The history of the NFL’s career receptions record is an interesting one. Given that the original record-holders played a large chunk of their careers before the league kept official statistics, and given that the early days of the NFL featured very little passing, the first three men to wear the crown put up numbers that appear paltry to the modern audience.
As the league evolved, the record began changing hands between more accomplished receivers – legends of the game. Some of these men revolutionized the position, while others dominated on the field for a long time. Some made the best of advantageous situations (great teammates, poor opponents, rules changes). A few did all three.
Receivers to Hold the Career Receptions Record
Ray Flaherty (4 years as record-holder)
A Hall of Fame receiver and coach, Flaherty began his career with the New York Yankees in 1927 before moving across town to the Giants, where he spent the last seven years of his career. He undoubtedly caught his fair share of passes from 1927 to 1931, but the NFL didn’t maintain official statistics for receptions (and most other stats) until 1932. Unfortunately for him, this means that the first half of his career is lost in time. So when he set the original record, he did so by finishing the 1932 season with a mere 21 catches. Flaherty’s productivity declined rapidly over the next few years, and he retired after the 1935 season having added just twenty more receptions to his career total. By that time, however, his record had already fallen.
Luke Johnsos (1 year as record-holder)
Like Flaherty, Johnsos was also an accomplished head coach, having taken over half the coaching duties of the Bears (alongside Hunk Anderson) from 1942-1945. Also like Flaherty, Johnsos began his NFL career in the pre-stat era, meaning he also suffers from having a portion of his career production undocumented and unrecognized by the league he helped advance.1 He surpassed his predecessor by the end of the 1935 season, ending the year with 53 official receptions. He would only hold on to the record for a year, as the next man on the list was already hot on his trail.
Dale Burnett (1 year as record-holder)
Burnett was a teammate of Flaherty, and it is likely that both men would feature greater career totals had they not cannibalized the other’s opportunities. Like the first two record-holders, Burnett also began his career before stats were officially tracked. However, he was able to play a greater portion of his career in the official record-keeping era, so he raced up the record books more quickly than the others. By the end of the 1936 season, he had accrued 61 receptions, which was just good enough to take the record from Johnsos. However, he was only holding the record for a legend, as he passed it off to the game’s first great receiver after just one season.
Don Hutson (26 years as record-holder)
Hutson was statistically dominant in a way that no other receiver has ever even approached in the 95 year history of the NFL. He was dominant from the beginning, unleashing routes and route-running techniques for which secondaries were ill-equipped. He broke Burnett’s record in just his third season in the league. He ultimately led the NFL in receptions eight times, pushing the record well out of reach for any of his contemporaries. By the time he retired following the 1945 season, he had caught 488 passes. The next closest receiver, Jim Benton, had 190.2 He held the crown longer than any other receiving king in history – an amazing 26 years.
Billy Howton (1 year, 1 month as record-holder)
Considered by many one of the Hall of Fame’s greatest snubs, Howton was a consistent and steady receiver for the majority of his twelve year career. He led the league in receiving yards twice and is one of just six receivers ever to lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage.3 Howton entered 1963 just 18 receptions short of Hutson’s record. With 7 catches in a loss to the Steelers, he broke the record. He finished the season, the last of his career, with 503 receptions. He served as a transitional champion, helping pass the record between two inner-circle HOFers.
Raymond Berry (11 years as record-holder)
Berry, the father of the timing route, took the record books to new levels by the end of his thirteen year career. The crazy part is, if he hadn’t played most of his career alongside one of the greatest receiving backs (Lenny Moore) and tight ends (John Mackey) of all time, he may have posted even gaudier numbers. Given the on-field chemistry he had with quarterback Johnny Unitas, it’s easy to see a scenario in which Berry held the record well into the eighties. However, his accomplishments without rewriting history stand on their own. He came into 1964 needing 40 receptions for the record. With five catches in a blowout victory over Washington, Berry broke the record, ending the season with 506 receptions. When he walked away after playing three more seasons, Berry had 631 catches to his name.
Maynard was the second greatest receiver of the AFL (and the second greatest receiver named Don). He officially broke Berry’s record in his final season, having amassed 633 reception by the end of 1973. However, given the inferior defenses he played for the majority of his career, I must present his name with an asterisk. The prime of his career overlapped with his time in the AFL, and once he finally got the chance to play in the NFL proper, he was 35 years old and well past his prime.4 I know it’s unfair to penalize Maynard for the quality of his competition, but I believe it’s also unfair to give him full credit for taking advantage of those early AFL defenses.5
Charley Taylor (8 years, 11 months as record-holder)
Taylor was a versatile player who could embarrass defenses as both a runner and a receiver. Coming into the league as a running back, he became one of the few rookies in history to earn gray ink in both rushing and receiving yards. After making three straight Pro Bowls at HB, Taylor converted permanently to wideout and boasted another decade of Hall of Fame performance. He came into the 1975 season just 49 receptions shy of the record, and he achieved his goal during a loss in Dallas. He retired following the 1977 season having played nearly his entire career in the dead ball era. Despite this, he was able to haul in 649 passes in his thirteen year career.
Charlie Joiner (3 years, 1 month as record-holder)
Joiner is the poster child for Hall of Fame voters not knowing what to do with the first decent player to exploit rules changes to make the game more passing-friendly. He posted seven forgettable seasons with the Oilers and Bengals before having the good fortune to play for Don Coryell in San Diego. Playing in a new era for one of the greatest offensive coaches the game has know, Joiner posted a few very good seasons and played till age 39.
His production heralded a new age for receivers, but he ultimately failed to live up to the standards of the very era he helped usher in. Regardless, he did retire as the leader in both receptions and receiving yards. He entered 1984 just 53 catches shy of the record. In a week thirteen blowout loss to the Steelers, Joiner pulled in six receptions and took sole possession of the record. He retired following the 1986 season with 750 career catches.
Steve Largent (4 years, 9 months as record-holder)
Congressman Largent, like Joiner before him, benefited from entering the prime of his career as the NFL adopted both the Mel Blount Rule and the sixteen game schedule. Largent, however, was the more dominant of the two, finishing in the top ten in receptions in nine of his fourteen seasons. At the time he retired, he also held the record for consecutive games with a reception (177), since surpassed by a few fellow Hall of Famers. He came into 1987 needing 56 catches for the record, and he broke the record in the last game of the season, a trashing at the hands of the Chiefs. In addition to the record for receptions (819), Largent also owned the records for receiving yards (13089) and touchdowns (100) at the time of his retirement.
Art Monk (3 years, 2 months as record-holder)
Monk was a tremendous blocker and dangerous possession receiver whose versatility allowed coach Joe Gibbs to better exploit his offensive creativity. Whether it was lining up in the backfield as a blocker (or, sometimes, as a rusher), moving inline to block linebackers, or splitting out wide to move the chains with regularity, Monk was a talented chess piece who could be effective from nearly any area on the field.6 He played at a high level well into his thirties and was the first receiver in NFL history to catch 100 passes in a single season. Monk finished his Super Bowl winning 1991 campaign with 801 career receptions, just 18 short of the record. He reached that number in the fourth game of the 1992 season, and he went on to add over a hundred more, retiring with 940 catches.
Jerry Rice (20 years, 3 months and counting)
With his name beside nearly every important receiving record, Rice is almost unanimously considered the great receiver in history. He led the NFL in receiving yards and touchdowns six times apiece, but he (perhaps surprisingly) only topped the league in catches twice. However, he did finish in the top five seven other times and in the top ten three more times, which is a good way to get your name to the top of the record books with haste.7
Rice entered the 1995 season 114 receptions shy of the career receptions record, which seemed like a longshot even for a legend. He ended up snagging 122 passes, breaking the record in the last game of the season. He went on to play until he was 42, adding an absurd 607 receptions to his own record. He hung up his cleats after the 2004 season with 1549 receptions. He has six more seasons to go before he break’s Hutson’s record of 26 years with the crown. Considering the fact that 34 year old Andre Johnson is the only active player within 500 catches of the record, I feel comfortable saying it will soon belong to Rice.8
- In his case, three of his eight seasons took place prior to 1932. ↩
- I often provide the caveat that Hutson played in an era without black defensive backs and when many starters were fighting Nazis, but if it were that simple every receiver would have put up big numbers. ↩
- Howton’s predecessor, Hutson, did it a remarkable three times. Benton is the only other WR to do it more than once. ↩
- He only caught 87 passes while playing in the NFL. ↩
- I’ll admit that, by 1967 or so, AFL defenses weren’t demonstrably worse than those of the NFL. Maynard even had his best season as a pro in 1967, against those better defenses. However, he played the bulk of his career against the JV squad, and I can’t give him full credit for that. ↩
- Indeed, Monk’s role in the Washington offense bears many similarities to that of a modern tight end. Frankly, his blocking ability was probably superior to that of many receiving TEs today. ↩
- If you like arbitrary baselines, he had twelve seasons with at least 80 receptions, which is well ahead of Tim Brown‘s second-place nine. ↩
- Larry Fitzgerald is 32 and 531 receptions shy of the record. If he ages well, he could approach the record, but I think it’s safer to bet against that happening than to bet on it. Antonio Brown has the most receptions of any receiver under 30 (526), but he’s not really anywhere close to the record. To match Rice, he’d have to average about 102 receptions per season for the next ten years. Again, it could happen, but I wouldn’t count on it. ↩