When you ask someone who they think is the greatest quarterback in NFL history is, some will say Tom Brady, some will say Joe Montana and plenty will say Peyton Manning. Manning was the obvious choice (at least now) as the top overall pick by the Colts in 1998, and he would end up living up to the hype. Manning finished his 17 year NFL career with a pair of Super Bowl titles, 14 Pro Bowl selections and five MVP Awards.
Throughout that long and illustrious career, Manning would end up throwing for 71,940 yards and 539 touchdowns, both of which are the most in the league’s history. Of those 539 touchdowns, there were 45 different receivers on the opposite end of Manning’s passes. However, not all of the receivers and tight ends that played with Manning would end up finding the end zone and even some that did were surprising.
So of all of the receivers that Manning had to work with, who were the best and who were the worst? There were some notable receivers that didn’t make the cut on the good side, including Wes Welker, Julius Thomas and Pierre Garcon. There were also some duds like Ben Hartsock and Brad Pyatt that didn’t even make the list. Here are our choices for the top eight receivers and bottom seven in Manning’s career.
15 Best: Marcus Pollard
A lot of people seem to forget about tight end Marcus Pollard, who really helped Peyton Manning develop in his early years with the Colts. Pollard had three seasons with Indy under his belt by the time the Colts would draft Manning and his numbers would instantly jump with Manning at the helm. Pollard had a high catch rate to help Manning out, topping out at 75.6% of targets in 1999.
Pollard’s best season would come in 2001 when he finished with 739 yards and eight touchdowns on 47 catches. All in all, Pollard would end up with 3,189 receiving yards and 34 touchdowns when he was paired up with Manning. Pollard played two seasons with the Lions before ending his career with the Seahawks and then Falcons, retiring in 2008.
14 Worst: Ricky Proehl
Ricky Proehl had been a very capable wide receiver for a very long time, playing with the Cardinals, Seahawks, Bears, Rams and Panthers. After the 2005 season, Proehl decided to call it a career, ending a 16 year stretch. Unfortunately, Proehl just couldn’t stay away and decided to return during the 2006 season with the Colts when Brandon Stokley went down with an injury late in the season.
Proehl proved that he probably should have just stayed retired, as he was not very productive in his only two games (one of which was as a starter). Proehl caught just three passes for 30 yards in his limited time with the Colts. If he would have been around five years prior, Proehl probably could have put up some solid numbers, but not at 38 years old.
13 Best: Brandon Stokley
Speaking of Brandon Stokley, he makes the list as one of the best receivers that Peyton Manning has had to work with. Stokley started out his career in Baltimore for four seasons and then made the switch over to the Colts for the 2003 season when Manning was really hitting his stride. In his first season, he would catch just 22 passes for 211 yards, but broke out the next year.
In that 2004 season, Stokley would finish with 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns. He would follow that up with a 543 yard season and then was injured in 2006. However, Stokley and Manning would hook up once again when Manning signed with the Broncos in 2012. That was Stokley’s last year with Manning and it was a productive one as he started nine games, catching 45 passes for 544 yards and five touchdowns.
12 Worst: E.G. Green
Chances are that you at least remember Ricky Proehl, but the same could likely not be said about E.G. Green. Green was a third round pick by the Colts in the same year that Peyton Manning was drafted (1998) and the duo would spend three seasons together. Green would play in 29 games with Manning over those three seasons, catching 54 passes for 665 yards and two touchdowns.
That sounds like a decent season from your second or third receiver in the NFL, but not over a three year span. Green would never sign with another NFL team after those three seasons were finished in Indianapolis. Instead, he would sign with the Edmonton Eskimos four years after leaving the Colts, but never appeared in a CFL game.
11 Best: Emmanuel Sanders
Emmanuel Sanders was always considered a bit of an afterthought that had a bit of potential when he was playing with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team that drafted him in the third round in 2010’s NFL Draft. Sanders would top out at 740 yards and six touchdowns with the Steelers, signing with the Broncos in 2014 to team up with Peyton Manning and increase his playing time.
The decision ended up being a good one for Sanders, who would have a breakout year in 2014 with 1,404 yards and nine touchdowns on 101 catches. 2015 would prove to also be a good season despite Manning’s struggles and injury problems, hauling in 76 passes for 1,135 yards and six touchdowns. Sanders is still a member of the Broncos and has been productive in the 2016 season.
10 Worst: Hank Baskett
There are two things that immediately come to mind when you think of Hank Baskett. The first is the fact that he’s married to former Playboy Playmate Kendra Wilkinson and was featured on a reality television show. The second is that he was the one that couldn’t haul in the surprise onside kick that the Saints pulled off to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV.
Baskett had some alright seasons with the Eagles before joining the Colts during the 2009 season, but nothing that really stood out. His stint with the Colts lasted just 11 games,and his production was almost zero. He would finish with four catches on 10 targets, totalling just 28 yards and no touchdowns. Baskett would end up playing for the Vikings and Eagles in 2010, and never came back to the NFL.
9 Best: Eric Decker
Before there was ever any thought that Peyton Manning could become a Denver Bronco, the team would already have a wide receiver on their roster that realized their potential with the future Hall of Famer. Eric Decker was a third round pick out of Minnesota by the Broncos in 2010, though he would finish with just 106 yards in his rookie season. Decker developed nicely in his second year with 612 yards and eight touchdowns.
When Manning joined the Broncos in 2012, Decker broke out in a big way, hauling in 85 passes for 1,064 yards and 13 touchdowns. The next season was just as productive as Decker found the end zone 11 more times with 1,288 yards on 87 catches. Even though it was just two seasons where Decker and Manning would work together, you definitely saw a chemistry there and Decker has been solid with the Jets since heading to New York in 2014.
8 Worst: Aaron Moorehead
The mid-2000s Indianapolis Colts had some of the best offensive teams that we’ve ever seen and there were plenty of opportunities for receivers to increase their numbers. One of the players that never really got into the fun was Aaron Moorehead, who always made you say “who the heck is that” when his name popped up on your weekly FantasyCast. For five seasons, it was a valid question.
Moorehead got into 36 games over a five year span with Manning’s Colts, starting in two of those contests. On 62 targets, Moorehead would pull in 31 passes for a total of 330 yards and just one touchdown. Moorehead would finish his career after the 2007 season and has since gone into coaching. After stops at New Mexico, Stanford and Virginia Tech, Moorehead is now the Texas A&M wide receivers coach.
7 Best: Dallas Clark
Back in 2003, the Colts decided to bolster their passing game and brought in a receiving tight end with their first round pick. That pick would be Iowa product Dallas Clark and the pick was a good one. Clark and Peyton Manning would end up teaming together for eight seasons (and he stuck around in Indianapolis in Manning’s missed season in 2011). When they were together, the tandem would have 4,535 yards and 44 touchdowns.
Clark would make the Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro squad in 2009 when he finished with 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns, his best season as a pro. In the three seasons without Manning (one each with the Colts, Buccaneers and Ravens), Clark would put up average numbers with 1,130 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. The two just needed each other.
6 Worst: Troy Walters
A former fifth round pick out of Stanford in 2000 by the Vikings, Troy Walters would spend two underwhelming seasons in Minnesota. Walters was the Biletnikoff Award winner during his final season in college and it was disappointing to see that his college production could not translate to the pros. Walters finished with 286 yards in 18 games over two seasons with the Vikings before signing with the Colts in 2002.
Walters would play in 52 games with Peyton Manning while in Indianapolis during four seasons and I honestly can’t recall seeing him in a Colts jersey despite growing up in an area where the Colts were always on television. Walters was mostly a returner, but also played plenty of receiver where he had just 69 catches for 820 yards and six touchdowns over the course of his career. Walters would land in Arizona and Detroit for one year each afterward before calling it quits after 2007.
5 Best: Demaryius Thomas
It seems that there is a big step up for receivers among the top three and the rest of the group, and it starts with Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos had used a first round pick (22nd overall) in 2010 to take Thomas out of Georgia Tech. Thomas had showed a lot of potential in his first two seasons with the Broncos as he posted 834 yards and six touchdowns, but he was being held back as his quarterbacks were Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton. Fortunately for Thomas, his luck would change when Peyton Manning was signed in 2012.
Thomas and Manning played for four seasons together, and each one of them resulted in more than 1,300 yards for Thomas and at least six touchdowns. In those four seasons, Thomas would collect 402 receptions for a total of 5,787 yards and 41 touchdowns. Thomas is still a member of the Broncos and has posted 678 yards through the team’s first 10 games in the 2016 season with five touchdowns.
4 Worst: Andre Caldwell
Former Florida Gator wide receiver was selected in the third round during the 2008 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals and he would spend his first four years with the team. Caldwell put up some mediocre stats while with Cincinnati, but it always seemed that he had a bit of potential, especially when he had 432 yards and three touchdowns in his second season. Heading into 2012, the Broncos brought in Caldwell to team up with Manning in his first year in Denver.
The duo would never really become a connection, as Caldwell played just eight games in 2012 with one catch for 18 yards. Manning and Caldwell played four seasons together (all in Denver) and he had 337 yards and five touchdowns during that time. Caldwell was not signed by the Broncos for 2016 and is currently sitting on the long free agent list.
3 Best: Reggie Wayne
We have gotten all of the Broncos receivers out of the way and you can probably guess who the top two are at this point. We start with Reggie Wayne, who was brought in with the 30th overall pick in the first round back in 2001 out of Miami (FL), though he took a bit of a back seat in his first three seasons. Wayne would finally break out in 2004 when he finished with 1,210 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Perhaps Wayne’s best year with Manning came in 2007 when he hauled in 104 passes with 1,510 yards and 10 touchdowns. Wayne stuck around with Indy for four seasons without Manning as his quarterback and he was still very productive. All in all, the Manning and Wayne combo would finish with 10,748 yards and 69 touchdowns to go along with it.
2 Worst: Cody Latimer
We go from a first round pick that worked out to a second round pick that didn’t. There were many people saying that former Indiana star Cody Latimer could have been a first round pick, but he has not lived up to that reputation at all. Latimer was selected 56th overall in 2014 and it seemed like his potential was going to be through the roof after teaming up with Manning. His rookie season would show that wasn’t the case, as he finished with just two catches and 23 yards.
2015 wouldn’t be much better, as he played in 14 games with one start, getting just 11 targets. He would catch six of those passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. Without Manning, Latimer’s career hasn’t improved as he has played in seven games throughout Denver’s first 10 games, catching just three passes for 22 yards.
1 Best: Marvin Harrison
We have reached the end of our list with Marvin Harrison, the only current Hall of Fame member who made the cut. Harrison had spent two years with the Colts before Manning’s arrival, as he was the first round pick by Indianapolis in 1996. Harrison had two solid seasons and then became a huge star when he teamed up with Manning for 11 seasons. His best season came in 2002 when Harrison finished with 1,722 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Harrison would make his way to eight Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro selections (and five second-teams), leading the league in receiving yards twice. Manning and Harrison would hook up for 114 touchdowns together in Indianapolis, and Harrison had 12,878 yards in the 11 seasons with the Colts when Manning was the quarterback. Harrison retired after the 2008 season when it was clear that Reggie Wayne was the new top guy, but Harrison still had a great career.