NFL Analysis


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Ranking the Top 10 Wide Receivers In NFL History

What makes an all-time great wide receiver? The NFL Hall of Fame has 29 enshrinees, but the league has far more terrific talents throughout history. Some of the best to ever play are still suiting up each week.

We've delved through the record books to split the hairs that are incredibly hard to weigh properly. The best wide receiver in NFL history might not be surprising, but the rest of our top 10 might look slightly different than yours. 

>> READ: Best Receiving Duos In NFL History

Top 10 Wide Receivers in NFL History

Here are some guidelines for how I made this list. Anyone who played before the NFL-AFL merger in 1966 wasn't considered, so Don Hutson is the most notable omission with that criteria. Lance Alworth played before and after the merger, so he was considered. 

I valued high-end peaks over longevity, with both productions compared to peers and the best athletic traits proving to be tiebreakers at several junctions. 

10. Cris Carter

Ranking 13th in NFL history with 13,899 yards, fourth in receiving touchdowns, and fifth in receptions, Cris Carter's career arc wasn't always promising. The fourth-round pick from Ohio State struggled with drug addiction during his three-year stint with Philadelphia, totaling 1,450 yards and 19 touchdowns before getting released. He wasn't an immediate star upon landing with the Minnesota Vikings either, taking until his fourth season to hit the 1,000-yard mark.

The flashes were always there for Carter, but his breakout came at 28 years old. He posted eight straight 1,000-yard seasons, leading the NFL in receptions once and touchdowns three times in that span. He played until he was 37, averaging eight touchdowns a season in 16 years. 

His hands were legendarily good, and he was the best toe-tapper you'll find. His triumph through struggle would've been impossible for most individuals, but Carter had the type of innate ability to maximize his play despite the trials. 

9. Tyreek Hill

The lone active player on our list doesn't yet have the final stats to compete with his peers here, but Tyreek Hill's impact and his pace of production throughout eight years has him on a Hall of Fame track.

He just turned 30 years old this offseason, and the NFL's fastest is more than just a speedy presence. Hill is a devastatingly good route runner, thanks to precise, choppy feet that maximize his change of direction and acceleration through cuts.

His rapid ascension from offensive weapon as a rookie to No. 1 receiver by his second season was the start of a run that has Hill peaking in Miami. With back-to-back 1,700-yard seasons as the hub of the Dolphins' explosive offense, Hill is already 53rd in history in yards, 56th in receptions, and 37th in touchdowns. Even conservative projections for the next three seasons would land him near the top 10 of every category. 

Few players in NFL history have Hill's skill set, and he's become nearly unstoppable in his prime years. His longevity will ultimately determine his final rank because his blend of peak performance and production has him on par with most peers. 

8. Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown's achievements on the field make an easy case for his entry into the NFL Hall of Fame. Having clinched a Super Bowl title and earned first-team All-Pro honors four times, along with a spot on the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team, Brown altered the perception of being a dominant wide receiver. Standing at just 5-foot-10 and weighing 185 pounds, Brown was virtually unstoppable at his peak.

The bulk of Brown's impressive stats were accumulated from 2013 to 2018, though he had already made a Pro Bowl appearance in his sophomore year in 2011. During this six-year period, he consistently caught at least 101 passes each season, never dipping below 1,284 yards or eight touchdowns.

He topped the league in receptions and yards twice and in touchdowns once. His most prolific season in 2015 saw him reel in 136 catches for a staggering 1,834 yards.

He's 25th in yards, 21st in receptions, 26th in touchdowns, and third in yards per game. But self-inflicted mistakes cut his career short, producing only 91 receptions for 1,084 yards and nine touchdowns after turning 31. His lack of longevity in his later years hurt his argument for landing higher, but his peak is impossible to erase. 

7. Marvin Harrison Sr.

Giving one of the best quarterbacks of all time one of the smoothest and cleanest targets in league history proved to be a dream pairing. Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison Sr. had the perfect chemistry for each to thrive. Harrison was a solid receiver in his three seasons before Manning arrived, but he ripped off a defining eight-year stretch throughout his prime. 

From 1999-2006, Harrison led the NFL in receptions and yards twice but never had fewer than 10 touchdowns in a season. The incredible consistency is hard to match. He still ranks fifth in receptions and touchdowns and ninth in yards.

Much of what Harrison did wasn't as flashy as others. When Manning threw the ball to a spot, Harrison was there every time, and his ability to keep the offense moving was nearly unparalleled. 

6. Larry Fitzgerald

We can't talk about consistency without hitting on Larry Fitzgerald. Credited with only 29 career dropped passes on 2,335 targets in 18 years, only Fitzgerald can challenge Carter for the title of best hands in NFL history.

Everything about Fitzgerald was reliable. He never missed more than three games or caught fewer than 54 passes in any season. He led the league in receptions and touchdowns twice. It's possible he was never the most dynamic or dominant playmaker at any one point, but the way he continued to produce into his mid-30s is a byproduct of how incredible he was. 

His playoff performances were a great snapshot of how he could take a game over. His 2008 run almost brought a win in the Super Bowl and included 30 receptions, 546 yards, and seven touchdowns in four games. He was everything a franchise player should be. 

5. Lance Alworth

Lance Alworth's case could be challenging if we harshly dinged his pre-merger production for the lack of competition, but his overwhelming dominance throughout his prime years is undeniable.

Nicknamed "Bambi" because the 6-foot, 184-pounder was as graceful and agile as anyone had seen, Alworth redefined the receiver position and how passing games operated. He led the NFL in receptions, yards, and touchdowns three times.

The raw stats are impressive enough. Alworth posted seven 1,000-yard seasons, including years with 1,602, 1,383, and 1,312 yards. But he averaged 18.9 yards a catch throughout his 11 seasons, including 19.4 during his nine-year stint with the San Diego Chargers. He led the AFL by almost 400 receiving yards in 1965 and set the stage for offenses to change how they attacked defenses in later years completely.

Of all the receivers in his era, only Don Maynard and Harold Jackson finished with more career yards. However, each played five more years than Alworth, who retired at 32 after two quiet seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.

4. Calvin Johnson

"Megatron" only played nine NFL seasons, retiring after his age-30 season, and the NFL world was left stunned when it happened. Calvin Johnson was a looming, inevitable presence as soon as he entered the league, benefitting from his partnership with gunslinging and ever-trusting QB Matthew Stafford.

There was a feeling of absolute dread whenever Johnson was targeted downfield because he was so physically overwhelming, even when multiple defenders draped his body.

Johnson led the NFL in yards twice, including breaking Jerry Rice's 17-year-old single-season record in 2012 with 1,964 in 16 games. The 6-foot-5, 237-pounder finished his career ranked 34th in yards with 11,619 and 26th in touchdowns with 83. Had he played another five seasons and produced even marginally as a No. 2 threat, he could've landed in the top five marks of each category.

Alas, Johnson's immense peak was all we saw. The only two seasons he failed to break 1,000 yards were injury-shortened. He was simultaneously a reliable possession threat and the most explosive playmaker on the field every down, making him a remarkable specimen in NFL history.

3. Terrell Owens

We've been in rarified air this entire list, but now, the competition for the best receiver of all time ramps up to another level. Landing at No. 3 is Terrell Owens, who was drafted in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft out of Chattanooga.

The 6-foot-3, 224-pounder strung together a long career that left zero doubt he was a premier alpha presence until he finally hung up his cleats at age 37.

Owens was drafted to a San Francisco 49ers team that was favored to win the Super Bowl in the preseason but ended up losing in the NFC Divisional Round. He played with Steve Young and immediately became No. 2 to Jerry Rice. His production was good through his first four years but really exploded in 2000 as the franchise moved away from its aging core.

Owens was incredibly reliable and explosive, boasting the physique of a Greek God, a matching physical play style, and surprising speed for his bulkiness. He never led the league in yards in one season but did lap the field thrice in touchdowns. Only in his rookie season did he tally fewer than 754 yards and broke the 1,000-yard mark a whopping nine times in 15 years.

Owens was so good that he still produced 983 yards and nine scores in only 14 games during his swan-song season with the Bengals at 37 years old. He finished his career third in yards and touchdowns and eighth in receptions.

Because of his brash personality, he was often considered his own worst enemy, but it's hard to fathom that he might've produced even more had he continued playing.

Minnesota Viking receiver Randy Moss (84) in action against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. USA TODAY Sports.

2. Randy Moss

From the moment Randy Moss stepped on an NFL field, it was clear he was a completely different animal than what defenses were used to. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound speedster redefined what a deep threat was, bringing an otherworldy vertical dimension to the Minnesota Vikings across from Carter.

As a rookie, Moss led the NFL with 17 touchdowns on only 69 receptions, then led the league in scores four more times throughout his career.

His magical 2007 season with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots was included in that stretch. Moss broke the NFL record with 23 touchdowns, earning his fourth first-team All-Pro nod at 30 years old. However, we can't overlook his 2003 season, which included 111 career-high receptions and 1,632 yards. Or the year after that featured only 49 receptions but 13 touchdowns.

Like Owens, Moss was the only person who could slow himself down. He burned bridges with every team he played with and squandered three prime years from 2004 through 2006 as he bounced from Minnesota to Oakland to New England. His stint with the Patriots lasted only three-plus seasons before the team traded him at 33 years old. 

The negatives are far outweighed by a playmaker with one of history's most fun highlight reels. He produced 10 1,000-yard seasons and finished second in touchdowns and fourth in yards despite ranking 15th in receptions. It was exhilarating to see Moss go over defenders and trademark the term "Moss'd."

1. Jerry Rice

When we talk about being the greatest of all time (GOAT) in any sport and position, it's a fair argument that there will never be a bigger chasm than Jerry Rice's position atop the receiver throne.

His resume had absolutely everything, from longevity (21 years) to high-end production and changing how his position played. San Francisco's vaunted West Coast offense thrived working through Rice, defining an entire dynasty.

Rice was so productive that separating his career into two halves creates two great resumes. From his rookie season in 1985 through 1996, Rice reached 100 receptions four times and 1,000 yards in all but one year. He led the league in yards and touchdowns in six instances during that 12-year run. He set the league record with 22 receiving touchdowns in only 12 games during the 1987 season. 

The lone year he fell under the 1k mark was his rookie campaign when he caught 49 passes for 927 yards.

The NFL's all-time leader in receptions, yards, and receiving touchdowns then enjoyed a solid back-half of his career, including six more seasons with at least 805 yards. His resurgence with Oakland at 39 was unlikely but a byproduct of his relentless work ethic, impeccable hands, and creativity. Even the final 11 games of his career in Seattle at 42 years old were productive and filled with highlights. 

Rice is still 5,403 yards, 117 receptions, and 41 touchdowns ahead of any other receiver in NFL history. He was in the right place at the right time to play under Bill Walsh and with Joe Montana and Steve Young. And he was the perfect player to maximize every opportunity.