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Quantitative Analysis of the Top WRs in NFL History

Recently, cgolden said he was looking forward to my next NFL player analsyis, so that encouraged me to take a look the top WRs in NFL history, at least half of whom have played within the last 20 years. If you want to re-read the RB analyses, or if you didn't read them, you can click here and here. These will also familiarize you with the process that I followed to complete the following analysis.

This time, I decided to include every receiver that was in the top 10 of any major statistical category: career receiving yards, number of receptions, receiving TDs, receiving yards per game, and yards per reception. I also threw in Sterling Sharpe, who was ranked 11th in receiving yards per game. So, I ended up including 33 players in this analysis. If you have trouble reading the table, click on the image to enlarge it.


Click to enlarge

As with the RB analyses, I chose to analyze each player's impact on a per game basis. So, in addition to career receiving yards, I have receiving and rushing yard per game, yards per reception and attempt, TDs per game and fumbles per game. For this analysis, I also included the receptions per game. I did this because the number of catches a receiver has in a game or season is given more importance than the number of carries that a RB has. That is to say, if a receiver has a 100 catch season, it is hailed a great accomplishment, but you don't hear that so much if a RB has a 400 carry season. Instead, there is worry if the RB has taken to much punishment, a la the Curse of 370.

Just like before, I sorted the players according to each statistical category, and then I put them into a table to show each player's rank for each category. That table is shown below. Again, click on the image if you have trouble reading it.


Click to Enlarge

Again,as before, I took these rankings and calculated an aggregate ranking for each player. I did this by summing the rankings of each player and dividing by the number of categories (10 this time). The aggregate rankings are shown in the table below.


This analysis does not yield as clear results as the RB analysis did. On one hand you have Don Hutson at the top of the aggregate standings, and he is ranked first or second in 5 of the 10 categories.  However, he ranks outside of the top 10 in all of the other categories. Jerry Rice is in the top 7 for 8 of the 10 categories. Both have very similar numerical aggregate rankings, separated only by 0.5. So, what should we make of these two being so close?

I think there a couple things we can take from these numbers. First, Don Hutson and Jerry Rice were each the greatest WR of their time. Rice has some close competition in Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, but Rice played 20 years, and had he retired just two years earlier (click here for his career stats broken out by year), he would have had better statistics in all of these categories except perhaps yards per reception and fumbles per game. If he had retired 8 years earlier, he would likely have ranked significantly higher in every category except fumbles per game. Second, this analysis give Don Hutson a serious argument for the greatest receiver to every play. Consider that he played from 1935 to 1945. The rules changes to benefit the passing game happened in 1978. I was not able find documentation on this, but I believe that an incomplete pass was a penalty during Hutson's career. (I am basing that from memory of seeing an NFL Films segment on Hutson.) So, the forward pass was extremely rare in those days. And, yet, he ranks number one in TD receptions/game! I guess it's to be expected that he would rank very high in the rushing categories given the era in which he played.

Here are some other things that I found interesting in this analysis:

  • I know Blitzburgh will give me a hard time about this one! :) But, I see that Torry Holt, who attended my alma mater (NC State), is ranked number 1 in receiving and total yards per game. He is also third in receptions per game, although he doesn't rank so well in the other categories.
  • Randy Moss: if he had spent his entire career working as hard as Jerry Rice, I have little doubt that he would be the top ranked WR in the aggregate rankings. He would probably still be in Minnesota and the highest paid WR in NFL history as well.
  • Terrell Owens: probably wasted at least one of his peak years by becoming a cancer for the Eagles. His chances of being the best were certainly hurt by that act of self-centeredness.
  • Every player in the top ten in yards per reception, except for Flipper Anderson, played before 1978. Those are the bottom ten players in the first table. Most of them played before 1970. I guess that just shows how the game has changed, especially with the advent of the West Coast Offense.
  • All of the players in this analysis had extremely low values for fumbles/game. That would be attributable to the relatively low number of times that receivers touch the ball.
  • A couple names that stick out in the top ten Overall Average Rank are Lance Alworth and Warren Wells. Both played primarily in the 60s, and I believe they were in the old AFL. Alworth played for the Chargers and Wells played for the Raiders. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that a couple guys from the AFL are on this list, since the league was known for high scoring games with a lot of passing yards.

Overall, this analysis gave me some results that were less clear than the RB analyses. But, two players certainly seemed to show up at the top. While it's possible that Owens and Moss could catch or surpass Rice and Hutson in these numbers, I expect that, like all athletes, their skills will begin to deteriorate causing some of their numbers to decline in later years. Owens, especially, is already at an age that make it unlikely that he will perform at his current level for much longer.

So, what do you guys think? Any stat missing that should have been considered?