The NFL’s Best Receiving Tandems of the 2000s

This offseason has seen the end of one receiving tandem which has been among the NFL's best for several years — Pittsburgh's Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes — and another which ranks among the best in the history of professional football — Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.

Holmes was traded to the Jets for almost nothing (a fifth-round draft pick) due to off-field problems, character issues, and an impending suspension. Boldin was dealt to the Ravens for a pair of mid-round picks, due to a combination of age, injuries, and unhappiness with his contract and team officials. Where do these tandems rank among the best in recent memory?

Below, you'll find my list of the 10 greatest receiving pairs in the last decade. It is worth noting that this ranking is comprised exclusively of wide receivers. You won't find tight ends or running backs on this list, even if they were great receivers. Also, I've only included receiving corps that played at least three seasons together, so no Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell or Cris Carter & Randy Moss. Let's begin.

10. Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, Oakland Raiders, 2001-03
462 receptions, 5,881 yards, 31 touchdowns

Brown and Rice were both past their primes by the time they teamed up in Oakland, but it's rare for two receivers of this caliber to line up together, and for a couple of years, the magic was still there. In 2001, Brown and Rice ranked second among all receiving tandems in catches (174), third in yards (over 1,100 each), and second in TDs (9 each). The next season, they combined for over 2,000 yards and helped the Raiders reach Super Bowl XXXVII.

Best season: 2001 — 91 rec, 1,165 yds, 9 TD (Brown); 83 rec, 1,139 yds, 9 TD (Rice)

9. Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad, Carolina Panthers, 2001-04, 2008-09
679 receptions, 9,753 yards, 52 touchdowns

Their gross numbers are great, but their primes don't really overlap. Muhammad's best seasons were 2000 and 2004, when Smith was in college or injured. Smith's best years were 2005-08, all but one of which Moose spent in Chicago. To some extent, this effect was exaggerated by Jake Delhomme, who tends to focus in on his favorite receiver and ignore secondary targets. Muhammad and Smith both played well in 2003, when Carolina made its unlikely Super Bowl run, but their finest year together was actually Muhammad's first season back after leaving the Bears.

Best season: 2008 — 78 rec, 1,421 yds, 6 TD (Smith); 65 rec, 923 yds, 5 TD (Muhammad)

8. Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2006-09
556 receptions, 7,752 yards, 46 touchdowns

Their numbers are depressed because Pittsburgh mostly played a run-first offense until last season. No serious fan questions that Hines Ward was an elite receiver throughout the decade, but from 2004-08, he never had an 1,100-yard season, including three straight years under 1,000. This was a classic receiving tandem, with one possession receiver (Ward) and one deep threat (Holmes). During their four seasons together in Pittsburgh, Ward averaged 12.2 yards per reception, compared to Holmes' 16.3 yds/rec. Both were above-average blockers, and Holmes has to get some extra credit for his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLIII.

Best season: 2009 — 95 rec, 1,167 yds, 6 TD (Ward); 79 rec, 1,248 yds, 5 TD (Holmes)

7. Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, Green Bay Packers, 2006-present
564 receptions, 8,373 yards, 49 touchdowns

I like that this pairing has succeeded with two different quarterbacks. The greater success has come with Aaron Rodgers, but during their last season with Brett Favre, Driver led the team in receptions (82) and yards (1,048), while Jennings led the team in touchdowns (12), tying for fourth in the NFL. Since Jennings has come into his own, the team has presented opponents with a true dual threat. Jennings is the more explosive of the two, but if you slide coverage away from Driver, he destroys you. Early last season, teams were focusing on Jennings, and Driver got off to a hot start. After he torched the Lions for 142 yards and a touchdown on Thanksgiving, defenses turned their attention back to Driver, and Jennings finished the season strong.

Best season: 2008 — 80 rec, 1,292 yds, 9 TD (Jennings); 74 rec, 1,012 yds, 5 TD (Driver)

6. Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2000-04
690 receptions, 9,335 yards, 56 touchdowns

If the Ward/Holmes pairing was held back by a run-oriented offense, this one was positively imprisoned by it. The Steelers were among the top three in rush attempts for four of these five seasons, including two years leading the league ('01 and '04). Ward and Burress, like the Packers' combo, put up good numbers with more than one quarterback. Unlike Driver and Jennings, who played with a future Hall of Famer and a former first-round draft pick who looks destined for greatness, Ward and Burress did their work with Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox. Burress has been criticized for (among other things) his work ethic, but he and Ward were easily the best outside blocking tandem of the decade.

Best season: 2002 — 112 rec, 1,329 yds, 12 TD (Ward); 78 rec, 1,325 yds, 7 TD (Burress)

5. Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Cincinnati Bengals, 2001-08
1,119 receptions, 14,687 yards, 90 touchdowns

There is a substantial gap between fifth and sixth; Ward and Burress was a nice receiving combo, but Sideshow Chad and Houshmandzadeh were great. Chad, incidentally, was named "Johnson" throughout their time together. From 2004-07, this tandem was consistently outstanding, both catching at least 70 passes every year. Johnson was the clear first option until his injury-plagued 2008, but Houshmandzadeh was an important part of the offense from 2004 on. In '07, Johnson led the team by almost 300 yards, but Houshmandzadeh had more catches and more TDs.

Best season: 2007 — 93 rec, 1,440 yds, 8 TD (Johnson); 112 rec, 1,143 yds, 12 TD (Houshmandzadeh)

4. Randy Moss and Wes Welker, New England Patriots, 2007-present
596 receptions, 7,453 yards, 62 touchdowns

Why are they ranked so high after only three seasons together? Because all three have been fantastic seasons, two of them in a historic sense. Moss and Welker were easily the best receiving duo in the league in both 2007 and 2009. Even in 2008, when Tom Brady went down in Week 1 and was replaced by Matt Cassel, Moss and Welker both topped 1,000 yards. Over their three seasons in New England, Welker leads the NFL in catches, Moss leads in receiving touchdowns, and they're both among the top 10 in receiving yards.

Best season: 2007 — 98 rec, 1,493 yds, 23 TD (Moss); 112 rec, 1,175 yds, 8 TD (Welker)

3. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, Arizona Cardinals, 2004-09
1,008 receptions, 13,210 yards, 95 touchdowns

A consistently great pairing, held back only by injuries. Over the last five years, they never failed to total 2,000 yards, combining for eight 1,000-yard seasons and five double-digit-TD campaigns. The last two seasons, Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston made a pretty nice pair as well, and that's what the Cardinals will be counting on in 2010. Fitzgerald gradually emerged as the clear star of the show, but Boldin, who was Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2003 and had three 1,200-yard seasons in Arizona, was particularly distinguished by his toughness and consistency. Breaston is a good player, but Boldin will be missed.

Best season: 2005 — 103 rec, 1,409 yds, 10 TD (Fitzgerald); 102 rec, 1,402 yds, 7 TD (Boldin)

2. Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts, 2001-08
1,265 receptions, 17,155 yards, 134 touchdowns

This would be an easy choice for the top position in most decades. I recognized both Harrison and Wayne on my All-2000s Team, naming both among the six best wide receivers of the decade. The problem, to the extent that one exists, is that Harrison was starting to slow down by the time Wayne hit his prime. Their combined numbers are fantastic in 2002, but it's almost all Harrison, who broke the single-season receptions record; he out-gained Wayne by over 1,000 yards that season. Wayne was an elite receiver in '07 and '08, but Harrison was basically done by that point. Their real overlap period, when both were elite receivers, is 2004-06.

Best season: 2006 — 95 rec, 1,366 yds, 12 TD (Harrison); 86 rec, 1,310 yds, 9 TD (Wayne)

1. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, St. Louis Rams, 2000-06
1,158 receptions, 17,435 yards, 97 touchdowns

Going back to the 1999 Super Bowl year, is this the best receiving duo in history? It's certainly on the short list. Swann and Stallworth, Fears and Hirsch, Air Coryell ... I'd put this up against anyone. In these seven seasons, both receivers went over 1,000 yards every year, except '05, when Bruce was injured. Three times, they combined for over 2,500 yards. They were the best duo in the league with Kurt Warner, and they were the best with Marc Bulger. They were even the best with Trent Green, who played half the season when Warner was injured in 2000. Holt and Bruce excelled with Dick Vermeil, Mike Martz, and Scott Linehan.

Best season: 2000 — 82 rec, 1,635 yds, 6 TD (Holt); 87 rec, 1,471 yds, 9 TD (Bruce)

Special Mentions

Best receiving trio: Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Marshall Faulk, STL, 2000-05

Sleeper for 2010: Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, and Owen Daniels, HOU

Best WR-TE Receiving Combinations

1. Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark (IND)
2. Terrell Owens and Jason Witten (DAL)
3. Eddie Kennison and Tony Gonzalez (KC)
4. Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey (NYG)
5. Santana Moss and Chris Cooley (WAS)

Best by Year

2000: Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey, DEN
2001: Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, JAC
2002: Ward and Burress
2003: Holt and Bruce
2004: Holt and Bruce
2005: Fitzgerald and Boldin
2006: Harrison and Wayne
2007: Moss and Welker
2008: Fitzgerald and Boldin
2009: Moss and Welker

Honorable Mentions: Holt and Bruce, 2000; Cris Carter and Randy Moss, MIN, 2000; Eric Moulds and Peerless Price, BUF, 2002; Javon Walker and Donald Driver, GB, 2004; Johnson and Houshmandzadeh, 2007

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