The 2016 NFL Draft boasts a fairly thick crop of receiving talent. With four first-round picks—Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, and Laquon Treadwell—and 31 receivers drafted overall, the NFL is putting high hopes in this year’s class of receivers to reshape the face of the passing game in the NFL for years to come.
Since 2011, the NFL has taken 25 receivers in the first round of the draft, from studs like Julio Jones to busts like Jonathan Baldwin. Sometimes, players live up to their high billing, but other times, they fall flat on their faces when they scale up to taking on NFL-caliber defenses.
If the 2016 class wants to be remembered as one of the best in NFL history, they have some tough competition to face. Every so often—about once every decade—a class of receivers comes into the league and manages to stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. The potential and projection that is involved in the draft process actually matures into reality. It’s difficult to realize, as one or two high-profile busts can really dampen a class’ reception, but when everything falls together just right, you get a fabled draft class, one that produces multiple Hall of Famers and is brought up every year when the next batch of receivers fly off the board.
Here are the 15 receiving draft classes, in the common draft era, who have best distinguished themselves throughout their professional careers. We’re looking for stars on the top, depth in the middle, and an absence of high-profile busts when we’re sorting through the best of the best.
The first receiver taken in 2003, Charles Rogers (No. 2 overall to Detroit) is one of the more infamous flameouts in draft history, and he was joined by fellow first-round disappointment Bryant Johnson (No. 17 to Arizona). However, they’re joined by two of the top receivers of the past 15 years, both winding down their careers as we enter the 2016 season—Andre Johnson and Anquan Boldin, both of whom have topped 10,000 yards in their NFL careers. They’re joined by two of the best pass-catching tight ends in recent history, Jason Witten and Antonio Gates. No year has ever produced more 10,000 yard receivers, even if two of them here are technically tight ends
Perhaps it’s a bit early to crown 2013 as one of the greatest classes ever—let’s wait until they have a little more experience under their belt— but they’ve been off to a strong start. DeAndre Hopkins leads the class in receiving yards with 3,533, while Keenan Allen, Terrance Williams, and Kenny Stills have put up solid numbers in their first three years in the league. They’re joined by a tight end class that includes Zach Ertz, Travis Kelce, and Jordan Reed—basically, the core of your fantasy draft this season. The 2013 class has had at least 13% of the NFL’s receiving yards in each of their first three seasons, which had not been done since the strike-altered 1987 season.
No wide receivers went off the board in the first round of the 1990 draft, but that would change if they had to do it all over again. Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe was the greatest tight end of the decade, first helping John Elway win his two Super Bowl rings and then serving as the primary offensive threat for the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. He’s joined by late steals like third-rounder Ricky Proehl and sixth-rounder Terance Mathis, as well as the best pass-catching fullback of all time in Larry Centers. It’s a class full of depth at the receiving position, rather than studs up top, but teams that waited on draft day found plenty of things to celebrate.
Charlie Joiner helped really define the “Air Coryell” systems in San Diego in the ‘70s, setting records by the time he retired in both receptions and yards—and this was back when the passing game was a distant afterthought to the pounding rushing attack. He’s one of the top 100 or so football players of all time, and is enshrined in Canton. He’s joined in this class by San Francisco’s greatest pre-Jerry Rice receiver, Gene Washington, a four-time All-Pro in his own right. Tight ends Ted Kwalick and Jim Mitchell round out the class; each was a multiple-time Pro Bowler.
It’s definitely too early to name the 2015 class as one of the best of all time, but the sheer amount of talent that has come out of college in the past three seasons is too great to ignore. Six receivers topped 500 receiving yards in their rookie seasons, led by Amari Cooper, Stefon Diggs, and Tyler Lockett. It’s very deep in top-end talent and most of these players project to perform well over the next five to eight years. Add in players who got late starts to their career due to injury in Kevin White, DeVante Parker, and Breshad Perriman, and you have what might one day rank much higher on this list.
This class has a couple of players with great bids for the Hall of Fame in Reggie Wayne and Steve Smith, both of whom are hovering right around 14,000 yards for their careers, albeit achieved in very different ways. Wayne had the luxury of playing with Peyton Manning for the majority of his career, while Smith dealt with a shakier quarterback situation in Carolina. Both excelled, regardless of their circumstances. Chad Johnson falls into a distant third in the class, but he’d be a headliner most years. The once-Chad Ochocinco’s personality might have been larger than his performance on the field, but he topped 10,000 yards in his career, too. The trio is joined by a very solid middle class of Santana Moss, Chris Chamber,s and T.J. Houshmandzadeh—it’s tough to find a six-pack of pure wideouts more exemplary than that list.
1983 is remembered as the best quarterback draft class of all time, but they had a few good guys to throw it too as well. Mark Clayton was one of Dan Marino’s favorite targets in Miami, while Henry Ellard was an All-Pro as a Los Angeles Ram, finishing his career with seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Players like Anthony Carter and Willie Gault were also household names at the time—Carter was a college star and started out as an All-Pro in the USFL before carving out a long career in Minnesota, while Gault was one of the fastest players in NFL history and a member of what would have been the 1980 US Olympic team.
In the first 11 picks of the draft, two Hall of Famers went off the board—Tim Brown to the Raiders and Michael Irvin to the Cowboys. Sandwiched between them was a very good tight end in Sterling Sharpe, who might have been in Canton himself had a neck injury not shortened his career. It’s a very top-heavy class, then, but they’re joined by the likes of Anthony Miller, Brett Perriman, Brian Blades, and Michael Haynes, so it’s not just a few studs at the top. You might have trouble hearing any of them over Irvin’s personality, but this is a quality class from stem to stern.
There was significant talent to be had here both early and late. Herman Moore was the tenth-overall pick to Detroit. He went on to earn pretty much every significant Detroit receiving record, holding them until Calvin Johnson came and broke most of ‘em. The twelfth round saw Keenan McCardell head out to Washington, though he never took the field with the franchise. He also topped 10,000 career receiving yards, playing into his late 30s and contributing a good 15 years after he was drafted. Ed McCaffrey, Jeff Graham, Jake Reed, and Shawn Jefferson all had long careers as well, helping define the mid-‘90s at the receiving position.
Steve Largent sits in Canton as the greatest receiver in Seattle Seahawks history, though he was actually drafted by the Houston Oilers. When he retired, he was the all-time leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, as well as what was at the time the longest-ever streak of games with a reception. He’s joined in the class by five members of the 5,000 receiving yards club, in Sammy White, Henry Marshall, Duriel Harris, and Pat Tilley. The ‘70s wasn’t a great time for receiving stats, so having so many players have long, productive careers really stands out, when you adjust for it’s era.
The 2014 draft looks to be the best group of receivers in 20 years, topping three very successful years for the receiving position. Among first-rounders, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham, Brandin Cooks, and Kelvin Benjamin have already proven that they’re among the best in the game today. Players like Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, and Jordan Matthews add needed depth, while players like Donte Moncrief, John Brown, and Martavis Bryant have been later-rounds steals. If you were to re-do the first round of the draft today, you could make an argument for nine receivers to come off the board, none before the explosive and sensational ODB. It’s a sensational class and one that will define your fantasy draft board for the next decade.
1979 produced the most famous reception in NFL history, with Dwight Clark hauling in "The Catch" at the end of the 1982 NFC Championship Game, but this class is more than one highlight reception. Clark was a key cog in the early part of the 49ers’ dynasty in the ‘80s. Drew Hill set the Houston Oilers’ record for most career pass receptions as part of the Run and Shoot offense. Kellen Winslow was, in his day, the best tight end in football and he’s in Canton now. Roy Green was a two-time All Pro, excelling as a receiver and kick returner for the Cardinals in two different cities. Some of these players may not be household names anymore, but this draft class set up a decade of production in cities across the NFL.
1974 was a good year for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as they managed to draft two Hall of Famers at the receiving position in John Stallworth and Lynn Swann. Stallworth was the more consistent player throughout his career, while Swann has some of the all-time great highlight real catches and performances on the largest stages. They’re joined in the class by Dolphins great Nat Moore, who bridged the Bob Griese and Dan Marino eras in Miami, Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper who had great years in Oakland for John Madden, and longtime Baltimore Colts receiver Roger Carr. That many Hall of Famers can’t be wrong.
Jerry Rice alone would be enough to get a class onto this list, as the man holds or held every relevant receiving record on the books, performing at a Pro Bowl level well into his 40s; he truly is the greatest receiver of all time. He’s not even the only Hall of Famer in his class, though, as he was joined by seven-time Pro Bowler Andre Reed. The class has solid depth, too—while Al Toon and Eddie Brown will have to forever live down being drafted before Rice, both topped 6,000 receiving yards in their career, and Eric Martin had 8,000 more, setting many New Orleans Saints records in the process. It’s not just a one-man class, though Rice is heads and shoulders above anyone else in NFL history.
As far as Rice is above every other receiver, the ’96 class dominates any other receiving class ever put together. It’s a once-in-a-generation conflux of talent and opportunity. It had the last receiver drafted number one overall in Keyshawn Johnson and he just set the tone for the rest of the draft to follow. Marvin Harrison, who is entering the Hall of Fame this year. Terrell Owens, who is sure to follow. Muhsin Muhammad. Eric Moulds. Eddie Kennison. Joe Horn. Terry Glenn. Amani Toomer. Bobby Engram. The list goes on—the receivers in this class have 26 Pro Bowl appearances between them. Every single first-round receiver—and there were five of them—had 10 or more years of NFL service and there were no busts in this class. No draft class in NFL history has more receptions or yards. It’s the sort of quality we’ll never see again; the greatest receiving draft class ever.