The 50 Most Explosive Players In NFL History
The 50 Most Explosive Players Span From The 1930s To Today
The 50 most explosive players in NFL history are not simple to declare.
How do you define “Explosive?"
Well, we gave it a shot.
To be “explosive,” a player has to be a threat to score at any point on the field whenever they touch the ball.
Certainly offensive players will dominate the list, but there are a handful of defenders and special teamers who were prolific scorers despite far fewer “carries.”
Entire careers are the context, but even one incredible season can still get a player a prominent spot on this list.
No. 50: Leon Washington, RB/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 99-yard kickoff vs. San Diego, Week 3, 2010
Special teams touchdowns are arguably the most thrilling play in football. And while many people say that punt returns are the peak of excitement, there is no bigger game changer than a kickoff return. The other team just scored—nothing can halt that momentum quite like answering a score with a score.
Although he’s only been in the NFL for five seasons, Leon Washington is second in NFL history with seven kickoffs returned for touchdowns.
He trails Josh Cribbs by just one score, but since he averages one touchdown for every 25 returns he's more explosive, since Cribbs averages one ever 38.
And since Washington was a pretty good running back for the Jets, posting a few long plays and touchdowns on hand-offs and receptions, he is plenty explosive.
No. 49: Jermaine Lewis, WR/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 84-yard touchdown vs. New York Giants, Super Bowl XXXV
In the early years of the Baltimore Ravens, one of their best wide receivers was Jermaine Lewis, a 5’7” 180-pound local hero who had started at the University of Maryland.
In addition to converting four of his 60 punt return from 1997-98, he was a pretty good wide receiver, catching 12 touchdowns on just 83 receptions. Lewis posted four 100-yard receiving games and, in 1998, averaged 19.1 yards on his 41 catches, fourth best in the NFL.
But when Brian Billick came in and revamped the Ravens offense, Lewis role in the offense was reduced. Still, when the Ravens won their only world title in 2000, Lewis was one of the team’s most important scoring weapons, scoring two touchdowns and averaging better than 16 yards per return.
And, his touchdown in Super Bowl XXXV (the first of two postseason special teams scores) effectively closed the door on the Giants.
No. 48: Charles Woodson, CB
Most Explosive Moment: 62-yard interception return vs. Tampa Bay, Week Four, 2008
During his stay in Oakland, Woodson was an outstanding corner, nabbing 17 picks in eight years and returning two of them for scores.
But in Green Bay, something just clicked for him. He's turned into one of the NFL’s most explosive players. He’s been there just five seasons, but recorded 30 interceptions and five fumble recoveries, producing nine touchdowns.
Not quite the same explosive totals he put up at Michigan, but considering the stage, it’s pretty close.
No. 47: Flipper Anderson, WR
Most Explosive Moment: 78-yard touchdown from Jim Everett vs. Buffalo, Week Seven, 1989
His peak didn’t last long—basically just two seasons—but from 1989-90 Flipper Anderson was as explosive a player as the NFL has seen.
In his second year out of UCLA, Anderson caught just 44 passes. But by grabbing 1,146 yards along the way, he averaged 26 yards per nab. In that year’s postseason, he almost single-handedly led the Rams to an upset win over the Giants, catching two passes, each for touchdowns in an upset over the Giants.
A year later, he led the NFL again, with a 21.5 average on 51 catches.
He would never again catch more than 46 passes or top the 1,000-yard mark, but his 20.1-yards-per-catch average remains the highest of any player since 1970.
No. 46: Paul Warfield, WR
Most Explosive Moment: 75-yard touchdown catch vs. Baltimore Colts, 1971 AFC Championship Game
A great way to measure the “explosivitiy” of a wide receiver is their yards-per-catch average. Warfield dominated that stat during his career with the Browns and Dolphins.
From 1966 to 1972, he averaged more than 20 yards per catch while posting 55 touchdowns.
When the Dolphins acquired Warfield in 1970, Warfield provided Bob Griese with a deep option that transformed Miami into a dynasty.
During the Dolphins run to three straight Super Bowls, Warfield caught 27 passes for a whopping 23 yards per reception.
And if that isn’t enough to convince you of Warfield’s big play ability, consider this: during the course of his career, on average every fifth pass he caught resulted in a touchdown.
No. 45: Stanley Morgan, WR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 80-yard punt return vs. Baltimore Colts, Week 12, 1979
After Warfield retired, the man who took over his place as the yards-per-catch master was Stanley Morgan.
Each of the first six seasons he spent in the NFL, Morgan averaged better than 23 yards per catch, leading the NFL in that stat three consecutive years from 1979-81.
By the end of his long career, Morgan would haul in 67 touchdowns, and finish with a 19.1 yard average for each of his franchise record-setting 557 receptions.
He was also a very effective kick returner during his early years, averaging better than 10 yards per return and scoring once during his outstanding 1979 campaign.
No. 44: Ronde Barber, CB/KR
Most Explosive Moment: 92-yard interception return vs. Philadelphia, 2002 NFC Championship Game
Ronde’s brother Tiki has always nabbed more headlines—for both on and off-the-field performances.
But Ronde is the more explosive player.
In addition to being a great cover corner, he’s a very effective pass rusher and was a key member of that 2002 Bucs team, one of the best defenses in NFL history.
Seven of his 40 career picks have been returned for touchdowns, four of the 13 fumbles he picked up went for scores, and the first punt he ever returned in the NFL went for a score.
And Eagles fans can’t help but remember his only postseason score. Late in the fourth quarter his pick-six of a Donovan McNabb pass went the distance and put the Bucs in Super Bowl XXXVII.
No. 43: Randall Cunningham, QB
Most Explosive Moment: 95-yard touchdown pass to Fred Barnett vs. Buffalo, Week 13, 1990
For a quarterback to qualify on this list, they need to be explosive with both their legs and their arm.
And two decades before Michael Vick thrilled Eagles fans, Randall Cunningham had the market cornered on explosiveness.
You know about his great ability as a scrambler, averaging better than 6.5 yards per rush during his stay in Philadelphia to go along with his 32 rushing touchdowns.
But his ability to throw the deep ball was nearly as much a part of his legacy. Despite starting just 135 games, Cunningham threw 24 touchdowns of 50 or more yards, including his unbelievable 95-yarder to Fred Barnett in 1990, one of the greatest single plays in NFL history. (See Video).
No. 42: Harlon Hill, E
Most Explosive Moment: 88-yard touchdown from Ed Brown vs. LA Rams, Week Three, 1959
Are Mike Wallace, Percy Harvin, and Andre Johnson more explosive than any player who suited up in the 1950s? Probably.
But in his day, there wasn’t a pass catcher quite like Harlon Hill.
Hill averaged 25 yards per catch during an incredible rookie season and would continue to make big plays in the passing game during the remainder of his career, including 13 touchdown catches of 55 yards or more during the first six seasons of his career.
No. 41: Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch
Most Explosive Moment: 91-yard touchdown from Bob Waterfield vs. Chicago, Week 10, 1951
Crazy Legs came into his own when he joined the NFL and the Rams in 1949. He was a pretty good running back that first season, but dominated the 1951 NFL season.
Hirsch led the NFL with 66 catches, 1,495 yards, 17 touchdowns and a 22.7 yards-per-catch average, a title he defended a year later with a career-best 23.6 average in 1952.
In the 1950s, he was every bit the equal of Chicago’s Harlon Hill.
No. 40: Larry Fitzgerald, WR
Most Explosive Moment: 64-yard touchdown from Kurt Warner vs. Pittsburgh, Super Bowl XLIII
Explosive plays don’t have to come via 90-yard touchdowns and lightning break-away speed.
A player with incredible hops who out-jumps defenders in the end zone is just as impressive.
Fitzgerald may be the best in NFL history at that feat.
But Fitz can also pull off the explosive catch and run as well as any of his contemporaries.
The 2008 postseason was enough proof of that, catching a 42 yarder in the win over Atlanta, a 62-yarder in the win over Philadelphia, and the 64-yard go-ahead score that almost led to a Cardinals victory over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII.
No. 39: Troy Polamalu, S
Most Explosive Moment: 40-yard interception return vs. Baltimore Ravens, 2008 AFC Championship
Although he wasn’t explosive enough to pull Larry Fitzgerald down from behind in the final minutes of Super Bowl XLIII, Polamalu has made his share of game-changing, electrifying, explosive plays.
He only has four career touchdowns, but do we really need to explain this one any more?
No. 38: Dick “Night Train” Lane, CB/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 98-yard touchdown vs. Green Bay, Week Eight, 1955
The patron saint of interceptions, Lane still holds the single season record with 14 picks (in just 12 games) and as a rookie no less. He would finish with 68 interceptions, returning five for touchdowns.
In addition to those five returns for scores, he returned a fumble for a score, returned a blocked field goal for a score, and even caught a 98-yard touchdown pass during a midseason loss to the Packers in 1955.
No. 37: Lem Barney, CB/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 94-yard field goal return vs. San Francisco, Week Seven, 1968
When Night Train Lane retired in 1966, he left the Lions without a corner/play maker.
They found one in the second round of the next year’s draft.
Like Lane, as a rookie Lem Barney led the NFL in interceptions, interception return yards, and interceptions returned for touchdowns.
He would add punt and kick returns to his repertoire the next season, returning a kickoff 98 yards for a score, then returning punts or scores in each of the next two seasons.
In all, he would post 11 touchdowns: seven by interception, two on punts, one on kicks, one on a missed field goal, and almost made it 12 with a fumble recovery in 1975 before he was caught at the tail-end of a 74-yard return.
No. 36: James Lofton, WR
Most Explosive Moment: 83-yard touchdown run vs. New York Giants, Week Two, 1982
As a world-class sprinter and long-jumper, Lofton was a natural at hauling in the fade.
In nine seasons with the Packers, Lofton averaged over 18 yards per catch (twice he led the NFL with averages over 22 yards) and hauled in 49 scores, most of which were well over 40 yards.
He had similar deep ball brilliance in Los Angeles with the Raiders, and proved the missing piece to the Buffalo Bills Super Bowl puzzle.
He routinely stretched the field (his only catch in Super Bowl XXV came by way of a brilliant sideline catch that netted 61 yards) which allowed Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas to run free so the K-Gun offense could dominate the AFC.
No. 35: Jimmy Orr, WR
Most Explosive Moment: 78-yard touchdown from Bobby Layne vs. Chicago Cardinals, Week Nine, 1958
Jimmy Orr saw some pretty good fortune. After being a 25th round pick in 1958 he stepped right into the huddle with a Hall of Fame quarterback, Bobby Layne.
By the end of his rookie season, he’d catch just 33 passes, but the 27.6 average made him the NFL’s Rookie of the Year.
After three losing seasons in Pittsburgh, Orr found himself with the Colts where he was catching passes from MVPs Johnny Unitas and later Earl Morrall.
By the end of his career with the Colts he would average 20 yards per catch and one touchdown per every six grabs.
As good as Raymond Barry was, Orr was the Colts most explosive receiver. Too bad Morrall couldn’t find Orr in the endzone during Super Bowl III. Thank the Florida A&M Band for that.
No. 34: Chris Johnson, RB
Most Explosive Moment: 91-yard touchdown run vs. Houston Texans, Week Two, 2009
We’ve (quite controversially) left some of the all-time great touchdown rushers—John Riggins, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Marcus Allen, Earl Campbell—off this list.
Why? Because blazing, explosive speed doesn’t come to mind for those players, no matter how great they were.
Chris Johnson, on the other hand, has that speed. In addition to averaging better than five yards per carry, Johnson has 10 touchdowns the covered more than 50 yards. That’s already better than Smith, Payton, Allen, Riggins, Campbell, Adrian Peterson, and Eric Dickerson.
Another few years and he’ll blow past the mark of 16 set by Jim Brown, who we left off this list because his blend of power and speed doesn’t quite fit our definition of “explosive.”
No. 33: Terrell Owens, WR
Most Explosive Moment: 98-yard touchdown from Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Jacksonville, Week 11, 2009
Speed isn’t T.O.’s trademark. But for whatever reason, that hasn’t stopped him from nabbing a bunch of long touchdown passes.
He has to be the only player to catch a 75-or-longer-yard touchdown pass for five different teams.
And since he still has 153 touchdown passes despite seemingly terrible relationships with his quarterbacks, that’s pretty remarkable.
No. 32: Michael Irvin, WR
Most Explosive Moment: 87-yard touchdown from Troy Aikman vs. Phoenix, Week Three, 1992
Alvin Harper was probably the better deep ball receiver, Irvin was the Cowboys best answer to Jerry Rice in the early-to-mid 1990s. Every season from 1988 to 1994 he made at least one spectacular 60-plus-yard grab, helping the Cowboys transform from a laughing stock to a dynasty.
The per-grab average wasn’t as impressive as some of the other people on this list—just about 15 yards per catch—but there’s a reason he was known as “The Playmaker.”
No. 31: Darren Sharper, S
Most Explosive Moment: 99-yard interception vs. New York Jets, Week 4, 2009
Few people realize the great, historic NFL career that Mike Tomlin’s former college teammate at William & Mary has enjoyed.
He’s racked up 63 picks and 13 touchdowns during his fantastic 14-year career. Interestingly enough, his greatest impact seems to come during his first year with a team.
As a rookie he returned two picks and a fumble for touchdowns during the Packers run to Super Bowl XXXI. After leaving the Packers for their NFC North rival Minnesota in 2005, Minnesota, he immediately proved worth the big contract, grabbing nine interceptions, and leading the NFL with 276 yards and two scores on returns.
And when he joined the Saints in 2009, he pulled off the triple crown, pacing the NFL in interceptions (nine), return yards (376), and touchdowns (3).
Not surprisingly that effort helped put the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, even if Tracy Porter stole his thunder in the win over Indianapolis.
No. 30: Santonio Holmes, WR/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 65-yard touchdown from Ben Roethlisberger vs. Baltimore Ravens, 2008 AFC Championship
In a relatively short career, Holmes has put together a sparkling resume of explosive plays.
On special teams, he's had a few great returns, including stunning 67-yarder in the playoffs during the Steelers Super Bowl run of 2008.
But as a receiver, in the clutch moments of games, he has an uncanny ability to take short passes in his own territory all the way to the endzone.
He did that in the 2008 AFC Championship and several times during the 2010 : That stretch he had in the middle of this season against Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, and Cincinnati (consistently making the big catches in the fourth quarter) was truly remarkable. As were his two touchdowns in the postseason.
No. 29: Dante Hall, WR/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 93-yard punt return for a touchdown vs. Denver, Week Five, 2003
Maybe Hall was the greatest return man ever. Maybe not.
But Hall had some of the greatest moves and arguably the greatest zero-to-full speed capability of anyone in NFL history. Just watch his famous return against Denver in 2003.
In all, Hall returned 12 kicks for touchdowns, 10 of which went for more than 80 yards.
And although he wasn’t an extremely productive pass catcher, Hall made several memorable catch and runs that netted big gains for the Chiefs, including three touchdown grabs from Trent Green that covered more than 60 yards.
No. 28: Bobby Mitchell, RB/WR/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 99-yard touchdown from George Izo vs. Cleveland, Week One, 1963
Mitchell was as much a danger to score as any player during the late 1950s and 1960s.
During a five-year stretch he scored five touchdowns of 90 yards or more via kickoff, rushed for a handful of long touchdowns including a 90-yarder, and in his first game as a member of the Redskins (which came against the team that traded him, Cleveland) nabbed one of those exceedingly rare 99-yard touchdown passes.
Not surprisingly he finished that season with more yards than any receiver and averaged nearly 21 yards per grab.
When his Hall of Fame career was over, he would finish with 91 touchdowns, nearly half of which went for 30 or more yards.
No. 27: Frank Gifford, WR/RB
Most Explosive Moment: 77-yard touchdown from Charlie Conerly vs. Pittsburgh Week Five, 1959
Gifford never posted 1,000 yards as a runner or receiver. He never posted double-digit touchdowns. And he never returned a punt or kick for a score.
But no defense ever wanted to see the former USC star carrying the ball in the open field.
Gifford turned short passes into 77-yard scores, turned quick handoffs into 79-yard gains, and from the backfield was a danger to throw his famous jump pass.
He attempted just 63 passes in his career, but since 14 went for scores (including an 83-yard bomb to Eddie Price, Gifford was the most dangerous triple threat in NFL history, until…
No. 26: Kordell Stewart, QB/RB/WR
Most Explosive Moment: 80-yard touchdown run vs. Carolina, Week 17, 1996
Stewart’s first career touchdown foreshadowed an incredible display of talents. Coming off the bench and out of the quarterback meetings, Stewart caught a 71-yard touchdown from Neil O’Donnell that set the capped a great comeback on the way to an eventual AFC Championship.
A year later, as he started to make his play for the starter’s job, Stewart burst 80 yards on a broken play in a narrow loss to the NFC West champion Panthers.
And in 1997, when he final took over as the starter, he continued to make big plays, scoring from 74-yards out in a comeback against Baltimore, in addition to lengthy touchdown runs in both of Pittsburgh playoff games.
But it was a 90-yard touchdown throw to Bobby Shaw late in the 2001 season that put Stewart in the record books.
That score completed a trifecta—touchdown catches, runs, and passes of 70 yards or more—never achieved before in NFL history.
No. 25: Herschel Walker, RB/KR
Most Explosive Moment: 84-yard touchdown catch vs. Philadelphia, Week 15, 1986
Oh what Herschel Walker might have done had he not signed with the USFL out of college.
And even though he stay with the New Jersey Generals cost him three seasons, he quickly made up for lost time as a rookie in 1986.
He scored 12 touchdowns including two 84-yarders (one rushing, one receiving) in a late season win over Philadelphia.
In later years, Walker would soon become something of a return specialist, scoring twice. But had a mini resurgence in 1994: that year, with the Eagles, he had two plays from scrimmage (one rushing, one receiving) that went 90 yards or more.
In all he scored 84 touchdowns: for a player who only started 138 games, that’s a pretty great ratio.
No. 24: Tony Dorsett, RB
Most Explosive Moment: 99-yard touchdown run vs. Minnesota, Week Ten, 1982
For a second forget that Dorsett is the only man in NFL history to rush for a 99-yard touchdown.
That was just one of many explosive touchdowns delivered by the Hopewell Express.
He also had a 91-yard touchdown reception from Roger Staubach, and scored from his team’s side of the field a total of 11 times.
T.D. was an apt nickname for the explosive back who retired as the second leading rusher in NFL history.
No. 23: Rick Upchurch, WR/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 90-yard touchdown from Charley Johnson vs. Kansas City, Week 1, 1975
Talk about an immediate impact.
A fourth round pick out of Minnesota, Upchurch scored the Broncos first points of the 1975 season via a first quarter end around. Later that day, tied with the Chiefs, Denver took the lead thanks to Upchurch’s 90-yard catch and run for a touchdown.
The next year, Upchurch became one of the league’s most explosive wide outs, averaging 28 yards per catch.
But he made his biggest mark in the punt return game. In 1976, he returned an NFL record four punts for scores, while leading the NFL in average per return.
After a few quiet years, he again became the league’s best return man. Upchurch returned only two punts during the strike-shortened 1982 season. But two of them went for scores, and led the NFL with a 16.1 average.
No. 22: Steve Young, QB
Most Explosive Moment: 49-yard rushing touchdown vs. Minnesota, Week 10, 1988
As a passer, Young wasn’t the type of explosive, down-the-field passer like a Randall Cunningham or John Elway; that was just the nature of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense. Still, he did throw a few touchdowns in his day, 28 of which covered at least half the field.
But it was Young’s feet that land him this high on our list.
Young scored 43 touchdowns on the ground, including one of the most incredible runs in NFL history.
The combination of his feet and arm made him the most explosive quarterback of the 20th century.
No. 21: Desmond Howard, KR/PR/WR
Most Explosive Moment: 99-yard kickoff return vs. New England, Super Bowl XXXI
As a pass catcher, Howard never lived up to his first round draft status (fourth overall), although he did have one pretty good year in 1994, his last season with the Redskins.
Still, as a return man, Howard had the greatest single season in history. During the regular season, he led the NFL with 875 yards and three touchdowns on punts.
Then in the playoffs, he was virtually unstoppable, collecting two more scores (including the decisive 99-yarder in Super Bowl XXXI) and averaging 27 yards every time he touched the ball.
That was the highlight of his career, but Howard still managed a few more brilliant punt returns, including 95-yard game-winner for the Lions in 2000.
No. 20: Josh Cribbs, KR/PR/WR
Most Explosive Moment: 100-yard kickoff return vs. Pittsburgh, Week 10, 2007
Cribbs is a pretty good punt returner, but an incredible kick returner: in fact, 2010 was the first time he was held without a touchdown in that department since he came to the NFL in 2005.
Nevertheless, in those previous five years, he returned ten punts and kicks for scores, each of which was for more than 65 yards.
And although he’s started to become a part of the Cleveland offense, running the Wildcat and catching a handful of passes, but Cribbs is still one of the most dangerous players in the NFL, and therefore one of the most explosive.
No. 19: Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, KR/PR/WR
Most Explosive Moment: 87-yard punt return vs. Cleveland, Week Five, 1977
The Funky Chicken remains one of the most famous return men in NFL history, no matter what Josh Cribbs, Devin Hester, or any of the other men who follow achieve.
For a period from 1975-77 he was incredible, returning seven kicks and punts for scores and twice leading the NFL in yards per punt return.
But lost in the flair of his great special teams contributions was the fact that Johnson was a pretty good player on offense as well. During his All Pro season in 1977, he averaged over 20 yards per catch and took a handoff 61 yards for score.
And towards the end of his career, now with Falcons, Johnson hauled in a game-winning 47-yard Hail Mary from Steve Bartkowski to complete a miracle comeback against Joe Montana’s 49ers. (See video)
No. 18: DeSean Jackson, WR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 65-yard punt return vs. New York Giants, Week 15, 2010
It takes a special resume to get on this list after just three seasons. But DeSean Jackson has one.
First let’s look at his return prowess: Only four scores, but they’ve each come in critical games for the Eagles, especially his famous final-play score against the Giants in Week 15 of this year.
As good as he’s been at turning punts into scores (twice those touchdown have been the deciding factor in wins over the rival Giants), he’s been even more explosive as a wide out.
Regardless of whom was throwing him the ball—Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, Michael Vick—Jackson can take a slant route the distance or haul in a huge bomb 60 yards from the line of scrimmage.
In just three short seasons he has 11 scores of 60 or more yards: That’s already as many as Marvin Harrison and Art Monk combined.
No. 17: Rod Woodson, CB/S/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 98-yard interception return vs. Denver, Week 10, 2002
Rod Woodson is widely considered the most complete corner in NFL history because in addition to nabbing picks, making tough hits, and displaying remarkable recovery time, he turned turnovers into scores. His 12 picks-turned-six are the most of anyone in history.
And as a return man, he was nearly as effective, taking two punts and two kickoffs back for scores, despite giving that phase of his game up after just eight years.
No. 16: Bob Hayes, WR
Most Explosive Moment: 95-yard touchdown from Don Meredith vs. Washington, Week Nine, 1966
Not Dez Bryant nor Miles Austin nor Terrell Owens nor Michael Irvin nor Tony Hill nor Drew Pearson have managed to put up the type of explosive numbers that Bob Hayes did back in the late 1960s.
As a rookie, he averaged 22 yards per catch and led the NFL with 12 touchdown grabs. A year later he again scored the most touchdowns through the air and scored on a wild 95-yard touchdown. That's what two-time Olympic gold medalists (100 meters, 4 x 100 meters) do.
By the end of his Hall of Fame career, he’d twice lead the NFL in yards per catch (including a ridiculous 26.1 average in 1970) and score 71 touchdowns on just 371 receptions: a whopping touchdown for every five receptions ratio.
He was also one of the NFL’s premier punt returners during his time (three scores to go along with a modern-day record 20.8 punt return average in 1968), something that none of his fellow Cowboys wide receiver legends can boast.
No. 15: Lance Alworth, WR
Most Explosive Moment:
It’s too bad that by time that Lance Alworth joined Bob Hayes and the Dallas Cowboys in 1971 he was essentially all used up. Because pairing Hayes with the greatest wide receiver in AFL history would have made for an incredible duo.
Alworth spent nine seasons with the Chargers and was almost impossible to defend, despite his pedestrian 6’0”, 184-pound frame.
In Sid Gillman’s wide open, down-the-field offense “Bambi” hauled in over two dozen touchdowns of 50-yard touchdown grabs and was one of the main reasons why re-tread Jack Kemp was able to lead San Diego to an AFL title in 1963.
No. 14: Abe Woodson, CB/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 105-yard kick return vs. LA Rams, Week Seven, 1959
A hurdles champion at Illinois, it’s no wonder Woodson was such an incredible return man: he was the best athlete on the field every week, no matter who his 49ers played.
Despite just 166 opportunities with San Francisco, Woodson returned five kickoffs for scores (including a pair of 100-plus-yarders) to go along with two long punt returns for touchdowns.
As a cover corner, he didn’t have the type of gaudy numbers, scoring just once on a fumble recovery in 1962, but because of his athleticism and prowess on special teams, every one of his 19 career picks was a threat to become a touchdown.
No. 13: Steve Smith, WR/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 69-yard touchdown from Jake Delhomme vs. Rams, 2003 Divisional Round
Smith is fond of reminding people that in 2001, the Sporting News said that the Panthers “reached” when they took Smith in the third round, because he was a glorified punt returner.
Smith proved a worthy pick in his first two seasons, returning five kicks/punts for touchdowns, three of which went for 87 yards or more.
And he more than proved his value as a receiver beginning in 2003, routinely making big plays in the passing game, including catching 13 touchdowns of 50 yards or more.
The most memorable, however, was that 69-yard overtime catch and run in the Edward Jones Dome that sent the Panthers to the 2003 NFC Championship Game.
No. 12: Don Hutson, WR
Most Explosive Moment: 84-yard interception return vs. Chicago Cardinals, Week Eight, 1943
You cannot measure players achievements in the 1930s and 1940s to those of today. Unless you’re talking about Don Hutson.
Hutson caught 99 touchdowns in 116 games,, but since most of those came at a time when the passing game was just getting (excuse the pun) off the ground, it doesn’t matter how long they each was. Any touchdown pass in the 1930s was an explosive play.
And since he was a tremendous contributor on defense (he recorded 30 passes, and often gained huge chunks of yards on the return) he was the most electrifying player in the first half of the 20th century.
No. 11: Ed Reed, S/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 107-yard interception return vs. Philadelphia, Week 12, 2008
What can you say about a player like Ed Reed?
Except maybe this: Reed has 54 picks, 10 fumble recoveries, 26 punt returns.
Of those 90 carries, Reed has scored 12 touchdowns and averages nearly 20 yards per touch.
In short, whenever Reed has the ball, fans are captivated opposing head coaches are crossing their fingers.
No. 10: Devin Hester, CB/WR/PR/KR
Most Explosive Moment: 92-yard kickoff vs. Indianapolis Colts, Super Bowl XLI
It’s hard to imagine the longest play in NFL history NOT being the most explosive play in NFL history. But as incredible as Hester’s 108-yard missed field goal-turned touchdown was, Hester’s opening kickoff touchdown in Super Bowl XLI was more remarkable.
Besides his has four kickoffs and ten punts returned for scores his collection of big plays in the passing game (including an 81-yard game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes of a 2007 game against the Vikings), makes him one of the most dangerous players ever to step on an NFL field…..even if he’s not the most dangerous Chicago Bear.
No. 9: Randy Moss, WR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 56-yard touchdown from Randall Cunningham, Week 13, 1998
Moss has never been a “burner” like Steve Smith or Mike Wallace or DeSean Jackson. But he is still one of the most explosive players in NFL history.
Quarterbacks—whether it’s Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, Brad Johnson, Daunte Culpepper, Kerry Collins, Tom Brady, Matt Cassel, or even Brett Favre—can just chuck the ball up to Moss and he somehow brings it down more often than not in the endzone. Only Jerry Rice has more touchdowns of 30 or more yards.
No. 8: Bo Jackson, RB
Most Explosive Moment: 91-yard touchdown vs. Seattle, Week 11, 1987
Bo Jackson: arguably the greatest “what could have been” in NFL history. What could he have done if he came straight out of Auburn in 1986? What could have been had he not played baseball? What could have been had his hip not blown up in a playoff game against the Bengals?
Still, in his brief career, Jackson was a once in a lifetime talent. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry and despite only 515 carries, he had three carries that went 88 yards or longer.
But without a doubt the most memorable was his performance against Brian Bosworth and the Seahawks on a Monday night in 1987. Jackson averaged better than 12 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns, including an incredible burst of speed along the right sideline that produced a 91-yard scoring romp.
No. 7: Deion Sanders, CB/WR/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 100-yard kickoff return vs. San Francisco, Week 6, 1991
The first play Prime Time made in the NFL was a punt return in which he dropped the ball, retreated 10 yards, then soared 68 yards for a electrifying touchdown. That certainly set the bar high for Neon Deion. Still, he somehow managed to live up to the hype.
During his 13 NFL seasons, Sanders scored touchdowns virtually every way: via reception, punt, interception, kickoff, and fumble recovery.
When he finally left the game, Sanders averaged better than 10 yards per punt return for his career and better than 25 yards per interception and had scored 22 touchdowns.
No. 6: Jerry Rice, WR
Most Explosive Moment: 96-yard touchdown from Joe Montana vs. San Diego, Week 13, 1988
What fun would another list with Jerry Rice on top be? So as great as he was, we don’t rank him the most EXPLOSIVE receiver in NFL history….even if he is the greatest receiver in league history.
Having said that, do we really need to make a case for #80?
We’ll just say this: Rice caught 36 touchdowns that spanned at least half the field: that more touchdowns than Deion Branch has in his career.
No. 5: Cliff Branch, WR
Most Explosive Moment: 99-yard touchdown from Jim Plunkett, Week Five, 1983
No, we’re not saying Cliff Branch was a “better” wide receiver than Jerry Rice. Or Randy Moss. Or Terrell Owens. Or Larry Fitzgerald.
But there was never a more EXPLOSIVE wide receiver in the game’s history.
With his incredible speed, he caught 30 touchdowns that covered at least 30 yards and was a nightmare for opposing defensive backs in the playoffs.
Either Ken Stabler or Jim Plunkett could sling him a seven-yard slant, or a 12-yard post, or a 50-yard fade and Branch was as good a bet as any player to take it to the house.
No. 4: O.J. Simpson, RB
Most Explosive Moment: 88-yard touchdown run vs. Pittsburgh, Week Two, 1975
Early in his career, Simpson was actually a more productive kick returner than runner: In 1970 he returned seven kicks at a whopping 47.6-yard average and finished his career with an impressive 30-yard average.
But by his fourth season in the NFL, in Lou Saban’s new offense, Simpson exploded and became the historic ball carrier we all know.
From 1972 to 1976, he averaged over five yard per carry and repeatedly gobbled up huge chunks on the ground: how else do you explain AVERAGING 143 yards per game on a league-leading 332 carries?
And scoring an 88-yard rushing touchdown against Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and the defending Super Bowl champion Steel Curtain defense defies logic.
No. 3: Barry Sanders, RB
Most Explosive Moment: 82-yard touchdown run vs. Tampa Bay, Week Seven, 1997
As great as “The Juice” was, the most explosive ball carrier of all time was Barry Sanders. No ball carrier ever had more NEGATIVE runs than Sanders. So for him to win four rushing titles, break the 1,500-yard mark five times, and average 99.8-yards per game he had to break literally hundreds dozens of monstrous runs.
The one knock on Sanders was that he didn’t have the break away speed to turn long runs into long touchdowns: he was caught from behind several times.
But in terms of a pure running back, there was never a more dangerous ball carrier in NFL history.
No. 2: Gale Sayers, RB/KR/PR
Most Explosive Moment: 85-yard punt return vs. San Francisco, Week 13, 1965
Not only did Sayers score 22 touchdowns as a rookie (in just 14 games mind you) but in his first three seasons, he won a rushing title AND returned eight kicks for scores.
And years before the advent of Roger Craig, Thurman Thomas, Marshall Faulk, and LaDainian Tomlinson, Sayers was a ridiculous pass catcher out of backfield. In those first three seasons, he caught just 79 passes, but four of them went for touchdowns of 65 yards or more.
His career was cut short by a pair of knee injuries, but he remains the only man to average better than 30 yards per kick return for a career.
No. 1: Michael Vick, QB
Most Explosive Moment: 46-yard touchdown run vs. Minnesota (OT), Week 13, 2002
In terms of pure running, Vick has to be considered at least in the same class as a O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, Deion Sanders, or Jerry Rice.
Vick averages over seven yards per carry and has broken the backs of defenders ever since he stepped into the NFL in 2001: his overtime score against the Vikings in 2002 was probably the most famous gallop although not the only miraculous run.
But considering Vick’s exceptionally strong arm and his penchant for the deep ball, he is the most explosive player in NFL history. He hit on a handful of long passes in 2010, including that score to open the Eagles Monday Night Game in Washington and that laser he threw to Brent Celek in the loss to Chicago.
At any point on the field, at any given time when Vick has the ball in or out of the there is an excitement and anticipation for the big play that no other player in history can duplicate. That is the very definition of an “explosive” player.