10 Best Wide Receivers in Pittsburgh Steelers History

Updated on October 29, 2019
Is Antonio Brown the Best Steelers Wide Receiver of All Time?
Is Antonio Brown the Best Steelers Wide Receiver of All Time? | Source

The Greatest Steelers Receivers of All Time

When you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers today, you may imagine a wide-open passing game with multiple wide receivers and a quarterback who throws the ball 50 times per game. It’s true that Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers have put up some incredible numbers over the past decade, but that wasn’t always so.

Go back in time to the 1970s and you’ll find a Steelers team built on running the ball from a two-back set. They relied on powerful, athletic offensive linemen and smart blocking schemes to open up big holes for running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. The Steelers threw the ball back then, but not nearly as often and not nearly as accurately.

in the '90s and 2000s, with Bill Cowher as coach, Pittsburgh was a running team that built their game plan atop the broad shoulders of Jerome Bettis. During Big Ben’s first few years playing in the league, the Steelers controlled the ball through the rushing attack and protected the young quarterback from his own mistakes.

Over the decades, the NFL has gradually changed into a pass-first league. Quarterbacks and receivers now put up mind-boggling stats that were unimaginable only a few years ago. Does this mean the wide receivers of today are superior to those from years gone by? Certainly not, but it does mean it is really difficult to compare receivers from different eras. For example, Antonio Brown caught many more passes for many more yards than both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. But Stallworth and Swann averaged nearly three yards more per reception. Brown is a four-time All-Pro; Swann and Stallworth are four-time Super Bowl champions.

So how do we rank the top Steelers wide receivers of all time? For the purposes of this article, I will be considering things like:

  • Career Stats
  • All-Pro Team Selections
  • Pro Bowl Selections
  • Super Bowl Performances
  • Overall contributions to the franchise

However, unlike my article on the best Steelers players of all time, there will be a heavier dose of opinion here. It just isn’t easy to compare Buddy Dial to JuJu Smith-Schuster. I’m going to have to make a few decisions based on what I think constitutes a great Steelers wide receiver.

Here's a countdown of the top 10 Steelers wide receivers of all time:

10. JuJu Smith-Schuster

Is it presumptuous to even mention Smith-Schuster on this list? He is 23 years old and in only his third year with the Steelers. The kid has a long way to go, and there is no telling whether or not he will spend the bulk of his career in Pittsburgh.

Still, there is a good chance Smith-Schuster will statistically rank in the top 10 all-time Steelers receiving leaders by the end of the 2019 season. He’s already made one Pro Bowl, had one 100-plus reception season, and set the record for longest touchdown reception in Steelers history with a 97-yard catch and run (which he did on two separate occasions).

Smith-Schuster has become a fan favorite in a very short time. He’s a big, strong receiver who hits hard, not unlike another pass catcher you might remember named Hines Ward. Will he follow in Ward’s footsteps and spend his career in black and gold? Steeler Nation certainly hopes so.

Jersey Number

19

Years With Steelers

2017-Present

Accolades With Steelers

  • 1x Pro Bowl

Stats With Steelers

  • Rec: 193
  • Yds: 2,676
  • TDs: 16

9. Mike Wallace

Though his time in Pittsburgh was short, Mike Wallace racked up some impressive numbers while playing for the Steelers. He was a deep threat with blazing speed, and in four seasons he averaged 17.2 yards per reception. He had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2010 and 2011 and made one Pro Bowl appearance (2011). Wallace played a key part in the Steelers’ Super Bowl run of 2010.

Mike Wallace left the Steelers for greener pastures in 2013. He had several quality years with Miami and Baltimore but never made another Pro Bowl. Had he remained with the Steelers and put up similar numbers as he did with later teams he would be among the Steelers’ all-time leading receivers today. As it stands, he currently ranks No. 10 for receiving yards, No. 13 for receptions, and No. 10 for touchdowns.

Jersey Number

17

Years With Steelers

2009-2012

Accolades With Steelers

  • 1x Pro Bowl

Stats With Steelers

  • Rec: 235
  • Yds: 4,042
  • TDs: 32

8. Santonio Holmes

Santonio Holmes was the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII where he made an impossible game-winning catch to secure a Steelers victory. For that he will have a place in the hearts of Steeler Nation for for all of eternity. Unfortunately, his body of work with the Steelers isn’t quite what it could have been. He had three solid seasons from 2006-2008, then a breakout year in 2009 where he took over as the Steelers' number one receiver.

Then things went badly. After a string of off-the-field incidents and recurring legal issues, he was traded to the New York Jets in 2010 for a fifth-round draft pick. This move confused and frustrated many Steelers fans who could clearly see the on-field value he brought to the team, especially paired with receiver Hines Ward.

Holmes never quite flourished with the Jets, but the trade resulted in another epic moment in Steelers’ history: When the Steelers traded the fifth-round pick they received from the Jets to Arizona for second- and sixth-round picks, with that sixth-round pick they drafted Antonio Brown.

Jersey Number

10

Years With Steelers

2006-2009

Accolades With Steelers

1x Super Bowl Champion

1x Super Bowl MVP

Stats With Steelers

  • Rec: 235
  • Yds: 3,835
  • TDs: 20

Santonio Holmes was the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII
Santonio Holmes was the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII | Source

7. Yancey Thigpen

The Steelers went through a kind of renaissance in the mid 1990s, largely due to the hiring of head coach Bill Cowher. Cowher replaced Chuck Noll, an NFL legend who had brought four Super Bowl championships to Pittsburgh. In time, Cowher would become a Steelers legend as well, but he’d do it a little differently.

While the Steelers largely remained a running team, under Cowher they opened up the offense a little as well. Four- and five-wide receiver sets were not uncommon, and this new group of pass catchers was led by Yancey Thigpen.

Thigpen hauled in 222 passes during his time with the team and made two Pro Bowls. This included a then-record 85-catch season in 1995, a year that saw the Steelers return to the Super Bowl. Thigpen, along with fellow receivers Andre Hastings, Ernie Mills, Charles Johnson, and Kordell “Slash” Stewart, were a big key to the Steelers' success.

Jersey Number

82

Years With Steelers

1992-1997

Accolades With Steelers

  • 2x Pro Bowl

Stats With Steelers

  • Rec: 222
  • Yds: 3,651
  • TDs: 30

6. Buddy Dial

The Steelers teams of the pre-Super-Bowl era never won any championships and rarely posted a winning record. But there were occasional bright spots. Coach Buddy Parker brought hope to Pittsburgh in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, as did Hall-of-Fame quarterback Bobby Layne. From 1959 to 1963, Layne and receiver Buddy Dial were one of the most dangerous combinations in the NFL.

Dial hauled in 219 passes in his time with the Steelers and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on two separate occasions. While these numbers might not seem impressive by today’s standards, remember, it was a very different league back then. It’s tough to compare players separated by decades, but I felt Dial deserved the sixth spot over some modern receivers due to his importance to the team.

Dial led the Steelers in receiving from 1960 to 1963. He is the eighth leading receiving in Steelers’ history for yardage and sixth for touchdown catches. He averaged an amazing 21.6 yards-per-catch during his time in Pittsburgh.

Jersey Number

84

Years With Steelers

1959-1963

Accolades With Steelers

  • 2x Pro Bowl

Stats With Steelers

  • Rec: 219
  • Yds: 4,723
  • TDs: 42

5. Louis Lipps

If you aren’t versed in Steelers history, you may have never heard of Louis Lipps, and understandably so. He came into the league in 1984, at a time when the Super Bowl heroes of the ‘70s were riding off into the Pittsburgh sunset and Steelers’ management was desperately trying to fill the giant cleats they left behind. At wide receiver, that meant not only finding a replacement for Lynn Swann but also his longtime backup, Jim Smith, who had departed to play in the USFL following the 1982 season.

The ‘80s saw a revolving cast of receivers and quarterbacks in Pittsburgh, but Lipps was a constant. He made two Pro Bowls during his first two years in the league, then settled in as a kind of B-level NFL superstar. Nevertheless, he was a dependable target for a string of quarterbacks who desperately needed one. He is currently Pittsburgh’s fifth all-time leading receiver in catches and yards and seventh in touchdowns.

Jersey Number

83

Years With Steelers

1984-1991

Accolades With Steelers

  • 2x Pro Bowl

Stats With Steelers

  • Rec: 358
  • Yds: 6,018
  • TDs: 39

4. Lynn Swann

The Steelers of the 1970s were known as a powerful running team. It would make sense for their opponents to over-commit to stopping the run, but there was one big reason they couldn’t: Quarterback Terry Bradshaw had one heck of an arm and might rear back and let the football fly at any moment. While his completion percentage wasn’t outstanding, it only took one successful strike to change the outcome of a game.

On the receiving end of Bradshaw's bombs you would often find Lynn Swann. With his uncanny ability to pull down seemingly impossible catches, Swann was a big part of the Steelers’ four Super Wins of the 1970s.

Lynn Swann is remembered today as one of the greatest Steelers of all time. He was named MVP of Super Bowl X due to his 161 yards and a touchdown on four catches.

Jersey Number

88

Years With Steelers

1974-1982

Accolades With Steelers

  • 3x Pro Bowl
  • 1x All-Pro
  • 4x Super Bowl Champion
  • 1x Super Bowl MVP
  • NFL Hall of Fame, class of 2001

Career Stats

  • Rec: 336
  • Yds: 5,462
  • TDs: 51

3. John Stallworth

The other Steelers receiver that had NFL defensive backs quaking in their cleats back in the '70s was John Stallworth, Swann’s counterpart on the other side of the field. Where Swann always seemed to have a flair for the dramatic catch, Stallworth was more low-key. Still, with a knack for getting behind defenders, finding the ball in traffic, and pulling in passes he probably had no right to, Stallworth made just as many incredible catches.

It is tough to choose between Stallworth and Swann when ranking the best Steelers wide receivers of all time. Both came to Pittsburgh in the same draft class (1974), and they played equal roles in the success of the Super Bowl years. I ultimately chose to rank Stallworth a notch higher because he played longer and left the Steelers as their all-time leading receiver in 1987.

Jersey Number

82

Years With Steelers

1974-1987

Accolades With Steelers

  • 3x Pro Bowl
  • 1x All-Pro
  • 4x Super Bowl Champion
  • NFL Hall of Fame, class of 2002

Career Stats

  • Rec: 537
  • Yds: 8,723
  • TDs: 63

2. Antonio Brown

There was no receiver in the NFL more dangerous than Antonio Brown during his time with the Steelers. In fact, there have been few receivers in history with his talent, tenacity, and ability to create big plays.

Had Brown remained a Steeler, there is no doubt he would have shattered every team-receiving record by a wide margin. Had his career remained intact, he would have challenged many of the biggest all-time NFL receiving records.

As it currently stands, Brown departed the NFL in 2019 having spent nearly all of his time as a Steeler. In his nine years with the team, he made seven Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams, hauled in over 100 passes for six straight seasons, and recorded two of the top-10 receiving yards season totals in NFL history.

Jersey Number

84

Years With Steelers

2010-2018

Accolades With Steelers

  • 7x Pro Bowl
  • 4x All-Pro

Stats With Steelers

  • Rec: 837
  • Yds: 11,207
  • TDs: 74

Antonio Brown may have broken every NFL career receiving record had he remained in the league.
Antonio Brown may have broken every NFL career receiving record had he remained in the league. | Source

1. Hines Ward

Hines Ward gets the top spot on my list of the best Steelers wide receiver of all time. He has the most receptions, yards, and touchdown catches in franchise history, but big stats alone weren’t enough to propel him past Brown, Stallworth, and Swann. So what sets him apart from the others?

Ward was as tough as Pittsburgh-forged metal. Remember, this is a list of the top Steelers wide receivers, and no other player on this list better reflects the spirit of the Steel City. With his bone-crushing run blocking and team-first attitude, Ward fit perfectly into an intimidating offense known for running the ball with authority.

Ward played quarterback, receiver, and tailback in college, and at times his bag of tricks seemed bottomless. He could throw the ball when called upon, and he was a nightmare to bring down once he got the ball in his hands. He helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls and three AFC Championships, and it is only a matter of time until he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Jersey Number

86

Years With Steelers

1998-2011

Accolades With Steelers

  • 4x Pro Bowl
  • 2x Super Bowl Champion
  • 1x Super Bowl MVP

Career Stats

  • Rec: 1,000*
  • Yds: 12,083*
  • TDs: 85*

* Team records

Steelers Top 10 All-Time Receiving Leaders

Player
Position
Years
Receptions
Yards
Touchdowns
Hines Ward
WR
1998-2011
1,000
12,083
85
Antonio Brown
WR
2010-2018
837
11,207
74
Health Miller
TE
2005-2015
592
6,569
45
John Stallworth
WR
1974-1987
537
8,723
63
Louis Lipps
WR
1984-1991
358
6,018
39
Lynn Swann
WR
1974-1982
336
5,462
51
Elbie Nickel
TE
1947-1957
329
5,131
37
Le'Veon Bell
RB
2013-2017
312
2,660
7
Franco Harris
RB
1972-1983
306
2,284
9
Plaxico Burress
WR
2000-2004, 2012
264
4,206
23

Who Is the Best Steelers Wide Receiver of All Time?

Hines Ward is the greatest Steelers wide receiver in the history of the franchise. He holds the team records for receptions, yardage, and touchdowns. During his 14 seasons in Pittsburgh, he helped win two Super Bowls and three AFC Championships. His hard-hitting style and tenacious run blocking made him an asset in the running game, and his ability to run with the ball meant he could score on any play. He wore the black and gold throughout his entire career, and today he is among the most revered Steelers of all time.

Hines Ward is the Greatest Steelers Receiver of All Time
Hines Ward is the Greatest Steelers Receiver of All Time | Source

Honorable Mentions

Plaxico Burress

Plaxico Burress came to the Steelers at right time. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t stick around. By the time the Steelers made their first of the new-era Super Bowl runs in 2005, Burress had decided he was unhappy in Pittsburgh. The Steelers shipped him off to the New York Giants for the 2005 season. After a few good years in New York, he spent time in prison for a firearms violation. He returned to the Steelers for the 2010 season, a shadow of his former self. Burress caught 264 passes for 4,206 yards and 23 touchdowns in his six total seasons with the Steelers.

Jim Smith

Smith was a solid receiver who made significant contributions to the Steelers’ Super Bowl wins of the late 1970s. He might have been more of a standout had he not been parked behind Lynn Swann on the depth chart for most of his career. Smith hauled in 110 passes for 2,075 yards and 24 touchdowns in 6 seasons with the Steelers.

Antwaan Randle El

Randle El played a big part in the Steelers’ 2005 Super Bowl season and even threw a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl. He was a former college quarterback and, along with Hines Ward, he presented the opportunity for an endless array of gadget plays. Randle El left the Steelers after the 2005 season. After a stint with the Redskins, he returned to the Pittsburgh in 2010 and contributed to the another Super Bowl. In five total seasons with the Steelers, Antwaan Randle El caught 184 passes for 2,265 yards and 7 touchdowns. He also rushed for 318 yards and completed 16 of 18 passes for 170 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Pittsburgh Steelers Receiving Records

Most Career Receptions:

1,000 - Hines Ward, 1998-2000

Most Career Receiving Yards:

12,083 – Hines Ward, 1998-2000

Most Career Touchdowns:

85 – Hines Ward, 1998-2000

Most Receptions in a Season:

136 – Antonio Brown, 2015

Most Receiving Yards in a Season:

1,834 – Antonio Brown, 2015

Most Touchdowns in a Season:

15 – Antonio Brown, 2018

Most Receptions in a Game:

17 – Antonio Brown, 2015 vs. Oakland Raiders

Most Receiving Yards in a Game:

284 – Antonio Brown, 2015 vs. Oakland Raiders

Most Receiving Touchdowns in a Game:

4 – Roy Jefferson, 1968 vs. Atlanta Falcons

Longest Touchdown Reception:

97 - JuJu Smith-Schuster, 2017 vs. Detroit Lions; 2018 vs. Denver Broncos

Steelers' Best Single-Season Receiving Performances

Player
Season
Receptions
Yards
Touchdowns
Antonio Brown
2015
136
1,834
10
Antonio Brown
2014
129
1,698
13
Hines Ward
2002
112
1,329
12
JuJu Smith-Schuster
2018
111
1,426
7
Antonio Brown
2013
110
1,499
8

Mark Malone's 90-Yard Touchdown Reception

Here is a little trivia from deep Steelers lore: In 1981, a Steeler set the record for the longest touchdown reception in team history. Who made the catch? Probably Lynn Swann, right? Maybe John Stallworth?

No and no. In a 1981 game against the Seattle Seahawks, backup quarterback Mark Malone stepped in at wide receiver due to injuries to the Steelers' receiving corps. With the Steelers winning 7-3 in the second quarter, quarterback Terry Bradshaw hit an uncovered Malone for a 90-yard scoring strike.

Malone was a great athlete, and he himself started at quarterback for the Steelers for several seasons in the mid-1980s. But this was the only pass he ever caught in the NFL, and he sure made it count.

Dwight Stone and Bobby Shaw both tied Malone's 90-yard touchdown reception record, but no Steeler surpassed it until Martavis Bryant's 94-yard reception in 2014.

The Golden Era of the Wide Receiver

To say the NFL of today is more passing-oriented than ever before is a massive understatement. Back in the days of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, quarterback Terry Bradshaw only threw for over 3,000 yards in a season twice (1979 and 1980). In those seasons, he attempted 472 and 424 passes, respectively. He has a career completion percentage of 51.9. Bradshaw, as you likely know, is a Hall-of-Fame quarterback.

By comparison, Ben Roethlisberger has a career completion percentage of 64.3. Not including 2019 when he was injured, he has only played two seasons where he has not thrown for 3,000 yards (his first two years in the league). Roethlisberger has played seven seasons where he attempted 500 or more passes, and two where he attempted over 600.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Roethlisberger is better than Bradshaw, or that he had better receivers. It means the NFL has evolved drastically over the years, and that’s what makes it so hard to compare receivers of different eras.

Maybe you are old enough to remember when Art Monk set the record for most receptions in a season with 106 catches in 1984. It seemed an incredible total at the time, but today, over 60 players have matched or surpassed that number, including some tight ends and running backs. In fact, in 2018 alone, eight players caught 106 passes or more.

We are in the midst of the Golden Era of the Wide Receiver. The question is whether or not football is better for it.

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