The National Football League continues to evolve, practically with every year, and thus it does make it difficult to compare current and recent accomplishments with those produced by greats of the past. Life is now much easier for offensive players per the current game rules enforced by the NFL than was the case back even a decade ago, and thus one must be careful to not overrate certain wide receivers who made their names and fortunes in the modern day NFL when putting together such a list. At the same time, however, the players that enter the NFL each and every spring are stronger, faster and better overall athletes than are those from past generations.
These types of pieces are always going to be opinion-based because there is no one statistic or one defined way to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that one man is the undisputed greatest wide receiver in the history of the NFL. There are, in fact, smart football minds out there who would say that the man who is atop this list should not be because of a variety of factors. Each of the 20 men who are showcased here cemented legacies as some of the greatest offensive weapons of their times and to ever play pro football, and there is no argument to be had about that fact.
20 Larry Fitzgerald
How history will remember Larry Fitzgerald remains an unknown. The wide receiver who has spent his entire pro career with the Arizona Cardinals will be 32 years old at the start of the 2015 season, and Fitzgerald already possesses a handful of NFL records. Said by some to have the best hands in the NFL when in his physical prime, Fitzgerald has been the lone bright spot on some lackluster Arizona sides on multiple occasions. Those of you expecting that Fitzgerald had already entered the twilight of his playing days could be in for a surprise if the man who has been the ultimate team player can remain healthy throughout 2015.
19 Paul Warfield
Of all of the stats that he accumulated during his Hall-of-Fame career, the most impressive may be that Paul Warfield averaged 20.1 yards per reception. That is double a standard first down whenever Warfield would reel in a pass. A dynamic play-maker too often overshadowed in these types of discussions because of the fact that he played alongside Jim Brown, Warfield was dealt by the Cleveland Browns to the Miami Dolphins in one of the worst trades in pro football history. Cleveland would regret that decision, as Warfield would prove to be one of the elite offensive weapons in the game for at least a decade of his career.
18 Lynn Swann
You are placed in some imaginary world where you have to pick players from the present and past to feature in an offense for one game to win it all. Lynn Swann is a name that you would absolutely have to consider to have at one of the wide receiver positions. Swann is, to this day, perhaps the best overall championship game wide receiver in pro football history, one who set Super Bowl records during his time. His abilities to show up in clutch situations and out-work opponents to make plays in those situations both make Swann worthy of being in this list.
17 Art Monk
In a fair world, Art Monk is probably a top-ten all-time NFL wide receiver who would have accumulated more hardware during his time in pro football. While Jerry Rice was awarded with the gift of being able to play alongside Hall-of-Fame talent for years, Monk was setting records with a variety of quarterbacks and offenses. There have, over the years, been arguments that some older fans and analysts have overrated all that Monk achieved during his career. You can be sure that nobody would be making such claims had Monk had Joe Montana as his quarterback for over a decade.
16 James Lofton
The name of James Lofton is one that is sometimes disrespected in football circles as it pertains to discussions of overall greatness. Lofton was never Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens or even Calvin Johnson as it pertains to physical dominance, but the consistent offensive weapon who featured for the Green Packers for nearly a decade was the first player in pro football history to have over 14,000 receiving yards. His total numbers in that category have only been surpassed by eight other players since Lofton last played in 1993.
15 Raymond Berry
Raymond Berry is one of the several wide receivers who were ahead of their time for the game of pro football. Featuring for the Baltimore Colts long before the NFL was truly the most beloved league in the United States, Berry was renowned for having some of the best hands in pro football of his time. Legend has it that Berry dropped literally only a couple of passes during his career, a stat that cannot be confirmed since it is not one that is calculated by analysts. His performance in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” remains legendary. Berry went for 12 receptions, 178 receiving yards and a score in helping the Colts defeat the New York Giants.
14 Don Maynard
The career of Don Maynard was a roller coaster ride of stints at New York clubs that ultimately resulted in the wide receiver helping to make pro football history. He found himself to be a castoff of the New York Giants after a single season, but Maynard found new life when the New York Titans gave him a shot. It as with the re-branded New York Jets that Maynard would find his form, and he helped a young rookie quarterback named Joe Namath become a local and national sensation. Where would Namath be today without Maynard? We will fortunately never know the answer to that question.
13 Lance Alworth
Do not let the nickname “Bambi” confuse you about what Lance Alworth meant to those San Diego Chargers teams of the 1960s. He was given it because he was such an incredible athlete for a man who did not, during his career, carry much excess weight. Alworth posted Hall-of-Fame stats in the categories of touchdown catches and receiving yards despite playing at a time when the American Football League was viewed by many to be the step-child of the pro football world. He is widely viewed as one of the best overall offensive players in football history.
12 Michael Irvin
You have to ignore stats at least a little bit when deciding on where to rank Michael Irvin among the greatest wide receivers in NFL history. The Dallas Cowboys were the “team of the 1990s” for more than just the man known as “The Playmaker,” after all. Those Dallas sides that won championships were responsible for what remain underrated defenses, while Irvin also had a teammate in Emmitt Smith who happened to be an all-time great running back. Irvin may not be a top-time wide receiver in the grand scheme of things, but you would be reaching to not have him in your top 15.
11 Isaac Bruce
There are football analysts, pundits and fans who would drop Isaac Bruce down this list due to the fact that he was the top wide receiver in what was known as “The Greatest Show On Turf.” The stats the he produced count all the same in the stat books, and Bruce walked away from active duty as the undisputed greatest wide receiver in the history of the St. Louis Rams. Bruce remains fourth in all-time receiving yards, eighth in career receptions and eleventh in touchdown grabs. Stop disrespecting, supposed experts, and give Bruce that day in the Hall of Fame that he deserves.
10 Calvin Johnson
There was no harder decision to be made in the production of this piece than to where to place the man known as “Megatron.” Calvin Johnson would not, after all, be a top-ten all-time great NFL wide receiver were he to choose to hang up his cleats before the start of the 2015 season. Johnson will turn 30 years old in the early stages of the upcoming campaign, and the once-in-a-generation talent at the position should only continue to ascend up career stats boards over the next several years. The Detroit Lions superstar may very well be the best wide receiver of his generation.
9 Andre Reed
Andre Reed was a pure joy to watch play the game of football; unless he and the Buffalo Bills were facing off against your favorite team back in the day, that is. The member of the Hall of Fame remains the best wide receiver in the history of the Buffalo franchise, and he was an elite athlete for his time who seemingly never slowed down and who was extremely durable. You could not get Reed off of the field during the prime of his playing days, and this was during an era when receivers were more likely to be victims of massive hits and acts of interference that would not draw penalties.
8 Steve Largent
A player with the supposed skill set and the lack of ideal height and athleticism to play the position had by Steve Largent is not supposed to be one of the greatest wide receivers in NFL history. Largent also happened to be responsible for what may have been the best pair of hands to ever reel in passes. He retired in possession of multiple NFL receiving records, and it is very likely that Largent would be higher up this list and in record books had he begun his career at some point over the past decade when receivers had far more league rules in their favor.
7 Tim Brown
No entity gets it right all of the time, and that was the case for the Hall of Fame voting committee for years regarding Tim Brown. While it should be noted that Brown was up against it for being voted in back in 2010 because of the fact that he was eligible at the same time as were the likes of Jerry Rice and Cris Carter, it is ridiculous that the man who was known as “Mr. Raider” had to wait until January of 2015 to finally be selected for enshrinement in the Hall. That wrong was righted even it occurred long after he deserved the honor. Brown remains to this day one of the most prolific receivers in NFL history.
6 Don Hutson
Where one would put the former Green Bay Packers in such a list could be determined by how much history means to that person. Don Hutson is referred to by those in football circles as being the grandfather of the modern-day wide receiver, helping to shape what would become routes and also leading the game into a pass-friendly era. Hutson had every significant receiving record when he called time on his playing career, and he remains tied for ninth in career receiving touchdowns as of the start of the 2015 regular season. His contributions to the sport must be mentioned in this piece.
5 Marvin Harrison
Some would brush off the impressive numbers that Marvin Harrison put up during his career due to the fact that he was able to play with one of the greatest regular season quarters in the history of the NFL. That may have been the case, but Peyton Manning nevertheless needed to have a top-tier wide receiver out on the field on Sundays, and Harrison was that and then some for the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback. It would be easy to make the case that the NFL has never seen a better quarterback-receiver tandem than that of Harrison and Manning when the two were lighting up scoreboards for the Indianapolis Colts.
4 Cris Carter
It used to be said of Cris Carter that all he did was catch touchdowns. To think that was almost never the case. Carter flashed his Hall-of-Fame caliber skills in the early days of his career, but his off-the-field issues that are now public knowledge could have prevented him from achieving greatness. Not to be stopped by such personal setbacks, Carter put in to work to get his life together en route to having one of the best careers of any NFL wide receiver before him. One can only imagine the numbers that Carter would have produced had he never encountered such issues.
3 Randy Moss
The legacy of Randy Moss is one that varies per analyst and per person who followed his career of 14 pro seasons. Moss was a phenom right out of the gates, posting one of the best rookie campaigns for any offensive player in history, and the numbers that he put up while playing for the New England Patriots in 2007 were downright historic. He was also a noted headache for coaches and for teammates throughout his career. Every significant stint with a team that Moss had as a pro ended with the talented wide receiver being unceremoniously dumped by that club.
2 Terrell Owens
1 Jerry Rice
Somewhere out there is somebody who would tell you for whatever reasons that Jerry Rice is not, in fact, the greatest wide receiver to ever play in the NFL. While such hot takes are perfect for the Wild West world that is the Internet, it also conveniently ignores that Rice remains the gold standard at the position by which all other wide receivers will be compared until at least some of his NFL records begin to fall. Nobody playing in the league heading into the fall of 2015 will be accomplishing that feat during their careers, and thus Rice will remain the king of the mountain for the foreseeable future.