Best WRs By Decade: 2000s

Last year, I wrote an article breaking down the best quarterbacks by decade, followed by in-depth profiles of the greatest QBs in history. This year, I'm combining those two themes in a look at the best wide receivers ever, broken into decades. Because careers don't always fit cleanly into a single decade, I've gone in five-year increments. Last week, we covered 1990-99 and 1995-2004. This is the seventh installment, examining 2000-09 and 2005-2014. The great receivers of the early '00s, such as Marvin Harrison and Isaac Bruce, were in last week's column.

Let's begin with some specific categories and honors, then we'll go in depth on the finest wide receivers of each decade.


Fastest Receiver — Laveranues Coles

Best Deep Threat — Randy Moss

Best Hands — Marvin Harrison

Best Possession Receiver — Marvin Harrison

Toughest Receiver — Hines Ward

Underrated in 2016 — Derrick Mason

Most Accomplished Postseason WR — Hines Ward

Best Single Season — Marvin Harrison, 2002

Best Overall WR — Torry Holt

I realize that most people disagree with me on the best wide receiver of the '00s. Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, and Terrell Owens are all more popular choices. But Torry Holt had the most catches, most yards, and most first downs of any receiver in the decade. He had six 1,300-yard seasons. No one else had more than four. Holt gained 1,600 yards in a season twice. No one else did that. He was fast, smart, great hands, great route runner. I understand the case for other players, and I don't think Holt is a slam dunk. It would be easy to say Moss and avoid the arguments, but I believe that over this specific time period, Torry Holt was the best receiver in football.

As is the case in many decades, determining the fastest receiver is a tough call. Laveranues Coles was blazing fast, as you probably remember. In 2002 and 2003, he had back-to-back 1,200-yard receiving seasons, for two different teams (Jets and Washington). Coles returned to the Jets and had another 1,000-yard season in 2006. But his former teammate Santana Moss was about the same speed, Steve Smith and Lee Evans could fly, and early in the decade, Randy Moss was incredibly fast.

Santana Moss had four 1,000-yard receiving seasons, including 1,483 yards in 2005, one of the really underrated seasons in this decade. That was also the season Moss scored 39-yard and 70-yard TDs in the final minutes of a 14-13 comeback victory over the Cowboys on Monday Night Football. He gained over 10,000 career receiving yards, and in 2002 he had one of the greatest punt return seasons in memory, with 413 yards, a 16.5 average, and 2 TDs. Although no relation to Randy Moss, Santana is related to former first-round draft picks Sinorice Moss (his brother) and Patrick Peterson, the Arizona Cardinals' cornerback (his cousin).

Santana Moss and Packers hero Donald Driver have extremely similar career stats:


Driver had seven 1,000-yard seasons, including three consecutive 1,200-yard seasons. He caught a touchdown in 14 straight seasons, retiring with 61 receiving TDs and over 10,000 yards. Chad Johnson had similar career stats, actually a little better — 11,059 yards, 67 TDs — but where Driver was a good teammate and a locker room leader, Chad was self-centered and disruptive, and the Bengals got better as soon as he was gone.

Torry Holt
St. Louis Rams, 1999-2008; Jacksonville Jaguars, 2009
920 receptions, 13,382 yards, 74 TD

I made my case above for Torry Holt as the greatest wide receiver of the '00s. He only played 11 seasons, so his career totals aren't as impressive as some of his peers, but Holt gained more yards than Larry Fitzgerald, who has played 12 seasons, or Anquan Boldin, who has played 13, or Hines Ward (14), or Derrick Mason (15), or Andre Reed (16) or Irving Fryar (17). Torry Holt averaged 1217 yards per season, the most in history by any player with at least 10 seasons.

From 2000-07, Holt had at least 80 receptions every season, including six in a row with more than 90 receptions. He gained at least 58 first downs every year, and at least 1,188 yards. That includes four seasons over 1,300 and two over 1,600. Holt made the Pro Bowl in seven of those eight seasons, the exception being 2002, when Holt had 1,302 yards and led the NFC in receiving first downs (69), but the Rams had a disappointing 7-9 record. Holt's seven Pro Bowls are more than Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Reggie Wayne (6 each), almost twice as many as Steve Smith, Hines Ward, and his former teammate Isaac Bruce (4 each).

Holt's best year was probably 2003. He had 117 receptions, 84 first downs, 1696 yards, and 12 TDs. He was the leading vote-getter (among WRs) on the Associated Press all-pro team, even ahead of Randy Moss, who had career-highs for receptions and yards.

There's an argument to be made that Holt was even better in 2000. Catching passes from two different QBs, Holt gained 1,635 yards and averaged 11.76 yards per target, the 2nd-highest mark on record. He called himself Big Game Torry Holt, and delivered in Super Bowl XXXIV, with 7 catches for 109 yards and a touchdown. He had 5 receptions for 49 yards in Super Bowl XXXVI. Holt didn't have a long career, but he was consistently excellent for the better part of a decade.

Derrick Mason
Tennessee Titans, 1997-2004; Baltimore Ravens, 2005-10; New York Jets, 2011; Houston Texans, 2011
943 receptions, 12,061 yards, 66 TD

In my mind, Derrick Mason is basically the same player as Hines Ward. Their stats are very similar, and Mason arguably had more big years, more seasons as an impact player and the top receiver on his team. Both excelled for run-based offenses that limited 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 was an all-pro returner, 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, Mason never attracted the same publicity.

When you do a year-by-year comparison, it's tough to point with any conviction to one player's stats being better than the other's:


The only significant difference is the touchdowns, but that's mostly because Ward played on better teams, with offenses that spent more time in the red zone. Ward's advocates will point to other factors that favor him, like playoff performance and blocking. But Mason's returning contributions are often overlooked. In 2000, when he set the single-season record for all-purpose yardage, Mason was first-team all-pro as a returner, providing 93 quality returns in addition to leading the NFL-best 13-3 Titans in receiving yardage and TDs. Over his career, Mason had 5,086 return yards and 3 TDs.

Choosing the better player between Ward and Mason, I'd choose Ward. But it's a lot closer than conventional wisdom rates. Mason played on nine playoff teams in his career, Ward eight.

Randy Moss
Minnesota Vikings, 1998-2004, 2010; Oakland Raiders, 2005-06; New England Patriots, 2007-10; Tennessee Titans, 2010; San Francisco 49ers, 2012
982 receptions, 15,292 yards, 156 TD

Probably the greatest physical talent in the history of his position, Randy Moss made an immediate splash in the NFL. He led the league in receiving TDs (17), he was Offensive Rookie of the Year and first-team all-pro, and the Vikings improved from 9-7 to 15-1. Sometimes Moss seemed literally unstoppable, impossible to defend. He was the fastest man on the field, and he had a vertical leap no one could match. Randall Cunningham threw him alley-oops, and Moss beat the defender on pure freak athleticism. Moss had 14 receptions of at least 40 yards, the most on record (1991-pres).

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, and 1,400 yards four times. He led the NFL in receiving TDs five times, including a record 23 in 2007. Moss was first-team all-pro in four seasons, and his 64 career 100-yard receiving games are second only to Rice.

Early in his career, Moss was criticized for his obvious lack of effort when he wasn't motivated, but you'd still want him on your team, because he was the most explosive wideout since Lance Alworth, maybe ever. The 2006 Patriots scored 385 points. The next season, they added Wes Welker and Moss, and scored 589.

Terrell Owens
San Francisco 49ers, 1996-2003; Philadelphia Eagles, 2004-05; Dallas Cowboys, 2006-08; Buffalo Bills, 2009; Cincinnati Bengals, 2010
1,078 receptions, 15,934 yards, 153 TD

Terrell Owens ranks 6th all-time in receptions, 2nd in receiving yards, and 3rd 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, 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 controversies.

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 his quarterbacks, 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 attitude 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 limits the offense. As great a player as he was, I'm not convinced Owens actually made his teams better. There's no substitute for talent, but team chemistry matters, and probably no player in NFL history has disrupted team chemistry like Terrell Owens. The Eagles, Cowboys, and Bengals all got better when they released Owens.

Hines Ward
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1998-2011
1,000 receptions, 12,083 yards, 85 TD

Hines Ward has pretty good gross receiving totals, but that's not a complete measure of his 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. I chose Ward to my 2005 all-pro team, even though he wasn't among the league leaders statistically (69 rec, 975 yds, 11 TD). Ward led the Steelers in catches by 30, in yards by 417, and in TDs by five. He ended the season as Super Bowl MVP.

Ward's success is actually kind of weird. He's not a real big guy, he wasn't fast for the position, and despite a reputation to the contrary, he 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. I suppose this is also where I acknowledge that Ward was widely viewed as a dirty player. In March 2009, the NFL instituted a rule change, informally known as the Hines Ward Rule, that prohibited certain blindside blocks.

Ward was a high school quarterback, and I remembered him throwing passes in the NFL, but apparently my memory inflated that part of his career: Ward's pro passing line was just 1-of-2, for 17 yards, plus a sack. However, he also had 57 rush attempts, for 428 yards and a touchdown. Ward was a hard-nosed possession receiver, a dedicated blocker, and a great team player who won two Super Bowl rings.


Fastest Receiver — Mike Wallace

Best Deep Threat — see below

Best Hands — Larry Fitzgerald

Best Possession Receiver — Reggie Wayne

Toughest Receiver — Anquan Boldin

Underrated in 2016 — Anquan Boldin

Most Accomplished Postseason WR — Larry Fitzgerald

Best Single Season — Calvin Johnson, 2012

Best Overall WR — Calvin Johnson

In contrast to naming Torry Holt the best receiver of the '00s, I didn't quite have the guts to claim that Brandon Lloyd had the best hands of this decade. Lloyd was unfocused and inconsistent, and he only had one 1,000-yard season. In 2010, Lloyd led the league in receiving yards (1,448) and scored 11 TDs, despite catching passes from Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. He didn't have a great career, but when his head was on straight, he was marvelous.

Honestly, Calvin Johnson is probably the greatest deep threat of this decade. Although he only played eight of the 10 seasons, Johnson had the most 20-yard receptions (174) and the second-most 40-yard receptions (38). He had the third-most touchdowns and the third-highest receiving average. But the single most explosive receiver of the decade was DeSean Jackson. D-Jax had 48 40-yard receptions in this decade, by far the most. In the 25 years since that stat became official, Jackson has the second-highest single-season total (13) and is tied for the fourth-highest (10), the only player — including Randy Moss — with two seasons in double digits. Including returns, he also has 20 TDs of at least 60 yards, which trails only Jerry Rice and is tied for second all-time. Jackson's 17.7 receiving average was the highest of the decade, and his 22.5 average in 2010 is the highest for any 1,000-yard season since 1990. In fact, Jackson has three of the top 10.

At the same time, you could make a "best deep threat" argument for Vincent Jackson. V-Jax had a 17.0 average, second only to DeSean, but compared to D-Jax, he had many more catches (+80), yards (+1,078), first downs (+117), and TDs (+16). Vincent Jackson has six 1,000-yard receiving seasons, with four different quarterbacks: Philip Rivers, Josh Freeman, Mike Glennon, and Josh McCown. He's a downfield threat no matter who's throwing the ball.

Mike Wallace appears to have squandered his potential, but his terrific speed facilitated back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and two years with double-digit TDs. In 2010, Wallace had the most 100-yard receiving games in the NFL. His receiving average dropped radically when Hines Ward retired.

Among the wide receivers I rank in the top 50 all-time, only one — through a quirk of chronology — does not have a full profile in this series. Steve Smith has nearly 1,000 catches, nearly 14,000 yards, and 84 career TDs. That includes six return TDs in his first three seasons. Smith also has eight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and he was first-team all-pro in 2005. Smith is a five-time Pro Bowler, and he's been excellent in the postseason, with 11 TDs and 1,001 receiving yards in 11 games. He's an incredibly determined playmaker, and his intensity is less destructive than Terrell Owens'.

Roddy White had six consecutive seasons of at least 1,150 yards, including three seasons over 1,350. White was first-team all-pro in 2010, when he led the NFL with 115 receptions. Michael Irvin (1991-93), Jerry Rice (1993-96), Marvin Harrison (1999-2002), and Roddy White (2010-12) are the only receivers with three straight seasons of 70+ first downs.

Wes Welker had five seasons with over 110 catches, and five 1,000-yard receiving seasons, including three years over 1,300. Welker was first-team all-pro in 2009 and 2011, and probably deserved it both years. His receiving average is among the lowest of all time (11.0), but I don't think most fans understand the magnitude of his accomplishments. Welker also gained 6,722 yards as a returner, and he made two extra points and a field goal. Also, and I don't want to make too much of this, but I think Welker's success opened the door for white wide receivers, who were basically extinct for 20 years before him. I don't know if players like Eric Decker and Jordy Nelson would have gotten the same opportunities without Welker's success.

Anquan Boldin
Arizona Cardinals, 2003-09; Baltimore Ravens, 2010-12; San Francisco 49ers, 2013-15
1,009 receptions, 13,195 yards, 74 TD

In his first regular-season game, Anquan Boldin broke Hugh Taylor's 56-year-old rookie record for yardage. Boldin caught 10 passes for 217 yards and 2 TDs (he also lost a fumble). He won Rookie of the Year honors, with 101 catches for 1,377 yards, both figures third-best in the NFL.

It was the first of seven 1,000-yard seasons, including 1,179 yards in 2013, when the 49ers threw the fewest passes in the NFL. The rest of the WRs on the team combined for 35 receptions for 448 yards and 1 touchdown. Run-oriented offenses have limited Boldin's statistical production in the second half of his career, but he's remained a key part of the offense. After leaving Arizona, Boldin led the Ravens and Niners in receptions and receiving yards every season. He's also one of the best blocking WRs of this generation. There's a comparison to be made between Boldin and Hines Ward.

Two years ago, Chase Stuart noted, "Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin have each played in 156 games. And they've produced nearly identical receiving numbers, with Fitzgerald at 11,367 yards and Boldin at 11,344 yards. But Boldin's teams have averaged 558 pass attempts, compared to 590 for Fitzgerald." Reputation ranks Fitz far ahead, but there's a case to be made that Boldin has actually done more for his teams.

In the 2012 playoffs, Boldin had 380 yards and 4 TDs in four games, including 104 and a touchdown in Super Bowl XLVII. He has 1,033 yards in 14 career postseason games.

Larry Fitzgerald
Arizona Cardinals, 2004-15
1,018 receptions, 13,366 yards, 98 TD

On January 3, 2009, Larry Fitzgerald had 101 yards and a touchdown in a 30-24 playoff win over the Atlanta Falcons. The following week, on January 10, Fitzgerald had 166 yards and a TD in the divisional round of the playoffs. In the NFC Championship Game, Fitz had 152 yards and 3 touchdowns. In Super Bowl XLIII, he tallied 127 yards and 2 TDs, including a go-ahead, 64-yard touchdown with 2:37 remaining. Altogether, Fitzgerald had 546 yards and 7 TDs in the 2008 NFL postseason. He had 82 yards and 2 TDs in his first playoff game the next season, and 176 yards and a TD in the divisional round of the 2015 postseason.

Fitzgerald is a nine-time Pro Bowler. He's had seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons, including four 1,400-yard seasons. He's led the NFL in receptions (2005) and tied for the lead in receiving TDs twice (2008 and '09). He's caught double-digit TDs five times. Fitzgerald is big (6-3, 225) and strong, a physical receiver and a good blocker. He's a good route runner and he has good hands. He's smart and focused, a consistent performer and a team player, and he's saved his best moments for the biggest moments.

From 2005-14, Fitzgerald had the second-most catches, yards, first downs, and touchdowns in the NFL. Curiously, the leader in each category was different: Wes Welker (receptions), Andre Johnson (yards), Reggie Wayne (first downs), and Antonio Gates (TDs).

Andre Johnson
Houston Texans, 2003-14; Indianapolis Colts, 2015
1,053 receptions, 14,100 yards, 68 TD

In 2008 and 2009, Andre Johnson became just the second receiver in history with back-to-back 1,500-yard seasons (Marvin Harrison, 2001-02). In both years, Johnson was clearly the best receiver in the league. In '08, he led the NFL in receptions, led in yardage by 144, and led by a huge amount in first downs (79; no one else had more than 66). In '09, he led the league by 221 yards. I remember a play that season in which Johnson caught a pass around the 5-yard line, and ran over three defenders to score a touchdown. Wide receivers aren't supposed to bowl down tacklers, but Johnson did.

He had five 100-catch seasons and seven 1,100-yard seasons, including four 1,400-yard seasons. He is the only player in NFL history with three 1,550-yard receiving seasons. Johnson's peak was remarkable. Setting aside an injury year in 2011, during his five full seasons from 2008-13, Johnson's average stat line read: 105 receptions, 1473 yards, 71 first downs, 7 TDs. To average those figures over five years is almost unbelievable. To put those numbers in context, in the six seasons from 2008-13:

* Only eight other players had 105 receptions in one season. Reggie Wayne and Wes Welker were the only players to do it more than once.
* Only six other receivers had 1473 yards in a season. Calvin Johnson was the only player to do it more than once.
* Only six other receivers had 71 first downs in a season. Andre Johnson had 79 first downs twice. The only other player to hit that mark even once was Calvin Johnson.

To the extent there's a statistical argument against Andre Johnson's greatness, it's his relatively low TD total. But that's easily explained: Johnson spent the first half of his career on bad teams that didn't spend much time in the red zone, and the second half of his career on a team with Arian Foster. Johnson reminds me a little bit of the tight ends who were basketball players. He was so physical, and he challenged defenders and fought for the ball. Johnson is 17 catches and 245 yards shy of tying Reggie Wayne for 7th all-time in receptions and 8th in receiving yards.

Calvin Johnson
Detroit Lions, 2007-15
731 receptions, 11,619 yards, 83 TD

Most receiving yards per game, minimum 100 games:

1. Calvin Johnson, 86.1
2. Torry Holt, 77.4
3. Marvin Harrison, 76.7
4. Andre Johnson, 76.2
5. Jerry Rice, 75.6

This list is dominated by recent players, because the game favors passing now, and the list favors players with short careers, who retired before age or injuries caused their play to decline. But Calvin Johnson is just all by himself.

There's an argument to be made that Johnson's stats are inflated by Detroit's pass-heavy offense, and obviously there's some truth to that. But I also think it's true that the Lions passed so often because they had Megatron to throw to. The impact of Detroit's play-calling on Johnson's stats has been exaggerated; over the course of Johnson's career, he ranked third in targets, with one of the highest yards-per-target figures in football. Johnson routinely made jaw-dropping plays; he was visibly the best receiver in the league.

No receiver in history is quite like Johnson, but the best comparison might be Randy Moss. Johnson is bigger than Moss — 6-foot-5, 237 pounds — and more physical. As a draft prospect, his NFL combine and pro day performances were stunning: 4.35 40-yard dash — the fastest ever by a player so tall — 11' 7" broad jump, 42.5" vertical leap. Johnson also had good hands and excellent football sense. Richard Sherman described the challenge of guarding Johnson: "They tell you he's 6' 5" and runs a 4.3 40. Then you get out there, and he's faster than you think, quicker than you think. Taller and stronger than you think. You'll have three or four guys sitting on him in coverage, and [Matthew] Stafford throws it up there, and he makes the play ... Calvin's playing ball at a different level from anyone else."

Johnson had four 1,300-yard receiving seasons, two 1,600-yard seasons, and four years with 12 or more receiving TDs. He had 329 yards in a game, the highest ever in a four-quarter (non-overtime) game. Over his brief but electric career, Johnson set or tied numerous records, including most 200-yard receiving games in a season (3) and career (6). The former includes a playoff game in which Johnson caught 12 of 15 targets, for 211 yards and 2 TDs. All six 200-yard games came in a 27-game span. Johnson holds the single-season record for receiving yardage (1,964), as well as the records for back-to-back seasons (3,645) and three consecutive seasons (5,137). I might be willing to argue that Calvin Johnson had the greatest peak of any receiver in the history of this sport.

Johnson announced his retirement in March, and I hope he'll reconsider in the future, but if he stays away, his 1,214 receiving yards in 2015 would be the most ever in a player's final season.

Reggie Wayne
Indianapolis Colts, 2001-14
1,070 receptions, 14,345 yards, 82 TD

Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison are one of the most interesting receiving tandems in history. Partly that's because they were so successful, combining for 17,155 yards and 134 touchdowns in their eight seasons together. Both caught over 1,000 passes in their careers, and both gained over 14,000 yards. But what's really interesting is how similar they were.

Most great receiving duos complement each other: a possession guy and a deep threat. The strengths of the one play to the weaknesses of the other. But Harrison and Wayne were essentially the same style player. They were both listed 6 feet even and under 200 pounds. Neither was particularly fast, and both were essentially possession receivers. In fact, they are the only players with five seasons of 70 or more first down receptions. (Jerry Rice probably did so, too, but only four of them are official.)

What allowed Harrison and Wayne to excel, besides Peyton Manning, was their dedication, intelligence, and precision. Both were excellent route runners, and both had good hands. They were good at reading defenses, and combined with the work put in with Manning, that helped them adjust to exploit openings. Harrison and Wayne are probably the two best receivers I've ever seen at tapping their toes in bounds on the sideline or in the corner of the end zone. They were unstoppable on out patterns and curls, but if you played them outside, they'd go in and Peyton would hit them on a slant or a post.

From 2005-2014, Wayne gained 597 first downs, most in the NFL, and he made a ton of jaw-dropping catches, particularly those that required dragging a foot in bounds. He had eight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, including four 1,300-yard seasons. He had four years with 100 receptions, and three with double-digit TDs. He had 221 yards and 2 TDs in a playoff game. Wayne led the NFL in receiving yards in 2007, made six Pro Bowls, and was first-team all-pro in 2010.

This series concludes next week, addressing today's best wide receivers and reviewing the series.

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