Stacked wide receiver classes have become the norm in NFL drafts, and 2021's appears set to continue this recent April tradition. Several eras have seen a few wideout drafts make major impacts, however. Here are the top receiver classes in NFL history.
The fourth-round pick that became Steve Largent was passed around twice before landing in the Oilers' hands. However, Houston traded Largent to Seattle for a 1977 eighth-rounder. That turned out to be costly for a Houston team set to challenge Pittsburgh because Largent played 14 Seahawks seasons and landed on the NFL's All-Century Team. This draft included just one receiver (Cincinnati's Billy Brooks) chosen in the top 50, but Rounds 2-4 unveiled quality depth -- Pro Bowlers Sammy White (Vikings) and Pat Tilley (Cardinals), along with 12-year Chief Henry Marshall and nine-year Dolphin Duriel Harris.
This draft featured early clunkers; Kevin White, Devin Smith, and Dorial Green-Beckham crashed early. After those picks, however, receiver anchors emerged. Tyler Lockett (Round 3) morphed from ace returner to a player that raised Russell Wilson's game; Stefon Diggs (Round 5) may have changed Josh Allen's career. Even slot staple Jamison Crowder (Round 4) has produced in multiple cities. Diggs and Amari Cooper (fourth overall) give this class elite route-running chops, and fellow first-rounder DeVante Parker has proven useful after several down years. This batch of late-twentysomethings still has upward mobility.
Vince Lombardi's second draft pick as Packers coach became Boyd Dowler, who starred on all five Lombardi-era championship teams. Two of the 12-year Packer's five playoff TDs came in the "Ice Bowl." Art Powell, however, was by far this class's most productive pass catcher. An Eagles 11th-rounder, Powell blossomed in the AFL -- with the Raiders and New York Titans -- and became one of his era's premier scorers. A Giants second-rounder, Buddy Dial delivered as a Steelers deep threat (two Pro Bowls), and Elbert Dubenion -- a Browns 14th-rounder -- played on two Bills title teams, averaging a staggering 27.1 yards per catch in 1964.
Four wideouts made the Pro Bowl out of this class; two played well into the 1990s. Drew Hill proved to be an all-time late bloomer, going from Rams backup to Warren Moon's chief air support in Houston. Hill, a 12th-round find, and longtime Cardinals cog Roy Green (Round 4) were two of the 1980s' top receivers. The draft's top target taken, Jerry Butler (fifth overall), posted a 255-yard game and three 800-yard seasons. But a knee injury altered his career. The 49ers made this draft's most memorable receiver add. Tenth-rounder Dwight Clark made two Pro Bowls, started for two Super Bowl teams, and made the most famous reception in NFL history.
While this draft carries strong "what if?" vibes, its members accomplished plenty. Hakeem Nicks' 444 yards in the 2011 playoffs are the second-most in a postseason; the lanky target was crucial to the Giants' fourth Super Bowl title. Percy Harvin displayed electric ability as a returner and slot player. Injuries ended each first-rounder's career before 30. One of the fastest receivers in NFL history, Wallace was part of the Steelers' endless receiver assembly line. The third-rounder produced for four teams and had the Packers on the ropes in Super Bowl XLV. Kent State QB-turned-seventh-rounder Julian Edelman also played in a few postseasons.
A Mt. Rushmore draft included some shaky early-round receiver picks, but the accomplishments of the first two wideouts off the board -- A.J. Green (No. 4) and Julio Jones (6) -- elevates it. The Falcons fleeced the Browns in coming up 17 spots for Jones, who may be the best player in franchise history. Green may be second-best in Bengals' annals. Randall Cobb and Torrey Smith also arrived in 2011 and crafted careers as high-end auxiliary options. The Chiefs and Lions whiffed on the third and fourth receivers taken, Jonathan Baldwin and Titus Young, but Jones and Green's 14 total Pro Bowls more than cancel that out.
The Saints, Packers, and Chargers hit on their first-round picks -- Wes Chandler (third), James Lofton (sixth), and John Jefferson (14th) -- in a top-heavy draft; these three later intersected. The crossovers involved Jefferson, Air Coryell 1.0's top talent. Jefferson scored 43 TDs in three Bolts seasons, but a 1981 contract impasse led him to Green Bay, where he teamed with Lofton. Days later, the Chargers acquired Chandler to form Air Coryell 2.0. He still holds the single-season receiving yards-per-game record. A Hall of Famer, Lofton lasted much longer, starring for off-grid Packer teams before reaching three Super Bowls as a Bill.
Megatron could not match Harold Carmichael's dimensions. No receiver could. The Eagles landed the 6-foot-8 Hall of Fame-bound target in the seventh round, forming a strong all-Harold receiving corps. J.D. Hill became this draft's first receiver taken (fourth overall), but the Bills moved on from the one-time Pro Bowler after five seasons. Mel Gray (Round 6) ended up as this draft's second-best wideout, helping Don Coryell's first head-coaching try lead to two NFC East crowns. Frank Lewis (No. 8) played 13 seasons with the Steelers and Bills, collecting rings with the former and starring in his 30s for the latter.
A key part of Randy Moss' legacy includes his slide to No. 21 in 1998. The Vikings selected perhaps the NFL's greatest wide receiver talent and paired him with Cris Carter for a few seasons. This led to a 15-1 season and the NFL's scoring record. The Titans took a receiver ahead of Moss, and although Kevin Dyson is part of a storied NFL play (the "Music City Miracle"), he was out of the league by 2004. This draft also housed speedy returner Tim Dwight, possession man Joe Jurevicius and Greatest Show on Turfer Az Hakim. But Hines Ward was the other prize. The Georgia QB-turned-Round 3 pick played 14 Steelers seasons and started in three Super Bowls.
Depth buoys this class, which lacks a Hall of Famer but includes many Tecmo Super Bowl starters. The Oilers acquired agile chain mover Ernest Givins in Round 2, while the 49ers found Jerry Rice's running mate -- John Taylor -- in Round 3. The Bengals chose Tim McGee in Round 2 to pair with 1985 first-rounder Eddie Brown. Each 86er made Pro Bowls. So did Webster Slaughter, a second-round Browns pick who played 12 seasons. One of the Broncos' "Three Amigos," Mark Jackson joins Taylor in NFL Films lore after closing out "The Drive." Bill Brooks (Round 4, Colts) amassed 8,000 yards in an 11-year career that lacked QB stability.
Only one first-round wideout went 15 years ago, Santonio Holmes. The Super Bowl XLIII MVP powered the Steelers to title No. 6 but lacked the production of three later-round picks. Greg Jennings (Round 2) and Marques Colston (Round 7) joined Holmes in collecting rings, while Brandon Marshall (Round 4) sits 23rd in all-time receiving yards. The Broncos fourth-round pick wore out his welcome frequently, but the big-bodied receiver produced almost everywhere and still holds the single-game reception record (21). Also in this draft: Devin Hester, an average receiver who did contribute elsewhere on the field.
A running back defined this receiver class. The Browns chose Bobby Mitchell in Round 7; the speed back formed a borderline unfair backfield duo with Jim Brown for four years. Against Brown's wishes, Cleveland traded Mitchell to Washington in 1962. Washington moved Mitchell to wide receiver and saw the Hall of Famer lead the NFL in yardage in his first two seasons on the job. The Rams chose Red Phillips fifth overall; he enjoyed a 10-year career. The Cardinals did well in this draft, acquiring Giants fifth-rounder Bobby Joe Conrad and pairing him with perennial Pro Bowler Sonny Randle, a Round 19 find. St. Louis team success did not follow.
Still in development, this class quickly showed an all-time ceiling. Its members keep vying to determine its WR1 status. Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, Davante Adams, and Brandin Cooks have combined for 16 Pro Bowls. John Brown was also in this class. While the Bills' trade-up for Sammy Watkins (No. 4 overall) did not work out, the injury-plagued wideout delivered big playoff moments for the Chiefs. This class' late-20s/early-30s years could conceivably lift it to best-ever status or close. It ushered in an era of tantalizing receiver groups in the draft.
Probably the best player in Jets history was available in 1957's ninth round. Don Maynard was a Giants draftee who spent time in Canada before establishing himself with the AFL's Titans (later the Jets) in the 1960s. Role player/character Tommy McDonald joins Maynard in the Hall of Fame; the Oklahoma running back caught 13 TD passes for the 1960 champion Eagles and was a productive journeyman before that was a thing. All-Decade wideout Del Shofner (Round 1) starred with the Rams and Giants; Jimmy Orr, who became one of Johnny Unitas' many weapons in the '60s, went in Round 25. It was a less sophisticated scouting era.
This draft's two top-10 receiver picks -- David Terrell (Bears) and Koren Robinson (Seahawks) -- did not pan out. Fellow first-rounder Rod Gardner lasted only until 2006. However, the other two Round 1 choices -- Miami Hurricanes Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne -- played 14 seasons. Marvin Harrison's apprentice remains on the Hall of Fame bubble. Arguably the Panthers' GOAT, Steve Smith (Round 3) will also receive strong Canton consideration. The Bengals formed their primary 2000s receiving duo in '01, drafting Chad Johnson in Round 2 and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Round 7. The latter usurped top-five 2000 pick Peter Warrick as Ocho's sidekick.
Though not a Hall of Famer, Henry Ellard sits 15th on the all-time receiving yards list. The Ram speed merchant retired 22 years ago. 1983's seven-Hall of Famer first round only included one receiver -- Olympian Willie Gault. The sprinter delivered for the Bears on the field and in the recording studio. Mark Clayton authored this class's highest peak, setting an NFL receiving touchdown record in 1984 and rising from the eighth round to become a go-to Dan Marino target for nearly a decade. USFL-bound Anthony Carter -- a Dolphins pick whose rights were later traded -- surfaced later as the go-to guy on a few Vikings playoff teams.
In their final Cleveland year, the Rams took Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch in Round 1 and Tom Fears 10 rounds later. Each started for the team's record-setting 1950 offense and came up big when the Rams won the NFL title a year later. Both have been in the Hall of Fame for 50-plus years; Hirsch landed on the NFL's 100th Anniversary Team. Drafted in between: Pete Pihos, who started for two Eagles championship teams and delivered a prolific receiving stretch in his early 30s. The Hall of Famer retired after leading the NFL in catches three years running. This was the first of two drafts to feature three Canton-bound wideouts.
This deep class mixed longevity, records, hardware, and nicknames. The Lions began the run with Herman Moore at No. 10. The former single-season reception record holder's three first-team All-Pro honors are more than a few of the era's Hall of Famers. Round 12 pick Keenan McCardell played 16 years. McCardell, Cowboys first-rounder Alvin Harper, and Giants third-rounder Ed McCaffrey combined to win six Super Bowls as key starters. Jake Reed posted four 1,000-yard seasons as Cris Carter's pre-Randy Moss wingman, and Shawn Jefferson, Michael Jackson, Mike Pritchard, and Jeff Graham also compiled solid careers. Notre Dame superstar Rocket Ismail went in Round 4 but began his career in the CFL.
Both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth hovered on the Steelers' first-round radar. By the time Round 4 came around, Stallworth, a small-school product, was still on the board. They are part of arguably the best draft class one team has ever assembled. Each Hall of Famer became a big-play staple after working as a rookie-year backup. Nat Moore (Round 3) resides behind only the Marks Brothers on the Dolphins' all-time receiving list, while Oilers 15th-rounder Billy "White Shoes" Johnson crafted a top-tier return-man career. Though the Steeler duo hogged playoff highlight reels, Colts deep threat Roger Carr (Round 1) played 10 seasons.
Three of this draft's hits caught many Peyton Manning passes. Josh McDaniels' brief Broncos stay is known for blunders, but just before his Tim Tebow trade-up, he drafted Demaryius Thomas. In Round 3, the Broncos landed Eric Decker. Those two helped bring Manning to Denver; Emmanuel Sanders later helped ensure his QB won a second ring. Dez Bryant and Golden Tate became 2010s NFC mainstays. Antonio Brown, however, outflanks his Pro Bowl classmates by a wide margin. The polarizing great is the modern Steeler receiver factory's defining pick (Round 6 out of Central Michigan) and will be on the Canton radar.
Through a receiver lens, this round of the NFL-AFL bidding war went to the upstart league. The AFL's Raiders, Chiefs, and Chargers won out on Fred Biletnikoff, Otis Taylor, and Gary Garrison. The Eagles drafted both Taylor and Garrison, while the Lions lost Biletnikoff -- a third-round NFL pick and second-round AFL choice -- to the Raiders. The Stickum hound catalyzed the Raiders' ascent, playing 14 seasons en route to Canton. Taylor's TD grab put the Vikings away in Super Bowl IV, while Garrison made four Pro Bowls alongside Lance Alworth. The NFL won out on Roy Jefferson, a vital 1970s trade get for Baltimore and Washington, and 11-year Ram Jack Snow.
A seminal NFL moment occurred when the reigning champion 49ers (18-1 in 1984) moved up 12 spots, via the Patriots, to land Mississippi Valley State's Jerry Rice at No. 16. The Jets and Bengals, respectively, chose Al Toon and Eddie Brown ahead of Rice. Both enjoyed quality careers; concussions cut Toon's short. Each was a Pro Bowler and WR1 on a playoff team. But still. This banner draft for non-Division I schools continued in Round 4 when the Bills took Andre Reed out of Kutztown. The Bills' catch-and-run maven joined Rice in Canton. This draft also brought the oldest of John Elway's "Three Amigos" -- Vance Johnson -- to Denver and dispersed Pro Bowler Eric Martin to New Orleans.
A year before the AFL's wideout coups, the NFL nabbed 1964's prized pass catchers. The second draft with three Hall of Fame wideouts included two in Round 1 -- Charley Taylor (Washington, No. 3) and Paul Warfield (Cleveland, No. 11). Taylor was not the first receiver chosen. Pro Bowler Dave Parks went first overall to the 49ers. An All-Century wideout, Warfield later ignited the Dolphins after a 1970 trade. Taylor teamed with Bobby Mitchell for years and faced Warfield in Super Bowl VII. Before they stole Roger Staubach in Round 10, the Cowboys took Olympic 100-meter champ, Bob Hayes, in the seventh. Don Meredith's top deep threat joined Staubach in Canton.
We come to a generational, Rakim-v.-Biggie-style debate. The argument for 1988 hinges on Sterling Sharpe, the Packers' No. 7 overall pick, and a player on a historic pace before a career-ending neck injury in 1994. This draft still includes two Hall of Famers -- first-rounders Tim Brown and Michael Irvin -- along with five-time Pro Bowl Charger/Bronco Anthony Miller. All went in a monster first round. Round 2 included the NFL's single-game receiving leader (Flipper Anderson), longtime Saints and Lions starter Brett Perriman, and the Seahawks' No. 2 all-time air-yardage man Brian Blades. Quinn Early (Round 3) also played 12 seasons. This is a difficult beat, but...
Team '90s in this debate includes two Hall of Famers, four 10,000-yard receivers, and eight Pro Bowlers. The Jets began the draft with Keyshawn Johnson -- the last receiver to go No. 1 -- and the Colts grabbed Marvin Harrison with a first-round pick obtained via 1994's Jeff George trade. A year after trading up for J.J. Stokes, the 49ers found Jerry Rice's true heir apparent in Terrell Owens (Round 3). This class's depth, however, wins out. First-rounder Eric Moulds made three Pro Bowls and took the Bills' WR1 baton from Andre Reed; Joe Horn (Round 5) made four as a Saint; Muhsin Muhammad (Round 2) played 14 seasons; the Giants depended on Amani Toomer for over a decade. Also including Terry Glenn, Bobby Engram, and Eddie Kennison, this draft remains the bar 25 years later.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.