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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Witnessing Greatness – Wide Receivers

The Daily Hat Trick has run two prior pieces on the prospects of a few active NFL players of being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio after their careers end. One piece described the prospects of several quarterbacks. Another looked into active NFL running backs. Today, we look at at active NFL wide receivers and their chances of induction in Canton.

(Note: statistics are as of the conclusion of Week 6 of the 2011 NFL season unless otherwise noted)


Terrell Owens, free agent – Owens is currently without a team as he is recovering from offseason knee surgery, though, by his own estimates, he expects to be in playing condition within a few weeks. I have little doubt that someone will sign him once he is cleared to play, as there are several teams badly in need of a receiver.

If he picks up at a level anywhere near where he left off last year, with nearly 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns receiving (at age 37), his new team will be likely getting a great value. Excluding Jerry Rice, Owens, statistically, is the best receiver ever to play the game, owning, or nearly owning, every career receiving record. Owens is second in NFL history to Rice in receiving touchdowns and receiving yards, and is the NFL’s sixth all time leading receiver, with 1,078 catches. T.O., if he plays for at least half of the 2011 season, would likely surpass the league’s current #3 all-time receiver, Marvin Harrison (1,102 receptions, passed by Tony Gonzalez last Sunday). There are fewer easier “yes” votes for the Hall of Fame that will come up than the vote on Owens.

For all of the controversy that surrounded Owens and his mouth, he is one of a select few who as always walked the walk after talking the talk. The last two seasons, he has not done much talking either, but he is still walking. In the twilight of his career, Owens has looked like a true veteran leader. With a likely price tag of less than $2 million, Owens is in a position to deliver a high reward with minimal risk on one of his final stops on the way to Canton, Ohio.

He always made time for the fans. 1

Randy Moss, retired (2011) – While Moss, technically, announced his retirement shortly before the start of the regular season, I am not buying it. Several media outlets reported that Moss and his agent were shopping for a team with an ideal situation for Moss. For that reason, for the purposes of this article, I am going to treat Moss as an active player.

That said, this is another extremely easy “yes” vote for the Hall of Fame committee. Moss may not have always been the perfect teammate and, based on some accounts, may not have been a good guy. Fortunately, the guidelines for induction to the Hall as a player dictate that those factors are irrelevant. Induction is based solely on play.

Excluding Jerry Rice, only recent retiree Marvin Harrison and 16 year veteran Terrell Owens are in Moss’ class of wide receivers. Moss has only played in 13 NFL seasons, yet, except for Harrison, Owens and Rice, his resume dwarfs all other wide receivers. Moss is tied with Owens for #2 all-time in receiving touchdowns, is the NFL’s 9th all time leading receiver (954 receptions), and is fifth, all-time, for receiving yards. Moss’ height, freakish speed, and leaping ability made him almost unstoppable in his younger years and have kept him in the discussion as a big playmaker in the twilight of his career.

If you have a problem with Moss, It think this would be his response. Think he's a jerk? Maybe he is. You can be a jerk when you can back it up. 2


Hines Ward, Pittsburgh Steelers - My gut feeling tells me that if Hines Ward stopped playing football today, there would be a bronze bust in Canton in his future. Ward is the NFL's eighth all-time leading receiver, with 980 receptions after last Sunday. He has been to four Pro Bowls, is a three time AFC champion (2005, 2008, and 2010) and is a two-time Super Bowl champion (Super Bowls XL and XLIII). Ward had a string of nine consecutive seasons with 69 or more receptions (2001-2009). He is bar none, the most feared downfield blocking wide receiver in the game, if not in NFL history.

Ward could help the cause of his future candidacy by staying healthy and padding his stats for a few more seasons. Another Super Bowl ring would not hurt his cause either. While I personally believe that Ward's induction is inevitable, he has fewer receiving yards (19th all-time) than several players, such as Henry Ellard (9th all-time), Irving Fryar (13th all-time), and Jimmy Smith (16th all-time), who I think will never become Hall of Fame finalists, let alone inductees. His shortcoming on yardage could preclude Ward from being inducted on the first ballot. Crossing the 100 career receiving touchdown threshold would boost his first ballot prospects. Ward currently has 85.

If were are a defender, would you get in his way? 3

Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts - While Wayne is a player whose Hall of Fame candidacy is boosted significantly by his post season contributions, his regular season resume, by itself, would warrant Hall of Fame consideration if he retired today. Wayne is currently riding a string of five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. He was named an Associated Press First Team All Pro last season, for the first time in his career.

Wayne has been Steady Eddie in the regular season and has been a vital part of the Colts nine year run of regular season dominance between 2002 and 2010. Wayne currently has seven consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, dating back to 2004. He also currently has a streak of eight consecutive seasons of 68 or more receptions, including three seasons with 100 or more receptions. After a 3 reception performance against New Orleans last Sunday, in all likelihood, Wayne will tie or pass Steve Largent and become one of the NFL's 20 all-time leading receivers during this Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans, needing two more receptions to do so.

While Wayne's regular season achievements are exemplary, I think that his performances in the playoffs are what will separate him from peers with comparable regular reason resumes when he is considered for the Hall of Fame, six years after his retirement. Wayne played a vital role in leading the Colts to three AFC Championship Games (2003, 2006, 2010), two AFC Championships (2006, 2010), and a Super Bowl Championship (XLI). Wayne has played in 17 playoff games, equivalent to more than an entire regular season. When the stakes are highest, Wayne put up the numbers, with 83 receptions for 9 touchdowns and over 1,000 career post season receiving yards.

The only possible hold ups to Wayne's induction are fate and Father Time. Wayne played the first eight years of his career alongside future Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison, who caught passes that certainly would have been thrown to Wayne. Wayne also did not start all 16 games in the regular season until 2003, when he turned 25. These two factors have applied downward pressure to Wayne's regular season yardage and touchdown totals.

Imagine how many more catches Wayne (right) would have had if he had not been in the shadow of future Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison (left). 4

Andre Johnson, Houston Texans - In the opinion of many pundits, Johnson is the best receiver in the NFL today. Johnson is a tall, strong, dominating receiver who, at many times, gives the appearance that he cannot be covered by mere mortals. In his ninth season, Johnson has never had fewer than 60 receptions in any season, in spite of missing three or more games in three different seasons. A five time Pro Bowler and two time member of the AP First All-Pro Team and averaging 80 yards per game for his career, Johnson simply needs to remain relatively healthy and continue his pattern of dominance for at least three more seasons. That should pave his road to Canton when his career is over.

Double coverage doesn't help much more. 5


Derrick Mason, Houston Texans - Consistency and longevity have their rewards. When Mason retires, barring injury, he will be one of the NFL's 10 all-time leading receivers. He is currently #11 all-time, 11 receptions behind Andre Reed. Derrick Mason has been in the NFL for so long that he is the last active player who was drafted by the Houston Oilers, in 1997.*

However, longevity with limited exceptional play makes for a difficult case for the Hall of Fame. Mason has only been to two Pro Bowls and one AP First All-Pro team. The All-Pro honor was earned largely due to his contributions as a return man.

While Mason has an active streak of 11 consecutive seasons with 60 or more receptions and eight seasons with 1,000 or more receiving yards, Mason only has one season in which he eclipsed the 1,200 yard plateau and only five seasons with 80 or more receptions. Being very good, but not dominant, for a long time might not be enough for Mason to be honored as one of the all time greats.

The last of the Houston Oilers 6
Chad Ochocinco, New England Patriots - The notion that a six time Pro Bowler and two time AP First Team All-Pro at a skill position like wide receiver may be on the bubble for a Hall of Fame induction would have been absolutely laughable 20 years ago. In the modern game, however, with modern rules that favor quarterbacks and wide receivers, Ochocinco could find himself on the Hall of Fame borderline if, in fact, his career is in decline at age 33, as his statistics would indicate.

While among the NFL's top 30 all time leaders in receiving and receiving yards, Ochocinco, with only nine catches in six games this season, will likely finish this season only having had one 1,000 yard season and one Pro Bowl appearance in the past four years. This would indicate decline.

Ochocinco, in only in the 11th year of his career, in an era in which great wide receivers, like Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, and Hines Ward, will likely retire after 15-20 years of service. For all of his years of being among the best in the game at his position, Ochocinco's possible lack of longevity could be a roadblock on his way to Canton.

Ochocinco was solid gold earlier in his career. 7
Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers - Similarly to Ochocinco, Steve Smith had a relatively short run of high level dominance. With four Pro Bowls and two First Team All-Pro awards under his belt, one would think that Smith's career was down a road paved directly to Canton.  The problem for Smith, like Ochocinco, is that he may be slowing down. In addition, Smith has always been very good, but never dominated over a consistent, sustained period of time.

Smith only has two seasons in which he has recorded more than 1,200 receiving yards, though he does have a total of six seasons with 982 or more receiving yards, including five in a row between 2005 and 2009. Smith went from a Herculean 1,421 yards, to 982 yards, to a paltry 554 yards receiving in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively. This would indicate a slow down at age 32. However, the arrival of future Rookie of the Year quarterback Cam Newton in Carolina seems to have rejuvenated Smith's productivity. Smith is averaging 117 receiving yards per game for 818 yards through 7 games this year.

Smith's resurgence fits right in to the "consistently inconsistent" label. Smith is certainly among the better receivers of his time. However, without more than a few truly exemplary seasons, unless Smith plays at his current level until age 40, can he really make a case for being among the greatest of all-time?

Steve Smith plays with a furor seldom seen at the wide receiver position. 8

Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals - Fitzgerald is only 28 years old, yet is already among the NFL's 50 all-time leading receivers. He has completed seven seasons in his career with five Pro Bowl appearances and one AP First Team All-Pro award. Fitzgerald has caught at least 90 passes and recorded at least 1,000 receiving yards in four out of the past five seasons. If Fitzgerald remains healthy and plays into his mid-30s, he should be considered among the league's all-time great receivers when he retires.

Fizgerald is just getting warmed up. 9
Wes Welker, New England Patriots - The criticism that Wes Welker would be useless as an outside receiver, as opposed to his role in the slot, is a useless criticism. Either you catch the ball or you don't. Either you move the ball or you don't. Either you score a touchdown or you don't. If the road less traveled brings a man to his destination in time, what difference does it make how he arrives?

In his 8th season, Welker spent the first three years of his career as a kick return specialist and third/fourth option receiver. That changed with his arrival to the New England Patriots during their Super Bowl run in 2007. Welker recorded a league-high 112 receptions in 2007, the first of three consecutive years in which he would catch 111 or more balls.

Welker is 29 years old and needs to make up for the lost time as a starter in the earlier part of his career. He appears to be doing an excellent job, on pace for 136 receptions and 2,093 receiving yards, which would shatter the NFL record of 1,848 yards set by Jerry Rice in 1995. Welker needs to continue to put up monster receiving numbers for at least another three years and then remain healthy and productive for approximately three more years. Should he do that, he should be able to join the elite in the Hall of Fame.

Welker (left) and All-Pro tackle Matt Light (right) may be joining Tom Brady (center) in the Hall one day. 10

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6) Image from a prior article in The Daily Hat Trick, with citation.
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