Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Best WRs By Decade: Conclusion

By Brad Oremland

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 combined those two themes in a look at the best wide receivers ever, broken into decades.

Best Wide Receivers of 1945-54
Best Wide Receivers of the 1950s
Best Wide Receivers of the 1960s
Best Wide Receivers of the 1970s
Best Wide Receivers of the 1980s
Best Wide Receivers of the 1990s
Best Wide Receivers of the 2000s

This is the eighth and final article in this project. We'll take a quick look at the best receivers in the game today, then sum up the series.

Brandon Marshall
Denver Broncos, 2006-09; Miami Dolphins, 2010-11; Chicago Bears, 2012-14; New York Jets, 2015
882 receptions, 11,273 yards, 79 TD

Brandon Marshall has 1,000-yard seasons with four different teams, and five different quarterbacks: Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, Chad Henne, Matt Moore, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. I don't understand how a receiver as talented as Marshall keeps getting traded. I get that he's a bit of a live wire, and he's had some off-field issues, but he's such a valuable player. He's got size, good route-runner, great hands. He's a good blocker and a punishing runner, a passionate player who really cares about winning.

Marshall has six 100-reception seasons, the most in NFL history. He holds the single-game record for receptions (21), with another game tied for third (18). He has eight 1,000-yard seasons, including two 1,500-yard seasons. He's scored double-digit TDs four times, and already has more receiving TDs (79) than Steve Smith (76) or Andre Johnson (68). Since first downs became official in 1991 (and probably before '91 as well), only five receivers have four seasons with 70+ first downs: Marvin Harrison, Michael Irvin, Jerry Rice, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Marshall.

Marshall has made six Pro Bowls in eight full seasons, and he was Pro Bowl MVP in 2011, with 176 yards and a record-setting 4 touchdowns. It's not clear whether Marshall will eventually fit better into the 2005-14 decade, or 2010-19, but he's done enough to be considered a player of historical stature, and it's not fair to compare him to players in the 2005-14 block, like Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne, who've already had full careers. However, Marshall has been a pro for 10 years, and there are five young receivers, rookies in 2010 and 2011, who appear on track to establish historical legacies of their own.

Of those five, Dez Bryant is the least steady. From 2012-14, he had at least 1,200 yards and 12 TDs every season. But he hasn't demonstrated consistency, and he's an agitator. When a player is so intense it becomes self-destructive or affects team chemistry, those players tend not to sustain greatness. We'll see where Dez goes, but I have more faith in some of his contemporaries who look more stable and might still be on the upswing.

Over the last five seasons (2011-15), only six players had more receiving yards than Bryant's 5,264 — but they all had a lot more, by over 900 yards. Two are Calvin Johnson (7,428) and Brandon Marshall (6,240). The others are Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones, and A.J. Green. From 2011-15:

Chart

Antonio Brown is the jitterbug of the group, much shorter (5'10") and lighter (180) than the others. He's quick and agile — he made the semi-finals of Dancing With the Stars — and a good route runner. He's had at least 110 receptions and 1,499 receiving yards for three seasons in a row. Brown has also scored a punt return TD in four of the last five years.

Demaryius Thomas outweighs Brown by 50 pounds. At 6'3" and 230 lbs, he's big enough to play tight end, but with the speed and agility of a wide receiver. As a rookie, he averaged 24.9 yards on 16 kickoff returns. Thomas, drafted two slots before Dez Bryant, has four consecutive seasons of at least 90 catches and 1,300 yards, and he's scored a 70+ yard TD in all four of them.

Only injuries prevented Julio Jones from reaching NFL stardom immediately. He makes more sensational, jaw-dropping catches than anyone in the league (except maybe Calvin Johnson, who's retired now). Jones is an athletic freak: big, fast, great leaping ability. He's got good hands and good football sense. Jones topped 1,500 yards in each of the last two seasons, including 136 receptions for 1,871 yards and 93 first downs in 2015. That's [1] tied for 2nd in single-season receptions, [2] alone in 2nd for receiving yards, and [3] the record for receiving first downs in a season.

A.J. Green, so far, has been the steadiest of the bunch. A rookie in 2011, he's had over 1,000 yards every season of his career, made the Pro Bowl every season of his career, and made the playoffs every season. He's never had 100 catches or 1,500 yards, but he's among the league leaders every season. In a group with Brown, Thomas, and Jones, Green is probably the least explosive player. But he's big and intelligent, and he's been one of the best receivers in the league since the day he was drafted.

I would regard speculation on the greatness of other receivers as premature, but DeAndre Hopkins, Alshon Jeffery, and the great WR class of 2014 (Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Allen Robinson, etc.) all appear poised to enter this discussion. Eric Decker, Jordy Nelson, Emmanuel Sanders, and — if we ever admit that he's not really a TE — Jimmy Graham also have done enough good things to warrant attention going forward. But again, I think that's getting ahead of ourselves.

This is the final article of this series, so let's sum up.

Fastest Receivers

1945-54: Mal Kutner
1950-59: Bob Boyd
1955-64: Del Shofner
1960-69: Lance Alworth
1965-74: Bullet Bob Hayes
1970-79: Isaac Curtis or Cliff Branch
1975-84: Wesley Walker
1980-89: Willie Gault
1985-94: Willie Gault
1990-99: Raghib Ismail
1995-04: Randy Moss
2000-09: Laveranues Coles
2005-14: Mike Wallace

Looking for the fastest receiver of all time, the list probably begins with Bob Hayes, Randy Moss, and Willie Gault. On a track, Hayes was the fastest man in the world. Four-time Pro Bowl WR John Gilliam remembered, "We would run against Bob Hayes at the S.C. State Relays, Florida A&M Relays, Tuskegee Relays and Atlanta Relays. But the rest of us all ran for second place against Bob Hayes. If you finished second against him, you were a winner." In 1973, when Hayes' career was winding down, CBS aired a program called the All Pro-Football Olympiad. Hayes, 30 years old and nearing retirement, easily won the 60-yard dash, dominating speedy competition like Isaac Curtis and Herb Mul-Key. Unlike many sprinters, Hayes' speed translated to the football field. He was a downfield threat, a great punt returner, and an unquestionable star — from Day One.

Underrated: Henry Ellard. I named Gault the fastest receiver of 1985-94, but man, Henry Ellard could fly. He was a brilliant punt returner, and even in his 30s, he was a great downfield receiver, because he could outrun almost everybody. Ellard turned 33 in July 1994, but from 1994-96, Ellard was 8th in the NFL in receiving yards, one of 13 players with at least 3,000 yards over that time. Among those 13, these were their receiving averages: 18.8, 16.0, 15.1, 15.1, 15.0, 14.6, 14.0, 13.8, 13.5, 13.1, 12.7, 12.2, 11.1. Ellard's 18.8 is all alone, about 1½ standard deviations ahead of second-place Jake Reed. Part of that is Norv Turner's vertical passing scheme, but a lot of it is Ellard's route-running and pure speed. If the defender bit on a double move, Ellard would be open by more than 10 yards.

Best Deep Threats

1945-54: Hugh Taylor
1950-59: Crazylegs Hirsch
1955-64: Del Shofner
1960-69: Lance Alworth
1965-74: Paul Warfield
1970-79: Harold Jackson
1975-84: Cliff Branch
1980-89: James Lofton
1985-94: Henry Ellard
1990-99: Henry Ellard
1995-04: Randy Moss
2000-09: Randy Moss
2005-14: DeSean Jackson

What we mean by a downfield receiver or deep threat has changed over time. Randy Moss is the greatest downfield threat of the last 20 years. He averaged 15.6 yards per reception and scored on 15.9% of his receptions. But prior to the AFL merger, players routinely beat those numbers. Hugh Taylor averaged 19.2 yds/rec and 21.3% TDs. Paul Warfield averaged 20.1 and scored on 19.9% of his catches.

Statistics like yards per reception and touchdown percentage reward purity: a player rates higher if all he does is catch deep balls, though he's probably more valuable to the team if he mixes in some short catches, too. No one wants a receiver who won't go over the middle. But the great deep threats of yesterday have been reined in by today's horizontal passing offenses. Modern defensive schemes mean that the best downfield receivers are often the ones who will win a jump-ball over defenders, not the ones who leave dismayed cornerbacks in their dust.

Depending on what happens with DeSean Jackson going forward, Ellard was the last of the classic downfield receivers. Lofton, Ellard, and Jackson all are probably a little underrated, because this style of receiver doesn't jive with popular conceptions of what makes a player valuable. These receivers dictate coverage, spread the defense vertically, and create opportunities for the team even when they're not targeted.

The late '60s and early '70s were the golden age of the downfield terrors: Lance Alworth, Cliff Branch, Isaac Curtis, Gary Garrison, John Gilliam, Mel Gray, Bob Hayes, Harold Jackson, Charlie Joiner, Homer Jones, Don Maynard, Haven Moses, Drew Pearson, Paul Warfield, Gene Washington, Warren Wells. Downfield bombs are the most exciting play in football, and the sport would benefit from more players like that.

Paul Warfield was the greatest deep receiver of that era, and to my way of thinking, that makes him the greatest deep threat of all time. Don Hutson, a Pre-Modern end with the Packers from 1935-45, might also lay claim to that title, but I'm focusing on the Modern Era.

Underrated: Del Shofner. The first player with four 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and one of only three WRs named first-team all-pro five times (Shofner, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens). Y.A. Tittle said that of all the receivers he played with, Billy Wilson had the best hands, Kyle Rote had the best moves, and Frank Gifford was the smartest, but Shofner "was the best and most dangerous of all" because he could score from anywhere on the field.

Tittle also invoked Shofner to explain why he hated facing zone defenses: "Not because they are harder to beat than teams that use man-to-man coverage but because zone coverage ... shackles a good quarterback with a fine deep receiver like Shofner ... I hated to see Shofner reduced to catching short patterns. It's like making Mickey Mantle a pinch hitter, or asking him to bunt. Sure, he can bunt, but so can the .250 hitter."

Best Hands

1945-54: Dante Lavelli
1950-59: Billy Wilson
1955-64: Raymond Berry
1960-69: Tommy McDonald
1965-74: Lance Alworth
1970-79: Fred Biletnikoff
1975-84: Steve Largent
1980-89: Steve Largent
1985-94: Sterling Sharpe
1990-99: Cris Carter
1995-04: Cris Carter or Marvin Harrison
2000-09: Marvin Harrison
2005-14: Larry Fitzgerald

The early 1960s were an incredibly rich period, with four players who probably rate as having the top 10 softest pairs of hands of all time: Ray Berry, Tommy McDonald, Lionel Taylor, and Lance Alworth. The "best hands in history" discussion usually comes back to Berry or Largent. There are other players I'd be happy to argue for, but — apart from some discomfort at singling out a pair of white dudes at a position where most of the best players are black — I'm also happy to go with the flow and give the nod to Berry or Largent.

Underrated: Lance Alworth. We remember Alworth for his speed and athleticism, to the point that it's crowded out what a great receiver he was.

Best Possession Receivers

1945-54: Tom Fears
1950-59: Billy Wilson
1955-64: Raymond Berry
1960-69: Lionel Taylor
1965-74: Fred Biletnikoff or Charley Taylor
1970-79: Harold Carmichael
1975-84: Steve Largent
1980-89: Art Monk
1985-94: Sterling Sharpe
1990-99: Jerry Rice
1995-04: Marvin Harrison
2000-09: Marvin Harrison
2005-14: Reggie Wayne

Defining a possession receiver is tricky. Do you exclude the guys who can go downfield? Personally — and I'm certain there are smart people who feel differently — I think of possession receivers as chain-movers, the guy you throw to on 3rd-and-7. He'll run his route at eight yards, he'll fight for the ball, he'll land both feet in bounds if you throw to the sideline or the end zone.

By that definition, I think Jerry Rice is probably the greatest possession receiver of all time. Raymond Berry, Steve Largent, and Marvin Harrison would probably round out the top four. Cris Carter was a helluva possession receiver, but he didn't make the decade-by-decade list because of Rice and Harrison.

Underrated: Billy Wilson. As a general rule, if you're a player from the 1950s and you're not in the Hall of Fame, no one talks about you any more. Billy Wilson probably should be in the Hall of Fame, but outside of a footnote in 49ers history, you're not likely to hear about him today. Wilson, like Del Shofner, drew high praise from HOF quarterback Y.A. Tittle: "Billy Wilson, the 49er end, had the best hands I ever threw to. And he was the best receiver at splitting the cracks in a zone defense. If Billy could touch the ball with one finger, he could catch it. In that way he was like Raymond Berry."

Best Route Runners

1945-54: Tom Fears
1950-59: Crazylegs Hirsch
1955-64: Raymond Berry
1960-69: Lance Alworth
1965-74: Lance Alworth
1970-79: Charlie Joiner
1975-84: Steve Largent
1980-89: Steve Largent
1985-94: Jerry Rice
1990-99: Jerry Rice
1995-04: Jerry Rice
2000-09: Marvin Harrison
2005-14: Wes Welker

I didn't include this category in the weekly superlatives, and I feel uncomfortable giving three players — Alworth, Largent, and Rice — double recognition. It feels easy, like a cop-out. Nonetheless, I think these are the right answers. I also think it's pretty clear that Jerry Rice was the greatest route-runner who ever lived. Fred Biletnikoff is probably the best route-runner not listed above.

Underrated: Charlie Joiner. I don't think Joiner gets enough credit today, for his speed and longevity and versatility, but especially for his intelligence and dedication. He was a gifted athlete, but he also worked hard to be a great receiver, and his accomplishments reflect that.

Toughest Receivers

1945-54: Pete Pihos
1950-59: Elbie Nickel
1955-64: Pete Retzlaff
1960-69: Tommy McDonald
1965-74: Charley Taylor or Otis Taylor
1970-79: Charley Taylor
1975-84: Charlie Joiner
1980-89: Art Monk
1985-94: Art Monk
1990-99: Jerry Rice
1995-04: Keyshawn Johnson
2000-09: Hines Ward
2005-14: Anquan Boldin

I like this category, because players made the list in such different ways. Pete Pihos was a two-way player, who had six sacks on defense in a single game. Nickel and Retzlaff straddled the line between WR and TE. McDonald was tiny, but he was the last player not to wear a facemask. Monk, Boldin, and the Taylors were big and physical, good blockers. Ward was smaller, but a ferocious blocker. Joiner and Rice would do whatever it took to help the team: block, go over the middle, you name it.

As a matter of personal preference, I like this style of receiver: the unselfish player who fights like hell and whose value goes beyond his athletic ability. If I had to single out one of them as the toughest, I think I'd lean towards Art Monk. He'd take a hit to make the catch, he ran into defenders as often as he went around them, and he was the finest blocking receiver of his generation. He won three Super Bowl rings, with running teams and passing teams.

Underrated: Keyshawn Johnson. He got a bad reputation, and in many ways it was deserved. Johnson was a loudmouth and a diva — except when the clock was running. From snap to whistle, he played hard, and he was a great blocker.

Underrated in 2016

1945-54: Ken Kavanaugh
1950-59: Billy Howton
1955-64: Del Shofner
1960-69: Gary Collins
1965-74: Danny Abramowicz
1970-79: Ken Burrough
1975-84: Alfred Jenkins
1980-89: Cris Collinsworth
1985-94: Henry Ellard
1990-99: Herman Moore
1995-04: Jimmy Smith
2000-09: Derrick Mason
2005-14: Anquan Boldin

The earliest players in this category are underrated because they've been forgotten entirely. Henry Ellard is probably the dividing line; from that point on, we still talk about these players sometimes, but usually without much reverence. There are a few threads that tie many of these players together. Some of them, like Moore and Smith, had short careers. Some, like Mason and Boldin, played for run-oriented offenses that limited their statistics. Most of them played on less-than-stellar offenses that limited their TD totals, and thus their highlights. Few of them — only Kavanaugh, Collins, and Boldin — ever won a championship.

Of the standard receiving statistics, I think touchdowns are probably the second-most important (behind yardage). But TDs are the defining stat that determines whether a receiver is likely to be underrated: if he scores a lot, it's unlikely he'll fall short of the recognition he deserves. If his TD totals are low, though, it will be tough for him to receive the acclaim his play really merits.

Most Accomplished Postseason WRs

1945-54: Tom Fears
1950-59: Tom Fears
1955-64: Raymond Berry
1960-69: Fred Biletnikoff
1965-74: Fred Biletnikoff
1970-79: Lynn Swann and John Stallworth
1975-84: Lynn Swann and John Stallworth
1980-89: Jerry Rice
1985-94: Jerry Rice
1990-99: Jerry Rice
1995-04: Rod Smith
2000-09: Hines Ward
2005-14: Larry Fitzgerald

This is another category in which you see the same players appear repeatedly: Fears, Biletnikoff, Swann, Stallworth, Jerry Rice. Add in Larry Fitzgerald, and I think you've got, pretty clearly, the top six postseason receivers in history. There's absolutely no question that Rice is the greatest of all time.

Underrated: Michael Irvin. I don't know if Michael Irvin is really underrated — probably not — but he isn't listed above, because his career overlaps with Rice's. In 2016, Tom Fears' postseason career is pretty underrated. He caught 3 TDs in a 1950 playoff game, and the game-winning 73-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the 1951 NFL Championship Game.

Best Overall WRs

1945-54: Pete Pihos
1950-59: Billy Howton
1955-64: Raymond Berry
1960-69: Lance Alworth
1965-74: Paul Warfield
1970-79: Harold Jackson
1975-84: Steve Largent
1980-89: James Lofton
1985-94: Jerry Rice
1990-99: Jerry Rice
1995-04: Marvin Harrison
2000-09: Torry Holt
2005-14: Calvin Johnson

By my reckoning, the 100 greatest wide receivers of the Modern Era, in alphabetical order: Lance Alworth, Raymond Berry, Fred Biletnikoff, Anquan Boldin, Cliff Branch, Antonio Brown, Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, Ken Burrough, Harold Carmichael, Anthony Carter, Cris Carter, Wes Chandler, Dwight Clark, Gary Clark, Mark Clayton, Laveranues Coles, Marques Colston, Isaac Curtis, Boyd Dowler, Donald Driver, Henry Ellard, Tom Fears, Larry Fitzgerald, Irving Fryar, Joey Galloway, Gary Garrison, John Gilliam, Ernest Givins, Mel Gray, A.J. Green, Roy Green, Marvin Harrison, Bob Hayes, Charley Hennigan, Drew Hill, Harlon Hill, Crazy Legs Hirsch, Torry Holt, Joe Horn, Billy Howton, Michael Irvin, Harold Jackson, John Jefferson, Roy Jefferson, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Chad Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson, Charlie Joiner, Julio Jones, Steve Largent, Dante Lavelli, James Lofton, Brandon Marshall, Eric Martin, Derrick Mason, Don Maynard, Keenan McCardell, Tommy McDonald, Anthony Miller, Bobby Mitchell, Art Monk, Herman Moore, Rob Moore, Stanley Morgan, Randy Moss, Santana Moss, Eric Moulds, Muhsin Muhammad, Jimmy Orr, Terrell Owens, Drew Pearson, Pete Pihos, Art Powell, Andre Reed, Pete Retzlaff, Jerry Rice, Andre Rison, Sterling Sharpe, Del Shofner, Jimmy Smith, Rod Smith, Steve Smith, Mac Speedie, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Charley Taylor, Hugh Taylor, Lionel Taylor, Otis Taylor, Demaryius Thomas, Amani Toomer, Hines Ward, Paul Warfield, Gene A. Washington, Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker, Roddy White, Billy Wilson.

Elbie Nickel and R.C. Owens are the only players I profiled for the series who missed my top 100. Both played in the 1950s, when the league was tiny (12 teams) and offense revolved around rushing. If there's an era this list is unfair to, it's not the '50s, it's the early 1980s. Cris Collinsworth, Tony Hill, Alfred Jenkins, Mike Quick, Ahmad Rashad, and Wesley Walker all have fair arguments to make the top 100 list.

Six of the top 100 WRs above were not previously mentioned in this series: Anthony Carter, Marques Colston, Ernest Givins, Eric Martin, Rob Moore, and Jimmy Orr. Six more wide receivers who would make my top 125 are not mentioned anywhere in this series: Plaxico Burress, Antonio Freeman, Tony Martin, Johnnie Morton, Carl Pickens, and Reggie Rucker. Other than Rucker, all of them played around the same time: Burress, Freeman, Martin, Morton, and Pickens were all active during the 2000 NFL season. That's an era in which the league had expanded, and receiving had become very important, but I already had a lot of other accomplished WRs to focus on. Burress in particular has an interesting story, but I imagine most readers remember the highlights without my assistance.

I may break down the top 100 ranking in a future article, but for now I want to thank the readers who have made it through this entire eight-part series with me. Reading about wide receivers through history requires serious interest in pro football history, and I'm gratified that there are people who care about it and care about my analysis of those players. Thanks so much.

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