The best wide receiver in Steelers history is Hines Ward, while the best wide receiver duo (by far) is Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. When it comes to the best wide receiver corps in team history, there are some who claim it is already Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant. Their first season together as a unit produced some big numbers. They were led by Antonio Brown and his monster season of 129 receptions, 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. Collectively, this group of receivers had 208 receptions that went for 2,891 yards and 23 touchdowns and helped Ben Roethlisberger to the best season of his career. In order for this group of wide receivers to be considered the best in team history, they are going to have to put up these numbers for the next few seasons, but it’s hard to deny that they are off to an incredible start. It certainly helps their cause to have Ben Roethlisberger throwing to them. If the current best group of receivers had Big Ben instead of Neil O’Donnell throwing to them, it’s hard to tell how good they could have been.
Neil O’Donnell was the quarterback when the Steelers returned to the Super Bowl following the 1995 season. It was the group of wide receivers that he had that made him look better than he actually was. It was also that group of receivers who got him his big payday from the New York Jets following Super Bowl XXX. Three players who made up the core of the best wide receiver unit in Steeler history (Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills and Andre Hastings) played together from 1994 through 1996. The best group was in 1995 and included Rookie sensation Kordell “Slash” Stewart and Charles Johnson. Like the latest generation of receivers, whose standout is Antonio Brown, the standout of the mid 90’s group was Yancey Thigpen. Thigpen was signed by the Steelers as a free agent from the San Diego Chargers in 1992 and quickly worked his way to being the Steelers’ top target and one of the best in the NFL. Aside from having some of the most reliable hands in the league, Thigpen was a solid blocker who was strong and fearless when going after the ball and could run away from anyone when he got it. There wasn’t a better receiver in the NFL when it came to moving the chains on third down.
While Yancey Thigpen was the clear number one target for O’Donnell, Ernie Mills was the guy who did a lot of the dirty work. Mills could do it all when needed. He could get behind the coverage for the big play, work the underneath routes or deliver that key block to spring Erric Pegram or Bam Morris. Mills was absolutely fearless when it came to going across the middle and could take the big hit and bounce back for more. Much like Hines Ward, Mills would bounce up smiling never letting them know if they hurt him. If it wasn’t for Mills’ big catch during the ’95 AFC Championship game, that tip-toed the sideline inside the five yard line, the Steelers may not have reached Super Bowl XXX. Mills was by far the most clutch receiver of that group. Ernie Mills was taken in the third round of the 1991 draft by the Steelers out of Florida, and the toughness he displayed in the SEC was a perfect fit in Pittsburgh. In Super Bowl XXX, Mills was second on the Steelers with 8 receptions for 78 yards. He was really beginning to hit his stride, when a torn ACL in 1996 ended his career in Pittsburgh.
There was another SEC guy in this group of receivers who did the yeoman’s work, Andre Hastings out of Georgia. Hastings was a tough receiver who ran precision routes and had a knack for finding the holes in defenses and moving the chains. During his career with the Steelers, Hastings averaged eleven yards per reception on 143 catches and found the end zone on nine of them. He may not have been flashy, but he was extremely dependable. While Deion Sanders was busy locking down Thigpen during Super Bowl XXX, Andre Hastings stepped up big in production and toughness. Hastings registered 10 receptions for 98 yards, but what makes those numbers really impressive is that he played a good portion of the game with a broken collar bone. The fourth member of this receiving corps, Charles Johnson, may not have recorded a reception in Super Bowl XXX, but he was a productive receiver nonetheless. Johnson was a deep threat out of the University of Colorado and the Steelers’ number one pick in 1994. During his three year period playing with Thigpen, Mills and Hastings, CJ had 136 receptions for 2,017 yards and 6 touchdowns.
The only thing that held this unit back from bigger and better things was Neil O’Donnell. From 1994 thru 1996, they had a collective total of 474 receptions while racking up 6,791 yards and 36 touchdowns. During the 1995 season, the birth of the five wide receiver set, they recorded 172 catches for 2,488 yards and 14 touchdowns. While Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates have the talent to be the best group of receivers in Steelers’ history, Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings and Charles Johnson currently are. It’s a shame this group couldn’t have remained together longer in Pittsburgh, because they were fun to watch and who knows what they could have accomplished.