Today's Best Wide Receivers and Their Throwback Comparisons
Welcome to the second of a 12-part series where we look at the better performers at their respective positions in the NFL and whom they may compare to from the past.
We started with quarterbacks and now we will focus on two handfuls of the top wide receivers around the league. In no particular order, we will look at 10 current wideouts and who they may draw comparisons to in terms of some of the all-time greats.
The criteria are multi-faceted and one legend doesn’t fit all. We are talking style as much as anything because after all, the eye test is still the best pop quiz ever.
As suggested by my head coach, other factors such as speed, size and durability will be taken into account when making comparisons. We’ll even sprinkle a little history and philosophy in here as well.
So is it better to reminisce about receivers? We will give it our best try.
Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
Similar To: TE John Mackey
In terms of wide receivers, we have really never seen anything like Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions.
So asking to compare the massive target to another great wideout of the past just wouldn’t do.
Instead, we opted for Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, a 6’2”, 224-pound target for quarterback Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Massive means two things in regards to Johnson: stature and production. The 6’5”, 239-pound wideout has totaled 572 receptions for 9,328 yards and 66 scores in just 106 regular-season games.
The Lions’ wide receiver has been off the charts the last three years. Since 2011, Johnson has totaled 302 catches for 5,137 yards and 33 touchdowns.
That would be a pretty nice NFL career for many.
A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Similar To: Paul Warfield
It is three seasons and it is three Pro Bowl appearances for Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green.
The big-play performer has watched his numbers increase each year he has been in the National Football League.
As a rookie in 2011, Green totaled 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. Last season, he upped those numbers, totaling 97 receptions for 1,350 yards and 11 scores. And in 2013, the Bengals’ wideout finished with 98 grabs for a career-high 1,426 yards and 11 touchdowns for the AFC North champions.
Green has benefited from his rapport with quarterback Andy Dalton, who has had a steady but unspectacular ground game at his disposal. And finding Green for those big plays has been the duo’s specialty.
It harkens memories of wide receiver Paul Warfield, who spent his Hall of Fame career with the Cleveland Browns and the Miami Dolphins. It’s safe to say the athletic receiver was also a perfect fit to his team’s run-oriented attacks.
Andre Johnson, Houston Texans
Similar To: Art Monk
Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson began his second decade in the National Football League in 2013.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
The third overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft pulled down 109 balls this past season, the third-highest total in the NFL. But his performance, at least this past year, gets buried in the fact that the disappointing Texans were 2-14 and lost their final 14 games.
Still, it’s been quite a career for the former Miami Hurricanes’ standout. Johnson now ranks 14th in receptions (927) and 17th in receiving yards (12,661) in NFL history.
Steady as she goes, the reliable Johnson brings back memories of one-time Washington Redskins wide receiver Art Monk. And ironically, the Hall of Fame pass-catcher is just ahead of Johnson on the all-time list in terms of catches (940) and receiving yards (12,721).
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
Similar To: Cris Carter
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald obviously does a lot more than just catch touchdowns.
And obviously so did Pro Football Hall of Famer Cris Carter, who hauled in 1,101 receptions to go with 130 scores. Both of those totals rank fourth in NFL history.
Carter and 10 other players are the only individuals to total more touchdown receptions than Fitzgerald, who is tied for 12th in league annals with 87 scoring grabs. The 10-year veteran enjoyed a bounce back season in 2013 with a big assist from veteran quarterback Carson Palmer.
One year after playing with four different starting quarterbacks and catching four passes for scores, Fitzgerald caught 82 passes for 954 yards and scored a team-high 10 touchdowns.
Why the comparison to Carter? It’s that nose for the end zone as well as that body control, both of which made he and the Hall of Famer dangerous commodities for any defender.
Wes Welker, Denver Broncos
Similar To: Fred Biletnikoff
In six seasons with the New England Patriots, wide receiver Wes Welker caught 672 passes. He totaled at least 100 receptions five times and in the other year, he still managed 86 grabs.
In 2013 with the Denver Broncos, Welker played in just 13 games and caught only 73 passes. But the one-time undrafted free agent also totaled a career-high 10 touchdown receptions.
Yes, Welker has dropped a pass or two over the last seven seasons. It happens. But he’s also made his share of important catches and consistently moved the chains for the Pats in his six seasons in Foxborough.
We have seen our share of sure-handed receivers in the league that seemingly never dropped a pass. Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff, who spent his career with the Oakland Raiders, was one of those players. And yes, he did earn plenty of fame for his use of “Stickum” back in the day.
Here’s what we do know. With Welker around, sticking with him like glue has been easier said than done.
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Similar to: John Taylor
Call him Mr. Consistency.
There was a degree of concern in the Steel City this season when wide receiver Mike Wallace left for greener (or sunnier) pastures in Miami.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers had an answer in the form of Antonio Brown, who was as steady as they come in 2013.
The former sixth-round draft choice finished second in the NFL with 110 receptions, good for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns.
Brown caught at least five passes in each of his 16 outings and totaled 100 or more yards receiving in five of those contests. He also scored on a punt return in a Week 15 win over the Cincinnati Bengals and it was no surprise that he was named to the Pro Bowl as both a wide receiver and a punt returner.
Dangerous after the catch, you can’t help but think about one-time San Francisco 49ers wideout John Taylor when watching Brown. Jerry Rice’s sidekick in the Bay Area could take a three-yard toss and turn it into a 65-yard score.
Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
Similar To: James Lofton
The last three seasons have been particularly disappointing for the Dallas Cowboys. No one knows that better than wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Just ask him.
However, the last two seasons have been pretty eye-popping when it comes to individual statistics. Bryant followed 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 scores in 2012, with 93 receptions for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013. A 6’2” target has the size and speed to light up any secondary.
Hence, he draws comparisons to Hall of Famer James Lofton. The speedy 6’3” wide receiver put up huge numbers in terms of receiving yards, ranking eighth in league history (14,004) in that regard and averaging an imposing 18.3 yards per catch on 764 receptions. He was one of those performers who played fast and made big plays from the start to the end of his career.
We can’t speak of the latter for Bryant, who may be just getting started when it comes to a long stay in the NFL, but there’s no denying his flash when it comes to the dash (after the catch).
Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears
Similar To: Herman Moore
Talk about coming a long way in a short time.
As a rookie with the Denver Broncos in 2006, Brandon Marshall caught just 20 passes in 15 games.
How things have changed. This past season, the current Chicago Bears wideout totaled at least 100 receptions for the fifth time in seven years. Marshall has totaled at least 80 receptions and 1,000 or more receiving yards in seven consecutive seasons, the last two in the Windy City.
But how dare we compare a Bears’ player to a Lions’ legend! Still, when it comes to size and the gift of grab, former Detroit wide receiver Herman Moore is a good choice. The one-time first-rounder often outreached defenders for the ball via his 6’4” frame. And in 11 seasons, Moore was…more, hauling in 670 passes for 9,174 yards and 62 touchdowns.
The best may be yet to come for Marshall, who in his two years with the Bears has totaled 218 catches - 23 for scores.
Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers
Similar To: Sterling Sharpe
Does anyone realize that the San Francisco 49ers' Anquan Boldin already ranks 20th in NFL history with 857 career receptions?
The dependable target was a catalyst for the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 and came up big during the team’s successful Super Bowl XLVII run.
This season, he’s been quarterback Colin Kaepernick favorite target, leading the team with 85 catches for 1,179 yards. Boldin finished second on the club with seven touchdown grabs.
The powerful wideout and his ability to win the battle from the defender makes you think about Green Bay Packers’ great Sterling Sharpe. He utilized his strength and quickness to catch 595 passes, 65 for scores, in just seven NFL seasons. In 1992 and ’93, he became the first player in NFL history to total 100-plus catches in consecutive seasons.
And while the Big Game eluded the talented Sharpe, Boldin has an opportunity to get to the Super Bowl this season with his third different team in six years.
Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers
Similar To: Wes Chandler
There’s still plenty of spring in the step of veteran Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith.
Ten years ago, he was the offensive star of a Carolina team that surprised many and reached Super Bowl XXXVIII. During that postseason, he caught 18 passes for 404 yards (22.4 average) and three scores in four playoff games.
Now he’s hoping he and quarterback Cam Newton can put together another successful postseason run and end their season at MetLife Stadium, site of Super Bowl XLVIII.
In a dozen seasons, Smith has totaled 836 catches for 12,197 yards and 67 scores. That doesn’t even include eight additional touchdowns via the run, punt returns and kickoff returns.
The 5’9”, 185-pounder performer evokes memories of Wes Chandler, who played seven of his 12 years with the San Diego Chargers. The speedy wideout enjoyed one of the most amazing season in the strike-shortened 1982 campaign, totaling 49 receptions for 1,082 yards and nine touchdowns in only eight games.