They say the NFL is a passing league these days, but in truth NFL history is dotted with wide receivers who made an incredible impact when the ball was thrown their way. Some of them were big and imposing, while others were speedy and shifty. On occasion, receivers could be both. They ranked up receptions, yardage and touchdowns to become among the best wide receivers of all time.
However, only 10 have made our rankings, though there were some tough cuts. Guys like Seattle Seahawks legend Steve Largent and Dallas Cowboys star Michael Irvin didn’t quite make the cut. Some players from a bygone era, like Lance Alworth or Don Maynard, might have been able to make it if they played in a different time. While we adjusted for pass happiness, we can’t be perfect.
Some receivers compiled numbers through a lot of years in the league, but we didn’t quite feel like they had the panache to make the list. Somebody like Art Monk or Andre Johnson would be an example of this. Monk may be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he was only an All-Pro once, and he never had an NFL season for the ages. Johnson was one of the first stars for the Houston Texans, but was he ever considered one of the greatest wide receivers ever? Was he ever the best in the league?
On the flip side, we have a player like Calvin Johnson. Detroit Lions fans may be upset that Megatron didn’t make the cut, though he was close of course. Yes, he was a Pro Bowler six times over, and his 1,964 receiving yards in 2012 is a single-season NFL record. The problem is that he only had a nine-year career. Megatron is not ranked in the top 20 in career receiving touchdowns, yards or catches, and the only one he is in the top 30 in is touchdowns.
All right, enough about wideouts not on this list. It’s time to get to the top 10. Is anybody active a threat to make this list anytime soon? Julio Jones, now of the Tennessee Titans, has the best chance. Antonio Brown is also approaching the top 20 in the major three categories, but his tempestuous personality makes it harder to trust him. Let’s get to the 10 receivers who have given defensive backs the most nightmares.
The 10 Best Wide Receivers in NFL History, Ranked
10. Isaac Bruce
Bruce was a member of the Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams, and while he shared the spotlight on that Super Bowl squad, he had a lot of excellent years in the NFL. Bruce only led the NFL in receiving yards once, but he ranks fifth in career receptions. Oh top of that, the Hall of Famer is just outside the top 10 in yards and touchdowns as well.
9. Don Hutson
Hutson played in an entirely different era of football. He began his career with the Green Bay Packers in 1935 and while he won NFL titles three times that was before the Super Bowl era. That being said, he was leaps and bounds better than most of his fellow receivers. In an 11-year career, he led the league in receptions eight times, receiving yards seven times and receiving touchdowns nine times. In fact, he had the first 1,000-yard season in NFL history.
8. Steve Smith
?Smith didn’t have the size of many NFL receivers, but he made up for it with skill and tenacity. The third-round pick in the 2001 NFL Draft made a lot of teams regret not taking him. He was actually a first-team All-Pro as a rookie return man before repeating that feat as a receiver in 2005. After a great career with the Panthers he headed to Baltimore for a couple seasons with the Ravens before retiring eighth in career receiving yards.
7. Tim Brown
Brown won a Heisman at Notre Dame before beginning a lengthy career with the Los Angeles turned Oakland Raiders. In fact, Brown played from 1988 all the way until 2004. He had nine seasons with more than 1,000 receiving yards and also made the Pro Bowl nine times. Brown is one of a handful of receivers in the top 10 in the “Big Three” receiving statistics, and he might be higher on this list if he had done it in a couple fewer seasons.
6. Marvin Harrison
Peyton Manning was a great quarterback, but he definitely benefited from throwing the ball to Harrison and Reggie Wayne with the Indianapolis Colts. In fact, Wayne got consideration for this list as well. For four years in the middle of his career, Harrison had more than 100 catches and more than 1,000 receiving yards each time. In fact, his 143 receptions were an NFL single-season record until it was broken recently by Michael Thomas. He won a Super Bowl, he made the Hall of Fame and he’s fifth in career receptions and touchdowns.
5. Larry Fitzgerald
?It seemed like Fitzgerald would play for the Arizona Cardinals forever. Don’t merely call him a compiler, though. He led the NFL in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns twice while making 11 Pro Bowls. Fitz is second in career receptions and receiving yards. That being said, he was kind of a compiler, lacking some of the big-game panache of others. Still, the former Pittsburgh Panther had to make this list.
4. Cris Carter
Carter had that spark Fitzgerald maybe lacked. They said all he did was catch touchdowns, and that wasn’t entirely exaggeration. He had double-digit touchdowns in his final season with the Philadelphia Eagles before doing it five seasons in a row with the Minnesota Vikings. Carter is fourth in career receiving touchdowns with 130.
3. Randy Moss
Moss came into the NFL as a force of nature. As a rookie in Minnesota teaming up with Carter, Moss won Offensive Rookie of the Year off the strength of 69 catches for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns. Then, he joined the New England Patriots and proceeded to set an NFL record with 23 receiving scores. The New York Giants may have kept him from winning a Super Bowl that year, but a ring is all that is missing from Moss’ legacy. He’s fourth in yards, third in touchdowns and 15th in receptions. That speaks to his incredible big-play ability.
2. Terrell Owens
Sure, T.O. bounced around the league, but there’s a reason teams always wanted him. Even in his final season in the league he had 72 catches for 983 yards and nine touchdowns for the Cincinnati Bengals. Owens was All-Pro five times and was as talented as he was polarizing. He’s third in career receiving yards, third in touchdowns and second on our list.
1. Jerry Rice
There could be nobody else but the G.O.A.T. here. The San Francisco 49ers got an absolute steal when Rice fell to 16th in the NFL Draft. He tops all the major categories and nobody is even close to him. We’re talking nobody within 4,000 yards or 40 touchdowns. He didn’t even play in the pass-happy era of today either! Let’s no forget about all the playoff games either. In 29 postseason contests, Rice added another 151 catches for 2,245 yards and 22 touchdowns. Sometimes rankings are hard. This decision could not have been easier.
- Calvin Johnson
- James Lofton
- Raymond Berry
- Sterling Sharpe
- Andre Reed
- Hines Ward
- Reggie Wayne
- Torry Holt