The Best Wide Receiver Classes in NFL Draft History

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystApril 18, 2020

The Best Wide Receiver Classes in NFL Draft History

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    Terrell Owens (81) and Jerry Rice (80)
    Terrell Owens (81) and Jerry Rice (80)BEN MARGOT/Associated Press

    Jerry Rice (Class of 1985) and Terrell Owens (Class of 1996) are two of the greatest receivers in NFL history, and they just so happened to spend five seasons together with the San Francisco 49ers. But which one of those two all-time greats was part of the best draft class of wide receivers?

    With Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson and a bunch of other great college wide receivers about to embark upon the NFL portion of their careers, it's never too early to wonder if this could become one of the best positional draft classes ever.

    But they have a whole heck of a lot of work to do just to crack into the top 10.

    Classes are ranked based on a combination of strength and depth. Having one of the 10 best wide receivers of all time is a great starting point, but it doesn't amount to much in this discussion if the second- and third-best receivers in that class were duds.

    Two key things to keep in mind:

    • We'll note where each receiver was drafted, but pick number/order was not relevant during the ranking process. Whether there were five first-round picks or zero first-round picks doesn't matter. We're just interested in what became of their careers after draft day.
    • Only wide receivers are considered. Tight ends and running backs who made a lot of catches (i.e. Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush) were excluded.

    Note: The approximate value (AV) listed for each receiver is Pro Football Reference's attempt to assign a single number to each player's career, similar to wins above replacement or value over replacement player in other sports. It was the primary data point used to rank the receivers within each class.

    Honorable Mentions: 1945, 1974 and 1978.

10. The 2014 Class

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    Jarvis Landry
    Jarvis LandryRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The Headliner: No. 63 pick Jarvis Landry (564 receptions, 6,188 yards, 32 TD, 50 AV)

    Landry doesn't have as many yards or touchdowns as a few other guys from this class, but he does have five Pro Bowl selections and at least 100 more receptions than everyone else. With so little separating Nos. 1-8 from the 2014 crop, that's enough to make him the headliner.

    Landry has at least 80 receptions in each of his six seasons, including leading the NFL with 112 catches in 2017. He was traded from the Miami Dolphins to the Cleveland Browns the following offseason, but the change in scenery didn't make him any less effective. In fact, he had a career high in receiving yards (1,174) in 2019.

    At his current career pace of 94 receptions per season, Landry would be in fifth place on the all-time leaderboard by the end of his 12th campaign.

            

    Supporting Act: No. 7 pick Mike Evans (462 receptions, 7,260 yards, 48 TD, 55 AV)

    Tampa Bay hasn't been to the postseason in over a decade, but pairing Evans with Tom Brady might finally change that in 2020. The Bucs' star receiver has yet to lead the league in any category, but he has amassed at least 1,000 yards in each of his six seasons. His peak was 1,524 yards in 2018, and he was on pace for more than 1,400 yards last year prior to a season-ending hamstring injury suffered in Week 14. 

            

    Undercard
    No. 12 pick Odell Beckham Jr. (464 receptions, 6,511 yards, 48 TD, 54 AV)
    No. 20 pick Brandin Cooks (402 receptions, 5,730 yards, 34 TD, 56 AV)
    No. 53 pick Davante Adams (431 receptions, 5,194 yards, 44 TD, 46 AV)
    No. 4 pick Sammy Watkins (284 receptions, 4,244 yards, 31 TD, 40 AV)
    No. 61 pick Allen Robinson (355 receptions, 4,749 yards, 33 TD, 36 AV)
    No. 91 pick John Brown (287 receptions, 4,290 yards, 28 TD, 36 AV)

    It's still way too early to legitimately try stacking this class up against others that have played out their entire careers, but we're putting 2014 at No. 10 as a nod to the potential volume of stars. In Landry, Evans, Beckham and Adams, four receivers in this class already have at least three Pro Bowl selections.

    Eight players with more than 4,200 career yards after six seasons is quite the noteworthy start, especially considering the next class on our list only had two such players.

9. The 1998 Class

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    Randy Moss
    Randy MossMARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/Associated Press

    The Headliner: No. 21 pick Randy Moss (982 receptions, 15,292 yards, 156 TD, 161 AV)

    When your name becomes a verb in sports, you're some kind of special. And this dude Moss'd a whole lot of defensive backs throughout his illustrious career.

    Moss was first-team All-Pro as a rookie, racking up 1,313 yards and a league-leading 17 touchdowns. It was the first of five times in his career that he ranked No. 1 in touchdowns, as well as the first of 10 seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards.

    He had three different primary quarterbacks in his first three seasons (Randall Cunningham, Jeff George and Daunte Culpepper), but it didn't much matter. They all knew they could just throw it deep, and Moss was probably going to go get it.

            

    Supporting Act: No. 92 Hines Ward (1,000 receptions, 12,083 yards, 85 TD, 118 AV)

    There were 20 players drafted between 1995-2003 who ended up with more than 10,000 career receiving yards, so Ward often got lost in a shuffle full of guys like Torry Holt, Derrick Mason, Muhsin Muhammad, etc. But Ward was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh throughout the 2000s, earning four Pro Bowl selections during his six seasons with more than 1,000 yards. And when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, he had 123 of the team's 166 receiving yards.

            

    Undercard
    None

    There were a few other minor contributors from this class. Az-Zahir Hakim and Joe Jurevicius both reached 4,000 career yards. But Moss and Ward were the only ones named to a Pro Bowl. So even though 1998 produced one of the best of all time and a borderline top-25 career receiver, the lack of depth cost it at least four spots in this ranking.

8. The 1957 Class

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    Don Maynard
    Don MaynardFILE/Associated Press

    The Headliner: No. 109 pick Don Maynard (633 receptions, 11,834 yards, 88 TD, 132 AV)

    Maynard's career got out to a rocky start. He didn't play in 1957, barely saw the field in 1958, was released during the 1959 training camp and signed with a CFL team for which he only made one catch for 10 yards. But then he found a home with the expansion-year New York Titans (soon to be the Jets), for whom he thrived over the next decade.

    In what was effectively his second "rookie" season, he made 72 receptions for 1,265 yards and six touchdowns in 1960. It was the beginning of a 10-year run in which he averaged 1,028.9 yards and 8.4 touchdowns. He was already quite good before Joe Namath arrived in 1965, but that's when Maynard was selected to four Pro Bowls in five years.

            

    Supporting Act: No. 31 pick Tommy McDonald (495 receptions, 8,410 yards, 84 TD, 72 AV)

    McDonald was selected to the Pro Bowl in five straight seasons early in his career and added a sixth selection in 1965. In the middle of that run, he helped lead the Philadelphia Eagles to the 1960 NFL championship. He led all players with 90 receiving yards and a touchdown in their 17-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers. The following season, he also led all NFL players in receiving yards (1,144) and touchdowns (13).

            

    Undercard
    No. 291 pick Jimmy Orr (400 receptions, 7,914 yards, 66 TD, 78 AV)
    No. 11 pick Del Shofner (349 receptions, 6,470 yards, 51 TD, 54 AV)

    Pro Football Reference's AV calculations begin in 1960, so the first few years of these careers are not accounted for in those numbers.

    Maynard's total is barely impacted by that, as he only made five catches prior to 1960. But Shofner was first-team All-Pro in both 1958 and 1959 with a combined total of 2,033 yards and 15 touchdowns (during 12-game seasons, by the way). His actual AV would closer to 80 if those years counted.

    And, frankly, it's astounding that Shofner isn't in the Hall of Fame since he was first-team All-Pro five times in the span of six years. His career was brief, but there are only a handful of players with five or more All-Pro selections who aren't in the Hall. 

    Orr was also robbed a bit in the AV department as he had more than 1,500 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 1958-59. He should at least be at 90.

7. The 2010 Class

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    Antonio Brown
    Antonio BrownButch Dill/Associated Press

    The Headliner: No. 195 pick Antonio Brown (841 receptions, 11,263 yards, 75 TD, 102 AV)

    For now, it's hard to talk about Brown without immediately thinking about the sexual assault and misconduct allegations and how he became a ridiculous sideshow in 2019, forcing his way out of Oakland in the preseason and playing just one game in New England.

    In time, though, he'll be remembered for the way he completely dominated 2013-18, hauling in at least 100 catches in each of those six seasons while averaging north of 1,500 yards per year. In 2015, he became just the fourth receiver in NFL history to have at least 1,800 receiving yards in a single season. (Preposterously, he didn't even lead the league that year as Julio Jones edged him out 1,871 to 1,834.)

    Brown was first-team All-Pro in four consecutive years (2014-17) and was in the top 10 of the NFL Network's Top 100 for five straight years (2015-19).

            

    Supporting Act: No. 22 pick Demaryius Thomas (724 receptions, 9,763 yards, 63 TD, 81 AV)

    Thomas was a part-time starter who struggled for his first two seasons in Denver. Brown had over 2,200 all-purpose yards in 2011, but Thomas only had 1,238 total between 2010-11. Then the Broncos upgraded from Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning, and wouldn't you know it, Thomas instantly became a Pro Bowl receiver.

    During Manning's four years on the roster, Thomas averaged 100.5 receptions, 1446.7 yards and 10.3 touchdowns. But even as they transitioned to Brock Osweiler and Trevor Siemian in 2016 and 2017, Thomas still produced at a high level, averaging slightly better than 1,000 yards per year.

            

    Undercard
    No. 24 pick Dez Bryant (531 receptions, 7,459 yards, 73 TD, 71 AV)
    No. 60 pick Golden Tate (660 receptions, 7,890 yards, 44 TD, 69 AV)
    No. 82 pick Emmanuel Sanders (601 receptions, 7,893 yards, 42 TD, 66 AV)

    Bryant hasn't played since 2017, but he was a three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver who was a force of nature from 2012-14, accounting for at least 88 receptions, 1,200 yards and a dozen touchdowns in each of those seasons. Sanders has also been selected to two Pro Bowls, and Tate received that honor once. All three were chosen in 2014 when they combined for 288 catches, 4,055 yards and 29 touchdowns.

    Worth noting: This was also the class in which both Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski were drafted, but tight ends were excluded in this wide receiver discussion. If they counted, this easily would have been a top-five class. Even without them, though, 2010 was loaded.

6. The 1991 Class

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    Keenan McCardell
    Keenan McCardellTom Pidgeon/Getty Images

    The Headliner: No. 326 pick Keenan McCardell (883 receptions, 11,373 yards, 63 TD, 113 AV)

    Had he entered the draft two years later, McCardell perhaps wouldn't have gotten a chance in the NFL as the length of the draft was reduced from 12 rounds to eight in 1993. That's largely because guys taken this late almost never amounted to anything.

    Case in point: Of the final 160 picks in the 1991 draft, McCardell was the only one selected to a Pro Bowl.

    His was an underdog story, to say the least.

    Regardless of where he went in the draft, though, McCardell had five seasons with at least 84 receptions and 1,110 receiving yards. He was at his best in Jacksonville, where he spent six years alongside Jimmy Smith as one of Mark Brunell's favorite targets. But he also had a nice two-year run in Tampa Bay after that, winning a Super Bowl in 2002 and having a Pro Bowl year in 2003.

            

    Supporting Act: No. 10 pick Herman Moore (670 receptions, 9,174 yards, 62 TD, 94 AV)

    Moore's career in Detroit was a decade-long bell curve. He did little in 1991, 1999, 2000 and 2001, but he built his way up to (and down from) quite the three-year peak from 1995-97. He averaged 111.0 receptions for 1,425.0 yards and 10.3 touchdowns during that time, earning All-Pro honors all three years.

            

    Undercard
    No. 83 pick Ed McCaffrey (565 receptions, 7,422 yards, 55 TD, 80 AV)
    No. 46 pick Jeff Graham (542 receptions, 8,172 yards, 30 TD, 71 AV)
    No. 240 pick Shawn Jefferson (470 receptions, 7,023 yards, 29 TD, 67 AV)
    No. 68 pick Jake Reed (450 receptions, 6,999 yards, 36 TD, 63 AV)

    The 1991 class wasn't strong up top. McCardell was good, but he's not a Hall of Famer. This was an impressively deep crop of above-average talent, though. It's one of only three classes in NFL history with at least six wide receivers who eclipsed 6,000 career yards, and the other two both rank in our top three.

    McCaffrey was the only member of this quartet named to a Pro Bowl, and it only happened once. Nevertheless, this had to be a top-10 class.

5. The 1964 Class

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    Paul Warfield
    Paul WarfieldUncredited/Associated Press

    The Headliner: No. 11 pick Paul Warfield (427 receptions, 8,565 yards, 85 TD, 136 AV)

    Not only was the passing game less prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s than it is today, but they also only played 14-game seasons back then. So, try not to fixate too much on the fact that no one in this class ended up with 10,000 or more receiving yards. Rather, let the Pro Bowl voting tell you how valuable these receivers were in comparison to their peers.

    Warfield received that honor eight times in his career, including as a rookie when he made what proved to be a career-best 52 receptions for the NFL champion Cleveland Browns. (It wasn't the Super Bowl until two years later). Another of his Pro Bowl seasons came in 1972 when Warfield was the top receiver for the undefeated Miami Dolphins. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

            

    Supporting Act: No. 3 pick Charley Taylor (649 receptions, 9,110 yards, 79 TD, 125 AV)

    Like Warfield, Taylor was selected to eight Pro Bowl teams. He was much more of a pass-catching running back than a wide receiver early in his career, and he didn't fully transition into a receiving role until midway through his third season. But he's in the Hall of Fame as a wide receiver, so we'll count him as such even though he was drafted as a halfback.

            

    Undercard
    No. 88 pick Bob Hayes (371 receptions, 7,414 yards, 71 TD, 96 AV)
    No. 1 pick Dave Parks (360 receptions, 5,619 yards, 44 TD, 59 AV)

    It's harsh to call Hayes an undercard guy as he is also in the Hall of Fame after a career with three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro honors. The Olympic gold medalist sprinter flamed out after seven seasons, but he was simply unguardable in man-to-man coverage for those first seven years.

    Parks was also a three-time Pro Bowler who led the NFL in receptions (80), yards (1,344) and touchdowns (12) in 1965.

4. The 1988 Class

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    Tim Brown
    Tim BrownPAUL SAKUMA/Associated Press

    The Headliner: No. 6 pick Tim Brown (1,094 receptions, 14,934 yards, 100 TD, 144 AV)

    Brown was Ol' Faithful for the Raiders for a solid decade. From 1993-2002, he started all 16 games in every season, averaging 87.1 receptions for 1192.2 yards and 7.7 touchdowns. Aside from an NFL-best 104 receptions in 1997, he didn't lead the league in anything during that run. He was consistently well above-average, though, earning seven of his nine career spots on Pro Bowl rosters during that time.

    The most impressive part is that he was able to maintain that high level of production despite a revolving door at quarterback. The Raiders transitioned from Jeff Hostetler to Jeff George to Rich Gannon with the likes of Vince Evans, Billy Joe Hobert, Wade Wilson and Donald Hollas each making multiple starts throughout that decade. Brown was already 33 by the time Gannon got there, but imagine if he had a quarterback that competent in his prime.

    He made it into the Hall of Fame in spite of that lack of a quality passer for much of his career.

            

    Supporting Act: No. 11 pick Michael Irvin (750 receptions, 11,904 yards, 65 TD, 129 AV)

    Brown had a longer career, but Irvin had a higher peak. In fact, Brown didn't have a single season with an AV of 15 or better, but Irvin had five in a row. From 1991-95, he averaged 89.8 receptions, 1,418.6 yards and 7.6 touchdowns, culminating in a ridiculous 111 catches, 1,603 yards and 10 touchdowns in '95. Not only was he great during those regular seasons, but he also made 74 receptions for 1,158 yards and eight touchdowns during Dallas' 13 postseason games, including three Super Bowl titles.

            

    Undercard
    No. 15 pick Anthony Miller (595 receptions, 9,148 yards, 63 TD, 91 AV)
    No. 7 pick Sterling Sharpe (595 receptions, 8,134 yards, 65 TD, 78 AV)
    No. 49 pick Brian Blades (581 receptions, 7,620 yards, 34 TD, 71 AV)

    Four wide receivers were taken in the top 15 of the 1988 draft, and all four ended up on at least five Pro Bowl rosters.

    Sharpe was also a three-time All-Pro and likely would have been a Hall of Fame receiver if he had lasted more than seven seasons before suffering a career-ending neck injury. He led the league in receptions in 1989, 1992 and 1993, had the most receiving yards in 1992 and was No. 1 in receiving touchdowns in both 1992 and 1994. For those final three seasons of his career, he and a young Brett Favre were a match made in heaven.

3. The 2001 Class

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    Reggie Wayne
    Reggie WayneBill Kostroun/Associated Press

    The Headliner: No. 30 pick Reggie Wayne (1,070 receptions, 14,345 yards, 82 TD, 155 AV)

    Wayne had the good fortune of being drafted by an Indianapolis Colts team that had one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He got to catch passes from Peyton Manning for the first 10 seasons of his career. He wasn't a full-time starter until Year 3, but he averaged 1,210.9 yards and 8.1 touchdowns in those next eight seasons.

    But even when Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and a 39-year-old Kerry Collins split the quarterback duties in 2011, Wayne still almost got to 1,000 receiving yards. And in Andrew Luck's rookie season, he was named to the Pro Bowl for the sixth time in his career with 106 receptions for 1,355 yards.

    Starting out with Manning obviously didn't hurt Wayne, but he proved he could succeed even without him later in his career.

            

    Supporting Act: No. 74 pick Steve Smith (1,031 receptions, 14,731 yards, 81 TD, 139 AV)

    Initially, Smith was a return specialist. He had 1,994 all-purpose yards as a rookie, 90 percent of which came from kick and punt returns. He landed on the All-Pro team that year despite not scoring a single touchdown from scrimmage. By 2005, thoughone year after he suffered a season-ending broken leg in Week 1he was a route-running phenom. In his fifth season, he got the elusive receiving "triple crown," leading the NFL in receptions (103), yards (1,563) and touchdowns (12).

            

    Undercard
    No. 36 pick Chad Johnson/Ochocinco (766 receptions, 11,059 yards, 67 TD, 104 AV)
    No. 16 pick Santana Moss (732 receptions, 10,283 yards, 66 TD, 93 AV)
    No. 52 pick Chris Chambers (540 receptions, 7,648 yards, 58 TD, 70 AV)
    No. 204 pick T.J. Houshmandzadeh (627 receptions, 7,237 yards, 44 TD, 66 AV)

    That's quite the list of "others." Aside from our No. 1 class, 2001 was the only one to produce at least three 10,000-yard receivers, let alone four of them.

    Moss, Chambers and Houshmandzadeh each earned Pro Bowl honors once, but Ochocinco had them dominated with six such seasons. During his five-year peak (2003-07), he averaged 92.4 receptions, 1,374.0 yards and 8.6 touchdowns and landed on two All-Pro teams. He may well never end up in the Hall of Fame because of his flair for the dramatic, but good luck finding a better third-best receiver in any class.

2. The 1985 Class

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    Jerry Rice
    Jerry RiceDavid Longstreath/Associated Press

    The Headliner: No. 16 pick Jerry Rice (1,549 receptions, 22,895 yards, 197 TD, 250 AV)

    No receiver can hold a candle to Rice's career numbers, and it's hard to imagine anyone ever will.

    Larry Fitzgerald is doing his darnedest to gain ground on Rice, but he is still almost 6,000 yards behind him at No. 2 on the all-time leaderboard. Fitz is "only" No. 6 in touchdowns, where the closest guy to Rice is Randy Moss, who is still 41 touchdowns shy of the 13-time Pro Bowler. The only category in which Fitzgerald might catch Rice is receptions, but he still needs 171 to get there. That's going to take him at least two more seasons.

    Keep in mind, Fitzgerald is one of the best and healthiest (only missed six games in his 16-year career) receivers of this generation, and he would need to play well into his 40s to do what Rice did.

    During his 10-year peak (1986-95), Rice racked up 14,196 yards and 143 touchdowns, leading the NFL in yards six times and in touchdowns six times. If those 10 years were his full career, he'd still be No. 10 in yards and No. 3 in touchdowns. That's how ridiculously good he was.

            

    Supporting Act: No. 86 pick Andre Reed (951 receptions, 13,198 yards, 87 TD, 133 AV)

    These numbers feel like a letdown right after gushing about Rice, but Reed is also in the Hall of Fame after an incredible run in Buffalo that got him into the all-time top 20 in receiving yards and touchdowns. He was a Pro Bowl wide receiver every season from 1988-94, playing a key role in getting the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls. They infamously lost all of them, but don't blame Reed. In the 52-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVII, he at least had 152 receiving yards.

            

    Undercard
    No. 179 pick Eric Martin (553 receptions, 8,161 yards, 49 TD, 81 AV)
    No. 10 pick Al Toon (517 receptions, 6,605 yards, 31 TD, 62 AV)
    No. 13 pick Eddie Brown (363 receptions, 6,134 yards, 41 TD, 66 AV)

    This class easily has the best valedictorian and one of the best salutatorians, but it's a big drop from there to the rest of our top four. Toon was a three-time Pro Bowler, but his career lasted less than eight seasons due to concussions. Martin and Brown each earned Pro Bowl honors in 1988, but that was it. Martin just managed to hang around for a few years longer than Brown did.

    Granted, even one Pro Bowl season is quite the achievement. In the context of the greatest classes of all time, though, it's not much, especially considering our No. 1 class had nine guys with more career receiving yards than the third-best in this class.

1. The 1996 Class

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    Terrell Owens
    Terrell OwensPAUL SAKUMA/Associated Press

    The Headliner: No. 89 pick Terrell Owens (1,078 receptions, 15,934 yards, 153 TD, 165 AV)

    There were quite a few antics and controversies throughout T.O.'s career, but he was largely worth the trouble. Only Jerry Rice and Larry Fitzgerald have more career receiving yards than Owens, and the only players with more touchdowns are Rice and Randy Moss.

    Strangely enough, Owens never led the league in receiving yards, but he eclipsed 1,000 yards nine times. He was No. 1 in receiving touchdowns three times during his six-time Pro Bowl, five-time All-Pro career.

    And though he never got a Super Bowl ring, he did have one of the most heroic performances of all time, recording nine catches for 122 yards in Super Bowl XXXIX just seven weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a broken leg and torn ligaments in his ankle.

            

    Supporting Act: No. 19 pick Marvin Harrison (1,102 receptions, 14,580 yards, 128 TD, 161 AV)

    Harrison is also top-10 in all-time receiving yards, sitting at No. 9 on that list. Unlike Owens, Peyton Manning's go-to guy twice led the league in yards in 1999 (1,663 yards) and 2002 (1,722 yards). From 1999-2006, he had at least 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight consecutive seasons. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in all eight years. 

            

    Undercard
    No. 43 pick Muhsin Muhammad (860 receptions, 11,438 yards, 62 TD, 106 AV)
    No. 1 pick Keyshawn Johnson (814 receptions, 10,571 yards, 64 TD, 98 AV)
    No. 24 pick Eric Moulds (764 receptions, 9,995 yards, 49 TD, 93 AV)
    No. 18 pick Eddie Kennison (548 receptions, 8,345 yards, 42 TD, 86 AV)
    No. 34 pick Amani Toomer (668 receptions, 9,497 yards, 54 TD, 85 AV)
    No. 7 pick Terry Glenn (593 receptions, 8,823 yards, 44 TD, 82 AV)
    No. 135 pick Joe Horn (603 receptions, 8,744 yards, 58 TD, 81 AV)

    I mean, come on. This is ridiculous.

    There are 87 players in NFL history with at least 8,300 career receiving yards, and more than 10 percent of them came from this one draft class. In addition to the 14 Pro Bowls garnered by Owens and Harrison, this septet combined for 13 such honorsand the best touchdown celebration ever.

    Had it just been Jerry Rice and Andre Reed vs. Owens and Harrison, 1985 would have won this battle comfortably. But because of Muhammad, Johnson and the rest of the undercard, it wasn't even remotely a difficult decision to put 1996 in the top spot.

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