You could make the case that the seeds of the modern football passing game, college and pro, were planted around 50 years ago.
Bill Walsh was tweaking the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense and crafting what would become the West Coast offense. Don Coryell took what would be known as his Air Coryell offense to the big time, jumping from San Diego State to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973. LaVell Edwards took over as BYU head coach in 1972 and, figuring he had to do something radical to succeed there, took to the air. They would become three of the most influential figures in the modernization of football.
It would take a while for these ideas to percolate to the top of college football, which would be ruled by the wishbone and old-school physicality for a few more years to come. But mad scientists were tinkering.
Let’s commemorate the occasion, then, by celebrating the premier FBS wide receivers over these past five decades. Here are the top 50.
Career Stats: 240 catches, 3,391 yards, 27 TDs (also: 339 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD, 1 kick return TD)
One of the most highly touted and important signings of the early Dabo Swinney era, Watkins lived up to his billing, recording 1,219 yards as a freshman and 1,464 as a junior to help boost the profile of a rising Clemson program.
49. J.J. Stokes, UCLA
Career Stats: 154 catches, 2,469 yards, 28 TDs
A big-play threat throughout his career, Stokes finished seventh in the Heisman voting in 1993 while catching 82 passes for 1,181 yards and 17 TDs, leading the Bruins to a surprising Rose Bowl bid.
48. Steve Largent, Tulsa
Career Stats: 136 catches, 2,385 yards, 32 TDs
He’s known mostly for his exploits with the Seattle Seahawks, but adjusting for the era, his 51-catch, 1,000-yard performance with the Golden Hurricane in 1975 is equivalent to about 90 catches for 1,600 yards today.