Wide receiver was possibly the most vexing position for GridFe Hall of Fame voters. With the explosion of the passing game, modern players boast numbers that tower over those of players even as recently as the 1990s. Context is key, and it seems we may have been particularly cautious when considering receiving credentials. The committee ended up electing only twelve men at the position. Given the number of receivers on the field at a given time, and given the importance of passing to winning games, it may be that the relative dearth of players on this list speaks to an unconscious bias among voters. Below are the dozen who made the cut.1
Hall of Fame Wide Receivers
Raymond Berry (1955-1967)
3 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Bambi Awards
One of the greatest technicians the game has ever seen, Berry is credited with perfecting the timing route, forming an unstoppable tandem with quarterback Johnny Unitas. He possessed near unrivaled work ethic and developed a vast arsenal of moves to win on routes. Berry elevated his already stellar play in the big moments, most notably in his masterpiece in 1958 Championship Game, in which he hauled in 12 passes for 178 yards. He retired as the career leader in catches and yards.
Lance Alworth (1962-1972)
San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys
4 MVPs (AFL); 7 First Team All Pros (AFL); 7 Pro Bowls (AFL); 2 Title Wins (1 AFL/1 NFL); 1 Title Loss (AFL); 1 GridFe World Award (AFL); 1 GridFe Sweetness Award (AFL); 4 GridFe Bambi Awards (AFL)
Bambi was the most feared offensive weapon in the AFL. He had arguably the most dominant peak of any receiver in history, with five straight seasons of at least 91.8 receiving yards per game.2 Alworth was the fastest of his era, played with poetic grace, and displayed rare economy of motion. Lost in his narrative is that he was also greedy and relished jumping over defensive backs to make contested catches. Despite his reputation as a pure speed burner, Alworth had the toughness and soft hands to be a possession receiver.
Paul Warfield (1964-1977)
Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins
6 First Team All Pros; 1 Second team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 2 Title Losses; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 2 GridFe Bambi Awards
Warfield is probably the greatest pure deep threat in history. He posted even consecutive seasons with over 20 yards per catch, and his 20.1 career average is the fifth highest in history.3 His raw receiving stats may not impress the modern observer, but he played for notoriously run-heavy teams and garnered an outrageous share of his teams’ overall passing output. Few receivers have ever had the overall impact on opposing defenses that Warfield did in his heyday, and his Miami teammates credit him with providing the dynamic contrast to their power run game that enabled them to win two consecutive Super Bowls.
Steve Largent (1976-1989)
3 First Team All Pros; 4 Second team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Bambi Award
Largent was an undersized receiver with a linebacker’s mentality. He was a vicious and dedicated blocker and a fearless receiver over the middle. His toughness and hands are equally legendary and contributed to him being arguably the greatest possession receiver ever. Largent also happened to be a strong perimeter player capable of stretching the field deep. He used his well-rounded game to become the career leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns (he was the first to reach 100 scores through the air).
Jerry Rice (1985-2004)
San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks
2 MVPs; 11 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 13 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 7 GridFe Bambi Awards
His nickname is the GOAT, and it’s hard to dispute his place atop the football mountain. He’s inarguably the best receiver of all time, and he is probably greatest football player of all time. Rice is the career leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, and by an astronomical margin.4 He hauled in double digit touchdowns in ten different seasons, including 22 in 12 games in 1987. If scoring isn’t your thing, he also had 14 seasons over 1000 yards, including 1211 at age 40. Rice led NFL in receiving yards and scores six times apiece. He ability to run after the catch has achieved mythic status, but he was also a dominant deep threat early in his career.5 He had 33 catches for 589 yards and 8 touchdowns in four Super Bowls, taking home the game’s MVP trophy in 1988. His work ethic and attention to detail are legendary and resulted in a game with no weaknesses and unrivaled longevity.6
Cris Carter (1987-2002)
Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins
2 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls
Perhaps no receiver in history has been so defined by what he was not. With the Eagles, he was not willing to do the dirty work required of an offense’s top weapon; many forget that the famous epithet that “all he does is catch touchdowns” was issued by coach Buddy Ryan as a justification for cutting him. He was often outshined by brighter stars within his conference through the early nineties, and a brighter star across the field in the late nineties. He wasn’t especially flashy or fast, he didn’t have a reputation for keeping defensive coordinators awake at night. This portrait is unfair to Carter, who wasn’t just the negative space surrounding his more-heralded peers; Carter’s grace, body control, soft hands, reliability, and durability saw him retire after the 2001 season with the 2nd-most catches and 3rd-most yards in history. He overcame early-career problems with alcohol and drugs to twice win league awards for character. And, oh yeah, he also caught some touchdowns.7
Michael Irvin (1988-1999)
1 First Team All Pro; 2 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 GridFe Bambi Award
The Playmaker was a violent route-runner who initiated contact with defensive backs and thrived on physical confrontation. He had some of the strongest hands in the history of the position, enabling him to snatch jump balls away from defenders seemingly at will. Irvin was a reliable deep threat in his first few seasons before becoming an intimidating chain-mover. He often gets knocked for his relatively low touchdowns numbers (65 for his career), but he played for a team that was content to let their automatic running back carry the ball behind a stacked line near the endzone. Irvin saved his best for the biggest moments, gaining at least 80 yards in ten of his sixteen career playoff games.
Tim Brown (1988-2004)
Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2 First Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Bambi Award; 1 GridFe Gray and White Award
Brown proved to be a weapon from the word go. After becoming the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy, he entered the NFL and scored on his very first career play. Early in his career, he was deployed primarily as a third down specialist who would consistently pick up first downs despite defenses knowing he was the first option. Ultimately, his talent was to great to limit only to third downs, and he became a reliable every down receiver. Once given the chance to shine, he averaged 88 receptions, 1221 yards and 8 touchdowns per season from ages 27-35. It is a testament to Brown’s character that he consistently maintained high effort and production on mostly middling teams.
Terrell Owens (1996-2010)
San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills
5 First team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Bambi Awards
T.O. was an imposing figure, built like a weakside linebacker with sprinter speed. He possessed the requisite skills to beat defenses deep, but he was best generating yardage after the catch. Owens was a monster with the ball in his hands, often opting to run through defenders rather than around them. Despite his (deserved) diva reputation, he was fearless and tough, with several memorable catches in traffic and a legendary Super Bowl performance on an injured leg. Maybe the most notable aspect of his career is the way he was able to laugh in the face of entanglement. He produced at a high level for a long time, for five different teams, with twelve different quarterbacks throwing him touchdown passes.8
Marvin Harrison (1996-2008)
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Bambi Awards
For the eight seasons of his prime, Harrison was a machine. From 1999-2006, he had at least 80 catches, 1113 yards, and 10 touchdowns every year. That includes 1400 yards in four consecutive seasons and an NFL record 143 receptions in 2002. The diminutive Harrison ran quick, precise routes that allowed him to gain separation on any route a coach could imagine. His ability to make sideline catches was near flawless, effectively widening the field for his offenses. He possessed uncommon savvy, and his chemistry with quarterback Peyton Manning is the stuff of legend.
Randy Moss (1998-2012)
Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans
4 First Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 3 GridFe Bambi Awards
They call him The Freak because he’s the most physically gifted receiver ever. He had blazing speed, lightning quickness, and spectacular leaping ability. He combined those traits with incredible body control and the ability to track the ball in the air like a centerfielder and snatch it with his vice-like hands. According to Bill Belichick, Moss also owned one of the brightest football minds of any player he ever coached. Put it all together, and you get a nightmare who led the league in receiving touchdowns five times, including a record 23 in 2007. His mere presence elevated the production of his quarterbacks and necessitated extra defensive attention. As a rookie, he helped the Vikings break the record for points in a season. Nine years later, he helped the Patriots break the same record. A few have matched his production, but none has so effortlessly made defenders reconsider their line of work.
Larry Fitzgerald (2004-present)
4 First Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Bambi Award
Fitzgerald boasts perhaps the greatest hands of any receiver in history. He has used those hands to great effect, often pulling in errant passes from inaccurate passers. His mastery of routes and strength to disengage defenders allow him to get open at will, and his positional awareness and nearly peerless catch radius mean he’s still a good option when blanketed. Fitzgerald is a truly complete receiver who found the fountain of youth as a slot artist and excels as a run blocker. He is among the great playoff performers ever at the position, putting on a legendary display in Arizona’s Wild Card Super Bowl run in 2008.9
- Others receiving votes: Elroy Hirsch, Pete Pihos*, Bobby Mitchell*, Don Maynard*, Charley Taylor, Fred Biletnikoff, James Lofton, and Calvin Johnson. ↩
- To put that in perspective, current best receiver in the league Antonio Brown has had four such seasons despite playing in the most passing-friendly environment in league history. From 1964-68, Alworth averaged 74 receptions, 1495 yards, and 13 touchdowns per 16 games. This doesn’t even count his first great season, in which he had 61 catches for 1205 yards and 11 scores in 14 games. ↩
- Of the four men with a higher average, Flipper Anderson has the most receptions, with 267. That’s a mere 62.5% of Warfield’s career total. ↩
- He holds a 224 catch lead over second place Tony Gonzalez, a 6961 receiving yard lead over TO, a 41 receiving touchdown lead over Moss, and 1961 scrimmage yard and 33 total touchdown lead over Emmitt Smith. ↩
- He averaged at least 18.1 yards per catch in four of his first five seasons. The lone year he didn’t was the one in which he broke the single season record for receiving touchdowns. ↩
- Rice caught 1000 passes for 13546 yards and 102 touchdowns after turning thirty. He tacked on 39 rushes for 336 yards and 6 scores, for good measure. ↩
- If this paragraph sounds so much better than the others, it’s because the venerable Adam Harstad wrote it. Thanks be to Adam. ↩
- As Harstad once said: “More than any great receiver in history, Owens has demonstrated an ability to excel any time, in any place, at any age, in any scheme, with any teammates.” ↩
- In those four games, he had 30 catches for 546 yards and 7 touchdowns. ↩