By now, you know that a strong portion of my analysis focuses on the wide receiver position. One reason that I'm able to concentrate a bit more towards the position is because we are currently in the Golden Age of wide receivers.
There has never been a time in NFL history that the depth of talent at the wide receiver position has been as strong as it is today. Each year, there are another 20 or 30 wide receiver draft picks who seem capable of starting for NFL teams. The top 20 ranking of wide receivers in the league is a hotly debated topic because of how deep the position currently is.
Now, here’s the thing: It’s difficult to give proper perspective on player’s who are still currently in their prime. However, despite the massive depth of talent at the wide receiver position currently in the league today, it’s hard to say that any current player is in the top 5 of all-time. Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Deandre Hopkins and others might eventually have an argument, but you won't see any active wide receiver on this list.
Here is the all-time big board for the wide receiver position:
1. Randy Moss
I am an unabashed Randy Moss as the G.O.A.T truther. Vertical receiving, when it can be done with consistency, might the most valuable commodity in the game of football. There was no better vertical wide receiver than Randy Moss.
Here’s the thing about Randy, looking past his straight-line speed and unnatural ability to rise towards the catchpoint, Bill Belichick described him as one of the smartest players that he has ever coached. Randy wasn’t the most technical route runner, but he was dynamic in the sense that knew how defenses played against him and adjusted from there. Few wide receivers can mentally grasp and physically perform in that sense.
Whenever Randy Moss linked up with good quarterbacks, there were absolute fireworks. His athleticism would translate to any era, and he’s the one player I’d want to throw the ball to with the Super Bowl on the line (someone go back and tell that to the 49ers).
2. Calvin Johnson
Physically speaking, Calvin Johnson was on par with Randy Moss but with even more strength and bulk. Skillset-wise, there were even more similarities. Calvin was a dynamic vertical receiver, who could thrive through true double teams and bracketed coverages. He was successful in the intermediate because of how he could snap off on in-breaking routes.
Let's talk about the freak of nature that Calvin Johnson was:
At 6'5 and 240 pounds, he ran a 4.35s forty-yard dash. Excuse me?
At the time, he set the broad jump record for the NFL Scouting Combine, once again at 240 pounds. His vertical jump was 42 1/2 inches, in the 98th percentile for wide receivers. It doesn't end there, as its been reported that Calvin Johnson ran a 10.23s 100 meter dash, just a couple of tenths away from a time good enough to make the Olympic final.
Defenses had to completely change the way they faced the Lions because of Calvin's presence, and that is a valuable commodity for any offense.
3. Jerry Rice
The all-time leader in multiple receiving categories, Rice is the ultimate mix of Hall of Fame talent and historic longevity. His production was, in a word, absurd.
In the 11 seasons between 1986 and 1996, Rice posted over 15,000 receiving yards and over 150 touchdowns, including a season where he set an NFL record with 22 touchdowns in a strike-shortened 12 game season. The crazy part was that Rice’s production would seemingly never dip, as he would actually post consecutive 1,000 yard receiving seasons at age 39 and 40.
Rice was technically sound, getting open at will despite not being as gifted of an athlete as a Moss or Johnson. On top of that, his touchdown numbers were dominant, especially for a time period that didn’t focus on the passing game as heavily as today.
Rice will always be the gold standard for route running prowess and soft hands, making him a slam dunk top 5 wide receiver of all-time.
4. Terrell Owens
There was nobody quite like T.O.
By the way, before I get into this, it was an absolute shame that T.O. wasn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The first ballot designation was created for players as special as Terrell freaking Owens.
In a way, though, it was poetic that Owens was apart of the same Hall of Fame class as Randy Moss. For years, those two were at the top of the position in the league, flipping back and forth between #1 and #2. Who can forget the same Sunday when Moss and Owens each had 4 touchdown receptions?
For the majority of his career, Owens was incredibly durable and a physical freak. Size, speed, strength and explosiveness, he was too much to handle for a single opposing defensive back. Even when he dealt with injuries, he was a mutant among men. That Super Bowl 39 performance was one of the ages.
I realistically believe that these top 4 wide receivers are in the top tier of all-time. Order them however you want and I won’t argue you, I’ll only disagree if there’s another wide receiver you place alongside of Moss, Calvin, Rice and Owens.
5. Marvin Harrison
Want to hear something ridiculous? In four seasons between 1999 and 2002, Marvin Harrison produced 469 receptions, 6,322 receiving yards and 42 touchdowns. Yeah, those reception and yardage numbers are real.
During the eight-year stretch of Harrison’s prime, he made 8 consecutive pro bowls, was named first-team all-pro four times and had at least 1,113 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in each season. His unique route running, crisp route breaks and flexibility made him an elite separator that fit perfectly with quarterback Peyton Manning. Harrison had strong hands, pulling anything within his frame into his body. While he wasn’t the athlete of the top 4, he might be the most technically sound wide receiver in NFL history.