In the NFL’s Super Bowl era from 1966 through 2015, Big Ten wide receivers have had an interesting imprint on the professional ranks.
Not every superstar or record-holder from the college days enjoyed long-term fame at the pro level. Conversely, a handful of semi-productive players in college eventually became big-time contributors in the NFL.
As such, as NFL teams report to training camp this week, this represents a good opportunity to subjectively rank the NFL’s 10 greatest Big Ten wideouts of the last 50 years.
It’s worth noting two things here. One is that college accomplishments have no bearing on the rankings. Secondly,the Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State stars who never played in the Big Ten are ineligible for this countdown. For example, Nebraska alum Irving Fryar, who ranks 19th in NFL all-time receiving yards), doesn’t make our list.
Here are the 10 best Big Ten receivers to shine in the NFL:
1. CRIS CARTER, OHIO STATE
YEARS ACTIVE: 1987-2002 (Eagles, Vikings, Dolphins)
There’s no mystery here. Cris Carter merits the penthouse spot in this countdown by a long shot.
Here are the amazing highlights:
- Carter serves as only one of two Hall of Famers in this grouping.
- The Ohio State product currently ranks fourth in all-time receiving touchdowns (130) and 12th in career receiving yards (13,899 yards).
- Antonio Brown, Wes Welker and Carter are the only three receivers in NFL history to post multiple seasons of 120-plus catches. Carter accomplished his part of that feat in consecutive seasons (1994-95).
- From 1993 to 2000, Carter absurdly averaged 97 catches, 1,182 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Vikings.
- During the 1990s, Carter led the NFL in touchdown receptions three times.
- As a two-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler, Carter arguably possesses the greatest pair of receiving hands in NFL history, with apologies to current showman Odell Beckham Jr.
2. PAUL WARFIELD, OHIO STATE
YEARS ACTIVE: 1964-1977 (Browns, Dolphins)
Throwbacks such as Warfield cannot match the prolific numbers of the modern-day receivers. But in his time, coinciding with pro football’s run-heavy era, no other NFL wideout exhibited more grace, more athleticism or accomplished more from a team perspective.
And for that, the Hall of Famer Warfield warrants the No. 2 ranking.
As a two-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler, Warfield racked up four different seasons of double-digit touchdowns, (leading the league twice in that category).
Warfield is also one of six pass-catchers in NFL history to average more than 20 yards per reception for a career — an implausible standard in today’s game.
One last thing: The Ohio State product benefited from one of the great train-robbery trades in NFL lore. Prior to the 1970 draft, the previously moribund Miami Dolphins dealt the No. 3 overall pick to the Cleveland Browns for Warfield, straight up.
At the time, it was considered a major coup for the Browns, who had flirted with an NFL title for a few seasons. In search of a long-term quarterback, Cleveland took Purdue’s Mike Phipps high in Round 1, a pick that didn’t pan out for the proud franchise.
For his 12-year career, Phipps never eclipsed 2,000 yards passing in a season. On the flip side, Warfield instantly became the Dolphins’ alpha-dog receiver while helping Miami capture three AFC titles and two Lombardi Trophies in the early 1970s.
3. DERRICK MASON, MICHIGAN STATE
YEARS ACTIVE: 1997-2011 (Titans, Ravens, Jets, Texans)
Mason was one of the most underrated receivers of his time, racking up 943 catches, 12,061 receiving yards and 66 touchdowns over 15 NFL seasons.
After a sluggish start with the Titans (just 47 catches his first three years), Mason found his footing and eventually crushed all comers. From 2000 to 2010, the Michigan State star averaged 80 catches, 1,026 yards and six touchdowns.
During that prolific span, Mason recorded seven or more touchdowns five times, 80-plus catches five times and 1,000-plus yards receiving eight times.
Mason (one-time All-Pro, two Pro Bowls) might never carry enough votes to make the Hall of Fame, but his career numbers are certainly Canton-worthy: He currently ranks 48th in touchdown catches, 24th in all-time receiving yards and 17th in career receptions.
4. JOEY GALLOWAY, OHIO STATE
YEARS ACTIVE: 1995-2010 (Seahawks, Cowboys, Buccaneers, Patriots, Redskins)
Here are four substantial reasons to support Galloway’s No. 4 ranking:
- Galloway ranks 18th in all-time receiving touchdowns (77) and 34th in career receiving yards (10,950).
- The Ohio State product owns a top-40 ranking for yards per reception, a listing that includes a fellow OSU alum in the top five, Hall of Famer Paul Warfield.
- Galloway enjoyed three seasons of double-digit touchdowns and six years of 1,000-plus receiving yards.
- For this countdown, no other receiver had a 12-year period separating their first 1,000-yard campaign and last 1,000-yard season. At age 36, Galloway impressively cranked out 57 catches, 1,014 yards and six touchdowns.
5. ANDRE RISON, MICHIGAN STATE
YEARS ACTIVE: 1989-2000 (Colts, Falcons, Browns, Jaguars, Packers, Chiefs, Raiders)
Rison was certainly on a Hall of Fame track after six NFL seasons (1989-94), accounting for 475 receptions, 6,453 yards and 60 touchdowns.
However, Rison couldn’t sustain that all-world pace for the second act of his career, recording just one more 1,000-yard campaign and never hitting double-digit touchdowns in a journeyman role (five teams in five years).
The body of work ultimately drives Rison’s rock-solid ranking for this countdown:
- He’s one of 45 pass-catchers in NFL history to collect 10,000 yards receiving.
- Rison caught a touchdown pass from Brett Favre in the opening minutes of Super Bowl XXXI when Green Bay defeated New England.
- A five-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro, Rison notched six-plus touchdowns seven times in his career.
6. MUHSIN MUHAMMAD, MICHIGAN STATE
YEARS ACTIVE: 1996-2009 (Panthers, Bears)
One could certainly make the case for Muhammad earning a top-five finish. He currently ranks 24th in all-time receptions (860 — ahead of Steve Largent) and 28th in career receiving yards (11,438 — right behind Calvin Johnson).
Plus, he’s on the exclusive list of NFL pass catchers with 60 or more touchdowns.
However, when surveying Muhammad’s yearly breakdown, we’re essentially talking about three amazing seasons — 96 catches, 1,253 yards, 8 TDs in 1999; 102 catches, 1,183 yards, 6 TDs in 2000; 93 catches, 1,405 yards, 16 TDs in 2004 — and 11 complementary campaigns of good, but not spectacular production.
But then again, Muhammad might have been the Fantasy Football MVP in 2004, yielding A-plus numbers for a season in which he probably went undrafted or was a late-round pick, at best. Of his final 10 games that year, Moose collected six 100-yards efforts and 14 touchdowns.
And who can forget his marvelous run with the Panthers during the 2003 playoffs: A 100-yard outing against the Cowboys in the wild-card round and the four-catch, 140-yard, one-TD explosion against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII (see above video).
7. PLAXICO BURRESS, MICHIGAN STATE
YEARS ACTIVE: 2000-08, 2011-12 (Steelers, Giants, Jets)
Oh, what could have been for Burress’s career, if he hadn’t lost two NFL seasons during his relative prime as the result of a gun-related suspension in 2009 and 2010).
From 2001 to 2007, Burress was a rock-solid contributor for the Steelers and Giants, averaging 64 receptions, 1,017 yards and seven touchdowns. During that prolific span, Plax caught 70-plus balls three times, scored seven or more touchdowns four times and reached the 1,000-yard mark four times.
Plus, in his final two postseason outings, Burress rolled for 11 catches, 151 yards against the Packers in the NFC title game and then registered the Lombardi Trophy-clinching touchdown reception in Super Bowl XLII, thwarting the Patriots’ run at a perfect season).
8. ERIC DECKER, MINNESOTA
YEARS ACTIVE: 2010-PRESENT (Broncos, Jets)
How good has Eric Decker been? Well, let’s compare him to some of the NFL’s all-time greats:
- After his first six seasons with the Lions (2007-12), future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson had collected double-digit touchdowns three times and four efforts of 1,000-plus yards.
- After his first six years with the Seahawks (1976-81), Hall of Famer Steve Largent had tallied 50 TDs and four years of 1,000-plus yards.
- After his first six seasons with the Colts (2001-06), future Hall of Famer Reggie Wayne had posted 37 touchdowns and three years of 1,000-plus yards.
- After his first six years with the Packers (1978-83), Hall of Famer James Lofton had recorded 34 TDs and three seasons of 1,000-plus yards.
Decker’s numbers after six seasons: 5,059 yards (three 1,000-yard campaigns) and 50 TDs (three years of double-digit scores).
It’s also worth noting: Decker’s career numbers, through six years, easily eclipse the production of Hall of Famers Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed.
9. SANTONIO HOLMES, OHIO STATE
YEARS ACTIVE: 2006-2014 (Steelers, Jets, Bears)
Holmes’ NFL legacy actually supersedes the hard numbers from his nine-year career (389 catches, 6,030 yards, 36 TDs).
Yes, Holmes only posted one 1,000-yard campaign (2009 with the Steelers). Yes, he never cleared 80 receptions in a single season. Yes, Holmes only accounted for two touchdowns in his final three years.
And yet, the flashes of brilliance during clutch moments remain the enduring memory:
- Of his 10 career games of 100-plus receiving yards, Holmes racked up nine total touchdowns.
- For the November/December period of 2011 (with the Jets), Holmes scored a touchdown in four straight games.
- Holmes scored at least one touchdown in five of seven career playoff outings.
- The Ohio State product’s best effort occurred during Super Bowl XLIII, catching nine balls for 131 yards for the Steelers along with the Lombardi Trophy-clinching touchdown with 35 seconds left.
10. AMANI TOOMER, MICHIGAN
YEARS ACTIVE: 1996-2008 (Giants)
This countdown closes with a run on Michigan receivers, and Toomer was certainly the best of that lot, accounting for 668 catches, 9,497 yards and 53 touchdowns over 13 NFL seasons.
From 1999 to 2003, Toomer produced five consecutive years of 1,000-plus yards. During that span, he also averaged 75 catches, 1,146 yards and six touchdowns.
In a mild surprise, Toomer never reached a Pro Bowl or attained All-Pro status — even during his scintillating 2002 season when he had 82 catches, 1,343 yards and eight TDs.
But Toomer’s countdown placement remains secure, thanks to a modest legacy of one Super Bowl title, two NFC crowns and a top-50 ranking with all-time receiving yards.
BONUS: ANTHONY CARTER, MICHIGAN
YEARS ACTIVE: 1985-1995 (Vikings, Lions)
For a five-year period from 1986 to 1990, Carter belonged in that second wave of the NFL’s best receivers, averaging 57 catches, 981 yards and six TDs during that span.
However, you cannot tell Carter’s full story without regaling his postseason prowess, especially in the early years:
In the 1987 NFC playoffs, the Vikings registered two seismic upsets against the Saints and 49ers — arguably the conference’s best teams for that strike-shortened campaign.
Against New Orleans, Carter caught six balls for 79 yards and one TD. He also scored on an 84-yard punt return early in the game.
A week later, Carter helped engineer one of the biggest playoff upsets of the 1980s, demolishing the San Francisco secondary for 10 catches and 227 yards.
Bobby Engram (Penn State) — 650 catches, 7,751 yards, 35 TDs
Lee Evans (Wisconsin) — 381 catches, 6,008 yards, 43 TDs
Brandon Lloyd (Illinois) — 399 catches, 5,989 yards, 36 TDs
Braylon Edwards (Michigan) — 359 catches, 5,522 yards, 40 TDs
David Boston (Ohio State) — 315 catches, 4,699 yards, 25 TDs
Desmond Howard (Michigan) — 123 catches, 1,597 yards, 16 total TDs (Super Bowl MVP)
Allen Robinson (Penn State) — 128 catches, 1,948 yards, 16 TDs (14 TDs in 2015)
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.