When it comes to the evolution of the aerial offense during the NFL’s 101 years of existence, the Chargers receivers have produced some of the greatest statistical seasons of all time. From Jack Kemp quarterbacking the L.A. Chargers in 1960 to Justin Herbert doing the same in 2021, many of their offenses in between had broken so many aerial boundaries to the point where the game had universally changed for everyone, let alone their opponent on the opposite sideline.
Tight ends will be included in my opinions here, out of sheer dominance of the game as they trail blazed the position to where it is now. The incredible production by the Chargers receivers and tight ends was too good to have to omit one or the other from this list.
How Did I Determine the Greatest Chargers Receivers of All Time?
To decide who the best of the best pass-catchers in Chargers history, I did a steady deep-dive through Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference to find their individual stats, accolades, what era they were playing in, their relative dominance compared to others during the era, and my personal experience (which at 31 years old is unfortunately small). I have also gone and watched some dated games throughout the Chargers history to get a feel for how they looked and played in a game, and the respect the defense had for them.
I’ll be listing them from bottom to top, as so many articles out there start on their best foot! I mean come on people, create the desire!
My Personal Top 5 Chargers Receivers
5 | Kellen Winslow TE | 1979-1987 SDG
Kellen Winslow was selected in the first round of the 1979 NFL draft at number 13 overall as a consensus All-American from Missouri. Even though he never broke the 500-yard barrier during his collegiate career, he was averaging just above 15 yards per catch, a truly eye-opening stat for a tight end at the time. It was a harbinger of things to come, as he transformed into a staple of Don Coryell‘s offensive onslaught dubbed “Air Coryell”.
If there were monumental, game-defining plays to be made, Kellen Winslow was the one making them time after time. After a slow start in his rookie season due to injuries, he exploded in 1980 for 89 catches, 1,290 yards, and 9 touchdowns while starting 11 out of 16 games and earning first-team All-Pro honors. His incredible dominance continued in his 3rd year with 88 catches, 1,075 yards, and 10 touchdowns. He secured another first-team All-Pro nod while leading the Chargers receivers with quarterback Dan Fouts to the first of two AFC Championship game appearances in a row.
His 1981 season picked up right where he left off, and it was the monumental season that cemented his legacy as a football player. The Chargers earned a first-round bye at 10-6, as they had a tie-breaker over the Denver Broncos, which turned out to be much-needed rest when looking back at the 1981 Divisional Playoff against the Miami Dolphins. Kellen Winslow answered the bell with, what some will say, the greatest performance in a single game by any player. 166 yards and a touchdown on 13 catches, and a 4th quarter overtime-inducing field goal block later, his teammates literally had to carry him off the field resulting in one of the most iconic football photos of all time.
After a third first-team All-Pro designation in 1982, earned in a season marred by injuries, Winslow had a resurgent 1983 season making the Pro-Bowl before his body started to fail him. The hits to his legs and shoulders had taken their toll on his physical performance, but the damage to the league had been done. He was the archetype of the modern NFL tight end/wide receiver hybrid, whose game is still reflected in today’s NFL. Leaving him outside the 5 greatest Chargers receivers would be simply incorrect, considering the impact he had on the game for years to come.
4 | Charlie Joiner WR | 1969-1972 HOU, 1972-1975 CIN, 1976-1986 SDG
Charlie Joiner was a fourth-round selection by the Houston Oilers, the now Tennessee Titans, in the 1969 NFL Draft from Grambling State as a defensive back. He actually made the switch to wide receiver after being knocked out of a game when he attempted to tackle Denver Broncos running back Floyd Little and worked himself into a starting role over his first 2 seasons and in 1971 started 13 out of 14 games. The years were easily forgettable and he was traded mid-season to the Cincinnati Bengals in 1972.
He spent the rest of the 1972 season and the next three uninspiring years with the Bengals and set their franchise record for receiving yards in a game with 200 yards on seven catches against the Cleveland Browns in 1975. That game was big enough to showcase Charlie’s ability to work the middle of the field and his gritty athleticism, that he was traded to San Diego after the season to become the leader of a young Chargers receivers room.
Once he arrived in San Diego, his connection with Dan Fouts exploded and the next 11 years were easily the best of his career. He was able to amass three Pro-Bowl nods along with one All-Pro, collected 586 receptions for 9,203 yards and 47 touchdowns. Easily the most consistent option behind Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner retired as a player in 1986, to begin his current coaching career. Though he may not have started his professional career as a Bolt, he will definitely be remembered as one of the best Chargers receivers ever.
3 | Keenan Allen | WR 2013-Present SDG/LA
Even though he was the third-round pick of current Chargers general manager Tom Telesco‘s first draft with the team, Keenan Allen turned out to be easily the most impactful and best player chosen that year by the Bolts. His addition was welcome to a receiving corps with Malcolm Floyd and Vincent Brown, along with Philip Rivers at quarterback which bolstered an underwhelming receiving corps. His rookie year was spectacular, narrowly missing the Offensive Rookie of the Year award while putting up 71 catches for 1,046 yards with eight touchdowns.
His second NFL season was somewhat of a reality check for Allen, dealing with his first real injury in the league, and defenses now had tape to study. A 77 catch campaign for 783 yards with half as many touchdowns then ended with a separated shoulder, lit a fire under the new wide-out that he would give his attention more to his health, body, and physical shape. In the 2015 season, he was leading the league in receptions with 67 by week 8 and many speculated if Marvin Harrison‘s then 143 reception single-season record could be reached.
Disaster ensued after a diving touchdown grab in the end-zone in week 9 against the Baltimore Ravens, in which he suffered a lacerated kidney and was sidelined for the remainder of the season. The following year, in Week One against the Kansas City Chiefs, after leading all Chargers receivers with a 6 catch 63-yard performance in the first half, Keenan tore his ACL with 1:53 remaining before halftime to end his season. A crushing blow to many, it wasn’t for Keenan. He vowed to come back.
Come back he did! In 2017 he won the Comeback Player of the Year award by playing all 16 games with 102 receptions for 1,393 yards and six touchdowns, earning his first Pro-Bowl nod. He had two more consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in which he earned Pro-Bowl selections, and in 2020 overcame an injury to still produce a 100 catch 993-yard season in 13 games while again being selected to a Pro-Bowl from a team with a losing record.
Keenan Allen turns 29 this league year and is by no means slowing down. I predict that he will be the greatest of all Chargers receivers by the time his career has finished as he’s only entering his ninth year in the NFL this year in 2021.
2 | Antonio Gates | TE SDG/LA 2003-2018
Antonio Gates was an undrafted free agent out of Kent State who had never played a down of football in college. Labeled as a “tweener” by NBA scouts at 6’4″ 255, he decided to facilitate a workout where NFL scouts could evaluate him. San Diego realized the talent they had after a tryout, and signed him to a contract.
What they didn’t know was they would be finding, debatably, the greatest tight end to play football. In 2004 it was obvious that his rapport had grown with Drew Brees tremendously, as Gates broke the single-season tight-end touchdown record in his just his second season. The campaign which included 81 catches for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns earned him first-team All-Pro honors and set the league on notice that there was a new star on the rise. 2005 was one of his best seasons and was his last season playing with Drew Brees, accumulating 89 catches for 1,101 yards with 10 touchdowns, becoming the first tight end in NFL history with back-to-back 10 touchdown seasons.
In 2006, Philip Rivers took over the quarterback position after a gruesome injury to Drew Brees’ throwing shoulder, but Gates’s dominance didn’t slow down in the slightest. He was leading all Chargers receivers in yards, receptions, and touchdowns over the last three years and had no intention of stopping. For the next 6 seasons Gates had at least 50 receptions, 700 yards and 8 touchdowns. His expertise in the red-zone and getting open while seemingly running 5 routes all game was extraordinary, and he had cemented his place as one of the all-time greats at his position.
From 2012 to 2018, Antonio Gates became a situational player. He wasn’t playing every down, but the downs he was playing, were the highest quality downs. As his snap count dwindled, his effectiveness grew, and he made the most of the plays he was involved in. After his career came to a close, he was the all-time leader for touchdowns scored by a tight end with 116. He also has 955 receptions for 11,841 yards. Antonio Gates is one of the greatest receivers in the history of the NFL, let alone one of the greatest Chargers receivers.
1 | Lance Alworth | WR 1962-1970 SDG 1971-1972 DAL
The very start of Lance Alworth‘s professional career could be considered covered in controversy, as he was drafted by not one but two teams in 1962. The San Francisco 49ers had selected him with the 8th overall pick in the first round of the NFL draft, while the Oakland Raiders had chosen him the ninth pick in the second round of the AFL draft. The Raiders then traded the rights to Alworth to the San Diego Chargers for running back Bo Roberson, offensive tackle Gene Selawski, and quarterback Hunter Enis. The Chargers kept Alworth at flanker and he was an instant sensation.
Earning the nickname “Bambi” for his agility and grace, Lance Alworth was an extremely explosive athlete when you look at his statistics alone. In his rookie season, he only had 10 catches in four games… but three of them were touchdowns for 23, 53, and 67 yards. In his second season he caught 61 balls for 1,205 yards and 11 touchdowns averaging 19.8 yards per reception, easily the best in the AFL and earning the league MVP. His third season was more of the same, almost identically, with 61 catches again for 1,235 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 20.2 yards a catch. His big-play ability was years ahead of his time, and he was demolishing defenses at every turn.
Lance Alworth was continuing to set records nearly every year, breaking his own several times over. He is the first wide-receiver to average 100 receiving yards a game in back-to-back seasons, he broke the original record of three consecutive 1,000 receiving yard seasons with seven of his own before Jerry Rice obliterated it with 11. Additionally, he is tied for most games with 200 yards receiving in a single season at five with Calvin Johnson. I seriously implore you to click the link above to Lance Alworth’s career and scroll down to his records and accomplishments and consider how many of those you thought Randy Moss or Jerry Rice owned. I’ll go out on a limb and say a few.
It was ultimately hard to decide whether to put Alworth and Gates one or two. It really came down to the fact that Lance was doing these amazing feats in the 1960s when running the ball was a certainty and the forward pass was widely considered “luck”. To put up the numbers he was, in fewer games than the four receivers above, and to still stand the test of time with how the league has evolved is a testament to just how amazing he really was. Even though I grew up watching Antonio Gates, Lance Alworth earned the number one spot in my greatest Chargers receivers of all time.
Thank you for reading my article on who I thought are the greatest Chargers receivers of all time!
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