Best of the Best: Receivers Predominant from Preps to Pro Football HOF

Tyreek Hill aims at 2,000 yards receiving
Tyreek Hill aims at 2,000 yards receiving

'Tis the season when giving is celebrated more than receiving. That’s the rule for Christmas season, anyway. In the Football Season, receiving is king, from preps to pros and into the Hall of Fame.

It was inevitable, of course, given the evolution of the game’s liberalized rules, pass-happy offenses and 17-game NFL seasons.  

This year it reached a new high, with receivers ranked at the very top for the Class of 2024 among high school recruits, college football draft prospects, active NFL players and even the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where receivers were by far the most prevelant position with six among the finalists -- including a tight end and one who was primarily a returner.

The range of receivers grabbing headlines goes from an 18-year-old Florida high school sensation with a bright career ahead of him to a spectacular star from the 1960s who passed away in 2015 at the age of 78 and now is getting his overdue recognition posthumously.

This focus on wide receivers is so pronounced that we just had to chat with Matt Millen, who, as president, CEO of the Detroit Lions, notoriously selected a wide receiver with the team’s first-round draft pick an astounding four times in five years from 2003–2007: Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, Mike Williams, Calvin Johnson.

“Ha, of course,” Millen said as he laughed out loud when we called to detail the current popularity of wide receivers atop ratings. “Wide receivers, of course. You could see it coming with the rules changes. Maybe I was a little ahead of the curve, eh?”

Millen remains an historically underappreciated NFL linebacker and an insightful, underutilized television broadcaster. He won four Super Bowl rings with three teams (Oakland/L.A. Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins) and was an Emmy-nominated game analyst for NFL on Fox, No. 2 behind only John Madden. Then he took the Lions job. It was the challenge, you see. And then he drafted all those receivers.

To be fair, Calvin Johnson -- aka Megatron -- is one of the best ever and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Good job, Matt.

Always ready with good humor and great perspective, Millen quickly focused on the subject.

“With the liberalized rules and passing offenses, now wide receivers are right up there near quarterbacks in importance,” Millen said. “Then come offensive tackles, cornerbacks and pass rushers, all because of the emphasis on passing. Those are the key positions in today’s game. Middle linebackers like me are, well, obsolete. Defenses want that pass rusher, not an old run stopper.”

In recent weeks, after the obligatory nod to quarterbacks, receivers pretty much saturated the news when discussing the best of the best at every level of football. This was very obvious in our Hall of Football ratings with NFLDraftScout.com, where the hot soundbite is that we cover “the Best of the Best from the Cradle to Canton — all of football in the Hall of Football.” Yeah, that's a mouthful . We'll whittle it down as we get the point across. 

Meantime, let’s, ah, catch a look at these hot-topic receivers, starting with the preps:

High School Recruits (Class of 2024)

When college football’s early signing period commenced Wednesday (Dec. 20), the chaotic scene started at the top with extraordinarily talented No. 1-rated Jeremiah Smith of Chaminade-Madonna Prep in Hollywood Fla. Even after declaring for Ohio State in a press conference, he continued to fend off last-ditch, overtime efforts by Miami, his neighborhood college.

Smith is atop the Hall of Football ratings for the Class of 2024 at NFLDraftScout.com, a list that includes nine wide receivers among the best 32 and about 20 within the top 100. Hall of Football, and most other recruit rankers, have about 62 receivers in the top 380. That’s not counting another group of talented receiving tight ends, of whom eight are listed in the top 100 and 21 among the best 356.

Hall of Footballl Ratings: Prep WRs in Top  ~100 - Class of 2024

Rnk Player Pos. Ht Wt Pos. Rnk School Town Committed
1
Jeremiah Smith WR 6-3 200 1 Chaminade-Madonna Prep Hollywood, FL Ohio State
6
Micah Hudson WR 5-11.5 195 2 Lake Belton Temple, TX Texas Tech
8
Ryan Williams WR 6-1 175 3 Saraland High School Saraland, AL Alabama
13
Mike Matthews WR 6-0.5 180 4 Parkview Lilburn, GA Tennessee
19
Mylan Graham WR 6-0.5 185 5 New Haven New Haven, IN Ohio State
20
Ryan Wingo WR 6-1.5 210 6 St. Louis University St. Louis, MO Texas
22
Bryant Wesco WR 6-2 170 7 Midlothian Midlothian, TX Clemson
29
Joshisa Trader WR 6-0.5 175 8 Chaminade-Madonna Prep Miami, FL Miami
32
Cam Williams WR 6-2.5 196 9 Glenbard South Glen Ellyn, IL Notre Dame
37
Perry Thompson WR 6-3 205 10 Foley Foley, AL Auburn
40
Gatlin Bair WR 6-2 180 11 Burley Senior Burley, ID Boise State
41
Ny Carr WR 5-10.5 170 12 Colquitt County Moultrie, GA Miami
63
Drelon Miller WR 6-0 190 13 Silsbee Silsbee, TX nan
67
Xavier Jordan WR 6-0.5 160 14 Sierra Canyon Los Angeles, CA USC
69
Jeremiah McClellan WR 5-11 190 15 Christian Brothers College Saint Louis, MO Oregon
82
TJ Moore WR 6-2 180 16 Tampa Catholic Tampa, FL Clemson
85
NiTareon Tuggle WR 6-3 185 17 Northwood South Bend, IN Georgia
91
Zion Kearney WR 6-2 195 18 Hightower Missouri City, TX Oklahoma
94
Ryan Pellum WR 5-11 170 19 Millikan Long Beach, CA Oregon
102
Nick Marsh WR 6-3 200 20 River Rouge River Rouge, MI Michigan State

College: 2024 NFL Draft Prospects

Despite the annual focus on quarterbacks, the top-rated player on most lists for the NFL’s 2024 draft is Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., whose talents seem even more advanced at this level than were those of his father, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In October, NFLDraftScout.com moved Harrison above quarterback Caleb Williams, the USC 2022 Heisman winner, and Drake Maye, the strong-armed passer from of North Carolina. Harrison was the single most consistently spectacular player over the last two college seasons and, therefore, was also our pick for the Heisman (he finished third).

Harrison is reminiscent of Julio Jones when he came out of Alabama in 2011 and was drafted No. 6 by Atlanta. Harrison became the first Buckeyes receiver to register consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons (1,263 in 2022 and 1,211 in 2023) and caught one touchdown pass in eight straight games.

Some believe Harrison is the best wide receiver prospect ever to come out of college. Harrison responds with an astounding observation — that his 14-year old brother, Jett, is "definitely more talented and more advanced than I was at that age. It's going to be very scary to see how he progresses."

Scary indeed. So we'll make a note for the high school recruiting class of 2028 and recognize this is getting a little ahead of things, even for us.  

Despite lofty ratings for Harrison Jr., don’t be shocked if a quarterback is taken No. 1, as was the case in 17 of the last 23 drafts. Seems to be a reflex response after the commissioner says, "With the first pick of the. . . "

For the 2024 draft, ratings by Hall of Football on NFLDraftScout.com show three wide receivers in the top ten, eight with first-round potential, about 18 in the top 100 and at least 47 who are draftable.

Hall of Football / NFLDraftScout.com: WRs in Top ~100 for 2024 Draft

Rnk Player School Pos. Pos. Rnk Ht Wt Class 40 Proj. Rnd
1
Marvin Harrison Jr. Ohio State WR 1 6032 205 Jr 4.46 1
8
Malik Nabers LSU WR 2 5116 200 Jr 4.46 1
9
Keon Coleman Florida State WR 3 6025 215 Jr 4.5 1
16
Rome Odunze Washington WR 4 6026 215 rJr 4.46 1
23
Emeka Egbuka Ohio State WR 5 6006 206 Jr 4.42 1
25
Brian Thomas Jr. LSU WR 6 6036 205 Jr 4.48 1
27
Troy Franklin Oregon WR 7 6015 187 Jr 4.37 1
33
Johnny Wilson Florida State WR 8 6061 237 rJr 4.56 1-2
44
JaLynn Polk Washington WR 9 6016 204 rSo 4.53 2
48
Malachi Corley Western Kentucky WR 10 5106 210 rJr 4.5 2
51
Adonai Mitchell Texas WR 11 6035 196 Jr 4.52 2
55
Ladd McConkey Georgia WR 12 5112 185 rJr 4.5 2
60
Ricky Pearsall Florida WR 13 6005 190 rSr 4.47 2
65
Xavier Worthy Texas WR 14 6006 172 Jr 4.29 2
66
Devontez Walker North Carolina WR 15 6022 200 rJr 4.46 2
81
Brenden Rice Southern California WR 16 6026 210 Sr 4.5 2-3
97
Xavier Legette South Carolina WR 17 6006 227 rSr 4.52 3
107
Mario Williams Southern California WR 18 5090 175 Jr 4.37 3-4

 2024 Active NFL Players

Let’s start with Miami’s Cheetah, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, our No. 1 ranked NFL player in the Hall of Football active player ratings much of the year. There were a lot of names in the Most Valuable Player pool. Although that is usually a quarterback's honor, we liked Hill as much as any of the others until he hurt his ankle.  

Hill’s pursuit of a single-season record for receiving yards with a stated target of at least 2,000 is unprecedented. 

After 15 games this season, Hill played 14 and was limited by a bad ankle the last two weeks. Going into Sunday's (Dec. 31) game against Baltimore, Hill leads the NFL with 1,641 receiving yards, which is more than 200 yards ahead of the nearest competitor (Cowboys’ Ceedee Lamb, who has 1,425 yards). This puts Hill is now on pace for 1,876 yards based on his average of 117 yards in the 14 games he played. He needs 359 yards to reach 2,000 --  179.5 yards per game. But unless he gains the whol 359 yards against Baltimore, the season record deserves an asterisk because of the 17-game season. 

Calvin Johnson -- Millen's best draft pick --holds the current NFL record for receiving yards in a season, with 1,964 over 16 games in 2012 --  an average of 122.8 yards per game.

IS IMPACT OF NEW RECEIVING RECORDS DILUTED?

Of the 10 NFL season records most likely to be broken, nine are directly tied to increased passing (and receiving) and five are by pass catchers, including a couple by Los Angeles Rams rookie Puka Nacua -- Most receptions by a rookie and most receiving yards by a rookie.

Nacua has 1,327 receiving yards through 15 games. He is now within reach of the NFL rookie record of 1,473 yards set by Houston Oilers WR Bill Groman in 1960. In the Super Bowl era, Cincinnati Bengals wideout Ja’Marr Chase has the record with 1,455 yards.

Against the New Orleans Saints last week, Nacua caught a career high (yep, his one-year career) 164 yards on nine receptions including a touchdown.

With his 1,327 receiving yards, Nacua passed Odell Beckham and Randy Moss for the fifth-most receiving yards ever by a rookie and he did it in fewer games than Moss. Moss had some insane numbers that Puka can’t touch—19 yards per catch and 17 touchdowns—but Nacua is better at his own specialty. His 97 receptions are 28 more than Moss.

With another 50 yards, Nacua will tie Anquan Boldin for the fourth-most receiving yards by a rookie. He needs 74 yards to pass Justin Jefferson (1,400) for third place. He needs 124 yards to pass Ja’Marr Chase, who did it in 17 games. And Nacua needs 146 yards to pass Bill Groman for the rookie receiving yardage record. To Groman’s credit, he did it in only 14 games. Maybe Puka can still be the first rookie receiver to cross 1,500 yards, if not go much further.

The Rams finish the 2023 regular season with two road trips, against the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers.

So the reaction of Good Morning Football analyst Pete Schrager was to propose the interogative/statement -- Is Nacua the best rookie wide receiver in pro football history?

Well, Peter, he MAY be the best rookie receiver to play under current conditions, which must be a major consideration when uttering such statements or questions. There are numerous rules changes that began in 1978 -- only one chuck/contact by a defender on a receiver within first five yards, then hands off -- and cascaded into a torrent of defensive limitations (can't touch the helmet, can't hit too low, on and on). And there 17 games, up from 12, 14 and 16 in the past. 

"Not the same game," said 1970s Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Joe Greene.

"I'd be broke from the fines," said Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott. "Cannot play the way we did back in the day. It's all about offense, all about passing and catching. Harder than ever to play defense within the rules. Receivers  are playing a different game these days."

Here is another receiving record on the brink:

—Most receiving yards by a rookie tight end. Detroit’s Sam LaPorta has a tougher climb than Nacua, but has 776 yards receiving and the second-round draftee is closing in on Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who collected 1,076 yards in 1961, a season with only 14 games. It was the only time in Ditka’s 12-year playing career that he managed at least 1,000 yards. 

—Most receptions by a rookie tight end. LaPorta should get this one. He has 74 catches, so 8 more will overtake Keith Jackson’s record for most receptions by a rookie tight end. Jackson did it in 16 games during 1988 season.

 Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2024

There were seven -- EIGHT -- receivers among the 25 semifinalsts senior finalists for the 2024 Pro Football Hall of Fame class. When the finalists were announced six receivers were among the Modern Era Finalists, and senior Art Powell: here are the finalist receivers, including a tight end and one who primarily starred as a returner, shown here aphabetically by last name 

Antonio Gates (TE): First year eligible; 2003–2018 San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers.

—Devin Hester (PR/KR/WR): 2006–2013; Chicago Bears, 2014–15 Atlanta Falcons, 2016 Baltimore Ravens (times as a Semifinalist: 3 – 2022–24). Finalist twice.

—Torry Holt (WR):1999–2008; St. Louis Rams, 2009, Jacksonville Jaguars (times as a semifinalist: 10 – 2015-2024). Finalist 4 times.

—Andre Johnson (WR): 2003–2014 Houston Texans, 2015 Indianapolis Colts, 2016 Tennessee Titans (times as a semifinalist: 3 – 2022–24). Finalist twice.

—Reggie Wayne (WR): 2001–2014 Indianapolis Colts | (times as a semifinalist: 5 – 2020–24). Finalist four times.

And then there is Seniors finalist Art Powell. His impressive records are from the 1960s — such as TDs per game, TDs per catch and average yards receiving per game — still stand among the top three to top seven in pro football history.

Historically and statistically, Powell may be the single most impactful receiver among these finalists. He was a next-gen player before next-gen existed. He competed during 14-game seasons when defenders were allowed to mug receivers. All-Pro cornerback Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, an opponent and teammate of Powell back in the day, recalls the big (6-3, 212) receiver well.

"He was feared," Williamson said of Powell. "If he played with these current hands-off rules...oh my gosh, Powell would dominate. Did I say he was feared?"

Yes, it's only a matter of time that even Powell's records will be pushed down the list amidst a flurry of ever-increasing statistics compiled playing a far different game. 

"It's sure as heck a different game," said Millen. "Yea, it's entertaining, but different. Ya gotta go with it because there's no going back."

 

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