fbpx
Skip to main content

Best wide receivers of all time: Ranking the top 10 in NFL history

Who are the best wide receivers of all time in the NFL? It’s been somewhat of a debate over the past several years with most believing Jerry Rice stands above the rest as the GOAT.

More recently, fans of Randy Moss have come to his defense. Meanwhile, the godfather of the modern wide receiver Don Hutson deserves to be in the conversation. Below, we look at the greatest wide receivers of all time.

Related: Top 100 NFL players of 2023

Top 10 wide receivers of all time

10. Cris Carter

best wide receivers of all time: chris carter
Paul Chapman-USA TODAY Sports
  • Cris Carter teams: Philadelphia Eagles (1987-89), Minnesota Vikings (1990-2001), Miami Dolphins (2002)
  • Cris Carter stats: 1,101 receptions, 13,899 yards, 130 TD, 60.3% catch rate

Carter’ career did not get off to a great start. The Ohio State product was a fourth-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1987 Supplemental Draft. After three so-so seasons with the Eagles, Carter was a surprise cut heading into the 1990 campaign after having a fall out with Philadelphia head coach Buddy Ryan.

The rest is pretty much history. From 1993-2000 with Minnesota, Carter averaged 97 receptions for 1,182 yards while catching north of 61% of his targets. He tallied 122 receptions in consecutive seasons and finished his career ranked sixth in league history in receptions. The fact that Carter was claimed off waivers by Minnesota from Philadelphia in September of 1990 for $100 adds to his legacy as one of the best wide receivers of all time.

9. Raymond Berry

best wide receivers of all time: raymond berry
Darryl Norenberg-USA TODAY Sports
  • Raymond Berry teams: Baltimore Colts (1955-1967)
  • Raymond Berry stats: 631 receptions, 9,275 yards, 68 TD

Selected in the 20th round of the 1954 NFL Draft, Berry was actually a long shot to make the team under new head coach Weeb Ewbank as the Colts prepared for their second season of existence. About that? After playing sparingly in his first season with Baltimore, Berry took off big time.

The Southern Methodist product would go on to lead the league in receiving in three of the next five seasons. Back in 1960, he led the league in receptions (74) and yards (1,298). That came two years after Berry put up one of the best championship games in professional football history, recording 12 catches for 178 yards against the New York Giants in what was billed as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

At the time of Berry’s retirement, he held the NFL records for both receptions and receiving yards. While others would far surpass him in the years to come, this showed just how transcendent of a player he was.

8. Marvin Harrison

best wide receivers of all time: marvin harrison
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
  • Marvin Harrison teams: Indianapolis Colts (1996-2008)
  • Marvin Harrison stats: 1,102 receptions, 14,580 yards, 128 TD, 61.9% catch rate

For many who saw Harrison do his thing in college at Syracuse, it wasn’t too much of a surprise that he became one of the greatest wide receivers of all time. Catching passes from another NFL legend in that of Donovan McNabb as a senior in 1995, he tallied 1,131 yards while averaging 20.2 yards per catch.

Almost immediately, this translated to success in the NFL. Over the course of Harrison’s first 11 NFL seasons from 1996-2006, he averaged 93 receptions for 1,245 yards. That span saw the Hall of Famer lead the league in receiving twice while earning eight Pro Bowl appearances. When his career was all said and done, Harrison ranked fifth all-time in receptions and fifth in receiving touchdowns. He is, without a doubt, one of the best wide receivers of all time.

Related: Ranking the best NFL head coaches of all time

7. Lance Alworth

best wide receivers of all time: lance alworth
Darryl Norenberg-USA TODAY Sports
  • Lance Alworth teams: San Diego Chargers (1962-1970), Dallas Cowboys (1971-72)
  • Lance Alworth stats: 542 receptions, 10,266 yards, 85 TD

A former teammate of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones with the Arkansas Razorback football team in the early 1960s, Alworth was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the 1962 NFL Draft and by the Oakland Raiders in the AFL Draft the very same year. He was ultimately traded from the Raiders to the Chargers, opting to play for San Diego instead of San Francisco in the process.

This ended up being the best decision of Alworth’s career. He got to play under Sid Gillman and Hugh Taylor in the Chargers’ vertical passing offense. The rest is pretty much history. As a sophomore, Alworth earned the AFL MVP Award with north of 1,200 yards. He ultimately had four catches, including a touchdown, in San Diego’s AFL Championship Game win over the Boston Patriots.

Alworth averaged nearly 19 yards per catch throughout his career, including a whopping 23.2 in 1965. He shattered the record for the most consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with seven. That record previously stood at just three. He currently holds NFL records for most games with 200-plus receiving yards, fastest player to 5,000 yards in his career and most touchdown receptions of more than 70 yards (12). Yeah, he was dynamic at a time when that wasn’t the name of the game for wide receivers in professional football.

6. Larry Fitzgerald

best wide receivers of all time: larry fitzgerald
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
  • Larry Fitzgerald teams: Arizona Cardinals (2004-2020)
  • Larry Fitzgerald stats: 1,432 receptions, 17,492 yards, 121 TD, 61.3% catch rate

Regardless of era, some might argue that Fitzgerald is the best WR of all time. Statistically, an argument can be made for this. The former No. 3 pick from Pittsburgh ended his career in 2020 boasting the NFL record for seasons with 90-plus receptions (eight).

From 2004-17 with Arizona, Fitzgerald averaged 88 catches for 1,110 yards and eight touchdowns. That very same span saw him earn a whopping 11 Pro Bowl appearances and four First-Team All-Pro honors.

Despite ranking second behind Jerry Rice in career catches and receiving yards, Fitz is a bit further down on our list of the best wide receivers of all time compared to others. He only led the league in receptions once and never topped the NFL for receiving yards in a season.

Related: Top 10 NFL QBs of all time

Best wide receivers of all time: Top 5

5. Terrell Owens

best wide receivers of all time: terrell owens
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
  • Terrell Owens teams: San Francisco 49ers (1996-2003), Philadelphia Eagles (2004-05), Dallas Cowboys (2006-08), Buffalo Bills (2009), Cincinnati Bengals (2010)
  • Terrell Owens stats: 1,078 receptions, 15,934 yards, 153 TD, 57.7% catch rate

After being a mere third-round pick of the 49ers in 1996, Owens’ enigmatic ways led him to play for five teams throughout his career. This doesn’t take away from what the small-school product accomplished throughout a Hall of Fame career.

Owens ranks third in NFL history in receiving yards and third in receiving touchdowns. He put up north of 1,000 receiving yards a whopping nine times while scoring double-digit touchdowns eight times. Owens was also on the receiving end of one of the greatest plays in 49ers history, scoring a game-winning touchdown against the Green Bay Packers in the 1998 NFL Playoffs. It’s a play since dubbed as “The Catch 2.”

The media might not have liked Owens during his playing days. In some way, he’s to blame for that. He had issues with multiple organizations and teammates, too. But you can’t take away from the success the Tennessee-Chattanooga product had on the gridiron.

4. Calvin Johnson

best wide receivers of all time: calvin johnson
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
  • Calvin Johnson teams: Detroit Lions (2007-2015)
  • Calvin Johnson stats: 731 receptions, 11,619 yards, 83 TD, 55.7% catch rate

Johnson does not rank among the top 10 wide receivers in catches, yards or touchdowns. For some, this is a clear indication that he doesn’t deserve to be among the best wide receivers of all time. That’s utterly foolish.

Johnson was simply the most dominant player in the NFL for the vast majority of his otherwise brief nine-year career. From 2008 up until his premature retirement in 2015, the former Georgia Tech star averaged 85 catches for 1,358 yards to go with 10 touchdowns.

The Hall of Famer also put up the best two-year run for a receiver in league history, tallying 218 catches for 3,645 yards and 21 touchdowns from 2011-12. We’re not going to dock him for issues with the downtrodden Lions and an early retirement due to concerns over the physical toll of the NFL.

Related: Ranking the best NFL cornerbacks of all time

3. Don Hutson

best wide receivers of all time: don hutson
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
  • Don Hutson teams: Green Bay Packers (1935-1945)
  • Don Hutson stats: 488 receptions, 7,991 yards, 99 TD

Largely considered the first modern NFL wide receiver, Hutson’s dominance with the Packers over an 11-year span also included leading the league in interceptions as a two-way player in 1940. A product of Alabama, he’s responsible for the modern pass routes we see in the league today.

From an historical perspective, what Hutson did in Green Bay was simply sensational. He led the NFL in receptions eight times, receiving yards seven times and touchdowns nine times.

Consider this. The 1,211 receiving yards Hudson tallied in 1942 represented more passing yards than four of the other nine NFL teams that entire season. This represented the first time someone had put up 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Hutson’s 99 touchdown catches also stood as a record for a half-century. Yeah, he is one of the greatest wide receivers of all time.

2. Randy Moss

best wide receivers of all time: randy moss
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
  • Randy Moss teams: Minnesota Vikings (1998-2004, 2010), Oakland Raiders (2005-06), New England Patriots (2008-10), Tennessee Titans (2010), San Francisco 49ers (2012)
  • Randy Moss stats: 982 receptions, 15,292 yards, 156 TD, 56.4% catch rate

There is little doubt that Moss is among the greatest wide receivers of all time. However, this almost didn’t come to fruition. After initially committing to Notre Dame, Moss never played a game for the program due to an off-field incident that made national news. Ultimately, Moss made his way to West Virginia with Marshall.

The rest is almost literally history. The dude put up 54 touchdown catches in two seasons with Marshall before being a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 1998. Even then, some were concerned about his off-field issues.

Moss would end these questions almost immediately. He put up the best rookie season for a pass-catcher in NFL history, tallying 1,313 yards with a league-leading 17 touchdowns. From there, it just got better. From 1998-2009, Moss averaged north of 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns. That included one of the best seasons for a wide receiver in league history with the New England Patriots back in 2007 (98 catches, 1,493 yards, 23 TD). He is one of the greatest wide receivers of all time. Full-stop.

Related: 2023 NFL power rankings

1. Jerry Rice (Best WR of all time)

best wide receivers of all time: jerry rice
Bob Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
  • Jerry Rice teams: San Francisco 49ers (1985-2000), Oakland Raiders (2001-04), Seattle Seahawks (2004)
  • Jerry Rice stats: 1,549 receptions, 22,895 yards, 197 TD, 62.4% catch rate

The debate about the greatest WR of all time took on new meaning when the aforementioned Randy Moss did his thing with the Vikings and Patriots. But not a single pass-catcher in league history stands above GOAT.

Playing in a completely different era, Rice still holds the record for receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns. In fact, the leading active touchdown leader in that of Davante Adams is 110 behind Rice. From his rookie season in 1985 to 2003 (a 19-year span), Rice averaged 80 receptions for nearly 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns. Just think about that.

With all of that said, Rice’s greatness can be directly attributed to how he stepped up for the dynastic 49ers in the clutch. In three Super Bowl appearances with the team (all wins), Rice caught 28 passes for 512 yards and seven touchdowns. Joe Montana and Steve Young completed 78% of their passes while compiling a perfect 158.3 QB rating when targeting him in those games. Jerry Rice is the best WR of all time. Period.

More About: