The 20 best wide receivers in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Still Curtain ranks the all-time best wide receivers in franchise history.
San Diego Chargers v Pittsburgh Steelers
San Diego Chargers v Pittsburgh Steelers / George Gojkovich/GettyImages

The Pittsburgh Steelers are known best for their defense, but through the years, they've always had an innate ability to find talent at the wide receiver position through the NFL Draft. Their success runs back to early in the franchise's history and continues through the modern era.

Pittsburgh's next-man-up mentality at the position has produced numerous Pro Bowl players and 1,000-yard receiving performances. Their success drafting the position has led to several Hall of Fame players at the position and a few more who could earn a gold jacket someday.

Remarkably, the Steelers didn't have to spend a lot of first-round draft capital over the years to produce the cream of the crop at the wide receiver position. These 20 players have proven themselves to be the best in franchise history.

Criteria for selection

Narrowing this list to 20 receivers wasn't easy. Since the start of Pittsburgh's professional football franchise in 1933, there have been dozens of players who warrant consideration to rank among the greatest the team has seen at the WR position.

Multiple factors were considered when comprising these rankings. One of these is the longevity of a player's Steelers career. How long they sported the black and gold and aided this team to success matters. At the same time, I didn't discredit those who had short careers in Pittsburgh but were dominant players -- even if only for a brief period of time.

As objectively as possible, I also looked at the impact each of these receivers had on the team and how much they did for their supporting cast around them. This included memorable plays and clutch performances in crucial moments of the game.

Of course, statistical production also played a major factor in determining these rankings. Those who were able to dominate the stat sheet proved to have major roles with the team, and a few Steelers receivers did this at a legendary level.

For a player to qualify for these rankings, they must have played a minimum of one season with the Steelers and record at least 1,000 total receiving yards during their time in Pittsburgh.

The top 20 wide receivers in Pittsburgh Steelers history

Honorable mention: Martavis Bryant

I need to start by showing some love to Martavis Bryant. The polarizing wide receiver had an NFL career that fizzled out quickly due to multiple suspensions for substance abuse, but he was electrifying in just 36 total games as a member of the Steelers.

The very first play of Bryant's NFL career was a 35-yard touchdown reception against the Texans in 2014. Over his first 19 NFL games in 2014 and 2015, Bryant recorded 74 receptions for 1,308 yards and 14 touchdowns.

At nearly 6'4'' with 4.42 speed, Bryant proved to be one of the best deep threats in the league early in his career, and his ability to stretch the field and allow Antonio Brown to work underneath often went unnoticed.

20. Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson earned a bad rap during his playing days. While he didn't live up to lofty expectations as Pittsburgh's first-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft, he was still a respectable football player who had some big seasons for an otherwise unspectacular Steelers passing attack in the '90s.

Johnson's first two NFL seasons were nothing to write home about, and his slow start as the 17th overall pick in the draft caused fans to lose hope in the talented wide receiver out of Colorado. By year three, however, Johnson started to figure things out and he strung together his best NFL season -- earning 1,008 receiving yards and three touchdowns while managing an impressive 10.0 yards per target.

There were plenty of Steelers wide-outs who were more consistent than Johnson over the years, but the first-round draft pick recorded 2,391 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns over his final three seasons in Pittsburgh before playing for the Eagles, Patriots, and Bills. Johnson earned 3,400 receiving yards in five seasons with the Steelers.

19. Antwaan Randle El

Statistically, there's nothing impressive about what Antwaan Randle El accomplished during his time with the Steelers. The college quarterback-turned-wide receiver made a swift adjustment to his new position in the NFL and contributed as the team's slot receiver.

Thanks to his impressive athletic traits and ability with the football in his hands, the Steelers found creative ways to get him the football -- including handing the ball off on jet sweeps. However, the 2002 second-round pick never recorded more than 601 yards or three touchdowns in any season in Pittsburgh.

Fortunately, Randle El showed up in crucial situations. His most memorable play was a touchdown pass to Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL that helped put the game on ice in the fourth quarter. Randle El went on to play four seasons in Washington before returning to Pittsburgh for his final NFL season in 2010.

18. George Pickens

From his first day in the facility, it was easy to see that George Pickens had untapped potential at the wide receiver position. The Georgia product flashed his talent as a rookie with an uncanny catch radius and the ability to reel in some of the most difficult contested catches you will see.

By his second season in 2023, Pickens exploded for a monstrous campaign -- earning 1,140 receiving yards and five touchdowns on an outstanding 10.8 yards per target. This dominance came despite questionable quarterback performances and poor passing concepts in offensive coordinator Matt Canda's playbook.

At 6'3 1/4'' with a freaky playmaking ability, the sky's the limit. Pickens is still writing his own story, and if he can keep his emotions in check, he could have a great career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

17. Diontae Johnson

Diontae Johnson's journey with the team ended abruptly when he was traded to the Panthers during the 2024 offseason. Prior to that, Johnson had established himself as the go-to target in Pittsburgh.

As a third-round rookie in 2019, Johnson logged 59 receptions for 680 yards and 5 touchdowns. Most of this came with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges slinging the football after Ben Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury. Johnson's production increased from there.

2021 proved to be the best season of his Steelers career, as he earned 107 receptions for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns. Johnson was a high-volume player thanks to his ability to create separation but his inconsistency frustrated fans at times. He dropped 33 passes and averaged just 6.8 yards per target during his five-year career in Pittsburgh.

16. Jimmy Orr

Jimmy Orr was selected by the Rams in the 25th round of the 1957 draft. Orr didn't log game time during his rookie season and was traded to the Steelers ahead of the 1958 season. In his first action in black and gold, Orr exploded for 910 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in a twelve-game season. This included leading the league with an astonishing 27.6 yards per reception.

By his second season in Pittsburgh, Orr earned Pro Bowl honors. Unfortunately, his Steelers career lasted just three years before he went on to spend a decade with the Baltimore Colts -- earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades in 1965.

Though his first season in Pittsburgh was technically his second year in the league, Orr earned AP Rookie of the Year honors in 1958. He finished his Steelers career with 2,055 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns on 21.2 yards per catch.

15. Gary Ballman

Gary Ballman was an eight-round pick by the Steelers in 1962. After barely seeing the field as a rookie, Ballman played an important role on Pittsburgh's offense in year two and was used as both a receiver and a running back.

Following his third season in 1964, Ballman earned Pro Bowl honors for his 935-yard, seven-touchdown performance in the receiving game. He followed this impressive season with a second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance in 1965.

Ballman played five seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers before staying in State and playing six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. He finished his Steelers career with 154 receptions for 2,949 receiving yards and 25 total touchdowns.

14. Ron Shanklin

Just ahead of Ballman on the Steelers' all-time leading receivers list is Ron Shanklin. Shanklin was selected smack dab between quarterback Terry Bradshaw and defensive back Mel Blount in a historic 1970 NFL Draft.

The second-round pick didn't take the league by storm and he didn't put up gaudy numbers in Pittsburgh's offense, but you could count on him to for 600-700 yards just about every year. Shanklin never earned fewer than 650 yards in his first four seasons with the Steelers, and in 1973, he was named to the Pro Bowl.

One year later, Shanklin shared wide receiver duties with rookie receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and helped earn his Super Bowl ring. Injuries forced Shanklin to miss the entire 1975 season -- his last with the team. He finished his Steelers career with 3,047 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns on 18.3 yards per reception.

13. Elbie Nickel

Elbie Nickel played in an era so different from today's NFL it was hard to differentiate roles between positions like wide receiver and tight end. Nickel was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 17th round of the 1947 NFL Draft and was a single-wing receiver early in his career before the team shifted to the T-formation in 1952.

Later in his career, Nickel played a position that resembles today's tight end, though I'm including him on this list of all-time Steelers wide receivers. Nickel played 11 years of professional football -- all as a member of the Steelers. In his third season, he racked up 633 receiving yards and led the league with 24.3 yards per reception.

Nickel went on to earn three Pro Bowl selections. Over the course of his career, he played in 131 games and recorded 329 receptions, 5,131 receiving yards, and 37 touchdowns.

12. JuJu Smith-Schuster

Early in his NFL career, JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like a potential star. The 2017 second-round pick exploded onto the scene as a 21-year-old rookie, raking in 917 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns in his debut season.

Following his second year with the Steelers, Smith-Schuster earned Pro Bowl honors thanks to a remarkable campaign that included 111 receptions, 1,426 receiving yards, and 7 touchdowns.

Unfortunately, JuJu wasn't able to keep up the pace. He fizzled out quickly in Pittsburgh and his efficiency dropped each year until his departure from the team in 2022. Still, his eye-popping 2018 season is one of the best statistical outputs we have seen from a wide receiver in Pittsburgh's history.

11. Roy Jefferson

If Roy Jefferson joined the NFL five years later, he could have been a part of the dynasty teams of the '70s. Instead, Jefferson attempted to carry an underwhelming roster on his back through the mid-to-late 1960s.

Though the Steelers were in shambles back then, Jefferson was a bright spot on offense. He averaged 22.1 yards per reception as a rookie and led the league with 24.1 yards per catch in year two.

Pittsburgh's 1965 second-round pick saw his numbers dip in his third season, before taking off for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 1968 and 1969. These impressive performances included 20 receiving touchdowns over two years and a pair of Pro Bowl honors. Jefferson was named First-Team All-Pro in '69 before leaving for Baltimore during the 1970 offseason.

10. Plaxico Burress

Watching Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward tear up the field as duel 1,000-yard receivers was a treat. While Ward was used for the dirty work underneath and over the middle of the field, Burress was primarily a deep threat who used his 6'6'', 231-pound frame to his advantage.

Burress, the former 8th overall pick of the Steelers in the 2000 NFL Draft, cracked 1,000 yards in his second season before a career year in 2002, which included 78 receptions for 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns. The massive wide-out went on to have multiple 1,000-yard seasons for the Giants before being suspended for two seasons for violation of the league's personal conduct policy. He returned to Pittsburgh in 2012 at age 35 and recorded 3 passes in 4 games before retiring.

In five years in Pittsburgh, Burress recorded 264 receptions, 4,206 receiving yards, and 23 touchdowns while managing an impressive 15.9 yards per reception. Despite all his NFL success (8,499 yards and 64 TDs), Burress was never selected for the Pro Bowl.

9. Yancey Thigpen

If this were a ranking of the best names in Steelers' history, Yancey Thigpen would take the cake. However, Thigpen still ranks high when talking about the greatest receivers in Pittsburgh's storied history.

Thigpen, a fourth-round pick of the Chargers in 1991, spent just one season in San Diego before joining the Steelers. Through his first three NFL seasons, Thigpen caught just 10 passes. That's when his career took off.

The gritty wide receiver saw an increased role in 1994, and in 1995, he recorded 85 catches for 1,307 yards and five touchdowns -- earning Pro Bowl honors in the process. Thigpen's '97 campaign was even better, racking up 1,398 yards and seven touchdowns on two fewer targets than he saw in '95. He played six years in Pittsburgh and earned two Pro Bowls before playing his final three NFL seasons in Tennessee.

8. Buddy Dial

Buddy Dial had no business being as productive as he was in an era before the passing game was the focus of the offense. Selected by the New York Giants in the 1959 draft, Dial was waived by the team before the start of his rookie season and was quickly scooped up by the Steelers.

Dial averaged 26.8 yards per reception during his first season in Pittsburgh, and in year two, he was in the fast track to establishing himself as one of the best flankers in professional football. Dial remarkably averaged over 1,000 yards per season for a four-year stretch from 1960 to 1963. This was accompanied by 36 touchdowns and a pair of Pro Bowl selections.

Before finishing his career with the Dallas Cowboys, Dial racked up 219 receptions, 4,723 yards, and 42 touchdowns in Pittsburgh while averaging an astonishing 21.6 yards per reception.

7. Mike Wallace

There's a case to be made that Mike Wallace is the fastest wide receiver to ever play the game for the Pittsburgh Steelers... and it showed on film. The elite deep threat blew past cornerbacks with ease, and his field-stretching abilities took the offense to another level.

Wallace -- one of three third-round picks by Pittsburgh in 2009 -- greatly outplayed his draft status as the 84th overall pick in the draft. After leading the NFL with 19.4 yards per reception as a rookie, Wallace miraculously turned 98 targets into 1,257 yards in year two. In the process, he managed 21.0 yards per catch and 10 touchdowns.

Wallace earned Pro Bowl honors in 2011 after chipping in 72 catches for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns. Following the 2012 season, Wallace hit free agency and accepted a massive contract from the Miami Dolphins. In just four years with the Steelers, Wallace topped 4,000 receiving yards and scored 32 touchdowns. Many consider him the best deep threat the Steelers have ever had.

6. Santonio Holmes

As a first-round pick, Santonio Holmes' regular-season production was nothing out of the ordinary. The Ohio State product saw just one 1,000-yard season in his NFL career (his final year in Pittsburgh in 2009). But his raw numbers aren't what he will be remembered for.

Holmes had perhaps the most clutch final drive for a wide receiver in the Super Bowl you will ever see. In Super Bowl XLIII against the Cardinals, Holmes caught one big pass after the next and chewed up yards after the catch before ultimately making his famous toe-tap touchdown reception in the back of the endzone.

These clutch moments -- along with nine catches, 131 yards, and a touchdown -- earned him Super Bowl MVP. Holmes played only four seasons in Pittsburgh while recording just 2,128 yards and 16 touchdowns, but his performance in the postseason helped the franchise to its sixth Super Bowl victory.

5. Louis Lipps

Louis Lipps was the epitome of consistency for the Steelers offense in the '80s and early '90s. From the day he was selected by Pittsburgh with the 23rd overall pick in the first round of the 1984 NFL Draft, his presence was felt on the field.

Lipps was named to the Pro Bowl after his rookie season, which included 860 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns from scrimmage. He followed up this performance with 1,134 yards on just 59 catches for 13 total touchdowns in year two -- making the Pro Bowl for the second time.

Though Lipps would only record one 1,000-yard season in his career, he came remarkably close to breaking this milestone in '88 and '89. The longevity of his Steelers career (eight seasons) and the consistency he displayed throughout make him one of the best players Pittsburgh ever had at the position.

4. Lynn Swan

We've reached some elite company and many Steelers fans would argue that the final names on this list could be arranged in any order. Lynn Swann was a Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Steelers who played a pivotal role on all four of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl teams in the '70s.

Swann was the first-round pick of the historic and unmatched Steelers draft class of 1974, which included four Hall of Fame players (in addition to '74 undrafted free agent Donnie Shell who made the Hall of Fame). Swan played a part-time role in his rookie season before earning 781 yards and 11 touchdowns in 1975.

Swann's best season came in 1978 as he recorded 880 yards and 11 touchdowns while earning Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors. Swann played all nine NFL seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers -- finishing his career with 336 receptions, 5,462 receiving yards, and 51 touchdowns.

3. Hines Ward

Hines Ward is one of the most beloved players in Steelers' history -- regardless of position. His underdog mentality and physical demeanor left fans smiling as big as the grin that was permanently on Ward's face. After a forgettable rookie season in 1998 (15 catches on 33 targets with zero touchdowns), Ward found his footing in his second season with the team.

Ward earned the trust of the coaching staff thanks to his reliable hands and outstanding ability to hang onto the football while receiving body-jolting blows from defenders. From 2001 to 2004, Ward established himself as one of the best receivers in the game -- recording four straight 1,000-yard seasons, which came with four Pro Bowl honors.

Ward's 14-year Steelers career saw him playing next to a generation of notable Steelers receivers like Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, and Antonio Brown. His longevity and toughness to stay on the field for 217 games with Pittsburgh is something we may not see for a very long time.

2. John Stallworth

As a fourth-round pick in 1974, John Stallworth wasn't handed playing time; he had to earn it. Swann was the first-round pick that year, so Stallworth was forced to work his way into a prominent role with the team. He achieved that and so much more.

By his fourth season in 1977, Stallworth was a full-time starter carving out a big piece of the offensive pie in Pittsburgh. In 1979, the 6'2'' wide receiver was named First-Team All-Pro when he snatched 70 receptions for 1,183 yards and eight touchdowns.

While Stallworth dealt with injuries that cut several of his seasons short, he played all 14 NFL seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers and helped his team to four Super Bowl victories. The talented receiver retired at 35 following the 1987 season.

1. Antonio Brown

Regardless of what you think of Antonio Brown's antics, there's no denying how utterly dominant he was during the prime of his career with the Steelers. Brown, a sixth-round pick in 2010, worked his way up the ladder and made the Pro Bowl as a punt returner in his second season.

By 2013, Brown was on the fast track to establishing himself as a perennial Pro Bowl and All-Pro player. He recorded over 100 receptions and more than 1,250 yards in six straight seasons from 2013 to 2018 before forcing his way out of Pittsburgh via trade.

Brown had a major falling out with the organization and did not leave on good terms. However, he was considered one of the best non-quarterbacks in the NFL for a six-year stretch and he was on pace to crush every Steelers receiving record before sabotaging his career during the 2019 offseason.

Brown finished his Steelers career with 837 receptions, 11,207 yards, and 74 touchdowns. In nine seasons in Pittsburgh, he earned seven Pro Bowls and four First-Team All-Pros while finishing inside the top three in Offensive Player of the Year voting three times.

The 20 best wide receivers in Steelers history by receiving touchdown



Years With Team

Receiving Touchdowns


Hines Ward




Antonio Brown




John Stallworth




Lynn Swann




Buddy Dial




Louis Lipps




Elbie Nickel




Ray Mathews




Mike Wallace




Roy Jefferson




JuJu Smith-Schuster




Diontae Johnson




Ron Shanklin




Jim Smith




Plaxico Burress




Gary Ballman




Yancey Thigpen




Santonio Holmes




Martavis Bryant




Frank Lewis