November 22, 2017

Charting the Careers of the NFL's Greatest Pass Catchers

Michael Hester + Jack Beckwith

On November 5, Miami Dolphins wideout Jarvis Landry set a new NFL record for most receptions in the first four seasons of a career. His former LSU teammate, Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., was on an even more blistering pace before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5. But how do two of the NFL's brightest young stars stack up against a legion of NFL greats?

The Most Prolific Pass Catchers in the Super Bowl Era

Each NFL star's cumulative receptions over the course of his career

In the above graphic, we've charted the cumulative catches for 425 NFL players over the course of their careers. To be included in our dataset, a player must have finished within the top 20 in receptions for at least one season in the Super Bowl era. While the majority of players represented are wide receivers, a number of running backs and tight ends also make our list. 

49ers legend Jerry Rice stands as the most productive pass catcher in league history, with over 1,500 receptions in his 20-year NFL career. His longevity also sets him apart; he played two more full seasons than any other player shown here and is the only non-kicker to top 300 games played. Second on the list is Tony Gonzalez, long-time tight end for the Chiefs and Falcons, who retired back in 2013.

So who among active players is most likely to catch Rice? It could be Larry Fitzgerald, already third all-time in career receptions and the leader among current players. Another strong candidate is Antonio Brown, who's averaging over 6.3 receptions in 111 games so far. That's well ahead of the pace Rice set through the first seven seasons of his career.

Then we come to Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. And while both are off to hot starts, their career reception totals are still less than one-fourth of Rice's. Even if their trajectories hold, they'll need to play at least 12 more seasons if they want to have a chance at catching the GOAT.

Nerd Notes:

Graphic was created using d3.js.

Data comes from Pro Football Reference. We scraped complete game logs for NFL players who finished among the top 20 in receptions for at least one season during the Super Bowl era. If a player's career predated the 1966 season, we still included stats from every game of his NFL career. Data is up-to-date through November 21.