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Inexperienced Receiving Games

The 2008 Giants were very experienced; the 2009 Giants were not.

In ’08, New York had Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress as the team’s starting receivers; Toomer retired after the year, while Burress shot himself in a nightclub late in the ’08 season and missed all of the ’09 and ’10 seasons.

The top 7 receivers on the ’09 Giants were the other Steve Smith (24 years old in ’09), Mario Manningham (23), Hakeem Nicks (21), Kevin Boss (25), Ahmad Bradshaw (23), Domenik Hixon (25), and Brandon Jacobs (27). Entering the 2009 season, Smith had 637 career receiving yards, Manningham had 26, Nicks had 0, Boss had 502, Bradshaw had 54, Hixon had 601, and Jacobs had 359.  Derek Hagan, who finished 8th on the ’09 Giants with 101 receiving yards, was the most accomplished receiver entering the year by virtue of his 645 career receiving yards entering 2009.

On a weighted average, that means the 2009 Giants receiving group entered the year with just 318 career receiving yards (by reference, the 2008 Giants were at 2,608). What do I mean by weighted average? Well, Smith had 28.7% of the 2009 Giants receiving yards, and he had 637 career receiving yards prior to 2009; therefore, his 637 receives 28.7% of the team weight. On the other hand, Manningham and Nicks had, together, 38% of the Giants receiving yards in 2009, and they had, together, just 26 career receiving yards entering 2009. The table below shows the full calculation, with the result equaling a weighted average of 318 career receiving yards. [click to continue…]

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Graham started his career in Pittsburgh….

I know what you’re thinking: Chase, you’re at it again with the clickbait titles. Jeff Graham had a good but otherwise unremarkable 11-year career. Drafted by the Steelers in the 2nd round of the 1991 Draft, he barely played as a rookie on a team with veteran wide receivers Louis Lipps and Dwight Stone. So Graham’s career really spanned the decade from 1992 to 2001, and during that time, he “only” ranked 10th in receiving yards in the NFL despite ranking 6th in games played by receivers during that time.

But if his career was unremarkable, as noted yesterday, his season-by-season progression was pretty remarkable.

In 1992, the Steelers offense was centered around Barry Foster, who rushed for 1,690 yards. Neil O’Donnell was the quarterback, and a second-year Graham broke out with 711 yards and 49 catches. Both numbers led the Steelers team, as Graham beat out Stone and Ernie Mills to become O’Donnell’s top target.

In 1993, Graham regressed; even though Foster was injured and O’Donnell passed more frequently, Graham was limited to just 38 receptions for 579 yards. Tight end Eric Green had a monster year, catching 63-942-5, while Stone basically matched Graham’s numbers.

In retrospect, that’s hardly a bad start to a career: Graham rode the bench as a rookie, was the team’s top receiver in his second year on a run-heavy offense, and then came back to earth a bit in year three.  But Pittsburgh used its first round pick on Charles Johnson in the 1994 Draft, so the Steelers traded Graham to the Bears for a 1995 5th round pick a few days after the ’94 Draft.1 And that’s when Graham’s career really took off.

Then had a career year in Chicago….

Chicago, of course, was a defensive-focused team with Steve Walsh and Erik Kramer at quarterback, and Lewis Tillman and Raymont Harris at running back. But the Bears had drafted Curtis Conway 7th overall in 1993, and together with Graham, the duo excelled over the next two years.

In 1994, Graham led Chicago with 68 catches, 944 yards, and 4 receiving touchdowns, with Conway producing a 39-546-2 statline.

The 1995 season was the year where the passing attacks in the NFC in general — and the NFC Central in particular — exploded. In Green Bay, Robert Brooks had 1,497 yards and Brett Favre was the MVP. In Detroit, Herman Moore had 1,686 yards and 14 touchdowns, Brett Perriman had 1,488 yards and 9 touchdowns, and Scott Mitchell had 4,338 yards and 32 TDs. In Minnesota, Warren Moon had 4228/33, Cris Carter had 122 catches for 1,371 yards and 17 scores, while Jake Reed had 72-1167-9.  And in Chicago? Erik Kramer threw for 3,838 yards and 29 touchdowns, with Graham catching 82 passes for 1,301 yards and Conway putting up a 62-1037-12 stat line.  Graham set the Chicago single-season record for receiving yards, a mark that still ranks 4th in Bears history today.

So after 5 seasons in the NFL, Graham’s career looked like this:

  • Sat on bench as rookie
  • Led team in receiving yards
  • Setback season
  • Led new team in receiving yards
  • Led new team in receiving yards

An unrestricted free agent after the season, Graham chose to sign with the New York Jets. By doing so, he was reuniting with Ron Erhardt and Neil O’Donnell, his offensive coordinator and quarterback from his days with the Steelers. All three joined the Jets in ’96, with O’Donnell and Graham signing large contracts.

But a funny thing happened on the way to New York. The Jets not only fell apart, but they fell apart everywhere but wide receiver. Two years later, New York would be in the AFC Championship Game with the only pair of teammates to catch 75 passes that year: Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet. Back in ’96, Chrebet was a 23-year-old second-year player, while Johnson was a rookie. Still, the duo managed to outshine Graham in both ’96 and then ’97.2 The Jets traded Graham to the Eagles in 1998 for a 6th round pick.

Unfortunately for Graham, he was joining what would be the worst offense in football: Philadelphia finished last in points, yards, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and net yards per pass attempt in 1998, a remarkable feat possible only thanks to the trio of Bobby Hoying, Koy Detmer, and a 32-year-old Rodney Peete. In 1997, Irving Fryar (at the age of 35) had 1,316 yards for the Eagles with Detmer/Hoying/Pette again splitting duties, but Philadelphia lacked a true number two receiver. In ’98, Graham actually edged out Fryar with 600 receiving yards to Fryar’s 556.

After the season, Graham chose to sign a free agent contract with the Chargers. A few months later, Erik Kramer also joined San Diego, reuniting the duo for one last season. Playing with Kramer and Jim Harbaugh, a 30-year-old Graham beat out 25-year-old TE Freddie Jones and 25-year-old wide receiver Mikhael Ricks to lead the Chargers in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, with a 57-968-2 stat line.

In 2000, Curtis Conway was fed up with the Bears, and re-connected with Graham in San Diego. Together with Freddie Jones, San Diego should have had a pretty good passing game. Instead? Graham endured the second 1-15 season of his career, thanks to Ryan Leaf and a combination of Harbaugh and Moses Moreno. Still, Graham beat out both Jones and Conway to lead the team in receiving yards with 907.

The 2001 Chargers would be Graham’s final season, and boy did he play on a talent-rich team…. just at the wrong time. Those Chargers had Graham, Conway, and Jones, of course, and were quarterbacked by a 39-year-old Doug Flutie. The backup quarterback was Drew Brees. The starting running back was LaDainian Tomlinson. Tim Dwight was the slot receiver. In their primes, Brees or Flutie could combine with LT, Graham/Conway/Dwight, and Jones to form a hell of an offense. Instead, San Diego went 5-11, and Grham finished second on the team in receiving yards to Conway.

Here is the breakdown for Graham’s 11 seasons in the NFL:

  • Sat on bench as rookie
  • Led Steelers in receiving yards (beating Dwight Stone and Ernie Mills)
  • Finished behind Eric Green and Dwight Stone
  • Led Bears in receiving yards (beating Curtis Conway)
  • Led Bears in receiving yards (beating Curtis Conway) and set franchise record
  • Finished behind Keyshawn and Chrebet
  • Finished behind Keyshawn and Chrebet
  • Led Eagles in receiving yards (beating Irving Fryar)
  • Led Chargers in receiving yards (beating Freddie Jones)
  • Led Chargers in receiving yards (beating Curtis Conway and Freddie Jones)
  • Finished 2nd on Chargers in receiving yards (behind Curtis Conway)

In the 9-year middle of his career, Graham led four teams in receiving yards a total of six times.   In 2002, he signed with the Falcons, but was released in July.  He did not have a remarkable career, and didn’t put up great receiving numbers, but he was usually the best player on a variety of different teams. That means he either was better than we remember, played with bad quarterbacks to depress his stats, or was “lucky” to play with bad receivers to always be his team’s top weapon.

What do you think?

  1. With Yancey Thigpen, Johnson, Mills, and Andre Hastings, it’s not as though the Steelers were thin at wide receiver. []
  2. Despite being a terrible 1-15 team, the Jets had four players who would finish their careers with 7,000 receiving yards: Johnson, Chrebet, Graham, and a 32-year-old Webster Slaughter. A fifth player, 25-year-old fullback Richie Anderson, had 400 receptions in his career. And a sixth player, 24-year-old tight end Kyle Brady, had a 13-year career in the NFL. That’s a whole lot of relatively in their prime talent on one terrible team. []
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Brown continues to dominate the NFL.

Antonio Brown averaged “only” 12.1 yards per reception last year, although his great reception, receiving yards, and receiving touchdown totals earned him a third straight first-team All-Pro selection. If Brown wasn’t so good and just 28 years old, you might look at that average and think Brown was on the decline or at least was becoming less of a big play threat.

But that’s not really true: with 22 receptions (in 15 games) of at least 20+ yards, Brown had the third most big plays of any receiver last year, and 21% of his catches went for at least 20 yards. What really hurt Brown’s average was that he also caught a ton of short passes: he had 57 receptions of 10 or fewer yards. Kelvin Benjamin caught 63 passes for 941 yards last year, a 14.9 yards per reception average. But while that sounds good, Benjamin only caught 10 passes — or 16% of his total — for 20+ yards. How did Benjamin average nearly three more yards per catch than Brown? You probably already figured this one out: just 20 of his receptions (32%) went for 10 or fewer yards. Either Benjamin wasn’t running short routes or he wasn’t catching passes on those routes. If it’s the latter, it’s a bad thing; if it’s the former, well, it’s also a bad thing (relative to Brown, at least) that all he was doing was running long routes and Brown still caught more long balls than him!

The graph below shows the top 100 wide receivers and tight ends in receiving yards last season, sorted by number of 20+ yard receptions. In addition, I have included the percent of their receptions that went for 20+ yards, the number of receptions that went for 10 or fewer yards, and that percent as well.
[click to continue…]

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We know that Amari Cooper is a better receiver than Kenny Stills, but who is the better big play threat? Or, more specifically, who was the better big play threat last year?


To answer this question, most people would focus on one metric: yards per reception. Most people are wrong. [click to continue…]

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Gary Clark Was Uniquely Dominant In 1991

Clark caps his dominant season with a Super Bowl

The 1991 Redskins are the hipster’s choice for greatest NFL team of the modern era. The team was statistically dominant, but what makes Washington’s case unique is that folks rarely mention the 1991 Redskins as one of the best teams of all time! Well, today I want to talk about that team’s star wide receiver: Gary Clark.

Judging wide receivers is very tough. One way to do that is to look just at their raw statistics, but a receiver’s production is heavily influenced by the environment he plays in — how often does his team pass, how talented is his quarterback, how good are the other targets on his team, etc.  At a high level, it’s easy to assume that the best receivers are playing on the best passing attacks: after all, if a passing game is dominant, the receivers are likely a big part of the reason why.

The 1984 Dolphins, 2004 Colts, 2007 Patriots, and 2013 Broncos all had record-setting passing attacks.  And while Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady were great, but they also each had not one, but two star receivers: Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison (and Brandon Stokely), Randy Moss and Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (and Wes Welker!).  That’s generally the rule, not the exception: dynamic offenses almost always have a great quarterback, but they also almost always have multiple top receivers.  The Falcons offense was outstanding last year, and it’s hard for a wide receiver to be better than Julio Jones, but even he only accounted for 28% of the Atlanta receiving yards and 16% of the Falcons receiving touchdowns (Jones also missed two games). [click to continue…]

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Not Rob Moore

If you find yourself talking about Rob Moore in the summer of 2017, it’s probably for one of four reasons.

1) You are a diehard Jets or Cardinals fan choosing to reminisce about Boomer Esiason and the halcyon days of the ’90s.

2) You just finished watching Jerry Maguire. That movie, which was released in December 1996, saw Cuba Gooding Jr. play the role of Rod Tidwell. Gooding’s character wore 85 and played wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, just like Moore (who even had a bit role in the movie, playing himself).

3) You are researching the best players in Supplemental Draft history, and Moore’s name came up. A star at Syracuse, Moore graduated early (back when it was still unusual for undergraduates to enter the draft), and therefore elected to enter the Supplemental Draft. The move cost the Jets the 8th pick in the 1991 Draft, which the Eagles used on Tennessee offensive lineman Antone Davis. Moore was the much better player.

4) You were wondering which player in the last 25 years (and, perhaps, for much longer) saw the most targets in a single season in NFL history. After some searching, you found out that the answer was Rob Moore, with 208 targets for the 1997 Cardinals.

Wait, what? Of all the players in the last 25 years, Rob Moore is the single-season leader in targets? The single-season leaders in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns are Marvin Harrison, Calvin Johnson, and Randy Moss, respectively. The most targets (since 1992) that Jerry Rice ever saw was 176, and that was in 1995, when he gained 1848 receiving yards while playing for a 49ers team that threw 644 passes, the 2nd most in the NFL. So how did — just two years later — Rob Moore see 32 more targets than Rice in ’95? [click to continue…]

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The top QB/WR duo by touchdowns, and another top-10 combo.

Three years ago, I looked at the top quarterback/receiving pairings in terms of total passing touchdowns between the two players. Per a comment suggestion, let’s update that list today. The top two pairs have not changed, but there has been some movement in the top ten.

Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates have now connected for 84 passing touchdowns, all of which came in the regular season. The list below includes the playoffs, and Young and Rice have combined for 85 regular season touchdown passes and 7 playoff scores. That means Rivers and Gates are two more touchdowns away from the second most regular season touchdowns in NFL history. Gates is tied for 6th all time in receiving touchdowns (111) with Tony Gonzalez: despite that, Gates has connected with a touchdown more often with Rivers than Gonzalez has with both Matt Ryan and Trent Green combined.

There’s another tight end duo creeping up the list: Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski have connected for 76 touchdowns, tied for fifth place on the list. Also at 76 touchdowns: Marques Colston and Drew Brees. The interesting note there: Colston retired without ever catching a touchdown pass from anyone besides Brees.

The table below shows the full list for combinations that have at least 25 touchdown strikes: [click to continue…]

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Five years ago, in one of the first posts at Football Perspective, I looked at league-wide passing distribution in terms of what percentage of receiving yards were gained by the WR1, WR2, WR3, TE1, and RB1 for each team. Today I want to examine passing distribution in a different way: how much are teams spreading it around than ever before?

In the comments to Wednesday’s post, Quinton White described one way economists measure how concentrated industries are, using a relevant football example:

If you wanted to incorporate more than just the #1 guy, then you could sum up the squared shares for all a QBs receivers. For example, say a QB threw to 7 guys, and the first guy caught 30% of the yards and the second 20% and the remaining 5 guys each caught 10%, then he would have a concentration index of .3^2 + .2^2 + .1^2 + .1^2 + .1^2 + .1^2 + .1^2 = .18. The higher the number, the more concentrated the passer is. The max is 1 (Brees threw all his passes to Cooks then 1^2 = 1). If he threw 10% to ten guys each, then the index would be .1.

Let’s say we did that for the 2016 Falcons, who had the best passing game in the NFL last season. Atlanta’s skill position players gained 4,960 receiving yards last year. In the table below, column 2 shows the number of receiving yards gained by each player, column 3 displays their number of receiving yards divided by 4,960, and column 4 shows the squared result of what is in column 3. The bottom right cell in the table is the sum of all the numbers in column 4, or 14.14%. [click to continue…]

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Drew Brees and Spreading It Around

In 2016, Odell Beckham gained 34% of all Giants receiving yards, the highest share in the NFL. For 31 of 32 teams, at least one player gained 20% of their team’s receiving yards, but for the Bills, Robert Woods led the team in receiving despite being responsible for only 19% of Buffalo’s receiving yards.

But since Drew Brees came to the Saints in 2006, no team has spread it around more than New Orleans. On average, Brees’ leading receiving has been responsible for only 22% of the Saints receiving yards each year. The table below shows the average percentage of team receiving yards gained by the top receiver (RB, WR, or TE) for each team in each season over the last 11 years. The Falcons, buoyed by long runs of success by Roddy White and then Julio Jones, have been the most WR1-heavy passing game, while the Saints have been the most diverse: [click to continue…]

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How Have Previous Michael Thomases Fared?

Five years ago, I asked two questions: how often does the first receiver selected in the Draft turn out to be the best rookie receiver? And how often does the best rookie receiver turn out to be the best receiver from his draft? Yesterday, we updated that post to answer the first question. Today, we look at the second one, and that makes Saints star Michael Thomas (who had 1,137 receiving yards as a rookie in 2016) the focus of this post.

How likely is it that Thomas will turn out to be the best receiver from his class? Thomas has some competition, but though he was farther ahead of the pack than the average top receiver:

Drafted Players Table
Misc Misc Appr Rece Rece Rece
Rnd Pick Tm Player Pos Age To AP1 PB St CarAV G Rec Yds
TD College/Univ
2 47 NOR Michael Thomas WR 23 2016 0 0 1 10 15 92 1137 9 Ohio St. College Stats
2 40 NYG Sterling Shepard WR 22 2016 0 0 1 5 16 65 683 8 Oklahoma College Stats
1 21 HOU Will Fuller WR 22 2016 0 0 1 6 14 47 635 2 Notre Dame College Stats
2 55 CIN Tyler Boyd WR 21 2016 0 0 0 5 16 54 603 1 Pittsburgh College Stats
5 165 KAN Tyreek Hill WR 22 2016 1 1 0 10 16 61 593 6 West Alabama
5 140 TEN Tajae Sharpe WR 21 2016 0 0 1 5 16 41 522 2 Massachusetts College Stats
1 15 CLE Corey Coleman WR 22 2016 0 0 1 3 10 33 413 3 Baylor College Stats
4 112 NWE Malcolm Mitchell WR 23 2016 0 0 0 4 14 32 401 4 Georgia College Stats

So how optimistic should we be that Thomas will in fact finish as the top receiver from this class? You may be surprised to learn that from 1999 to 2013, the top rookie receiver (as measured by receiving yards) *never* finished as the top receiver from his class (as measured by receiving yards). Bookmarking those years? Randy Moss in 1998, and Odell Beckham in 2014. There are a few cases where the top rookie had a great career (Anquan Boldin, Marques Colston, and A.J. Green stand out) but ultimately was bested (to date, in the case of Green) by another star, but also a large number of guys who didn’t quite live up to their potential after year one.

YearTop RookieTeamTeamCareer RkCareer LeaderSame?Rk As Rookie
2016Michael ThomasnorNOR1Michael ThomasSame1
2015Amari CooperraiOAK1Amari CooperSame1
2014Odell BeckhamnygNYG1Odell BeckhamSame1
2013Keenan AllensdgSDG4DeAndre HopkinsDiff2
2012Justin BlackmonjaxJAX13T.Y. HiltonDiff2
2011A.J. GreencinCIN2Julio JonesDiff2
2010Mike WilliamstamTAM8Antonio BrownDiff14
2009Hakeem NicksnygNYG4Mike WallaceDiff4
2008Eddie RoyaldenDEN5DeSean JacksonDiff2
2007Dwayne BowekanKAN2Calvin JohnsonDiff2
2006Marques ColstonnorNOR2Brandon MarshallDiff5
2005Reggie BrownphiPHI5Roddy WhiteDiff4
2004Michael ClaytontamTAM9Larry FitzgeraldDiff4
2003Anquan BoldincrdARI2Andre JohnsonDiff2
2002Antonio BryantdalDAL3Deion BranchDiff5
2001Chris ChambersmiaMIA5Steve SmithDiff13
2000Darrell JacksonseaSEA3Laveranues ColesDiff5
1999Kevin JohnsoncleCLE7Torry HoltDiff2
1998Randy MossminMIN1Randy MossSame1
1997Rae CarruthcarCAR11Derrick MasonDiff4
1996Terry GlennnweNWE7Terrell OwensDiff6
1995Joey GallowayseaSEA1Joey GallowaySame1
1994Darnay ScottcinCIN4Isaac BruceDiff7
1993Horace CopelandtamTAM9Curtis ConwayDiff6
1992Courtney HawkinstamTAM4Jimmy SmithDiff36
1991Lawrence DawseytamTAM13Keenan McCardellDiff20
1990Ricky ProehlcrdPHO1Ricky ProehlSame1
1989Shawn CollinsatlATL8Andre RisonDiff2
1988Sterling SharpegnbGNB4Tim BrownDiff2
1987Ricky NattieldenDEN10Mark CarrierDiff2
1986Bill BrookscltIND3Ernest GivinsDiff2
1985Eddie BrowncinCIN5Jerry RiceDiff2
1984Louis LippspitPIT2Irving FryarDiff9
1983Willie GaultchiCHI4Henry EllardDiff6
1982Lindsay ScottnorNOR9Mark DuperDiff31
1981Cris CollinsworthcinCIN1Cris CollinsworthSame1
1980Art MonkwasWAS1Art MonkSame1
1979Jerry ButlerbufBUF4Drew HillDiff8
1978John JeffersonsdgSDG3James LoftonDiff2
1977Wesley WalkernyjNYJ2Stanley MorganDiff2
1976Sammy WhiteminMIN4Steve LargentDiff2
1975Rick UpchurchdenDEN3Freddie SolomonDiff2
1974Nat MooremiaMIA2John StallworthDiff7
1973Isaac CurtiscinCIN1Isaac CurtisSame1
1972Ahmad RashadcrdSTL2Cliff BranchDiff8
1971Randy VatahanweNWE6Harold CarmichaelDiff6
1970Ron ShanklinpitPIT2Ken BurroughDiff6

You might be surprised to see that the median rank of these rookie receivers is just to finish fourth in their class. In recent years, we’ve seen Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams, Eddie Royal, and Tampa Bay’s Michael Clayton excel as rookies but have disappointing careers. Excluding the players from 2014, 2015, and 2016, the only receivers since 1982 to finish 1st as both a rookie and overall were Proehl, Galloway, and Moss.  Do you think there’s something there, or is that a fluke?

Another interesting: other than Antonio Brown, none of the receivers who wound up as the top receiver in their class really struggled as a rookie. Since 2002, Brown is the only one who didn’t rank in the top five.

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How have previous Corey Davises fared?

The next star receiver wearing 84 from a directional Michigan school?

Five years ago, I asked two questions: how often does the first receiver selected in the Draft turn out to be the best rookie receiver?  And how often does the best rookie receiver turn out to be the best receiver from his draft?  In the 2017 NFL Draft, the Titans selected Corey Davis, the excellent wide receiver from Western Michigan with the fifth overall pick.

At the time of my original post, the protagonist was Justin Blackmon, the highest selected receiver in the 2012 Draft.  And at the time, the odds looked ugly: from 1970 to 2010, only 4 out of 31 times did the first receiver drafted lead his rookie class in receiving yards: Ahmad Rashad in 1972, Isaac Curtis in 1973, Jerry Butler in ’79, and then Willie Gault in 1983.  When A.J. Green did it in 2011, it ended a streak of 27 straight years where the top receiver didn’t lead the league in receiving yards.

So what’s happened since then? Well, Blackmon did in fact lead all rookies in receiving yards, although the margin over T.Y. Hilton was just four yards. In 2013, Tavon Austin was the first wideout drafted, but he ranked 9th among that group in receiving yards as a rookie with 418. Instead, Keenan Allen (1,046) took top honors that year.

In 2014, Sammy Watkins was the first wideout selected in perhaps the best wide receiver class ever.  Watkins had a very good year with 982 yards (ranking 4th among wide receivers drafted that season), but that was a far cry behind Odell Beckham and his 1305 yards (in just 12 games).  But then two years ago, Amari Cooper joined Green and Blackmon by being the top rookie wide receiver in both the draft and the regular season. Cooper was the 4th overall pick and had 1,070 yards, beating undrafted Willie Snead (984).  Finally, last season, Corey Coleman was the first wide receiver drafted, but he had only 413 yards in 10 games.  In 2016, there was just one great rookie wideout: Michael Thomas had 1,137 yards, and no other rookie receiver had even 700 yards. [click to continue…]

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Dez Bryant had a “down” year by most standards last season. He ranked 51st with just 796 receiving yards, and only moves up to 33rd in receiving yards per game (the Cowboys star missed three full games). But Dallas ranked 31st in team pass attempts last season, which significantly impacted Bryant’s ability to produce strong receiving numbers.

In terms of pro-rated Adjusted Catch Yards per Team Pass Attempt, Bryant ranked 9th (he ranked 11th in pro-rated receiving yards per Team Pass Attempt). What do I mean by that? Well, Adjusted Catch Yards are simply receiving yards with a 5-yard bonus for receptions and a 20-yard bonus for receiving touchdowns. Team pass attempts are just passes plus sacks for each team (the Cowboys had 511; the Dolphins were last with 507). And pro-rated? That multiplies the number of team pass attempts by a player’s number of games played, divided by 16.

Here were the leaders in this metric last season. You won’t be too surprised to learn that the leaders were Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Antonio Brown, arguably the three best receivers in the NFL in 2016. [click to continue…]

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On the surface, Kenny Britt didn’t have a remarkable season. He had just 1,002 yards, to go along with 68 receptions and 5 touchdowns. But then again, every receiver is playing in a different environment, and Britt’s environment was very, very bad.

The three teams with the worst passing stats in 2016 — from a cumulative perspective — were Buffalo, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The Bills had a below-average passing offense but rank at the bottom because the team threw the fewest passes in the league, which makes is tough for a receiver to produce good stats. The 49ers were in the bottom 10 in ANY/A and were one of just four teams that didn’t hit the 500-attempt mark. And the Rams were — by a large margin — the worst passing team in the NFL from an efficiency standpoint, thanks in part to Jared Goff having one of the worst rookie seasons ever.

Green grabbing a bunch of ACY

Britt had 1,422 Adjusted Catch Yards — calculated by giving 5 yards for every reception and 20 yards for every touchdown — which ranked just 26th last season. But the Rams offense as a whole had just 5,153 total ACY, so Britt had 28.0% of all Los Angeles Adjusted Catch Yards. And Britt missed one game: on a pro-rated basis, he had 29.8% of all Rams ACY, calculated as 1422 * (Games Played * 5153/16).

That’s good enough for 5th best in the NFL last year. The leader by this metric was A.J. Green of the Bengals, who took over as options 1, 2, 3, and 4 in the Cincinnati passing attack with Mohamed Sanu gone, and Tyler Eifert limited to just eight games. Green had 1,374 ACY in 10 games, but more impressively, he had 34.4% of the Bengals team ACY on a pro-rated basis. [click to continue…]

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Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL in receptions this year, with 107. That’s good, but how important is leading the league in catches? The triple crown is thought of as the leaders in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, but I think we can all agree that receiving first downs is a better indicator of receiver play than receptions. If I was in charge of stats-keeping, I’d place far more emphasis of receiving first downs than receptions, because receptions that don’t go for first downs are far less valuable than receptions that do go for a first down. And while receptions may be a decent proxy for receiving first downs, there’s a lot of variance there.

The leader in receiving first downs this year was Mike Evans, and he certainly had a better statistical year than Fitzgerald.  Evans had a stat line of 96-1321-12, with 81 first downs, compared to Fitzgerald’s 107-1023-6 and 59 first downs.  That’s right: Evans had 22 more first downs on just 11 fewer grabs, thanks to his 84.4% first down rate compared to Fitzgerald’s 55.1%. Evans dominated the league in this metric, finishing with 15 more than anyone else.1 Evans finished with 6 out of the 100 votes cast for the AP All-Pro team, which seems like a criminally low number that would be higher in first downs were as widely-reported as they should be.

In the interest of data disclosure, the table below shows the receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns, *and receiving first downs* for the top receivers last season. I have also included each player’s receiving first down percentage, and their total number of Adjusted Catch Yards, defined here as receiving first downs * 9, plus receiving yards, plus receiving touchdowns * 11 (because a receiving TD already gets 9 yards since it is counted as a first down, too). [click to continue…]

  1. Best as we can tell, the record for receiving first downs in a season was 92, shared by Calvin Johnson (2012) and Marvin Harrison (2002), until Julio Jones broke it last year with 93. []
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Guest Post: Wide Receivers and the Hall of Fame

Today’s guest post comes from one of the longest followers of this blog (and its predecessor), Richie Wohlers. Richie is 44-year-old accountant from Southern California who is a Dolphins fan despite never being to Florida. As always, we thank our guest posters for contributing.


Previously, I looked at linebackers and centers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With Andre Johnson’s recent retirement announcement, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at wide receivers next. As before, I am just taking a look at post-merger players by using some objective factors to try to get a picture of what a typical HOFer looks like. Those factors are All-Pros, Pro Bowls, Weighted AV, Total AV, Super Bowl Appearances and Super Bowl wins). I am going to classify all players into a single position for simplicity. If you are interested in knowing the details of my calculation, see footnote.1

I explored the relationship between statistics (receptions, yards, touchdowns) and HOF induction for WRs, and it doesn’t improve the correlation. My “Career Score” is more aligned with HOF inductions than any single receiving statistic. The correlations are hurt by weak stats from HOFers like Swann and Hayes. And they are also hurt by big numbers from non-HOFers like Henry Ellard, Harold Jackson and Football Perspective hero Jimmy Smith. [click to continue…]

  1. Methodology: For All-Pros, Pro Bowls, Career AV and Total AV, I am looking at the average numbers for each player at his position. In an attempt to make the average HOFer at a position worth 100 points, I am assigning a weight of 16.6 for each category (16.6 times 6 categories equals 99.6 points). If an average player had 5.7 All Pros I divided 16.6 to get 2.9. So each All Pro is worth 2.9 points at that position. Super Bowls are the exception. I’m just going with a straight points system. One appearance is 8 points, 2 appearances is 14 points, 3 appearances is 18 points, and then 2 more points for each additional appearance. Super Bowl wins are worth 12, 20, 26, 30 and then 2 more per additional win. I add them up for a “Career Score”. []
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Decker after another score

Decker after another score

For his career, Eric Decker has 5,222 receiving yards and 52 receiving touchdowns.  That means he’s grabbed one touchdown catch for every 100.4 receiving yards, an incredible ratio for a non-tight end.  And while touchdons can be fluky, that doesn’t feel the way with Decker, who has been a touchdown machine for his entire career across two teams and multiple quarterbacks.

To put this into perspective, I looked at all wide receivers who entered the NFL since 1978 who have at least 2,000 receiving yards through the end of the 2015 season.  Decker has the third lowest (i.e., most touchdown-heavy) rate at a touchdown every 100.4 receiving yards1  The only two players ahead of him? Randy Moss and Dez Bryant.

In the graph below, I’ve plotted career receiving yards (’78-’15) on the X-Axis, and Receiving Yards/Receiving Touchdowns( ’78-’15) on the Y-Axis. In that case, lower = more of a touchdown machine. [click to continue…]

  1. For Decker, I included 2016, but for every other player, I have not updated their numbers, if any, with the results of this year. []
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Projected Age of Each Team’s Receiving Game in 2016

In 2012, the Houston Texans went 12-4 and sent a whopping 7 offensive players to the Pro Bowl: QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster, WR Andre Johnson, TE Owen Daniels, LT Duane Brown, LG Wade Smith, and C Chris Myers. But the success of that group probably feels like a distant memory, especially if you’ve looked at the Texans roster recently. Of that group, only Brown is still a Texan. In fact, Brown and RT Derek Newton are the only offensive players on the opening day rosters in both 2012 and 2016.

The Houston Texans threw a lot of money at Brock Osweiler this offseason, and also signed running back Lamar Miller. But a big reason for the turnover is that the wide receiver position has been completely remodeled: DeAndre Hopkins (24 years old, a first round pick in 2013), Will Fuller (22, 2016-1), Braxton Miller (24, 2016-3), Jaelen Strong (22, 2015-3), Keith Mumphery (24, 2015-5) are the five wide receivers on the team, while the tight end group (Ryan Griffin (26, 2013-6), C.J. Fiedorowicz (24, 2014-3), and Stephen Anderson (undrafted 2016) from Cal) is similarly young and new to Houston. [click to continue…]

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Jason Witten: Still On Pace For the HOF

Seven years ago, I wrote an article for the old PFR blog about Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. That article was titled Jason Witten (HOF Class of 2024). At the time, it felt a little premature, but Witten’s numbers were outstanding, and it seemed likely he would retire with HOF numbers.

Three years ago, I updated that post, and noted that Witten hadn’t slowed down.  Today? I wanted to provide another quick update.  Jason Witten completed his age 33 season in 2015.  And here’s the killer stat: nobody in NFL history has more receptions through their age 33 season than Jason Witten. [click to continue…]

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Antonio Brown is the Steelers leader in touchdown celebrations

Antonio Brown is the Steelers leader in touchdown celebrations

Is Antonio Brown already the best wide receiver in Steelers history? That depends on how you define “best”, of course. But from at least one statistical standpoint, Brown already stands out as the most dominant.

One of my favorite simple methods to measure dominance is to measure receiving yards above the worst starter. For example, the 32nd-ranked player in receiving yards last year gained 922 receiving yards. Brown, meanwhile, had 1,834. As a result, he had 912 receiving yards above the “worst starter” last year.

In 2014, the 32nd-ranked receiving yards leader gained 916 yards; Brown had 1,698, so that’s +782. In 2013, Brown’s 1,499 yards were 603 yards above the baseline of 896, i.e., the amount of yards gained by the 32nd-ranked receiver.

In 2012, the baseline was 855 receiving yards; Brown, with 787 in 13 games, did not rank in the top 32 in receiving yards. Therefore, he gets a 0 for 2012. Finally, in 2011, Browns’ 1,108 receiving yards were 221 receiving yards above the threshold of 887 yards.

As a result, Brown’s six-year career looks like this: +912, +782, +603, 0, +221, 0. That sums to 2,518 yards above worst starter.

Last year, I looked at the leaders in Adjusted Catch Yards over worst starter using the same formula. I re-ran that methodology using receiving yards and pro-rating non-16 games to come up with a career list. The table below shows the top 200 players in football history using this methodology; Brown checks in at #31: [click to continue…]

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Not a reach to call Nuk one of the best players in the NFL

Not a reach to call Nuk one of the best players in the NFL

Last year, Antonio Brown and Julio Jones were the best wide receivers in the NFL. But DeAndre Hopkins was was in a small group of receivers after those two vying for the title of third best wideout. And when it comes to relying on one player, well, Hopkins really stands out among the pack.

Last year, Jones had 40.7% of all Falcons receiving yards, highest rate in the league. That was followed by Brown at 38.0%, and then Hopkins at 37.3%. After him, Brandon Marshall was at 36.0%, and Odell Beckham was a distant fifth at 32.2%. And at just 23 years old, Hopkins obviously has a very bright future ahead of him.

Since 1970, there have been 132 player seasons where a player had at least 35.0% of his team’s receiving yards. But as you’d suspect, it’s rarely done by a player as young as Hopkins. The bar graph below shows how many players at each age have hit that mark since the Merger: [click to continue…]

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Smith nearly drops the chip on his shoulder

Smith nearly drops the chip on his shoulder

Measuring receiver play is really tricky, and that’s before you even get to things like supporting cast. But I want to at least put something out there to measure receiver play in the postseason, something that would be an improvement on just looking at the leaders in receiving yards. So here’s what I did. Let’s use two great playoff performances as our examples.

1) Calculate each player’s Adjusted Catch Yards in a game. In a 1974 playoff loss to Pittsburgh, Oakland wide receiver Cliff Branch had a great game. He caught 9 passes for 186 yards and 1 touchdown; giving him 5 yards for every reception and 20 yards for every touchdown, that translates to 251 Adjusted Catch Yards.

In 2012, Calvin Johnson dominated the Saints defenses in the lone playoff game of his career; Johnson finished with a 12/211/2 stat line, worth 311 ACY, tied (with Reggie Wayne against Denver) for the third most ACY in a playoff game since 1960.

2) But we need to account for era, and we should also account for the quality of the opposition. So I looked at every team since 1960, and calculated the ACY allowed to all opposing players in every regular season game. Then, I took the top 16 (or fewer, in non-16 game seasons) performances during the regular season to calculate the average ACY allowed by each defense to the top opposing receiver.

This is a very, very high baseline, of course, but I am trying to measure dominance. If a team allows 80 yards, on average, to the opposing WR1, then an 80-yard playoff performance shouldn’t stand out as special.

The 2011 Saints allowed an average of 155 ACY to the top 16 players it faced that year. As a result, Johnson gets credit for 156 ACY over expectation. The 1974 Steelers? Well, they allowed just 94 ACY to the top 14 players it faced during the regular season. That gives Branch 157 ACY over expectation.

So Branch slightly beats Megatron using this formula, as gaining 251 ACY against a defense that usually allows 94 is seen as a hair better than gaining 311 against a defense that usually allows 156. Is this formula perfect? Of course not, but it’s a start. Branch’s game checks in as the 8th best since 1960, while Johnson’s is 10th. The top game? That honor belongs to Steve Smith, naturally. [click to continue…]

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Smith nearly drops the chip on his shoulder

Smith nearly drops the chip on his shoulder

When I think of the greatest games by a wide receiver in playoff history, my mind always travels to what Steve Smith against the 2005 Bears.  And while that game was remarkable — we’ll get to that in a bit — it’s the context that matters.

In the 2005 regular season, Smith was unstoppable; Dr. Z said that he was “simply the best in the game, filling the dual roles of possession receiver and downfield threat.” But Smith’s dominance was not just anecdotal, of course: Smith led the NFL in receiving yards, and was tied for the league lead in both receptions and receiving touchdowns, all while playing on a team that ranked 28th in pass attempts.

Then, in the first round of the playoffs, Smith caught 10 of 11 passes and scored both of Carolina’s touchdowns in a 23-0 win over the Giants.  And as if all of that wasn’t enough to make the Bears focus their efforts on Smith in the upcoming game, consider that during the regular season, Smith gained 169 yards against Chicago, the most the Bears allowed to any receiver all year.

So yeah, the Bears were game-planning for Smith.  And Chicago seemed pretty well-prepared to stop him: after all, the Bears allowed the fewest fantasy points to wide receivers during the regular season and had not just the top pass defense in the NFL, but one of the best ones in league history. And, in a neat twist of Panthers fate, Chicago’s defense was orchestrated by Ron Rivera, who was the Defensive Coordinator of the Year.

This was the best wide receiver in the NFL, coming off a huge playoff game, going into the Soldier Field to face the toughest defense on the planet.  The over/under was 31 points. The Panthers were held to 3 points in the regular season against Chicago. It was a cold and wet day. And Smith promptly caught 12 of 13 targets for 218 yards, seven first downs, and 2 touchdowns, and also ran 3 times for 26 yards.  [click to continue…]

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Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. He’s also a semi-regular writer here, and you can view all of Brad’s Football Perspective writing at this page. Brad is working on a WR Project where he analyzes the best WRs over various ten year periods. That work is being produced over at Sports-Central, but Brad has offered to have it reproduced here as well. As always, we at the FP community thank him for his work.

Previous Best WRs By Decade Articles:


Last year, I wrote an article breaking down the best quarterbacks by decade, followed by in-depth profiles of the greatest QBs in history. This year, I combined those two themes in a look at the best wide receivers ever, broken into decades. [click to continue…]

{ 34 comments }

Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. He’s also a semi-regular writer here, and you can view all of Brad’s Football Perspective writing at this page. Brad is working on a WR Project where he analyzes the best WRs over various ten year periods. That work is being produced over at Sports-Central, but Brad has offered to have it reproduced here as well. As always, we at the FP community thank him for his work.

Previous Best WRs By Decade Articles:


Last year, I wrote an article breaking down the best quarterbacks by decade, followed by in-depth profiles of the greatest QBs in history. This year, I’m combining those two themes in a look at the best wide receivers ever, broken into decades. Because careers don’t always fit cleanly into a single decade, I’ve gone in five-year increments. Last week, we covered 1990-99 and 1995-2004. This is the seventh installment, examining 2000-09 and 2005-2014. The great receivers of the early ’00s, such as Marvin Harrison and Isaac Bruce, were in last week’s column. [click to continue…]

{ 64 comments }

He gained 120+ yards pretty frequently

He gained 120+ yards pretty frequently

Yesterday, I posted a list of the career leaders in receiving yards after removing “junk” yards gained on an individual game basis. I’ve defined junk games as somewhere between 32 and 40 yards in 2015, and a lower threshold in less pass-friendly eras. You can view the Justin Blackmon example here.

While I presented the career list yesterday, I thought it would make sense to plot the career yards after removing junk yards (using 2.5x as the baseline) against each receiver’s plain career receiving yards (in both cases, since 1960). That’s what I’ve done in the graph below, with actual career receiving yards on the X-Axis and career yards after removing junk yards on the Y-Axis. Jerry Rice is literally off the chart (22,895; 13,786) because including him would require using a much broader (and less helpful) chart. Let’s just ignore Rice and focus on the other 99 receivers: [click to continue…]

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[Note: Due to a scheduling blunder, you may have missed yesterday’s post on single-season leaders.]

The GOAT

The GOAT

On Sunday, I explained one methodology to modify receiving yards in a way to give more value to top receivers while devaluing junk games. You can read that explanation here, and see the Justin Blackmon example.

Jerry Rice, of course, will rank as the top receiver by this or any other methodology, especially if that system excludes Don Hutson (today’s data only goes back to 1960). In fact, using a 3X baseline, Rice still gained 15,314 receiving yards after removing junk yards, more than every wide receiver in NFL history has gained including junk yards other than Terrell Owens. Rice was just incredible.

Perhaps the first real surprise on the list is Don Maynard, who ranks 6th among all players since 1960 by this methodology. The Jets Hall of Famer currently ranks 26th in career receiving yards, but 30 years ago, he was the all-time leader in that category. Maynard benefits here for some era adjustments — his 14-game seasons get prorated, the baseline for junk seasons was lower in the ’60s and ’70s — and his dominant play for a long stretch is rewarded.

The table below shows the top players by this methodology since 1960. Here’s how to read the table, using the Owens line. Using a 2.5X baseline, he ranks 2nd all-time. His career began in 1996 and ended in 2010, and he had 9,386 receiving yards above that junk baseline. Using a 3X baseline, he still ranks 2nd, and had 10,493 non-junk receiving yards. [click to continue…]

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On Sunday, I discussed single-game receiving yards baselines. You can check that post to see the methodology (using Justin Blackmon as the example), but basically we just remove a certain number of receiving yards from every player in every game, and that player only gets credit for their yards above that baseline.

Based on the discussion with Brad O. in the comments, I’ve decided to use a couple of different baselines. One is a 3X baseline — that means we multiply the number of team games in the NFL (in modern times, that’s 512) by 3, and that’s the number of games in each year that are at or above the baseline. The other is a 2.5X baseline — i.e., we multiply team games by 2.5 to get the threshold number.

In 2015, the junk baseline of 3X was 32 receiving yards. For some players like Julio Jones, who had at least 32 yards in each game, that just means we remove 512 yards from his total of 1,871 receiving yards, giving him 1,359 non-junk yards last year. With a 2.5X baseline, players in 2015 only receive credit for their yards once they hit 40 yards in a game; for Jones, that means subtracting 638 yards from his total, since he had one 38-yard game last year, resulting in 1,233 non-junk yards if we use that threshold. By either standard, that ranks as the 9th best season since 1960.

I used that methodology for every player season since 1960, and pro-rated for non-16 game seasons. The best year, using either baseline, was what Charley Hennigan did in 1961. He had at least 78 yards in 13 games and 0 yards in the 14th game; that makes the calculation pretty easy. The baseline at the 2.5X level was 31 yards, so for Hennigan, we just subtract 31 yards from his total of 1,746 yards in 13 games, or 403 yards, leaving him with 1,343 yards. Then, we multiply that by 16/14 — since his Oilers played a 14-game schedule — to give him a pro-rated 1,535 yards above the baseline.

That’s the top season since 1960. You may want to downgrade him for being in the AFL, of course, but that’s another matter. The table below shows all player seasons that rank in the top 300 based on either the 2.5X measure or the 3X measure: [click to continue…]

{ 4 comments }

Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. He’s also a semi-regular writer here, and you can view all of Brad’s Football Perspective writing at this page. Brad is working on a WR Project where he analyzes the best WRs over various ten year periods. That work is being produced over at Sports-Central, but Brad has offered to have it reproduced here as well. As always, we at the FP community thank him for his work.

Previous Best WRs By Decade Articles:


Last year, I wrote an article breaking down the best quarterbacks by decade, followed by in-depth profiles of the greatest QBs in history. This year, I’m combining those two themes in a look at the best wide receivers ever, broken into decades. Because careers don’t always fit cleanly into a single decade, I’ve gone in five-year increments. Last week, we covered 1980-89 and 1985-94. This is the sixth installment, examining 1990-99 and 1995-2004. The great receivers of the early ’90s, such as Jerry Rice and Andre Reed, were in last week’s column.

Let’s begin with some specific categories and honors, then we’ll go in depth on the finest wide receivers of each decade.

1990-99

Fastest Receiver: Raghib Ismail

Best Deep Threat: Henry Ellard

Best Hands: Cris Carter

Best Possession Receiver: Jerry Rice

Toughest Receiver: Jerry Rice

Underrated in 2016: Herman Moore

Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Jerry Rice

Best Single Season: Jerry Rice, 1995

Best Overall WR: Jerry Rice

Raghib Ismail and his brother Qadry Ismail retired with nearly identical receiving statistics. Rocket Ismail had 363 receptions, for 5,295 yards and 28 TDs. Missile (Qadry) had 353 receptions, for 5,137 yards and 33 TDs. They each had two 1,000-yard seasons. Raghib was a more productive rusher, and Qadry a more productive returner. Raghib, projected to be the first pick in the 1991 NFL Draft, instead signed a record contract with the Toronto Argonauts, becoming a CFL All-Star before his NFL career began in 1993.

Henry Ellard, whom I named the greatest deep threat of 1985-94, remained so in the ’90s: his 17.13 average was the highest by more than a yard. Ellard had five 1,000-yard seasons in the ’90s, tied for fifth-most, behind only Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Cris Carter, and Michael Irvin. Alvin Harper was a great deep threat across from Irvin, but never a true no. 1 receiver. Ellard had as many catches in three seasons as Harper had in his career. Irvin himself was an underrated deep receiver: he had the most 20+ yard receptions of the ’90s, and his 15.7 receiving average was highest among the 15 players with at least 500 receptions in the decade. Of note: all three of these receivers played for Norv Turner, and all created more first downs than you would expect from their reception and yardage totals.

Herman Moore was a four-time Pro Bowler and made three all-pro teams as a starter (more than Cris Carter and Tim Brown combined). Moore’s 1995 ranks among the most impressive statistical seasons of all time: 123 rec, 1686 yds, 14 TD. Looking at the 1990s as a whole, Moore had more receptions than Andre Reed, more yardage than Henry Ellard, and more touchdowns than Michael Irvin. Yes, really: Moore scored more TDs in the ’90s (59) than Michael Irvin (58). Moore had over 900 receiving yards every year from 1992-98, including three seasons of 100 receptions, but his production was largely limited to those seven seasons.

Tim Brown
Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, 1988-2003; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2004
1,094 receptions, 14,934 yards, 100 TD

Although he was a first-round draft pick, Tim Brown’s receiving career began slowly. However, he was always a dazzling punt returner (3,320 yds, 10.2 avg, 3 TDs). Brown made two Pro Bowls as a returner, in 1988 and ’91, and in 2001 became the oldest NFL player (35) to return a punt for a TD. He also holds the rookie record for all-purpose yards (2,317), a record he took from Gale Sayers and has now owned for more than two decades.

Of course, Brown is most remembered as a receiver who was among the best at his position for a decade. He had nine consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons and ranks 5th all-time in receptions. He’s 6th all-time in receiving yards and 8th in receiving TDs. At the time of his retirement, only Jerry Rice had more yards.

I suggested last week that Andre Reed was more consistent than exceptional. The same criticism might be levelled at Brown, but less convincingly. Brown tied for the NFL lead in receptions once, never led in yards or TDs. In his 17-year career, he made the Associated Press all-pro team just once, as a second-team selection in 1997.

However, Brown, who began his career in 1988, had nine 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Reed, who began his career in 1985, had four. Brown had 1,300 yards four times.1 Brown had more receptions (+143), yards (+1,736), and touchdowns (+13) than Reed. He was an exceptional punt returner; Reed didn’t return kicks. Brown made nine Pro Bowls, to Reed’s seven, even though the AFC was stronger during Brown’s prime than Reed’s. They were both great players, but Brown was better.

Cris Carter
Philadelphia Eagles, 1987-89; Minnesota Vikings, 1990-2001; Miami Dolphins, 2002
1,101 receptions, 13,899 yards, 130 TD

His given name was Graduel Christopher Darin Carter. Carter grew up in southwest Ohio — Bengals country — and spelled his name “Cris” because of Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth.

Fourth all-time in both receptions and receiving TDs, Carter joined Jerry Rice as the starting wide receivers on the 1990s NFL All-Decade team. He was selected to eight Pro Bowls and was twice named first-team all-pro. In 1994, he set the single-season record for receptions (122), and in three other seasons he led the NFL in receiving TDs. Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, and Carter are the only players in history with five straight years of double-digit receiving touchdowns.

I was surprised when Carter didn’t get elected to Canton in his first several years of eligibility. I suspect the voters were reluctant to enshrine him partly for the same reason Art Monk had to wait so long. Monk was repeatedly dismissed as a guy who caught 900 eight-yard hooks, and who wasn’t the most dangerous receiver on his own team. Carter averaged just 12.6 yards per reception, one of the lowest marks in history for an elite wide receiver. Defenses fear the deep threat, the guy who can burn you on any given play. For Washington in the ’80s and early ’90s, that was Gary Clark, not Monk. For Minnesota, it was Randy Moss, not Carter.

Carter last led the Vikings in receiving yards in 1995. Thereafter, he was outgained every year by either Jake Reed or Moss. And yet, half his production came after ’95: five of his eight 1,000-yard seasons, four of his six double-digit TD years, overall about 50% of his statistical value. Essentially, Carter battled the notion that he usually wasn’t the best receiver on his own team, that he was a system player who caught a bunch of short passes and seldom had to deal with double-teams. He was reliable more than explosive, and he was tough like Monk, not graceful like Lance Alworth or Lynn Swann. Carter just doesn’t have the highlight reel those guys do, and he never won a championship.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Carter’s highlight reel is empty. Anyone who watched football in the ’90s remembers, “Cris Carter. All he does is catch touchdowns.” Although made famous by Chris Berman, the phrase originated with Carter’s coach with the Eagles, Buddy Ryan, and was not entirely a compliment. Carter’s most famous highlight came in college. Playing in the Citrus Bowl for Ohio State, Carter caught a ball that his quarterback had tried to throw away.

Carter is one of the most improbable winners ever of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Carter was cut by the Eagles because of drug, alcohol, and personal issues. He antagonized teammates in Minnesota; when Carter was elected to the Hall of Fame, former teammate (1993-96) Qadry Ismail told Sirius XM, “Cris was a bona fide diva … extreme selfishness.” In The Best Minnesota Sports Arguments, Carter has his own chapter entitled, “What Was the Most Selfish Act Committed by a Minnesota Athlete?” The story involves Vikings running back Bill Brown and his dying wife, and paints a very ugly picture of Carter — when he was sober, and old enough to know better. At the 2014 NFL rookie symposium, Carter advised young players that if they got into trouble, “You’ve got to have a fall guy in the crew,” to take the blame. Cris Carter was a great receiver, but he doesn’t seem like a good person.

Irving Fryar
New England Patriots, 1984-92; Miami Dolphins, 1993-95; Phildaelphia Eagles, 1996-98; Washington, 1999-2000
851 receptions, 12,785 yards, 84 TD

Irving Fryar was a late bloomer. The first overall pick in the 1984 draft, Fryar quickly made his mark on special teams — he was a Pro Bowl returner, with 3 punt return TDs in his first three seasons — but didn’t emerge as a major receiving threat until he left New England to play for the Dolphins and Eagles. His first 1,000-yard season came in 1991, when Fryar was 29 and playing his eighth year in the NFL. He was 31 when he made his first Pro Bowl as a receiver, a 10-year veteran. His career-high 1,316 receiving yards came at age 35.2

Fryar made five Pro Bowls (one as a returner) and was second-team all-pro twice (once as a returner). He had five 1,000-yard seasons, and his accomplishments as a returner are significant. It’s natural, I think, to compare him to Henry Ellard. They were drafted just one year apart, both were great punt returners early in their careers, both had most of their best seasons in the ’90s, both had career numbers that looked exceptional when they retired, and far less impressive since the explosion of receiving stats in the expansion era.

Choosing between the two, I’d go with Ellard. He had more good seasons, more of his production came before league-wide receiving numbers went through the roof, and he had a stronger peak. Ellard had four seasons among the top four in receiving yards, Fryar none. Ellard played against tough NFC competition, in an era when the AFC was a substantially weaker conference. They were both great players, but Ellard was more exceptional.

Since I spent a paragraph explaining why I’m not wild about Cris Carter, for the sake of equal treatment I should point out that Irving Fryar has an even uglier past. He missed the 1985 AFC Championship Game due to an injured hand. But he didn’t hurt the hand playing football, he hurt it in a domestic dispute with his pregnant wife (Fryar needed six stitches). He had drug issues, violence against women and animals, allegations that he attempted to throw a game in college. He was arrested on weapons charges. Rick Reilly called Fryar “the All Pro screw-up, the Human Incident, the Original Sinner.” Fryar is currently in jail for fraud.

Michael Irvin
Dallas Cowboys, 1988-99
750 receptions, 11,904 yards, 65 TD

I named Jerry Rice’s 1995 season the greatest by a wide receiver in the 1990s. That’s tough to argue with. Rice caught 122 passes, for 1,848 yards and 15 TDs. Those are excellent totals, in every category, and his single-season yardage record lasted almost 20 years. But there’s a compelling argument to be made that in 1991, Michael Irvin was even better. Irvin caught 93 passes, for 1,523 yards and 8 TDs. Those are great stats, but they’re dwarfed by Rice’s. What’s the argument for Irvin?

First, consider that Irvin’s 93 receptions produced 79 first downs, compared to 75 first downs for Rice. That 122-93 reception gap is a lot less significant when you consider what their catches did for the team. We also need to consider the environment of the league. Passing statistics exploded in the mid-1990s, and 1995 was an expansion year, diluting the talent pool and allowing the best players to excel even more than usual. In 1995, Rice had 67 yards more than 2nd-place Herman Moore. In 1991, Irvin had 187 yards more than 2nd-place Gary Clark. Irvin had the most receiving first downs in the NFL, by 17. Four receivers had more first downs in 1995 than Rice. While Rice’s raw numbers are much better, Irvin actually stood out more from the league. And it wasn’t a one-year blip. Irvin had more yards and more first downs in 1991 than any receiver the two years before and after.

1991 was the only season in which Irvin led the NFL in a major statistic. In 1995, he had more catches (111) for more yards (1603) and more TDs (10), but in context, ’91 was a better season. Irvin retired with seven 1,000-yard seasons, plus 962 in an injury-shortened (11 games) 1996. In four of those years, Irvin gained over 1,300 yards. He was big for that era, and strong and fast.

He was also a great postseason performer. In 16 postseason games, Irvin caught 87 passes for 1,315 yards and 8 TDs. He had six 100-yard games, plus four more with over 80 yards. That includes 114 yards and 2 TDs in Super Bowl XXVII, one of three Super Bowl victories in Irvin’s career.

Andre Rison
Indianapolis Colts, 1989; Atlanta Falcons, 1990-94; Cleveland Browns, 1995; Jacksonville Jaguars, 1996; Green Bay Packers, 1996; Kansas City Chiefs, 1997-99; Oakland Raiders, 2000
743 receptions, 10,205 yards, 84 TD

Andre Rison played for seven NFL teams. A guy’s career looks fragmented when he moves around so often, hard to view as a whole. Irving Fryar and Rison did a lot of the same things as Andre Reed, but the constant team-switching makes it hard, psychologically, to view them that way. During his NFL career, Rison caught touchdown passes from Jack Trudeau (4), Chris Miller (25), Scott Campbell (2), Billy Joe Tolliver (6), Wade Wilson (3), Bobby Hebert (11), Jeff George (9), Vinny Testaverde (1), Eric Zeier (2), Mark Brunell (2), Brett Favre (1), Elvis Grbac (7), and Rich Gannon (11).3

Part of the reason Rison moved around so much is that he was viewed as a bit of a headcase. He was a showboat in Atlanta, but you can get away with that when you’re performing at a high level. Rison signed a big free agent contract with the Browns, then publicly cursed at the Cleveland fans. He played for five teams in four years, his girlfriend alleged that he was abusive4, he went to the Raiders — of course he went to the Raiders — and Rison even played for the Toronto Argonauts after his NFL career ended (winning a Grey Cup in 2004).

What if Rison had stayed with Atlanta, or gone to a stable team rather than one on the eve of a move to Baltimore? He was a Pro Bowler for the Chiefs in 1997, and a valuable player for the Packers in the 1996 postseason, including a 54-yard TD reception to begin Super Bowl XXXI, so it’s not like his talent dried up after he left Atlanta, or that he couldn’t succeed without the run and shoot. But that was the widespread impression at the time; Rison’s success with Green Bay was a real surprise coming from someone most fans thought was finished as an impact player.

A first-team all-pro in 1990 and a five-time Pro Bowler, Rison had five 1,000-yard seasons and in 1993 tied Jerry Rice for the most receiving TDs in the NFL (15). In his final NFL season, Rison became just the seventh player in history with 700 receptions, 10,000 yards, and 80 touchdowns. NFL players with four consecutive seasons of double-digit receiving TDs: Tommy McDonald, Bob Hayes, Jerry Rice, Rison, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, and Marvin Harrison.

1995-2004

Fastest Receiver: Randy Moss

Best Deep Threat: Randy Moss

Best Hands: Marvin Harrison

Best Possession Receiver: Marvin Harrison

Toughest Receiver: Keyshawn Johnson

Underrated in 2016: Jimmy Smith

Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Rod Smith

Best Single Season: Jerry Rice, 1995

Best Overall WR: Marvin Harrison

Randy Moss was as fast as anyone. If there’s anyone else from this era who compares, it would surely be Tim Dwight. I explained last week that given a close call between two players for a designation like “Fastest Receiver”, I prefer to highlight the lesser-known. Within that, however, I still want to recognize legitimate football players, not just fast guys who put on pads and a helmet. Tim Dwight was a real football player, but he was a returner more than a receiver. Dwight had 203 kickoff returns, 185 punt returns, and 194 career receptions.

The 8th pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, Joey Galloway was a downfield receiver, a burner. He scored 5 punt return TDs and rushed for 496 yards, one of the highest totals ever by a receiver. He had six 1,000-yard receiving seasons and three years of double-digit TDs, retiring with 83 total TDs and nearly 11,000 receiving yards. He never made a Pro Bowl, but he was a good player with a 16-year career.

Galloway is statistically comparable to Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell, Muhsin Muhammad, and Rod Smith (see below). McCardell quietly caught almost 900 passes and gained over 11,000 yards. A two-time Pro Bowler, he had five 1,000-yard seasons and five years among the NFL’s top 10 in receptions. A 12th-round draft pick in 1991, McCardell didn’t get a chance to play regularly until he joined the Jaguars in 1996. If McCardell hadn’t lost five years of his prime sitting on the bench, would he be a Hall of Famer? Maybe.

One of the more underappreciated receivers in recent history, Muhsin Muhammad gained at least 500 receiving yards in 12 seasons, caught 90 or more passes three times, and led the NFL at various times in every major receiving category: receptions (2000), receiving yards (2004), and receiving touchdowns (2004). He made two Pro Bowls and was first-team all-pro in ’04.

Isaac Bruce
Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, 1994-2007; San Francisco 49ers, 2008-09
1,024 receptions, 15,208 yards, 91 TD

Isaac Bruce ranks 4th all-time in receiving yards. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons, including 1,781 in 1995, still the 5th-highest total in history. Bruce was hard-working, humble, and well-liked. He was a good route-runner, and he was fast enough to worry defenders, but he had the hands of a great possession receiver. Bruce spent much of his career on bad teams, but made big plays when he got the chance, including the 73-yard game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Bruce was named to four Pro Bowls and went over 1,000 yards four other times, including 1,292 in 2004 and 1,781 in 1995. His résumé bears a similarity to Charlie Joiner’s — guys with long careers and sensational counting stats, but who weren’t usually regarded as being among the very best while they were active. Both also have to fight the perception that their numbers are partly or largely a product of the absurd offenses they played in, where any receiver could become a star.

Bruce’s case is a little stronger than Joiner’s. He ranked in the top five in receiving yards four times (and led the league in 1996), compared to only twice for Joiner, who never led the NFL in a major statistic. Two of Bruce’s three best seasons came when the Rams were coached by Rich Brooks, while Joiner’s best years were under Don Coryell. Bruce had four 100-yard games in the postseason, and he was a Super Bowl star. Joiner deserves his place in Canton, and Bruce deserves to join him.

Marvin Harrison
Indianapolis Colts, 1996-2008
1,102 receptions, 14,580 yards, 128 TD

In eight consecutive seasons, Marvin Harrison finished with more than 80 receptions, 1,100 yards, and double-digit touchdowns. He is the only player in history with four consecutive 1,400-yard seasons, and one of only five (Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson) to go over 1,400 in any four seasons. Harrison still holds the single-season record for receptions (143). He led the NFL twice in receptions, twice in receiving yards, and once in receiving TDs. He was first-team all-pro three times and qualified for eight Pro Bowls.

Harrison was not the biggest, fastest, or strongest receiver in the game; he didn’t intimidate opponents the way Terrell Owens and Moss did. But Harrison was one of the smartest receivers ever to play, and like Rice, he worked very hard to be the best; the extra practice hours he put in working with Peyton Manning are legendary. Harrison was an exceptional route-runner, and he was the best I ever saw at the toe-tap on the sideline. Give him an inch and he’d make the catch.

Harrison, Rice, and Andre Johnson are the only players with three 1,500-yard receiving seasons. Harrison has the most receptions, receiving yards, and TDs of any player to spend his whole career with one team.

Keyshawn Johnson
New York Jets, 1996-99; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2000-03; Dallas Cowboys, 2004-05; Carolina Panthers, 2006
804 receptions, 10,571 yards, 64 TD

The top pick in the 1996 draft, Keyshawn Johnson was known as much for his attitude as his play. He caught 70 or more passes nine times, and wrote a book (with Shelley Smith) titled Just Give Me the Damn Ball!, setting the tone for a parade of diva receivers ever since. He had at least 600 receiving yards every year of his career, and he was dismissed from the Buccaneers in mid-season 2003 because the defending champs didn’t want to deal with him any more. His name is Joseph Ladarious Keyshawn Johnson, and he was nicknamed Me-Shawn.

Some people won’t like that I named Johnson the toughest receiver of the decade. Keyshawn was a self-centered loudmouth, arguably the first of the modern diva receivers. But he was also a gritty possession receiver who would go over the middle, and he was the best blocking WR of his generation. If he had been 10 or 15 pounds bigger, Johnson would have been a Shannon Sharpe-style tight end. He made three Pro Bowls, caught 100 passes one year, and retired with more than 800 receptions, for over 10,000 yards.

The famous 1996 receiver class includes Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Keyshawn Johnson, Muhsin Muhammad, Eric Moulds, Joe Horn, Amani Toomer, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, and Bobby Engram. All 10 had over 500 receptions, over 7,500 receiving yards, and at least 35 touchdowns. Seven of the 10 made at least one Pro Bowl, and they combined for 27. Taken as a group, they averaged 768 catches, 10,568 yards, and 69 TDs — about the same numbers as Keyshawn. I’d be surprised if there’s ever another class of rookie receivers so deep and successful.

Jimmy Smith
Dallas Cowboys, 1992-93; Jacksonville Jaguars, 1995-2005
862 receptions, 12,287 yards, 67 TD

You probably don’t remember Jimmy Smith on the Super Bowl-winning Cowboys in 1992. He played seven games and never caught a pass. He didn’t play at all the next two years. Smith didn’t become a full-time starter until 1996, when he was 27, an age when many players begin to decline.

Smith made the most of the years he did play, with nine 1,000-yard receiving seasons and five Pro Bowl appearances. Smith was only the third player with multiple seasons catching 110 or more passes, the first two being Jerry Rice and Cris Carter from 1994-95. He is one of only five receivers with nine or more 1,000-yard seasons (Tim Brown, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Rice), and one of six with six straight 1,100-yard seasons (Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Moss, Rice, Roddy White). In 1999, Smith led the NFL in receptions (116) and first downs (86), then the highest totals in history outside the whacked ’94-’95 seasons, and his team went 14-2.

Smith was occasionally dogged by drug issues, and his four-game suspension in 2003 probably kept him from becoming the only person besides Rice with 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons. Smith left the game when he was still a good player; his final season yielded 70 catches, 1023 yards, and 6 TDs. Smith in 2004 gained the third-most receiving yards ever by a 35-year-old (1,172), and he and Rice are the only players ever to gain over 1,000 yards in a full season after turning 36.

So in Smith you have one of the best old receivers ever, a guy who had a lot of good seasons, including five years over 1,200 yards and two seasons catching more than 110 passes.5 His detractors would point out that while Smith did have exceptional years, and played well in several others, he had so few seasons on the field that his overall statistics don’t measure up to the best players of his generation. Some detractors would also mention the drug thing, but unlike some of the other players profiled here, Jimmy Smith really wasn’t a bad guy. He was an addict, but he wasn’t a jerk.

Most 1,000-yard receiving seasons in NFL history:

1. Jerry  Rice, 14
2. Randy  Moss, 10
t3. Tim  Brown, 9
t3. Terrell  Owens, 9
t3. Jimmy  Smith, 9

Rod Smith
Denver Broncos, 1995-2006
849 receptions, 11,389 yards, 68 TD

Keenan McCardell, Muhsin Muhammad, and Rod Smith have virtually identical career stats:

             Rec    Yards     1stD   TD
Muhammad     860    11,438    566    62
Smith        849    11,389    570    68
McCardell    883    11,373    568    63

It’s remarkable for three contemporary players to post such similar stats over long, productive careers. Overall numbers notwithstanding, Smith was by far the best of the three. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons, as many as McCardell (5) and Muhammad (3) combined. Smith played on two Super Bowl champions, with 152 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXIII. He caught 100 passes twice, caught 70 passes nine times, double-digit TDs twice, 1,200 yards three times, as many as 1,600 one year.

Smith didn’t have a long career. Undrafted out of Division II Missouri Southern, he didn’t play in the NFL until he was 25, and didn’t become a starter until he was 27. It’s a shame careers can turn so heavily on high school performance. If Smith had been offered a scholarship to a Big 10 or SEC school, gotten drafted in the third round, and become a starter when he was 23 or 24, maybe he’d have another 200 receptions, 3,000 yards, 20 TDs.

We could also throw Keyshawn Johnson into the McCardell-Muhammad-Smith group. His stats are basically the same: 800-900 receptions, about 11,000 yards, 60-70 TDs. Shannon Sharpe’s statistics are similar to Keyshawn’s, if you exclude first downs.

              Rec    Yards     1stD   TD
Muhammad      860    11,438    566    62
Smith         849    11,389    570    68
McCardell     883    11,373    568    63
Johnson       804    10,571    552    64
Sharpe        815    10,060    490    62

Other players with comparable stats include Gary Clark, Donald Driver, Joey Galloway, Michael Irvin, Chad Johnson, Santana Moss, and Brandon Marshall (through 2015), although all except Marshall had fewer receptions.

  1. Editor’s note: In addition, Brown has 31 points of Gray Ink in receiving yards, compared to just 17 for Reed. That’s a pretty big difference. []
  2. Editor’s note: When I looked at the 100 players with the most career receiving yards through 2014, Fryar was the only one to have his single-season high in that category come at age 35 or older. []
  3. Editor’s note: Miller was responsible for 23% of Rison’s career yards, followed by Gannon (14%), Hebert (11%), Grbac (10%), and George (9%). []
  4. Editor’s note: Can you imagine if Rison’s relationship with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez existed during today’s social media world?? []
  5. Editor’s note: I wrote a very pro-Smith profile here. []
{ 23 comments }

In the modern era, there are 32 teams playing 16 games each, so 512 total team games. In 1970, there were 364 team games. Consider that in 2015, the 512th-best receiving game produced 72 receiving yards; in 1970, the 364th-best receiving game produced 55 receiving yards.

One thing I like to do is to give receivers credit for yards above a certain baseline: this removes “junk” seasons or, in this case, games. Of course, the devil is in the details: i.e., how you define junk. And if you want to adjust for era, you need some baseline to measure against. One way to do it is to use the number of team games, as I explained above. For example, let’s look at Justin Blackmon’s 2012 season. [click to continue…]

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Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. He’s also a semi-regular writer here, and you can view all of Brad’s Football Perspective writing at this page. Brad is working on a WR Project where he analyzes the best WRs over various ten year periods. That work is being produced over at Sports-Central, but Brad has offered to have it reproduced here as well. As always, we at the FP community thank him for his work.

Previous Best WRs By Decade Articles:


Last year, I wrote an article breaking down the best quarterbacks by decade, followed by in-depth profiles of the greatest QBs in history. This year, I’m combining those two themes in a look at the best wide receivers ever, broken into decades. Because careers don’t always fit cleanly into a single decade, I’ve gone in five-year increments. Last week, we covered 1970-79 and 1975-84. This is the fifth installment, examining 1980-89 and 1985-94. The great receivers of the early ’80s, such as Steve Largent and Charlie Joiner, were in last week’s column.

Let’s begin with some specific categories and honors, then we’ll go in depth on the finest wide receivers of each decade. [click to continue…]

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