Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Next Generation of Hall of Fame WRs

By Brad Oremland

For the last month, we've been profiling some of the best wide receivers eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame but not yet enshrined: Cliff Branch, Tim Brown, Harold Carmichael, Cris Carter, Wes Chandler, Gary Clark, Henry Ellard, Irving Fryar, Charley Hennigan, Harlon Hill, Billy Howton, Harold Jackson, Herman Moore, Stanley Morgan, Drew Pearson, Art Powell, Andre Reed, Andre Rison, Sterling Sharpe, Del Shofner, Jimmy Smith, Mac Speedie, Hugh Taylor, Otis Taylor, and Billy Wilson. If you're interested in those players, check out our other articles in this series:

Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1990s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1980s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1970s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1960s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1950s

This week, we're looking at some great wide receivers who aren't in the Hall of Fame because they aren't eligible yet: Isaac Bruce, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell, Muhsin Muhammad, Terrell Owens, and Rod Smith. We'll also touch on the most accomplished active players, including Anquan Boldin, Donald Driver, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Chad Johnson, Derrick Mason, Randy Moss, Steve Smith, Hines Ward, Reggie Wayne, and Wes Welker. Let's begin with the retired players, in alphabetical order.

Isaac Bruce
1994-2009, Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers
1,024 receptions, 15,208 yards, 91 TD

Isaac Bruce ranks 6th all-time in receptions, 3rd in receiving yards, and 10th in receiving TDs. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons, including 1,781 in 1995, still the 2nd-highest total in history. Bruce spent much of his career on bad teams, but made big plays when he got the chance, including the 73-yard winning touchdown in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Bruce was named to four Pro Bowls and went over 1,000 yards four other times, including 1,338 in 1996 and 1,292 in 2004. His résumé bears a similarity to Charlie Joiner's — guys with long careers and sensational career stats who weren't usually regarded as being among the very best while they were active. Both also have to fight the perception that their numbers are partly or largely a product of the absurd offenses they played in, where any receiver could become a star. Bruce's case, though, is a little stronger than Joiner's. He was first-team All-Pro twice, and a Super Bowl star. I believe Joiner deserves his place in Canton, and Bruce deserves to join him.

Marvin Harrison
1996-2008, Indianapolis Colts
1,102 receptions, 14,580 yards, 128 TD

From 1999-2006, Marvin Harrison in every season finished with more than 80 receptions, 1,100 yards, and double-digit touchdowns. He is the only player in history with four consecutive 1,400-yard seasons, and one of only four (Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald) to go over 1,400 in any four seasons. Harrison holds the single-season record for receptions (143) by a huge margin (20). He led the NFL twice in receptions, twice in receiving yards, and once in receiving TDs. He was first-team All-Pro three times and qualified for eight Pro Bowls.

Harrison was not the biggest, fastest, or strongest receiver in the game; he didn't intimidate opponents the way Terrell Owens and Moss did. But Harrison was one of the smartest receivers ever to play, and like Rice, he worked very hard to be the best; the extra practice hours he put in working with Peyton Manning are legendary. Harrison was an exceptional route-runner, and he was the best I ever saw at the toe-tap on the sideline. Give him an inch, the tiniest opening, and he'd make the catch. Harrison and Rice are the only players with three 1,500-yard receiving seasons.

Torry Holt
1999-2009, St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars
920 receptions, 13,382 yards, 74 TD

Torry Holt by the numbers:

11: Seasons in which Holt caught at least 50 passes.
10: Seasons in which Holt gained at least 750 receiving yards.
9: Minimum number of receiving TDs Holt scored every year from 2003-06.
8: 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
7: Pro Bowl selections.
6: Consecutive 1,300-yard seasons, a record.
5: 90-reception seasons. Actually, that's six, too.
4: Playoff games scoring a touchdown.
3: Times leading the NFL in a major receiving stat.
2: Seasons with over 1,600 receiving yards, the only player besides Marvin Harrison.
1: Rank in most receptions and receiving yards from 2000-09.

Keyshawn Johnson
1996-2006, New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers
804 receptions, 10,571 yards, 64 TD

The top pick in the 1996 draft, Keyshawn Johnson was known as much for his attitude as his play. He caught 70 or more passes nine times, and wrote a book (with Shelley Smith) titled Just Give Me the Damn Ball!, setting the tone for a decade of diva receivers that followed. He caught more than 800 passes for over 10,000 yards, and he was dismissed from the Buccaneers in mid-season 2003 because the defending champs didn't want to deal with him any more.

Johnson's reputation and disruptive locker room influence are a crucial part of his legacy, but they won't be what keeps him from getting a bust in Canton. Keyshawn was a very good receiver, at times a great receiver. He made three Pro Bowls, caught 100 passes one year, and was an exceptional blocker, probably could have added 10 pounds and been a Shannon Sharpe-style tight end if he'd wanted. But he never led the league in any major statistic, was never All-Pro, and didn't have a long career. He's not a serious HOF candidate.

Keenan McCardell
1992-2007, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins
883 receptions, 11,373 yards, 63 TD

Keenan McCardell quietly caught almost 900 passes and gained over 11,000 yards. A two-time Pro Bowler, he had five 1,000-yard seasons and five years among the NFL's top 10 in receptions. McCardell was a 12th-round draft pick in 1991, and spent a year on injured reserve for the Washington team that won Super Bowl XXVI, but didn't get a chance to play regularly until he joined the Jaguars in 1996. If McCardell hadn't lost five years of his prime sitting on the bench, would he be a Hall of Famer? Maybe.

As it is, McCardell obviously won't be elected to the Hall. He was a good player for many years, but never really exceptional. He never had 100 receptions, or 1,250 yards, or double-digit TDs, and he often wasn't the best receiver on his own team, overshadowed by Jimmy Smith, Keyshawn Johnson, and Antonio Gates. But McCardell was a valuable player for years, a veteran you could count on to come in and make plays.

Muhsin Muhammad
1996-2009, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears
860 receptions, 11,438 yards, 62 TD

One of the more under-appreciated receivers in recent history, Muhsin Muhammad gained at least 500 receiving yards in 12 seasons, caught 90 or more passes three times, and led the NFL at various times in every major receiving category: receptions (2000), receiving yards (2004), and receiving touchdowns (2004). He made two Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro in '04. Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell, and Muhammad all have similar career stats:


Johnson is unquestionably the biggest star of the three, and I suspect most fans would name Keyshawn as the best in that group. McCardell would probably come in second, with Moose a distant third. Yet, Muhammad gained the most yards, was the only one named All-Pro, and was the only one to lead the league in any major statistic — which he did not once but three times. Like McCardell, who was often second-best to teammate Jimmy Smith, Muhammad was overlooked partially because he played with Steve Smith, but he was a fine player for many seasons.

Terrell Owens
1996-2010, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals
1,078 receptions, 15,934 yards, 153 TD

Terrell Owens ranks 6th all-time in receptions, 2nd in receiving yards, and tied for 2nd in receiving touchdowns. He led the NFL three times in receiving TDs and is one of only three Modern-Era wide receivers named to five All-Pro teams as a starter (Jerry Rice, Del Shofner). Owens had nine 1,000-yard seasons, eight years of double-digit TDs, six Pro Bowl selections, and four years gaining at least 1,300 yards.

Judged solely by his on-field performance, Owens is not just a Hall of Famer, he's one of the most outstanding WRs of all time. But Owens' legacy isn't limited to his touchdowns and his great moments in the postseason. Owens is also remembered for his disrespectful celebrations (especially against the Cowboys), unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, getting Steve Mariucci fired and Jeff Garcia released — the catalyst for a decade of losing in San Francisco — overturning his trade to the Ravens, fighting with Hugh Douglas, demanding to renegotiate his contract after just one year, making Drew Rosenhaus famous, destroying the Eagles' locker room and getting suspended, calling Ed Werder a liar following reports of conflict in the Dallas locker room, and many more off-field controversies.

I'm glad the Pro Football Hall of Fame has a five-year waiting period, and Owens won't be eligible until at least 2016, because I honestly don't know yet how I feel about Owens' candidacy, and having some time to put things in context sounds good. Owens was a physical marvel, big and powerful, who cared about winning and would become visibly upset when his team wasn't doing well. He also dropped a lot of catchable passes, antagonized every quarterback he ever played with, and made himself unwanted when he was still a capable player. Owens gained 983 yards in 2010, and no one signed him the next year; he wasn't worth the trouble.

If coaches and teammates have to spend time dealing with your crap when they're supposed to be game-planning or training, that hurts the organization. If the quarterback has to stress about getting you the ball, that's not productive. As great a player as he was, I'm not convinced Owens actually made his teams better. There's no substitute for talent, but I believe team chemistry matters, and probably no player in NFL history has disrupted team chemistry like Terrell Owens. Is he a Hall of Famer? Let's talk about it in a few years.

Rod Smith
1995-2006, Denver Broncos
849 receptions, 11,389 yards, 68 TD

Here's another player whose career stats fit nicely in that Keyshawn/McCardell/Muhammad group: 800-900 receptions, about 11,000 yards, 60-70 TDs. It's kind of remarkable for four contemporary players to post such similar stats over long, productive careers. Overall numbers notwithstanding, Smith was by far the best of the four. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons, compared to McCardell (5), Johnson (4), and Muhammad (3). Smith played on two Super Bowl champions, with 152 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXIII. He caught 100 passes twice, caught 70 passes nine times, double-digit TDs twice, 1,200 yards three times, as many as 1,600 one year.

Smith didn't have a long career. Undrafted out of Division II Missouri Southern, he didn't play in the NFL until he was 25, didn't become a starter until he was 27. It's a shame careers can turn so heavily on high school performance. If Smith had been offered a scholarship to a Big 10 or SEC school, gotten drafted in the third round, and become a starter when he was 23 or 24, maybe he'd have another 200 receptions, 3,000 yards, 20 TDs. Judging Smith by what he actually did, he was a great player for a long time, but I don't know that he stood out the way we expect from a Hall of Famer.

The receivers of this generation have posted unparalleled statistics:


Here's how I rank the best recently retired receivers:

1. Marvin Harrison — Record-setting wideout with no holes in his game, gained 1,500 yards three times.
HOF Qualifications: EXCELLENT. He should get in.

2. Torry Holt — Leading receiver of the 2000s, six straight 1,300-yard seasons, go-to receiver for Greatest Show on Turf Rams.
HOF Qualifications: GOOD. He should probably get in.

3. Isaac Bruce — Super Bowl hero, top 10 all-time in every major receiving stat, eight 1,000-yard seasons, 2nd-highest single-season receiving yardage in history.
HOF Qualifications: GOOD. He should probably get in.

4. Rod Smith — Gained 1,600 yards in 2000, led NFL in receptions in 2001, made three Pro Bowls.
HOF Qualifications: FAIR. He probably doesn't need to be in.

xx. Terrell Owens — Five-time All-Pro, 2nd all-time in receiving yards and TDs, most disruptive locker room presence in NFL history.
HOF Qualifications: TBD. Let's see how we feel about him when he becomes eligible. This is why there's a waiting period.

6. Keenan McCardell — Played 16 seasons, 14th all-time in receptions, five 1,000-yard seasons.
HOF Qualifications: POOR. He probably shouldn't get in. But he was a valuable player everywhere he went.

7. Muhsin Muhammad — Led NFL in every major receiving stat, caught 90 passes three times, All-Pro in 2004.
HOF Qualifications: POOR. He probably shouldn't get in. But he was an underrated player who was effective for years.

8. Keyshawn Johnson — Caught 70 or more passes eight times, exceptional blocker, sometimes perceived as more trouble than he was worth.
HOF Qualifications: POOR. He probably shouldn't get in. But he was a valuable possession receiver who was productive for a decade.

It's kind of silly to evaluate active players, but here are some quick thoughts on a few of the greatest receivers who played in 2011, plus Randy Moss, who recently signed with the 49ers.


The one with the strongest HOF credentials is obviously Randy Moss. Sometimes he literally seemed unstoppable, just impossible to defend. Moss had ten 1,000-yard seasons and nine years of double-digit TDs, tied with Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens for the most ever. He surpassed 1,200 yards eight times, led the NFL in receiving TDs five times, and was first-team All-Pro in four seasons. His 64 career 100-yard receiving games are second only to Rice.

Moss was often chastised for his obvious lack of effort when he wasn't motivated, but that's not enough to keep him out of Canton. Moss has incredible career statistics, a peak as sensational as any receiver who ever lived, and he passed the eye test in a big way. He wasn't as reliable as other great receivers, but you'd still want him on your team, because he was the most explosive wideout since Lance Alworth, maybe ever.

I expect some readers will feel I have applied a double-standard to Moss and Terrell Owens. Why am I giving Moss a pass? He made his teams better. The 1997 Vikings went 9-7. The next year, with Moss, they were 15-1. The 2006 Patriots scored 385 points. Next season, they added Moss and scored 589. The Eagles, Cowboys, and Bengals all got better when they released Owens.

After Moss, who should be a slam dunk for Canton, the best PFHOF case probably belongs to recently retired Hines Ward. He has pretty good gross receiving totals, but that's not an accurate measure of his true value. Ward played most of his career, and all of his prime, on run-oriented offenses where he didn't have the same statistical opportunities as his peers on wide-open passing teams. Ward's success is actually kind of weird. He's not a real big guy, not fast for the position, and didn't have great hands. But he was a good route runner, very tough, and universally acknowledged as the finest blocking receiver of his generation. His numbers don't compare well to guys like Moss and Owens, but I think he'll get in.

In my mind, Derrick Mason is basically the same player as Hines Ward. Their stats are very similar, and Mason actually had more big years, more seasons as an impact player and the top receiver on his team. Both excelled for run-based offenses that dampened their stats, and both had an exceptional skill that doesn't show up in the receiving numbers. For Ward, it was his blocking. For Mason, it's kick returning. He returned two punts and a kickoff for TDs, and in 2000 set the single-season record for all-purpose yardage, a standard that stood for more than a decade. But whereas Ward is a media darling — just ignore that his peers voted him the dirtiest player in the NFL — Mason in recent years developed kind of a bad reputation, and I'd be surprised if the Hall of Fame voters ever take him seriously.

Reggie Wayne has good stats, and impact seasons. He's had seven 1,000-yard seasons, three years with 100 or more receptions, and a lot of the same strengths as Marvin Harrison. Wayne has phenomenal control of his position on the field, he's got great hands, breakaway speed, and he is just a master of that tightrope catch on the sideline or in the corner of the end zone.

What Larry Fitzgerald has accomplished in just eight seasons is astonishing. He's posted four 1,400-yard seasons, five years with 90+ catches, and four years catching double-digit TDs, including some years when the Cardinals were pretty awful. Fitzgerald probably has half his career in front of him, but he's well on his way to first-ballot HOF induction. A similar case could be made for Andre Johnson, as long as he stays healthy. When he's on the field, Johnson is just a nightmare for defenders. He and Harrison are the only players in history with back-to-back 1,500-yard receiving seasons.

Just looking at the numbers, Sideshow Chad appears to be one of the strongest receivers of this era — seven 1,000-yard seasons, four years with 90 or more receptions. Certainly Chad was among the league's best receivers for a couple of years, but he also posted big numbers in a few seasons when he created more headaches than touchdowns. Playing in a pass-oriented offense and demanding the ball, he would sulk and hurt the team when he wasn't satisfied, forcing passes his way. He had a nice career with some true impact seasons, but it doesn't look like there are a lot of catches in his future, and his numbers just aren't at HOF level right now.

Steve Smith has repeatedly succeeded in the absence of elite quarterbacking, with three phenomenal seasons, and great kick returning early in his career. He'll need a few more outstanding years if he's going to be a serious candidate for the Hall of Fame, but he looked rejuvenated playing with Cam Newton last year, so that's not impossible. Anquan Boldin is trapped in Baltimore's offense right now, but he's still a good player, he's not old (31), and he had some great years in Arizona. If he plays another five years, his statistics alone could draw HOF attention. To get in, he'll probably need another couple really big seasons, Pro Bowl or All-Pro quality.

I have always liked Donald Driver. What's not to like? Dependable, consistent receiver who always has more left in the tank than you thought. He's gone over 1,000 yards seven times, he caught 70 passes six years in a row, he's one of the greatest receivers in Packer history. His career appears to be winding down, and although he's hit a couple of the big numbers — 10,000 yards is a significant accomplishment — he's not likely to draw serious HOF consideration.

Wes Welker keeps challenging receiving records, but he'll need to keep it up for years to make it to Canton. Really, it's probably too early for any serious evaluation of his prospects. The same is true for young players like Roddy White and Calvin Johnson, who certainly appear to be on the right track, but are just too young to have established HOF credentials at this point. That's really the next generation of receivers, after we've gone through Ward, Mason, Wayne, etc.

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