The greatest regular season quarterback in the history of the National Football League has hung them up after a career to remember. Peyton Manning confirmed what many assumed to be true on March 7th, 2016 when he publicly announced that he was retiring as an active player. The legendary quarterback who should already have a wing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame dedicated to him was able to walk out as a champion after Manning and the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers at Super Bowl 50. Debates will now begin on where Manning belongs on the list of the best QBs to ever play in the NFL.
Manning had plenty of help while playing for the Indianapolis Colts and then the Broncos. Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark and Edgerrin James were all special talents. Demaryius Thomas likely would have been regarded as one of the best wide receivers in NFL history had he spent the majority of his career playing alongside Manning. Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley, Wes Welker and Marcus Pollard were all able to catch multiple touchdown passes from Manning over time. Manning did it all during his playing days and those of us who were able to cover him for nearly two decades were honored to do that job.
Not everybody who was lucky enough to play on an offense that was captained by Manning was an all-time great. Some, in fact, were technically not even receivers. Manning was a special talent in that he had an ability to make those around him better, and that included some who probably would have struggled to remain on a roster that featured a different quarterback. Hopefully, those players who caught touchdown passes tossed by Manning held onto and then preserved those footballs. Manning will never again throw a touchdown in the NFL and all who adore the game of football will miss seeing No. 18 take the field.
15 Mitch Unrein
Diehard football fans may be shaking their heads over seeing this name. Mitch Unrein is mostly known as a defensive tackle who has also featured as a fullback in goalline situations. Unrein has, to date, caught one pass in his NFL career. That occurred in 2012 when Manning and Unrein were playing for the Denver Broncos. Unrein did not just reel in any old pass. He scored a touchdown on that player, his only offensive TD in his five seasons in the NFL. Unrein remains in the NFL as of March 2016, so his days of scoring TDs may not be over. It is safe to say, though, that he probably won't ever play with a better QB.
14 Cody Latimer
There is still plenty of time for Cody Latimer to play himself off of such lists. Latimer is, after all, only 23-years-old and has only been in the NFL for a handful of years. It will be interesting to see what Latimer becomes now that he is not playing with a living legend of the game such as Manning. Maybe somebody such as Brock Osweiler or some other starting QB will get the best out of Latimer, and Latimer will become a top-tier wide receiver. On the other hand, perhaps Latimer will fade away and become but a footnote in NFL history now that Manning has retired.
13 Hank Baskett
Remember when Hank Baskett had a few decent seasons while playing for the Philadelphia Eagles? No? Well, it happened, and that version of Baskett or something close to it is probably what Manning and the Colts hoped that they were getting when Baskett joined up with Indianapolis. What Manning and the Colts instead landed was a guy who caught a handful of passes in 11 regular season appearances before he and the Colts parted ways. At least Baskett was able to have a successful reality television career after his stint with the Colts ended. Nobody can take that away from him.
12 Tony Simmons
We are thankful that websites such as Pro Football Reference exist, because otherwise players such as Tony Simmons would be forgotten names. Simmons was a journeyman wide receiver during his brief run in the NFL, and he had a short stay in Indianapolis that involved him appearing in six games. He was targeted an average of once per game and he caught two of those six passes while with the Colts. Simmons didn't last long on the Colts and then with the New York Giants before he found himself out of the league. Even great QBs such as Manning can only do so much with some players.
11 Devin Aromashodu
Yes, we promise you that Devin Aromashodu was, in fact, a NFL wide receiver who was fortunate enough to play with Manning. Aromashodu was drafted by the Miami Dolphins, but he never played a regular season down for that club before he landed in Indianpolis. He appeared in six games while playing with Manning and the Colts, and Aromashodu had seven receptions for 96 yards during that one season with the club. Aromashodu went on to have runs with the Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, where he never played with a QB as good as Manning.
10 Anthony Gonzalez
It would be understandable if one would take a quick look at the numbers that Anthony Gonzalez posted while with the Indianapolis Colts and not understand how he makes such a list. What that person would have to remember is that Gonzalez possibly could have been much, much more had he been able to avoid the injury bug during his NFL career. Gonzalez and Manning had a good working relationship, but the WR never reached his full potential. The shame is that we will never know what Manning could have helped Gonzalez become as a pro wide receiver.
9 Torrance Small
Torrance Small was already a veteran in the NFL when he was on a roster with a rookie quarterback named Peyton Manning. One could say that Manning got the absolute best out of Small during their one season together. Small was targeted 87 times by the then-first year quarterback, and the wideout finished the season with seven touchdown receptions. To put that number in perspective: Small had only 24 touchdown catches when playing with quarterbacks other than Manning. Odds are that Small wishes he would have been able to play with Manning for more than one season.
8 Aaron Moorehead
You have to give players such as Aaron Moorehead credit. Guys like Moorehead never come close to getting to an All-Pro level, but they nevertheless manage to remain in the NFL for multiple seasons. Moorehead played with the Colts from 2003 up through 2007, during which he was targeted 62 times. One of those targets resulted in Moorehead finding the end zone for the one and only touchdown catch of his NFL career. In total, Moorehead caught exactly half of the 62 regular season passes thrown his way. We can probably guess that Manning wanted better output.
7 E.G. Green
There have, across several sports, been many talented and great athletes with the last name of Green. No disrespect meant to the individual, but E.G. Green sadly does not make the list. The wide receiver out of Florida State was grabbed by the Colts with a third-round pick, a pick that, it turned out, could have been spent more wisely. Green had only four starts in his three seasons with the Colts. He had a pair of touchdowns over that time, but he and the Colts parted ways after the 2000 season. That was the final season that Green would play in the NFL.
6 Trevor Insley
We are not going to lie or pretend that we have some magical memory. We had to do some research to bring ourselves to remember Trevor Insley. Insley entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2000, but he did not play a down of regular season football until he linked up with Manning and the Colts for the 2001 campaign. Insley was, for an undrafted WR, fine while with the Colts. He even caught a touchdown pass. Neither Manning nor the Colts were apparently overly impressed, however, as that was Insley's only season in Indianapolis and ultimately his last season playing regular season NFL football.
5 Matt Willis
While we do not know him personally, we are confident that Matt Willis was probably hopeful that Peyton Manning choosing to play for the Denver Broncos after Manning and the Indianapolis Colts parted ways would spark his career. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred. Willis appeared in 15 games for the Broncos in 2010, but he accumulated only ten catches during what was his last season in Denver. While Willis tried to continue playing elsewhere, he has not, to this day, played in another regular season game since he and Manning were teammates.
4 Trindon Holliday
We are sure that Trindon Holliday works hard and means to be the best overall player that he can be. What Holliday was not, however, was a great wide receiver while playing with Manning. Holliday was, in fact, relegated to return duties during his final season with the Broncos. After that, Holliday was unable to land full-time gigs with the New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders. Holliday is, as of early March 2016, a free agent. We don't want to be mean, but we have concerns about Holliday's NFL future if he could not make it while playing with Manning.
3 Troy Walters
Before he became a coach at the college level, Troy Walters was more of a returner than he was a dynamite wide receiver in the NFL. Walters retired after having accumulated nine receiving touchdowns in eight total seasons. Six of those scores occurred when Walters was playing with Manning and the Colts. Maybe the best stat of Walters' NFL career involves the number “1.” Walters finished two different pro seasons with one target and one catch in those campaigns. In fact, Walters had only one catch and one target in his two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
2 Bennie Fowler
Bennie Fowler is another wide receiver who could play himself off of the list before his NFL career has come to an end. Fowler went undrafted in 2014, and he was signed, cut and then re-acquired by the Broncos. Fowler appeared in all of Denver's regular season games in 2015-16 and he finished the campaign with 16 receptions. The biggest reason that Fowler makes the list is that he will forever go down as the man who caught the final pass of Manning's NFL career, a two-point conversion that happened at Super Bowl 50. We are hoping for bigger and better things for Fowler in the future, but he deserves a shout-out in this piece for the time being.
1 Vernon Davis
Vernon Davis was a consistent tight end for several seasons while playing with the San Francisco 49ers until injuries slowed him down. Manning and the Broncos were probably hoping that Davis could revitalize his career when he joined Denver during the 2015 campaign. Instead, the Broncos traded for a tight end who was ultimately targeted just once during the playoffs. Davis did not catch that pass. Davis recently stated that he wants to continue playing in the NFL for another “four or five years.” The veteran is going to need more than luck to still be playing in the NFL by the end of the decade.