Do you know who has the most receptions in NFL history through age 30?
It's not Michael Irvin (591 receptions, ranked 21st). It's not Jerry Rice (610, 18th), nor is it Marshall Faulk (673, 8th). All of those Hall of Famers are eclipsed by one of the most underrated receivers in the modern NFL: Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has 806 receptions, the most by any player in NFL history through age 30.
Jerry Rice holds the NFL record for all-time receptions with 1,549. At age 30, Witten holds a 196-reception lead over Jerry Rice. That's head-start of about two seasons worth of receptions for Witten.
Chase Stuart of Footballperspective.com argues that while most of Jerry Rice's NFL records are essentially unbreakable, the career receptions record may be reachable:
But there is one record that possibly, maybe, hey you never know could be broken. Jerry Rice is the career leader with 1,549 receptions. [...] As teams began passing more frequently (and more conservatively) than ever before, some modern receivers have compiled massive receptions totals.
Witten has a nearly 200-catch lead on Rice through age thirty. If we assume Witten can stay healthy in each of the next five years, he’ll get an even bigger buffer when he hits age 35. [...] If Witten wants a realistic shot, he’s going to need to keep pumping out 90-100 catch seasons for the next four years, at least. In any event, Witten will be able to keep this dream up for awhile: he needs just 38 catches in 2013 to end the year with the most receptions of any player through age thirty-one.
It's well worth checking out Stuart's article, as it contains a lot of detail about what Witten needs to do to reach Rice, and which other receivers are on a similar trajectory.
After coming into the league as Dallas’ third round draft pick in 2003, Jason Witten has strung together a Hall Of Fame career. In his ten years in the league, he has made the Pro Bowl eight times, he already leads the Cowboys' all-time receptions chart and is second on the receiving yards chart behind only Michael Irvin.
Chase Stuart points out in his article that the increasingly pass-happy NFL is a key reason why modern-day players like Witten are challenging some of the older NFL records. But with Witten, it's not just the reception totals that are impressive. Just as impressive is the consistency with which Witten has worked towards those numbers. Despite a continuously churning cast of receivers, Witten has led the Cowboys in each of the past six years in receptions, as the table below illustrates
|Cowboys Top 3 receivers by receptions, 2007-2012|
Shannon Sharpe retired after 14 NFL seasons; Tony Gonzales just completed his 16th NFL season. For Witten to reach Jerry Rice, he'd need nine more seasons at an average of about 85 receptions per season. And while it's hard to imagine the Dallas Cowboys without Jason Witten, it's also hard to imagine that Witten will play another nine years.