Even with the influx in the passing game over the last twenty years, Jerry Rice remains an easy choice for the best receiver ever. But NFL history is filled with superstar wide receivers deserving of consideration for one of the remaining nine spots behind Rice.
My name is David, and I started playing football when I was nine years old. I played quarterback through high school, and while I didn’t have the athleticism to go any further, I had a pair of excellent receivers to throw to that made my life much easier and made me look a lot better than I was. Ever since, watching high-end receivers ply their craft has been one of my favorite aspects of the sport.
In this article, you’ll find an in-depth player profile on each of my top ten picks, including accolades, highlights, and a summary of their career’s best season. I tried to make my choices regardless of era, taking into account that receivers of previous eras didn’t have the same number of opportunities that current receivers get.
#10 Steve Smith
Best Season: 2005 – 103 catches, 1563 yards, 12 touchdowns, Comeback Player of the Year.
Even in a position filled with colorful personalities, Steve Smith stood out as one of the more boisterous and charismatic receivers the game has ever seen. My most memorable example came in 2005. The Minnesota Vikings were fresh off an embarrassing scandal that took place on a party boat during their bye week. Smith never passed down the opportunity to troll and embarrass the competition.
Smith spent most of his career with the Carolina Panthers. In relative obscurity and on teams that weren’t always high-caliber, he never received the national recognition he deserved outside of his 2005 season when he was named co-comeback player of the year. 
But despite playing with an uninspiring list of quarterbacks for much of his career, Smith managed eight 1,000-yard seasons, and currently sits tenth all-time among receivers in receptions. 
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#9 Art Monk
Best Season: 1984 – 106 catches, 1372 yards, 7 touchdowns, First Team All-Pro.
Overshadowed by Jerry Rice during the second half of his career, it’s easy to forget that Monk set and held many of the NFL’s prestigious records. They’ve all been obliterated in recent years as passing games become more and more efficient, but his name still sits in a prominent position on several leaderboards.
Monk was one of the first high-volume pass catchers, holding the record for most receptions in a season (106) until Sterling Sharpe caught 108 in 1992. He was the first to eclipse 900 catches, holding the record of 940 until Jerry Rice caught him the year after his retirement. 
Like Steve Smith, Monk didn’t receive the national attention he probably deserved, and was only selected to three pro bowls and two All-Pro teams. And while he’s dropped to 20th all-time in receptions since retiring, Monk served as a template for the new-age possession receiver, paving the way for luminaries like our #8 pick.
#8 Cris Carter
Best Season: 1995 – 122 catches, 1371 yards, 17 touchdowns, Second Team All-Pro.
Another receiver whose numbers are overshadowed by Rice, Carter stormed past Art Monk’s career marks but remained a distant second to the guy who will be appearing much further down the list. Carter was the second receiver to eclipse 1,000 catches in a career, dominating despite having just average speed. Instead, he leveraged his 6’3” frame, immaculate route running, and incredible hands to become one of the most reliable receivers the sport has ever seen.
Sterling Sharpe’s single-season reception record lasted just two years, with Carter setting the new mark of 122 in 1994 and Carter retired with the second most receptions ever with 1,101 and currently sits sixth all-time. 
Carter was just as dangerous in the red zone, retiring second to Rice in career touchdown receptions. NFL Primetime in the 1990s was filled with Chris Berman’s signature call of, “Cris Carter… all he does? Catch touchdowns.” 
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#7 Terrell Owens
Best Season: 2000 – 97 catches, 1451 yards, 13 touchdowns. First Team All-Pro.
It’s a bit of a shame that Owens was such a polarizing figure. His antics both on and off the field overshadowed the career of one of the most gifted receivers ever.
Owens, J.J. Stokes, and a late-career Jerry Rice formed a three-headed monster in the late 90s and early 00s in San Francisco. Despite the competition, Owens managed a 14-touchdown campaign in his third year in the league in 1998, including one of the best postseason catches you’ll ever see.
Owens peaked between 2000 and 2002, making the All-Pro first team each year while catching 42 touchdowns and eclipsing 1300 yards every season. 
But Owen’s tirades on and off the field continued to grow more cumbersome and boisterous along with his production, leading to the 49ers trading him to Philadelphia after the 2003 season.
Thus began T.O’s late-career saga, spending two years in Philadelphia including more distractions like conducting an interview while shirtless in his driveway, and breaking down in tears while defending Tony Romo.
But strip away the goofball moments, and you have one of the most physically imposing receivers of any era. Listed at 6’3” and 224 pounds but with a 40-time under 4.4, Owens combined size and speed to a level never before seen in the NFL, making him a threat anywhere on the field. 
#6 Steve Largent
Best Season: 1979 – 66 catches, 1237 yards, 9 touchdowns, 6th in MVP.
Before Art Monk, there was Steve Largent. Back when football was defined by three-yard runs and a cloud of dust, Steve Largent and the Seahawks were opening up the passing game, and Largent was one of the most feared receivers in the game.
Between 1978 and 1986, Largent recorded eight 1,000-yard seasons, leading the league in receiving yards twice and being named to four All-Pro teams. 
One of the few bright spots on the expansion Seahawks, Largent didn’t sniff the playoffs until 1983, his seventh year in the league.
The lack of team success and the explosion of talented wide receivers shortly after he retired in 1989 has left Largent’s legacy somewhat forgotten. But like Monk, he represented the inevitable path the NFL would be taking, showing the transition toward more pass-heavy systems. Without Largent’s impressive nine-year streak, it’s unlikely we see such a collection of pass catchers today, and his trail-blazing deserves recognition at #6.
#5 Don Hutson
Best Season: 1942 – 74 catches, 1211 yards, 17 touchdowns, First Team All-Pro.
Even before Largent and Monk, Hutson was the first true superstar receiver the game had. Today Hutson sits buried at 183rd all-time in receptions, but we must have the context that those 488 catches occurred between 1935 and 1945. 
Hutson put up Jerry Rice-like numbers for his era, leading the NFL in receptions in eight of his eleven seasons and touchdown receptions nine times. Hutson dominated the competition at the time, and his 6’1” 183-pound frame would probably still make him a great slot receiver today. We don’t have the video, PFF grades, or other contexts to justify Hutson at #5, but his 1942 numbers compared to the competition should be more than enough.
#4 Calvin Johnson
Best Season: 2012 – 122 catches, 1964 yards, 5 touchdowns, 3rd in OPOY.
Imagine Terrell Owens, without the ego. Like Largent on the Seahawks, Johnson was one of the few bright spots during one of the darkest times in Detroit Lions’ history. The Lions won just 15 games over Johnson’s first four years in the league, including their infamous 0-16 campaign in 2008. 
But by 2010, Johnson had established himself as one of the best receivers in the game, starting a run of six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons before his surprise retirement at the age of 30. 
The Lions only made the playoffs twice during Johnson’s tenure, losing in the wild card both times, but Johnson is most remembered for his 2012 season.
Johnson set the receiving yards record that year with 1,964, but in tragic Lions fashion, the team finished with just four wins. 
Johnson finished his career with just 731 receptions, but with receivers enjoying longer playing career years, it’s easy to imagine Johnson could have retired as the all-time reception leader if he’d decided to stick around. Rice holds the record with 1,549, and it seems reasonable to believe Johnson could have averaged the 90 receptions a year over the next nine seasons that would have eclipsed him.
Instead, Johnson joins Barry Sanders as superstar Lions who decided to walk away from the game early, leaving behind one of the most memorable seasons in NFL history, and a litany of highlight reels.
#3 Larry Fitzgerald
Best Season: 2008 – 100 catches, 1431 yards, 12 touchdowns, First Team All-Pro.
Born in Minnesota, Fitzgerald was a ballboy for the Minnesota Vikings during the era of Randy Moss and Cris Carter, a fitting start to a career that would emulate Carter’s in many ways. Fitzgerald would never match Carter’s single-season reception number, but a long career and good health have left Fitzgerald second all-time on the career reception list at 1,432. 
Fitzgerald wasn’t the touchdown machine of some top-end receivers, but he was an incredible route runner and had Carter’s knack for snatching balls out of the air no matter how poorly thrown they were. He was a menace in the open field, ripping off one of the best runs in playoff history in a dramatic overtime victory over the Packers.
Fitz saved his best for the playoffs, logging 57 catches, 942 yards, and 10 touchdowns in just nine career games and few can compete with his 2008 postseason run.
That combined with a career that lasted 17 seasons and included three All-Pro selections and eleven pro bowl appearances make him a worthy choice for #3 on our list.
#2 Randy Moss
Best Season: 2007 – 98 catches, 1493 yards, 23 touchdowns, 2nd in OPOY.
By 1998, interest in the Minnesota Vikings was waning. Their last home game of the 1997 season had been blacked out locally, and while the team had made the playoffs the previous two years, they didn’t seem close to contending for a title. Drafting Moss 21st overall seemed odd with stalwarts Cris Carter and Jake Reed already installed at the receiver position. But coach Dennis Green’s faith in the troubled receiver was immediately rewarded.
As a Vikings fan, 1998 is still the most fun I’ve ever had watching football (don’t you even think the name, Gary Anderson). Moss took the NFL by storm, torching the Packers twice, leading to them spending their first three draft picks the following year on defensive backs that they hoped would be big enough to slow him down. 
Like many receivers, Moss was something of a diva, eventually forcing his way out of Minnesota. After a couple of forgetful seasons in Oakland, New England traded for the troubled receiver, the result was the best regular season in history.
Moss set the record for touchdowns with 23 and grabbed 98 passes. 
Moss represented a new age of football, a quick strike machine that could take the top off a defense and demanded safety help on every possession. But Moss was more than speed, he was a solid route runner and devastating at the catch point, creating the NFL equivalent of getting dunked on.
#1 Jerry Rice
Best Season: 1995 – 122 catches, 1848 yards, 15 touchdowns, 2nd in MVP.
Even after years of pass-happy offenses, no one can touch Jerry Rice. No one is within 100 career receptions, and the touchdown board is a litany of also-rans behind Rice’s 197.
Sure, the 49ers were the first to implement the west coast offense which opened up the passing game, but the efficiency and longevity of Rice’s career make it far to wonder if anyone will ever match his total numbers or ten first-team All-Pro selections. 
Rice did it all despite a lack of blazing speed. His 4.71 40-time continues to shine as a beacon to those that point to pinpoint route running, excellent hands, and a flair for the dramatic as the most important receiver skills. 
Before Tom Brady, Rice was also the symbol of late-career excellence. Playing through the age of 42, Rice recorded his final 1,000-yard season and pro-bowl appearance at the age of 40, logging more than 1200 yards and seven more touchdowns. 
Even as a former quarterback, I always thought the wide receiver was the most glamorous position on the field, and compiling this list has only reaffirmed that feeling. Trying to separate a player like Steve Largent in the 70s and 80s from his modern-day counterparts was a fun challenge and leaves room for plenty of debate on a subjective list such as this.
Most compelling was looking at Don Hutson’s career and how overwhelming his numbers were compared to others at the time. It’d be fascinating to see how he would have performed if he’d been born later.
Did I snub your favorite receiver? Is there a key name missing from the list? There are several players that just missed the cut, so make your case for the top ten receivers in the comments below.
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