NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock suggested this week that the class of wide receivers available in 2014’s draft is the best he’s seen in years, but many teams in need of receiving help may not have to wait until May to address the position. While the draft class features a potential star in Sammy Watkins and many inexpensive alternatives behind him, 2014’s group of free agents includes plenty of veteran pass-catchers capable of stepping in and contributing immediately.
Although the depth in both the draft class and the free agent crop has some pundits suggesting it’ll be a buyer’s market next month, that doesn’t mean teams will be lining up to ink players to bargain contracts. As it stands, at least half of the league’s 32 teams could use some form of receiving help, and many of those are playoff clubs who won’t want to take a significant step back in 2014. Several of the top prospective free agents – including Eric Decker, Anquan Boldin, Julian Edelman, and Golden Tate – come from the franchises who competed in the conference championship games, so those teams will need to add reinforcements if they lose their own free agents.
Meanwhile, non-playoff clubs like the Lions, Steelers, and Browns will be looking to add solid complementary players alongside their current number one options, while teams like the Jets, Panthers, and Rams also figure to be on the lookout for receiving help. Considering how many clubs are expected to be in the mix for wide receivers, there may not be a ton of steals out there, but there certainly should be no shortage of intriguing options. Let’s have a look….
Decker, Boldin, and Edelman were head and shoulders above the rest of 2014’s free agents when it came to 2013 production — Decker led all free agents in receiving yards and TDs, while Edelman’s 105 receptions easily led the pack and Boldin added 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns on 85 catches. All three players put up No. 1 numbers on top-five NFL teams, and should be in line for lucrative deals this offseason. Still, there are question marks surrounding all three: Decker had the league’s best quarterback throwing him the ball and Demaryius Thomas attracting defenders on the other side of the field; Boldin turns 34 during the 2014 season; and Edelman is more of a slot/possession receiver than a true number one.
Teams more inclined to roll the dice on a player with No. 1 upside could take a long look at Hakeem Nicks, whom our Rob DiRe profiled over the weekend. Nicks is coming off a down year, but has multiple 1000-yard seasons on his resumé and just turned 26 years old, making him a tantalizing buy-low candidate.
Rounding out the top tier are two pairs of teammates: Tate and Doug Baldwin of the Seahawks, and Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper of the Eagles. Tate and Baldwin were surprisingly effective in Seattle this season, each having ranked as top-25 receivers in both Football Outsiders’ and Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics. The Seahawks figure to retain at least one of the two, and will have the opportunity to match offers for the restricted Baldwin. As for Maclin and Cooper, the former missed the 2013 season with an ACL injury, while the latter didn’t produce consistently (he had less than 40 yards receiving in nine games). But if they’re healthy, both players should have no problem filling a No. 2 role in the right system.
A year after the Patriots made a play for him, the now-unrestricted Emmanuel Sanders continues to look like a nice fit for New England, and I’d be surprised if the Pats don’t pursue him again. Sanders heads the second tier, but there are several noteworthy names in this group.
After Sanders, the second tier offers a mix of young players with upside (Kenny Britt, Andre Roberts) and steady veterans whose best years are likely behind them (James Jones, Santana Moss, Nate Burleson). Brandon LaFell and Jerome Simpson should also receive consideration as players who could provide solid production as No. 3 options.
This group also includes several players whose value extends beyond their contributions on offense. Guys like Jacoby Jones, Ted Ginn, Dexter McCluster, and Devin Hester can also create big plays in the return game, which should give their stocks a nice boost if and when they hit the open market.
For every Ginn, McCluster, or Hester, there are several return specialists whose offensive value is limited. Brandon Tate, Josh Cribbs, Jacoby Ford, and Micheal Spurlock are among the players who fit that bill. Their special teams contributions will earn them contracts, but their clubs probably won’t expect much from them in the passing game.
There are plenty of other notable names among the rest of the free agent receivers, however. Darrius Heyward-Bey, Mario Manningham, and Robert Meachem may never have had breakout years, but you could do a lot worse if you’re not looking for a starter. Longtime Texan Kevin Walter may still have a little left in the tank if he’s healthy, and Jerricho Cotchery is coming off his best season in years, having snagged a career-high 10 touchdown passes for the Steelers. Tiquan Underwood, Damian Williams, Josh Morgan, and Kevin Ogletree are among the other receivers available, and are all still in their mid-to-late 20s.
It goes without saying that none of 2014’s free agents will have the impact of a Calvin Johnson or a Brandon Marshall — if any team decides to pay one of this year’s free agents like a truly elite player, that club will likely regret it. Still, even if there are no superstars in the group, there are plenty of players capable of being excellent secondary options or potentially even sharing a No. 1 role. If a buyer’s market develops, it will be very interesting to see which teams get involved and which decide to hold off until the draft.