Jerry Rice and the Top 50 Wide Receivers of All Time
Like almost no other position in any sport, wide receiver is one that is undoubtedly synonymous with one word: glory.
Wide receivers consistently score in an exciting fashion. More often than not, the touchdowns they score aren't simply one yard goal-line situations, but are longer catch and runs.
They are exciting. When kids grow up, they dream of being a wide receiver.
Yet they're a fickle position. Unlike running back or quarterback, wide receivers are heavily dependent on the other "skill positions" (particularly the quarterback).
As a result, we've seen a proliferation of personalities at the wide receiver position. In some cases, they seem to have an inferiority complex, showboating in an effort to remind people how important they are.
But many more receivers are simpler than that. There's is an exact science spliced with art. Route running, zonal intelligence, dexterity and a willingness to absorb big hits are crucial skills.
This combines with pure athleticism, and most of all, the ability to catch anything. One man dominated this position like no one else in history. Everyone after him? Let the debate begin...
No 50: Art Powell
He might not be the biggest name in the old AFL's history, but he had some of their best numbers.
Powell was named to the All-Time All AFL Team, posting five years of over 1,000 yards receiving and scoring more than 10 touchdowns (all this in an era before any defensive contact rules).
That said, the AFL wasn't the strongest league in its early stages, and a lack of longevity means that despite his immense talent, Powell ranks only 50 (still not too shabby.)
No. 49: Anthony Carter
As a prominent player who graduated college in the mid 80's, Carter was tempted by the lucrative (albeit short-lived) USFL, playing there for a few season before ending up on the Minnesota Vikings.
Had he played entirely in the NFL, it's likely that his pure stats would've been better. However, even still, he was known as one of the most talented receivers on the field at any given time.
In the 1987 playoffs, he amassed more total yards than any other player in any single postseason ever (642).
No 48: Joey Galloway
The consummate deep threat, Galloway was known for his blazing speed. He terrified opposing cornerbacks.
Impressively, though, Galloway was able to overcome the injury bug and retain some of the speed that made him so scary to his opponents, chalking up more than 1,000 yards even at age 36.
No 47: Stanley Morgan
Led the the league three years in a row in yards per catch. And for that matter, averaged upwards of 20 yards a catch for the first six years of his career.
That's a stat.
More than that, he developed into a more consistent threat later in his career (notching 84 catches for nearly 1,500 yards in 1986).
One of the underrated receivers in New England Patriots history.
No 46: Charley Taylor
While dominating the AFL may have been easier (with some of the pass-happy offenses being run), the regular NFL offered fewer chances for wide receivers during the early to mid 1960s.
But nobody told Charley Taylor of the Washington Redskins. He still piled up nearly 10,000 yards and 79 touchdowns from 1964 through the late 1970s.
Taylor led the league in receptions two years in a row and was also a prolific rusher early in his career (11 rushing scores in his first three seasons).
No. 45: Lionel Taylor
Another of the AFL pioneers, Taylor was one of the original dominant receivers.
He was the first player to ever haul in 100 receptions in a single season (a height that he reached in only 14 games). He's still the all-time Broncos leading receiver with 7,195 yards.
He led the AFL in receptions for five years and explored uncharted territory for receivers, showing that they could be fixtures in an offense.
No. 44: Bobby Mitchell
Another Redskin to make an early appearance, Mitchell was one of the first African Americans to play for Washington.
And in his first two seasons with the Skins, Mitchell piled up nearly 3,000 yards receiving and 18 touchdowns.
In an era dominated by rushing attacks, Mitchell had more than 800 yards receiving for all but his last year with Washington.
No. 43: Harold Jackson
Another receiver who showed considerable longevity, Jackson had 1,000 yard receiving seasons as a 23- year-old and a 33-year-old.
And unlike many other men on this list, he became more of a deep threat the older he got, averaging more than 20 yards a catch in three straight seasons when he was 32, 33 and 34.
Not that going deep wasn't always a Jackson specialty, since he averaged more than 15 yards a catch in every year of his career except one.
No. 42: Drew Pearson
One of Roger Staubach's favorite targets, Pearson wasn't the greatest touchdown scorer, but he was able to stretch defense vertically in a way that was invaluable for Tom Landry.
Known as "Mr. Clutch", his famous reception of the "Hail Mary" pass from Staubach in the waning moments of a playoff game against the Vikings in 1975 (where Pearson caught a game-winning touchdown catch), ensured Pearson did the Lone Star State proud when the eyes of Texas were upon him.
No. 41: Dwight Clark
Clark being this high (or on here at all) can be construed as a reach. His numbers aren't overly impressive, even in the context of his era.
Also, his involvement in "the Catch" means that, like it or not, Clark's name is on this list (sorry Cowboy fans.)
No. 40: Mark Clayton
Clayton exploded onto the scene with Dan Marino in 1984, hauling in 18 touchdown passes and collecting well over 1,000 yards.
He continued a great career that included more than 580 receptions and 84 touchdowns.
Only reason he's not higher is that his numbers were definitely helped by having Marino's cannon-arm throwing to him...
No. 39: Gary Clark
A member of one of the greatest receiving corps in history (another member of this group will probably make a cameo later on the list), Clark's diminutive size was more than off-set by his electrifying speed.
Clark had more than 1,000 yards in five years and more than 900 yards in every season with the Redskins save one.
No. 38: Andre Rison
Despite the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes burning down his house, Rison was always one of my favorites when I was growing up.
He made plays.
And for a period of time during the early 90's, he was among the leading receivers in most categories, including 1993, when he led everyone in touchdown receptions (15).
No. 37: Reggie Wayne
I'm sure we'll have this debate again when we get to Marvin Harrison, but yes, Wayne has certainly benefited from having Peyton Manning as his only quarterback.
Still, I think it's tough to hold that against him. On occasion, he's been the only receiver Manning really has (due to injuries), yet he always delivers. He'd crack higher on the list, but he's still active...
No. 36: Harold Carmichael
One of the original freakish athletes to grace the wide receiver position, Carmichael took to the field as a hulking 6'8" target man.
Selected to the 1970's All-Decade Team, he continued his dominance into the 1980's (where he helped put the Eagles in the Super Bowl in 1980).
No. 35: Chad Ochocinco
Say what you want about his personality, or his total lack of any postseason success, but don’t tell me he doesn’t belong on this list.
With seven years of more than 1,000 yards, he’s been one of the most dominant receivers of his generation.
And as far as the off-the-field shenanigans go, he still delivers on the field.
No. 34: Elroy Hirsch
Nicknamed "Crazy Legs," he had one absolutely ridiculous season in 1951, where he had 66 passes for an astounding 1,495 yards and 17 touchdowns.
All that in 1951! If there was a way to adjust NFL receiver’s numbers for inflation like the way they do with currency, then Hirsch would have shattered every record.
Still, he only really had one great season…
No. 33: Keyshawn Johnson
Honestly, the only reason he’s this high on the list is because of the fuchsia socks…
Na, kidding. Yes I realize this seems high (and you could certainly argue it is), but he was a very good possession receiver in his day.
Seventy or more receptions in nine out of his 11 NFL seasons? I say that’s worth a mention on here…
No. 32: Eric Moulds
A quiet, consistent receiver who had several very good season in Buffalo. Keep in mind that his tenure there coincided with the slow demise of the early 90’s Bills team, so he wasn’t exactly surrounded by talent.
Seemingly fell just short of milestones (9,995 all time receiving yards and 49 touchdowns).
No. 31: Derrick Mason
Will forever be a member of the team who came up one yard short in the Super Bowl XXXIV in my mind.
Still, Mason has had a tremendous NFL career as a finagler who could get open in a phone booth.
It’s telling that he hasn’t seen a serious drop-off in production even at his advanced age.
No. 30: Irving Fryar
He probably wins the “coolest name” distinction of anyone on this list…or at least the most bizarre name.
One of the only (if not the only) player to ever have 1000 yard receiving seasons with three different teams. And he had his finest seasons as a 34 and 35-year-old with the Eagles in 1996 and 1997.
No. 29: Cliff Branch
Check that, Cliff Branch definitely wins “coolest name” on this list. He just sounds like someone who runs a 4.30 in the forty.
And he did, scorching NFL defenses for a decade. One of the only men who could rattle Steelers Hall of Famer Mel Blount (though it was an even battle to be sure).
As his coach John Madden used to say: “Cliff when he was a rookie would tell me he could beat his guy by the third quarter. But by the time he was a veteran, he would tell me that during the National Anthem. I mean, how did he even know who his guy was at that point?”
No. 28: Jimmy Smith
Someone who consistently flew under the radar (to me, anyway) in part because he played for Jacksonville.
Still, he put up great numbers and was very consistent. From 1996 until his retirement in 2005, he had only one season with less than 1000 yards due to an injury.
No. 27: Rod Smith
Another guy named Smith, another guy who flew under the radar. It would be easy to discredit him for playing with a great quarterback in John Elway. That said, he only actually played with Elway for two full seasons.
Yet he still had another six seasons of 1,000-plus yards and two years of 100-plus receptions after Elway retired.
No. 26: Bob Hayes
When people speak about the Cowboys today as “America’s Team”, it’s men like Bob Hayes who their fans have to thank for it.
He helped to forge the Cowboys’ winning tradition in the mid to late 1960s.
Hayes scored double digit touchdowns in five of his first six NFL seasons.
No. 25: Andre Johnson
Johnson is the quintessential example of someone who will skyrocket up this list if he stays healthy and keeps producing for the Texans.
He’s put up absolutely insane numbers since coming into the league, featuring as a sort of mega-possession receiver.
He can catch well, run over the middle and run away from smaller DB’s. And even though he’s remarkably even-tempered, he can fight too (just ask Courtland Finnegan).
No. 24: Paul Warfield
I think the best way to explain Warfield is the fact that he’s one of the only men in NFL history to average 20 yards a catch for his career.
Yes, that’s right, every time he touched the ball, he was going the length of two first downs on average. As a member of the early 70’s Dolphins dynasty, he also has perfection on his resume.
No. 23: Hines Ward
Even in the modern era, where we can equate a receivers numbers fairly easily, Hines Ward ranks higher on this list than his pure numbers probably should.
Still, it’s his overall toughness and general makeup that put him in this position (not that his numbers are bad, either).
If you needed a huge catch on a fourth down and there was a guarantee that the receiver would get leveled by the defense but would have to hang on anyway, then I’d want Hines Ward for that exact situation.
That, for me, is why he’s here.
No. 22: Herman Moore
Always a forgotten man when you talk about receivers who were molten-hot for a short period of time.
In Moore’s case, no one was hotter from 1994-1997. In that span, he set the NFL record for receptions with 123 (since broken by someone else on this list).
Longevity was his weakness though, so he’s not ranked higher (that, and the general crappiness of the Lions quarterbacks).
No. 21: Sterling Sharpe
Continuing on the theme of receivers who were great over a short period of time, Sterling Sharpe was one of the NFL's greats during his heyday.
However, his career was unfortunately cut short by injury (though he remains a fixture as a TV analyst).
In his time, though, few receivers achieved anything close to his production, including his final year in the league, where he had 18 touchdowns.
No. 20: Andre Reed
Maybe it's just because I'm a Giants fan and he still scares me from his ridiculous opening to Super Bowl XXV, but he was one of the most elusive underneath receivers in league history.
As a member of the Bills' "K-Gun Offense", where they ran almost exclusively no-huddle, Reed compiled great numbers in an offense that wasn't necessarily predicated on passing.
No. 19: Fred Biletnikoff
Maybe one of the best route-runners of all time.
No one would ever have accused him of having elite speed, but Biletnikoff was very clever, popping up between defensive backs to make clutch catches for the Raiders.
He also fit right in with the Raiders culture (however you want to describe it), since he looked like he just showed up for a Sunday pickup game and decided to go pro.
No. 18: Lynn Swann
So now we start to get into seriously debatable territory. Does Swann belong this high?
Interesting question, considering that while his numbers certainly don't warrant it, it has to be remembered that he played during an era dominated by run-heavy offenses.
Still, he was arguably the most graceful football player ever and made some seriously acrobatic catches (especially in big games.)
Fitting that he's one slot higher than an Oakland Raider, since those two teams were constantly gripped in a struggle for AFC dominance during that time.
No. 17: John Stallworth
And you knew he was coming up once Swann was listed.
People can debate which one of the Steelers Hall of Fame duo was better, but while the sentimental pick is Swann, I think the real pick has to be Stallworth.
He had a longer and more productive career than Swann and was no less clutch when the pressure was on.
No. 16: Art Monk
For a number of years, people debated whether or not he belonged in the Hall of Fame. I was never in doubt of his credentials.
He was consistent and became a fixture in a Redskin team that won three Super Bowls during his tenure. If anything, his numbers were hurt by success, because the offense he played in had so many good players that they leaned on him less.
No. 15: Henry Ellard
Too high a spot for Ellard? That depends...
It's true that he never played on a championship team or factored in any truly big game.
Yet his body of work is very, very good. He developed into an elite receiver with the Rams and then enjoyed a resurgence with Washington during the mid-90's. Not a go-to receiver, but one of the best deep threats of his era.
No. 14: Torry Holt
I heard a rumor that his answering machine used to say, "Hi, you've reached Torry Holt. I can't come to the phone right now, I'm probably in the endzone."
Whether or not that's true, its a fairly accurate representation of Torry's professional life during his NFL career. He had metronomic consistency, recording 1,000-plus yards and at least 80 receptions for eight straight seasons.
He was one of my fantasy football go-to guys every year in that span, and I was never disappointed.
No. 13: Charlie Joiner
Again, numbers don't tell the full story with Joiner.
Not only was he part of a trend-setting Air Coryell attack, but his longevity as a player was a sign of things to come.
He was more than just a good athlete; he was intelligent. Right up through his 17th year in the league, Joiner was hauling in almost 1,000 yards a year.
No. 12: Isaac Bruce
One of my favorite members of St. Louis' famed "Greatest Show on Turf" during the turn of the century. He had great speed, great hands and great knowledge of the game, making big plays when called upon.
Most notably, his 73-yard touchdown catch in the dying moments of Super Bowl XXXIV gave the Rams the lead in their sole Super Bowl win.
Bruce had one of the best years a receiver has ever had in 1995 (only his second season), when he tallied 117 receptions for 1,781 yards and 13 touchdowns. Amazing, he wasn't first in any of those categories, though, mostly usurped by another man whose name might pop up on here...
No. 11: James Lofton
Again, durability and longevity were key aides for Lofton.
Not that he wasn't perfectly prolific on his own, with seven seasons of at least 900 yards or more. Yet his ability to endure made him a remarkable specimen in a game where no one is built to last as a wide receiver.
He had at least 10 touchdowns in three different decades.
No. 10: Raymond Berry and Lance Alworth
Both of them had amazing careers that fall short of modern standards.
Still, you can't discount them because they played in a different era. Both were clearly the class of their generations, electrifying the league in a way that was foreshadowing to the future of football.
Alworth was a freakish athlete. Berry was relentless competitor who was a perfect complement to Johnny Unitas (delivering a Championship record 12 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown in the 1958 NFL Championship, which the Colts won in overtime over the Giants.)
No. 9: Michael Irvin
This one I can see debate over. Technically, he has numbers which aren't overly great compared to his contemporaries. And, he also played against defense that were consistently scared to death of the Cowboys running game (giving him a match-up advantage.)
Still, Irvin had the swagger that the Cowboys needed to be great. He simply willed them to play well in big games during their height in the early 1990's.
He also put together a five year string where almost no one had more yards receiving. Injuries curtailed what was a great career.
No. 8: Chris Carter
They used to say about Chris Carter: "All he does...catch touchdowns."
And truer words have rarely been spoken. Chris Carter really was a touchdown machine. He's still firmly entrenched in fourth position of all-time touchdown receptions.
What's even more amazing is that he had consecutive seasons with 122 receptions in 1994 and 1995. That tells me that they tried to cover him...they just couldn't.
No. 7: Tim Brown
Talk about someone who flew under the radar.
Unless you're a Raiders fan, chances are you probably don't know just how good Tim Brown was. From 1993-2002, Brown had at least 80 catches and 1,000 yards every season except one.
He was never remarkable, just extremely consistent. And just to show that this list isn't all about highlights, I think he more than deserves this spot. It wasn't his fault that he really only played with one elite passer in his career.
No. 6: Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens
I know, I know, another tie. Cut me some slack; this isn't easy to do!
Plus it's always difficult to judge some player's all-time standings when they're either still playing (which TO possibly is) or have only recently retired.
For that reason, they're tied. And it's interesting because they were probably the opposite in terms of personalities. What is beyond doubt is that they are two of the best of all time.
Harrison made it look easy, popping up to catch 10-15 yard passes like he was sleep-walking and then sit down to avoid being hit (a smart decision).
Owens was the play-making, abrasive superstar who relished the limelight (as well as contact with defensive backs).
Both played in big games and did well. Owens owns the record for most receptions in a single game; Harrison owns it for receptions in a single season. Greatness, no doubt.
No. 5: Don Maynard
Broadway Joe would never have gotten the "Broadway" part if Don Maynard hadn't been on the Jets.
He had great route-running skills and exceptional hands. Maynard came to symbolize the AFL's desire to prove they were just as good as the NFL, since he had been cut by the NFL Giants early in his career.
During the Jets famous Super Bowl season, he had 1,297 yards (22.8 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns. Pretty solid, no matter the generation.
He was the original stat machine in the AFL-NFL of that era, retiring in 1973 as the most prolific receiver of all time until the next person on our list...
No. 4: Steve Largent
Gifted in so many ways, Largent would be the first to admit he was never the biggest or fastest. Yet he was shifty and found ways to get separation on defensive backs.
His ability to catch was almost unmatched and his consistency in production led to him usurping Maynard as the most productive receiver (in terms of yards and touchdowns) in NFL history when he retired in 1989.
He could also hit with the best of them.
No. 3: Randy Moss
The funny thing is his numbers are comparable to TO. Yet when you remember that Owens has an extra two seasons in the league, then Moss starts to look slightly better.
Also, Moss in his prime was probably the single greatest deep threat in NFL history. He had unmatched speed, a hulking 6'4" frame and strength to break from any coverage.
His drawbacks are almost as pronounced as his assets though. His volatility has flared up as random points, and his work ethic could be challenged at times too (even in the best of situations). He also lacks the ability to run multiple routes...
All that noted, his benefits far outweigh his risks in my opinion (or they did during his prime). Minnesota took him at a later spot in the draft because of his "character issues," and they the got best rookie season for a wide receiver ever.
New England then took a flyer on him, trading the Raiders only a minuscule fourth round pick for Moss in 2007. What they got in return was the single best season by any wide receiver ever (for touchdowns that is).
No. 2: Don Hutson
A lot of people obviously don't know who Don Hutson was, because simply, they weren't alive to see Don Hutson play.
But make no mistake, he was the best receiver of all time for nearly 50 years (until our number one receiver stole his thunder).
Still, there's no denying that Hutson was far ahead of his time. He led the league in receiving yards seven times, receptions eight times, and touchdown receptions nine times.
His record of career touchdown receptions (99) stood at the top until Steve Largent broke it...in 1989! The record stood the length of the friggin Cold War! Impressive doesn't do it justice. It was absolutely trend-setting.
No. 1: Jerry Rice
...And finally we're here.
But you already knew, didn't you? I mean, more than any other position in football, Jerry Rice has the most solid claim to being the best ever.
No other receiver even comes remotely close. At over 22,000 all-time receiving yards and 197 touchdown receptions, he's far and away number one across the board (with 208 all-purpose touchdowns, he has more than any other football player ever, not just receivers).
He owns more records than, well, Virgin Records.
And what's more mind-boggling is that he also owns all of the Super Bowl records as well. With eight touchdowns lifetime in the Super Bowl, he has more than any other player ever (he also is tied for the single game record of three.)
He also owns the all-time Super Bowl record for receptions with 33 (and is tied for the single game record with 11).
Oh right, and he also won three Super Bowls.
Basically any record or claim to fame that another receiver has, chances are that Jerry Rice has done it and done it better. Remember our number 11 receiver (James Lofton) who had longevity in three decades?
Yeah...Jerry Rice blew his stats out of the water, with 1,000-plus yard seasons and at least 25 touchdowns in three decades.
He was also probably the only man I can think of with a 1,000 yard season in his 40s (and probably could still give a team 50 catches a year if he wanted.
So thanks for reading, I'm sure I got multiple picks wrong in your opinion (and, frankly, I'm sure you have a point it's so tough to decide these things!).
Let me have it in the comments if you must; I love these debates!