10 Hall of Fame-Worthy NFL Wide Receivers (not named Julian Edelman)

    New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday, sparking an Internet debate about whether Edelman is a worthy future Pro Football Hall of Famer. That debate quickly ended when everyone who doesn’t own a closet full of old Mike Vrabel and Danny Amendola jerseys scoffed, “No way,” “Get real,” and “LOLZ.”

    Edelman, the MVP of Super Bowl LIII and Tom Brady’s favorite target for many seasons, deserves a place in the Patriots Ring of Honor (which is gonna get really crowded) and a cherished place in our hearts. But he’s no Hall of Famer. 

    Instead of ripping Edelman, however, let’s celebrate ten NFL wide receivers of the last 50 years or so who really do deserve Hall of Fame consideration.

    Worthy Hall of Fame (HOF) NFL Wide Receivers: The shoo-ins

    Let’s start by running through five obvious cases of overly-qualified receivers who have not yet been enshrined. These NFL wide receivers do not count toward our list of 10 worthy Hall of Famers. So this is really a list of 15. Just play along. 

    Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne: Each was a HOF Finalist last year, so each is on the doorstep of Canton. There’s no reason to belabor the arguments for them.

    Julio Jones: He’s a Hall of Fame lock. Also, Matt Ryan is not a Hall of Famer, no matter how hard Atlanta Falcons fans try to pretend that he is. But that’s a topic for another column.

    Larry Fitzgerald: Also a lock when he retires in the year 2269.

    Antonio Brown: He’s clearly a Hall of Famer, but I don’t feel like dealing with his whole thing.

    Ten worthy NFL Hall of Fame Wide Receivers

    Now that we shooed in the shoo-ins, let’s sink our teeth into some of the tougher cases. Here are ten worthy wide receivers who are about to become Hall of Fame nominees, were snubbed or lost in the shuffle in the past, or (in our first two cases) won’t be eligible for at least a decade. 

    Tyreek Hill

    Don’t scoff because it is so early in his career. Hill has already accumulated the kernel of a Hall of Fame portfolio. He has a Super Bowl ring, played in a second Super Bowl, has already caught 61 postseason passes, and was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame all-2010s team. 

    Most importantly, he has accumulated a sizzle reel full of memorable moments, and “signature plays” can be as important to a Hall of Fame case as stats or rings. Hill is an instant-impact player, and voters typically prefer that sort of player to someone who just accumulates lots of stats by being a cog in a machine.

    Hill is no Hall of Famer yet, but it will only take a few more deep playoff runs with Patrick Mahomes to put him over the top. 

    DeAndre Hopkins

    Hopkins, like Edelman, made a little news on Monday when the folks at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference named Hopkins’ acquisition by the Arizona Cardinals as the Best Sports Transaction of the Year. My frenemies in analytics circles may have missed the fact that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers acquired Tom Brady in exchange for money and won a Super Bowl as a result. But give the Sloan crew credit: they aren’t hailing Jon Gruden as a mathematical sorcerer because he traded Khalil Mack for draft picks anymore!

    Anyway, three All-Pro berths and four 100-yard seasons form the backbone of what is becoming an impressive Hall of Fame résumé for Hopkins. Nuk will also get some juice for having signature seasons while catching passes from Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, and Tom Savage, and having perhaps the best hands of his generation.

    That said, Hopkins may have to wait in line behind another recent Houston Texans receiver and former teammate.

    Andre Johnson

    Johnson led the league in receptions twice and yards twice while catching passes from Matt Schaub (who was a better quarterback than you may remember) and David Carr (who was not). 

    Johnson becomes a Hall of Fame nominee next year. Despite his qualifications, he’s probably not getting in on the first ballot. Holt and Wayne are still log-jammed ahead of him, and Steve Smith has a slightly better overall portfolio.

    Johnson should eventually be enshrined, but his case exemplifies the folly of any Julian Edelman argument. The bar for the Pro Football Hall of Fame is incredibly high, and even a player of Johnson’s caliber can end up in a bin with four or five other guys a few seasons after his retirement.

    Steve Smith

    Smith, like Andre Johnson, becomes Hall of Fame eligible next season. He has several advantages over Johnson, however. He has a well-deserved tough-guy personality, a high television profile (all voters try to tune that sort of thing out, and a few succeed), and several “signature plays,” including the broken-arm catch and some unforgettable playoff performances.

    Smith is an unlikely first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he’ll get in some time in the next few years.

    Anquan Boldin

    Boldin is yet another receiver who becomes a Hall of Fame nominee this year. He lacks Johnson’s best seasons and Smith’s image. But Boldin has lots of Hall of Fame trappings: a Rookie of the Year Award, a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, a Super Bowl ring (and an important fourth-down Super Bowl reception) with the Baltimore Ravens, some playoff heroics for the Arizona Cardinals, lots of postseason production, and a pair of 100-catch seasons.

    That said, Boldin played second fiddle to Larry Fitzgerald in his signature seasons and was perceived as more of a gritty veteran than a playmaker in his final seasons. That means he will probably fall well short of enshrinement, which is just another indicator of how high the bar to Canton is.

    Hines Ward

    Ward was a pioneering slot receiver and “all-purpose” weapon, one of the fiercest blocking receivers in NFL history, a four-time Pro Bowler, and the MVP of Super Bowl XL. He has been stuck in Hall of Fame semifinalist purgatory for five years, unable to advance to the finalist stage.

    Ward’s Hall of Fame candidacy is held back by unimpressive statistics and a lack of All-Pro appearances. He has also been shunted behind Holt and Wayne in the wide receiver queue and Alan Faneca in the ex-Steelers’ queue. 

    Ward is a better-than-his-stats guy who made an impact for some great teams, but the Hall of Fame hurdle is so high that he may never clear it.

    Jimmy Smith

    The Jacksonville Jaguars of the 1990s cannot catch a break. Folks appear to have forgotten just how great and groundbreaking those early Jaguars teams were. Tony Boselli, one of the best left tackles of a generation full of great ones, has been a finalist for five years. Fred Taylor, who rushed for over 11,000 yards, is unlikely to receive serious consideration.

    And then there’s Jimmy Smith, a five-time Pro Bowler who led the NFL with 116 receptions in 1999. Smith was one of the most dangerous NFL wide receivers of his era, and he made his mark in the playoffs with 7 postseason touchdowns (Edelman has 5).

    Smith’s post-NFL life has been peppered with issues, but that has little to do with his Hall of Fame candidacy. He shared receiving chores with Keenan McCardell for a team just good enough to reach AFC Championship games, which means his stats were a little low and he never enjoyed any Super Bowl glory.

    Frankly, Smith has one of the weakest cases on this list. That’s just one more indicator of how high the Hall of Fame bar really is. 

    Stanley Morgan

    Oh, you thought this was some “Patriots Hater” troll piece? Think again.

    Morgan was one of the greatest deep threats in NFL history. He led the NFL in yards per reception for three straight years from 1979 through 1981. His career yards-per-reception rate of 19.2 ranks 10th in history and is the highest of any player whose career began after the AFL-NFL merger.

    Morgan’s career was in decline by the time the Patriots got hammered by the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX. The Hall of Fame also generally wasn’t kind to receivers who played during the transition to the 16-game season era, unless they played for the Steelers. But for a few seasons, Morgan was one of the most dynamic players in the NFL.

    Sterling Sharpe

    Sharpe was one of the best players in the NFL from 1992 to 1994. He helped redefine both offensive expectations and the wide receiver position during that span. When you see wide receivers motion into the slot, hide in the backfield, or haul in a tunnel screen, you are seeing some of the things Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren and his staff made popular in the NFL in an effort to funnel the ball into Sharpe’s hands.

    Sharpe, unfortunately, suffered a neck injury at the end of the 1994 season, and that was that. His Hall of Fame candidacy came up just as the committee was flailing to clear an embarrassing Art Monk-Andre Reed-Tim Brown logjam. Sharpe was better than any of them, but the others had long careers and lots of postseason glory. Sharpe simply got lost in the shuffle. He may be over-qualified, but Sharpe is not the most overqualified receiver on our list. 

    Cliff Branch

    Edelman’s strongest Hall of Fame argument — his only Hall of Fame argument, really — is that he ranks second to Jerry Rice on the all-time lists of both playoff receptions (118) and yards (1,442). Well, Branch is 11th on the all-time playoff receptions list (73), fourth in receiving yards (1,289), and he did his damage in an era when the playoffs were shorter and passing was far less prevalent!

    Branch also led the NFL in yardage once, receiving touchdowns twice, and was named an All-Pro three times in the mid-1970s. He caught two touchdowns in Super Bowl XV and could easily have been named the game’s MVP.

    Branch is almost obscenely overqualified for the Hall of Fame. So why isn’t he in? The committees of the late 1980s and 1990s got a little carried away with making sure every Lombardi Packer and Steel Curtain Steeler who ever buckled a chinstrap got enshrined. The expanded 16-game season and increased offensive levels also made Branch’s 46-to-60 catch stat lines look like something any receiver could accomplish. 

    Finally, the Seniors Committee and the Centennial Committee appear determined to enshrine just about every 1970s receiver except Branch. Drew Pearson (part of the 2021 class) was a great player, and I grew up worshipping Harold Carmichael (2020 Centennial class), but Branch is more qualified than either of them.

    Final thoughts on HOF-worthy wide receiver nominees

    Branch and Sharpe belong in the Hall of Fame by any standard. Everyone else on this list has a strong case, though some are stronger than others.

    But do all 15 of these receivers belong in the Hall of Fame, plus Edelman and your personal favorite whom I might have omitted? (Henry Ellard, Rod Smith and Isaac Curtis stans: this is your shout out). Maybe. But that would result in a Pro Football Hall of Fame teeming with hundreds of players at various positions. 

    The line has to be drawn somewhere. And that line is inevitably blurry. That’s what makes healthy Hall of Fame debates fun. But debates that take place the moment a good-not-great player retires are not really healthy. They force some of us to denigrate a player like Edelman’s legacy because other folks are either just praising a local hero or advancing a bad-faith or ill-informed talking point. 

    Congratulations on your retirement, Julian Edelman. It was a pleasure to watch and cover you for many years!

    Now let’s talk seriously about getting Cliff Branch and Sterling Sharpe into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

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