Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Ronde Barber had an illustrious 16-year NFL career, one that came to an end on May 8 when he announced his retirement. He was around long enough to play against every one of the top 10 receivers on the NFL’s all-time career reception list, an assemblage of talent that starts with Jerry Rice and includes eight receivers who caught at least 1,000 passes in their careers.
I played a lot of great players. The receiver position today ... so hard to match up now. Megatron [Calvin Johnson] was impossible to cover. Randy Moss in his prime: nothing you can do. But to me, Steve Smith was the toughest guy I faced. When I played him, he was just like me. He chose to outwork everyone else out there every day. That was me.
In Smith’s 12 seasons on the field, he’s played 17 games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and caught 89 passes (not all while being covered by Barber) for 1,298 yards (Pro Football Reference). That’s akin to a full season’s worth of work against the Buccaneers, so yes, Barber knows Smith well.
Smith’s currently sits at No. 27 on the NFL’s all-time receptions list with 772 catches, just 196 behind Reggie Wayne,, who caught 968 passes during his career. He still has three years, and a player option fourth, left on his contract (Spotrac). If Smith decides to play all four seasons, he needs to average just over 49 catches per season to pass Wayne land in the top 10 all time.
Of Smith’s 12 NFL seasons, he’s played at least 14 games in all but one (he missed all but one game of the 2004 season (ESPN) with a broken left leg). He only dipped below the 49-reception plateau once in the other 11 seasons, in 2010 when he was catching passes from Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore.
Even late in his career—he turned 34 on May 12—Smith is respected amongst his peers. He was ranked No. 84 on the NFL Network list “The Top 100 Players of 2013."
It would seem that if Smith stays healthy and decides to play out his contract, he’ll be one of the top 10 receivers of all time based on number of receptions. But according to Barber, who’s seen a good portion of NFL history unfold before his eyes, Smith’s already one of the best.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.