Ranking the All-Time Great Wide Receivers

Awhile back, I had an idea for how to rank the greatest
wide receivers of all time. I’m not sure if it works or
By “work,” I
mean generate a set of rankings that would agree with anyone’s intuitive notions of what such a list ought to look
like. You tell me.

Wide Receiver is the only position where even small groups of players are actually competing against each other
under nearly identical circumstances. Domanick Davis and Brian Westbrook are competing for statistics under very
different sets of circumstances and for that reason it’s extremely difficult to say with any degree of certainty
who is better. Likewise, Rod Smith and Laveranues Coles are in different environments so simply comparing their
stats isn’t necessarily a reliable way of determining who’s better.

But the same does not apply to Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie. Smith and Lelie are working in the same system with the
same quarterback, the same offensive line, even the same game conditions. Raw numbers probably are a good
way to
determine to what extent Smith is better than Lelie. Likewise, Coles and Rod Gardner can be fairly compared.
Every season, every team has a group of 3 to 5 guys that can, for the most part, be rank-ordered by their numbers.
situation is unique to wide receivers.

But how does this help us compare Rod Smith to Laveranues Coles? Think college football. USC didn’t play Auburn
this season.
So who was better? Well, we know USC is good because, among other reasons, they crushed
Oklahoma, who we suspect was
pretty good; they beat Texas, for example. We know
Auburn was good, in part, because they beat Tennessee, Georgia, and LSU, all solid teams. While there is
unfortunately no direct
evidence to help us settle the Auburn/USC debate, there are piles and piles of indirect evidence. Every game
played by either team, or the opponents of either team, or the opponents of those teams, serves as a tiny
sliver of indirect evidence about how good USC and Auburn were. And
very intelligent people have devoted lots of their time and talent
to convincing computers to assimilate all

So why not put this technology to work ranking wide receivers? Rod Smith “played” Ed McCaffrey several times, and
McCaffrey was good. He also played Anthony Miller and Willie Green and Eddie Kennison (remember that?). And
McCaffrey has played Jerry Rice and Stephen Baker, Willie Green has played Mark Carrier and Don Beebe, Eddie
Kennison has played — well, who hasn’t Eddie Kennison played? Likewise, there is loads of indirect evidence —
mind you, much of it is extremely indirect — about how good Laveranues Coles is compared to Michael
Jackson and Marvin Harrison and Troy Brown and even Randy Moss.

A big tip of the cap to Wes Colley, who developed one of the computer schemes utilized by the BCS. He has
published all the details of his ranking system, and I think it’s
pretty nifty. So I’m going to modify it for my purposes here and use it to rank wide receivers. Here is a very
rough sketch of a few of the details.

1. I looked at all wide receivers whose career started in 1960 or later. Essentially, I treat every pair of WRs on
the same team in the same year as a “game.” I only looked at
receiving yards, although TDs and receptions could be easily integrated into the scheme. The winner of the game is
the guy who had a higher receiving yards per game average during that season. I do take into account margin of

2. Before scoring a game, I make an age adjustment. So, for example,
when Terrell Owens had 1451 yards and Jerry Rice had only 805 yards for the 2000 49ers, I tweak those numbers to
account for the fact that Owens was 27 and Rice was 38 at the time.

3. Just as college football ranking schemes have to decide how to deal with games against I-AA teams, I have to
decide how to treat the multitudes of receivers like Ron
and Jeff Campbell who are
basically irrelevant to the exercise of ranking the all-time greats. So I deemed a receiver to be relevant if he
is in the all-time top 300 in receiving yards and he averaged 50 yards per game in at least one season. All
the irrelevant receivers in a given year on a given team were combined to form one pseudo-receiver. So Randy Moss
in 1998 played games against not only Cris Carter and Jake Reed, but also Joe PseudoReceiver, who was a composite
of Chris Walsh, Robert Tate, and Matthew Hatchette.

4. Feed all these games into (my modified version of) Colley’s algorithm and let it work.

Before I end today’s entry with the list, keep in mind that a methodology stands or falls on its merits,
independent of the results it generates. If you like the methodology, you are not allowed to complain about the
list. If you don’t like the methodology, you shouldn’t even be looking at the list. But no fair changing your
mind after peeking.

That said, I promise that my next entry will be entitled Why in the World is Joey F. Galloway #9 on This

1. Jerry Rice

2. Henry Ellard

3. Steve Largent

4. Tim Brown

5. James Lofton

6. Andre Reed

7. Paul Warfield

8. Anthony Miller

9. Joey Galloway

10. Harold Jackson

11. Art Monk

12. Cris Carter

13. Anthony Carter

14. Stanley Morgan

15. Irving Fryar

16. Rob Moore

17. Fred Biletnikoff

18. John Stallworth

19. Michael Irvin

20. Charley Taylor

21. Haven Moses

22. Wesley Walker

23. Eric Martin

24. Harold Carmichael

25. Lynn Swann

26. Mel Gray

27. Gary Clark

28. Mark Duper

29. Jimmy Smith

30. Al Toon

31. Brian Blades

32. Alfred Jenkins

33. Andre Rison

34. Sterling Sharpe

35. Reggie Rucker

36. Charlie Joiner

37. Ken Burrough

38. Terry Glenn

39. Randy Moss

40. Otis Taylor

41. Webster Slaughter

42. Gene Washington

43. Carroll Dale

44. Isaac Bruce

45. John Gilliam

46. Marvin Harrison

47. Drew Hill

48. Lance Alworth

49. Gary Garrison

50. Michael Westbrook

8 Responses “Ranking the All-Time Great Wide Receivers”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I like this methodology, although I’m sure you’re disappointed to see Lynn Swann so high up there.

    I’ve always wanted to say this but never had the opportunity. Al Toon is a cool name.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Interesting idea. My one concern is that it assumes that all receivers are used identically within a system. But that’s a minor flaw. Amazing that four of the top 10 will never make the Hall.

  4. Anonymous says:

    (I’m also posting this on the discussion thread about this article at http://www.footballoutsiders.com.)

    I like the idea, but I see two flaws in the execution:

    1) The system distributes “wins” and “losses” to wide receivers on each team in the same way, regardless of the quality of that team’s passing attacks. Some on football outsiders pointed out the 1984 Oilers, where Tim Woods was the leading WR with 1141 yards and the runner-up was Herkie Walls with 291. (Woods played 16 games, Walls only 14.) This system would credit Woods with an all-time great season, even though the Oilers ranked 16th in passing yards, 10th in yards per attempt and 27th in points scored. The quality of the team’s passing offense needs to be integrated somehow.

    2) Why are only wideouts considered? Why not runningbacks and tight ends? Look at the 2004 Falcons. Peerless Price was the leading wideout with 570 yards. The system as it stands would give Peerless nothing but wins — ignoring the fact that the leading receiver was actually TE Alge Crumpler (774 yards).

  5. Anonymous says:

    maybe a way to take into account the quality of the passing offense of the team would be to take into account the percentage of passing yards each wide receiver had in relation to the total passing yards of the team and/or the total number of receptions in relation to how many completions by each team. doing so may raise a guy like clayton and lower duper, showing that each were equally important to the team, but not necessarily all time. that may also show if the system made the player or the player made the system.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I don’t suppose there’s any way to get the anti-Monk forces on the HOF committee to look at this?

  7. Anonymous says:


    perhaps that is a better statistical model. worth a try?

    – jonas at boxmansion dot com

  8. babalu87 says:

    Could be the worst top 50 list of all time
    At least you got #1 right