It’s no secret that the wide receiver position in the NFL is dominated by African Americans. Over time as offenses have opened up and become more pass-oriented, many of the skill positions on both offense and defense have relied more on athleticism which was something missing in the league’s early days. The wide receiver position hasn’t totally wiped out the white guys like the running back and cornerback positions have (shout out to Jason Sehorn AKA The Last of a Dying Breed), but it’s pretty damn close.
Of the top 100 leaders in receiving yards among wide receivers last year, only six of the receivers were white. That 6% is probably close to the percentage of wide receivers in the NFL that are white as well. Just like black receivers, white receivers are of varying ability and talents. You have your stars like Jordy Nelson, you have your deep threats like Chris Hogan, and you have your slot receivers like Cole Beasley. You also have your end-of-the-roster types like Brenton Bersin that make the casual NFL fan say, “Man, this dude made the NFL.”
We have compiled a list of both the former and the latter as there have been many great white receivers and many terrible white receivers. This includes guys who were primarily receivers in their careers as well as multi-positional players who played the position for at least one season (sort of like a throwback Ty Montgomery). We’ll take a look at the best of the best and the worst of the worst as we present the 10 best and 10 worst white NFL wide receivers of all time.
20 Worst: Anthony Gonzalez
Until Christian McCaffrey was drafted this year, Gonzalez was the last white receiver to be taken in the first round. He was the final pick of the 2007 draft by the Colts and was supposed to be the heir apparent to Marvin Harrison. Umm…not quite. Gonzalez was hyped up while playing at Ohio State and with Troy Smith, Ted Ginn, and Santonio Holmes; but he didn’t have the separation skills to be a starting NFL receiver. He averaged about 600 yards thru his first two seasons and then found himself more on the training table than on a field. He suffered a knee injury in Week 1 of the 2009 season and didn’t play another game all season. He then suited up for just 2 games the following year with a torn PCL. By 2011 he was buried on the depth chart and was relegated to special teams. After 94 receptions in his first two seasons, Gonzalez had just five combined catches over his last three seasons. With his football career over, Gonzalez received his MBA from Stanford in 2014 and now is the COO of an education management company in San Francisco.
19 Best: Cris Collinsworth
Before he became the football czar of the telestrator, Cris Collinsworth was a lanky receiver for the Bengals in the 1980s. He appeared in Super Bowls in his rookie season and his final season but came up short both times to the 49ers. However, Collinsworth was also a prolific part of Cincy’s offense as he posted four 1000 yard receiving seasons and helped send two different Bengals QBs to the Pro Bowl in Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason. Collinsworth, Randy Moss, Odell Beckham, and A.J. Green are the only receivers since 1980 to make the Pro Bowl in each of their first three seasons. Collinsworth’s final catch of his career made him the all-time leader in receptions in Bengals franchise history. After retiring in 1989 Collinsworth joined HBO’s Inside the NFL and the rest is broadcasting history.
18 Worst: David Kircus
In 2003 the Detroit Lions drafted two local product wide receivers. In the first round they took Charles Rogers who attended Michigan State and in the sixth round they took David Kircus out of Grand Valley St. While Rogers was a complete bust, Kircus was maybe even a worst player and it was soon clear that he was only drafted by the Lions due to his local ties. He spent two years with the Lions and another with the Broncos and finished his NFL career with all of 15 receptions. Just as Rogers had off-field issues so did “Circus Kircus” who plead guilty to an assault charge in 2007 which led to his release with the Broncos. He was then arrested again in 2010 for obstructing a police officer and driving with a suspended license.
That arrest then led to his release with another team, the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL. Later in 2010 Kircus filed for bankruptcy and his last known football-related activity was another stint with the now-defunct UFL in 2012.
17 Best: Dwight Clark
Before David Tyree came around, Dwight Clark made arguably the most famous catch in NFL history which is appropriately dubbed “The Catch.” Clark’s TD grab in the 1981 NFC Championship Game propelled the 49ers to their first Super Bowl and Clark would later pick up another ring in 1984. Clark was Bill Walsh’s first star receiver in the West Coast Offense and his size made him a great target for Joe Montana. After Jerry Rice, no one caught more touchdown passes from Montana than Clark did and none were more important than that one in the back of the endzone in the 1981 NFCCG. Remarkably consistent, Clark posted at least 50 receptions and 700 receiving yards in 7 straight seasons from 1980-1986. By the time he retired in 1987, only Steve Largent had more receptions among white receivers post-merger.
16 Worst: Randy Burke
Randy Burke was a high school teammate of MLB Hall of Famer Andre Dawson in football and that might have been the peak of his athletic career. It certainly didn’t come in college at Kentucky as he posted all of 37 receptions for his entire college career. Somehow, someway the Baltimore Colts thought that production warranted a first round pick in the 1977 NFL draft. Burke was the second receiver drafted and just one spot behind Stanley Morgan who made 4 Pro Bowls. Over four seasons with the Colts, Burke couldn’t even match his lowly college production as he caught just 30 balls while in Baltimore. But he did force a safety in 1978 which tied for the league lead along with 15 other players!
Burke later was a training camp invite with the Raiders but didn’t make the team and finished up his career with a season in the USFL. He now works as a marketing consultant for the CBS affiliate back in Lexington, Kentucky.
15 Best: Ed McCaffrey
Easy Ed’s pro career got off to a slow start as he didn’t become a starter until he was 28 but he also picked up a Super Bowl early in his career as a backup in the 1994 49ers. The offensive coordinator of that team, Mike Shanahan, then became the head coach of the Broncos and he brought McCaffrey with him over to Denver. McCaffrey, Rod Smith, and Shannon Sharpe formed one of the best receiving units in the NFL and helped the Broncos win back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 1990s. McCaffrey also experiences his greatest individual success by posting three straight 1000 yard seasons starting in 1998. After breaking his leg in Week 1 of the 2001 season, McCaffrey came back to play two more seasons with the Broncos before retiring in 2003. His son, Christian, was a first round pick by the Panthers in 2017 and could easily find himself on this list one day…or even the running back versions of this list.
14 Worst Nick Williams
Williams has somehow been in the NFL for four seasons even though he’s spent more time on practice squads than on the 53-man roster. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013 by Washington even though he had all of 2 TD receptions in four years at UCONN. He was, however, a potent return specialist and scored 2 kick return TDs and 2 punt return TDs while in Storrs. But Williams has not showcased that return ability (nor his receiving ability) in the NFL. After being cut by the Redskins, Williams was out of football in 2014 and spent the last two seasons with the Falcons. He’s registered just 1 punt return and 9 kick returns in his NFL career to go along with just 25 receptions.
Since he’s not much of an NFL receiver or an NFL returner, Williams must be the league’s best gunner on special teams. That’s the only way you could surmise why he’s lasted this long in the NFL. He’s a free agent but we shouldn’t be surprised if he ends up in San Francisco as Kyle Shanahan was his coordinator with both the Redskins and Falcons.
13 Best: Don Maynard
Before there was DeSean Jackson, Joey Galloway, or James Lofton; there was Don Maynard taking the top off of defenses. He was the preeminent deep threat of his day as he spent 13 of his 15 seasons with the New York Titans/Jets. Of the 65 players in NFL history with at least 600 receptions, Maynard has the highest yards per reception average (18.7). The Jets were one of the first teams to modernize the game with deep passing as Maynard and Art Powell became the first receiver tandem to each gain 1000 yards in a season (1960).
He was also Joe Namath’s favorite target the year the Jets shocked the world by winning Super Bowl III and he’s one of 10 players in history to be named to the AFL all-time team and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All that for a guy who was drafted as a running back, cut during training camp in his second season, and had to play in Canada for a year before returning to the states!
12 Worst: Brenton Bersin
Bersin has been in the Carolinas all his life as he was born and raised in Charlotte, attended Wofford in South Carolina, and the Panthers are the only NFL team he has known. Undrafted in 2012, Bersin was signed by the Panthers but cut in training camp in 2012 and 2013. He finally made his debut in a regular season game in 2014 and scored his only career touchdown. He entered the 2015 season thinking he finally made it but was cut again and then signed with Carolina’s practice squad. He was activated during the season and played in 9 games with 9 receptions. Bersin made the team out of training camp in 2016 but guess what happened a month into the season?
He was cut again but was re-signed by the team two days later. After 5 NFL seasons, he has just 24 more receptions than you or I have. The Panthers signed him for the 2017 season but as he knows, that’s no guarantee that he’ll survive final cuts.
11 Best: Jordy Nelson
Nelson spent the first few years in an apprenticeship role behind Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, but he broke out in his fourth season in 2011 with over 1200 receiving yards and 15 TDs. The Aaron Rodgers-to-Jordy Nelson connection has only thrived since then as Nelson has posted 4 career seasons with at least 1,200 receiving yards. Despite missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL, Rodgers has been a touchdown machine in his career and led the NFL in receiving touchdowns when he came back in 2016.
For his career, Nelson has posted three seasons with at least 13 receiving touchdowns which is something only 5 other players in NFL history have also done. As the only active player on this “best” list, Nelson is the only one with the ability to move up and he surely will as long as Aaron Rodgers is his quarterback.
10 Worst: Griff Whalen
Whalen used the Andrew Luck-Stanford connection to join his former Cardinal quarterback with the Colts as an undrafted free agent in 2012. After missing all of his rookie year due to injury, Whalen then posted three lackluster years in Indy and had more returns than he had receptions. He was also part of maybe the worst play in NFL history. He spent the 2016 season with the Chargers but had similar disappointment as he had with the Colts. Over his career he has essentially been the 53rd man on the roster and shuffled between the practice squad and the main roster. In his 5 NFL seasons he has been cut more times (5) than he has scored touchdowns (3).
In 2016 alone he was cut by four different teams and has signed with the Ravens for the 2017 season. The Ravens also have Michael Campanero on their roster but one of those two will likely be cut as per NFL rule, only the Patriots are allowed to have multiple white receivers.
9 Best: Lance Alworth
Only in the 1960s could a pro football player be nicknamed “Bambi” and it be considered a compliment. But that was the nickname given to Lance Alworth because of his graceful running style which seemed effortless at times. Alworth was one of those players who didn’t look very fast but no one ever seemed to catch him. He made 6 straight All-Pro teams with the Chargers and led the league in receiving touchdowns three straight seasons. Alworth was the pre-merger version of Cris Carter as it seemed like all he did was catch touchdowns. He ranks 102nd all-time in receptions but 15th all-time in receiving touchdowns. Alworth played for the Chargers in the AFL for most of his career and became the first player to be inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame whose playing career was primarily in the AFL.
8 Worst: Jeff Janis
An athletic freak who also posted a 30 on the Wonderlic, Janis is still living off one game he posted in his second season in 2015. Despite having just 4 catches total up to the NFC Divisional game, Janis went off for 7 receptions for 145 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also caught the Hail Mary pass on the final play of regulation to send the game into overtime. Ever since then Packers fans have expected Janis to be the second coming of Jordy Nelson but Janis has been unable to transfer his physical skills into consistent success on the field. Despite playing all 16 games in 2016, Janis registered just 11 catches all year. He’s entering the last season of his rookie deal but there’s no guarantee he makes the Packers roster out of training camp.
7 Best: Fred Biletnikoff
Since the award for the top receiver in college football is called the “Fred Biletnikoff Award,” you first have to mention Biletnikoff’s exploits at Florida State. He led the nation in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns as a senior while also being a two-way player and being a starting defensive back. Biletnikoff then joined the Raiders where he put Al Davis’ vision of a deep-passing offense into reality during his 14 seasons in Oakland. He was a two-time AFL all-star and a four-time NFL Pro Bowler while also being named the MVP of Super Bowl XI.
Speaking of the postseason, Biletnikoff excelled on the biggest of stages as by the time he retired, he was the all-time leader in postseason receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. After retiring Biletnikoff then spent 26 years as a coach including 18 years as the WR coach for the Raiders.
6 Worst: Barry Smith
Due to his similar size and fellow choice of school of higher learning, Barry Smith was billed as the next Fred Biletnikoff while at Florida State. As a result, he was chosen in the first round of the 1973 NFL draft by the Packers. Smith was only a part-time starter for three seasons in Green Bay and never even reached 300 receiving yards in any season. A return to the state of Florida didn’t do any favors for Smith as he had just 4 catches in his one season with the expansion Buccaneers. He retired after the 1976 season with 45 catches for 692 yards and 4 touchdowns. All of those numbers are fewer than he had in his senior season, alone, while at Florida State. He didn’t experience success in the pros but he was elected to the FSU Hall of Fame in 1979.
5 Best: Raymond Berry
Whenever discussing Raymond Berry you have to start off with the 1958 NFL Championship Game AKA “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” He was Johnny Unitas’ favorite target and led all players with 12 receptions for 187 yards and 1 touchdown as the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants. That game alone would have earned Berry a spot on this list but he was an elite receiver throughout his career and led the league in receptions 3 times and receiving yards 3 times. He won back-to-back NFL championships in 1958 and 1959 and then won the receiving Triple Crown in 1960. By the time he retired after the 1967 season, Berry was the all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yards. For his efforts, Berry became the first modern-era receiver in NFL history to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility (1973).
4 Worst: Matt Jones
Imagine a bigger, faster, whiter version of Terrelle Pryor: that’s what Matt Jones was as he transitioned from quarterback at Arkansas to a wide receiver in the NFL. Jones was 6’6” 242 lb and ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at the combine and he utilized those tantalizing measureables to become a surprise first-round pick by the Jaguars in 2006. Just as so many other first-round picks by the Jags, Jones was a complete bust and never topped 800 receiving yards or 5 touchdowns in his four NFL seasons. But his lack of production on the field was nowhere near his self-inflicted problems off it as in 2008 he was charged with felony drug possession after being found in a van with cocaine and marijuana.
He was then popped again a year later for violating the terms of his probation and asked to be sent to jail instead of a residential treatment program as the program would have interfered with training camp. Nonetheless, Jones would never play another NFL game and his career was over at the age of 25.
3 Best: Steve Largent
Over the last 34 years there are just two wide receivers who have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. One is the incomparable Jerry Rice and the other was Steve Largent in 1995. Not big, not fast, and very white; Largent was Seattle’s most popular athlete throughout the 1980s. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler for a terrible Seahawks team that made the postseason just twice during Largent’s career. Before Jerry Rice came along, Largent held every major receiver record including being the all-time leader in all three of the Triple Crown statistics. A man who truly did it all, Largent also served in Oklahoma’s House of Representatives after he retired and was named to People magazine’s list of ‘Most Beautiful People.’
2 Worst: Riley Cooper
You know why Cooper is on this list and it’s only partly due to his drop-filled six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2013 while at a Kenny Chesney concert, Cooper was caught on camera saying “I will jump back in and fight every (n-word) here" in reference to security guards that were denying his entry. While many called for his release and doubted he would be able to co-exist in a locker room that was mostly black; the Eagles only fined Cooper. On the field, Cooper was a plodding receiver with hands of stone who caught barely 50% of the passes that were thrown to him. After inexplicably being offered a 5-year contract in 2015, the Eagles quickly smartened up and cut Cooper just one year into the contract. He last played in 2015 and tried out for the Bucs at their rookie minicamp in May 2017. However, Cooper couldn’t impress against a bunch of undrafted rookies and street free agents as the Bucs elected not to even offer him an invitation to training camp.
1 Best: Don Hutson
Remember when the NFL Network had a countdown of the top 100 players in NFL history a few years back? As I’m sure you’re aware, Jerry Rice was ranked #1 but do you remember who was voted as the second greatest receiver in NFL history? Don Hutson. Take one glance at his numbers and you could see why Hutson is so highly thought of. In his 11 season, Hutson led the league in receptions 8 times, in receiving yards 7 times, and in receiving touchdowns 8 times. Even the great Jerry Rice can’t say he’s done any of those three things. Hutson did all of this on offense for the Packers while also playing both defense and special teams.
Not only did he break every receiving record imaginable, but he also led the NFL in extra points made three times and interceptions once! He helped Green Bay earn the nickname of Title Town as Hutson was on three of Curly Lambeau’s championship-winning squads. With all due respect to Bart Starr, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers; Don Hutson is the greatest Packer of all-time.