Sunday, February 26, 2012

2012 Free Agency Top Fives: Wide Receiver

Over the next month leading up to the free-agent signing period on March 13, I'll be taking a look at the best players slated for free agency this offseason.

In this entry, I'll examine the top wide receivers expected to hit the open market next month, as well as some other notable names at the position.

1. Vincent Jackson, San Diego Chargers

A second-round pick out of Northern Colorado in 2005, the freakishly-sized Jackson (6-5, 230) has established himself as one of the best deep threats in the game. Excluding the 2010 season that limited him to five games due to a holdout, Jackson has posted three 1,000-yard seasons in the last four years and has an impressive 17.5 career average. Jackson recently turned 29 and should be a legitimate No. 1 receiver for at least the length of his next significant contract.

2. Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs

The 23rd overall pick out of LSU in 2007, Bowe was briefly a training camp holdout as a rookie. That didn't stop him from coming up just short of a 1,000-yard season, and he's been productive ever since with a career year in 2010 that saw him total 72 receptions, 1,162 yards and 15 touchdowns. His touchdown total dipped significantly in 2011 thanks to the Chiefs' quarterback struggles, but that's certainly not a reflection on Bowe. An impressive physical specimen with great hands, Bowe profiles as a No. 1 receiver on many teams.

3. Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts

A long-time feature of the Colts' offense, Wayne has spent the last 11 seasons as one of the most consistently productive receivers in the NFL and currently sits at 15th in receptions, 22nd in receiving yards and 30th in receiving touchdowns on the all-time leaderboards. Turning 34 this coming season, Wayne held up well despite the Colts' struggles in 2011 and can still be a productive part of an offense as a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver. It's possible he could land wherever Peyton Manning does as a package deal.

4. Wes Welker, New England Patriots

Anyone who knows me knows how I feel about Welker. He's not going to stretch the field and the nature of his position and the team he plays for inflate his numbers, but he's not truly among the elite receivers in the NFL. That being said, Welker mans the slot better than anyone in the league and has honed his craft well. A prototypical slot receiver that runs good routes and can catch the ball, Welker has four 1,000-yard seasons in the last five years and has topped 120 receptions in a season twice in his career. He's not going to be Larry Fitzgerald or Andre Johnson, but he can absolutely handle the slot and the Patriots might franchise him to keep him off the market.

5. Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints

A seventh-round pick out of the now-defunct Hofstra program, Colston topped 1,000 yards as a rookie in 2006 and hasn't looked back, surpassing that market every season but one when he was limited to 11 games in 2008. His knees are bit concerning, but the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Colston is about as reliable as it gets and is a solid No. 1 receiver.

Beyond the Top Five
  • Donnie Avery, Tennessee Titans — A burner, Avery strung together two solid seasons in St. Louis before tearing his ACL in 2010 and failing to make the team in 2011. He totaled just three catches with the Titans in 2011, but he has deep threat potential and could still turn things around as a low-risk signing.
  • Deion Branch, New England Patriots — A former Super Bowl MVP in his first stint with the Patriots, Branch is one of those guys that's better in New England that he is away from there. He's a fairly solid veteran with plenty of experience to offer, but he's done lighting it up as a starter.
  • Plaxico Burress, New York Jets — Once one of the better red-zone threats in the game, Burress was a bit shaky in 2011 after two years of incarceration. He'll probably move on from the Jets and could find a bit more success in the right scheme.
  • Jericho Cotchery, Pittsburgh Steelers — Cotchery was greeted to a soft market in 2011 and managed only 16 receptions on the receiver-deep Steelers, but I've always liked his talent. He may not get too many chances to be a starter turning 30 this spring, but he's a nice backup to have and has the talent to fill in if called upon.
  • Harry Douglas, Atlanta Falcons — A third-round pick in 2008, Douglas has never surpassed 500 receiving yards or scored multiple touchdowns in a season. He's a pure slot receiver and can do well in that role, but he's never going to be a playmaker.
  • Pierre Garcon, Indianapolis Colts — Admittedly someone that was close to my top five, the Mount Union product showed nice ability as a deep threat in 2009 and set career highs in receptions (70) and receiving yards (947) despite the Colts' quarterback woes in 2011. I question his upside as a true No. 1 receiver, but he's certainly got talent.
  • Anthony Gonzalez, Indianapolis Colts — A former first-round pick out of Ohio State in 2007, injuries have limited Gonzales to just 11 games and five receptions over the past three seasons. He seems unlikely to ever reach his potential but could be a low-risk signing.
  • DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles — Jackson has the talent to be in the top five here, but I'm keeping it out because of other reasons. One of the best deep threats in the league, Jackson is immature on the field and extremely irresponsible with money off of it, choosing to pout and slack off rather than motivate himself because he wants (and needs) a new contract. His talent along makes him a worthy venture, but I'd be wary of giving him a lot of money.
  • Steve Johnson, Buffalo Bills — Johnson has had some notorious drops in his career, but the former seventh-round pick has certainly exceeded expectations with two straight 1,000-yard seasons and 17 scores during that span. Like Garcon, I question his upside as a No. 1 receiver, but he's certainly been an overachiever to this point.
  • Mario Manningham, New York Giants — Manningham is entering the market on a huge wave after making possibly the greatest catch in Super Bowl history earlier this month, but his overall value is not as great as that would indicate. As the undrafted Victor Cruz has put up serious numbers in the Giants' offense, Manningham has just one season of over 900 yards and totaled just 523 yards and four touchdowns in 2011. The former first-rounder has starting ability, but he's not a clear-cut starter.
  • Robert Meachem, New Orleans Saints — After failing to appear in a single game as a rookie in 2007, the former first-rounder from Tennessee established himself as a solid deep threat in the Saints' high-powered offense with 15 touchdowns and a 16.1 receiving average over the past four seasons. He still hasn't entirely lived up to his draft status, however, and might never be a true No. 1 receiver.
  • Roscoe Parrish, Buffalo Bills — Parrish followed up a career-high 400-yard performance in 2010 with just one catch this past season, but he's never been much of a receiver. He does offer value as a punt returner, however, and should be able to find a home in that role.
  • Laurent Robinson, Dallas Cowboys — After disappointing seasons with the Falcons and Rams, Robinson failed to make the Chargers' roster in 2011 and was signed and released by the Cowboys before being re-added a second time. After that, he broke out with 858 yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games. His knack for finding the end zone should leave him with plenty of suitors.
  • Eddie Royal, Denver Broncos — After posting an impressive 91/980/5 stat line as a rookie in 2008, Royal's production has taken a hit with the Broncos' quarterback struggles and he was never a favorite target of Tim Tebow in 2011, managing just 19 receptions. A good punt returner, has the talent of a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver and could thrive on the right team.
  • Jerome Simpson, Cincinnati Bengals — A second-round pick in 2008, Simpson was largely a disappointment until catching 50 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns this season. However, he's had issues with marijuana off the field and could be in line for a suspension, and his overall upside and reliability is highly questionable. The man known for his flip into the end zone might have a hard time finding a featured role in 2012.
  • Steve Smith, Philadelphia Eagles — A 1,000-yard receiver with the Giants two years ago, Smith managed just 11 catches with the Eagles in 2011 and has struggled with knee issues. If healthy he could be a solid receiver, but it's fair to wonder he was inflated by Eli Manning's gun-slinging ways in New York.
  • Eric Weems, Atlanta Falcons — Weems has never caught more than 11 passes in a season (which he did in 2011), but he has two career touchdown returns and a 25.6 kickoff return average. He's in the upper half in the league in that department and should continue to work there.
  • Roy Williams, Chicago Bears — After a strong start to his career in Dallas, Williams busted in Dallas and Chicago and continues to be a mediocre receiver with little ability to separate or make plays. At age 30, his starting days might be nearing an end.

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