Julian Edelman

10 greatest catches in NFL history

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Picking out the best NFL catches in league history is equal parts fun and painstaking.

Receivers (and to some extent tight ends) are truly among the best athletes in pro sports. They can do so many amazing things, making the most impressive NFL catches truly awe-inspiring.

At the same time, there are so many candidates for the greatest ever NFL catches that it’s almost like splitting hairs. In other words, there isn’t a lot separating a truly great catch from the very best NFL catches of all time.

Best NFL catches

Nevertheless, we took on the challenge of identifying the best NFL receptions ever.

We had to take into account not only the most impressive NFL catches but also the greatest ever NFL catches that came in big moments. In our view, the situation matters, which actually helped us in coming up with a list of the best NFL catches of all time.


10. Mario Manningham

This won’t be the first non-game-winning catch made by a Giants’ receiver in the Super Bowl. But it’s surely among the 10 greatest NFL catches in league history, in part because it sparked a game-winning drive in the Super Bowl.

Eli Manning had to put the ball in the exact right place. But Mario Manningham did a lot of the work too.

He knew he would get hit hard but still reached out his arms and got two feet in bounds right by the sidelines. It was both clutch and had a high degree of difficulty, making it one of the best NFL receptions ever.

9. Oronde Gadsden

Receivers sometimes get called out for having “gator arms” but what Oronde Gadsden did was the exact opposite of that.

While going across the middle of the field, he fearlessly reached out to grab the ball. If you pause the video at the right time, Gadsden almost looks like a ballerina with both feet off the ground and his arm fully extended. It came in a relatively meaningless regular-season game but is surely one of the most impressive NFL catches ever.

8. Lynn Swann

Not only did Lynn Swann’s catch happen in Super Bowl X but it also showcases the incredible levels of concentration and athleticism wide receivers possess.


Swann jumped about as high as he could go initially and then had to keep his focus on the ball while both he and the ball were falling to the ground. 

7. Antonio Freeman

A lot of this catch looks like pure luck but Antonio Freeman deserves credit for keeping his concentration during a Monday night game against the Vikings in 2000. Brett Favre made one of his classic ill-advised throws toward Freeman, who was well covered on the play.

The ball hit off the cornerback twice and then off Freeman’s back while he was on the ground, keeping the play alive when virtually everyone thought it hit the ground and went incomplete. From the seat of his pants, Freeman was able to corral the ball.

He then got up, side-stepped one defender, and ran into the end zone for a touchdown.

6. Franco Harris

Granted, there was a lot of luck involved in this catch, but it has to be included on any list of the greatest NFL catches of all time.

After all, it did win a playoff game for the Steelers. The pass from Terry Bradshaw bounced off the helmet of Oakland’s Jack Tatum so far that it was within the grasp of Franco Harris.

Of course, Harris was barely able to pluck the ball out of the air before it hit the ground and run into the end zone. It was perhaps more serendipity than skill, which is why they call it the “Immaculate Reception.”

5. Julian Edelman

New England’s comeback in Super Bowl LI was nothing short of incredible, and the same can be said of Julian Edelman’s catch on the game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter.

Only Tom Brady would even think of attempting a pass like this, as there were three defenders converging on Edelman when the pass was thrown.

Robert Alford tipped the ball high in the air, making it a jump ball between the diminutive Edelman and three Atlanta defenders.

All four laid out for the ball with Edelman getting his hands on it first. When some combination of hands and feet hit Edelman’s hands on the way down, he briefly lost hold of it but recollected the ball before it could hit the ground. The level of concentration alone makes this one of the best NFL catches we’ve ever seen, but doing it in such a big moment makes it even greater.

4. Dwight Clark

As mentioned, the moment matters, which is what makes this one of the best NFL catches ever.

The 49ers were trailing late in the 1981 NFC Championship Game and Joe Montana was under so much pressure on the play that he was practically run out of bounds, although he did begin the play by rolling to his right.

He must have spotted Clark late but he threw it high and to the back of the end zone, perhaps thinking that nobody would be able to catch it. But Dwight Clark was able to leap just high enough to grab the ball and score the winning touchdown.

It’s one of the most iconic moments in football history and one of the most impressive catches. It also helped the 49ers to kickoff a dynasty, as Clark’s catch got them to the Super Bowl, ultimately winning the first of four championships that decade.

3. Santonio Holmes

Being the game-winner in a Super Bowl definitely helps make this among the greatest ever NFL catches.

Naturally, Ben Roethlisberger deserves some of the credit for the pass, as the ball had to whiz by three Arizona defenders who were within a few yards of the receiver.

But the footwork from Santonio Holmes was insane.

He was nearly out of bounds and had to reach his hands as far as they could go and then was able to tap both toes in the end zone before being pushed out of bounds.

2. Odell Beckham

You could watch this catch all day and never get sick of it or stop being amazed.

In terms of sheer difficulty, this might be the most impressive catch in NFL history.

Eli Manning threw the ball over 50 yards in the air, and if you look at a close-up of the ball when it got close to Odell Beckham Jr, it wasn’t exactly a perfect spiral.

Not only did Beckham reach behind his head while in mid-air to grab the ball with one hand but he also had his jersey grabbed by cornerback Brandon Carr enough for multiple refs to throw their flag.

Even as he was falling to the ground, he never put his other hand on the ball to help secure the catch. He did everything with just one hand and for the kicker landed in the end zone for a touchdown.

1. David Tyree

This is an instance in which the situation made this arguably the best catch of all time.

For starters, it happened in the closing minutes of Super Bowl XLII, so the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Also, that just happened to be the year that the Patriots were one game away from securing a perfect season, only for the Giants to get in the way.

Eli Manning also deserves some of the credit for continuing to fight off a sack and get away from the grasp of multiple defenders before the play could be blown dead. Manning was eventually able to get away and chuck it downfield to David Tyree, who was able to pin the ball against his helmet while Rodney Harrison dragged him to the ground.

The way Tyree held onto the ball almost defies all logic.

It wasn’t the game-winning catch, but it might as well have been because it put the Giants in a position to get the game-winning touchdown, ruining New England’s perfect season in an extraordinary fashion.

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