Season after season, it seems as though a new receiving record is broken. Ja’Marr Chase broke the single-season receiving yard record for a receiver, a mark that was set just a season prior by Justin Jefferson. Jefferson found a way to get back into the history books by setting the record for most yards in a player’s first two seasons.
In terms of pure receptions, Jaylen Waddle broke that rookie record as well with 102 catches.
And then how can we forget about the season from Cooper Kupp, who became just the fourth receiver to record a triple crown season.
While some of the volume records received the benefit of an additional week in the NFL season, all three of these examples were due in large part to the increased pass attempts league-wide.
Even with the development of the passing position over time, the top-10 list of wide receivers in terms of total Approximate Value only includes 2 players that played after 2012, who comprise the bottom of the list (Steve Smith Sr. and Larry Fitzgerald).
So, if all metrics were balanced to one standard of statistics, who would be the best receiver of this group?
As the numbers indicate before inflation as well, Jerry Rice is the runaway candidate. His athleticism not only allowed him to play competitively until age 42, run away with the receiving yards title, and even be utilized in the rushing game, but just dominated in all aspects of the position.
Of the categories listed above, he only trails in yards per reception to James Lofton, and both receptions and yards per game to Marvin Harrison. But both can be disputed once you take a deeper look.
For Lofton’s 17.4 yards per reception, he owes a lot of the credit towards the style of passing when he played. Although attempts per game have been on the incline since Lofton debuted in 1978, the depth of those pass attempts has shortened. From his 15-year career to today’s standard, yards per reception have deflated 12.5%.
If we compared just Rice and Lofton to the average of their two eras, Rice receives a lesser bump towards his yards per catch, but not enough to surpass the former Stanford Cardinal.
|Jerry Rice (’85-’04)||James Lofton (’78-’93)|
It’s safe to say this category lead was earned for Lofton, which should have been realized by the fact that Lofton has the highest yards per reception of any wide receiver to play over 200 games.
For Marvin Harrison’s category leads, an argument of longevity could be made in favor of Rice. Not only did Rice play over 100 more games than Harrison, but Harrison did also see a steady decline in both receptions and yards per game in his final two seasons.
Now, if Harrison were to go back and extend his career 100+ games into his age-42 season like Rice, it is impossible to tell how his numbers would fare then. For that reason, we can compare Rice’s first 190 games to see how the two would fare if Rice hung the cleats up earlier, specifically after his 1997 season where he only played 2 games, leaving him right at 190 for his career
While Harrison slightly eclipses Rice in receptions, he still trails in the yard and touchdown metrics. But what this comparison shows is how similar the careers of these two wideouts were up until Harrison ended his Hall of Fame career, while Rice arguably added a second career’s worth of numbers to his.
In fact, the same discussion could be made around Owens and Rice as well. If we add two extra seasons to Rice’s numbers above, he has 222 games played until he turned 37. Let’s see how the three stack up with the same number of games.
Once again, Rice leads in all but one of the categories, however, the numbers are much more comparable.
The final, notable point of the top-ten comparison is the fact that numbers 4 and 5 on the list played alongside one another. Marvin Harrison (IND, ’96-’08) and Reggie Wayne (IND, ’01-’14) played 7 seasons, splitting looks from Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. They are not the only group to co-exist on the team, as Rice and Owens played side by side in San Francisco, but not nearly as long as the two former Colts.
The expression usually goes that a quarterback is only as good as his receivers, however the same sentiment can be reversed as well. It does not matter how talented a receiver is if the quarterback cannot manage to get them the ball.
That being said, Harrison and Wayne clearly would not change a thing considering where their careers got them. But how much did playing alongside one another hurt their overall numbers?
Not so surprisingly, Wayne finds himself on the bottom of the list. Thankfully for him, he spent 4 of his final 6 years as the primary option for Indianapolis, but only 2 of those seasons were with Peyton Manning under center.
This time as the WR1 was limited, but a significant upgrade over how it was when Wayne was teammates with Harrison, as he only received 19.7% of the completions to Harrison’s 23.5%.
Although these differences seem minuscule, not having to split these looks with the future Hall of Famer could have really changed how we viewed the 6-time Pro Bowler. Just by changing Wayne’s percentage of looks to the group’s average (22.7%), his receptions would inflate by 9.9%, giving him an additional 106 receptions, 1,988 yards and, 8 more touchdowns.
Who else do you think should be considered in this debate? Leave a comment to see how that player would compare!