Ranking the Top 16 College Football Wide Receivers of All Time

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2017

Ranking the Top 16 College Football Wide Receivers of All Time

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    There's no doubting Calvin Johnson as one of the greatest receivers in college football history.
    There's no doubting Calvin Johnson as one of the greatest receivers in college football history.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    They come in all shapes and sizes. They’re old. They’re new. They’re deep-threat playmakers and multitalented threats who make impacts in a number of different ways. Standout college football receivers come in many different packages and have a multitude of styles. Quantifying them can be difficult, but we’re going to try.

    Here’s a look at the top 16 college football receivers of all time. They were ranked by examining their statistical output, their potential place in the NCAA record books as well as their overall skills, since some of the best wideouts played only two or three seasons of FBS football, and others never played a down at college football’s highest level.

    It’s not an easy list to make, and you might disagree with the choices, but when you’re as talented as these guys are, there are no true wrong answers.

16. Tulsa WR Howard Twilley

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    Howard Twilley had a solid NFL career but got scouts' attention with an exceptional career at Tulsa.
    Howard Twilley had a solid NFL career but got scouts' attention with an exceptional career at Tulsa.Associated Press

    You might have never heard of Howard Twilley, but that doesn’t lessen his impact on the college game. Twilley stood only 5’10”, 180 pounds, but he was one of the first receivers to put up eye-popping receiving statistics.

    In 1965, well before high-powered offenses were in vogue, Twilley caught 134 passes for 1,779 yards and 16 touchdowns for Tulsa, averaging 13.4 receptions per game, an FBS record that still stands. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting and was named as a consensus All-American.

    He also served as Tulsa’s kicker and led the nation in scoring and pass receptions while making 23 of 29 extra points. Twilley was ahead of his time and all-around impressive.

15. N.C. State WR Torry Holt

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    Torry Holt is one of the best receivers in ACC history.
    Torry Holt is one of the best receivers in ACC history.Chris Covatta/Getty Images

    Torry Holt enjoyed a standout career in the NFL with the then-St. Louis Rams, but anyone who watched him at N.C. State knew the Rams and the Greatest Show on Turf were getting something special. Holt excelled as a Wolfpack receiver, racking up 191 catches for 3,379 yards and 31 touchdowns in a four-year career

    In 1998, Holt made a then-ACC record 88 catches for 1,604 yards and 11 touchdowns and was named ACC Offensive Player of the Year, finishing eighth in Heisman Trophy voting.

    It built on his junior season, which saw Holt make 62 catches for 1,099 yards and 16 touchdowns. Holt was a consistent, steady receiver who had excellent hands and good speed. He’s one of N.C. State’s all-time greats and one of the best in college receiving annals.

14. Nevada WR Trevor Insley

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    Trevor Insley had a forgettable NFL career, but was one of the most productive college receivers in history.
    Trevor Insley had a forgettable NFL career, but was one of the most productive college receivers in history.Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

    Trevor Insley never saw the spotlight of some more high-profile receivers, but he put up some standout stats from 1996-99 at Nevada. Insley had an incredible senior season, making 134 catches for 2,060 yards (which still stands as an NCAA single-season record) and 13 touchdowns.

    Insley had six career 200-yard receiving games and 26 100-yard receiving games in his career, and he wound up with 5,005 career receiving yards, which ranks No. 2 all-time in FBS. His numbers can stand with anyone in college receiving history.

13. Louisiana Tech WR Troy Edwards

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    Troy Edwards put together an unforgettable 1998 season at Louisiana Tech.
    Troy Edwards put together an unforgettable 1998 season at Louisiana Tech.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Troy Edwards did his job well out of the spotlight at Louisiana Tech from 1996-98, but don’t tell that to Nebraska fans. In the 1998 season opener, Edwards put on a show to remember at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska beat Tech 56-27, but Edwards caught 21 passes for 405 yards and three touchdowns (of 52, 80 and 94 yards), setting NCAA single-game records for receptions and yardage.

    It was the start of an exceptional season that saw him make 140 receptions for 1,996 yards with 27 touchdowns. Edwards finished his La Tech career with 280 receptions for 4,352 yards with 50 touchdowns. He won a Biletnikoff Award, and rightfully so.

12. Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles

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    Ryan Broyles was not large, but his numbers are hard to argue with.
    Ryan Broyles was not large, but his numbers are hard to argue with.LM Otero/Associated Press

    At 5’10”, 188 pounds, Ryan Broyles never had ideal size for a college receiver. The Oklahoma receiver was just productive. Really, really productive. Despite losing the final five games of his senior season to a torn ACL, Broyles ended his college career as one of the NCAA’s all-time most prolific pass-catchers.

    He finished his Sooner career as the NCAA career leader with 349 receptions, and five years later, he still ranks third. Broyles also has 4,586 career receiving yards, which also ranks third all-time. He was a two-time finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to college football’s best receiver, and his 2010 season was something special: 131 catches, 1,622 yards and 14 touchdowns.

11. Florida State WR Peter Warrick

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    Peter Warrick was a dominant do-everything receiver for Florida State.
    Peter Warrick was a dominant do-everything receiver for Florida State.MARK WALLHEISER/Associated Press

    Peter Warrick did a little bit of everything. And he did it well. From 1996-99 at Florida State,  Warrick excelled in a number of roles for the Seminoles. He caught 207 passes for 3,517 yards and 32 touchdowns, rushed for 188 yards and four scores, added 937 return yards and two touchdowns and even added two passing touchdowns.

    FSU used him all over the field, including in the return game and wide receiver sweeps. He had an exceptional 1998 season, catching 61 passes for 1,232 yards and 12 scores, and also played a huge role in the Seminoles’ 1999 national title season, burning Virginia Tech for six catches, 163 yards and three overall touchdowns in a 46-29 Sugar Bowl win that clinched the national title. Warrick didn’t live up to his collegiate stats in the NFL, but Florida State fans will never forget his contributions.

10. Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon

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    Justin Blackmon was incredibly productive at Oklahoma State.
    Justin Blackmon was incredibly productive at Oklahoma State.PAUL CONNORS/Associated Press

    Issues with alcohol have derailed Justin Blackmon’s NFL career, and that is unfortunate, given the exceptional skills that he flashed in three seasons at Oklahoma State. Blackmon stands 6’1”, 210 pounds and has excellent speed and game-breaking ability.

    In three seasons at OSU, he piled up 252 catches for 3,564 yards and 40 touchdowns. As a sophomore, he made 111 catches for 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns and followed it up with a junior year of 122 catches, 1,526 yards and 18 scores.

    Blackmon won a pair of Biletnikoff Awards, given to the nation’s top receiver, and finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting in 2010. He took full advantage of Oklahoma State’s wide-open system and established himself as one of the most prolific wideouts of the modern era.

9. Michigan WR Braylon Edwards

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    Braylon Edwards is one of the greatest receivers in Michigan history.
    Braylon Edwards is one of the greatest receivers in Michigan history.DUANE BURLESON/Associated Press

    Braylon Edwards was consistent as a Michigan receiver. And he was consistently excellent. After making only three catches as a freshman, he piled up 249 over his next three years, finishing with 252 grabs for 3,451 yards and 39 career touchdowns.

    Edwards had three consecutive 1,000-plus-yard seasons, with his senior season (97 catches, 1,330 yards, 15 touchdowns) as his best. That earned him the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top receiver.

    He is the only receiver in Big Ten history to put together three consecutive 1,000-plus-yard receiving seasons. Edwards has cemented his place as a Michigan legend and one of college football’s all-time best receivers.

8. Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree

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    Michael Crabtree was a productive receiver for Texas Tech's fast-paced scheme.
    Michael Crabtree was a productive receiver for Texas Tech's fast-paced scheme.Associated Press

    Under then-head coach Mike Leach’s watch, Texas Tech’s air raid offense lit up scoreboards and put up huge passing numbers. But no receiver did more with it than Michael Crabtree. Crabtree played only two seasons with the Red Raiders following a redshirt season in 2006, but he put up stats that might have been difficult for users of EA Sports’ popular NCAA Football video game series.

    Crabtree left Tech with 231 catches for 3,127 yards and 41 touchdowns. As a redshirt freshman, he set NCAA single-season records for receptions, yards and touchdowns, with 134 catches for 1,962 yards and 22 touchdowns.

    The following year, he backed it up with 97 catches for 1,165 yards and 19 scores. He was a two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award and a two-time consensus All-American. He’s a model for what receivers in a pass-first offense can accomplish.

7. Pittsburgh WR Larry Fitzgerald

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    Larry Fitzgerald had a brief but successful career at Pitt.
    Larry Fitzgerald had a brief but successful career at Pitt.Associated Press

    Larry Fitzgerald played only two seasons of college football, but he still made an exceptional mark at Pitt. The 6’3”, 215-pound receiver redshirted in his first season with the Panthers but proceeded to excel in the Big East in 2002 and 2003.

    In his redshirt sophomore season, Fitzgerald made 92 receptions for 1,672 yards with 22 touchdowns, becoming the first Pitt player to put up consecutive 1,000-plus-yard receiving seasons. His big-play ability and overall height, speed and athleticism made him incredibly difficult to stop. College cornerbacks were surely thrilled that he left for the NFL after just two seasons.

    Since Desmond Howard won the Heisman Trophy in 1991, only one receiver has finished in the top three in Heisman voting. That was Fitzgerald, who finished second in 2003. That says plenty about just how much he was respected throughout the college game, and it is an excellent legacy.

6. Notre Dame WR Tim Brown

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    Tim Brown is one of Notre Dame's all-time legends.
    Tim Brown is one of Notre Dame's all-time legends.John Swart/Associated Press

    For receivers, the Heisman Trophy has been an elusive target. Only two true receivers have ever taken home the Heisman, and Notre Dame receiver Tim Brown can proudly say that he was the first. Before authoring an NFL Hall of Fame career primarily with the Oakland Raiders, Brown made some average Fighting Irish teams well worth watching.

    He did a little of everything to win the Heisman as a senior in 1987. Brown scored eight total touchdowns, caught 34 passes for 846 yards, rushed for 144 yards and gained 857 yards on kick and punt returns. Brown finished his career with a Notre Dame record 5,024 all-purpose yards and 12 receiving touchdowns (22 overall).

    Brown was a smooth, athletic player who had the knack for the big play. He played four years and well before the advent of fast-paced spread offenses. His numbers surely would’ve been higher away from Notre Dame, but that shouldn’t lessen his impact on the college game.

5. Michigan WR Desmond Howard

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    Desmond Howard did a little of everything as a Michigan receiver.
    Desmond Howard did a little of everything as a Michigan receiver.Duane Burieson/Associated Press

    Only two receivers have ever won the Heisman Trophy. And no one has done so since 1991, a span of 26 yards. That says volumes about the season that Michigan’s Desmond Howard enjoyed. Howard put together an excellent all-around campaign, making 62 catches for 985 yards and 19 touchdowns. He added two rushing scores and 180 yards on the ground and also had a kick return and punt return score, averaging 27.5 yards per kick return.

    Howard is one of the most versatile players in college football history and has earned his place in college football history. In three seasons, he had 134 catches for 2,146 yards and 37 all-purpose touchdowns.

4. Western Michigan WR Corey Davis

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    Corey Davis is one of the most prolific receivers in NCAA history.
    Corey Davis is one of the most prolific receivers in NCAA history.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    New Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck “rowed the boat” from Western Michigan to Minneapolis following WMU’s 14-1 2016 season that included a MAC title and Cotton Bowl bid. Fleck should give a hearty thank-you to Bronco receiver Corey Davis.

    Davis is one of the most prolific receivers in college football history. He finished his career with 5,278 receiving yards, tops in FBS history. He had three consecutive seasons of at least 1,400 receiving yards, 78 receptions and 12 touchdowns. Last fall, Davis put together 97 catches for 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns.

     “He is selfless,” Fleck told Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press. “This kid is unbelievable. He’s the hardest- working wide receiver, besides Vincent Jackson, that I’ve ever been around.”

    His 52 career touchdowns are No. 2 in FBS history, and his 331 receptions are No. 4 in FBS history. Davis stands 6’3”, 215 pounds and has excellent hands and speed. The NFL team that snags him in late April will add a highly reliable piece to its offense for years to come.

3. Mississippi Valley State WR Jerry Rice

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    Jerry Rice is one of the greatest Division I-AA players in history.
    Jerry Rice is one of the greatest Division I-AA players in history.Brandon Wade/Getty Images

    Jerry Rice is proof that players don’t have to attend large schools to excel. In the early 1980s, the Mississippi native escaped the grasp of larger in-state schools and wound up at Division I-AA Mississippi Valley State. He grabbed NFL scouts’ attention with a stellar career.

    Rice wound up with 301 career catches for 4,693 yards and 50 touchdowns. He set I-AA single-season records as a junior and senior. In 1983, he made 102 catches for 1,450 yards, and a year later, he smashed his own numbers with 112 catches and 1,845 yards, as well as 27 touchdowns which was, at the time, an NCAA all-divisions record. That season, Rice had two games with five touchdowns.

    The Delta Devils’ level of competition was questionable, but Rice’s talent isn’t. He was a first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers and went on to become one of the greatest receivers in NFL history and a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2010.

2. Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson

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    Calvin Johnson was a man among boys at Georgia Tech.
    Calvin Johnson was a man among boys at Georgia Tech.JOHN BAZEMORE/Associated Press

    Calvin Johnson recently completed a surefire NFL Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Lions. But before he wowed fans at the pro level, Megatron was a huge problem for ACC cornerbacks at Georgia Tech. Johnson stands 6’5”, 235 pounds, and combines his impressive frame with freakish leaping ability and speed.

    He had three excellent seasons with the Yellow Jackets, piling up 178 receptions for 2,927 receiving yards and 28 touchdowns, earning consecutive All-America honors in 2005 and 2006. Johnson was the ACC Player of the Year in 2006 and also won the Biletnikoff Award as the game’s top receiver. He left more than one opposing defensive backs as a rambling wreck on his way to the end zone. Players with Megatron’s ability and production are rare in the college game.

1. Marshall WR Randy Moss

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    Randy Moss had a short college career at Marshall but made a major impact.
    Randy Moss had a short college career at Marshall but made a major impact.ADAM NADEL/Associated Press

    Randy Moss took a winding road to Marshall, but once he arrived in Huntington, W.Va., he put a mark on the Thundering Herd’s program that can’t be denied. Disciplinary issues at Notre Dame and Florida State led Moss to Marshall and forced him into a redshirt freshman season.

    He played only one season of FBS competition, but he will never be forgotten. Marshall was transitioning from then-Division I-AA to I-A when he arrived, and played a I-AA schedule in his freshman season. Moss dominated I-AA, catching 78 passes for 1,709 yards and 28 touchdowns.

    The Herd moved up to college football’s highest level in 1997, and the 6’4”, 210-pounder was just as uncoverable. He had 96 catches for 1,820 yards and 26 touchdowns before heading to the NFL draft. Moss scored 54 receiving touchdowns in his brief Marshall career, reaching the end zone in every game he played. He won the Biletnikoff Award, given to the game’s top receiver, and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Moss’ college career was short but spectacular.