The Best: Wide receiver
In our series, The Best, our experts identify the best wide receiver in the NFL.
Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, our series, "The Best," will look at the NFL's best in a number of key categories.
The Best: Wide Receiver
He's the most explosive receiver in the game right now. The man literally can take over games with his devastating combination of speed and quickness, and his toughness is vastly underrated. He'll go over the middle, and he'll fight for balls in the air. The best thing that can be said about Smith is that he still attacks the game like the kick returner he was when he first entered the NFL. He plays every down as if his career is on the line.
Over the next two weeks, our series, "The Best," will look at the NFL's best in a number of key categories.
• May 28: Player to start with | Vote
• May 29: Quarterback | Vote
• May 30: Coach | Vote
• May 31: Wide receiver | Vote
• June 1: Player you've never heard of | Quiz
• June 4: Defensive player
• June 5: Running back
• June 6: Leader
• June 7: Rookie
• June 8: Owner
Jerry Rice proved the great ones can play successfully forever, and that's what Harrison is doing. Despite being 34 years old, Harrison is the league's best receiver. Like Rice, Harrison is a perfectionist. He runs routes precisely and spends his practice time working with Peyton Manning on timing. Despite continuous double coverage, Harrison finds ways to get open. Over the past eight years, he has averaged 103 catches a season. Last year's 95-catch season was a confirmation that Harrison, despite injuries, hasn't lost anything. His 14.4 yards per catch average was the second-best of his career. His 18 catches of 20-plus yards was the fourth-best of his career. Harrison might not catch Rice in stats, but he's the only one who has a chance.
Merril Hoge: Smith
This is a tough question because so much goes into making a great receiver. He has to have great hands, the ability to make the big play downfield and the toughness to go over the middle, and he must be a game changer. To me, those attributes scream Steve Smith. When Smith is on the field, every defensive player in the secondary is thinking about the potential route he's going to run because he has the ability to go score on any kind of route.
His intensity is what really stands out, though, in terms of his being the best receiver in the game. You know every time he steps on the field that he's going for the jugular and the win. If that means taking a big hit to make a catch in traffic or blowing someone up downfield with a big block, that is what he'll do.
Matt Mosley: Harrison
With apologies to Smith and Chad Johnson, Harrison remains the best wide receiver in the NFL. Sure, he's now in his mid-30s, but he's still among the most dangerous players in the game. If you talk to some of the top cornerbacks across the league, most of them still say Harrison's the toughest wide receiver to defend on a weekly basis. The Panthers' Smith might be more explosive at times because he has the type of speed that can turn a short pass into a 70-yard touchdown at any minute. Johnson has unbelievable size and speed, but I've watched teams take him out of games before. And the same goes for Smith. That's something that almost never happens to Harrison.
His streak of 170 games with at least one reception is the longest among NFL players to begin their careers. And he's had multiple catches in 167 of those games. I realize it helps to have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time throwing to you and an elite receiver on the other side, but Harrison's ability to constantly exploit an opponent's weakness sets him apart. The fact that he's almost freakishly unaffected by his greatness makes him all the more deserving in my mind.
There are so many great wide receivers in the NFL that it's difficult to narrow them into a workable list. But after much deliberation and personal agonizing, we settled on a subset of four -- Marvin Harrison, Chad Johnson, Torry Holt and Steve Smith -- for consideration. We were especially impressed with Smith because, of the four finalists, he is the one who has posted big numbers without a viable complement for much of his career. In the end, though, it's simply too hard to ignore Harrison's accomplishments. The Indianapolis Colts star will turn 35 in August, only a few weeks after the start of training camp, but continues to excel, and you have to break out a microscope to discern any slippage in his game. Only once in his career, way back in 1998, did Harrison post fewer than 60 receptions in a season. In the eight seasons since, he has registered more than 80 catches and 1,100 yards, and had double-digit touchdown catches, every year. His four-year stretch 1999-2002 -- in which he averaged a remarkable 117.3 receptions, 1,580.5 yards and 13 touchdowns -- is one of the greatest in NFL history. In 11 seasons, Harrison has averaged 92.9 catches. The incomparable Jerry Rice averaged 85.6 catches in his first 11 seasons.