The best No. 2 wide receivers in NFL history

A few teams added veteran auxiliary wide receivers this offseason, and it is not out of the question Julio Jones settles into this role with the Titans. This oft-overlooked job has a rich history. Excluding wideouts who spent too much time as a team’s No. 1 option and those in true 1-1A situations (such as Isaac Bruce & Torry Holt), here are the best aerial sidekicks — the players who did the most with No. 2 receiving roles — in NFL history.


Danny Amendola

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Amendola only cleared 600 yards in three of his five Patriots seasons and never topped 700 — in a Rob Gronkowski- and Julian Edelman-centered pass offense — but “Playoff Danny” elevates him into WR2 lore. An ex-Rams undrafted free agent, Amendola joined the Pats just after Wes Welker signed with the Broncos in 2013. Edelman ended up becoming Welker’s WR1 successor, but Amendola delivered in January and February — be it on the receiving end of Edelman’s double pass to vex the Ravens, catching two Super Bowl TDs or scoring twice to save the Pats in a comeback win over the Jaguars after a Gronk concussion — to justify his contract. 


Flipper Anderson

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Despite rule changes designed to turbocharge passing attacks, no one has taken down Anderson’s single-game receiving record. His 336-yard 1989 performance in New Orleans still stands, but Anderson was more than a one-game star. Henry Ellard’s slender apprentice averaged a staggering 26 yards per catch in ’89 and gave the Rams a walk-off playoff win over the Giants. He topped 1,000 yards in 1990 as well. Although the Rams ’90s decline diminished Anderson’s Q rating, he played 10 seasons and finished with over 5,300 yards. Among qualified receivers, Anderson’s 20.1 career yards per catch ranks fourth all time.


Bob Boyd

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A former NCAA 100-yard dash champion, Boyd made deep-ball cameos for two historically potent Rams offenses — Hall of Famer-laden 1950 and ’51 teams that ventured to NFL title games — before coming into his own as one of the best long-range receivers of the era. Boyd played with All-Century receiver Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch throughout his seven-year Rams career but finished in the top 13 in receiving yards three times. Boyd peaked in 1954 when he led the NFL with 1,212 yards (only two players reached 900 that year). One of the NFL’s first Black players, Boyd averaged 20.5 yards per catch for his career.


Wayne Chrebet

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Undrafted out of Hofstra, Chrebet led the Jets in receiving as a rookie and made a career out of providing chain-moving catches. Chrebet teamed with No. 1 overall pick Keyshawn Johnson for four seasons. During the Jets’ 1998 season, both eclipsed 1,000 yards. Chrebet later worked as a high-end WR2 alongside Santana Moss and Laveranues Coles, giving Vinny Testaverde and Chad Pennington a reliable target. Chrebet scored twice in one of the Jets’ signature games — their “Monday Night Miracle” comeback to stun the Dolphins in 2000 — and the 11-year veteran still trails only Don Maynard for catches in Jets history (580).


Bobby Joe Conrad

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The Cardinals of the 1960s had the receiver position locked down, though that did not translate to playoff berths. Conrad teamed with Sonny Randle, whose 64 touchdown catches led the NFL in the 1960s, and gave St. Louis a dependable second option. The Cards moved Conrad from running back to receiver in 1962. In his first two years on the job, he and Randle combined for over 2,000 receiving yards — uncommon in the NFL in this era — and helped St. Louis to a 9-5 record in an All-Pro ’63 slate. Conrad was also a 1964 Pro Bowler. He of seven college receptions, Conrad still ranks in the top eight in Cards catches, yards, and TD grabs.


Eric Decker

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At multiple points, Decker proved he was not purely a Peyton Manning creation. While his best years came in two seasons with Manning, the former third-round pick was crucial during Denver’s unusual, Tim Tebow-driven 2011 season (612 yards, eight touchdowns) and complemented Brandon Marshall well with a 1,027-yard, 12-TD season with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm in New York. Decker, though, scored 24 TDs and nearly topped 2,400 yards with Manning from 2012-13. A possession target who could get deep, Decker led the 2012 Broncos with 13 TDs and added 10 more while playing for the top scoring offense in NFL history.


Quinn Early

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Although the Chargers traded up to draft Early in the 1988 third round, he first became NFL-relevant in New Orleans. The Saints used the 1991 free agency add as Eric Martin’s sidekick for three seasons, two of those producing playoff berths, and gave the Iowa alum a bigger role in the mid-’90s. Early’s lone 1,000-yard season came in 1995, and it prompted the Bills to make an offer. Early became Andre Reed’s wingman for the next two seasons, serving as a bridge while Eric Moulds developed. (Early’s 122-yard day nearly saved the Bills in Jim Kelly’s finale, a 1996 wild-card loss to the Jags.) He played 12 NFL seasons. 


Ernest Givins

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The Oilers’ Run and Shoot setup was conducive to receiving stats, but Givins put up big WR2 numbers before Houston pivoted to that system. The 1986 Round 2 pick topped 1,000 yards as a rookie and finished in the top 20 in yardage in each of his first three seasons, teaming with Drew Hill to form an elite wideout pair. When the Oilers turned to a pass-crazed attack in 1990, Haywood Jeffires became Moon’s top target. His slithery teammate played a key role in Houston making seven straight playoff berths. Givins has an Oilers/Titans-most eight postseason TDs and remains the franchise’s all-time receiving leader (7,835 yards).


Alvin Harper

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Harper’s stats do not reveal the full tale. The 1991 first-round pick represented a missing piece (or lavish luxury) for the Cowboys, who deployed Michael Irvin’s 6-foot-3 counterpart as a lethal downfield threat. The Cowboys rode to Super Bowl XXXVII on Harper’s 70-yard slant, toppling the 49ers in the NFC title game, and Troy Aikman’s WR2 gave defenses fits in 1993 as well. Harper’s 24.9 receiving yards per game in 1994 are the most in the past 27 years; he added a 94-yard touchdown against the Packers in those playoffs. Harper’s 1995 Bucs signing was bad for both parties, and his career was not the same outside of Dallas.


Duriel Harris

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Harris arrived in a transition period, joining the Dolphins as Bob Griese was winding down and did not factor in much with Dan Marino. But the deep threat was one of the NFL’s better receivers in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Harris teamed with Nat Moore on Griese’s final teams and enjoyed his own WR1 moment on the 1981 Dolphins, who used David Woodley as their primary QB. The Dolphins’ top wideout that year posted 106 yards in the “Epic in Miami” — arguably the NFL’s greatest game — and was the hook-and-ladder pitchman that night. Not an end zone mainstay (20 TDs in 10 seasons), but an underrated producer for a period.


Ben Hawkins

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The Eagles of the late 1960s and early ’70s operated largely off the radar, clearly limiting Hawkins’ photo opportunities (though, his often-dangling chinstrap was photogenic). Hawkins led the NFL in receiving in his second season, breaking off a 1,265-yard slate in 1967. He later played a co-starring role alongside talented Harolds — Jackson and Carmichael. Still, Tom Landry once called Hawkins the most dangerous wideout in the NFL. Playing mostly with Jackson — the NFL’s receiving leader in the 1970s — the flashy pass-catcher compiled four more 600-plus-yard seasons in a difficult era to amass such stats.


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Devery Henderson and Lance Moore

Devery Henderson and Lance Moore

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Grouping Drew Brees’ top two Super Bowl-era role receivers feels appropriate, and their disparate skillsets complemented Marques Colston well. During a nine-season Saints run, Henderson twice led the NFL in yards per catch and added four playoff TDs — two during New Orleans’ run to Super Bowl XLIV. Moore functioned as Brees’ slot presence during his best years, thrice scoring at least eight TDs in a season. Both played pivotal roles as Brees set the then-single-season passing yardage record in 2011 and broke Johnny Unitas’ longstanding mark for consecutive games with a touchdown pass. 


Santonio Holmes

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Holmes’ toe-tapping Super Bowl XLIII game-winner could double as the WR2 logo. Hines Ward’s apprentice took over in crunch time, totaling 73 yards on an 88-yard game-winning drive. After winning Super Bowl MVP honors, the former first-round pick did take over as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 target in 2009. But he played just four years in Pittsburgh; Ward remained Ben Roethlisberger’s top wideout for most of that span. The Steelers shipped Holmes to the Jets in 2010, and he then supported Braylon Edwards. Holmes’ career was nearly too good for a WR2 tag, but the nine-year vet could not quite escape the label.


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T.J. Houshmandzadeh

T.J. Houshmandzadeh

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Houshmandzadeh’s emergence changed the Bengals’ plans. The seventh-round pick usurped top-five draftee Peter Warrick in Cincinnati’s aerial pecking order and teamed with Chad Johnson to form one of the 21st century’s top receiving duos. Houshmandzadeh paired with Johnson at Oregon State and in Cincinnati, and the long-haired contested-catch standout reeled off six straight 900-plus-yard seasons during the 2000s. Housh’s possession prowess peaked in 2007 when he led the NFL with 112 catches. Later a Seahawk, Houshmandzadeh played 11 seasons and accumulated more than 7,000 yards.


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Marvin Jones and Golden Tate

Marvin Jones and Golden Tate

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These teammates shared WR1 duties for a bit in Detroit, but Kenny Golladay overtook them fairly quickly. Tate and Jones both caddied for stars prior to joining forces — Tate being Calvin Johnson’s final Lions auxiliary piece and Jones breaking into the NFL during A.J. Green’s Pro Bowl streak. Tate has been one of this stretch’s top slot receivers, entering the league as a Sidney Rice complement before compiling three 1,000-yard years in Detroit. A superior deep target, Jones has two four-TD games and — after a season-nullifying 2014 injury — has delivered high-floor work for six straight years. He will now help groom Trevor Lawrence.


Ed McCaffrey

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A possession receiver and downfield blocker for Terrell Davis, McCaffrey was at no point the Broncos’ No. 1 target. The 1991 Giants third-round pick began his Denver tenure as Anthony Miller’s sidekick before a lengthy Rod Smith partnership began in 1997. Smith and McCaffrey teamed as starters through the 2003 season, collecting two Super Bowl rings and dropping three 1,000-1,000 seasons — two of which coming after John Elway’s retirement and all after McCaffrey’s 30th birthday. Christian’s father absorbed considerable over-the-middle punishment but kept his shoulder pads small. The 6-foot-5 cog played 13 seasons and nearly hit 7,500 yards.


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Keenan McCardell

Keenan McCardell

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McCardell straddles the line between 1-A and WR2, but Jimmy Smith is perhaps the best player in Jaguars history and Keyshawn Johnson was the Buccaneers’ top early-aughts wideout. McCardell was not a steady Pro Bowler (two in 16 seasons), but he produced five 1,000-yard seasons and proved essential to the Jags’ rise and the Bucs reaching the mountaintop. A former Browns UDFA, McCardell signed with the Jags in 1996; they made the next four playoff fields. He joined the Bucs in 2002, caught a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXXVII, and eventually outlasted Johnson in Tampa. He was productive with the Chargers in his mid-30s as well. 


Brett Perriman

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Perriman preceded Quinn Early as Eric Martin Saints support, but his career took off after he signed with the Lions in 1991. Part of four Detroit playoff teams during his six-year stay, Perriman worked as the No. 2 man alongside All-Pro Herman Moore. The duo lacked QB consistency, playing with the Rodney Peete-Erik Kramer-Andre Ware trio for three seasons and Scott Mitchell for the next three. Perriman exploded for 1,488 yards for a 1995 Lions squad that saw him, Moore, and Barry Sanders top 1,500 scrimmage yards. At 31, Perriman exceeded 1,000 again in ’96. He played 10 seasons and totaled nearly 7,000 yards.


Jake Reed

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Randy Moss and Cris Carter formed a two-Hall of Famer receiver tandem, but Carter’s peak occurred opposite Reed in the mid-1990s. A 1991 third-rounder, Reed developed while Anthony Carter’s Vikings tenure wound down. In 1994, Warren Moon arrived and fed one of the decade’s defining duos. Carter attained fame, making the Pro Bowl each year from 1994-97, but Reed offered one of the highest floors in WR2 annals. He cleared 1,100 yards in each of these seasons and surely would have made a Pro Bowl in today’s alternate-happy era. Reed helped Minnesota to three playoff berths. He took a backseat post-Moss but ended up playing 12 seasons.


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Emmanuel Sanders

Emmanuel Sanders

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Sanders played an essential part in two teams reaching Super Bowls and has become a WR2 mercenary. The rare Steelers wideout draftee to peak elsewhere, Sanders arrived in Denver just ahead of Peyton Manning’s decline. He surpassed 1,000 yards in his first three Bronco seasons and became Manning’s go-to weapon in the 2015 playoffs, helping a limited Denver offense do enough to claim a title. The gritty mid-range weapon made the Pro Bowl with Trevor Siemian at QB and enhanced the 2019 49ers’ passing attack, nearly collecting a second ring. Going into his age-34 season, Sanders remains a quality starter.


Ricky Sanders

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Despite spending his first two pro years in the USFL, Sanders reeled off nearly 6,500 NFL yards in 10 seasons. Washington traded for Sanders’ rights in 1986, adding him to form “The Posse” — an Art Monk-Gary Clark-Sanders triad that thrived for six seasons and became the first wideout trio to go 1,000-1,000-1,000 (in 1989). Sanders ripped off two 1,100-yard seasons, working as the de facto sidekick for Clark and Monk, and his Super Bowl XXII 193-yard, two-TD scorching of the Broncos led to a widely viewed reception on the White House lawn. Sanders won two rings and lasted until age 35.


George Sauer

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Quantity-wise, Sauer’s resume is lacking. But Don Maynard’s overqualified complementary cog could have made a Hall of Fame bid — had he chosen to continue his career past 27. The Jets signed Sauer as a UDFA in 1965 and immediately paired the rookie with Maynard in Joe Namath’s rookie year. The top-flight route runner posted three straight 1,000-yard seasons from 1966-68 and played a major role in the Jets upsetting the Colts in Super Bowl III. With Maynard hampered by a hamstring injury, Sauer caught eight passes for 133 yards in pro football’s signature upset. Not big on the NFL life, Sauer opted to retire after the 1970 season.


Darnay Scott

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Part of one of the more overlooked successful receiver pairings in modern NFL history, Scott worked as the Bengals’ No. 2 wideout for much of the 1990s. Scott teamed with Pro Bowler Carl Pickens during this period. Unfortunately for the talented pass catchers, the Bengals were terrible for most of the decade. Scott never played in a playoff game but caught plenty of Jeff Blake moon-balls and, in six Cincinnati seasons, never recorded fewer than 797 receiving yards. The San Diego State product returned from a broken leg in 2001 to lead an aerial corps that housed rookies Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. 


Freddie Solomon

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Part of a big trade package that sent running back Delvin Williams to the Dolphins in 1978, Solomon played a ground-floor role in the 49ers’ ascent. The college QB-turned-NFL deep threat arrived in San Francisco months before Bill Walsh and starred in the famed innovator’s West Coast Offense. Solomon started 97 games with the 49ers, and while Dwight Clark worked as Joe Montana’s top option, Solomon was not far behind. He led Super Bowl-winning 1981 and ’84 49ers squads in TD catches and added four more in the playoffs en route to those championships. Solomon played 11 seasons, retiring after Jerry Rice’s rookie year.


John Taylor

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It would have been interesting if Taylor had his own receiving corps to lead, but he still received considerable attention for being Jerry Rice’s air support. While not quite on the MJ-Scottie level, Rice and Taylor shredded defenses together for nearly a decade and collected three Super Bowl rings. A Delaware State alum, Taylor was not yet a starter when he caught the iconic Super Bowl XXIII game-winner. He then totaled two 1,000-yard seasons — one with Joe Montana, one with Steve Young — and the run-after-catch demon (see: Anaheim, 1989) bridged the gap all the way to the T.O. era. A first-ballot WR2 Hall of Famer.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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