These days, wide receiver is a premier position in the NFL. Next to quarterbacks, it is the wide outs who get the most attention, scrutiny, and criticism when things go both right and wrong for a team. And over the years, there have been many WRs with big personalities who have become stars and even prima donnas in the league. Even today, wide receivers such as Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown continue to generate headlines and serve as the face of their team and often the NFL shield. With all this in mind, we thought it time to look at the 10 best NFL wide receivers of all time, regardless of era. Enjoy!
10. Marvin Harrison
Team: Indianapolis Colts (1996-2008)
What would Peyton Manning’s career have been like without wide receiver Marvin Harrison? It’s a fair question to ask, and many sports writers have spoke on the matter. That’s because Harrison was the reason for much of the Indianapolis Colts’ success in the 2000s, when Manning was at his peak. Known for his ability to get open in any type of coverage and catch literally any ball thrown his way, Harrison was a force to be reckoned with during his 12 years with the Colts. Albeit a quiet force — no one will accuse him of being a diva wide receiver. And so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Harrison has already been inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Throughout his playing days, Harrison was as consistent a wide receiver as has ever laced up a pair of cleats. His career took off during Manning’s second year in 1999; from that season until 2006, he posted 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns every single year.
9. Larry Fitzgerald
Team: Arizona Cardinals (2004-)
He’s never won a Super Bowl and has often been saddled with less-than-great quarterbacks, yet Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has still managed to standout on the gridiron and have a Hall of Fame worthy career. He’s not retired just yet, though he has been musing about calling it quits as he approaches his mid-30s. If he were to call it a career, Fitzgerald would leave football ranked as one of the top 15 wide receivers in terms of receptions (1,018), yardage (13,366) and touchdowns (104). Adding to his impressive resume is Fitzgerald’s work in the postseason. It has been during the playoffs when Larry Fitzgerald has shined the brightest. He’s averaged more than 100 yards per contest when the Cardinals have been in the postseason, and at least one touchdown per playoff game. His 2008 playoff run rivals any span by any player in NFL history: four games, 30 catches, 546 yards and seven touchdowns. Impressive!
8. Steve Largent
Team: Seattle Seahawks (1976-1989)
Steve Largent is a bit of an unsung hero in the ranks of wide receivers. Praised and appreciated in his time for his consistency and football IQ, Largent has been forgotten a bit in the march of time. When he retired, he held the league records for career receptions, yardage, and touchdowns. These stats are even more impressive when you consider that Largent’s prime years were spent catching balls from quarterbacks such as Jim Zorn and Dave Krieg. It’s not like he was playing with Tom Brady or Drew Brees. Largent, who spent 13 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, posted eight 1,000-yard seasons despite playing through two NFL strikes. Also keep in mind that in the late 70s and ’80s, the passing game wasn’t the same as it is now, with most teams employing a run first offense. Largent was named to the Hall of Fame’s All-Decade team for the 1980s.
7. Raymond Berry
Team: Baltimore Colts (1955-1967)
We are really going back in time here to get a new appreciation for Raymond Berry, the celebrated Baltimore Colts wide receiver who electrified the league and its fans in the late 1950s and into the 60s. Many football purists credit Berry with transforming the wide receiver position and paving the way for what it is today. That is because Berry approached the game with a more cerebral attitude, calibrating the proper steps and spacing needed for modern running routes. Every receiver in the game today owes a small debt of gratitude to Berry. The former Baltimore Colt was a two-time NFL champion and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Known for being a stickler with details, Berry played wide out with extreme precision. He also happened to have Velcro hands, which is always good for a receiver.
6. Calvin Johnson
Team: Detroit Lions (2007-2015)
Calvin Johnson, also known as “Megatron,” might be higher on this list had he not decided to retire after nine seasons catching balls for the Detroit Lions. Plagued by a nagging back injury, Johnson decided to retire suddenly after the 2015 campaign. He left football as the best wide receiver the Lions ever had, and one of the most electric in the history of the NFL. From 2011 to 2013, Calvin Johnson was considered the best wide receiver in professional football, and perhaps outside of quarterbacks, the best overall player in the NFL. He was named first-team All-Pro all three of those seasons, where he averaged more than 110 yards per game, while almost eclipsing 2,000 total yards in 2012. How Johnson managed to post 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns on an awful 0-16 Lions team in 2008 remains a mystery. But he consistently proved he was an MVP caliber player during his career, despite often being the lone bright spot in Detroit.
5. Terrell Owens
Teams: San Francisco 49ers (1996-2003); Philadelphia Eagles (2004-05); Dallas Cowboys (2006-08); Buffalo Bills (2009); Cincinnati Bengals (2010)
Yes, Terrell Owens was a pain in the butt during his NFL career. He was known for driving coaches, general managers, and teammates crazy with his prima donna attitude and antics, both on and off the field. This is one of the reasons Owens played for five different teams in 14 seasons. However, the antics and crap that T.O. brought with him often overshadowed the fact that he was an extremely talented and versatile wide receiver. Currently, T.O. sits second all-time in yards and third in touchdown grabs. Had it not been for his big mouth and bluster on the sidelines, as well as his scraps with coaches and fellow teammates, Owens may be remembered as possibly the best wide receiver of all-time. In his prime, T.O. dominated the league and the wide receiver position. It’s just too bad that his ego overshadowed his talent.
4. Lance Alworth
Teams: San Diego Chargers (1962-1970); Dallas Cowboys (1971-72)
Lance Alworth was the man back in the 1960s. A wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys back when the rules enabled defensive backs to hit receivers all the way down the field, Alworth managed some very impressive accomplishments. Affectionately known as “Bambi,” sports writers described Alworth as a “home run hitter.” His 1965 and 1966 seasons still might be the best back-to-back campaigns a wide receiver has ever had. In those seasons, Alworth averaged more than 110 yards and exactly one touchdown per game, at more than 20 yards per catch. No surprise that Lance Alworth was the first true AFL player to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
3. Don Hutson
Team: Green Bay Packers (1935-1945)
For the first 50 years of the NFL’s existence, the consensus was that Don Hutson was the league’s all-time best player. Not just the best wide receiver. But the best player, period. Hutson’s name was frequently mentioned alongside other classic era players and all-time greats such as Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham. And why not? Hutson’s NFL record of 99 career receiving touchdowns was not surpassed until 40 years after he retired. When he hung up his cleats in the mid-1940s, Hutson had posted nearly twice as many receptions as the next closest player. Known as gentleman on and off the field, Hutson also had a reputation as one of the earliest ambassadors for the sport of football, and for helping to popularize the league during the Great Depression and World War II.
2. Randy Moss
Teams: Minnesota Vikings (1998-2004, 2010); Oakland Raiders (2005-06); New England Patriots (2007-10); Tennessee Titans (2010); San Francisco 49ers (2012)
Has any player proved to be as electric as Randy Moss was during his prime? After wowing fans in Minnesota at the start of his career, Moss saw his career hit the stratosphere when he landed in New England and started catching balls from quarterback Tom Brady. It was during his first season with the Patriots that Moss helped the team to a perfect 16-0 regular season. During his first six years in the NFL, Randy Moss posted more than 8,000 receiving yards and 77 touchdowns. That’s incredible! Equally impressive though is the fact that defensive coordinators throughout the league admit that they were more afraid of Moss than any other player in the NFL during his career. And they had reason to be fearful, as Moss was as good out of the gate as any player in league history. When he retired in 2012, Randy Moss held more than a dozen wide receiver records.
1. Jerry Rice
Teams: San Francisco 49ers (1985-2000); Oakland Raiders (2001-04); Seattle Seahawks (2004)
Most football fans won’t not be surprised to see Jerry Rice at the top of this list. In a 2013 poll by the NFL, Jerry Rice was named the greatest wide receiver of all-time, as well as the greatest football player ever regardless of position. Not too shabby for a kid who grew up catching bricks from his father, who happened to work as a stone mason. As a wide receiver who played in the NFL for a total of 20 seasons, Rice is so far ahead of everyone else on this list in terms of career receptions (1,549), yards (22,895) and touchdown catches (197). Most pundits agree that Rice’s records will never be surpassed due to his insane productivity and longevity in the NFL. Really, who lasts 20 seasons in the league these days? Rice’s most impressive accomplishment might have been his 22 touchdown campaign in 1987, which he accomplished in only 12 games. His combination of work ethic, explosiveness at the snap, a perfectionist’s attitude, and personal drive led Rice to become the very best wide receiver in NFL history.