The best wide receivers are some of the most graceful athletes in the entire sports universe. Whether they’re impressive physical specimens or simply phenomenal route runners, wideouts are visible, engaging, and capable of developing a unique chemistry with their quarterbacks, emerging as go-to-guys in the clutch. Old timers and self-proclaimed purists often write off wide receivers as prima donnas.
By definition, split ends and flankers must wave to signal for attention while running patterns, and this job description has attracted an eclectic bunch of personalities who demand the spotlight both on and off the field. NFL wide receivers from Chad Ochocinco to Michael Irvin have been associated with showboating and run-ins with the law.
For better or worse, “antics” seem to come part and parcel with many gifted wideouts. Ranking the thousands of wide receivers who pass through the NFL is daunting. Comparing players across eras is nearly impossible, and this dynamic list will always be up for debate.
We’ve got to give an honorable mention to Cris Carter, owner of arguably the greatest hands in the business, and now that Calvin “Megatron” Johnson has hung up his cleats he’ll likely be a lock for this list as well — we’re still figuring out exactly where he sits.
10. James Lofton
Rivaling Randy Moss as the most athletically gifted wide receiver of all time, James Lofton demonstrated pure speed. Fans recognized him for his long strides and sub-4.3 jets that torched defenses for 16 seasons, most notably in Green Bay and Buffalo. Lofton starred as a track star at Stanford, where he prepared for his NFL career beneath the tutelage of offensive guru Bill Walsh.
Lofton’s numbers highlight the fact that this man was about the big play. During the 1983 and 1984 seasons, Lofton averaged 22 yards per catch for the Packers. In fact, Lofton averaged more than 15 yards per catch in 14 out of his 16 NFL seasons, even though he is historically dismissed from the greatest wide receiver of all time discussion, despite retiring as the league’s all-time leader in receiving yards with 14,004 (now No. 10 on the list).
Rarely willing to go underneath, Lofton never caught more than 75 passes a season. Sadly, the failures of his Green Bay team overshadowed his career. In fact, most know Lofton for losing three consecutive Super Bowls.
9. Marvin Harrison
Like his once-quarterback Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison’s career was so good for so long that the numbers are almost boring. Harrison logged 1,102 catches during his 13-year career with the Colts, a number that’s good for second on the all-time list. Putting together his signature campaign in 2002, Harrison snagged 143 catches, shattering the previous record by more than 20 receptions (and netting him over 1,700 yards in the process).
During his prime, Harrison’s slight build and quickness made him an impossible cover, as cornerbacks and safeties struggled to identify the routes he was running — they all looked identical during the first, crucial, five to 10 yards. This sort of attention to detail dovetailed perfectly with his quarterback (Manning, obviously), and the two represent one of the more prolific pass-and-catch combinations of all time.
Unfortunately, Harrison’s alleged involvement in a 2008 North Philadelphia murder didn’t do his reputation any favors, either.
8. Steve Largent
Often dismissed as a garden-variety possession guy, owing to his choirboy looks and lack of national exposure, Steve Largent’s skill set has more in common with former Giant Steve Smith than Wes Welker or the lanky Ed McCaffrey. Largent was drafted as an afterthought (the 117th pick in 1976) and went on to lead the NFL in career receptions, yards, and touchdown catches at the time of his retirement.
What he lacked in straight-line speed, he made up for with his quickness and willingness to work the middle, and he used his tenacity to break tackles after the catch for extra yards, part of the reason he was able to finish his career averaging 16 yards per catch. His best individual season, in 1979, saw Largent hook up with quarterback Jim Zorn to the tune of 66 catches, 1,237 yards, nine touchdowns, and an 18.7 YPC average.
Unfortunately, Largent’s NFL career labors in relative obscurity. The Seahawks toiled within the shadows of the Pacific Northwest, alongside its much more celebrated AFC West rivals — during his time with Seattle, Largent saw the Chargers, Broncos, Chiefs, and Raiders all find more success than the Seahawks.
7. Terrell Owens
NFL fans may scoff at including T.O. in any discussion about “greatness,” since Owens became a caricature — a diva more concerned with glamor than with winning. Many will forever associate him with the word “touches” and constant demands for the football.
Off the field, he often played into the media hype, shouting at his teammates and doing sit-ups in the driveway. His hysterics led to bad feelings and regrets in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Dallas. Looking past the traveling circus, though, and his game is more than adequate.
A 6-foot-3, 226-pound specimen, T.O. was too physical to be covered by corners and too fast to be matched up against safeties. Owens used his body to shield defenders and make catches, before powering through opponents to the sticks. Owens is a future Hall of Famer, who currently ranks in the top 10 for all-time receptions (sixth with 1,078) and yards (second with 15,934).
Despite his physical prowess and gamesmanship (notably playing through a broken leg in the 2005 Super Bowl), Owens received criticism for being “soft.” He led the league in drops while he was with Dallas. Of course, T.O. fans insist that he is just misunderstood.
6. Lynn Swann
Wide receiver Lynn Swann finished his Hall of Fame career with 336 catches for 5,462 yards and 51 touchdowns. Even though those numbers look rather pedestrian compared to the high-octane offenses of the modern era, his efforts still helped bring home four Super Bowl rings that will always make Swann a hero to Steeler Nation.
In Super Bowl X, Swann caught four catches for 161 yards and MVP honors. His Super Bowl X showing included a diving shoestring catch that has become part of NFL lore. He went airborne, entangled with Cowboy Mark Washington, and still managed to snag Terry Bradshaw’s deep bomb at the last second.
NFL fans associate him with speed, agility, and grace. That said, Swann never topped the 1,000-yard mark in any one season during the Golden Era of smash mouth football. We can only speculate in regards to his legacy were he to have performed with different teammates amidst a different era.
5. Michael Irvin
Michael Irvin was as close as the NFL has ever come to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the field, he was a winner — recognized on account of his tireless work ethic and enthusiasm to get down and dirty at wide receiver, sacrificing his body to block, catch balls across the middle, and maul cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage.
Off the field, Irvin received charges for cocaine possession and battery, alongside allegations of sexual assault. Despite his prevalence for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, Irvin gained a reputation as a mentor for younger NFL players and student-athletes at the University of Miami.
At The U, Irvin finished his three-year career as the most decorated Hurricane wideout ever, including winning one National Championship. In the pros, Dallas reunited Irvin with head coach Jimmy Johnson. They won three Super Bowls to go with 11,904 receiving yards as Cowboys. Those ’90s Cowboys teams also featured Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman.
Dallas’s offensive attack rejected gimmicks and simply destroyed competition by fielding better talent, and NFL fans would be hard-pressed to forget Pat Summerall’s monotone throughout those epic Cowboys/49ers match-ups: “Michael Irvin… Across the middle… He’s got it… Shaking loose into the secondary… Touchdown… Aikman to Michael Irvin.”
4. Tim Brown
Tim Brown may be best described as the poor man’s Jerry Rice. Mr. Raider returned kicks, took reverses, and caught passes as a threat to score from anywhere on the football field at any time. A Heisman winner while he was at Notre Dame, Brown racked up 1,094 catches to go for 14,934 yards and 100 touchdowns in his career — and also led the NFL in all-purpose yards in 1988 as a rookie.
Combining enough speed to blaze pass cornerbacks with the physical mettle to curl up into short zones and duel with linebackers, Brown excelled as a skilled wide receiver in Oakland and Los Angeles, where his knowledge of the position stood in sharp contrast to Al Davis’s predisposition to strap shoulder pads onto track stars and tell them they were now wide receivers.
Brown’s career may not resonate with the casual fan because of the dysfunction at Raider Nation, but Brown showcased as much natural talent as any man to ever play the position, save only Randy Moss.
3. Randy Moss
“The Freak” rivals Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson as one of the greatest athletes to wear the NFL shield. Standing 6-foot-4, Randy Moss was clocked at 4.25 seconds in the 40-yard dash and also lettered in basketball, baseball, and track and field as a schoolboy in West Virginia.
Extracurricular concerns landed Moss at Marshall University, where he won the Fred Biletnikoff Award and became a stalwart of the highlight reel circus, as his physical gifts enabled him to leap past defenders for deep bombs, hurdle felled bodies, and outrace any corner into the end zone. While his immaturity caused his draft stock to plummet, Moss was eventually selected by the Minnesota Vikings with the 21st overall pick in the 1998 draft.
From there on out, Moss built his career by proving the naysayers wrong. He teamed with Cris Carter and Jake Reed to take the league by storm in ’98. Moss tallied 1,313 yards on 69 catches for 17 touchdowns (breaking the rookie record) as the Vikings went 15-1. As a receiver, Moss transformed the likes of Randall Cunningham, Brad Johnson, and Geoff George from washed-up has-beens into ageless wonders at quarterback.
The NFL had never seen anything like this. Moss could turn a quick screen into 70 yards and a touchdown. Never mind double- and even triple-coverage, a quarterback could throw it up, and Moss would go get it. After his Minnesota breakout and a debacle in Oakland, he took his show on the road to New England.
The 2007 Patriots scored 589 total points — breaking the old record Moss helped set with the Vikings in 1998 as he snagged a record 23 touchdown passes from Tom Brady and helped the Patriots go undefeated all the way to the Super Bowl. Beyond his physical gifts, Moss considered himself a student of the game. His ability to read coverage and get open is underrated; Bill “The Hood” Belichick described Moss as the most intelligent receiver he has coached.
2. Don Hutson
Hailed as the man who introduced football to the forward pass, Don Hutson dominated the wide receiver role like no other man has lorded over any position in all of sports. His post corners, slants, and square-in routes laid the groundwork for wide receivers to impact the game of football. This Packer led the NFL in receptions and yardage for seven and eight of his 11 seasons, respectively.
Hutson retired as the all-time leader in every significant wide receiver metric and watched his records stand for decades. Few things resonate more with football fans than statistical dominance, after all. In 1942, in just 11 games, Hutson caught 74 balls for 1,211 yards and 17 touchdowns, roughly tripling the output of his closest competitors (Pop Ivy made 27 catches for the Chicago Cardinals and Ray McLean accounted for 571 yards receiving for the Bears).
This point can work for or against Hutson, though, since any discussion of the man must recognize the fact that the league’s passing game was primitive, at best. Wile Hutson is one of the greatest players to ever wear football cleats, we weight his legacy against the fact that the opposing defenses of the 1940s were far from sophisticated.
1. Jerry Rice
Hollywood could not have scripted a better story for Jerry Rice, the son of a bricklayer, who was never offered an NCAA Division I-A scholarship out of high school. Going on to star at wide receiver for tiny Mississippi Valley State University — putting up numbers you might see in a video game in Division I-AA — Rice saw his collegiate accolades dismissed by NFL scouts, who saw a player who was too small and too slow to make an impact at the professional level.
Dismissed by everyone save Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers, who came calling with the 16th pick in the 1985 Draft, Walsh installed Rice as the key component of the West Coast offense — a system predicated upon short timing routes and mismatches that allow the receiver to earn chunks of yardage after the catch (This term arrived into the football lexicon during John Madden’s descriptions of Rice’s play).
Even though the term is a cliche at this point, Jerry Rice really could “do it all.” His 1,549 career receptions (an NFL record) demonstrate his knack for getting open and catching the football, while his 208 career touchdowns (another record) highlight his nose for the end zone and the big play.
He once scored 22 touchdowns in a 12-game 1987 strike-shortened season. In a young man’s game that is so damaging, they can only do it 16 times a season; Rice hauled in 122 catches for 1,848 yards as a 33-year old.
His exercise regimen only added to the legend: No. 80 was known to sprint 2.5 miles worth of Bay Area hills per session, hit the bike immediately prior to game time, and leave other professional athletes in tatters after participating in his five-hour workouts. This dedication served as the foundation for Rice’s 20-year NFL career, 22,895 receiving yards, and iconic status as one of the world’s premier athletes.
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.