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Best NFL Route Runners of All Time: Jerry Rice, Davante Adams Headline Top 10

Who are the best NFL route runners of all time? We offer our top 10, which includes receivers like Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce, and Wes Welker.

What makes a great NFL receiver? Sure, it’s great to be the fastest player on the field. Being tall and strong helps, too, as does being able to jump higher than everyone else. And of course, having good hands is non-negotiable for NFL wide receivers.

However, your upside will be limited if you’re not a great route runner. You can be a great athlete and a talented wideout, but if you can’t consistently run crisp, nuanced routes, you’ll never be considered one of the greats.

But what makes a great route runner? What made the best NFL route runners of all time so good at their craft?

Technique, preparation, footwork, quickness, and a high football IQ are all important. So, too, is having a diverse route tree. Being elite at running deep routes is great, but how do you do on intermediate routes?

With all that said, let’s rank the 10 best route runners in NFL history, along with six honorable mentions.

10 Best NFL Route Runners of All Time

Honorable mentions: Randy Moss, Keenan Allen, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith Sr., Cris Carter, Stefon Diggs

10) Wes Welker

Many Patriots fans believe Julian Edelman should land in the Hall of Fame. Maybe they’re right; maybe they’re not. But if Edelman eventually earns enshrinement, it should come after Wes Welker, who was the better slot receiver in virtually every way but doesn’t have the same postseason résumé.

The 5-foot-9 Welker was ridiculous during his prime. He led the NFL in receptions three times and topped 1,100 yards in five of his six seasons in New England, including three campaigns of over 1,300 yards. He finished his career with over 3,000 more yards than Edelman.

How did he do it? Well, playing with Tom Brady certainly helped. But Welker, neither tall nor especially fast, was a sublime, shifty route runner with elite quickness. He made some of the NFL’s best cornerbacks look foolish.

9) Isaac Bruce

Some might argue that Torry Holt is the best receiver in Rams history. But that honor should go to Isaac Bruce, who posted better numbers and was the better all-around wideout.

Bruce possessed high-end speed and pure pass-catching ability, but he was also one of the savviest route runners of his era. Incredibly precise with his routes, Bruce could separate against the best defensive backs the NFL had to offer.

You could make a case that he should be higher on this list.

8) Steve Largent

Also one of the most underrated players in NFL history, Steve Largent is best known for his incredible hands. If you google “Best receiver hands of all time,” Largent’s name will top many lists that show up.

But the Seattle Seahawks legend was also an all-time route runner, an ability he developed and continually refined through hard work. Check out this excerpt from his Pro Football Hall of Fame biography page:

“Dedicated to being prepared, Steve’s solitary route-running routine would include re-enacting calling the play in the huddle, running to the line of scrimmage, performing the specified route, returning to the huddle and repeating the procedure.”

7) Larry Fitzgerald

Larry Fitzgerald ranks second behind Rice in both receptions and receiving yards. One of the most-hyped receiving prospects in NFL Draft history, Fitzgerald lived up to the hype — and then some.

Like Rice, Fitzgerald posted great numbers even late in his career, including an 804-yard campaign at 36 years old. That’s what being a great route runner will do for you, as Fitzgerald still got open and made plays even as his athleticism waned.

If you’re into cross-sport analogies, think of a crafty pitcher who still excels even after losing their fastball.

6) Michael Irvin

Michael Irvin appears on most top-10 receivers lists. He’s one of the best all-around wideouts in NFL history, even though his numbers aren’t high on many all-time leaderboards.

However, for whatever reason, Irvin doesn’t get nearly enough love as a route runner. But the reality is he was one of the best of his era.

Precise and nuanced in his route running, Irvin also enhanced his routes with top-tier explosion and strength. You don’t rack up 47 100-yard games without being an incredible route runner.

5) Davante Adams

Davante Adams is the best route runner currently playing in the NFL and one of the greatest of all time.

It starts with Adams’ release package, which NFL cornerbacks struggle to explain whenever asked about it. He’s always two steps ahead at the line of scrimmage, then proceeds to run some of the crispest and most precise routes we’ve ever seen. He’s a freak.

4) Marvin Harrison Sr.

One of the more underrated receivers in NFL history, Marvin Harrison Sr. played a massive role in the success of the early-2000s Indianapolis Colts and the development of Peyton Manning. It’s scary to think that his son, Marvin Harrison Jr., could be even better.

Harrison Sr. is another Hall of Fame receiver who didn’t use pure athletic ability to dominate his opponents. Instead, the eight-time Pro Bowler was an elite, diverse route runner who could make plays all over the field.

3) Chad Johnson

Chad Johnson doesn’t get nearly enough love as one of the best receivers in NFL history. Perhaps that’s because Johnson’s career ended with his inability to grasp the New England Patriots.

But forget all of that. Johnson’s football IQ was elite, and he arguably was the best route runner of his era. Darrelle Revis, who knows a thing or two about defending great NFL receivers, believes Johnson is the best route runner the league has ever seen.

2) Antonio Brown

Say what you want about Antonio Brown’s off-field antics (which warrant criticism). But on the field, Brown was one of the greatest receivers in football history.

He wasn’t the tallest wideout, nor was he the fastest. Brown possessed elite quickness and burst, which he paired with breathtaking route-running ability. In fact, many football experts argue that Brown is the greatest route runner of all time. In his prime, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do at receiver.

1) Jerry Rice

Was there any doubt? Jerry Rice might be the greatest non-quarterback in NFL history. He’s an easy choice for the best receiver of all time and would rank first in any sub-category for wideouts — including this one.

There wasn’t any route that Rice couldn’t run. He was a master technician, with even the best cornerbacks of his era powerless to stop him.

If you want to know why Rice is the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, look no further than his unparalleled route running.