The Jerry Rice vs. Randy Moss debate is the NFL's version of Jordan vs. LeBron. Both sides of the argument have their go-to points, but ultimately ambassadors of each athlete usually have their minds made up before the conversation even begins.
I'm not interested in answering that timeless question today. Still, the idea of what truly makes someone the best continues to be fascinating, particularly when we're forced to go back in time and evaluate a different era of play.
Today we'll break down the NFL's best WRs since the Moss era began (1998). This will be a subjective list, although I'll base the rankings around the following factors:
- Who had the highest combined rank in total receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns?
- Who absolutely balled out in the playoffs when it mattered most?
- Who was the overall most memorable WR from that season?
Tiebreakers will usually be decided by touchdowns; points win football games. Sorry not sorry.
1998: Randy Moss, Minnesota Vikings
Rookie year Moss was a helluva drug. His 14 receptions of at least 40 yards remains the highest mark from any WR over the past 30 years. Overall, Moss averaged a career-high 19.0 yards per reception and had more than a few massive performances:
- Week 1: 4 receptions-95 yards-2 TD in NFL debut
- Week 5: 5-190-2 in first game vs. Packers
- Week 12: 8-153-1 in second game vs. Packers
- Week 13: 3-163-3 on Thanksgiving vs. Cowboys
- Week 14: 8-106-3 vs. Bears
- Playoffs: 4-73-1 and 6-75-1
Moss finished his ridiculous NFL debut with 69 receptions for 1,313 yards and a league-high 17 touchdowns. This is far from his only crown on this list.
1999: Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis Colts
Harrison failed to clear even 900 yards and/or 75 receptions during the first three seasons of his career. All he did after was (literally) put on the most-ridiculous stretch that the WR position has ever seen. Overall, Harrison set an NFL record by tallying eight consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards and 10-plus receiving scores:
- 1999: 115 receptions-1,663 yards-12 TDs
- 2000: 102-1,413-14
- 2001: 109-1,524-15
- 2002: 143-1,722-11
- 2003: 94-1,272-10
- 2004: 86-1,113-15
- 2005: 82-1,146-12
- 2006: 95-1,366-12
2000: Randy Moss, Minnesota Vikings
Moss led the league in receiving scores in 1998 (17), 2000 (15), 2003 (17), 2007 (23) and 2009 (13). Leaving the man in single coverage was borderline coaching malpractice for quite literally more than a decade.
Randy Moss would be the No. 1 wide receiver selected in a theoretical football draft that let teams select the prime version of any player to ever play the gamepic.twitter.com/wpAzFmcpOm
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) May 8, 2019
2001-02: Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts were still a few years away from being legit contenders at this point, but Harrison and Peyton Manning were already the league's top WR-QB combo. The latter campaign was particularly historic, as Harrison caught a then-record 143 passes on his way to capturing his second first-team All-Pro award. The only on-the-field issue that really held Harrison back from being his generation’s consensus No. 1 WR was a startling lack of playoff success: Harrison scored twice and cleared 100 yards on just one occasion in 16 career postseason games.
2003: Randy Moss, Minnesota Vikings
This was the only season in Moss' career that he averaged at least 100 receiving yards per game. He followed up this campaign with 15 scores in 15 games in 2004, then was traded to the Raiders the following offseason. Sheesh.
2004: Terrell Owens, Philadelphia Eagles
T.O. spent the first eight seasons of his career with the 49ers before joining forces with Donovan McNabb and company. What followed was arguably the most impressive yearlong stretch of Owens' career, as he racked up 14 scores and a 13-1 record before unfortunately breaking his leg in Week 15.
However, even this wouldn't keep Owens sidelined. The physical freak returned from the injury less than two months later in Super Bowl XXXIX. Of course, T.O. was hardly to blame for the Eagles' loss to the Patriots, as he caught nine of 14 targets for 122 scoreless yards.
Was T.O. a diva who divided multiple locker rooms during his career? Absolutely. Just remember he was also one of the better talents that the WR position has ever seen, and his heart shouldn't ever be questioned after this courageous 2004 campaign. Owens is a good example as to why we should have multiple categories in the “off-the-field issues” bucket to separate knuckleheads from criminals.
2005: Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers
Smith joins 1990 Jerry Rice and 1992 Sterling Sharpe as the WR position's only triple-crown winners over the past 50 years. His 103 receptions, 1,563 yards and 12 receiving scores in 2005 were all career-high marks.
Even more impressive was Smith's playoff run. The man posted electrifying 10-84-1 and 12-218-2 receiving lines in the first two rounds against the Giants and Bears, respectively, before ultimately fading out with a 5-33-0 performance in the Panthers' NFC Championship loss to the Seahawks. Still, even the latter performance wasn't exactly a bust, as Smith took a punt 59 yards to the house during the loss.
Smith spent his entire career proving doubters wrong and deserves to see his name in Canton one day. This 2005 season was definitively his Mona Lisa.
2006: Chad Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals
This award could’ve gone to Marvin Harrison (again), but I feel weird crowning someone as the No. 1 WR in a season in which they failed to reach 60 yards or find the end zone in four consecutive playoffs games.
Of course, Johnson never reached those thresholds in a playoff game, but he played in just four postseason contests during his entire career. None occurred on the 2006 Bengals, but that didn’t stop the artist known as Ochocino from racking up a league-high 1,369 yards and seven scores. This season featured one of the best two-game stretches that you’ll ever see from a receiver, as Johnson shredded the Chargers (11-260-2) and Saints (6-190-3) in back-to-back weeks that November.
Ultimately, 2006 was a weird year. Nobody cleared 1,400 receiving yards. Andre Johnson caught 103 passes but made just five trips to the end zone. The likes of Terrell Owens (85-1,180-13) and Torry Holt (93-1,188-10) join Harrison (95-1,366-12) as worthy finalists. I lean toward Ochocino to 1) honor this dominant 87-1,369-7 campaign, 2) provide one of the best receivers of the decade with a spot on the list, and 3) give credit to arguably the single-best route-runner of the past 20 years.
Chad Johnson route-running on god modepic.twitter.com/gQ2V6LAkiX
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 29, 2021
2007: Randy Moss, New England Patriots
All Moss did in his first season with Tom Brady and company was rack up 23 touchdowns in 16 games. It's arguably the second-most dominant season from the WR position in NFL history in terms of scores, trailing only 1987 Jerry Rice (22 touchdowns in just 12 games). What made the chase for history so great was the feeling that the record-breaking moment was inevitable. Brady underthrew Moss on the potential record-breaking score late in the fourth quarter of the Patriots’ Week 17 win over the Giants, only to go back to him on the very next play for six. It was truly madness, and the pair nearly hooked up for a similar big-gainer at the end of their Super Bowl loss.
Larry Legend gained a career-high 1,431 yards in 2008, averaging a career-high 9.3 yards per target along the way. Of course, it was Fitzgerald's performance in the 2008 postseason that was truly legendary. Somehow, Fitz caught 30 of 42 targets for 546 yards and seven (!!!) scores in four combined playoff games against the Falcons, Panthers, Eagles and Steelers.
- Vs. Falcons: 6 receptions-101 yards-1 TD
- Vs. Panthers: 8-166-1
- Vs. Eagles: 9-152-3
- Vs. Steelers: 7-127-2
Fitzgerald has been great for the better part of the last decade and half, but he was never more dominant than in January and February of 2009.
2009: Andre Johnson, Houston Texans
Johnson joins Antonio Brown, Marvin Harrison, Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones as the only players to ever gain at least 1,500 receiving yards in consecutive seasons. He accomplished this during the 2008-2009 seasons, with the latter campaign producing a career-high 98.1 receiving yards per game.
The 14-year veteran never scored double-digit touchdowns in a single season, but few WRs have been more consistent and efficient than Johnson over the past 20 years. His accomplishments are even more insane when we consider what he was working with at QB.
2010-12: Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
Credit to Brandon Lloyd for having a helluva 2010 season in his own right, but the artist known as Megatron truly dominated the league during this stretch.
- 2010: 77 receptions-1,120 yards-12 TDs
- 2011: 96-1,681-16
- 2012: 122-1,964-5
I'd imagine the majority of you reading this would vote yes to the idea that the 35-year-old WR could still score eight-plus touchdowns in 2020. I wouldn't argue with anyone that Johnson's kingship could've even been pushed a year further into 2013, when he famously posted a 14-329-1 line in *one* game against the Cowboys. Sheesh.
2013: Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns
Flash missed the first two games of the 2013 season. All he did afterwards was post an 87-1,646-9 line as a 22-year-old while playing under the influence of marijuana and alcohol. There’s a reason why myself and others spent the next half decade selecting Gordon as a lottery ticket in the later rounds of fantasy drafts; the man was truly unstoppable at his peak.
2013 Josh Gordon was on a different level, man pic.twitter.com/ZDa00YSziM
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 17, 2021
Here’s to wishing Gordon a sincere best of luck in overcoming his latest issues. He’ll turn 30 in April.
2014: Odell Beckham, New York Giants
This year was absolutely stacked and was the toughest one to figure out. There were truly eight-plus receivers who would’ve been worthy of this honor in a different year:
- Dez Bryant: 88 receptions-1,320 yards-16 TDs
- Antonio Brown: 129-1,698-13
- Julio Jones: 104-1,593-6
- Demaryius Thomas: 111-1,619-11
- Emmanuel Sanders: 101-1,404-9
- Jordy Nelson: 98-1,519-13
- Randall Cobb: 91-1,287-12
- Odell Beckham: 91-1,305-12 (in 12 games)
Ultimately, I lean toward rookie OBJ. He averaged a league-high 108.8 yards per game despite failing to reach 50 yards in a single game until Week 9. There’s little doubt that Beckham’s one-handed catch against the Cowboys was the most-memorable moment of the year; that’s a good enough tiebreaker for me to crown him as the 2014 WR king.
2015: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
No wide receiver caught more touchdowns than AB (79) from 2010-2020. The first three seasons of his career were fairly tame, but nobody matched Brown's consistent production from 2013-2018:
- 2013: 110 receptions-1,499 yards-8 TD
- 2014: 129-1,698-13
- 2015: 136-1,834-10
- 2016: 106-1,284-12
- 2017: 101-1,533-9
- 2018: 104-1,297-15
It wouldn't be egregious to call AB the king of the WR position during this entire stretch. The artist formerly known as Mr. Big Chest and Ben Roethlisberger are undoubtedly the most-prolific WR-QB combination of the last decade.
2016: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Jones set career-high marks in yards (1,871) in 2015 and touchdowns (10) in 2012. Yet 2016 remains his most dominant season in terms of efficiency, as he averaged a career-high 10.9 yards per target in 14 games of action. He's one of just 12 players to average at least 10.9 yards per target with triple-digit targets in a season since the statistic began being tracked in 1992.
Adding to Jones' massive season was some pristine production in the playoffs. None of the Seahawks (6-67-1), Packers (9-180-2) or Patriots (4-87-0) had any success slowing him down. One of the biggest sins from the Falcons' Super Bowl collapse was undoubtedly only throwing the ball to Julio *four* times.
I feel bad only having Jones on this list once. Like AB, you could make an argument for Jones as the league’s single-best wide receiver in any numbers of years throughout his career. Ultimately, Julio’s general lack of scores hurt in numerous close contests; just realize he’s undoubtedly in two-WR sets on the all-decade team.
2017: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Only DeAndre Hopkins had over 1,000 receiving yards and double-digit scores in 2017. It’s tempting to give him this one (in addition to 2018), but AB’s league-high 1,533 yards in just 14 games is tough to argue with.
The tiebreaker for me was the reality that Brown caught seven of 11 targets for 132 yards and a pair of scores in his only playoffs game despite 1) playing through a partially torn calf, and 2) facing off against Jalen Ramsey and the Jaguars’ league-best pass defense. AB had five games with at least 150 receiving yards in the 2017 regular season; Hopkins “only” has nine such games in his career. We’re pinching pennies here, but gimme AB in 2017 for displaying a more-dominant level of play than Nuk in fewer games.
2018: DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals
The artist known as Nuk proved capable of producing with pretty much anyone under center for the Texans in 2017. Next he set career-high marks in receptions (115) and yards (1,572) in his first full season with Deshaun Watson in 2018.
Hopkins' ability to both create separation and come down with the ball in contested-catch situations remains unrivaled in today's NFL. A Brock Osweiler-infused 2016 season is the only thing holding back Hopkins from having one helluva streak of production. Kyler Murray and company certainly seem capable of continuing to elevate Nuk to elite heights.
2019: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Thomas caught an NFL-record 149 passes in 2019, leading the league with 1,725 receiving yards along the way.
Easily the most impressive part of Thomas' game is the efficiency with which he and Drew Brees operate: His career 77.8% catch rate is easily the highest mark among any WR with at least 100 targets since the stat began being tracked in 1992.
MiChaEl tHomAs oNlY rUnS SLanTs pic.twitter.com/w2bfRF0MnE
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 8, 2020
Thomas has been slandered with “slant boy” jokes for the better part of the last four months. Yes, Thomas has produced most of his production in the underneath areas of the field on lower-aDOT routes. Also yes, the Saints stand out as perhaps the single-most risk-averse passing game when it comes to taking shots down the field. Overall, the Saints (7.3% deep-ball rate) join the 49ers (7.0%) as the only two offenses to have less than 8% of their pass attempts travel at least 20 yards downfield over the past two seasons.
Thomas has caught 33 of 36 (92%) catchable targets thrown at least 20 yards downfield since entering the league in 2016 — the fourth-highest mark among 64 qualified receivers. It feels weird to say that the NFL’s single-season reception leader might have a higher ceiling with a different QB under center, but a true gunslinger like Jameis Winston could at least demonstrate that Thomas is far more than a one-trick pony.
2020: Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
Adams won PFF’s 2020 fantasy football MVP award for being more productive relative to his peers than any other player in the league. Adams scored and/or surpassed 100 receiving yards in all but three games this season, leading the league in receiving scores and yards per game along the way. He truly was on a different level than the rest of the league when it came to efficiency on a per-route basis:
- Adams (2.96 yards per route run)
- George Kittle (2.84)
- Justin Jefferson (2.66)
- A.J. Brown (2.65)
- Julio Jones (2.6)
Arguably the best route-runner in the league, Adams is the best current example of why we shouldn’t give up on a wide receiver after a slow start to their career. Don’t be surprised if the 28-year-old talent is crowned again this time next year.