On Monday, I explained my methodology for ranking every wide receiver in football history, and yesterday, I presented a list of the best single seasons of all time. Today the career list of the top 150 wide receivers. As usual, I implemented a 100/95/90 formula, giving a player credit for 100% of his production in his best season, 95% of his value in his second-best season, 90% in his third year, and so on. The table below is fully sortable and lists the first and last year each person played wide receiver1; you can use the search feature to find the best receiver to ever play for each team (for example, typing ‘ram’ for the Rams ‘clt’ for the Colts.)
|54||Gene A. Washington||2524||1969||1979||sfo-det|
I have an entire post dedicated to Jimmy Smith, so I’ll leave his ranking alone for today. Let’s look at some other interesting results.
Rice vs. Huston
It’s difficult to compare Rice and Hutson, but it’s pretty obvious that they are the two greatest receivers of all time. What’s really amazing is how far ahead those two are compared to every other receiver that’s ever played.
Moss vs. Owens vs. Harrison
I was a little surprised to see that these three never finished 1-2-3 in the rankings, as it certainly seemed for a few years that they were head and shoulders above the rest of the league. In 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2005, they were the first three wide receivers selected in the average fantasy draft, and Harrison and Moss were the first two receivers off the board in 2000 and 2004, too. 2 Here is a look at the production of each player from 1996 to 2010; Harrison is in blue and white, Moss in purple and yellow, and Owens in red and gold.
Harrison had the longest sustained period of success: he was just outstanding from ’99 to ’06. On the other hand, he didn’t contribute much outside of those years. That’s why Harrison ranks “only” 6th in receiving yards, behind players like Tim Brown and Isaac Bruce. But among retired players, Harrison ranks 2nd in career receiving yards per game (Torry Holt), while Bruce is 12th (and Brown is way down the list due to some real junk years).
Moss had that three-year stretch during the middle of his career — an injury-plagued final year in Minnesota before his two seasons in Oakland — that really hurt his career numbers. Owens is a bit up and down, but antics aside, he was an outstanding receiver. It’s hard to really separate these three in my mind, and many will point to the quarterbacks when looking for ways to separate the trio.
When I broke the numbers down last summer, I found that Harrison had 87% of his yards from Peyton Manning and 8% from Jim Harbaugh, Moss had 38% from Daunte Culpepper, 19% from Tom Brady, 10% from Randall Cunningham, and 7% each from Kerry Collins, Jeff George, and Matt Cassel. Owens had the most eclectic group, with 34% from Jeff Garcia, 20% from Tony Romo, 15% from Steve Young, 12% from Donovan McNabb and 6% from Carson Palmer. All three should be in the Hall of Fame soon, with Harrison up for induction first. He’s actually eligible in the next class, but as we’ve seen, wide receivers often have to wait their turn to get to Canton.
As with Jimmy Smith, I’ve got a Steve Smith rant coming for another day, but let’s just say this system validates his standing in my mind as the most under-appreciated receiver of his time. I was very surprised to see Andre Johnson come in at #10, but he’s had a pretty flawless career so far. His 2008 and 2009 seasons were top-80 seasons of all time, playing for a pass-happy Houston team that couldn’t stop anyone. And his production in 2007 was even better — he averaged 4.23 ACY/TmAtt, a career best — albeit he was limited to nine games. Then just when it seemed like Johnson might be entering the decline phase of his career, he came through with a dominant 2012 season. Johnson and Calvin Johnson are the only players to average over 80 receiving yards per game for their careers, although that will change for both players as they age. Perhaps more relevant: only Jerry Rice and Lance Alworth averaged more receiving yards per game through their first ten seasons.
Placing Paul Warfield in proper context
Mike Tanier recently wrote the following about Warfield:
Criticizing Warfield in any way is about the worst thing a football historian can ever do. I once compared a more contemporary receiver – it may have been Michael Irvin – on a message board devoted to pro football history, and was promptly pummeled into submission with a barrage of pish-poshes. No one can ever be compared to Paul Warfield. It should be noted that this particular site was the stomping ground for some spectacularly anti-stat thinkers, so Warfield was a patron saint to them: the receiver too amazing to do anything banal like catch passes.
Tanier’s correct: Warfield’s numbers underwhelm at first glance. He never led the league in receiving yards, finishied in the top five only twice, and finished in the top ten only four times (with three of those coming in the pre-merger era). But I take some pride in noting that Warfield ranks 16th in this system, impressive for a player who ranks 68th in career receiving yards and 164th career receptions. This system takes into account what everyone knows: Warfield played for a very run-heavy team in the worst passing era of the last 60 years. Warfield was the league’s best receiver in ’68 with the Browns and in ’71 with the Dolphins. He averaged 4.50 ACY/team attempt in 1971, which would be outstanding in today’s game.
The logjam has been broken, of course, but this was the classic Hall of Fame debate for several years. My system has Brown slightly ahead of Carter, but places Reed as a distant third. I wrote a lengthy piece advocating for the same order a little over three years ago.
Anything but another Steeler in CantonOne side effect to an otherwise very enjoyable project of mine is the fact that Hines Ward comes across as a Hall of Fame-caliber player. All kidding aside, it does seem like Ward has a compelling HOF case. In addition to being the best blocker at any position ever and having won two Super Bowls and a Super Bowl MVP, Ward’s regular-season stats make him a top-25 career receiver. That’s largely because Ward played for very run-heavy teams, and this system (appropriately) credits him for putting up strong numbers on teams that rarely (for their era) passed. Considering the Steelers already have one Hall of Fame wide receiver and a second receiver also in the Hall of Fame, I don’t think anyone outside of Steelers Nation is particularly looking forward to the debates surrounding Ward once he’s eligible for the Hall. But they’re coming. Ward’s best year was a 4th-place ranking among wide receivers in 2002, but he also finished 6th, 8th, 9th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 19th, and 20th in other seasons.
Wes Welker will drive Hall of Fame voters nuts
Welker has topped the 110-catch mark five times in his career, and no other player has done it more than twice. Welker has 672 receptions over the last six years, the most by any player in football history in a six-year period. But because the Patriots pass a ton and Welker’s yardage and touchdown totals are less impressive, he doesn’t stand out as great in this system (at least, yet). And that’s before you start with the Tom Brady adjustment. If Welker stays in New England, he may have a chance to finish with Hall of Fame numbers by any standard, but if switches teams this off-season, it’s hard to imagine him padding his resume that significantly. But if Hall of Fame voters look at the raw reception totals, Welker will be tough to keep out.
What stands out to you on the career list?