Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor shined during the NFL’s first 17-game regular season, making record-setting pushes. Looking back to the 12-, 14- and 16-game eras, here are the best seasons by a skill-position player for each of the NFL’s 32 teams.
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Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald, 2008
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A team that finished 20th in DVOA and ranked 28th defensively represented the NFC in Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals earned their only Super Bowl berth in franchise history largely because Fitzgerald reached a level few receivers ever have. Fitz made 11 Pro Bowls but landed just one All-Pro honor, climbing to this tier in 2008. In the playoffs, the franchise icon shattered NFL records by posting 546 yards — on top of 1,431 in the regular season — and scoring seven touchdowns. Fitz powered the Cards past the Eagles to reach the big stage and nearly KO’d the No. 1-ranked Steeler defense once there.
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Atlanta Falcons: Jamal Anderson, 1998
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Julio Jones’ career laps Anderson’s in Falcons lore, but for one season, it all came together for the “Dirty Bird” flock leader. Setting up a running back showdown for the ages in Super Bowl XXXIII with MVP Terrell Davis, Anderson rushed for 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns to drive a Chris Chandler-quarterbacked team to a 14-2 record and the first Super Bowl in franchise history. Anderson suffered a major knee injury in 1999 to stall his momentum, and he never topped 1,100 yards in any other season. But the former seventh-round pick’s 1998 masterpiece will never be forgotten in Atlanta.
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Baltimore Ravens: Jamal Lewis, 2003
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A run-oriented franchise received its best rushing season 19 years ago when Lewis became the fifth player to surpass 2,000 rushing yards. Lewis’ 2,066-yard season still sits third in NFL history, and he carried an offense limited by Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright at quarterback. The Ravens ranked last in passing that season. Fortunately, their fourth-year power back was on a mission. Among the highlights: a then-record 295-yard day against the Browns and a 114-yard Week 17 outing against the Steelers to clinch the Ravens a playoff spot. Despite Lewis being a seven-time 1,000-yard rusher, this was his only Pro Bowl year.
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Buffalo Bills: O.J. Simpson, 1975
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This is not Simpson’s 2,000-yard season, but rather a slightly superior encore two years later. Simpson did not quite reach 2,000 in his seventh season. However, he did score an NFL-leading 23 touchdowns (seven receiving, compared to zero in 1973) to go with 2,243 scrimmage yards — a total also north of his storied 1973 season. The Bills went 8-6 this season. One of those wins came at Three Rivers Stadium that September when Simpson gashed the Steel Curtain for a season-high 227 yards in a 30-21 Bills win. The Steelers went on to win their second straight Super Bowl four months later.
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Carolina Panthers: Steve Smith, 2005
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Before Cooper Kupp notched his triple-crown performance, Smith was the previous wideout to complete the receptions-yards-TDs first-place sweep. Smith suffered a broken leg that limited him to just one game in 2004, and Muhsin Muhammad signed with the Bears in ’05. Smith responded by dominating and carrying the Panthers to the NFC championship game. While the Panther star’s 1,563-yard, 12-TD season impressed, his torching of a No. 1-ranked Bears defense in the divisional round (12 catches, 218 yards, two TDs) represents one of the great exclamation points to a season in NFL history.
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Chicago Bears: Walter Payton, 1977
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This basically boils down to picking the best “Sweetness” season. Payton’s legendary durability allowed him to smash Jim Brown’s career rushing record, and he topped 1,500 rushing yards at age 30 and 31, the latter coming for the famed 1985 Bears squad. The iconic back’s best stuff, however, came in his third season. The Bears started 3-5 and won their final six to make the playoffs, doing so with the NFL’s 21st-ranked pass attack. A flu-ridden Payton broke the single-game rushing record with a 275-yard game against the Vikings. The all-time great finished with 1,852 yards in 14 games en route to MVP honors.
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Cincinnati Bengals: Chad Johnson, 2005
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Not only did Ja’Marr Chase make this close, but the Bengals’ history of impact wideouts — from Isaac Curtis to Eddie Brown to A.J. Green — made this a difficult call. So did James Brooks. But Johnson, at his pre-Ochocinco apex, led the way to the Bengals snapping a 15-year playoff drought. The former Oregon State cog joined Steve Smith as a 2005 first-team All-Pro by posting 1,432 receiving yards — then a Bengals record — and catching nine TD passes. As the Bengals transitioned from Corey Dillon, Johnson emerged as Carson Palmer’s top chain-mover. The Bengals won the AFC North at 11-5, though Palmer’s playoff ACL tear cruelly halted this rise.
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Cleveland Browns: Jim Brown, 1963
Like the Bears, this is a one-player competition. The most dominant back in NFL history won eight rushing titles in nine seasons. In 1958, his second season, the Syracuse-developed fullback gained an astounding 1,527 rushing yards in 12 games, breaking the NFL record by more than 300 yards. In 1963, Brown averaged more yards per game and broke his own record by amassing 1,863 yards. Cleveland’s all-timer led the NFL by more than 800 (!) rushing yards that year, with only one other back even reaching 1,000 on the ground. This came in Blanton Collier’s first season as head coach; the following year, the Browns won the championship.
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Dallas Cowboys: Emmitt Smith, 1993
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The 1990s’ central backfield debate pitted Smith’s advantages — mainly on the O-line — against Barry Sanders’ ability. But the Cowboys started 0-2 in 1993, with Smith engaged in a holdout, and had fourth-round rookie Derrick Lassic as an emergency starter. Smith returned in Week 3 and rolled to MVP honors. A stark disparity emerged between Dallas’ offense with and without Smith. The future rushing kingpin finished with 1,486 yards and delivered his signature game to close this season. Playing through a separated shoulder to total 229 scrimmage yards (on 42 touches) in Week 18 against the Giants, Smith gave the eventual champion Cowboys the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
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Denver Broncos: Terrell Davis, 1998
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Blending an innovative run scheme with a dynamic back, the Broncos churned out one of the NFL’s signature rushing seasons. The Davis era peaked in his fourth season when the former sixth-round pick became the fourth member of the 2,000-yard club and the second Bronco to win MVP honors (after John Elway in 1987). Davis’ undersized O-line gave him prime real estate, and the cutback maven bedeviled linebackers en route to 2,008 rushing yards and 23 total TDs in the Broncos’ 14-2 season. Davis finished the year with three more 100-yard playoff outings to run his streak to seven. His combined scrimmage yards total (2,762) remains an NFL record.
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Detroit Lions: Barry Sanders, 1997
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Choosing a best Sanders slate is like picking a “Frasier” season during its five-year Emmy run. The era’s premier back averaged more than five yards per carry five times (to Emmitt Smith’s one) and did it on full workloads. While Sanders hit 1,883 yards in 1994, he topped that three years later. Barry entered Week 3 with just 53 rushing yards, adding an extreme degree-of-difficulty challenge. Sanders’ next 14 games produced exactly 2,000 yards, with his grand total wrapping up at 2,053. The ninth-year Lion averaged an astounding 6.1 yards per carry and lifted the Scott Mitchell-piloted Lions to the playoffs.
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Green Bay Packers: Don Hutson, 1942
Hutson tallied 1,211 receiving yards in 1942. The NFL’s best non-Hutson total to that point: Gaynell Tinsley’s 675-yard season in 1937. The Babe Ruth-ian gap between Hutson and his peers is wider than anyone else included here. Receivers were not asked to catch passes like they were in future generations, and the NFL did see World War II drain its talent pool. Nevertheless, “The Alabama Antelope” dominated before and during the war. Hutson led the NFL in receiving seven times and in TD receptions on nine occasions. When Hutson retired, his 99 TD grabs were a cool 63 more than anyone else had compiled.
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Houston Texans: Arian Foster, 2010
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In 2009, the Texans’ leading rusher gained 437 yards; the team ranked 30th on the ground. In Foster’s first season as Houston’s starter, he won the rushing title with 1,616 yards. A former undrafted free agent, Foster added to the Gary Kubiak rushing lineage, following the likes of Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, and Clinton Portis. Save for Davis, Foster outrushed them all and added 604 receiving yards. The Texans soon centered their offense around Foster, making the playoffs in 2011 and ’12. Those showings did not top Foster’s breakthrough slate, which made him the only All-Pro back in Texans history.
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Indianapolis Colts: Marvin Harrison, 2002
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Presenting a tough choice that also involves Edgerrin James, Lydell Mitchell and Raymond Berry, Harrison’s best stuff wins out. The Harrison-Peyton Manning rapport never flashed as it did in the Hall of Fame wideout’s age-30 slate when he popped for a then-unfathomable 143 receptions and a career-high 1,722 yards. Harrison broke Herman Moore’s single-season catch record by 20, initially going past it in Week 15. Second place in catches that year: Hines Ward with 112. Harrison also topped the NFL’s No. 2 receiving yards finisher (Randy Moss) by nearly 400, helping the Colts to the playoffs in Tony Dungy’s first year.
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Jacksonville Jaguars: Jimmy Smith, 1999
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Like Harrison, Smith’s best season came at age 30. The top receiver in Jaguars history was vital in the best showing in franchise annals. The Jags’ 14-2 season included a 1,636-yard year from Smith, who caught an NFL-high 116 passes. This only resulted in six touchdowns, but the former Cowboys castoff made a constant impact for the AFC’s No. 1-seeded squad. He contributed to the Jags’ astonishing second-round performance — a 62-7 rout of the Dolphins to end Dan Marino’s career — with 136 yards and two scores.
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Kansas City Chiefs: Priest Holmes, 2002
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From Travis Kelce and Tony Gonzalez to Jamaal Charles’ yards-per-carry madness, the Chiefs have some choices. Nothing came together quite like it did when Holmes was humming in the early 2000s. Running behind an O-line that rivaled Emmitt Smith’s best Cowboys quintets, Holmes delivered one of the best mid-career breakouts in modern NFL history. After leading the NFL in rushing in his first Chiefs season, Holmes paced the league with 2,287 scrimmage yards and 24 TDs. He did this despite missing the Chiefs’ final two games, giving this a slight nod over Holmes’ then-record 27-touchdown 2003 season.
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Las Vegas Raiders: Marcus Allen, 1985
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Before Bo Jackson’s arrival and a feud with Al Davis led Allen out of Los Angeles, the versatile playmaker delivered an MVP season. Narrowly edging Walter Payton’s work for the eventual Super Bowl champions, Allen compiled 2,314 scrimmage yards and scored 14 touchdowns for a 12-4 Raiders team. The smooth runner closed the season with nine straight 100-yard rushing performances and was a consistent aerial option for iffy first-round QB Marc Wilson. Allen would not produce another 1,000-yard season, but the future Hall of Famer played 12 more years in L.A. and Kansas City.
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Los Angeles Chargers: LaDainian Tomlinson, 2006
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Due respect to Lance Alworth and the Chargers’ top-shelf tight ends, Kellen Winslow and Antonio Gates, Tomlinson broke not only the single-season touchdown record but a 56-year-old scoring standard as well. The Chargers tailback delivered his usual blend of ground dominance and receiving production by tallying 2,323 scrimmage yards. The sixth-year back played the lead role in the Chargers going 14-2 with first-year starter Philip Rivers, who was not yet a prolific passer. Tomlinson’s 31 touchdowns broke Shaun Alexander’s new record by three, and his 186 points eclipsed Paul Hornung’s decades-long mark, which was achieved with TDs and kicks.
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Los Angeles Rams: Elroy Hirsch, 1951
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This competition is stacked, as the Rams rostered the NFL’s greatest dual-threat back at his peak and the NFL’s single-season rushing record holder. Decades before Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson, a Hall of Fame wideout put his name far above others in the record book. Using an offense with two Canton-bound QBs (Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin), the Rams had set a still-standing scoring record in 1950. But Hirsch was a bigger part of Los Angeles’ 1951 attack, catching 66 passes for 1,495 yards and 17 TDs. “Crazy Legs” broke Hutson’s yardage record by nearly 300 and led the NFL by 600-plus that year, helping the Rams to a title.
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Miami Dolphins: Ricky Williams, 2002
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While the running back position has decreased in value as this century has progressed, the early 2000s still represented a bull market for the hallowed gig. Williams ripped off his signature season in his first Miami slate, leading the NFL by more than 200 rushing yards. The former Mike Ditka draft prize gained 1,853 in his first season away from the Saints. Although the Dolphins went 9-7 and missed the playoffs, Dave Wannstedt’s crew was limited at quarterback. Williams led the team to wins over the AFC champion Raiders and the playoff-bound Jets and Colts. Workload concerns led Williams to take a controversial sabbatical in 2004.
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Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson, 2012
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If we are judging by sheer dominance, Randy Moss would be the pick. Production-wise, Peterson cannot be overlooked after going bonkers on the ground in a pass-tilted era. Coming off his 2011 ACL tear, the sixth-year back made a rapid recovery and dragged a Vikings team constrained by Christian Ponder to the playoffs. Peterson made the best run at Dickerson’s record, finishing with 2,097 yards — eight shy of the ex-Ram great’s 1984 total. Peterson’s 199-yard Week 17 showing both threatened Dickerson’s mark and led the Vikes to a playoff-clinching win over the Packers, besting Aaron Rodgers’ 365-yard, four-TD day.
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New England Patriots: Randy Moss, 2007
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Moss is included elsewhere, being the main variable in Tom Brady going from not making the 2006 Pro Bowl to setting the NFL touchdown pass record a year later. Stolen from the Raiders for a fourth-round pick, Moss shredded secondaries throughout and did not stop until he broke Jerry Rice’s 20-year-old record by catching 23 TD passes. Rice set that record in just 12 games, but Moss turned Brady into a monster and led the Patriots to their perfection push. Since the rejuvenated phenom’s age-30 dominance for the 16-0 Patriots, which also included 1,493 yards, no wideout has made a serious pursuit of his TD record.
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New Orleans Saints: Michael Thomas, 2019
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Like Harrison in 2002, Thomas was a tier unto himself in 2019. The mid-range target monster did not obliterate the reception record like the Colts Hall of Famer had, but his 149 receptions led the NFL by 43. While injuries have dogged the All-Pro New Orleans target in the years since he was in a zone for the 13-3 Saints during his last healthy year. Thomas’ 1,725 yards also paced the NFL by more than 300. Thomas played an essential part in Drew Brees remaining a high-end quarterback until age 40.
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New York Giants: Tiki Barber, 2005
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Equipped with his late-career high-and-tight carrying technique designed to curb his fumbling habit, Barber delivered his best two seasons on the way out. Barber’s penultimate season, at age 30, drove the Giants back to the playoffs after two lean years. The do-it-all back totaled 2,390 scrimmage yards — still fourth-most in NFL history. The Giants improved from 6-10 to 11-5 in Eli Manning’s second season, and Barber cemented their first NFC East championship in five years by going for 200-plus on the ground in Weeks 15 and 17 — wins over the Chiefs and Raiders.
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New York Jets: Don Maynard, 1968
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A year after aiding Joe Namath’s record-breaking passing season, the best wide receiver in Jets history offered an encore with a crucial ending. At 33, Maynard reached back and posted a 1,297-yard season, with the deep threat averaging an AFL-best 22.8 yards per catch. Maynard punctuated the second-best yardage season of his career with a clutch showing in the AFL championship game. Lifting the Jets to their first and only Super Bowl, Maynard caught two TD passes on a windy day at Shea Stadium. His over-the-shoulder deep-ball grab set up his game-winner against the Raiders, ahead of the Jets’ Super Bowl III upset.
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Philadelphia Eagles: Steve Van Buren, 1949
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Due respect to LeSean McCoy or Wilbert Montgomery, Van Buren remains the best running back in Eagles history by a wide margin. “Supersonic Steve” won the rushing title for a fourth and final time in 1949, but he both surpassed the single-season rushing record and offered a storied championship performance. After his 1,146-yard, 11-touchdown regular season, the bulldozing runner ripped the Rams for 196 yards to lead the Eagles to their second straight title. Van Buren’s final 1949 showing — on a muddy field in Los Angeles — remained an NFL Championship/Super Bowl record for 39 years.
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Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown, 2017
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Brown was nearly on his way to burning bridges at every turn, starting with his sturdiest one in Pittsburgh. But he was also on an MVP path in his penultimate Steelers season. Brown dropped a Steelers-record 1,834-yard season in 2015, but his 2017 effort had the Steelers on track for the AFC’s No. 1 seed over the defending champion Patriots. Brown’s injury during the first half of a Week 15 game swung that controversial contest’s outcome and ended his regular season two games early. He still led the league with 1,533 yards and then added 132 more, with two snazzy TD grabs, in Pittsburgh’s playoff shootout loss to the Jaguars.
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San Francisco 49ers: Jerry Rice, 1987
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Rice may have authored superior overall seasons, but his strike-shortened submission stands out. In his third NFL campaign, the receiver GOAT broke the single-season receiving touchdown record by four. He unseated Mark Clayton from atop that list by catching 22 airstrikes from Joe Montana and Steve Young and did so in just 12 games, due to the four the strike nixed. Rice’s pace would have seen him push for 30 TD grabs in a standard 16-game season, and it certainly would remain the record today. Rice added a rushing score, upping his total to 23 in a 13-2 49ers season. No one else scored more than 11 TDs that year.
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Seattle Seahawks: Shaun Alexander, 2005
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Running behind a two-Hall of Famer left side of the offensive line, Alexander capitalized and played the central role in the Seahawks voyaging to their first Super Bowl. Alexander delivered a no-frills running back season, finishing with just 78 receiving yards in 16 games. His lack of involvement in Seattle’s passing game perhaps makes his rushing season more impressive. Behind left tackle Walter Jones and left guard Steve Hutchinson, Alexander amassed 1,880 rushing yards and scored a then-record 28 touchdowns. His 132-yard, two-TD NFC championship game performance buried the Panthers en route to Super Bowl XL.
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers: James Wilder, 1984
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Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 rushing yards still stand as the NFL standard. In 1984, however, Wilder was right behind him in scrimmage yards. Dickerson edged the Buccaneers halfback by just 15 — 2,244-2,229 — as Wilder put together a time-capsule season for usage rate. The Bucs gave their workhorse runner an incomprehensible 492 touches. The former second-round pick turned 13 of them into rushing touchdowns and caught 85 passes for 685 yards, lapping Dickerson in aerial contributions. The Bucs went 6-10 in John McKay’s final season, but Wilder still holds the NFL’s single-season touches record — by 35.
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Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers: Charley Hennigan, 1961
Earl Campbell and Chris Johnson motored past superior competition, but Hennigan’s second-year explosion played a central role in a championship. Hennigan’s end result was so far ahead of his peers it took decades for his record to fall. The top George Blanda pass-catcher hauled in 82 passes for 1,746 yards and 12 touchdowns. That yardage total was 500 more than any AFL or NFL receiver’s work that season, and Hennigan’s record stood until Jerry Rice toppled it in 1995. The Oilers went 10-3-1 that year and defeated the Chargers for their second straight AFL title.
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Washington: Bobby Mitchell, 1962
Traded in a deal that ended up weakening Cleveland’s backfield and strengthening Washington’s receiving corps, Mitchell led the NFL by a wide margin in receiving in his first season playing the flanker spot. Moved from his running back post after the trade, Mitchell caught on immediately. While he later teamed with Hall of Famers Sonny Jurgensen and Charley Taylor, those standouts were not yet in Washington in 1962. Mitchell exploded for 1,384 yards and 11 TD receptions en route to All-Pro acclaim. The future Hall of Famer added a kick-return score as well, with this season setting up his path to Canton.