TMR: Who is the Best Wide Receiver I've Ever Seen?

from Nick Suss

Feb. 2, 2016, 11:51 a.m.

Calvin Johnson’s impending retirement has gotten all of us thinking.

He was – and still is – undeniably great. He embodies everything that a Hall of Famer does and in five years he should be inducted in with zero problem. He was as transcendent as they come.

But was he the best?

You see, that’s the real question here. There’s no question Calvin Johnson was great. If you think he wasn’t, I’ll hit you in the throat. The real question is harder to answer: Is he the best wide receiver I’ve ever seen? And the answer to that question is much harder.

I’m 21 years old, as some of you may know. The first full NFL season I remember is the 2000 season, but I remember a large chunk of the 1999 season and all of the playoffs. So, unluckily for me, I am not going to count Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Michael Irvin or Andre Reed as players I saw. I technically saw all of them play football, but I never really saw any of them. No, my generation of football has been from the turn of the millennium to the present. And since the beginning of that timespan, I’ve seen the greatest two generations of wide receivers in NFL history. I’ll chisel that statement in stone until the next generation comes around and renders my opinion archaic. Frankly, because of rule changes and development in exercise training and natural growth and development increases, every generation of the most skill-based position will top the previous one.

But the thing that actually intrigues me the most about the position is trying to compare mini-generations against one another. For all intents and purposes, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens played in the same generation as Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. But by mini-generations, those guys all peaked in different “eras,” or what I define as three-year periods.

Those three-year periods are intriguing as hell to me. Because the argument with Calvin Johnson isn’t whether or not he had the greatest career of any wide receiver ever. That’s obviously not true. Nine seasons does not a dominating body of work make. But for three years? For three years is there anyone you would take over Calvin Johnson? Hell, for one year or for one game, is there anyone you’d take over Megatron? That’s what I wanted to find out.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been compiling data on wide receivers. I really didn’t know what the point was going to be until the Calvin Johnson news broke, then I rushed to a finish to be timely. And here’s the fullest of full disclosures: I do NOT consider myself to be a math whiz by any stretch of the imagination. The math I did is something that anyone with an eighth-grade education and a weird obsession with pass catchers could discern. But the point of this exercise is genuine in purpose.

I collected data using the four main stats wide receivers accumulate and manipulated those stats for scale. Looking at yards, touchdowns, receptions and targets primarily, I set up a framework for deducing – entirely mathematically with no inherent bias – which of the wide receivers I’ve seen have had a) the best careers, b)the best super-scored single season and c)the best three-year primes. The sample sizes were collected in two ways. For careers, I used the sample of all 27 of the wide receivers who played a majority of their career since the turn of the century who rank in the top 50 all-time in career receiving yards. Being that that sample disproportionately favored players who have played longer careers, for the second sample I used players who have played in the same span of time who appear at least once in the top 75 single season performances for touchdowns caught or for receiving yards accumulated. Both of these samples included tight ends.

After this, for the sake of fairness, I immediately eliminated four players from contention – Odell Beckham, Jr., Josh Gordon, Tyler Eifert and Alshon Jeffery. It is impossible to determine a three-year prime for those players when they either haven’t played three seasons or haven’t played three full seasons at a high-level of performance. Their inclusions – while they would’ve been merited – would’ve disproportionately skewed the data in favor of veterans.

Now that we’ve gotten the process out of the way, let’s get on to the actual findings. If you’re interested in seeing the raw data, pictures of the spreadsheets I compiled will be presented at the end of the article.

This part isn’t going to be very surprising.

Deciding the value of an entire career based upon statistical analysis is like judging the difficulty of a golf course based on how many balls get lost in the water hazard. It is one way to do it, but a lot of people will disagree. The main people who will disagree with me in this case are the “eye test” people. Those people will tell me that this is dehumanizing and doesn’t account for actual value and importance of a player.

I agree.

Other people will tell me the other extreme. Because the stats I used were catches, yards, touchdowns, yards per season, touchdowns per season, yards per catch, catches per touchdown and yards per touchdown, I’m not accounting for the values of quarterback effects or defensive schematics or targeting analysis.

I also agree.

But with the math I’m capable of analyzing, I came up with a very simple framework that I think all three camps will agree with. By this measure, the five greatest careers I’ve ever seen out of pass catchers have been:

No. 1 – Randy Moss

No. 2 – Terrell Owens

No. 3 – Tony Gonzalez

No. 4 – Calvin Johnson

No. 5 – Marvin Harrison

There’s no sense in arguing with this top five in my mind. You can tinker with the order. I’d personally bump Harrison up to No. 3 and Gonzalez down to No. 5, but I think this is the undoubted top five. You might be surprised to see Calvin Johnson this high up given that his career length is so much shorter than the others, but he is saved by the per season and on average metrics. Calvin Johnson is the leader of the bunch in both yards per season and yards per touchdown, and along with Tony Gonzalez and Randy Moss is one of the only three people to lead in more than category.

Moss, unsurprisingly, led overall in four out of 10 categories, appeared in the top 10 in eight of the 10 and finished in the top 3 in six. Only Owens appeared in more top 10s and Owens and Moss tied for the most top 3s.

The fun part though is the next five ranked players. This will start a few arguments.

No. 6 – Brandon Marshall

No. 7 – Larry Fitzgerald

No. 8 – Isaac Bruce

No. 9 – Antonio Gates

No. 10 – Joey Galloway

Yes, on a list featuring not-yet-named stars like Torry Holt, Reggie Wayne and Anquan Boldin, these are the men who round out the top 10. For what it’s worth, Joey Galloway shocks the heck out of me. He’s massively helped by the sheer amount of time he played in the league. 16 seasons is a long time. He’s also helped by his reputation as a deep threat. Only Calvin Johnson has a better yards per reception mark than Galloway does in this sample. But that’s probably not what you want to quibble about.

There’s no way Brandon Marshall should be this high, right? Wrong. And I need to disguise my massive bias here because I’m a huge fan of his – perhaps his biggest fan – but his career thus far has been downright incredible. Of all the big names on this list, Brandon Marshall has more receptions per season than anyone else. Not Randy Moss. Not Terrell Owens. Not Calvin Johnson. Brandon Marshall. And Marshall’s actually been in the league longer than Johnson. And don’t feed me this crap about Calvin Johnson playing in Detroit. Marshall has played with Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, Matt Moore and Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterbacks and he’s been downright dominant. He’s averaging just under eight touchdowns per season for his career and is on pace catch up to Tony Gonzalez in career touchdown catches in just four years assuming no regression of ability.

Okay deep breath. That’s enough on Brandon Marshall, though I could rant for days more if I wanted to. Let’s round out the top 15 before throwing some honorable mentions on the table:

No. 11 – Torry Holt

No. 12 – Reggie Wayne

No. 13 – Andre Johnson

No. 14 – Anquan Boldin

No. 15 – Marques Colston

Really the only surprise here to me is how low Andre Johnson graded out. Using only memory and the eye-test, I don’t remember a more dominating receiver in the post-Moss, pre-Calvin mini-generation than Andre Johnson. And oddly enough, the thing holding Andre Johnson back is touchdown catches. Andre, who has played four more season than Calvin, has 15 fewer touchdown catches than him. He has 30 fewer touchdowns than Larry Fitzgerald. Heck, he only has one more touchdown catch in his career than Chad Johnson. As a result, his value sinks way down. No points, less value.

That being said, he’s still a Hall of Famer in my book on receptions alone. As are all five of the guys in this tier. It’s a freakishly good group for No. 11 to No. 15.

The rest of the people who earned a single point were, in order: Steve Smith, Hines Ward, Santana Moss, Jason Witten, Chad Johnson, Amani Toomer and Donald Driver. Players who fit into the sample but did not earn a single point – or effectively didn’t make any top 10 lists – were: Roddy White, Rod Smith, Wes Welker, Muhsin Muhammad and Derrick Mason.

All in all, I’m okay with the list. I think it does a pretty good job of telling the story. But that’s not what we wanted to know now, is it?

Alright. Who would you take for one season? Who would you take for three seasons? Whose prime would you take? That’s the big question. That’s the eternal question. And for almost all of you, it probably comes down to Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson, doesn’t it? They’re both physical freaks and they’re the two most intimidating pass catchers ever. I don’t blame you. Going into this, I thought that’s what I would think too.

Now I have a different answer.

This study had a sample slightly larger; 31 people qualified. The names are significantly more modern skewing, unsurprisingly, but everyone in our top 15 from earlier except for Tony Gonzalez and Marques Colston appears in this study too. Colston just missed the cut, something that really surprised me given his rapport with Drew Brees and the longevity of his prime. But nevertheless, he didn’t make the grade.

Unsurprisingly, guys like Antonio Gates, Isaac Bruce, Reggie Wayne, and Larry Fitzgerald fell pretty precipitously. Those guys are gold standards for careers though, not primes. It’s hard to even define what Wayne’s prime or Gates’ prime or Fitzgerald’s prime was, given they sustained success for so long. And Bruce’s prime was hindered by being on a team with so many weapons.

Let’s count backwards this team. Here are Nos. 11-15.

TNo. 14 – Brandon Marshall

TNo. 14 – Rod Smith

TNo. 14 – Jimmy Graham

No. 13 – Demariyus Thomas

No. 12 – Andre Johnson

No. 11 – Rob Gronkowski

Here come the tight ends. I’ll start off immediately with an asterisk. Rob Gronkowski’s “three-year prime” as I calculated it was really three consecutive healthy seasons since he missed significant time in two seasons in his prime so far. That number will likely change to Gronk’s benefit if he can stay healthy. (Gronk isn’t the only player for whom I did this. Two more players who appear later on the countdown – as well as A.J. Green and David Boston – received this treatment if they had injured seasons mid-prime. Full accountability.)

Aside from Andre Johnson and his discussed earlier issues, all of these guys are saved on this list by their touchdown productivity. Gronk and Jimmy Graham are – as you would expect – among the lowest players on this list by receptions and yards, but are dominant in the red zone, adding value. In fact, for a single season, Gronk trails just Randy Moss (duh) and is in the top tier for three-year prime stats too.

The three Broncos all being paired in this same tier shocked me a little bit, but hey, those are the breaks. Also, Andre Johnson and Brandon Marshall should get a little bit of a bonus in this tier for being the only players who didn’t play their careers with a Hall of Fame quarterback throwing to him. Between Brady, Peyton, Elway and Brees, all definitely deserve credit for these guys.

TNo. 8 – Dez Bryant

TNo. 8 – Terrell Owens

TNo. 8 – Torry Holt

No. 7 – Jordy Nelson

No. 6 – Wes Welker

Wait, what?

I mean really? What?

I get Dez. I get T.O. I get Torry. Those guys were studs. But the slot guys? What’s helping them?

Consistency. They get targeted a lot and they catch a very high percentage of the passes thrown their way. They keep the ball moving and they gain yardage doing it. And it doesn’t hurt that Welker’s three-year prime came with Tom Brady throwing him the ball and Nelson’s with Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball. Only the top two players in this countdown caught more passes per season over a three-year prime than Welker and only Welker and the No. 1 player on this countdown caught a higher percentage of their targets than Nelson did. My math shows that to be a pretty valuable trait and those guys, aided considerably by the accurate reputations of their quarterbacks, excelled in it. But the gap between these guys and the guys above them is rather large. Let’s take a look at players four and five.

No. 5 – Randy Moss

No. 4 – Julio Jones

Now isn’t this an interesting comparison? (Full disclosure: Jones is another player who was accounted for injury, as was Jordy Nelson.)

The hardest part about outlining Randy Moss’s three-year prime is deciding which three years to pick. By yardage, you pick his Minnesota years. By touchdowns, you pick his New England years. I ended up going with the New England years, even if they were interrupted by a year of Matt Cassel, simply because the touchdown value was too high to ignore. Either way, I think he would’ve graded out pretty highly, but it just stands a testament to how great his career was.

Julio Jones, on the other hand, is just getting started. I don’t think his best three years are behind him yet and the numbers support the idea that that doesn’t matter. Aided by the offense he’s in, Julio Jones just finished one of the best seasons a receiver has ever had and doesn’t look like anything but injury is going to slow him down soon.

And the physical attributes between Jones and Moss are actually comparable. Now I’m not saying that Julio Jones is Randy Moss, but I mean, if anyone in football could grow up to be as good as the greatest career I’ve seen out of a pass catcher, I’d put my money there.

Now let’s look at Nos. 2 and 3.

No. 3 – Calvin Johnson

No. 2 – Marvin Harrison

These guys, on the other hand, couldn’t have had more different situations.

Marvin had the greatest quarterback of all-time, in his prime. Calvin had a struggling Matt Stafford. Marvin had a Hall of Fame teammate flanking the other side of him, distracting double coverages. Calvin had no one. Marvin had a Hall of Fame coach in Tony Dungy and a brilliant strategist in Manning and Tom Moore. Calvin had Jim Schwartz.

Yet the numbers seem to indicate they had pretty similar primes. Obviously when it comes to yardage, Calvin blows Marvin out of the water. But when it comes to targets and receptions, Harrison actually bests Johnson and the touchdown marks aren’t all that different. The mark that pushes Harrison ahead is percentage of targets caught. In his prime, Marvin Harrison caught two-thirds of the balls thrown his way – a number that you need to remember was higher than Johnson’s – while Calvin only caught 59 percent of those balls.

And I know what you’re thinking: That’s probably the difference between Peyton Manning and Matt Stafford, not Harrison and Johnson. And you might be right. But I don’t have the mathematical ability to factor in those numbers. So I did what I could; I paired them together.

But who is number one? Who wins? It’s a guy you probably could’ve figured out by now but didn’t want to because the answer isn’t convenient. He’s not that big and he doesn’t look like he should be great and he doesn’t mouth off that much and really he isn’t that fascinating. But he’s great.

No. 1 – Antonio Brown

Yep. That’s right. Good ole Antonio Brown. His last three seasons grade out higher according to my metrics than Calvin’s prime or Moss’ prime or anyone else I’ve ever seen. His numbers were so incredibly good that it made me compare it to the gold standard for pass catchers. That’s right. I compared him to Jerry Rice. And to alleviate bias, I’ll let you pick between them. The following is each of their three-year primes for touchdowns, yards, catches, targets and target-to-catch ratio:

Player A: 1617 yards, 14 touchdowns, 111 catches, 160 targets, 69 percent of balls caught

Player B: 1677 yards, 10 touchdowns, 125 catches, 180 targets, 69 percent of balls caught

I just asked both of my roommates who they would take. One of them took player A on the value of points. One of them took player B on the virtue that touchdowns are a whole-team reward and yardage and reception help control the clock. Both opinions are correct. But for what it’s worth, that’s what I was trying to show. Antonio Brown’s last three seasons have been every bit as good as Jerry Rice’s prime years. (Player A is Rice, for those of you really interested.)

And there’s no guaranteeing that next year Brown won’t do as well as he has the last two, making the numbers even more drastically slanted toward him. His three-year prime is absolutely insane. On the “final score” according to my formula, he almost scored twice as high as Randy Moss did. He appeared in seven out of nine top 10s. He appeared in six out of nine top 3s. And he outright led three out of the nine categories. That’s downright unbelievable.

He’s been targeted over the last three years more times than any other receiver in the countdown, but he’s also caught a higher percentage of his targets than any other player in the sample. Think about that for a second and revel in the greatness. This isn’t saying I think he’s the greatest receiver of all-time. I understand that Todd Haley’s system and Ben Roethlisberger’s arm have helped him. But I don’t think they’ve helped him any more than Peyton Manning helped Marvin Harrison or Tom Brady helped Randy Moss. So if I got to take one receiver I’ve ever seen for three years, I’d take him.

If you have any problems or questions about the math, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.


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