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The Best Skill Position Groups Ever

by Chase Stuart on August 21, 2013

in History

Atlanta has a pretty nice set of weapons for Ryan.

Where does Ryan's crew rank?

The Atlanta Falcons have a pretty good group of skill position players. Tony Gonzalez has a comfortable lead on Jerry Rice’s career receptions pace; Gonzalez will one day become the first tight end inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Steven Jackson is a borderline Hall of Famer who was stuck on perpetually lousy teams. Roddy White may not be Hall of Fame caliber, but he’s better than you realize: I ranked him as the 37th best receiver of all time in February and he ranked 21st on the list of best six seasons in True Receiving Yards. And he has shown little sign of slowing down, either: White’s recorded at least 80 catches, 1100 yards, and 6 touchdowns in each of the last six years, a mark previously achieved by only Rice and Marvin Harrison. But White will soon pass the torch to Julio Jones, who will battle with A.J. Green and Dez Bryant over the next decade for the title of most freakishly athletic receiver. As for the quarterback, well, Matt Ryan’s 56 wins is the most of any quarterback through five seasons in NFL history.

With those five men, the Falcons have one of the best quintets in league history. Of course, with eleven men on the field and only five offensive lineman on most plays, “skill position players” generally refers to a group of six players. According to Football Outsiders, Harry Douglas was usually that sixth man last year, as he was on the field for 585 snaps in 2012. Douglas is a fine player as a third receiver, but he will bring down the value of this group.

Which made me wonder: which teams have fielded the best six skill position players ever? It’s tricky to even know what “best” means: a 30-year-old Earl Campbell isn’t the same as the 24-year-old version, but if you look simply at productivity in that season, you’re making a list of the best offenses. So here’s what I did.

1) I included in my data set every player who scored at least 5 points of AV in a particular season. This should minimize players who didn’t make any significant contribution in that season.

2) Next, I measured the top six non-lineman offensive players for each team according to their career AV.

3) Then, I took the geometric mean of the career AV of those six players to come up with a team grade.

This is far from a perfect measure — it’s actually quick and dirty — but it was the easiest thing I could think of. Of course, we’ll have to wait a few years for players like Jones and Ryan to rack up their career AV, so I thought it would be fun to look at the current top ten groups.

Before moving on to them, let’s take a look at those who deserve honorable mentions:

1959 Cleveland Browns (77) – QB: Milt Plum (67); RB: Jim Brown (148); RB: Ray Renfro (60); WR: Billy Howton (79); WR: Bobby Mitchell (95); TE: Preston Carpenter (45)

1972 New York Jets (76) – QB: Joe Namath (94); RB: John Riggins (91); RB: Emerson Boozer (53); WR: Don Maynard (100); TE: Rich Caster (71); TE: Jerome Barkum (63)

1978 Dallas Cowboys (76) – QB: Roger Staubach (104); RB: Tony Dorsett (107); RB: Preston Pearson (57); WR: Drew Pearson (79); WR: Tony Hill (68); TE: Billy Joe DuPree (58)

1998 Minnesota Vikings (75) – QB: Randall Cunningham (107); RB: Robert Smith (61); RB: Leroy Hoard (43); WR: Randy Moss (123); WR: Cris Carter (98); WR: Jake Reed (53)

1998 San Francisco 49ers (75) – QB: Steve Young (135); RB: Garrison Hearst (71); RB: Marc Edwards (25); WR: Jerry Rice (160); WR: Terrell Owens (119); WR: J.J. Stokes (40)

2008 San Diego Chargers (75) – QB: Philip Rivers (95); RB: LaDainian Tomlinson (126); RB: Darren Sproles (45); WR: Vincent Jackson (61); WR: Chris Chambers (57); TE: Antonio Gates (97)

Top Ten

#10) 2004 Kansas City Chiefs (Geometric mean of 78) – QB: Trent Green (career AV of 94); RB: Priest Holmes (83); RB: Larry Johnson (51); WR: Eddie Kennison (69); WR: Johnnie Morton (69); TE: Tony Gonzalez (115)

These Chiefs finished in the top two in points, yards, first downs, and rushing touchdowns. From ’02 to ’05, Willie Roaf, Brian Waters, and Will Shields gave Kansas City one of the league’s best lines every season. In ’03, the team started 8-0, finished 13-3, and finished in the top two in yards, points, first downs, passing yards, net yards per pass, and rushing touchdowns. In reality, All-Pro fullback Tony Richardson was the sixth skill position player for these Chiefs teams, but Johnson became a valuable contributor in ’04 and has more career AV, which is why the ’04 club makes it into the top ten.

#9) 1992 Minnesota Vikings (78) – QB: Rich Gannon (99); RB: Roger Craig (93); RB: Terry Allen (61); WR: Cris Carter (98); WR: Anthony Carter (63); TE: Steve Jordan (65)
[Also: 1991 Minnesota Vikings (76) - QB: Rich Gannon (99); RB: Herschel Walker (79); RB: Terry Allen (61); WR: Cris Carter (98); WR: Anthony Carter (63); TE: Steve Jordan (65)]

In ’92, Gannon threw 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in twelve starts, but the Vikings finished 4th in points scored and made the playoffs with an 11-5 record (the defense finished second in the league with 42 forced turnovers). The year before, with Walker instead of Craig at running back, the team finished 8-8 and finished below average in most passing categories. The team also had a couple of Hall of Fame offensive lineman on the left side, and you should read Jason Lisk’s review of the ’91 Vikings posted a few years ago (see also Doug’s post on prestigious rosters). One last footnote: the 1993 version became the first NFL team to roster five players who had a 1,000-yard receiving season in their career (Jake Reed was already on the team, so drafting Qadry Ismail that season gave them a fifth such player as Craig, Carter, and Reed all returned in ’93).

#8) 2001 St. Louis Rams (81) – QB: Kurt Warner (95); RB: Marshall Faulk (133); WR: Isaac Bruce (102); WR: Torry Holt (100); WR: Ricky Proehl (57); WR: Az-Zahir Hakim (38)

It’s hard to top the Greatest Shot on Turf Rams when it comes to four-deep talent at the skill positions; Proehl and Hakim were fine role players for St. Louis, but drag down the group as a whole. From ’99 to ’01, this was as dominant an offense as we’ve ever seen.

#7) 1996 San Francisco 49ers (81) – QB: Steve Young (135); RB: Terry Kirby (48); RB: William Floyd (34); WR: Jerry Rice (160); WR: Terrell Owens (119); TE: Brent Jones (68)

It’s hard separating the 49ers teams — I think the ’90, ’92, and ’94 teams (listed together as #5) had more in common with each other, so I’ve left this team here at number seven . Without Craig or Watters, the ’95 team — coached by Marc Trestman — graded as my most pass-happy team in NFL history. The 1996 team was only less exciting by those standards; otherwise, this was your typical high-octane 49ers team. Young led the league in passer rating and completion percentage, Rice led the NFL in receptions, and San Francisco went 12-4 and won the NFC West.

#6) 2006 San Diego Chargers (83) – QB: Philip Rivers (95); RB: LaDainian Tomlinson (126); RB: Michael Turner (53); WR: Keenan McCardell (84); WR: Vincent Jackson (61); TE: Antonio Gates (97)

This is a group that only looks better with the passage of time, as Turner and Jackson have now starred in the NFC South, too. San Diego went 14-2 and led the league in points scored, but was upset by the Patriots in the playoffs. Much of this core was on the ’08 squad that made the honorable list, including another future NFC South running back. Like the Chiefs teams, the sixth player was often a star fullback: in this case, Lorenzo Neal.

#5) 1992 San Francisco 49ers (84) – QB: Steve Young (135); RB: Ricky Watters (102); RB: Tom Rathman (40); WR: Jerry Rice (160); WR: John Taylor (59); TE: Brent Jones (68)

1994 San Francisco 49ers (82) – QB: Steve Young (135); RB: Ricky Watters (102); RB: William Floyd (34); WR: Jerry Rice (160); WR: John Taylor (59); TE: Brent Jones (68)

1990 San Francisco 49ers (81) – QB: Joe Montana (123); RB: Roger Craig (93); RB: Tom Rathman (40); WR: Jerry Rice (160); WR: John Taylor (59); TE: Brent Jones (68)

Rice, Taylor, and Jones were on all three teams. Rathman was on the ’90 and ’92 team, while Young and Watters were on the ’92 and ’94 teams. The 49ers went 14-2 in 1990, 13-3 in ’92, and 14-2 in ’94. San Francisco reached the NFC Championship Game in ’90 and ’92 and won it all in 1994. These teams were loaded: the 49ers led the league in points differential in ’92 and ’94, and the ’90 team was a two-time defending champion. But none of these teams come in as the best San Francisco squad.

#4) 1985 San Francisco 49ers (86) – QB: Joe Montana (123); RB: Roger Craig (93); RB: Wendell Tyler (58); WR: Jerry Rice (160); WR: Dwight Clark (61); TE: Russ Francis (64)
1986 San Francisco 49ers (85) – QB: Joe Montana (123); RB: Roger Craig (93); RB: Joe Cribbs (54); WR: Jerry Rice (160); WR: Dwight Clark (61); TE: Russ Francis (64)

Sure, Montana, Rice, and Craig were on the ’85-’86 teams and the 1990 team, but this was a different era in 49ers history. The 1984 team was one of the all-time great teams, and the 49ers drafted Rice the next season. Clark grades out as a better player than Taylor in AV and in True Receiving Yards. The Montana-Rice-Craig-Clark quartet was complemented with some AFC East star power: Francis was a three-time Pro Bowler in the late ’70s with the Patriots, while Cribbs made three Pro Bowls with Buffalo in the early ’80s. The ’85 team had Tyler instead of Cribbs, and the former Ram had three strong seasons for the 49ers from ’83 to ’85. The ’85 and ’86 49ers teams weren’t as statistically dominant as the early ’90s version, though, and Montana was in the midst of a three-year dry spell as a playoff mortal.

#3) 1983 San Diego Chargers (87) – QB: Dan Fouts (122); RB: James Brooks (84); RB: Chuck Muncie (73); WR: Charlie Joiner (92); WR: Wes Chandler (80); TE: Kellen Winslow (76)
1982 San Diego Chargers (87) – QB: Dan Fouts (122); RB: James Brooks (84); RB: Chuck Muncie (73); WR: Charlie Joiner (92); WR: Wes Chandler (80); TE: Kellen Winslow (76)
1981 San Diego Chargers (87) – QB: Dan Fouts (122); RB: James Brooks (84); RB: Chuck Muncie (73); WR: Charlie Joiner (92); WR: Wes Chandler (80); TE: Kellen Winslow (76)

In ’81 and ’82, the team finished 1st in points, yards, first downs, and net yards per pass attempt. San Diego actually led the league in yards, first downs, and passing yards, and finished 3rd in Net Yards per Attempt in ’83… but 55 turnovers led to a 6-10 record. By ’84, Muncie was washed up and Brooks was in Cincinnati, leaving Don Coryell to use more two-tight end looks.

#2) 1966 Baltimore Colts (90) – QB: Johnny Unitas (144); RB: Lenny Moore (94); RB: Tom Matte (67); WR: Raymond Berry (102); TE: John Mackey (75); WR: Jimmy Orr (77)

1964 Baltimore Colts (90) – QB: Johnny Unitas (144); RB: Lenny Moore (94); RB: Tom Matte (67); WR: Raymond Berry (102); TE: John Mackey (75); WR: Jimmy Orr (77)

Coached by Don Shula and with legendary Jim Parker on the offensive line, this sextet of skill-position stars were able to dominate the league. In ’64, the team finished 1st in points, yards, turnovers given up, net yards per attempt, and rushing touchdowns. The team marched to a 12-2 record, but was upset by the Browns in the NFL title game. By ’66, age was becoming a factor as Moore, Unitas, and Berry were all 33 that season. (The ’65 team missed the list because Jerry Hill (career AV of 34) led the team in rushing, leaving Matte with only four points of AV that year.) It’s hard to argue with four Hall of Famers — Matt and Orr make quite a valuable 5-6 punch — but this isn’t even on the highest Colts team on the list.

#1) 2004 Indianapolis Colts (99) – QB: Peyton Manning (165); RB: Edgerrin James (114); WR: Marvin Harrison (124); WR: Reggie Wayne (112); TE: Dallas Clark (66); TE: Marcus Pollard (53)
2003 Indianapolis Colts (99) – QB: Peyton Manning (165); RB: Edgerrin James (114); WR: Marvin Harrison (124); WR: Reggie Wayne (112); TE: Dallas Clark (66); TE: Marcus Pollard (53)
2005 Indianapolis Colts (96) – QB: Peyton Manning (165); RB: Edgerrin James (114); WR: Marvin Harrison (124); WR: Reggie Wayne (112); WR: Brandon Stokley (46); TE: Dallas Clark (66)

[The '06 and '08 versions, with Joseph Addai (50) and Dominic Rhodes (36) instead of Harrison and a tight end, would have also made the top ten.]

We all know about the ’04 Colts, when Manning produced the second-greatest season in quarterback history. But Manning was not without help: Wayne ranked in the top 20 in all three of the True Receiving Yards lists, while Harrison ranked 5th, 2nd, and 2nd. Wayne ranked in the top 30 in my GWROAT list, while Harrison trailed just Rice and Don Hutson. At running back, James is a borderline Hall of Famer — he is one of just four players to ever record four seasons of 1500+ rushing yards, and he’s the 11th best fantasy running back of all time (and 10 of the top 12 are in, or will be in, the Hall of Fame).

Clark hadn’t matured into the 100-catch player he was in ’09, but teamed with Pollard (in ’03 and ’04) and Bryan Fletcher (in ’05) when the team used its two-tight end sets. Stokley was an excellent third wide receiver, and is still hanging around the NFL. Indianapolis ran a simple but effective offense, which tends to look even better when you have the best collection of skill-position talent in NFL history.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

ryan August 21, 2013 at 7:01 am

Wonder where the broncos elway, davis, rsmith rank?

Pfr still has kinks in the av formula, bobby walston is still showing >110 av, but this is a fine list regardless.

Football outsiders is having a 10 yr anniversary party with ranking the greatest players of the fo era,
priest holmes has a monster peak by those measures with your low av, while james is merely good but has a high av.

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Kibbles August 21, 2013 at 11:08 am

That was my first thought- I was shocked that the Elway/Davis/Sharpe/Smith/McCaffrey Broncos didn’t make the list (with either Howard Griffith or Dwayne Carswell as the 6th), but then I realized that AV doesn’t really value blocking fullbacks or TEs, and Griffith/Carswell have career AVs under 20.

Crazy-impressive skill group, though. Elway and Sharpe are two of the greatest to play their positions, Rod Smith is perpetually underrated and always shows well on the Greatest Receivers lists FP generates, Ed McCaffrey makes a strong 3rd target in the passing game, and ’96-’98 Terrell Davis is probably the most dominant RB stretch the league has seen since Jim Brown (although using career AV obviously hurts in this exercise). Denver’s 6th might not have been much use out in pass patterns, but Griffith and Carswell were both devastating blockers- so much so that Carswell actually ended his career as an offensive lineman- and Carswell in particular was a very effective outlet receiver who averaged 400 receiving yards a year once Shannon Sharpe was gone and even made the pro bowl once.

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Chase Stuart August 21, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Yes, it’s a great group. I accidentally forgot to filter out a second QB the first time around, and the ’98 Broncos with Brister (instead of Griffith) made the top ten, IIRC.

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Kibbles August 21, 2013 at 11:27 pm

I’d imagine that must have done fun things to the early-90s 49ers, too.

I was about to suggest that it would have given the Unitas/Bert Jones Colts a boost, but then remembered that Unitas and Jones never actually coexisted on the same team, because the Colts are such lucky bastards that Manning-to-Luck was only the second time they’d had to move on from a top-5 all-time QB with injury concerns and had fallen into a top pick in a draft with a franchise QB to cushion the fall.

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mrh August 22, 2013 at 9:24 am

I’m guessing the 2000 Rams with two 90+ career AV QBs were pretty high before that screening. Green (94) and Warner (95) were closer in ability than people remember. Warner is a potential HoF QB while Green is remembered as merely pretty good. But if Green doesn’t get hurt in pre-season 1999, Warner may never have gotten a shot.

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Sean Donovan August 21, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Originally though the 2009 New England Patriots should be #2 or #3 on the list: Brady (139), Fred Taylor (88), Kevin Faulk (56), Moss (123), Welker (83), Joey Galloway (78) gives you a geometric mean of 90.3914. But neither Taylor (2) nor Galloway (1) provided >4 AV that year.

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Chase Stuart August 21, 2013 at 3:01 pm

That’s interesting. Thanks for running those numbers.

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minstrel August 23, 2013 at 2:32 pm

——————————————————————————————–
But White will soon pass the torch to Julio Jones, who will battle with A.J. Green and Dez Bryant over the next decade for the title of most freakishly athletic receiver.
——————————————————————————————–

I assume you meant “non-Calvin Johnson division,” because Calvin Johnson may be the most freakish athlete ever to play football at any position. ;)

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Chase Stuart August 23, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Johnson will be 28 in a few weeks. I consider him to be part of a different generation than Jones (24), Bryant (24, 25 in November) or Green (25). That may not be right, I guess, but that’s sort of what I was thinking. In ten years, Megatron will be almost certainly washed up or out of the league, while those guys could conceivably lead the league in receiving yards.

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Kibbles August 24, 2013 at 11:14 am

10 years is a pretty arbitrarily defined endpoint, though. In 6 years, they’ll all still be going strong. Calvin Johnson is closer in age to the Green/Jones/Bryant group than he is to Andre Johnson. He’s about as close in age to Demaryius Thomas as he is to Larry Fitzgerald. I tend to think of Calvin as the third member of the Andre/Larry/Calvin trio, just because of all the years where they’ve been vying for the top fantasy selection against each other, but if we’re sorting by age Calvin might belong more with the young guns.

Of course, more than age, most people define generations by when the player rose to prominence. For instance, most people consider Steve Young and Troy Aikman part of the same “generation” of quarterbacks because they were both elite during roughly the same window, even though Young entered the league four years earlier and was five years older. In that case, grouping Calvin with Andre/Larry makes a lot more sense, because as I said, they’ve been vying for the top fantasy selection against each other for most of their careers to this point. If Calvin shows exceptional longevity, maybe he can hope to achieve Brett Favre-like status and serve as a bridge between two generations, much like Favre was pretty much the only quarterback to be relevant from the back half of the Elway/Marino/Young/Aikman years through the first half of the Brady/Manning/Brees years.

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Chase Stuart August 24, 2013 at 11:19 am

Agreed.

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minstrel August 23, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Ah, I see. I guess I still think of Johnson as young-ish, but he’s solidly into his prime. It’s hard to define “generations,” but I see what you mean.

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