If the NFL is a passing league more than ever these days (and it is), it would stand to reason that a quarterback's targets might be overvalued in free agency. The problem for the eligible receivers and tight ends in 2014 is that the draft class is quite stacked at both base positions -- and at their sub-positions (slot receiver, flex tight end). That leaves less for the guys who have already proven it in the NFL, but there are a few standouts who should command close to top dollar when free agency opens Mar. 11.
1. Eric Decker
Decker had his most productive season in 2013 as a key part of Peyton Manning's historic campaign. Not only is he a tough receiver over the middle with a full command of route concepts; he's also faster in space than some may realize, as evidenced by his 14.8 yards per reception average. Now, the question is what kind of money Decker will be offered on the open market, and how much he's seen as a product of Manning's brilliance.
"If we can get on the same page, I will welcome a call from the Broncos, but I need to do what is best for my family," Decker said in mid-February. "It's not all about the money for me. It's about going to work every day and having fun and enjoying my job."
Broncos EVP John Elway and head coach John Fox know Decker's value, but they'll need to re-do Demaryius Thomas before next year, and there's the elephant in the room -- how much they'll have to spend on a quarterback once Manning's ready to hang 'em up. Several teams have already showed interest in Decker, and he could get No. 1 receiver money elsewhere.
2. Golden Tate
It took a while for Tate to get the hang of the NFL -- the second-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2010 was benched for a while early on because he couldn't meet the exacting standards Seattle's new regime applied to him. But over the last two seasons, Tate has become one of the best speed slot receivers in the league, and a dynamic special teams weapon. Tate's free agent value may lie at the A-minus level, but those in the know believe that he's either Seattle's top offseason priority, or near the top on a very short list.
Like Decker, Edelman had his best season at just the right time -- he was Tom Brady's only truly consistent target in 2013, topping 1,000 receiving yards for the first time. And like Decker, Edelman is faster on the field than it's assumed; he's not just a Wes Welker clone. Actually, while faster than Welker, Edelman doesn't have anything approaching Welker's ability to find open seams in space, though Edelman's old teammate may have the best sense of that since Fred Biletnikoff. Edelman's market may be slightly limited because he's a bit of a tweener, but when you add in his special teams ability, he should get a B-level series of offers -- and the Patriots would be wise to meet whatever that price may be.
4. James Jones
Jones has been one of the league's most quietly productive receivers over the last few seasons, ranking in the top 12 in Football Outsiders' per play efficiency metrics in both 2011 and '12. His drop to the 40s in 2013 had as much to do with injuries as anything else, and with Randall Cobb taking a more prominent slot role in 2014, Jones will most likely be encouraged by Packers GM Ted Thompson to see what he can get on the market -- despite Jones' insistence that he'd like to return. Which means that some lucky NFL team is about to get a consistent producer, most likely at a relative bargain price.
5. Hakeem Nicks
Nicks has the potential to be one of the league's best, but he was a major disappointment in 2013. Between his iffy production and longtime contract squabbles, the chances of his return to the Giants are nearly nil, which means that other teams will have to balance his nascent talent with what he occasionally shows on the field. Don't be surprised if the market yields lower than Nicks and Jay-Z's ROC Nation expects.
Overrated: Kenny Britt. And speaking of nascent talent ... Britt has a long history of drops, penalties, dust-ups with the law, and blaming coaches and other players for his own issues. Any team taking a shot on his very occasional first-round talent better have a very short hook.
Underrated: Brandon LaFell. He's flown under the radar because people don't talk much nationally about Carolina's offense outside of Cam Newton and Steve Smith, but LaFell has proven to be a better-than-average overall receiver with specific ability as a red-zone target.
There's no way Finley will get a full-market contract to match his talent after he underwent surgery to treat a spinal contusion suffered last October. Before that injury, Finley and agent Blake Baratz had gone to the mattresses with the Packers, insisting that the tight end should be paid like a receiver -- the same fight that Jimmy Graham's now going through. Now, Finley will need to sign a prove-it contract -- most likely not with the Packers -- and see what he has left to offer. Hopefully, he does it with his health intact for the long term.
Myers had a couple of hot seasons for the Raiders before disappearing a bit for the Giants in 2013. He might still be the guy who ranked sixth overall in Football Outsiders' season-cumulative metrics in 2012 -- if he finds the right offense that doesn't expect him to get vertical. Seattle, with line coach and former Raiders head coach Tom Cable in tow, could be an interesting option.
Several teams are interested in Graham after he caught 49 passes for 545 yards and five touchdowns for a Texans team with a totally dysfunctional offense in 2013. Houston is trying to keep him off the table, but if they can't, expect the Packers to be very competitive -- according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, Green Bay has been high on Graham's potential since he came out of Wisconsin.
Pettigrew has certainly been prolific throughout his career with the Lions, but hardly efficient -- he's ranked near the bottom for his position in just about every value metric. Most of his value will come as a blocker and occasional prime target.
"I think Scott did a heck of a job for us. I talked to Scott after the year, I thought he did a great job. I thought he was a guy who tries to lead well, he does everything we asked of him. I’m hoping he decides to come back, I really do."
That's what Bills head coach Doug Marrone said in late February, when asked about Chandler's value to his offense. Chandler caught six touchdown passes in the 2011 and '12 seasons, but that number dropped to two in 2013, and with Chandler turning 29 before the 2014 season starts, he would be best served as a short target primarily in the red zone.
Overrated: Ed Dickson.
Outside of one 10-catch game against the Seahawks in 2011, it's tough to point to anything spectacular Dickson has done. The third-round pick in 2010 could not fill the gap for the Ravens when Dennis Pitta was hurt last season, and he's still got fairly major issues with dropped passes.
Underrated: Jeff Cumberland. It's an indictment of the Jets' receivers that Cumberland led the team in touchdowns with four, but it's also an indicator that the big man from Illinois could put up even bigger numbers in an offense that isn't quite so quarterback-anemic.