The Top Five Series: NFL wide receivers
Rob Gordon — or Robin “Rob” Brooks, if you prefer a more current reference — is one of my kindred spirits from the world of fiction. Both Robs, based on the main character in Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, High Fidelity, love top five lists.
My natural predilection for ranking things, like the aforementioned Robs, dovetailed nicely with the NFL 100 All-Time Team that was part of the league’s centennial celebration last season. The position players who were, or were not, included in the NFL’s list became a hot topic of debate. A proper ranking was required.
Unlike the NFL, I won’t be selecting 10 head coaches, 10 quarterbacks, 10 wide receivers and 12 running backs for my team. In true High Fidelity style, I bring you the Top Five Series: The five best to ever play quarterback, running back and wide receiver, as well as the five best head coaches ever. An honorable mention will be included in each category.
Let’s get started with the wide receivers.
Honorable Mention: Terrell Owens
Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals
1,078 receptions; 15,934 yards; 153 TD
Few players burned a bridge like Terrell Owens, a consistent and colossal pain in the ass during his five-team, 15-year NFL career. Owens made a habit of talking trash but he always backed it up on the field.
Owens finished his career third in NFL history in career receiving yards, third in career receiving touchdowns, and eighth in career receptions. Only four other wide receivers in NFL history are in the top 10 in all three categories. Three are in the Hall of Fame, just like Owens. The fourth, who will take his place in Canton in due time, is the next man on this list.
5. Larry Fitzgerald
Team: Arizona Cardinals
1,378 receptions; 17,083 yards; 120 TD
Consistency can be fleeting in the NFL, especially for wide receivers. Larry Fitzgerald, however, has been the model of consistency for more than a decade and a half.
Fitzgerald has nearly as many 100-catch seasons (five) as games missed (six) in his 16-year career with the Cardinals, adding nine 1,000-yard campaigns while leading the NFL in receptions twice. Fitz first accomplished the feat during his second pro season, then did it again … 11 years later.
Arizona’s talisman is a great wide receiver and an even better human being. Fitzgerald was the 2016 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year, won the same award from the Cardinals in 2012, and has a long history of philanthropy. Fitzgerald has spent years raising awareness for HIV/AIDS and cancer, took part in off-season mission trips to impoverished countries, and established multiple organizations that help at-risk children and families.
The NFL has seen few men as talented and giving as Larry Fitzgerald.
4. Steve Largent
Team: Seattle Seahawks
819 receptions; 13,089 yards; 100 TD
Steve Largent played with seven different quarterbacks during his 14-year NFL career. I challenge you to name two without the assistance of a search engine.
Despite being saddled with some of the worst quarterbacking talent in the league, Largent retired as the NFL’s most prolific receiver. Largent became the first player in league history to score 100 receiving touchdowns, breaking the long-standing record of the man directly ahead of him on this list. The Seahawks legend also retired with the league’s most career receptions and receiving yards.
An elite route-runner who overcame the failures of a fledgling franchise, Largent was considered by many to be the greatest wide receiver in NFL history upon his retirement in 1989.
3. Don Hutson
Team: Green Bay Packers
488 receptions; 7,991 yards; 99 TD
The modern passing game cast a shadow on the players who pioneered the wide receiver position. Don Hutson was an unparalleled talent and one of the best to ever play the position despite entering the league nearly 85 years ago.
Hutson produced on a level that transcended his era. In his eighth season with the Packers, Hutson had 74 receptions for 1,211 yards and 17 touchdowns … in 11 games. In 1942. Extrapolated across 16 games, Hutson was on pace for 107 receptions, 1,761 yards and 25 touchdowns. That kind of production would earn MVP consideration nowadays and happened at a time when the league’s best passers struggled to complete half their attempts and 2,000 passing yards were enough to lead the league.
When Hutson retired following the 1945 season, his records were likely considered untouchable. Hutson scored 99 receiving touchdowns, an NFL record that would stand for 44 years. His 68.9 career receiving yards per game is the 24th-best mark in NFL history, ahead of players such as Rob Gronkowski, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Largent.
Hutson was an eight-time All-Pro in his 11-year career. He led the league in touchdown receptions nine times, receptions eight times, receiving yards per game eight times, and receiving yards seven times. To say Hutson was peerless in his day is an understatement. He was playing a completely different game.
2. Randy Moss
Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers
982 receptions; 15,292 yards; 156 TD
Wide receivers with sub-4.3 speed aren’t supposed to be 6'4" and possess a 48-inch vertical jump. Prospects just don’t have spider charts like that.
Randy Moss did. That rare athleticism made Moss a game-breaking talent the moment he stepped onto an NFL field.
Moss helped the Vikings break the single-season team scoring record as a rookie, tallying an absurd 19 yards per reception while scoring 17 touchdowns and earning the first of six Pro Bowl nods. To celebrate his 10th year as a pro, Moss broke the NFL single-season record for receiving touchdowns (23) while helping the Patriots break the scoring record previously held by Moss’ 1998 Vikings.
The first-ballot Hall-of-Famer appeared in all 16 of his team’s games on 11 occasions. In 10 of those seasons, Moss tallied at least 1,000 receiving yards. In nine, Moss scored double-digit touchdowns.
Moss is the most athletic wideout in NFL history and one of the game’s truly dominant forces.
- Jerry Rice
Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks
1,549 receptions; 22,895 yards; 197 TD
Jerry Rice doesn’t just hold the NFL record for career receptions, yards and touchdowns. Rice put those records far out of reach, never to be touched by the players who follow in his footsteps.
Rice’s unassailable records were compiled during 303 regular-season contests played over 21 seasons. If Rice’s entire body of work was contained to those 303 games, he would go down as the best to ever play the position. But that isn’t the end of Rice’s story. When the lights were shining brightest, Rice got better.
Rice caught 95.4 percent of his targets in 23 postseason games with the 49ers, which should be impossible. (For reference: Michael Thomas, who seems to catch everything, set a career high by catching 85 percent of his targets in 2018.) In three Super Bowl appearances with the 49ers, Rice totaled 28 receptions, 512 yards and seven touchdowns. Rice added five receptions, 77 yards and a touchdown — at age 40 — in Oakland’s Super Bowl XXXVII loss to Tampa Bay. Rice retired with the Super Bowl record for career receptions (33), career receiving yards (589), single-game receiving yards (215), career receiving touchdowns (eight) and single-game touchdowns (3, twice), all records he still holds.
Above all else stands Rice’s unparalleled work ethic. Rice’s drive and determination allowed him to remain in elite condition throughout his 21-year career and led legendary head coach Dennis Green to call him “the best route runner I’ve ever seen.”
Jerry Rice is one-of-one. We will never again see another of his caliber in the NFL.