10. Calvin Johnson – First, let me give all due respect to all the receivers of the past half century that became before Megatron, like Steve Largent, Andre Reed, and Torry Holt. His contemporaries are also great and may reach this list before their careers are done, specifically guys like Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Steve Smith of the Panthers. Each of these players have outstanding numbers and are great in their own right, however no one in the history of professional football has done anything that can be compared to what Calvin Johnson has done in his first six seasons save one player. Through six seasons Calvin has broken quite a few National Football League records, including the hallowed most receiving yardage record in a single season record held by the NFL’s most highly regarded wide out. Johnson makes this list through his explosiveness and dynamic play on the field despite his relatively small sample size of work. He commands double teams on every play, specifically in the red zone. One on one coverage in the red zone is giving the Detroit Lions six points with Calvin Johnson. In fact, when he is in man to man coverage, the Lions automatically call off the play that they are running and throw the ball to him on a hot read. He encompasses all the attributes that a wide receiver can possess. Megatron is huge at 6’5″ with a long wingspan, he is faster and quicker than any cornerback that guards him, he is is explosive off the ground and from point A to point B, and he high points the football in the air. He makes receptions on slants in or out, on deep or shallow posts, on fly routes and fades, and on crossing routes. Calvin Johnson could become the greatest wide receiver to ever play the game if he stays healthy.
9. Marvin Harrison – Marvin Harrison may be the most underrated player on this list. He was undersized and did not necessarily have blazing speed. However, Harrison used unparalleled quickness and precise route running to create separation and to make catches. Harrison also used his sense of self-preservation to create longevity in his career. He got down after catches in traffic and lived to fight another day, but when he was able to get away from a defender he capitalized. The phrases that best described what Marvin Harrison has meant to football is “consistent” and “consummate professional” . Marvin Harrison produced the same numbers, over 1,100 yards receiving and 10+ touchdowns, for eight consecutive years with the Indianapolis Colts.
8. Michael Irvin – This Dallas Cowboy defined toughness and physical play from the wide receiver position. Irvin was one of the original big, physical wide outs, and he ushered in the crop of players who were considered “possession” receivers like Cris Carter, Muhsin Muhammad, and Hines Ward. People thought that Irvin was not especially fast, but he relied on stamina to make him more threatening than other faster receivers. Irvin ran the same 40 time regardless of the quarter. He was just as fast in the fourth quarter as he was in the first quarter. Plus, Irvin used his body like a weapon. He would bump, push, and box out smaller corners to get to the football. When the football was in the air in Irvin’s vicinity, he always seemed to come down with it.
7. Hines Ward – Hines Ward may have been the most physical football player that ever played a skills position. His career was not as decorated as some of his peers’ careers, but his ability to get airborne and catch the ball in traffic or the open field made him a Hall of Fame player despite not having a huge body of work for coaches to consider. Ward bullied defenses. He changed directions recklessly, but no one could tackle him in space. In fact, few people could tackle Hines Ward when he found himself in the heart of NFL defenses. He took as much pride in blocking for a touchdown as he did scoring one himself. Ward relished contact when blocking and when running routes. Though he seldom had years catching the football that rivaled the all-time greats in yardage, Ward managed six 1,000 yard years, and always seemed to make the big catches that helped his Steelers win big games. His legacy is being a football player before being a wide receiver, and that is the best compliment that anyone could give him.
6. Cris Carter – His hands made him a Hall of Fame receiver. Cris Carter is high on the lists of receptions, receiving touchdowns, and receiving yardage because he caught everything that was thrown to him. He joined with Randy Moss to make one of the most devastating receiving combinations that ever existed. Moss was the speed guy and Carter was the possession receiver. Carter did his work in traffic. He was a big man, and he out-jumped and posted corners so that he could get to the ball with little resistance. He now stands fourth all-time in receptions and receiving touchdowns, eighth in total touchdowns, and ninth in total receiving yards. Carter is a eight time Pro Bowler who was also the consummate professional. He is credited with giving Randy Moss his work ethic and teaching him some of the finer points of receiving.
5. Isaac Bruce – “The Greatest Show on Turf” was led by this man. Granted, Kurt Warner was the man behind the ball and he was one of the most accurate passers in NFL history (if not the most accurate), but Isaac Bruce pushed the machine. He was originally the speed receiver for his St. Louis Rams, but he also became a great possession receiver too. Bruce was best when lined out wide, but he excelled in the slot too. His best routes were fly routes and deep posts, but he made good on slants when his number was called. Bruce had good hands and ran clean routes. He was the original number one wide receiver for the most prolific offense in NFL history. He had eight 1,000 yard seasons including one where he finished with 1,781 receiving yards which challenged the record for most receiving yards in a single season at the time.
4. Tim Brown – Until Moss and T.O. came along, there was only one man who could compete with the best wide receiver in NFL history, and that was Tim Brown. He retired as number two on every list that quantifies the worth of a wide receiver. Tim Brown was undersized, but he was fast and he caught everything that was thrown his way. Brown was a game changer. He was so explosive that the Raiders used him in kick returns and punt returns too. He could score from anywhere on the field. He was equally as deadly in the slot as he was on the outside. He ran all the routes and caught the ball in space and in traffic. If Brown was any bigger, he may have surpassed at least two of the three receivers that are ahead of him on this list. He had nine consecutive seasons where he reached 1,000 receiving yards and made nine Pro Bowls in his career without ever having a great quarterback. Even today, Tim Brown is no lower than fifth on any of the significant receiving lists.
3. Randy Moss – Moss is one of the most controversial characters in NFL history, but also one of the most talented. He embodies everything that a number one receiver should be. He is tall, fast, disciplined on the field, and has great hands. He is the finesse version of Calvin Johnson. In his prime, Moss ran go routes almost exclusively and he was still effective because he was bigger and faster than any cornerbacks that were assigned to him. Moss flew past defenses regularly and posted some of the most dynamic numbers in receiving that ever came. He scored 23 touchdowns in his best season, a record for wide receivers, and he dominated against every opponent. Moss has ten seasons where he ran for 1,000 or more yards, nine seasons where he scored ten or more touchdowns, and four season where he scored 15 or more touchdowns. Fantasy football geeks may place him higher on this list and he could easily be the second best wide receiver of all-time, but he lands in third place on too many receiving lists to be placed any higher.
2. Terrell Owens – Surprisingly, Terrell Owens may actually be more polarizing a character than even Randy Moss. And, choosing which of the two players is better is completely debatable. Whereas Moss represented the perfect number one receiver, Owens actually personified the ultimate number two wide receiver. Where Moss is fast, T.O. is powerful. Where Moss is lengthy, Owens is quick to the ball. They competed in two completely different ways, but were both extremely effective. Owens and Moss stand in the second or third slots for every significant receiving record. And though T.O. technically played as much slot receiver as he did number one receiver, he was always the best receiver on the field. He is second all-time in receiving yards, third in touchdown receptions, and tenth in receiving yards per game. Moss ranks third, second, and sixteenth respectively. Terrell Owens played most of his career with mediocre quarterbacks. When he was coupled with a marginal Hall of Fame quarterback in Donovan McNabb, he went to the Super Bowl, and gave one of the gutsiest performances in Super Bowl history. Owens caught 8 passes for 122 yards on a broken ankle and made every big catch to keep the Eagles in contention for a Super Bowl win. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of Terrell Owens, he delivered on the field.
1. Jerry Rice – Jerry Rice is not only the best wide receiver in the history of the league, he is also possibly the best football player that ever played the game. Rice is the prototype for what a number one wide receiver should be. He preferred to run routes on the outside and outmatched players physically by outrunning them and out jumping them, but he never shied away from running routes across the middle. In fact, when opponents double-teamed him on outside routes, Rice took quick slant routes for large gains and opened up defenses from the inside of the field. He was not afraid of contact, but still he rarely took big hits because he was so elusive in space. Jerry Rice sits proudly at the top of the all-time receiving yards with almost 7,000 separating him from his closest competitor. He has fourteen 1,000 yard seasons, is number one in a plethora statistics including, but not limited to receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, overall touchdowns, yards from scrimmage, and receptions. Rice ran all the routes and excelled in precise route running, but could also read defenses and improvise. Jerry Rice was not just the best wide receiver that ever played. He stands among the best football players that have ever stepped on the football field. And, his statistics and play on the field bear that out.