Updated date:

Top 10 Pass Receivers in NFL History

Eric is a lifelong fan of NFL football who has followed the game for over 40 years.

Larry Fitzgerald is one of the top receivers in NFL history.

Larry Fitzgerald is one of the top receivers in NFL history.

For many people, the passing game is the most exciting aspect of the NFL. If that’s you, there has never been a better time to be a football fan. Today’s NFL is a pass-happy league, and each year quarterbacks and receivers put up routine numbers that were once thought astounding.

If you are old enough, you might remember when Jerry Rice became the first-ever NFL receiver to haul in 1,000 passes in a career. As with most of his records, it was a stunning achievement. That was 1996, and pro football had existed for more than 75 years.

Today, only 25 years later, 14 players have caught over 1,000 passes in their careers. Teams move the ball through the air more than ever, and great receivers make the difference between wins and losses.

In this article, we will look at 10 of the best receivers in pro football history. These men have caught more passes than any other players to lace up their cleats in the NFL.

NFL All-Time Reception Leaders

PlayerPositionReceptions

Jerry Rice

Wide Receiver

1,549

Larry Fitzgerald

Wide Receiver

1,432

Tony Gonzalez

Tight End

1,325

Jason Witten

Tight End

1,228

Marvin Harrison

Wide Receiver

1,102

Cris Carter

Wide Receiver

1,101

Tim Brown

Wide Receiver

1.094

Terrell Owens

Wide Receiver

1,078

Anquan Boldin

Wide Receiver

1,076

Reggie Wayne

Wide Receiver

1,070

10. Reggie Wayne

Wayne played for the Indianapolis Colts alongside Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and Hall-of-Fame receiver Marvin Harrison. The trio made up the most dangerous passing attack of the era, and Manning connected with Wayne for 76 touchdowns in their careers.

The Colts made it to the Super Bowl after the 2006 season, defeating the Chicago Bears 29-17. Wayne finished his career with 1,070 receptions, and today awaits his inevitable induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

  • Years Active: 2001-2014
  • Team: Indianapolis Colts
  • Position: Wide Receiver
  • Receptions: 1,070
  • Yards: 14,345
  • Touchdowns: 82
  • Accolades: 6x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, 1x Super Bowl Champion

9. Anquan Boldin

He wasn’t especially fast, but Boldin was one of the toughest receivers of his generation. He proved his mettle in 2008 when a brutal hit left him with a concussion and facial injuries. Boldin returned to the field after missing only two games and hauled in nine passes for 63 yards and two touchdowns.

Boldin made it to the Super Bowl with the Cardinals following that 2008 season. The Cardinals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in one of the most exciting Super Bowls of all time. He returned to the Big Game with the Ravens in 2013, and this time came away with a ring.

He played went on to play for San Francisco and Detroit before retiring in 2016 with 1,076 career receptions.

  • Years Active: 2003-2016
  • Teams: Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions
  • Position: Wide Receiver
  • Receptions: 1,076
  • Yards: 13,779
  • Touchdowns: 82
  • Accolades: 3x Pro Bowl, 2003 Offensive Rookie of the Year, 1x Super Bowl Champion

8. Terrell Owens

Owens was one of the most controversial athletes ever to play pro football. The drama that surrounded him often obscured the fact that he was also one of the most dominant receivers ever to play the game. He began his career in San Francisco, playing alongside the legendary Jerry Rice. From there, he spent time in Philadelphia, Dallas, Buffalo, and Cincinnati.

Even as the League recognized him by voting him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018, Owens remained in character. He refused to show up for the enshrinement ceremony and instead held his own.

Despite his antics, it is tough to argue with the numbers. Owns caught 1,078 passes in his career for an astonishing 153 touchdowns.

  • Years Active: 1996-2010
  • Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals
  • Position: Wide Receiver
  • Receptions: 1,078
  • Yards: 15,934
  • Touchdowns: 153
  • Accolades: 6x Pro Bowl, 5x All-Pro, Hall of Fame Class of 2018

7. Tim Brown

At Notre Dame, Brown was an explosive player who excelled as a wide receiver, return man, and tailback. He came to the Raiders as a sixth-round draft pick with a Heisman Trophy on his shelf. Much was expected of him, and over 16 years he proved his worth and more.

Brown’s pro career started slowly. Within five years, he was a game-changer at receiver and punt returner. Over time, he developed into a wily veteran, one of the most reliable receivers in the game, and the backbone of his team.

After a long and prolific career with the Raiders, Brown ended his career with Tampa Bay in 2004. He hauled in a total of 1,094 passes.

  • Years Active: 1988-2004
  • Teams: LA Raiders, Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Position: Wide Receiver
  • Receptions: 1,094
  • Yards: 14,934
  • Touchdowns: 100
  • Accolades: 9x Pro Bowl, Hall of Fame Class of 2015
Cris Carter's gear in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Cris Carter's gear in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

6. Cris Carter

Carter started his career in Philadelphia, but the team cut him in 1990. The reason given by Eagles' coach Buddy Ryan was the now iconic phrase: All he does is catch touchdowns. Ryan was alluding to Carter’s perceived inability to perform as a team player. In reality, off-field issues were the real threat to Carter’s career.

Carter landed in Minnesota, where he not only straightened out his off-field problems but turned himself into one of the best receivers in NFL history. Maybe, more importantly, he became a mentor and role model for younger teammates. He worked with a young Randy Moss, and for a time they were the most dangerous receiving duo in the NFL.

All he does is catch touchdowns became an accurate description of Carter’s game, and a bit of a joke, as he hauled in 130 in his Hall-of-Fame career.

Carter ended his time in the NFL with 1,101 receptions.

  • Years Active: 1987-2002
  • Teams: Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins
  • Position: Wide Receiver
  • Receptions: 1,101
  • Yards: 13,899
  • Touchdowns: 130
  • Accolades: 8x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, Hall of Fame Class or 2015

5. Marvin Harrison

When Peyton Manning was a rookie in 1998, Marvin Harrison was already in his third year in the league. As great as Manning became, it was no doubt helpful to have a future Hall of Fame receiver already on the roster.

Harrison wasn’t especially big, but he was lightning quick and nearly impossible to cover less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage. After lulling the defense with eight and ten-yard passes, Harrison and Manning would go deep for a scoring strike.

The Manning-Harrison combination was terrifying for the teams and fans of the teams they faced. In 2002, Harrison set the single-season record for most receptions in a season with 143, a number later surpassed in 2019 by Michael Thomas.

Harrison hung up with cleats with 1,102 receptions to his name.

  • Years Active: 1996-2008
  • Teams: Indianapolis Colts
  • Position: Wide Receiver
  • Receptions: 1,102
  • Yards: 14,580
  • Touchdowns: 128
  • Accolades: 8x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro, 1x Super Bowl Champion, Hall of Fame Class of 2016
Marvin Harrison caught over 1,100 passes in his Hall-of-Fame career.

Marvin Harrison caught over 1,100 passes in his Hall-of-Fame career.

4. Jason Witten

Witten is the first tight end on this list so far. He spent most of his career with the Dallas Cowboys and retired in 2018. After spending a year as a broadcaster, he made a comeback and spent one more year as a Cowboy and one as a Raider.

Witten was a solid short-yardage target and had a sneaky ability to get open downfield. He was a reliable receiver throughout his career, most notably for Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo from 2004 to 2015.

Witten caught 1,228 passes, which gives him the second-most receptions among tight ends in NFL history.

  • Years Active: 2003-2020
  • Teams: Dallas Cowboys, Las Vegas Raiders
  • Position: Tight End
  • Receptions: 1,228
  • Yards: 13,046
  • Touchdowns: 74
  • Accolades: 11x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro

3. Tony Gonzalez

Gonzalez has caught more passes than any other tight end in the history of the NFL. He was big and fast with the ability to stretch the field. For 12 seasons in Kansas City, he terrorized defensive backs who lacked the size to out-muscle him, and linebackers who lacked the speed to keep up with him.

He signed with the Falcons in 2009 at 33 and didn’t miss a step. Over five years in Atlanta, he hauled in 409 more passes.

Gonzalez caught a total of 1,325 passes during his 17-year career. He made an amazing 14 Pro Bowls, and he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 2019.

  • Years Active: 1997-2013
  • Teams: Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons
  • Position: Tight End
  • Receptions: 1,325
  • Yards: 15,127
  • Touchdowns: 111
  • Accolades: 14x Pro Bowl, 6x All-Pro, Hall of Fame Class of 2019
Two of the top 10 receivers in NFL history caught the majority of their passes from Peyton Manning.

Two of the top 10 receivers in NFL history caught the majority of their passes from Peyton Manning.

2. Larry Fitzgerald

Larry Fitzgerald is the only active player on this list. He has spent the entirety of his 17-year NFL career with Arizona Cardinals. Fitzgerald and Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl following the 2008 season, where they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Fitzgerald nearly stole the show in that game when he hauled in a 64-year touchdown pass with 2:37 on the clock. It would have been the game-winning score, if not for an improbable last-minute drive led by Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Fitzgerald's 1,432 career catches make him the only player within shouting distance of Jerry Rice’s all-time receptions record. He would need several more seasons to catch Rice, as his role in the Cardinals offense has been reduced over the years. At 37, it will be tough. Stay tuned.

  • Years Active: 2004-Present
  • Team: Arizona Cardinals
  • Position: Wide Receiver
  • Receptions: 1,432
  • Yards: 17,492
  • Touchdowns: 121
  • Accolades: 11x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro

1. Jerry Rice

It is hard to explain to those who never watched the 49ers during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s just how dominant Jerry Rice was. He was Michael Jordan in cleats, and he was unstoppable.

Like Jordan, Rice didn’t get it done with extreme physical abilities alone. He was a tremendous athlete for sure, the NFL is packed with great athletes. Rice was great because of his ceaseless pursuit of perfection, and his otherwordly work ethic.

It helped that some of the greatest teams of all time surrounded him, and he caught passes from Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. And, it helped that he played most of his career in an offense that relied not on the vertical passing game, but on schemes designed to shake receivers open at all levels. He was fearless, ran meticulous routes, and was the perfect receiver for Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense.

Rice ended his career with the Raiders and the Seahawks. By the time he was done he held the record for the most receptions in NFL history with 1,549, as well as most other significant NFL receiving records.

  • Years Active: 1985-2004
  • Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Las Angeles Raiders, Seattle Seahawks
  • Position: Wide Receiver
  • Receptions: 1,549
  • Yards: 22,895
  • Touchdowns: 197
  • Accolades: 13x Pro Bowl, 10x All-Pro, 3x Super Bowl Champion, 1987 and 1993 Offensive Player of the Year, 1987 Bert Bell Award, Hall of Fame Class of 2010
Jerry Rice's jersey in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Jerry Rice's jersey in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Evolution of the Passing Game

Jerry Rice’s career record of 1,549 receptions seems insurmountable. Larry Fitzgerald is 37 and 117 catches away. He'd have to stick it out a few more seasons to catch up. Rice himself played until he was 42.

Still, the NFL has changed a lot since the days when Rice ruled the league. He caught 100 passes or more only 4 times in his 21-year carrier. These days, 100-reception seasons aren’t unusual.

So, is there anyone on the radar who has a chance at challenging Rice’s records?

Antonio Brown has 886 career receptions as of this writing, and had his career not gone off track, he may have been a legitimate contender.

DeAndre Hopkins is a possibility. He is a bit less than halfway there, but at only 28 years old, he appears to be entering the prime of his career.

Christian McCaffrey may be a dark horse in the race if he can stay healthy. He lost a year due to injury but averaged over 100 receptions per season his first three years in the league.

As the passing game becomes a bigger part of NFL playbooks, it seems like it is only a matter of time until a receiver emerges to topple Rice’s records. Maybe it will be someone in the NFL today, or maybe these records will stand for another twenty years.

Statistical Reference:

Related Articles