Free Agency Primer: Wide Receivers

I really like the free agent receivers that are available this season. There are no sure-fire Hall of Fame players in this list, but there’s some talent to be had and teams will be able to formalize their receiving corps by picking up one of these players. This is a great crop for teams in like Lions and Browns who have bona fide number one receivers, but not much else afterwards. Both teams would be well versed in getting a solid player like Emmanuel Sanders to relieve some pressure from their stud pass-catchers.

Here is my list of top 10 receivers in free agency.

1. Eric Decker: The unquestioned best receiver in this class is Decker, who has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and 32 touchdowns (only Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson have more) over the past three seasons. Of course, the questions regarding how good Decker would be without the advent of Peyton Manning are valid, but going by the numbers, the former Minnesota Golden Gopher has the pedigree to be considered a number one receiver. Decker does not come without his weaknesses, as he’s struggled in the past against press coverage. He can also disappear during certain stretches when he is not fully engaged. I’m also a little weary of his hands, as his seven dropped passes were amongst the highest in the league.

Whether he is a true number one or number two receiver (Decker always defers to Demayrius Thomas as the number one guy), it doesn’t matter. Mike Wallace isn’t a true number one in my opinion, yet he got paid $65 million with over $25 guaranteed. Decker should be able to closely match Wallace’s production, even without Manning. As it stands now, it doesn’t seem like the Broncos, who have over $24 million in cap space, will bring back Decker. They must make decisions on free agents Knowshon Moreno, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Zane Beadles (who’s become one of the best guards in the league) to name a few. Decker’s deal, depending on what he might command (I’m assuming he will command Mike Wallace type of money based off production), may tie up more money than they are willing to give up.

For comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at a graphic that current player agent Joel Corry wrote on CBSsports.com this past week.

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 1.54.44 PM

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 1.56.24 PM

Peyton Manning factor or not, Decker’s numbers speak for themselves when comparing him with his peers. What’s different with Decker is that he is not a one-trick pony like Wallace.  According to Pro Football Focus, Decker had over 100 receiving yards from six different routes.   Look for teams like the Colts to make a big pitch for him on March 11th.

2. Hakeem Nicks: From a pure talent perspective, Nicks should be the first-rated free agent wide receiver. Unfortunately, talent alone does not make a great player and in Nick’s case, his decline since his sophomore and third year has been well evident. Whether it is injuries, poor chemistry with his quarterback, Eli Manning, or defenses simply catching up  to him, Nicks has been a bit player over the last two seasons. His three touchdowns in that same time frame and having averaged 54 catches and 850 yards , are poor totals for a player who in 2010 and 2011, averaged 75 catches and over 1,000 yards with a combined 18 touchdowns. What’s so worrisome is that:

a)during a contract year, the former Tar Heel’s performance dipped even more than in 2012 and

b) Nicks, a big receiver, should be able to dominate in the red zone and as a possession receiver. He has some of the biggest hands in the league too, yet has struggled with drops during his entire career.

Nicks, is only 26 years old and should be entering the prime of his career. I would not sign him to top-dollar, but rather a one-year “prove it” deal to see if he can raise his numbers and get back to the level of play he reached in 2010 and 2011.

3. James Jones: Some might say this is a little high for Jones and from a talent perspective; he’s probably on the lower rungs of this list. What I love about Jones is that he is a hard worker and a solid a receiver whether it is out wide or in the slot. Contrary to Nicks, Jones is terrific in the red zone, where it helped him corral a league-high 14 touchdowns in 2012. Last season was a trying year for Jones who struggled with injuries, but he somehow still managed to catch for over 800 yards. The former San Jose State Spartan will be hard-pressed to ever consistently catch for 1,000 yards, but as a number two or 2-A receiver, who is versatile enough to line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage, he can be good contributor to a team that desperately lacks receiving help. Jones was on NFL Network all week lobbying to stay in Green Bay. Undoubtedly, much of his success could be attributed to having Aaron Rodgers as quarterback. The chemistry that they share, whether it is via a back-shoulder catch or the quick slants that Green Bay is so adept at, cannot be ignored and surely Rodgers will want Jones to stay, as long as it is at a relatively decent price tag. History has shown that the Packers have no qualms with letting go of players, as evidenced by Greg Jennings’ departure last year. Jarrett Boykin’s ascension may make Jones expendable too. Ultimately, with Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson showing they are not the most durable players and Jermichael Finley’s return in question (be it due to injury or  free agency), keeping Jones is the safe move to ensure enough depth is at the Packers disposal.

4. Julian Edelman: After the departure of Wes Welker, we all thought Danny Amendola was going to step in and be the slot demon that Welker was. As has been the case for his entire career, Amendola got injured, multiple times, which allowed Edelman, who’s been waiting patiently for his chance, to garner a key role in the offense. His 105 receptions and 1,056 yards were easily career highs last season. Edelman displayed the quickness and smart route running that made Welker so successful for the Patriots. It’s hard to say if the for Kent State Flash could have the same production without Brady as his quarterback. One thing that is certain, teams are running more three-wide receiver sets and it is imperative to have a good slot-man. Whether it is with New England or not, Edelman should find a good market for himself.

5. Golden Tate: I’ve said many times that Tate reminds me so much of Steve Smith. Tate is a receiver of small-stature, but he packs a huge punch. At 5’11, I’ve seen him make plays over defensive backs twice his size, while even being double-teamed. Like Smith, size has never been an impediment towards making big plays. Aside from their penchant for jumping over bigger defenders, both are also tough, hard-nosed players who will let you hear it after they just punked their opponent. Tate is not close to a number one receiver and it is questionable if he can be a bona fide two. But he’s improved every single year and posted career highs in yards (898), catches (64) and touchdowns (5). He’s also great as a return man in the special teams department. The Seahawks don’t win Super Bowl 48 without Tate’s big plays throughout the season when Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice went down with injuries. I’d love to see Tate sign in Carolina, where Smith would do wonders for his career as a mentor.

Best of the Rest

6. Emmanuel Sanders: Sanders was signed to an offer sheet by the Patriots last offseason, but the Steelers matched that offer. He was supposed to make Mike Wallace expendable with the outstanding Antonio Brown on one side of the field. This season, Sanders caught a career high 67 passes for 740 yards and six touchdowns but bringing it every single game was an issue. In the second half of the season, he averaged 30 receiving yards per game. And for a guy who’s known for being a burner, his 11.0 yards per catch were a pedestrian number. I look for the Steelers to move on from him, with the impressive Markus Wheaton waiting in the wings. Sanders appears headed to Detroit, which would be a good fit next to Calvin Johnson. He’s strictly a number two receiver, who struggles with consistency in his routes and hands.

7. Lance Moore: This was a shocker to me from the Saints. I understand how cap-strapped they were, but Moore had such a big impact as a slot receiver for the Saints. I’ve always said that Moore is the best red zone wide receiver. He was always somehow able to find holes in the zones. Moore’s been a solid contributor and will find a job in no time. He’s scored 10 touchdowns once and eight twice in his career with a 1,000-yard season in 2012, so he clearly has a lot left in the tank.

8. Danario Alexander: It’s easy to forget about Alexander, who came onto the scene in a big way in 2012 with a monstrous second half for the Chargers. In 10 games he caught seven touchdowns and averaged 17.8 yards per catch. Alexander is a big, lanky receiver at 6’5, 217 lbs. He’s able to move down the field quickly and has the leaping ability to high point the ball with the elite receivers in the league. The issue with Alexander is that he’s already gone through two ACL injuries in his career and a third would likely make a return to action near impossibly. Alexander won’t command much money, but if doctors can prove he is fully healthy, he can be had at a bargain price, with possibility of out-performing anyone on this list.

9. Brandon LaFell: The former LSU Tiger never really lived up to his potential coming out of the 2009 draft. LaFell come out as a big receiver who can run, but was raw and had to hone his skills. Although he’s shown some improvement every season, his growth has been slow and now as a free agent, it is unlikely he will be retained by Carolina. LaFell never topped 49 catches or 700 yards and his hands have been suspect as he’s dropped 15 balls during his Panthers tenure. LaFell was drafted to be a number two next to Steve Smith and eventually supplant the five-time Pro Bowler. Now, as he becomes a free agent for the first time, teams must look at him strictly as a number three receiver.

10. Andre Roberts and Kenny Britt: I put two players at 10 for different reasons. Roberts has been a nice slot receiver for the Cardinals for a few seasons. Britt has been a huge disappointment battling off-field issues for most of his career. Still, he has so much potential at only 25 years old. Britt is a rare physical specimen with the body and size of a tight end, but the athleticism of a receiver. Both players are at opposite ends in terms of their effort and willingness to improve. Roberts was never highly regarded, but has put in the work needed to become a solid player. Britt’s commitment has never been a strong point and his work ethic was always a question for the Titans. Add to all that, and he’s been injury prone for his entire career. Roberts will find that is a great market for his services, as slot receivers are more sought out than ever. Britt will get a chance to revive his career because he is too talented and still relatively young. We’ll see if his head is screwed more tightly this time around to take advantage.

The rest of a deep list of free agent receivers is rounded off with the likes of Ted Ginn, Jason Avant, Sidney Rice and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Teams can find players to fill out their receiving corps as well as specialists in the return game where Ginn, Devin Hester and Dexter McCluster are the top three players in special teams.

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