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The Five Best Catches in NFL History

Our blue-ribbon panel of four former receivers took into account the stakes, the stage and the degree of difficulty in breaking down their top five receptions, including an eye-opening fact about one-handers.

There’s nothing objective about this poll—it’s about art, not science.

So as I gathered my very own blue-ribbon panel of accomplished NFL receivers, with a combined 59 seasons between the four of them, I wanted their opinions on what—to them—was most impressive about some of the best catches in league history. Inspired by the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson’s outrageous one-handed grab on fourth-and-18 against the Bills on Nov. 13, we put together a list of catches over the course of the Super Bowl era—with video of each—and sent them to Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall, Danny Amendola and Brandon Stokley.

Each guy was free to interpret the question however he wanted and rank the catches as he saw fit—with stakes, stage, degree of difficulty … all of it as part of the mix.

But there was one overriding question I wanted their answer to: Exactly what impresses the guys who are actually paid to do this?

Giants receiver David Tyree and Falcons receiver Julian Edelman are credited with two of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history.

“When you’re playing that position, everyone can really move. Everybody’s fast, everybody can get off the line, everybody can get into their route,” Amendola said. “What really intrigues me is how effortlessly they can catch the ball, and not really use their body, but their ball skills. Obviously, everyone on your list has fantastic ball skills—Randy Moss, Julian [Edelman] has good ball skills. Being in the building every day with these guys at receiver, you see which guys have more of a natural ability to catch the ball and which guys have to work at it.

“And when it shows up on Sunday, it’s a great thing to see. You got the OBJ catch, the Randy Moss one-hander over the middle and then a completely different category with the [Jermaine] Kearse and the [Antonio] Freeman, where it’s almost like the ball fell into their lap and it was circumstance a little bit. And then you get more of the body-control catches, like Lynn Swann and then the Edelman catch.”

We asked Amendola, Fitzgerald, Marshall and Stokley for their top five, then compiled the results, with five points given for a first-place vote, four for a second-place vote and so forth. Before we get to the composite top five, here are some honorable mentions:

• The Catch, Joe Montana to Dwight Clark (four points) in the 1981 NFC title game, finished sixth. Older catches had a harder time in this ranking, which I’d chalk up to the simple evolution of these positions and what guys are capable of now.

• Mario Manningham (three points), Julio Jones and Rob Gronkowski (two each) received top-four votes. I’d say the votes for Manningham and Jones were the result of their catches coming in Super Bowls XLVI and LI, respectively. Gronkowski, meanwhile, was the only non-receiver of this era to get a vote.

• Randy Moss’s one-handed catch over Darrelle Revis from 2010 also received a vote.

And now, on to the list.

FIFTH PLACE: Franco Harris, Steelers

Total points: Five

Circumstance: Dec. 23, 1972, divisional playoff, fourth quarter, down 7–6 with 0:22 left, fourth-and-10 at his own 50-yard line

Result: 60-yard touchdown

How it happened: Perhaps the most famous catch in NFL history—“The Immaculate Reception”—and one that’s often credited for launching the Steelers’ dynasty. Believe it or not, this was the first playoff win in franchise history, and the bottom line: If Harris doesn’t make this play, the game is over and the Raiders are playing the perfect Dolphins for the AFC title the next week.

On the play, 66 Circle Option, Terry Bradshaw escaped pressure and launched a pass to Frenchy Fuqua down the middle of the field. Just as the ball arrived at Fuqua, Hall of Fame safety Jack Tatum did, too, jarring the ball loose and knocking Fuqua to the ground. The ball sailed end over end, and Harris (running downfield after blocking earlier on the play) just so happened to be there, scooped it up just before it hit the Three Rivers Stadium turf and took it the remaining 35 or so yards to the end zone for the winning score.

Fitzgerald ranked this one first because, in his words, “My rankings reflect the biggest catches in the biggest moments.”

And for what it’s worth, Fitzgerald did have one non-playoff catch on his list—Jefferson’s.

FOURTH PLACE: Justin Jefferson, Vikings

Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson makes an amazing catch on fourth-and-18 against the Bills in Week 10.

Jefferson's catch on fourth-and-18 against the Bills was on the list of all four voters.

Total points: Eight

Circumstance: Nov. 13, 2022, fourth quarter, down 27–23 with 2:00 left, fourth-and-18 at his own 27

Result: 32-yard gain, first down

How it happened: Kirk Cousins followed Kevin O’Connell’s instructions, given during the two-minute warning before the offense went out there for fourth down. “I told Kirk in the moment, Hey, I want to give Justin a chance here,” the coach told me after the game. “So I put him in the slot there, he got a great release off the line, and it was … Hey, we’re going to give our guy a chance here. We had a concept right there where if Justin could get a release, he would at least have a chance at a 50-50-type of ball.”

Maybe it was a 50-50 ball for Jefferson. It wouldn’t be for a lot of other receivers. So Cousins gave him the chance O’Connell wanted, and Jefferson did what seemed impossible, going up with (yup!) his right hand, falling away (without his feet planted to leverage his strength on the ball) and somehow ripping the ball away from Buffalo CB Cal Lewis, who had two hands on it. Lewis later acknowledged he probably should’ve batted the ball away.

In Lewis’s defense, no one could expect a receiver to come away with it in that circumstance.

“The Jefferson one was just so good,” Stokley said. “I think it was more difficult than OBJ’s.”

THIRD PLACE: Odell Beckham Jr., Giants

Odell Beckham Jr.'s one-handed catch against the Cowboys ignited his career with the Giants.

Total points: 10

Circumstance: Nov. 23, 2014, second quarter, up 7–3 with 15:00 left, first-and-10 at the Dallas 43

The result: 43-yard touchdown

How it happened: Everything about this play looked standard when the ball went up—shot play on a first down in plus territory. Everything changed when the ball came down. Beckham fought past Cowboys CB Brandon Carr, separated, then reached back over his head with his inside hand to pluck a Manning throw that looked like it was sailing out of bounds. From there, he pulled the ball into his body, kept his feet enough to stumble into the end zone, and secured the catch as Carr yanked him to the ground by his jersey.

Two flags were thrown after Carr grabbed Beckham’s jersey, and that’s not the end of why other star receivers were impressed by OBJ’s catch.

“If the question is what’s the most difficult catch,” said Marshall, who had the catch first on his ballot, via text, “[Beckham’s catch was] a 50-yard bomb in the lights; you have to track it out of the lights, the ball moving 25 mph, and he caught it with three fingers.”

And on this particular catch, I thought this anecdote was interesting, too—Amendola told me he was with Beckham in New York recently, and they were talking about the catch, and Amendola slyly said to Beckham, “I know what you did.” What did he mean? Amendola was referencing specifically that Beckham chose to go up with his right hand to catch the ball from a right-handed quarterback.

“If you have your right hand and you’re trying to catch the ball with one hand, stopping the spin on the ball is much easier with a right-handed quarterback,” Amendola said. “Just the way the ball is spinning, it spins into your fingertips. And then if, conversely, you have a left-handed quarterback and you’re trying to catch a one-handed ball with your right hand, the ball spins into your palm, and you don’t have much friction to stop that thing. So it’s completely different. It’s a completely different catch.”

Which is to say that Beckham had the presence of mind to know what would give him the best shot at the ball. And that I’ll be watching all one-handed catches differently now.

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SECOND PLACE: David Tyree, Giants

David Tyree makes his famous helmet catch for the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

Total points: 12

Circumstance: Feb. 3, 2008, Super Bowl XLII, fourth quarter, down 14–10 with 1:15 left, third-and-5 at his own 44.

Result: 32-yard gain, first down

How it happened: This was another one with everything—degree of difficulty, stakes and competition for the ball. First, it required a Houdini escape from Eli Manning. After that, Tyree had to track the ball, jump and extend to even get his hands on it, then press it against his helmet (hence, Helmet Catch) while absorbing a hit from one of the biggest hitters of that generation, Rodney Harrison.

“My top two [are there] because they’re just unbelievable catches in the biggest moments of the biggest game,” texted Stokley, who had Tyree’s catch first and Edelman’s reception second. “Still not sure how they caught those. If they don’t catch those, I think both teams lose.”

Which, of course, should matter, and certainly did in NFL history, given all that was on the line for both teams historically on that February night in 2008.

FIRST PLACE: Julian Edelman, Patriots

Julian Edelman's catch just before the ball would have touched the turf gave the Patriots a first down and propelled them to another Super Bowl win.

Total points: 13

Circumstance: Feb. 5, 2017, Super Bowl LI, fourth quarter, down 28–20 with 2:27 left, first-and-10 at his own 36

Result: 13-yard gain, first down

How it happened: The ball from Tom Brady was almost picked off—it bounced off Falcons CB Robert Alford’s hands, which forced Edelman to react fast, and get to the ball faster than Atlanta’s Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, who were closing on it. Edelman wound up plucking it off the ground, inches above the turf, and securing it while taking contact from Neal and Allen.

“The Edelman catch intrigues me so much because if you watch it, he jumps off his left foot and, in midair, thinking he’s gonna finish going one way, he has enough wherewithal and body control to understand that he needs to switch directions in the air,” said Amendola, who was, by his estimate, about 20 yards away on the play, running a flat route from the slot. “And then he plants off his right, and that was his second thought, when he left the ground, and he completely redirected himself to go make an attempt at that ball. It’s so crazy to me.”

All four voters had Edelman’s catch, as well as Jefferson’s, on their list.

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