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Who is in the conversation for being the greatest wide receiver of all-time?

Greatest WR of all-time?
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice celebrates after setting the all-time touchdown record during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Raiders at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Monday Sept. 5, 1994. Rice's touchdown was his 127th andbroke Jim Brown's mark. (AP Photo/Chad Surmick, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat) ORG XMIT: FXP104

Let me make it clear at the start of this article, this isn’t a top ten wide receivers list. This is my analysis of the players that fans would pick as the greatest wide receiver of all-time. There are some top ten receivers who will not show up here. This happens because there were many different eras of receivers and things tend to get complicated when they are compared or stacked on top of each other. The big thing to remember is that this isn’t a top ten list.

Players are too often given the title G.O.A.T. (greatest of all-time). Once it was reserved for the best of the best, but now it’s tossed around far to freely. We’ve become to obsessed with proclaiming who the G.O.A.T.s are, now there are hundreds of them. But I’m only going to address that in one field today by proclaiming who the greatest wide receiver of all-time is, along with the only other players who have ever been in the conversation. These are the guys who’d earn some votes for being the G.O.A.T., but you’ll see some names are by far more prominent than others.

*Originally published Oct. 3, 2018

Larry Fitzgerald (2004-Active)

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Fitzgerald is the only active player on this list. He had to endure some pretty miserable seasons in Arizona with backup level quarterbacks throwing to him. He did have Kurt Warner and eventually Carson Palmer for a little while, but those few years don’t redeem the team for all of the poor quarterbacks they’ve had.

Despite the subpar quarterback play, Fitzgerald has had over 1,000 receiving yards in nine seasons. He’s also had five seasons with 100 or more receptions and five with at least ten receiving touchdowns. In an age where high receiving numbers are becoming common, Fitzgerald outlasted and outplayed his nearest competition to become 3rd all-time in receptions and receiving yards and 8th in receiving touchdowns.

His greatest and most memorable performances came in the clutch during postseason runs. In nine playoff games Fitzgerald has 57 receptions, 942 receiving yards (104.7 yards per game), and ten receiving touchdowns. His play in Super Bowl XLIII and the Divisional Round against the Green Bay Packers during the 2015 season, was nothing short of miraculous.

Calvin Johnson (2007-2015)

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There was a run for a few years where Johnson was the most unstoppable force at the receiver position. He even broke Jerry Rice’s single season receiving yards record. The massive 6-5 target dwarfed almost every defender he came across. His long strides, lengthy arms, and enormous hands made him the greatest physical specimen to play receiver since Randy Moss.

During his brief nine-year run in the league Johnson befuddled defenders and analysts alike. Some even declared that he was the greatest wide receiver of all-time after witnessing his dominant performances. Johnson was a one man wrecking crew and quite literally was the Lions offense in some games, the same way that Adrian Peterson was the Vikings offense. He often had little help.

Johnson chose to walk away from the game before father time ever caught up to him. He retired following the 2015 season at the age of 30. While Megatron clearly had more left in the tank, his early retirement did nothing to tarnish his legacy. His career numbers are a little thin compared to some of the other players on this list: 44th all-time in receptions, 29th in receiving yards, and 22nd in receiving touchdowns, but he would’ve easily climbed up the charts if he continued to play.

Randy Moss (1998-2010, 2012)

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His combination of speed, size, leaping ability, and hands had never been seen before he entered the league, and no one has replicated it since. Putting it simply, he was the freakiest wide receiver to ever live. Moss made a habit of beating the best coverage men of his era, like Darrelle Revis. The term “Mossed” even came into being and it referred to when a receiver or tight end jumped up and made a contested grab over a defender’s head.

During his career Moss had ten seasons with 1,000 receiving yards or more and nine seasons with ten or more receiving touchdowns. He led the league in receiving touchdowns five times, including when he broke Jerry Rice’s single season record in 2007.

He retired after a chaotic 2010 season when he struggled on and off the field. After sitting out the 2011 season he returned for one final run with, this time with the San Francisco 49ers. It was a symbolic move.

Moss is 15th all-time in receiving yards, 4th in receiving yards, and 2nd receiving touchdowns. He made six Pro Bowls and was a four-time First Team All-Pro.

Terrell Owens (1996-2010)

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Owens was the foil to Moss as the two paralleled each other even though they had different playing styles. Unlike Moss, Owens was a third round selection out of Tenn-Chattanooga. He did start ten games as a rookie but had a minimal impact, recording just 520 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He fared much better in his second season, recording 936 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. The first of his nine 1,000 yard seasons came in his third year in the league and the rest is history.

Owens actually shared the field with Jerry Rice in San Francisco for his first five seasons and is probably the reason why the 49ers were able to move on from the aging star who was in his late thirties by then. Owens spent eight seasons with the 49ers and performed better with them than any of the other teams he played for later in his career. He had a legendary performance in Super Bowl XXXIX with the Philadelphia Eagles. He suffered a broken bone and partially torn ligament in his foot and came back in just seven weeks to catch nine passes for 122 yards. The Eagles lost but Owens showed his determination and toughness.

During his career, Owens made six Pro Bowls and was a First Team All-Pro five times. He had one season with 100 receptions and eight with ten or more receiving touchdowns. He led the league in that last category three times. He is currently 8th all-time in receptions, 2nd in receiving yards, and 3rd in receiving touchdowns.

Marvin Harrison (1996-2008)

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Harrison often gets lost in this conversation. Is it enough to just say that the dude was great? One of the best to ever play? He had an eight-year run that was one of the best by a receiver ever.

Harrison and his teammate Reggie Wayne often suffer from the question, were they products of a Peyton Manning led offense? I don’t think so. Of course it helped to have Manning, but Harrison is a legitimate top ten receiver of all-time and would be with or without his favorite quarterback.

Harrison led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards twice and receiving touchdowns once. He had eight consecutive 1,000 yard receiving seasons (1999-2006), four consecutive seasons with 100 receptions (1999-2002), and eight consecutive seasons with ten or more receiving touchdowns (1999-2006). It was one crazy run. The eight-time Pro Bowler and three-time First Team All-Pro is fifth all-time in receptions, ninth in receiving yards, and fifth in receiving touchdowns.

Steve Largent (1976-1989)

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Largent was one of the first men who began taking over the record books after Hutson’s era but before Rice’s reign. Largent spent his entire 14-year career with the Seattle Seahawks and still owns every major career receiving record for the team.

The 5-11, 187 lbs. Largent was unassuming in stature and that’s part of the reason he fell to the fourth round in the 1976 NFL Draft. The Seahawks took him, and he was a starter from his first season. He actually led the team in receiving yards during his rookie season with 705 and he led them again the following season with 643. He really broke though in his third season in the league when he recorded the first of eight 1,000 yard receiving seasons.

Largent led the league in receiving yards twice and had eight seasons with at least eight receiving touchdowns. When he retired he was the sole leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, uniting the triple-crown of receiving. He made seven Pro Bowls, was a First Team All-Pro once, and was a Second Team All-Pro four times. In 1988 he became just the second wide receiver to win the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.

Sadly, because so many receivers from the subsequent generations have surpassed his career totals, Largent is largely forgotten in the context of historically great players.

Lance Alworth (1962-1972)

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In his prime Alworth blew the league away. He had seven straight years with 1,000 receiving yards or more, an incredible feat for the time period. To put his stats in perspective, during the 1969 season, when Alworth had his final 1,000 receiving yard season, only one other wideout had more than 1,000 receiving yards. It’s also worth noting that there were only 14 games in a season back when he was playing.

Alworth’s ability to consistently hit 1,000 when most of the league routinely failed to even draw close to the number made him a phenomenon. That’s why he made seven Pro Bowls and was a six-time First Team All-Pro. He also led the league in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns three times apiece.

After a nine-year stint with the San Diego Chargers, during which the team won an American Football League (AFL) Championship, Alworth joined the Dallas Cowboys for two years. The move payed off, he crossed the 10,000 receiving yards mark and won the Super Bowl in 1971. He retired following an unproductive 1972 campaign.

Don Hutson (1935-1945)

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Huston was the first dominant wide receiver. He was a different generation’s version of Jerry Rice. No receiver, not even Rice has dominated an era like Hutson did. During his 11 years in the NFL he led the league in receptions eight times, receiving yards seven times, and receiving touchdowns nine times. He was a First Team All-Pro eight times, a feat only Rice has surpassed as a receiver.

Hutson held the record for receiving touchdowns from the time he retired until Steve Largent broke it in 1989. That’s over 40 years. He also owned the career receptions and receiving yards records when he walked away. Back when NFL Network ran its first and only historic version of the Top 100 players of all-time (The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players) in 2010 Hutson came in at number nine. NINE! That tells you just what professional sports writers and analysts think about his skills and contributions the game.

As I’ve mentioned, his career totals (488 receptions, 7,991 receiving yards, and 99 receiving touchdowns in 116 games) set the benchmark for the next waves of great wide receivers. Sadly, Huston is largely forgotten in modern sports culture.

Jerry Rice (1985-2004)

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Rice is easily statistically the greatest wide receiver of all-time. No one has even come close to producing the same career numbers as him. On top of that he’s one of just a few players who are in the conversation for the true G.O.A.T. moniker, regardless of position.

His long list of accolades includes: 13 Pro Bowls, ten First Team All-Pro selections, one Second Team All-Pro selection, two Offensive Player of the Year awards, four Conference Championships, three Super Bowl victories, the 1998 Super Bowl MVP, and membership in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 1980 and 1990 all decade teams.

Statistically, Rice led the league in receptions twice, receiving yards six times, receiving touchdowns six times, and receiving yards per game six times. He had four seasons with at least 100 receptions, 14 with 1,000 receiving yards or more, and nine with ten or more receiving touchdowns. He also set a then single season record with 22 receiving touchdowns in 1987.

He owns the career records for receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895), receiving touchdowns (197), yards from scrimmage (23,540), and all-purpose yards (23,546). He has also played the seventh most games in NFL history (303), only behind kickers and kicker/quarterback hybrid George Blanda. That kind of long-term durability is just incredible and almost unheard of, especially for a player at a skill position.


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