SITE NEWS: We are moving all of our site and company news into a single blog for Sports-Reference.com. We'll tag all PFR content, so you can quickly and easily find the content you want.

Also, our existing PFR blog rss feed will be redirected to the new site's feed.

Pro-Football-Reference.com » Sports Reference

For more from Chase and Jason, check out their work at Football Perspective and The Big Lead.

Part III: Greatest WRs Ever

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 11, 2009

On Monday, I described a formula I created to rate every WR season in NFL history. On Tuesday, I listed the best seasons ever, the best seasons each year and the best season by any receiver for each franchise. Today, we'll get to the career list.

Compiling career value isn't that difficult. I took 100% of the WR's best season, 95% of his second best season, 90% of his third best, and so on. Let's use Michael Irvin as an example, who had nine seasons in his career where he ranked above the baseline.

year    rec   	recyd   rectd    ACY	tmatt	ACY/A	NFL	Value	Wt	CarVal
1995	111	1603	10	2358	494	4.77	2.22	1262	100	1262
1991	 93	1523	 8	2148	500	4.30	2.35	 972	 95	 923
1993	 88	1330	 7	1910	475	4.02	2.13	 900	 90	 810
1992	 78	1396	 7	1926	491	3.92	2.25	 820	 85	 697
1994	 79	1241	 6	1756	448	3.92	2.18	 781	 80	 625
1996	 64	 962	 2	1322	487	3.95	2.21	 582	 75	 437
1997	 75	1180	 9	1735	553	3.14	2.14	 552	 70	 386
1998	 74	1057	 1	1447	474	3.05	2.27	 372	 65	 242
1989	 26	 378	 2	 548	513	2.85	2.31	 104	 60	  62
										5443

This is the same formula we've used here to rate the QBs and for Doug's Approximate Value method. Once you add up the career values for every WR, you get the following list of the top 100 WRs. Perhaps more specifically, these guys have created the most value for their teams in their careers:

rk	name	        	val	rookyr
 1	Jerry Rice		9095	1985
 2	Don Hutson		7335	1935
 3	Marvin Harrison		6890	1996
 4	Terrell Owens		6463	1996
 5	Randy Moss		6260	1998
 6	Lance Alworth		6045	1962
 7	Steve Largent		5755	1976
 8	Michael Irvin		5443	1988
 9	Raymond Berry		5367	1955
10	Jimmy Smith		5352	1992
11	Tim Brown		5182	1988
12	Paul Warfield		5141	1964
13	Don Maynard		5061	1958
14	Torry Holt		5038	1999
15	James Lofton		4930	1978
16	Bob Hayes		4909	1965
17	Cris Carter		4894	1987
18	Harold Jackson		4785	1968
19	Isaac Bruce		4752	1994
20	Rod Smith		4687	1995
21	Tommy McDonald		4642	1957
22	Charley Taylor		4594	1964
23	Herman Moore		4564	1991
24	Bobby Mitchell		4377	1958
25	Otis Taylor		4292	1965
26	Henry Ellard		4289	1983
27	Cliff Branch		4222	1972
28	Steve Smith		4211	2001
29	Hines Ward		4197	1998
30	Del Shofner		4146	1957
31	Fred Biletnikoff	4072	1965
32	Stanley Morgan		4059	1977
33	Billy Howton		3987	1952
34	John Stallworth		3961	1974
35	Andre Reed		3897	1985
36	Art Monk		3897	1980
37	Chad Johnson		3884	2001
38	Harold Carmichael	3873	1971
39	Art Powell		3777	1959
40	Sonny Randle		3773	1959
41	Mac Speedie		3765	1946
42	Buddy Dial		3758	1959
43	Dante Lavelli		3707	1946
44	Billy Wilson		3638	1951
45	Jimmy Orr		3627	1958
46	Gary Clark		3599	1985
47	Gary Garrison		3560	1966
48	Sterling Sharpe		3513	1988
49	Derrick Mason		3495	1997
50	John Gilliam		3416	1967
51	Elroy Hirsch		3383	1946
52	Eric Moulds		3377	1996
53	Gene A. Washington	3363	1969
54	Muhsin Muhammad		3362	1996
55	Andre Johnson		3340	2003
56	Boyd Dowler		3331	1959
57	Joe Horn		3324	1996
58	Jim Benton		3259	1938
59	Max McGee		3231	1954
60	Roy Jefferson		3206	1965
61	Tony Hill		3158	1977
62	Pete Pihos		3153	1947
63	Wesley Walker		3131	1977
64	Wes Chandler		3129	1978
65	Gary Collins		3098	1962
66	Drew Pearson		3068	1973
67	Roy Green		3059	1979
68	Red Phillips		3046	1958
69	Anquan Boldin		3040	2003
70	Joey Galloway		3026	1995
71	Hugh Taylor		3009	1947
72	Andre Rison		3000	1989
73	Ken Burrough		2983	1970
74	Keenan McCardell	2975	1992
75	Keyshawn Johnson	2975	1996
76	Cris Collinsworth	2971	1981
77	Homer Jones		2965	1964
78	Harlon Hill		2945	1954
79	Reggie Wayne		2940	2001
80	Charlie Joiner		2912	1969
81	Tom Fears		2834	1948
82	Lionel Taylor		2825	1959
83	Carroll Dale		2807	1960
84	Alfred Jenkins		2801	1975
85	Lynn Swann		2792	1974
86	Mike Quick		2790	1982
87	Frank Clarke		2764	1957
88	Nat Moore		2744	1974
89	Laveranues Coles	2732	2000
90	Gail Cogdill		2694	1960
91	Mark Clayton		2662	1983
92	Drew Hill		2661	1979
93	Charley Hennigan	2632	1960
94	John Jefferson		2617	1978
95	Lance Rentzel		2613	1965
96	Paul Flatley		2562	1963
97	Plaxico Burress		2554	2000
98	Mel Gray		2552	1971
99	Johnny Morris		2536	1958
100	Larry Fitzgerald	2526	2004

Note: Only seasons where the player was a WR were counted. So Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell only get credit for their seasons as WRs and not when they were RBs; similarly, Lenny Moore doesn’t even make the list. Carroll Dale doesn’t get credit for his seasons as a TE.

Obviously a few players on that list stand out. Irvin and Jimmy Smith are surprise finishers in the top ten. Bob Hayes ranks ahead of Cris Carter, and he just made the HOF (and so far, Carter has not). Using per-attempt numbers obviously helps some players like Irvin, who did not have the same opportunity to rack up big passing numbers. How much was Irvin disadvantaged (by traditional methods) is an interesting question. I took a weighted look at how often the teams the WRs were on passed the ball (relative to league average) during the best seasons of the WRs' careers.

1.29 Charley Hennigan
1.24 Lionel Taylor
1.22 Don Hutson
1.19 Tom Fears
1.18 Larry Fitzgerald
1.17 Mark Clayton
1.15 Art Powell
1.15 Charlie Joiner
1.15 Don Maynard
1.14 Anquan Boldin
1.14 John Jefferson
1.13 Torry Holt
1.12 Wes Chandler
1.10 Gary Garrison
1.10 Sterling Sharpe
1.09 Billy Howton
1.08 Andre Rison
1.08 Elroy Hirsch
1.07 Harold Carmichael
1.07 Jim Benton
1.07 Isaac Bruce
1.06 Bobby Mitchell
1.06 Pete Pihos
1.06 Marvin Harrison
1.06 Charley Taylor
1.06 Del Shofner
1.05 Reggie Wayne
1.05 Jerry Rice
1.05 Mike Quick
1.05 Lance Alworth
1.05 Raymond Berry
1.05 Johnny Morris
1.04 Cris Carter
1.04 Mel Gray
1.04 Chad Johnson
1.04 Fred Biletnikoff
1.04 John Gilliam
1.04 Tommy McDonald
1.04 Drew Pearson
1.03 Tony Hill
1.03 Terrell Owens
1.03 Gene A. Washington
1.03 Roy Jefferson
1.03 Randy Moss
1.02 Steve Largent
1.02 Joe Horn
1.02 Gary Clark
1.01 Keenan McCardell
1.01 Harlon Hill
1.01 Roy Green
1.00 Alfred Jenkins
1.00 Billy Wilson
1.00 Keyshawn Johnson
0.99 Cris Collinsworth
0.99 Rod Smith
0.99 James Lofton
0.99 Art Monk
0.98 Muhsin Muhammad
0.98 Jimmy Smith
0.98 Derrick Mason
0.98 Ken Burrough
0.98 Mac Speedie
0.98 Eric Moulds
0.97 Tim Brown
0.97 Drew Hill
0.97 Andre Johnson
0.97 Herman Moore
0.97 Henry Ellard
0.97 Harold Jackson
0.97 Frank Clarke
0.97 Homer Jones
0.97 Jimmy Orr
0.96 Wesley Walker
0.96 Sonny Randle
0.96 Plaxico Burress
0.96 Andre Reed
0.96 Joey Galloway
0.96 Cliff Branch
0.95 Laveranues Coles
0.95 Lance Rentzel
0.95 Gail Cogdill
0.95 Red Phillips
0.94 John Stallworth
0.94 Michael Irvin
0.94 Bob Hayes
0.92 Lynn Swann
0.92 Stanley Morgan
0.92 Otis Taylor
0.90 Hines Ward
0.89 Steve Smith
0.89 Dante Lavelli
0.88 Hugh Taylor
0.87 Gary Collins
0.86 Nat Moore
0.85 Paul Flatley
0.85 Paul Warfield
0.83 Carroll Dale
0.83 Buddy Dial
0.81 Max McGee
0.80 Boyd Dowler

This list serves as a nice check to remind you about the shape of some player’s careers. Because of the K-Gun offense, I picture Reed playing on aerial offenses for most of his career, but that wasn’t the case. Steve Smith has put up big time numbers despite constantly playing on run oriented teams. Paul Warfield was an elite talent who simply didn’t play on explosive teams. Charlie Joiner and Torry Holt, of course, go the other way.

Joiner’s an interesting case. Everyone brings up Swann as an overrated HOF WR, but Joiner looks just as bad. At the time of his enshrinement, he ranked 6th in career receiving yards, 5th in receptions and 27th in receiving touchdowns. Now he ranks 16th, 27th and 40th in those categories. I suspect the fact that he was the all time leader in receptions when he retired swayed some voters, but Joiner stuck around for 18 seasons. He was a very good WR, but did not put up the typical numbers of a HOF WR. Consider:

  • Joiner’s top two seasons ranked as the 3rd and 10th best in the league those years. He’s got one top five, one more top ten and one more top fifteen season in his career. That’s it.
  • He had only four 1,000 yard seasons and never scored eight touchdowns in a single year.
  • He played on teams that passed much more often than the rest of the league.

That said, number three cuts both ways. He played with Wes Chandler, John Jefferson and of course Kellen Winslow. So while he gets penalized for being on teams that passed frequently, he doesn’t get bonus points for having to compete with some elite talent. On the other hand, he also got to play with Dan Fouts for the majority of his career. With the Bengals in ‘74 and ‘75, at the ages of 27 and 28, playing with Ken Anderson, he got outplayed by teammate Isaac Curtis, too. Maybe Joiner isn’t the 80th best WR of all time, but it seems to me like he’s no more worthy of enshrinement than Swann.

I don't think this list is perfect, and I'm sure I'll have some good modifications for next time around. Advice and critiques are always welcome. Joiner was just one guy that stuck out to me; I'm curious to see who sticks out for you.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 11th, 2009 at 7:57 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.