The Pool of Senior Wide Receivers a True Abyss

So many talented pass catchers have never even been Hall of Fame finalists

There’s been a logjam of modern-era wide receivers at the front steps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame for a while now.

Cliff Branch, Calvin Johnson and Drew Pearson have all been enshrined in the last two years. Torry Holt, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne were all finalists for the Class of 2022 with Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith and Hines Ward all semifinalists.

But at least those pass catchers are in the mix for Canton.

The senior pool has an even bigger logjam of quality receivers – but that bunch has never been in the mix. There are 16 wide receivers in the senior pool that had careers or career achievements worthy of Hall-of-Fame consideration. But not a one of them has ever been a finalist for his candidacy to be discussed by the 49-member selection committee.

The Kansas City Chiefs believe Otis Taylor belongs. The Miami Dolphins think Mark Clayton should be the next nominee. The Green Bay Packers make the case for Sterling Sharpe and the New York Giants will go to the wall for Del Shofner.

Is Taylor a more worthy candidate than Shofner? If Sharpe more worthy than Charley Hennigan? Is Clayton more worthy than Stanley Morgan?

Those are the discussions we have on the senior committee – and that’s just at the one position. Similar discussions take place for cornerbacks, safeties, offensive tackles, defensive ends and so on. There are 22 positions on the football field with worthy senior candidates at all of them. Plus special-teamers. And the senior committee gets to nominate only three players each of the next two years.

So here’s my working list of the 16 top wide receivers in the senior pool in no particular order. You decide if the candidate you favor is more worthy than the others when it comes time to nominate the next wide receiver. It’s not as cut-and-dried as the one-candidate campaigners believe it to be.

For your consideration:

Boyd Dowler (13 seasons, 1959-71). Notable: NFL’s 50th anniversary team. Pro Bowls: 2. First-team All-Pro: 2. Receptions: 474. Yards:  7,270. Average: 15.3 yards per catch (YPC). TDs: 40. Noteworthy: There were 43 players selected to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team and 41 of them now have busts in Canton. Dowler and his Green Bay teammate tight end Ron Kramer are the only two that don’t. Dowler has been overlooked by Canton because of the dominance of Green Bay’s running game under Vince Lombardi. Halfback Paul Hornung and fullback Jim Taylor have both been enshrined in Canton. Still, Dowler was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1959 who supplied the vertical threat in the 1960s for a team that would play in six NFL championship games and win five of them. He also handled the Green Bay punting chores in the back-to-back championship seasons of 1961-62.

Lavvie Dilweg (9 seasons, 1926-34). Notable: 1920s first-team all-decade. Pro Bowls: 0 (No Pro Bowl until 1938). First-team All-Pro: 4. Receptions: 23. Yards: 443. Average: 19.3 YPC. TDs: 12. Noteworthy: There wasn’t a better receiver that Don Hutson in the NFL’s first eight decades. When he retired after the 1945 season, he held all the NFL receiving records. But before Hutson there was Dilweg. He was one of two ends named first-team all-decade for the 1920s. Guy Chamberlain was the other and he has long-since been enshrined in Canton. But no Dilweg. There are 19 first-team all-decade wide receivers eligible for the Hall of Fame. Eighteen of them have busts. Dilweg is one of only four first-team all-decade players at all positions in the game’s first nine decades still without a bust.

Gary Collins (10 seasons, 1962-71). Notable: 1960s first-team all-decade. Pro Bowls: 2. First-team All-Pro: 1. Receptions: 331. Yards: 5,299. Average: 16.0 YPC. TDs: 70. Noteworthy: Like Dowler, the excellence of Collins as a pass catcher was overshadowed by the dominance of a running game in Cleveland – specifically, eight-time NFL rushing champion Jim Brown. But few in the game’s modern-era can match the quality of catch by Collins. Think about it – 70 touchdowns in 331 receptions. That’s one every 4.7 receptions. The three most prolific touchdown-makers on the flank in NFL history are Jerry Rice (197), Randy Moss (156), and Terrell Owens (153). Rice averaged a touchdown every 7.9 catches, Moss every 6.3 catches and Owens every 7.0 catches. Andre Johnson also has 70 career receiving touchdowns and he’s currently on the Hall of Fame ballot. He averaged a touchdown every 15.2 catches. Collins also punted for the Browns his first six seasons and led the league in 1965 with a 46.7-yard average.

Ken Kavanaugh (8 seasons, 1940-50 – did not play 1942-43 when he served as a fighter pilot during World War II, flying 30 missions in Europe and receiving a Distinguished Flying Cross). Notable: 1940s second-team all-decade. Pro Bowls: 2 (No Pro Bowls from 1943-49). First-team All-Pro: 0. Receptions: 162. Yards: 3,626. Average: 22.4 YPC. TDs: 50. Noteworthy: Like Collins, Kavanaugh’s candidacy is based on quality of catch – Kavanaugh averaged better than 21 yards per catch in five of his eight seasons. He scored 13 touchdowns in a 12-game season in 1947 and nine more in 1949. For those of you keeping score, Kavanaugh averaged one touchdown every 3.2 career catches. And he missed those two seasons in the prime of his career serving his country.

Jim Benton (9 seasons, 1938-47 – did not play 1941 when he spent the season coaching high school football). Notable: 1940s second-team all-decade. Pro Bowls: 1 (No Pro Bowls from 1943-49). First-team All-Pro: 2. Receptions: 288. Yards: 4,201. Average: 16.6 YPC. TDs: 45. Noteworthy: Benton became the first player to catch 300 yards in passes in a single game and only the second to catch 1,000 yards in passes in a single season. Both accomplishments came in 1945 – and he did it in only nine games. Only Don Hutson hit the 1,000-yard mark in a single season before Benton. And his 303 yards in receiving against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day was an NFL single-game record that stood for 50 years.

Del Shofner (11 seasons, 1957-67). Notable: 1960s second-team all-decade. Pro Bowls: 5. First-team All-Pro: 5. Receptions: 349. Yards: 6,470. Average: 18.5 YPC. TDs: 51. Noteworthy: In 1958, Shofner was the only receiver in the entire league with a 1,000-yard receiving season – and he did it in just 12 games. He caught 51 passes for 1,097 yards, averaging a staggering 21.5 yards per catch with eight touchdowns. He was among the first of the true speed receivers who forced defenses to defend the back end of the field. Shofner posted four 1,000-yard seasons and averaged better than 20 yards per catch three times. He is the only five-time first-team all-pro wide receiver in the senior pool. His hands helped power the New York Giants to three consecutive NFL championship games from 1961-63. He caught 32 touchdown passes from Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle during that stretch.

Charley Hennigan (7 seasons, 1960-66). Notable: second-team all-time AFL. Pro Bowls: 5. First-team All-Pro: 3. Receptions: 410. Yards: 6,823. Average: 16.6 YPC. TDs: 51. Noteworthy: Hennigan set receiving records with the AFL Houston Oilers that took decades for Hall of Fame receivers to break. He caught 100 yards in passes in 10 of Houston’s 14 games in 1961. That record stood for 34 years before Michael Irvin posted 11 100-yard games for the Cowboys in 1995 in a 16-game season. Hennigan’s three 200-yard games that season still remain an NFL record 61 years later. His 1,746 yards receiving was another record that stood for 34 years before Rice broke it, also in 1995, with 1,848 yards for the 49ers. In 1964, Hennigan caught 101 passes for an AFL-leading 1,584 yards and eight touchdowns. Those 101 receptions remained an NFL record for 20 years before Art Monk caught 106 for the Washington Redskins in 1984 in a 16-game season. Hennigan set a high bar for Hall-of-Fame receivers – yet his career has never been deemed worthy of Canton.

Art Powell (10, seasons, 1959-68). Notable: second-team all-time AFL. Pro Bowls: 4. First-team All-Pro: 2. Receptions: 479. Yards: 8,046. Average: 16.8 YPC. TDs: 81. Noteworthy: Powell is credited with a 10-season career but he didn’t catch a pass in his rookie year and caught only one pass in his final season. But the eight years in between those bookends were spectacular. Powell led the AFL with 14 touchdown receptions in 1960 and again with 16 in 1963. He had five 1,000-yard seasons and twice led the league in receiving yards with 1,130 in 1962 and 1,304 in 1963. In 1964 he set career bests with 76 catches for 1,364 yards. Powell also had five seasons registering double-digits in touchdowns.

Lionel Taylor (10 seasons, 1959-68). Notable: 5-time AFL receiving champion. Pro Bowls: 3. First-team All-Pro: 4. Receptions: 567. Yards: 7,195. Average: 12.7 YPC. TDs: 45. Noteworthy: The 1960s featured a clash in offensive philosophies. The NFL was the power football, ground-and-pound, run-the-ball league. The AFL was the finesse, air-it-out, throw-the-ball league. Yet there are six wide receivers form the 1960s enshrined in the Hall of Fame from the NFL but only two from the AFL. Taylor is one of five AFL receivers on this list – a player ignored by Canton because he played in the wrong league. Only one player in history ever led the league in receiving more than Taylor’s five times – Hall of Famer Don Huston with eight. No one else has done it more than three times – and two of those players are also on this list. Taylor was the first player to catch 100 passes in a single season – and he did it in only 12 games in 1961.

Billy Wilson (10 seasons, 1951-60). Notable: 3-time NFL receiving champion. Pro Bowls: 6. First-team All-Pro: 1. Receptions: 407. Yards: 5,902. Average: 14.5 YPC. TDs: 49. Noteworthy: It would have been easy for Wilson to disappear in a San Francisco offense that featured football’s first “Million-Dollar Backfield.” San Francisco lined up Hall of Famers at all four spots — quarterback Y.A. Tittle, halfbacks Hugh McElhenny and Joe “The Jet” Perry and fullback John Henry Johnson. Despite all that offensive fire power, Wilson did not disappear. He led the NFL in receiving three time and went to those six Pro Bowls. There isn’t a receiver in the senior pool that went to more Pro Bowls than Wilson. He has been waiting 62 years for his candidacy to be discussed one time.

Sterling Sharpe (7 seasons, 1988-94). Notable: 3-time NFL receiving champion. Pro Bowls: 5. First-team All-Pro: 3. Receptions: 595. Yards: 8,134. Average: 13.7 YPC. TDs: 65. Noteworthy: Had not Sharpe been forced to retire with a neck injury after only seven seasons, he would already be in the Hall of Fame. If Jerry Rice was 1a on the NFL flank from 1988-94, Sharpe was 1b. Sharpe led the NFL with 90 receptions in 1989 catching passes from Don Majkowski. But when Brett Favre stepped into the starting lineup in 1992, Sharpe’s career took off. He became the first player in NFL history with back-to-back 100-catch seasons, leading the NFL with 108 receptions in 1992 and 112 in 1993. He won receiving’s triple crown in 1992, leading the NFL in receptions, yards (1,461) and touchdowns (13). But the injury forced Sharpe to walk away from the game at age 29 years of age. In his final season, he led the NFL with 18 touchdown receptions. Can you imagine what a healthy Sharpe would have accomplished statistically in his prime from 1995-97 when Favre was winning three consecutive MVP awards?

Gino Cappelletti (11 seasons, 1960-70). Notable: AFL’s all-time leading scorer. Pro Bowls: 5. First-team All-Pro: 0. Receptions: 292. Yards: 4,589. Average:15.7 YPC. TDs: 42. Noteworthy: In the era of 36-player rosters, it helped if a player brought multi-skills to the field. Which made Cappelletti invaluable to the Patriots. Not only did Cappelletti have the best hands on the team – he led the team with 45 catches and eight touchdowns in 1961 – he also had the best feet. In fact, he was the best kicker in AFL history. Add up his 42 receiving touchdowns, 176 field goals and 342 conversion kicks and Cappelletti wound up with an AFL record 1,130 points. He scored 100 points for six consecutive seasons (1961-66) and led the AFL in scoring in five of them. Cappelletti caught 292 career passes for 4,589 yards.

Otis Taylor (11 seasons, 1965-75). Pro Bowls: 3. First-team All-Pro: 2. Receptions: 410. Yards: 7.306. Average: 17.8 YPC. TDs: 57. Noteworthy: There were eight Hall of Feme wide receivers in the 1971 season. But the only player that caught 1,000 yards in passes that year wasn’t any of the Hall of Famers. It was Otis Taylor of the Chiefs, who caught 57 passes for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns in a 14-game season. To put that accomplishment into perspective – there were 26 players with at least 1,000 receiving yards in 2022 in a 16-game season. That 1971 season came two years after Taylor authored one of the most signature catches in Super Bowl history – a 46-yard, high-stepping touchdown jaunt down the home sideline that sealed Kansas City’s stunning 23-7 upset of the NFL champion Minnesota Vikings in the final game ever played by an AFL team. Taylor led the AFL with an average of 22.4 yards per catch in 1966 to help the Chiefs reach their first Super Bowl, then led the AFL with 11 touchdown receptions in 1967. He was to the AFL what another Taylor (Charley) was to the NFL in the 1960s – the jumbo, power receiver that opened the door for future power receivers like Keyshawn Johnson, Terrell Owens and Calvin Johnson. Charley Taylor now has a bust but Otis Taylor is still waiting.

Stanley Morgan (14 seasons, 1977-90). Pro Bowls: 4. First-team All-Pro: 0. Receptions: 557. Yards: 10,716 Average: 19.2 YPC. TDs: 72. Noteworthy: Another strong quality-of-catch candidate. Morgan averaged better than 20 yards per catch in each of his first six seasons catching passes from Steve Grogan and Matt Cavanaugh. He didn’t benefit from having a Hall of Fame quarterback throwing him passes during the same era that Hall-of-Fame receivers Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch did. His 19.2 yards per career reception ranks 10th all-time without ever having caught a pass from a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in his 14 seasons. Morgan caught 44 passes in 1979 and led the NFL with his 12 touchdowns. That’s putting the ball in the end zone once every 3.6 catches.

Harold Jackson (16 seasons, 1968-83). Pro Bowls: 5. First-team All-Pro: 1. Receptions: 579. Yards: 10,372. Average: 17.9 YPC. TDs: 76. Noteworthy: Like so many others on this list, Jackson has largely been punished for the failure to win a championship in his career. But his “quality of catch” is off the charts. Four times in his career he averaged better than 20 yards per catch and retired with a career mark just shy of 18 yards per grab. His 76 touchdowns came during an era when the NFL still relied heavier on the run than pass and defensive backs were allowed to mug receivers every step of their routes.

Mark Clayton (11 seasons, 1983-84). Pro Bowls: 5. First-team All-Pro: 0. Receptions: 582. Yards: 8.974. Average: 15.4 YPC. TDs: 84. Noteworthy: Clayton arrived in Miami in the same 1983 draft as Dan Marino and over the next 10 seasons emerged as his Hall-of-Fame quarterback’s favorite receiver.  Clayton produced five 1,000-yard seasons and lead the league in touchdown receptions twice, catching 18 in 1984 and 14 more in 1988. He also caught 12 of his 84 career touchdown passes in 1991 and 10 more in 1986. He added an 85th touchdown on a punt return in his rookie season.

  1. Brian wolf says

    Thanks Rick …

    How Dilweg, Benton and Shofner haven’t made the HOF is beyond me. Powell and both Taylor’s from the AFL are worthy and Hennigan has a case as well. I think Kavanaugh has a case but just didn’t catch many passes despite scoring in three straight championship games.

    The Packers have cases with Dilweg, Sharpe and Dowler but also McGee and Dale. Dale was very underrated and clutch in the postseason but also a deep threat for Starr. Dowler, McGee and Dale will definitely make HOVG …

    Other senior receivers with cases are Hugh Taylor for the Redskins, Elbie Nickel for the Steelers, Sonny Randle for the Cardinals and Pete Retzlaff for the Eagles. Nickel and Retzlaff were considered tight ends as well. Like Carroll Dale, Jimmy Orr was very underrated during his career.

    Hopefully, Harold Jackson will make the HOF but Clayton and Morgan might wait awhile. Sharpe will probably be the next senior receiver to get voted in.

  2. Brian wolf says

    Ooops, forgot about Billy Howton as well, who held all the receiving records despite being handicapped with bad GB and Dallas teams. Was released by the Browns for leading his team union. Very underrated.

    Most Deserving Seniors For HOF In Order

    L Taylor
    O Taylor

  3. Tadd McGuire says

    Love this topic and site.
    Previous site had an article in regards to doing something special for the 60th anniversary in 2023. With WR being the position with the biggest abyss, maybe 2023 can clear this up. Do something with those seniors pre-1963 or a start date of 1963. The only one on my list this would apply to would be Lionel Taylor. Your article 11 of the 16 would be a possibility. Now not all 11 but something. I’m not that flush with knowledge of pre-63, considering I was born in 64. I could go on and on in regards to the senior pool that is very deep. Thanks

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