Free Agent Stock Watch

Free Agent Stock Watch: Marcus Williams

Though he has yet to earn a Pro Bowl nomination, the Saints’ Marcus Williams has established himself as one of the best young safeties in the NFL. A member of New Orleans’ loaded 2017 draft class that also included Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Alvin Kamara, and Trey Hendrickson, Williams’ presence in the secondary has been instrumental in the Saints’ defensive success over his first four years in the league.

Williams, a free safety, is a prototypical centerfielder and ball-hawker whose one true weakness coming into the 2020 season was his tackling ability. But he made great strides in that regard, as Pro Football Focus charged him with just two missed tackles last year. PFF ranked Williams as the seventh-best safety in the game in 2020, and while it was especially bullish on his run defense, he also scored well in coverage.

Between that and his playmaking abilities — he has recorded 13 interceptions and 30 passes defensed over his first four years in the league — Williams will be a hot commodity if the Saints let him hit the open market. And New Orleans might not have a choice. The club’s salary cap problems have been well-documented, and we heard over the weekend that re-signing Hendrickson — whose 13.5 sacks were the second-most in the NFL last season — may not be possible.

The same goes for Williams. The Utah product will justifiably be aiming for the top of the safety market, which is currently headed by the Cardinals’ Budda Baker‘s $14.75MM average annual value. The Bears’ Eddie Jackson ($14.6MM) and the Titans’ Kevin Byard ($14.1MM) are not too far behind in terms of AAV, and all three players landed guarantees north of $30MM. Theoretically, GM Mickey Loomis could backload a Williams contract in an effort to fit him under the 2021 salary cap, but Loomis will have a number of difficult decisions to make, and even a backloaded deal might be too rich for the Saints at this point.

It seems that the franchise tag, which would carry a projected value of about $10.5MM, is definitely out of the question since the Saints would need to carry that entire amount on their cap in 2021. So if the Saints can’t bring back Williams, where might he end up?

The Raiders are one obvious potential landing spot. Las Vegas recently hired Gus Bradley as its new DC, and Bradley was one of the architects of the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom secondary that saw Earl Thomas playing centerfield against opposing offenses. The Raiders’ offense is in pretty good shape, and after a series of straightforward cuts, they will have enough cap space to sign a quality free agent or two. Williams would team with Johnathan Abram to form a young and talented safety tandem.

The Lions and Jaguars were the two worst teams in the league in 2020 in terms of total defense, and while both clubs are very much in the rebuilding phase, Williams is young enough that he could still be a part of the next competitive outfits in Detroit or Jacksonville. Those teams have plenty of areas of need, but a strong back-end defender is a worthwhile target for any defense.

One way or another, Williams is about to get paid. He might not be the most talked-about FA at this point, but assuming the Saints don’t hit him with the franchise tag, he will be one of the first players off the board when free agency officially opens next month.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Bears WR Allen Robinson

It’s safe to say that Allen Robinson isn’t a happy camper. Over the weekend, the Bears wide receiver liked a series of tweets from fans who encouraged him to skip town (Twitter link via Dov Kleiman). He’ll have the opportunity to leave Chicago in the spring when his contract expires, but it’s not a given that the market will meet his expectations. 

Earlier this year, we heard that Robinson saw himself as the top wide receiver in this year’s free agent class. That would mean a deal of at least $20MM per year, putting him in the neighborhood of Michael Thomas and Julio Jones who have much stronger resumes. Thomas’ camp would probably point to Keenan Allen and Amari Cooper — receivers who did not have the same credentials as Thomas or Jones, but still topped $20MM/year.

The Bears weren’t willing to go there when the two sides last spoke, but they also kept Robinson past the early November trade deadline. Since then, they’ve watched their playoff hopes dwindle. The Bears, riding a five-game losing streak, may wind up losing their star receiver for nothing but a compensatory pick.

The Bears’ quarterback situation hasn’t provided Robinson with the ideal platform, but he’s still been fairly productive from an individual standpoint. Last year, Robinson managed a solid 98 grabs for 1,147 yards — his best showing since his 2015 coming out party with the Jaguars. Through eleven games this year, he has a stat line of 71/829/5, bolstered by his latest outing against the Packers. Robinson’s 11.7 yards per catch average over the last two years doesn’t exactly jump off the page, but it’s evident that the talent is there, and Robinson has been largely healthy over that stretch.

But, even with the most favorable view possible, Robinson probably won’t be the kingpin of this WR class. Chris Godwin and Kenny Golladay are also on track to hit the open market — ditto for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who could probably be had for less than Robinson.

Given the strength of the WR class and uncertainty of the 2021 salary cap, it might behoove Robinson to smooth things out with the Bears. Or, at minimum, pretend to smooth out with the Bears, in order to fetch the best possible deal. If Robinson can keep the incumbent Bears involved, he could land somewhere near the $18MM/year mark like Tyreek Hill and Odell Beckham Jr. If he can’t, he might be looking at ~$16MM/year offers, similar to Cooper Kupp‘s recent Rams extension.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Eric Reid

It’s the first week of May and several notable NFL names are still floating in free agency. That list includes edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, quarterback and one-time MVP Cam Newton, the once unstoppable Devonta Freeman, and a well-accomplished safety on the right side of 30 in Eric Reid

[RELATED: Three Years Ago Today, The Panthers Signed Christian McCaffrey To His Rookie Deal]

It’s familiar territory for the 28-year-old, who waited all the way until September to find his home for 2018. In that offseason, Reid was coming off of yet another solid campaign as a starter for the 49ers. He was also viewed as controversial by some, thanks to his friendship and partnerships with Colin Kaepernick. Teams say otherwise, but the national anthem protests surely hampered Reid’s market. But, in the interest of equal time, it’s worth noting that other standout safeties – guys like Tre BostonTyvon BranchRon Parker, and Kenny Vaccaro – were also left waiting by the phone that year.

This time around, Reid still offers plenty of upside, though his platform year wasn’t as strong. His new career-high of 130 tackles – including four sacks – seems solid, but a deeper glance shows a few cracks. Pro Football Focus, for example, wasn’t fond of his work, which saw more than 77% of throws completed in his vicinity. After the season, the Panthers released Reid from the remaining year on his contract.

What’s next for Reid? There are several teams that make sense, but also far fewer clubs that are in desperate need of safety help post-draft. His younger brother, Justin Reid, is making a strong case for him to join up with the Texans. After releasing Tashaun Gipson last week, Reid would profile as a major upgrade to an underperforming secondary. The Cowboys, Raiders, and other contenders should also take a good look at him, especially since he can probably be had on a low-cost one-year deal. With that, and a strong season, Reid could be in position to cash in as a free agent next year – hopefully, in March this time.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Arik Armstead

While teams will surely apply the franchise tag to a number of the best pass rushers on the market, one has seemed to receive much less buzz than warranted. 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead failed to live up to his first-round selection early in his career but has quietly become a difference-maker along the San Francisco front four.

In free agency rankings and previews Jadeveon Clowney, Shaquil Barrett, and Yannick Ngakoue have all consistently ranked ahead of the 17th overall selection in the 2015 Draft. However, there is a pretty compelling argument that Armstead is the best player of the bunch.

Few experts would argue that Armstead wasn’t the most productive of the group last season. Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), Armstead was the 6th highest graded edge defender last season of the 107 qualified players. Clowney ranked 20th, Barrett ranked 25th, and Ngakoue ranked 36th. Barrett accrued a league-leading 19.5 sacks (Armstead recorded 10, Ngakoue had 8, and Clowney just 3), but recorded fewer hurries than Armstead, which tend to be more predictive of future sack production.

It seems that most experts view Armstead as a one-hit-wonder, only producing in his contract year, but the evidence is a bit more complicated. With the exception of the 2016 season (when he missed 8 games with injury), Armstead has always graded out by PFF as a solid defensive lineman (receiving grades of 79.0, 70.1, and 74.8 in 2015, 2017, and 2018) who was particularly effective against the run. There’s no denying that Armstead reached another level of productivity in 2019, but it appears a bit disingenuous to say it came entirely out of nowhere.

Most impressive of all, even as Armstead built his reputation on run-stopping ability, he has generated hurries at the greatest rate of the group, not in 2019, but over his entire career. Armstead has generated a hurry on over 9.2% of his pass-rush snaps over his career, according to PFF, none of the other three have surpassed 7.8%.

Of course, the 49ers have been especially baron along the defensive line (aside from DeForest Buckner) for most of Armstead’s career. Obviously the additions of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford this offseason turned one of the team’s previous weaknesses into its greatest strength. But, some evaluators attribute Armstead’s jump to the improvement in his teammates more than a true change in him as a player.

Injuries, which were problems for Armstead in his second and third NFL seasons, have been a nonfactor over the previous two seasons and especially this season-when he played on 912 snaps between the regular season and playoffs as a part of the 49ers NFC Championship run.

At just 26 years of age, Armstead, an Oregon alum, appears poised to enter his prime of productivity, but will the market view him that way? Or will teams remain skeptical that his elite production in 2019 is sustainable without an elite supporting cast alongside him?

The top of the market for a player like Armstead would likely approach Frank Clark‘s 5-year, $104MM contract with the Chiefs last offseason, on the flipside, Armstead’s floor is probably around his teammate Dee Ford‘s 4-year, $85MM deal. Reports have suggested the 49ers want to resign Armstead, but limited on cap space following their Super Bowl loss to Kansas City, the team will have to shuffle some money around to make a new deal feasible (ironically, a new deal for Armstead could result in the release or trade of Ford).

If they are unable to resign him, San Francisco, already short of draft capital, could very likely recoup a strong return for Armstead via a tag-and-trade move, but the team would need to clear the necessary cap space to apply the franchise tag before they made any move.

Since most focus remains on Clowney, Ngakoue, and Barrett, few rumors have tied Armstead to any other teams, but don’t be surprised if teams seem to evaluate Armstead at the same level (or maybe even above) some of the other options.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Dak Prescott

With all the talk surrounding Tom Brady‘s impending free agency, it’s almost like you could forget about Dak Prescott‘s scheduled trip to the open market. Almost. 

At the start of the season, it seemed like Prescott was right on the cusp of a brand new multi-year deal with the Cowboys. Back in September, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said a new deal was “imminent.” Then, Jones & Co. spent the rest of the year deflecting questions about a potential extension. Now, the pressure is on for the Cowboys to hammer out a mega-deal that will keep Prescott under center for the foreseeable future.

Both sides have ample reason to get something done, but the Cowboys, understandably, have reservations about tying up a ludicrously high percentage of their available dollars in a handful of players. Back in September, the Cowboys offered up a contract that would have paid Prescott an average of $33MM/year. However, Prescott held off during his insanely hot start, and he was probably eyeing Russell Wilson‘s league-leading $35MM/year average.

The Cowboys’ second-half dip cost them a playoff berth and hurt Prescott’s leverage. Through the first seven games of the year, Prescott completed more than 70% of his passes with 12 TDs and seven INTs. On the back nine, Prescott completed just 61.5% of his throws with 18 touchdowns against four interceptions.

Still, there was plenty of blame to go around for the Cowboys’ drop, and much of it fell on Jason Garrett. Prescott, who won’t turn 27 until July, figures to cash in, one way or another. If the Cowboys can’t come to an agreement with Prescott on a long-term deal, they can keep him from free agency via the franchise tag, which is projected to come in at roughly $26.9MM for quarterbacks. The former fourth-round pick would surely prefer the security of a four-year contract, but that’s still a substantial pay bump from the $2.025MM base salary he earned in the final year of his rookie deal.

What will it take for the Cowboys to get a deal done with Prescott? After he finished second in passing yards (4,902) and fourth in passing touchdowns (30, a new career-high), it won’t be cheap. By betting on himself, Prescott has all but assured that he can top Jared Goff‘s four-year, $134MM deal, which averages out to $33.5MM/year. Meanwhile, his camp surely has Goff’s $110MM in guarantees – an NFL record – in the crosshairs.

The stats and comps are only part of the equation as the prospect of multiple franchise tags looms large. Sure, the Cowboys can cuff Prescott for 2020 at ~$27MM, but what about 2021, when the cost would rise another 20% to more than $39MM? (Assuming the franchise tag rules remain in tact after the new CBA.) After that, a third tag would be downright absurd – a 44% jump would cost upwards of $55MM for the 2022 season.

We’ve been fooled before, but all signs still point to a long-term accord between the QB and JJ. If the Cowboys are unwilling to top Wilson’s AAV, it’s possible that the two sides can meet in the middle on a three-year deal, which would allow Prescott to cash in at untold levels when he’s 30 years of age and the league’s revenue climbs even higher. Or, maybe they’ll cave and give Prescott just enough to edge Wilson on a four-year deal and claim victory. In any case, the Cowboys do not want to wait for Patrick Mahomes to land his next deal, which could top $40MM per annum. And, failing all of that, a tag is surely coming.

Prescott, technically speaking, is due for free agency in March, but we’d be shocked if he gets there.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Trey Flowers

Sack artists tend be among the highest earners in free agency, but in 2019 we’ll find out whether the same applies to a defensive end who has generated a ton of pressure against opposing QBs without a ton of sack dances. We’re talking about Patriots standout Trey Flowers, who will look to cash in among a star-studded class of edge rushers. 

This spring, teams will be champing at the bit for free agents like Frank Clark (10 sacks), Dee Ford (9 sacks), DeMarcus Lawrence (9.5 sacks), Jadeveon Clowney (7 sacks). Flowers, meanwhile, has just 3.5 sacks through ten games this season, meaning that he’s on pace for less takedowns than his seven sacks in 2016 and his 6.5 sacks last year.

Of course, sacks don’t tell the whole story when it comes to evaluating edge rushers. Flowers has been terrorizing opposing QBs all season long and Jets signal caller Josh McCown can attest to that after he was hit four times by the Arkansas product last week. Heading into the meat of Week 13, Flowers ranks as Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 ranked edge defender, behind only Texans superstar J.J. Watt. That’s not too shabby for a player who won’t turn 26 until August.

Watt, by the way, is under contract through 2021 thanks to the six-year, $100MM contract extension he inked in 2014. Given the widespread need for high-level pass rushers, the increase of the salary cap, and the advancement of the market for DEs, it’s possible that Flowers can flirt with or best Watt’s $16.67MM average annual value.

The Patriots typically don’t shell out big bucks for defensive linemen, but they may want to make an exception here. The Patriots’ group of defensive ends beyond Flowers is far from star-studded and they should have the cap room to make his salary fit. A long-term extension with Flowers would cost no less than $13MM annually, so if they’re unwilling to commit, they can franchise tag Flowers for about $17.1MM.

If Flowers hits the open market, what kind of contract will he command? Which teams do you think will be in the mix for him? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Johnathan Hankins

Last year, Johnathan Hankins was among the league’s most sought-after free agent defensive tackles. In July 2018, Hankins is without an NFL home. 

Hankins’ market dragged a bit last year due to his asking price, but he settled for less in April when he signed a three-year, $27MM deal with the Colts. In March of this year, the Colts surprised many by terminating his contract.

Hankins finished out the year as Pro Football Focus’ No. 20 ranked interior defender and the Colts had – and still have – an abundance of cap room. The Colts’ change from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 setup likely played a part in their decision, but Hankins had only worked out of a 4-3 scheme prior to joining Indianapolis. Hankins did not offer much against the pass in 2017, but he was exceptional against the run, which is the primary goal of any defensive tackle.

Since his release, Hankins has met with the Redskins and Jets, but did not sign with either club. So, what gives?

We haven’t heard much on Hankins in recent weeks, but it stands to reason that his asking price is keeping him from landing a deal. In 2017, Hankins’ camp told teams that he was looking for $15MM per year. Soon after, the asking price was reduced to a more reasonable $10MM per season, and he eventually accepted a $9MM/year pact from the Colts.

After turning in a solid season – nearly the best of his career, according to PFF – Hankins may be unwilling to take anything less than what he received from the Colts. It’s the only logical explanation for one of the league’s best run-stuffing DTs being left in limbo.

That position may seem foolish since many teams have already blown their wad in the first and second waves of free agency, but there are still plenty of dollars available, particularly when it comes to his potential suitors. The Jets, who might not want to bank on 32-year-old Steve McLendon in the middle, will still have about $14MM in cap room after they sign top draft pick Sam Darnold. The Packers, who might not have complete confidence in Kenny Clark taking the next step in 2018, have nearly $11MM in space after inking their entire draft class. The Cowboys, who will start the year without David Irving, have nearly $15MM to work with.

Between now and the start of the year, it’s entirely possible that a team could open up the checkbook to meet Hankins’ demands. In addition to the aforementioned clubs, there are still 16 teams with eight figures in cap room. Beggars can’t be choosers at this stage of the summer, but all it takes is one GM to cave.

Alternatively, Hankins may wind up taking his salary demands down a notch or two, which would greatly open up his possibilities. The Lions, for example, have just $9MM in space, but they may want to consider Hankins to beef up their line, even after signing Sylvester Williams in March.

If the market doesn’t meet his demands, Hankins may be willing to settle for a one-year platform contract in the $7MM range to reestablish his value. If quality defenders like Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Jadeveon Clowney, and Geno Atkins are taken off of the 2019 free agent list with extensions, Hankins could be on the path to riches next spring.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Justin Blalock

With Michael Crabtree and Stefen Wisniewski finding new homes last week, only one free agent on PFR‘s Top 50 list — tackle Justin BlalockJoe Barksdale — remains unsigned. Barksdale (whom I profiled last month) might be the biggest name left on the free agent market, but there are other steady options available, including those who, like Barskdale, play along the offensive line. One such player is guard Justin Blalock, who didn’t earn a spot on our Top 50 list, but did garner a honorable mention.

Blalock was released by the Falcons — his only NFL team for all eight of his pro seasons — in late February, a few weeks before the start of free agency. As PFR’s Luke Adams noted at the time, the transaction was a bit of a surprise, given that Blalock had been a productive contributor during his time in Atlanta. However, he was set to count nearly $8MM against the salary cap in 2015, which would have been the third-highest figure on the club. Additionally, there were concerns that Blalock, a successful guard in a power scheme, wouldn’t be a fit for new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan‘s zone-blocking concepts.

The 31-year-old Blalock has generated a fair amount of interest since his release, and given that he’s been linked to teams with severe offensive line issues, it’s a tad stunning that he hasn’t found a new home yet. The Rams immediately displayed interest in Blalock, and were reportedly set to meet with him at some point (though it’s unclear if that meeting ever took place). Blalock did take a visit with the Lions, while the Buccaneers also showed some level of intrigue.

The level of interest engendered by Blalock shouldn’t come as a surprise, because he’s certainly been a good player throughout his career. His rookie season notwithstanding — he had the dubious honor of being ranked as the league’s worst guard in 2007 — according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Blalock has been remarkably reliable, topping out with a No. 12 finish in 2010 before settling in as a top-30 guard since. The former second-round pick has also been incredibly durable, as he’s missed just two games during his eight-year career.

Blalock should be able to latch on with a new team soon, and it’s conceivable that one of the clubs mentioned above could still sign him. St. Louis, in particular, has a gaping hole at right guard, where Barrett Jones is currently projected to start, as does Tennessee, where career backup Byron Stingily is atop the depth chart. The Patriots, Chargers, and (if they don’t want to rely on Chris Williams) Bills are clubs that both have a vacancy at guard and run a man-blocking scheme.

Outside of the Rams, I think the Lions could present the best fit for Blalock. They’ve already shown interest in him, and they currently a hole at left guard, pending the outcome of their talks with their owner free agent guard, Rob Sims. Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew indicated last month that the team was in negotiations with Sims, but nothing has come of those discussions as of yet. Blalock was the better player in 2014 (Sims was PFF’s No. 40 guard), and while Blalock earned more last year, I’d bet the two will ultimately earn similar money in 2015.

Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com pointed to Blalock as a option for the Lions earlier this month, so it could be that Detroit is waiting for either Blalock or Sims to accept an offer that’s already on the table. Responding to a Twitter question today, Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com argued that the club’s most pressing need was at left guard as opposed to right tackle — at RT, says Twetyman, the Lions at least have LaAdrian Waddle, who has some experience, while the team has no such option at left guard. An addition of Blalock would give Detroit a line of (left-to-right) Riley Reiff, Blalock, Travis Swanson, Larry Warford, and Waddle, a solid (if uninspiring) group.

Left guard isn’t a highly-paid position, and Blalock won’t be able top Geoff Schwartz‘s $4.2MM AAV from last offseason. While he plays a different position, Wisniewski recently received $2.5MM from the Jaguars, and while he’s probably a better player than Blalock, he’s also recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, lowering his value. I’d guess that Blalock will ultimately come in around $2-3MM, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lions or the Rams were the club that signed the Texas alum.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Greg Jennings

Hundreds of NFL players have found themselves on the free agent market at some point this offseason, but few seem to have had as much fun with the process as Greg Jennings.Greg Jennings

The veteran wideout has kept his fans up to date on his latest free agent visits by not-so-subtly alluding to them on Twitter — during a week that included meetings in Jacksonville and New Orleans, he wrote that he had the urge to visit a Jaguar dealership, and suggested he had a craving for some Popeyes. Of course, earlier in the process, Jennings indicated that he was set to announce his new team at 10:00pm pacific time on March 31, but that “announcement” was ultimately an April Fool’s gag.

At some point though, Jennings will find a new home, and it will be interesting to see where he lands and how he adjusts to his new situation. The ex-Packer was one of Aaron Rodgers‘ top weapons in Green Bay, where he spent the first seven years of his NFL career. During the three seasons in which he played all 16 games, from 2008 to 2010, the former second-round pick posted three straight 1,100-yard seasons, averaging about 75 receptions, 1,223 yards, and eight touchdowns per year.

That production in Green Bay earned Jennings a massive five-year, $45MM deal from the Vikings which almost immediately looked like a mistake. With the quarterback situation in Minnesota unsettled, Jennings was catching passes from a combination of Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, and even Josh Freeman during his first year with the Vikes, and never appeared to be an ideal fit. Even after Teddy Bridgewater emerged as the starter in 2014, Jennings’ production was unspectacular — he recorded just 59 receptions for 742 yards last season.

With his cap number on the rise and his performance on the decline, Jennings was an unsurprising cap casualty last month, as the Vikings opted to add another pricey veteran wideout – Mike Wallace – in his place. Now, as Jennings searches for his next NFL team at age 31, potential suitors will attempt to determine whether the veteran is past his prime, or if he could have a bounce-back season in the right situation.

Within the last few weeks, Jennings has been linked to a number of receiver-needy teams, including the Panthers, Dolphins, Jaguars, and Saints — all of whom he’s visited, and all of whom are certainly logical fits. Miami and New Orleans jettisoned many of their top pass catchers from a year ago, as the Fins parted ways with Wallace, Brandon Gibson, and Brian Hartline, while the Saints traded Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham. Jacksonville has some promising young wideouts on the roster, including Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, and Allen Hurns, but the Jags could use a veteran presence in that group. As for the Panthers, their receiving corps was depleted last year, and adding Jarrett Boykin in free agency didn’t change that.

If Jennings is going to bounce back, it will likely be in situation opposite to the one he found himself in with the Vikings two years ago — in that instance, he was the go-to target, but didn’t have a top quarterback capable of getting him the ball consistently. If he were to join a team like the Saints or even the Panthers, Jennings wouldn’t be at the top of the receiver depth chart, but he could become a steady, reliable weapon for a QB like Drew Brees or Cam Newton.

I think the 31-year-old could also be a fit for a veteran team like the Patriots or the Ravens. Oakland doesn’t really meet my criteria, and the team just signed another veteran receiver in Michael Crabtree, but the Raiders shouldn’t be ruled out entirely — after all, GM Reggie McKenzie was in Green Bay’s front office when the Packers drafted Jennings, and Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was the OC in Minnesota when the Vikes signed Jennings in 2013.

At this point in his career, the days of five-year, $45MM contracts are long behind Jennings, who will likely have to settle for a modest one-year pact. A team with plenty of cap space, like the Jaguars, would probably be more willing to spend a few extra bucks on the veteran wideout this spring, but he may be better off settling for something closer to the minimum with a team like the Saints, where he could catch balls from a Pro Bowl quarterback and improve upon his Minnesota numbers. That sort of bounce-back year could potentially buoy him to one last multiyear deal with a little guaranteed money a year from now.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Hakeem Nicks

After Michael Crabtree signed with the Raiders earlier this week, Hakeem Nicks suddenly became the most intriguing free-agent wide receiver still on the market. Greg Jennings might have something to say about that, but in terms of potential upside, Nicks presents the best opportunity for a low-risk investment to pay significant dividends.

At just 27, Nicks already has a fairly impressive resume. In the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the former 29th-overall pick averaged 78 receptions for more than 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns for the Giants. He was also a major contributor to New York’s Super Bowl title in 2011, averaging seven receptions and 111 yards per game over the team’s four-game playoff run (including a 10-catch, 109-yard performance in Super Bowl XLVI). He also grabbed four touchdowns during that stretch. Combined with Victor Cruz’s breakout 2011 season, it appeared as if Eli Manning would have one of the most dynamic pair of receivers in the league at his disposal for the foreseeable future.

Hakeem Nicks (vertical)

Unfortunately, the injury bug struck Nicks as the Giants prepared to defend their title. During OTAs in May 2012, Nicks fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and was forced to undergo surgery. As a result, he missed valuable training camp time, and even when he returned to the field, he had to play through pain. He landed hard on his right knee during the Giants’ Week 2 contest that year, and he ultimately missed three consecutive games due to knee swelling.

Although he suited up on game days the rest of the season, he was rarely able to practice with the team, and it was clear that the injuries had sapped a great deal of his explosiveness and playmaking ability. His numbers—and the Giants’ offense—suffered as a result. In the last two games of the season, Nicks failed to record a single catch, playing just one snap in the finale.

The former North Carolina standout enjoyed a statistical uptick in 2013, but he failed to crack 900 receiving yards and did not catch a single touchdown despite playing in 15 games. He therefore signed a one-year “prove it” deal with the Colts last season, but he was unable to prove much of anything. Nicks was lost in the shuffle of an otherwise explosive aerial attack led by Andrew Luck, who favored Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, and Coby Fleener. Nicks recorded a mere 38 catches for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and he was targeted just 68 times after receiving over 100 targets in each of his previous four years with the Giants.

The once-promising wideout is consequently looking for another team to offer him the same opportunity the Colts did. Nicks has visited with both the 49ers and Titans, but has otherwise failed to generate a great deal of interest. It is somewhat telling that the Dolphins, who are known to be in the market for a veteran receiver, were apparently more interested in Crabtree, Jennings, and Wes Welker.

Nicks may not be able to recapture his 2011 form, but given his relative youth and record of productivity, one would have to think there is some truth to his assertion that he is “nowhere near finished.” Perhaps on a team like Tennessee or Miami, which feature several talented but young receivers, Nicks would be able to succeed. But if San Francisco is still interested, the 49ers may represent the best opportunity for him. He offers some of the downfield ability of Torrey Smith but is more akin to Anquan Boldin in terms of his route-running and good hands, and is therefore a quality complement to both. Guided by a capable quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, Nicks could thrive in the Bay Area.

But regardless of where he lands, it would be a surprise for him to get much more than the one-year, $3MM deal that Crabtree just signed. And if his 2015 numbers do not show a marked improvement over what he compiled in 2014, he may, in fact, be finished, as the promise of 2011 gets pushed further into the rear-view mirror.

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