As Jerry Rice bides his time waiting for his eventual induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he must gaze glowingly at the host of young playmakers currently manning the position that he redefined during his 19-year career.
Rice, who holds nearly all of the records at the position, set the standard at the position by not only tallying a high number of receptions, but by producing an extraordinary amount of big plays during his career. Rice added an extra dimension to the 49ers' offense, while also creating numerous opportunities for his teammates by attracting double coverage. The impact of Rice's presence proved invaluable to San Francisco's championship teams.
With that notion of impact at the forefront, the definition of the No.1 receiver was forever changed.
In looking at the cream of the crop at the position, the elite should be judged on how they impact the game with their skills. Whether operating as possession receivers or as vertical threats, the best receivers leave an indelible mark whenever they take the field. By delivering consistent production and game-changing plays, they are able to put the offense on their back at critical moments. Though they surely face an assortment of double coverage designed to minimize their impact, the great ones find a way to rise above the added attention and influence the game in Rice-like fashion.
The future Hall of Famer set the bar high, but a host of receivers in this generation are taking dead aim at the lofty standard. Here is my look at the best receivers in the game today:
1. Andre Johnson, Texans
The two-time Pro Bowler took over the mantle as the league's top receiver after his stellar performance in 2008. The six-year veteran finished the season as the league-leader in receptions (115) and receiving yards (1,575). He tallied eight 100-yard games and his 20 receptions over 20 yards ranked as the fourth-best total in the league. As a big, physical receiver with outstanding athleticism, Johnson simply overpowers defenders in one-on-one matchups. In addition, Johnson has repeatedly found ways to remain productive despite facing a steady diet of double coverage. Johnson's average of 97 receiving yards per game over the past two seasons ranks as the best in the league. Though the competition for the throne is fierce, Johnson has earned the right to be considered the league's top receiver based on his dominant performance over the past two seasons.
2. Randy Moss, Patriots
The Patriots' playmaker has rebounded from his dismal tenure in Oakland to reclaim his status as one of the game's top receivers. The six-time Pro Bowler followed his record-breaking 2007 campaign with another solid showing last year. Although Tom Brady's season-ending injury hindered his production, Moss topped the 1,000-yard mark for the ninth time in 11 seasons and his 11 touchdowns marked the eighth time that he has registered double digit scores. The 11-year veteran still possesses the speed and quickness to thrive as a vertical threat and his three receptions over 40 yards serve as a testament to his big-play ability. While his teammate (Wes Welker) earned a Pro Bowl nod last season, it is Moss' presence on the outside of the Patriots' high-powered offense that creates opportunities for others on the unit.
3. Steve Smith, Panthers
The combustible big-play specialist has set the league ablaze with his penchant for delivering game-changing performances. Smith led the league in receiving yards per game (101.4), and receptions over 20 yards (23). In addition, the three-time Pro Bowler recorded his fourth straight 1,000-yard season, and finished ranked among the top five in receiving yards for the second time in the past four years. Though Smith lacks the prototypical size typically associated with No. 1 receivers, he has a rare combination of speed, quickness and leaping ability that allows him to play bigger than his diminutive frame. With the Panthers' offense featuring few alternatives in the passing game, Smith's extraordinary accomplishments make him worthy of being recognized as one of the league's top receivers.
4. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
The Cardinals' star took his game to the next level with his sensational postseason performance. Fitzgerald single-handedly dominated foes during the Cardinals' Super Bowl run, and showed a more diverse game than he had displayed during his first five seasons in the league. Formerly pegged as a vertical playmaker specializing in winning jump-ball situations, Fitzgerald became a more complete player in 2008 by showcasing dynamic running skills after hauling in short and intermediate routes. With more routes available in his repertoire, Fitzgerald recorded career highs in receiving yards (1,431), yards per catch average (14.9) and touchdowns (12) last season. In addition, he surpassed 1,400 receiving yards for the third time in the past four seasons. The two-time Pro Bowler has always been on the cusp of being regarded as one of the game's elite, but his scintillating performance in 2008 has him on the verge of being labeled the best at the position.
5. Greg Jennings, Packers
The 2008 Pro Bowler's inclusion on this list may surprise some, but close examination of Jennings' game reveals that he is one of the top playmakers in the league the last two seasons. The three-year veteran has tallied a league-high 15 receptions over 40 yards, and scored 21 touchdowns during that span. In addition, he has hauled in 133 receptions while averaging a whopping 16.6 yards per catch during that span. With numbers of that magnitude, it would be easy to assume Jennings functions as the deep threat in the Packers' offense, but he is an explosive intermediate route runner with outstanding running skills. His ability to turn short passes into big gains is exceptional, and a big part of the reason Green Bay routinely ranks among the league leaders in yards after catch. Although there are others that may have put up better numbers in receptions or yardage, few can rival Jennings' impact or production as a playmaker at the position.