Undoubtedly, the three best wide receivers of the last 15 years are Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Calvin Johnson. These three have put up numbers and have made highlights unmatched by anybody of this era. Calvin Johnson’s career lasted nine years, and now that Antonio Brown and Julio Jones have played nine seasons, we can compare their statistics, accolades, and highlights.
First, we go straight into the numbers:
Antonio Brown (131 games): 841 rec, 11,263 yards, 75 TDs
Julio Jones (126 games): 797 rec, 12,125 yards, 57 TDs
Calvin Johnson (135 games): 731 rec, 11,619 yards, 83 TDs
It is immediately clear that all three of these players have tremendous stats, that was never in question. But is there a clear leader? The short answer is no, there isn’t. You can argue for Johnson, as he has the most touchdowns and yards per catch. Or Jones and his lead in yardage. Perhaps you value receptions above all else and believe that Brown is the top dog. This comes down to what type of receiver you prefer, based off of nothing but numbers.
If you dig a little deeper, Johnson has more touchdowns per game than Brown and Jones, but beats out only Brown in yards per game, while Jones takes the lead in that category. The receptions per game leader is clearly Brown, followed by Jones and Johnson in that order. The differences aren’t very large though. The only outlier is Jones’ low number of total touchdowns compared to Brown and Johnson, and that could hurt him in this comparison if you absolutely value scoring production.
The statistics don’t tell us much, other than the fact they are all fantastic receivers. Let’s move on to accolades:
Antonio Brown (2010-2019): 7x Pro Bowl, 4x First-Team All Pro, 1x Second-Team All Pro, 1x NFL Receptions Leader, 1x NFL Receptions Co-leader, 2x NFL Receiving Yards Leader, and 1x NFL Receiving Touchdown Leader
Julio Jones (2011-2019): 7x Pro Bowl, 2x First-Team All Pro, 3x Second-Team All Pro, 2x NFL Receiving Yards Leader, and 1x NFL Receptions Co-leader
Calvin Johnson (2007-2015): 6x Pro Bowl, 3x First-Team All Pro, 1x Second-Team All Pro, 2x NFL Receiving Yards Leader, 1x NFL Receptions Leader, and 1x NFL Receiving Touchdown Leader
All three players also have numerous NFL and franchise records, but there are far too many to list here. It is very clear that all players have sustained their elite play, as shown by the sheer number of awards. All have nearly the same number of statistical awards, and the only real difference comes in the number of All-Pro teams made. Antonio Brown leads the way in All-Pro selections in both total number and First-Team selections. Calvin Johnson is next in First-Team selections, while Julio Jones is last.
But even with the slight differences here, it is nearly impossible to pick a clear best receiver among these three. What little separation there is still is not enough to set one apart from the rest, even if you wanted to.
The final verdict must come from intangible factors and longevity. This is what will ultimately separate these three. Starting with Antonio Brown, he played an amazing nine seasons in the league. But, he essentially went insane. It is doubtful if he will ever play again in any meaningful way, so his statistics and accolades might be stuck where they are. It is worth noting that his fall from grace was not an admirable one.
Calvin Johnson similarly played a tremendous nine season in the NFL, but his eventual departure was not nearly as bad as Brown’s. He retired by his own choice, not because no one wants to touch him with a 10ft pole. He could ask to join a team and probably earn a tryout right now.
Julio Jones is the only one of these three that appears to have the ability to play longer than a decade. He is also showing no signs of slowing down. While statistics and accolades were not the best of the three, he is still going. Longevity is important in a sport with a ton of turnover, and Jones provides that. Is he the flashiest of the three? No, but he isn’t done quite yet.
So, who is better of the three? Ultimately, this is an impossible question. If I were a general manager and I was given the option of taking any of their careers exactly as is, my list would be: Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, then Antonio Brown. Johnson takes the top spot because he had physical dimensions to his game that will never be matched, and his statistics and accolades are up there with the best, even if he only played nine seasons.
I chose Julio Jones over Antonio Brown because unlike Brown, Jones hasn’t lost his mind. I value sane players, not players who push themselves out of the league. While Jones may have lesser stats and accolades by a small margin, I value his longevity to this point. If Brown stayed at least somewhat mentally stable, he probably would’ve taken the top spot.
Of course, I can’t write an article about the three best receivers of this generation without including highlights, so enjoy: