19 Jul 19
The early decades of the NFL were, to put it mildly, offensively challenged.
If fantasy football existed during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, the key to winning a championship would have been assembling a roster consisting of these pillars:
— Grabbing a trio of running backs you could count on for 500 yards rushing and, say, six touchdowns per season.
— Finding a quarterback that could throw for about 100 yards per game.
— Using your first draft pick to take Green Bay’s Don Hutson, the only receiver who regularly caught passes far downfield.
The league was predominantly run-oriented until the late 1970s, and the sport now bears only a passing resemblance to that three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust game.
One statistical comparison makes this crystal clear:
NFL 100-reception seasons — 1919-1999: 26.
NFL 100-reception seasons — 2000-2018: 86.
Finding a productive wide receiver or tight end nowadays is about as tough as finding an over-intoxicated fan at an NFL tailgate. In most PPR leagues (point per reception), you’d need at least three to compete.
Here are 25 playmakers that would help you compete in any era … even the prehistoric one:
25. STEVE SMITH
2005 Carolina Panthers
12 receiving TDs, 1,563 receiving yards, 103 receptions
We’ve been a huge fan of Smith since his end-zone homage to the Vikings’ Love Boat scandal in 2005, but his numbers will have him rowing to the Hall of Fame in Canton in a few years. In this, his best fantasy season, he tied the Colts’ Marvin Harrison for the league lead in receiving touchdowns, tied the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald for most receptions and led the league in receiving yardage (80 ahead of the Redskins’ Santana Moss). He’s eighth on the all-time list for most all-purpose yards: 19,180.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith (89) makes the catch against San Francisco 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown (25) for a touchdown during the first half of a divisional playoff NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
24. GINO CAPPELLETTI
1964 Boston Patriots
7 TDs, 865 receiving yards, 49 receptions, 111 points kicking
Since we snuck Paul Hornung onto our running backs list because of his kicking exploits, we’d be remiss if we left out the American Football League’s most versatile kicker (with apologies to George Blanda). Cappelletti was an accomplished pass catcher, tallying 292 catches and 42 touchdowns in his 10-year AFL career, and he led the league in points five times. His 1964 total was the best in pro football by 35 points (over the Colts’ Lenny Moore). His receiving numbers were not spectacular, but the Patriots great makes our list … by a foot.
Boston’s Gino Cappelletti scores one of the 24 points he racked up against Buffalo with this extra point kick on Nov.15, 1964 in Buffalo. Cappelletti grabbed three touchdown pases and a two-point conversion pass from quarterback Babe Parilli and kicked four other extra points as the Patriots ended Buffalo’s nine-game victory series, 36-28. Parilli (15) holds for Cappelletti and Buffalo’s George Saimes (26) makes vain attempt to block the kick. (AP Photo/files)
23. JULIO JONES
2015 Atlanta Falcons
8 receiving TDs, 1,871 receiving yards, 136 receptions
Jones has for years frustrated owners, including yours truly, for posting disappointing touchdown totals. And this season was no exception. But his other numbers were off the charts. He was tied with the Steelers’ Antonio Brown for the league lead in receptions (with the second-highest total in NFL history), and he edged Brown for tops in yardage. No receiver in this generation has generated more yards between the 20s. His red-zone game, though, could still use some work.
The Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones (11) makes a catch against New England Patriots’ Eric Rowe (25) during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 51 on Feb. 5, 2017 in Houston. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
22. CHARLIE HENNIGAN AND BILL GROMAN
1961 Houston Oilers
Combined: 29 receiving TDs, 2,921 receiving yards, 132 receptions
These two come from the Wild West days of the AFL. No team loved to pass more than the Oilers. Hennigan’s 1,746 receiving yards led both leagues by an astonishing 570. He trailed the Broncos’ Lionel Taylor by 18 receptions, but only four pros had more than 71. And Groman’s 17 TD catches were four more than the runner-up (the Eagles’ Tommy McDonald). Spoiler alert: You’re also going to see their 1961 quarterback pretty high in next week’s rankings.
Houston Oilers receiver Charlie Hennigan, who played in the early 1960’s, holds the all-time pro record of having seven straight 100-yard receiving games to start a season. (Associated Press)
21. LIONEL TAYLOR
1960 Denver Broncos
12 receiving TDs, 1,235 receiving yards, 92 receptions
Taylor is most famous for being the first receiver in history to reach the 100-catch mark in 1961. But he posted much better fantasy numbers in the AFL’s inaugural season. Despite wearing the Broncos’ hideous brown-striped socks, Taylor had 20 more receptions than anyone in pro ball, and he was near the lead in TD receptions (2 behind the Raiders’ Art Powell) and yardage (208 behind Bill Groman). Taylor, who was dumped after one season with the Chicago Bears, went on to lead the AFL in receptions in five of its first six seasons.
(Screen grab from YouTube)
20. JOHNNY MORRIS
1964 Chicago Bears
10 receiving TDs, 1,200 receiving yards, 93 receptions
While the AFL was posting almost-heretical passing statistics, this future sportscaster was the NFL’s best receiver in 1964. By a lot. He was tied for the league lead in touchdowns, had 170 more receiving yards than anyone in the league (though the Oilers’ Charley Hennigan topped him by 346) and caught 18 more balls than his nearest NFL competitor (though Hennigan passed him there, too, with 101). You don’t think of George Halas’ team as a passing juggernaut, but in the year between the untimely death of Willie Galimore and the arrival of Gale Sayers, Morris was the Bears’ lone offensive threat.
Chicago Bears back Johnny Morris (47) falling in the end zone as he reached for a pass qb Bill Wade in fourth quarter at Detroit on Oct. 28, 1962. Ball fell just beyond his reach. Detroit Lions pass defender is Dick Lane (81). Detroit won 11-3. (AP Photo/PS)
19. ISAAC BRUCE
1995 St. Louis Rams
13 receiving TDs, 1,781 receiving yards, 119 receptions
He’s most renowned for his starring role in the Greatest Show on Turf, but Bruce’s best season was the Rams’ only season at Busch Stadium. He was near the top of the NFL in every major category: four TD receptions off the league lead, 67 yards off the pace in yardage (behind 49ers immortal Jerry Rice) and just three catches behind Detroit’s Herman Moore (who broke the NFL record with 123, a mark that would last all of seven years). Pretty good considering the Rams’ QB tandem of Chris Miller and Mark Rypien would never be mistaken for Kurt Warner.
St. Louis Rams’ Isaac Bruce holds up his jersey number that will be retired this season, at the news conference to announce his retirement from professional football after 16 years in the NFL, Wednesday, June 9, 2010 in St. Louis. Bruce, who played 14 seasons for the Rams, was traded back to the team from the San Francisco 49ers to allow him to retire as a Ram. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)
18. HERMAN MOORE
1995 Detroit Lions
14 receiving TDs, 1,686 receiving yards, 123 receptions
It’s hard to believe the Motor City Kitties didn’t do any better when they had Moore on the field with Barry Sanders. The former Virginia star had nearly identical stats as Bruce did about 530 miles to the southwest. And he also posted historic numbers despite dealing with a mildly-talented quarterback (who can forget $11 million man Scott Mitchell). Moore had a couple more all-pro seasons before the fortunes of he and the Lions both went south.
Detroit Lions wide receiver Herman Moore (84) scampers down the sideline away from Chicago Bears’ Barry Minter (92) for a first quarter touchdown Monday, Dec. 4, 1995, in Pontiac, Mich. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)
17. ROB GRONKOWSKI
2011 New England Patriots
17 receiving TDs, 1,327 receiving yards, 90 receptions
When talking fantasy football, Gronk was arguably the greatest tight end in history (though fans of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates may differ). His sophomore season was his best. He led the league in receiving TDs (6 more than any other tight end), and he led all TEs in yardage. While New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham led all tight ends in receptions that season, Gronk likely led the entire league in social media photos at night clubs. Which is how we’re always going to remember him.
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) attempts to break a tackle by Miami Dolphins strong safety Yeremiah Bell (37) as free safety Tyrone Culver (29) follows behind during the third quarter of an NFL football game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
16. TODD CHRISTENSEN
1983 Los Angeles Raiders
12 receiving TDs, 1,247 receiving yards, 92 receptions
This Raider is probably best remembered for his two decades-plus as a TV football analyst, but in Al Davis’ last championship season, Christensen set a receptions record for a tight end that would last for more than a decade. He was only the second TE in history to lead the NFL in catches (after the Chargers’ Kellen Winslow). He was fourth in the league in yardage (162 behind the Eagles’ Mike Quick) and two TDs off the league leader (the Cardinals’ Roy Green). And he was perennially among the NFL leaders in size of vocabulary.
San Francisco 49ers Dwight Hicks (22) is about to land on Los Angeles Raiders Todd Christensen (46) after Christensen gained short yardage in first half of NFL game at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, Sept. 22, 1985. 49ers won, 34-10. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac)
15. SONNY RANDLE
1960 St. Louis Cardinals
15 receiving TDs, 893 receiving yards, 62 receptions
One year after being drafted in the 19th round by the Chicago Cardinals, Randle became a star in their first season under The Gateway Arch. He led all of pro football in touchdown catches (1 more than Art Powell). Randle was second only to Colts great Raymond Berry in receptions and was fourth in the NFL in yardage. He proved better at catching passes than he would as a college football coach, as he posted a meager 39-69-1 record in 10 seasons between East Carolina, Virginia and Marshall.
(Associated Press file photo)
14. CALVIN JOHNSON
2011 Detroit Lions
16 receiving TDs, 1,681 receiving yards, 96 receptions
Megatron had quite the nine-year run before cutting his career short, as Lions stars are wont to do. While he topped out with 122 catches for 1,964 yards in 2012, both league highs, he had only five scores that season. His prior season, in fantasy terms, was stronger. He led the league in receiving yardage (112 more than anyone) and was fourth in receptions (though far behind the Patriots’ Wes Welker). And he trailed only Gronk (by 1) in TD catches.
Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) catches the ball as San Diego Chargers cornerback Antoine Cason (20) defends in the first quarter of an NFL football game in Detroit, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
13. ANTONIO BROWN
2014 Pittsburgh Steelers
13 receiving TDs, 1,698 receiving yards, 129 receptions
In the six years before sulking his way out of Pittsburgh, Brown was the NFLs’ top pass catcher. He hit triple digits in receptions every year, and this was his best fantasy performance. He led the league in receptions (18 more than Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas) and yardage (79 more than Thomas). Only Dallas’ Dez Bryant caught more TD passes. But Brown could no longer put up with QB Ben Roethlisberger, and that’s why he’ll be catching passes now for the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) heads to the end zone after catching a pass to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won 27-17 to win the AFC North. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
12. TERRELL OWENS
2001 San Francisco 49ers
16 receiving TDs, 1,412 receiving yards, 93 receptions
T.O. will forever be remembered for the one-liner “I love me some me!” And there was a lot to love in his breakout season catching passes from Jeff Garcia, the first of his many estranged quarterbacks. He led the league in receiving touchdowns (only the Colts’ Marvin Harrison had more than 11). And he was near the top in yardage (186 behind the Cardinals’ David Boston) and receptions (20 behind the Broncos’ Rod Smith). He also holds NFL records for broken legs played on during Super Bowls (1, shared by Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood) and shirtless driveway sit-ups (too many to count).
San Francisco 49ers receiver Terrell Owens out runs Atlanta Falcons defesive back Ronnie Bradford as he scores the winning touchdown on a pass from quarterback Jeff Garcia in overtime in Atlanta, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2001. The final score was 37-31. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
11. ART POWELL
1963 Oakland Raiders
16 receiving TDs, 1,304 receiving yards, 73 receptions
It’s hard to believe with all of the firepower the franchise has shown, but Powell is still fourth on the Raiders’ all-time list in receiving. Playing under then-coach Al Davis, Powell had three more TD catches than anyone else in pro ball, and only Lionel Taylor had a handful more receptions. He led the AFL in receiving yardage by about 100 (though he trailed NFL leader Bobby Mitchell of the Redskins). You get bonus points if you can name his Oakland quarterback (two-time Super Bowl winning coach Tom Flores) or the team Powell finished his career with (the 1968 Vikings).
10. CRIS CARTER
1995 Minnesota Vikings
17 receiving TDs, 1,371 receiving yards, 122 receptions
C.C. is the only player in history to put together back-to-back seasons with exactly 122 receptions. He had but seven TDs in 1994, though, so this was his fantasy peak. He again came within one catch of Herman Moore’s NFL record of 123. He was tied for the league lead in TD catches with the Bengals’ Carl Pickens, and he was seventh in receiving yardage (though far behind that Jerry Rice fellow). Only five players in history have more than this hall of famer’s 1,101 catches, and his 13,899 receiving yards are 13th all-time.
Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter celebrates a second quarter touchdown in the end zone off of a 16 yard pass from Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham in this Dec. 21, 1997 file photo in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid, File)
9. LANCE ALWORTH
1965 San Diego Chargers
14 receiving TDs, 1,602 receiving yards, 69 receptions
There’s no argument over who was the greatest receiver in AFL history. It was this Texan known as Bambi who put together a hall-of-fame career under coach Sid Gillman’s tutelage. Alworth tied with the Jets’ Don Maynard for the most TD catches in the pros in ‘65, and he had nearly 300 yards more than his nearest rival (the 49ers’ Dave Parks). Only Lionel Taylor and Parks had more receptions. But Alworth never won a world championship until catching a TD pass during the Cowboys’ Super Bowl VI victory over Miami.
(Associated Press file photo)
8. MARVIN HARRISON
2002 Indianapolis Colts
11 receiving TDs, 1,722 receiving yards, 143 receptions
His career ended abruptly after a contract dispute, and his post-football life has included some unsavory accusations involving guns. But on the field, this hall of famer was one of the all-time greats, and Peyton Manning’s favorite receiver. No one has come within seven catches of his NFL record of 143 (31 more than No. 2 Hines Ward of the Steelers), and he led the league by a whopping 375 receiving yards (ahead of the Vikings’ Randy Moss). But he managed only 11 touchdowns (2 less than Terrell Owens). Heck, the quiet Colt had at least a dozen TDs six times. But overall, this was his best season.
Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison (88) hauls in a 25-yard touchdown pass during the third quarter of the Colts’ 28-23 win over the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2002, in Cleveland. Earlier in the quarter Harrison set the mark for receptions in a season, breaking Herman Moore’s record of 123 catches. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
7. STERLING SHARPE
1994 Green Bay Packers
18 receiving TDs, 1,119 receiving yards, 94 receptions
Only Cleveland great Jim Brown has had a greater farewell season. Shannon Sharpe’s older, more talented brother was forced to retire because of a neck injury suffered near the end of this season. But he went out guns-blazing thanks to the ascension of future MVP QB Brett Favre. Sharpe had five more TD catches than Jerry Rice in ‘94, and seven more than any fellow mortals. He was fifth in the league in receptions, beating out his sibling by seven. While Sterling was famous as a player for giving the press the silent treatment, he immediately jumped into the media upon retirement as an ESPN analyst.
Green Bay Packers’ wide receiver Sterling Sharpe (84) gains yards before being pulled out of bounds by Dallas Cowboys back Kevin Smith (26) (obscured), in the first quarter of the Cowboys 27-17 win, Sunday, Jan. 16, 1994 in Irving, Texas. Cowboys safety Darren Woodson (28) pushes from the right. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
6. RAYMOND BERRY
1959 Baltimore Colts
14 receiving TDs, 959 receiving yards, 66 receptions
Berry had a decent career as an NFL head coach (leading the Patriots to their first of almost-countless Super Bowls), but his work as Johnny Unitas’ favorite target was hall-of-fame level. In his stretch of four consecutive all-pro seasons, 1959 was his fantasy best. He pulled off a triple crown, leading the NFL in TD catches (4 more than Philly’s Tommy McDonald), receptions (19 more than anyone) and receiving yardage (23 more than the Rams’ Del Shofner). He retired in 1968 as the league’s all-time leader in receptions and yards, but those totals have been eclipsed by many, and by a lot.
Baltimore Colts end Raymond Berry snags a pass from quarterback John Unitas for 5-yard gain against the Detroit Lions in a football game in Baltimore on Sept. 30, 1962. Lions’ Dick LeBeau (44) makes the tackle. (AP Photo/File)
5. ELROY HIRSCH
1951 Los Angeles Rams
17 receiving TDs, 1,495 receiving yards, 66 receptions
Crazylegs was famous before he ever left college, and his 12-year pro career never lived up to the hype. Except for in L.A.’s first championship season. It was by far Hirsch’s finest, catching passes from two hall of famers: Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield. He led the NFL in TD receptions (5 more than the Lions’ Leon Hart), receptions (7 more than the 49ers’ Gordie Soltau) and yardage (an impressive 669 more than Soltau). But he never topped 1,000 yards again and managed just 25 scores over his final six seasons.
Elroy Hirsch of the Rams football team in action, December 5, 1953. (AP Photo/Harold Filan)
4. MARK CLAYTON
1984 Miami Dolphins
18 receiving TDs, 1,389 receiving yards, 73 receptions
Clayton was the least-heralded of the Marks Brothers heading into the ‘84 campaign, but he combined with second-year quarterback Dan Marino to make history. He caught a touchdown pass in 13 of 16 games and led the league by a half-dozen (setting an NFL record that Jerry Rice shattered three years later). He was third in the league in yardage (166 behind the Cardinals’ Roy Green) and was top 10 in receptions. He led the league in TD catches again in 1988, but he and the Dolphins have never soared as high since. The AFC championship they won 35 years ago is the last one seen in South Florida.
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mark Clayton (83) takes a touchdown pass from Dan Marino ahead of Cowboys cornerback Ron Fellows (27) in the fourth quarter of action in Miami, Fla, Dec. 18, 1984. This reception tied an NFL touchdown reception record. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
3. RANDY MOSS
2007 New England Patriots
23 receiving TDs, 1,493 receiving yards, 98 receptions
It sure looked like Mr. Play When I Want to Play was finished after being discarded by the Vikings and Raiders, but the most famous graduate of “Rand University” had a comeback season for the ages playing with Tom Brady. Moss eclipsed Jerry Rice’s record for TD catches as the Patriots came within an eyelash of posting the only 19-0 season in history. Only the Colts’ Reggie Wayne had more yardage (by 17), and Moss was also top 10 in receptions. The Randy Renaissance last another two seasons in Foxboro before he wore out his welcome yet again, finishing his career with brief stops in Minnesota, Tennessee and San Francisco.
New England Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss (81) during an NFL football game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in this Dec. 29, 2007 photo. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
2. DON HUTSON
1942 Green Bay Packers
17 receiving TDs, 1,211 receiving yards, 74 receptions
The Packers’ greatest-ever receiver helped revolutionize the forward pass, and his route-running set the stage for generations of offenses that followed. He led the NFL in receptions eight times and in yardage seven times. How great was Curly Lambeau’s star? He had more catches in 1942 than four TEAMS (the Giants, Lions, Steelers and Brooklyn Dodgers). He had as many TD catches as the next three players combined. His receiving yardage was surpassed only by six teams. He had nearly triple the yards of teammate Andy Uram, and Uram was third in the league. This charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame was at least four decades ahead of his time.
This undated file photo shows Green Bay Packers football player Don Hutson. The original (somewhat) wacky wideout was Don Hutson, by far the best receiver of the NFL’s Paleozoic Era. His 488 receptions in an 11-season career that ended in 1945 were 200 more than anyone else in that era and he invented routes that are still used today, including the out-and-up. But he wasn’t your conventional football player. (AP Photo/Robert Walsh, File)
1. JERRY RICE
1987 San Francisco 49ers
22 receiving TDs, 1,078 receiving yards, 65 receptions
There’s a good reason Tom Brady and Jim Brown should not be considered the GOAT. That’s because Flash 80 is the Greatest of All Time, the most dominant football player who ever lived. The hall of famer would have had at least four seasons on this list were it not for our ground rules of one-per-playmaker. So how do you pick the best season of a legend who led the league in receiving yards and touchdowns six times each? That’s easy. In his third season, Rice doubled the touchdown catches of anyone else. He only played in 12 games in that strike-shortened season, so he averaged nearly TWO TOUCHDOWNS PER GAME. It was definitely an all-caps type of year, and an all-caps career.
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver, Jerry Rice, reaches a pass during the 49ers’ NFC championship game against the Los Angeles Rams on Jan. 16, 1990. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)
OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES
Larry Fitzgerald (2008 Cardinals), Michael Thomas (2018 Saints), DeAndre Hopkins (2018 Texans), Randy Moss (1998, 2003 Vikings), Calvin Johnson (2012 Lions), Jerry Rice (1989, 1994, 1995 49ers), Kellen Winslow (1980 Chargers), Charley Taylor (1966 Redskins), Tommy McDonald (1961 Eagles), Bill Groman (1961 Oilers), Andre Reed (1991 Bills), Paul Warfield (1971 Dolphins), Bob Hayes (1966 Cowboys), Marvin Harrison (2001 Colts).
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald races for a touchdown in the fourth quarter during the Cardinals’ 27-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers the NFL Super Bowl XLIII football game, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
The top 25 fantasy football seasons by quarterbacks in NFL history.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper (11) rushes for an 11-yard gain during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions in Minneapolis, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2004. Culpepper completed 22 of 32 passes for 233 yards, two touchdowns and an interception as the Vikings beat the Lions 22-19. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
You can hear Kevin Cusick on Wednesdays on Bob Sansevere’s “BS Show” podcast on iTunes. You can follow Kevin on Twitter — @theloopnow. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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