1994 Washington Redskins)
Acquired: Free-agent signing. In that initial free-agent frenzy of 1994, the Redskins actually did strike some gold with Henry Ellard after he played 11 seasons for the Rams.
Debut-season stats: 74 receptions for 1,397 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Summary: What’s this? A hit for the Redskins in free agency? Indeed.
No free-agent receiver has ever gained more yards (1,397) in his debut season with a new team than Ellard did on the 1994 Redskins.
Ellard joins Rice (2001) as the only players in this top 13 to not be named to a Pro Bowl or All-Pro for their debut. But that is fine again in this case.
At age 33, Ellard’s 1,397 yards rank second for that age behind, you guessed it, Rice when he set the all-time record of 1,848 yards a year later in 1995 when he was 33.
Also, how many receivers would have shined with the holy quarterback trinity of Heath Shuler, Gus Frerotte and John Friesz throwing the ball? Only a young Desmond Howard (727 yards) also surpassed the 350-yard mark on this team.
Shuler and Frerotte were only rookies in need of a target, which Ellard provided to the tune of the second-most yards in a season in his career.
Ellard played for the Redskins into the 1998 season. Though he went over 1,000 yards in both 1995 and 1996, it was his first season where he was at his best. That seems to be the theme for many of these players.
5. Santana Moss (2005 Washington Redskins)
Acquired: The Redskins traded Laveranues Coles back to the Jets straight up for Santana Moss in 2005.
Debut-season stats: 84 receptions for 1,483 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Summary: For those keeping count, this is the third straight Redskin on the list. Two were trades, but still. This speaks well for them.
After the Coles experiment went sour, Joe Gibbs added Moss to his offense. At first it appeared the Redskins were getting hosed in the deal, but in a Week 2 game in Dallas on Monday Night Football, all was forgiven.
Trailing 13-0 with 3:55 to play, the Redskins had nothing going on offense all night or all season for that matter. Washington had scored nine points in the first 116 minutes of the season.
Facing a 4th-and-15 at the Dallas 39, Mark Brunell launched a bomb for Moss for a 39-yard touchdown. After getting the ball back, Brunell struck deep again to Moss for the 70-yard game-winning touchdown with 2:35 left to complete a stunning 14-13 comeback win.
Moss had five catches for 159 yards and the two touchdowns that night. This really got the Brunell-to-Moss connection on pace, and by season’s end, Washington was back in the postseason and Moss was in his only Pro Bowl.
Moss’ 1,483 yards are the third-most for any wide receiver on a new team in NFL history.
Moss remains with the team, but he never has been able to really come close to his 2005 success.
4. Art Powell (1963 Oakland Raiders)
Acquired: Free agent. The struggling New York Titans, before they became the Jets, auctioned off Art Powell to the highest bidder, which turned out to be the Oakland Raiders.
Debut-season stats: 73 receptions for 1,304 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Summary: Powell is another NFL-turned-AFL star, but his story is a little different. Starting out as a defensive back with the Eagles in 1959, Powell joined the Titans in 1960. His pairing with Don Maynard (see honorable mentions) was dynamic as the team had 32 touchdown passes in 14 games.
With 69 receptions for 1,167 yards and an AFL-best 14 touchdowns, even Powell’s 1960 season could have made the list.
Powell led the AFL in receiving with 1,130 yards in 1962, but he went to Oakland for bigger money. The results were significant. After going 3-25 the previous two seasons, Al Davis took over as coach in 1963 and the team improved to 10-4 and second in the league in scoring.
Powell dominated his new destination with a league-best 16 touchdowns and 1,304 yards on 73 receptions. He was named an All-Pro for his efforts. Powell also had three more productive seasons for the team.
The Raiders have a long history of great receivers, but Powell was the first one of significance to lead the team to its first winning season. When it comes to Hall of Fame snubs, it is a wonder why Powell’s name does not come up.
Powell is the only receiver to retire before 1990 with at least 80 receiving touchdowns and to not be in the Hall of Fame.
3. Brandon Marshall (2012 Chicago Bears)
Acquired: Chicago traded a third-round pick in both 2012 and 2013 to Miami for Brandon Marshall last year.
Debut-season stats: 118 receptions for 1,508 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Summary: Reunited and it feels so good. Part of a seemingly foundation-building draft in 2006 for the Broncos, both Jay Cutler and Marshall have found each other again in Chicago.
Marshall took a flight to Miami first for two seasons. His 2010 debut saw him put up 86 receptions for 1,014 yards and three touchdowns. Those are decent numbers for just 14 games, but those are more Derrick Mason/honorable mention feats than top 25.
In getting back with Cutler, their connection was as good as ever with Marshall setting new records for a debut with a new team in both receptions (118) and yards (1,508). In the best season of his career, Marshall did this on a Chicago team that only attempted 485 passes and that had no other receiver with more than 375 yards.
For a franchise that rarely ever sees great receiving play, Marshall’s season was downright historic.
So why not rank it higher?
For as prolific as he was, Marshall did not elevate the Bears to a new level. The offense was about league-average in scoring, and the team faded down the stretch and missed the playoffs despite starting 7-1.
Cutler was always fond of Marshall’s abilities, but now the two will hope to make the playoffs together for the first time.
2. Terrell Owens (2004 Philadelphia Eagles)
Acquired: This is a hard one. Looking to dump Terrell Owens, the 49ers traded him to Baltimore for a second-round pick, but some paperwork shenanigans negated that, making Owens a free agent.
In the end, he went to Philadelphia, the Ravens got their pick back and the 49ers only received a fifth-round pick and Brandon Whiting. Owens signed a seven-year deal for $49 million.
Debut-season stats: 77 receptions for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Summary: Eagles fans loved them some TO at first. Already a perennial contender, the offense was often lacking at wide receiver for Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb. Enter Owens and the results were significant.
McNabb passed for 31 touchdowns and had a career-best 104.7 passer rating. Owens was an All-Pro receiver, and the Eagles were the best team in the NFC at 13-3.
But Owens missed the final two games of the regular season after suffering a fractured fibula from a horse-collar tackle by Dallas’ Roy Williams. This play eventually led to such tackles being penalties, so thank Owens for that if you wish. Maybe just thank Williams for being so fond of such takedowns.
Owens also missed the first two playoff games, but the Eagles did reach Super Bowl XXXIX anyway.
Owens returned that night and played a fantastic game on one leg: nine receptions for 122 yards. The Eagles lost, but things were looking bright with Owens taking the offense to an elite level.
Then of course the 2005 offseason came with full drama of Owens wanting to restructure his deal with new agent Drew Rosenhaus. You know the rest, push-ups and all. Owens played fantastic in the seven games in 2005, but his season was over after the team suspended and then deactivated him.
Just like that Owens was done in Philadelphia, but returned with another pretty strong debut in rival Dallas in 2006. Owens led the league with 13 touchdowns but did not even make the Pro Bowl.
No doubt a difference maker, the 2004 season will be remembered oddly for Owens as the team was amazing with him, still won in the playoffs without him and his Super Bowl performance was heroic.
But there was always too much drama.
1. Randy Moss (2007 New England Patriots)
Acquired: Oakland traded Randy Moss to the Patriots for merely a fourth-round pick in 2007.
Debut-season stats: 98 receptions for 1,493 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Summary: Guess it is not surprising to see Moss and Owens, two of the best wide receivers ever, at the top of the list. The fact that both played for so many teams also speaks to their character flaws.
Moss had the worst season of his career in 2006, though it was for the worst team he ever played for (Oakland). Moss’ 2005 debut in Oakland was much better with 60 receptions for 1,005 yards and eight touchdowns.
But could he still be the deep threat and dangerous weapon he once was in Minnesota?
Well, when highly motivated and surrounded by talent, receivers like this can have dynamic results on a team. That is what happened for the 2004 Eagles, and three years later the Patriots, who beat that Philadelphia team without an all-star receiving cast, was knocking on history in large part due to Moss.
Having seen enough of Reche Caldwell the year before, Bill Belichick went all out in 2007 to load up a receiving corps with Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth. Everyone played their role, but Moss was the key weapon.
Everyone knew Moss was the most dangerous receiver in the league, but that was only true when he wanted it to be. In getting a steal from Oakland, Moss had little trouble finding motivation on a winning team like the Patriots.
He started the season with nine catches for 183 yards and a brilliant touchdown. From there, it was a march to history as Moss caught 23 touchdowns. He saved the record breaker for the fourth quarter in Week 17; a game-winning touchdown that clinched a 16-0 regular season for New England.
Tom Brady set the NFL record with 50 touchdown passes, but Moss had nearly half of them. In the Super Bowl, Moss caught a go-ahead touchdown with 2:42 to play, but the Giants came through with the win.
An ACL injury to Brady in Week 1 the following year probably ruined the full potential Moss could have had in New England, though it is hard to imagine he would have ever surpassed his 2007 season.
It is one of the greatest seasons in NFL history and it is certainly the best debut season ever by a wide receiver on a new team.
Who Will Be the Best Receiver in 2013?
There is your top 25. Now who from this year’s list of big moves has the best chance of making it with a great 2013?
In recapping the moves, it really started with Percy Harvin being traded to the Seattle Seahawks, which was answered by the San Francisco 49ers trading a sixth-round pick for Anquan Boldin.
Then there was Mike Wallace cashing in with the Miami Dolphins, along with the domino-effect movement of Wes Welker to Denver and Danny Amendola to New England.
Finally, Greg Jennings stayed in the NFC North, but will wear the purple in Minnesota. There may even be some Chad Johnson news in Houston before the dust settles.
These six receivers have accounted for 2,676 receptions and 208 touchdown catches in their careers. This means expectations will be high for them to elevate the passing game of their new teams right away.
To predict the best, you want to find someone who will be a primary target with an adequate quarterback on a pass-first offense.
The player who best fits that description may actually be Amendola if he really is going to just replace Welker, who averaged 154.5 targets per season in New England. But there are durability concerns for Amendola, and some of those Welker targets may now be going to the talented duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Wallace should try to live up to the big money he got, but we will have to see how well Ryan Tannehill can get the ball to him down the field. Colin Kaepernick prefers Michael Crabtree, while the Seahawks are not a high-volume passing team.
For stats, don’t sleep on Jennings in Minnesota, but you may want to go with Amendola of all people. For impact, Welker should be absurdly efficient with Peyton Manning in Denver.
Brandon Stokley very arguably had the greatest season ever by a No. 3 wide receiver with Manning on the 2004 Colts. There is no reason that cannot happen again with the trio of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Welker.
As for any one of these players putting their teams over the top, let’s conclude with this.
With a top 25, 15 honorable mentions and seven additional mentions of another season by these receivers, we looked at 47 seasons by wide receivers.
What did they all have in a common?
Not a single one of them resulted in a championship in that debut season.
Sure, five of the receivers eventually won a championship on that team.
- Don Maynard was still going strong for the 1968 Jets (1,297 yards). Bake Turner was also on that team, but he only had 10 catches for 241 yards that season.
- Paul Warfield won two Super Bowls with the Dolphins, who allowed the fewest points in the league both seasons and ran the ball more than any team in 1972.
- Qadry Ismail won a Super Bowl a year later thanks to the incredible defense of the 2000 Ravens.
- Plaxico Burress made the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII, denying Moss and Welker perfection. Someone had to win there.
No one will confuse Ismail or Turner for having a significant role in those title runs.
Eight more receivers lost championship games at some point: Del Shofner (1961-63 Giants), John Gilliam (1973-74 Vikings), Tony Martin/Terance Mathis (1998 Falcons), Jerry Rice (2002 Raiders), Terrell Owens (2004 Eagles), Randy Moss (2007 Patriots) and Wes Welker (2007/2011 Patriots).
But did anyone bring in a receiver that played great and the team instantly won a championship?
No. This just goes to show how a flashy position like receiver is still very dependent on the situation around him, and teams spending significant resources this time of year on one better have a plan for them.
Not even the best receivers are an instant ticket to a Super Bowl win.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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