The countdown is on. One month from today, the NFL’s free agent signing period will crank to life, and when it does, no position will feature a more interesting and perhaps impact-laden selection of options to choose from than receiver.
The questions abound, and even though the running game made something of a comeback in the NFL in 2014 -- see Dallas -- it’s still a passing league, and that means quality pass-catchers will always command a premium. To be certain, some franchise-player tagging is likely to keep the elite tier off the market, with Dallas and Denver expected to slap that designation on Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, respectively, if they can’t come to long-term deals with their No. 1 receivers.
But Bryant and Thomas are far from the only headline names in this year’s receiving class, and the glamor potential of that group could still grow significantly if Miami chooses to part ways with the mercurial Mike Wallace just two years into his five-year deal; the Jets’ new management team opts to end the club’s brief and failed Percy Harvin experiment; Arizona can’t get a much-needed contract restructuring done with Larry Fitzgerald, and Chicago’s freshly hired tandem of head coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace decides that the Bears will be the third team to forego the services of the talented but tiresome Brandon Marshall.
Throw in the unknown fate of the still-24-year-old Randall Cobb in Green Bay, and the possible availability of proven veteran talents such as Jeremy Maclin, Torrey Smith, Michael Crabtree, Wes Welker, Reggie Wayne, Kenny Britt, Cecil Shorts, Eddie Royal and Hakeem Nicks, and there will be no shortage of storylines to follow at receiver during free agency.
Here’s a synopsis of the key names and potential wide receiver free agents to know:
• Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys -- Bryant’s three-letter first name might as well be DNT instead of Dez this offseason, because the Cowboys will hang a Do Not Touch sign on him one way or another. Either Bryant will receive a monster contract extension, or he’ll get the expected $12.7 million franchise label applied to him, locking him up for 2015. You think Jerry Jones is letting a play-making beast with 88 catches for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns walk out the door? I don’t either. If anybody is exiting Dallas, it’s running back DeMarco Murray, who led the league in rushing last season and is likely to at least test the market next month. The Cowboys would like to keep him, too, but Bryant is the player they must retain.
• Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos -- With or without Peyton Manning in the picture -- and you know he’s coming back -- the Broncos can’t afford to lose Thomas any more than Dallas can Bryant, and that’s why he’ll be in orange and blue again in 2015. It’s either the franchise tag or a long-term deal, and logic suggests an extension would be the wiser choice with the salary cap on the rise in the coming years. Denver might be forced to let other receiving options like Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas hit the market, but Demaryius Thomas is getting paid by the Broncos, even if he doesn’t stay true to his word and accept that hometown discount he talked about in December. With Manning as his quarterback, Thomas has logged at least 90 receptions for 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns for three seasons running.
• Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers -- Cobb very much wants to remain a Packer, and he has enough sense to know that Greg Jennings and James Jones weren’t the same threats once they left the Aaron Rodgers-led offense in Green Bay. But it’s still a tricky little spot the Packers are in with Cobb, who’s coming off a career year (91 catches for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns) and won’t even turn 25 until August. Cobb already could be in position to better the club-friendly four-year, $39 million contract that Green Bay’s No. 1 receiver, Jordy Nelson, signed last year, and thus Green Bay would have to leap-frog Cobb over him in order to get a long-term deal and keep him off the market.
That scenario makes the Packers nervous, but so too does the possibility that Cobb could generate enough interest next month and wind up leaving Titletown. At the moment, the $12.7 million franchise tag doesn’t seem like the most likely option, because that would just set the bar that much higher for any potential long-term deal to come. But you can’t rule it out, because when push comes to shove, Cobb is one of the ultimate examples of the draft-and-develop types that Green Bay loves to build around, and Packers general manager Ted Thompson rarely if ever lets those kind of building block-players get away. Contract talks with Cobb have yet to get serious, and while it’s a roll of the dice, Green Bay’s game plan may be to let him reach the market and then make its best play for him. It could come down to how strong the Packers’ vaunted home-field advantage really is, even in free agency.
• Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles -- The Eagles and Chip Kelly didn’t exactly look brilliant for unceremoniously booting DeSean Jackson to the curb last spring -- he had two pretty big games on behalf of Washington against the just-missed-the-playoffs-Birds in 2014 -- so I can’t in my wildest imagination see them letting Maclin escape this year. Kelly loves his skill set and his success in both Andy Reid and Kelly’s divergent offenses speaks well for his ability, as does his knack for prospering no matter who’s playing quarterback in Philly. Look for a long-term deal to get done before the market opens, and for Maclin to remain the Eagles’ No. 1 receiving threat for the foreseeable future.
He’s coming off a career year (85 receptions, 1,318 yards, 10 touchdowns) after he bet on himself with a one-year, $5.5 million deal in early 2014, after his 2013 ACL injury, and Maclin still will only be 27 years old as he starts his seventh NFL season. If the negotiations get difficult, Maclin could also draw the Eagles’ franchise tag, but that has not been Philadelphia’s style of late. The better bet is the two sides reaching a deal without much drama or fireworks.
• Mike Wallace, Miami Dolphins -- The Dolphins are very much in the process of deciding if Wallace is worth the trouble, because quite frankly, Miami has proven they can go 8-8 and miss the playoffs with or without him. Wallace has three more seasons left on the five-year deal he signed upon leaving Pittsburgh in 2013, but he simply hasn’t lived up to the hype, catching just 67 passes for 862 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and ending the season on the bench following a mid-game argument with Dolphins coaches in the Week 17 home loss to the Jets.
Wallace and Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill still have an on-again, off-again connection, and his inconsistent production and locker room issues have made the Dolphins front office view him as something less than worthy of being the team’s mostly highly paid player. He carries a $12.1 million cap charge in 2015, and Miami would absorb a $9.6 million cap hit if they released him this spring. That probably tips the scale toward Wallace coming back this year, but owner Stephen Ross and general manager Dennis Hickey have yet to show much enthusiasm for his act, and new Dolphins VP of football operations Mike Tannenbaum hasn’t yet weighed in publicly. Miami owes Wallace $3 million of his $9.85 million base salary on March 10, so that’s the Dolphins’ likely deadline for a decision.
• Percy Harvin, New York Jets -- When Harvin was dealt from Seattle to New York last October, it said more about the Seahawks than it did it the Jets, and by season’s end, that narrative was even more pronounced. Seattle went back to the Super Bowl and nearly won another one without Harvin and his headache-producing presence. The Jets were going nowhere before they traded for him, and went nowhere after they landed him. But now the question is, does he have any future in New York, with the Jets having changed the look of their front office and coaching staff?
Harvin might be a decent fit with new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, if the Jets opt for the spread offense Gailey has experience with. But stacked against his chances of staying in New York is his $10.5 million cap charge for 2015, which is out of line for his production level. March 19 is the deadline for a decision, because if he’s on the roster as of that day, the Jets owe Seattle a fourth-round pick in the deal. If he’s cut before then, it’s only a sixth-rounder due the Seahawks. That should give the Jets time to shop for another receiver in free agency as a possible replacement, and at least make a more informed decision on Harvin, be in regards to his release or a proposed contract restructuring to scale back his salary to a more reasonable level.
• Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears -- It appears to be at that point in the proceedings where Marshall has worn out his welcome in Chicago, much as he did in Denver and Miami before arriving in Chicago in 2012. While it’s not known yet whether the Bears will follow suit and decide less is more when it comes to Marshall and his spotlight-seeking ways, there are rumblings that the new management tandem of head coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace may see the gifted receiver as more a part of the problem in Chicago than the solution. Last season, Marshall angered some in the organization with his post-game outbursts against teammates, his weekly trip to New York for the taping of Showtime’s “Inside the NFL," his occasional dust-ups on Twitter, and his propensity to display a me-first attitude. In other words, he was a lot closer to the diva receiver stereotype than he had been in his first two seasons as a Bear.
Marshall signed an extension with Chicago only last April, but his 61 catches for 721 yards and eight touchdowns in an injury-shortened (13 games) 2014 season wasn’t a great early return on his new deal. The Bears could choose to walk away from his $7.5 million base salary this year without owing him any more money if they do so before March 13, taking a $5.6 million cap hit in the process. The decision isn’t really about money, though, it’s about whether or not Marshall’s well-known history may be repeating itself.
• Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals -- Some marriages should never end, and the smart money says the 11-year fit between Fitzgerald and the Cardinals is too good to dissolve. There’s heavy-lifting to be done on the contract restructuring front, but both sides seem motivated to get it done, reducing both Fitzgerald’s $15 million salary in 2015 and his accompanying $23.6 million cap charge. Pay cuts don’t have to be posed as insults, and Cardinals GM Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians have said all the right things thus far, making it clear they want Fitzgerald to end his stellar career in red and white.
Fitzgerald will have to allow that his durability issues have eroded his elite-receiver status and that his role has changed some what with the emergence of Michael Floyd and John Brown in the Arizona offense. But his 63 catches for 784 yards and two touchdowns last season don’t look too shabby when you remember the state of Arizona’s quarterbacking in the season’s second half, after Carson Palmer was lost to an ACL injury. An $8 million roster bonus due on March 17 is the date to watch, and we’ll know by then if Fitzgerald is a free agent, or back in the desert where he belongs.
• Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens -- Smith has proven inconsistent and hasn’t blossomed into a No. 1 receiver for the Ravens as hoped, but his 11 touchdown catches last season are nothing to be sneezed at, and his deep-threat speed can still take the top off a defense and make opponents account for his presence. The Ravens usually do a great job at valuing their own free agents, and while they won’t over-pay to keep him, there should be some room to work things out as long as he’s not seeking a top-of-market payday. Look for Baltimore to be proactive in trying to retain him, as long as Smith’s expectations remain realistic and he doesn’t see himself as a $10 million a year receiver.
• Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers -- Crabtree’s market likely no longer includes anyone who views him as the emerging star he was in 2012, when he broke through for the Super Bowl-bound 49ers with a 105-catch, 1,390-yard, 12-touchdown season including the playoffs. His burst hasn’t completely returned following the Achilles injury he suffered in the spring of 2013, and he certainly didn’t produce a contract-drive season last year, with his 68 catches for 698 yards (ranking 64th in the NFL) and four touchdowns producing a career-low 10.3 yards per catch. The 49ers want him back, but they won’t get in a bidding war, especially since new head coach Jim Tomsula has talked openly about returning to a more ground-game oriented offense in 2015. One telling sign that Crabtree is ready to move on? Reportedly he recently removed any mention of the 49ers from his Twitter profile.
• Wes Welker, Denver Broncos -- With Denver having a number of its own higher priority free agents to pursue, Welker’s two-year stint with the Broncos is almost certainly done, and it’s a very tepid market he’ll enter next month. He’s coming off a season in which he was only the Broncos’ fourth-most productive receiving target, behind Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas, and his 49 receptions for 464 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games represented his lowest output since 2005 in Miami. Welker will be 34 in May, and given his concussion issues, there’s not going to be a long list of teams interested in him. One more short-term contract may be all he can expect, as he moves on to play for his third team in the span of four seasons.
• Other notable potential free-agent receivers: Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis; Kenny Britt, St. Louis; Cecil Shorts, Jacksonville; Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis; Eddie Royal, San Diego; Miles Austin, Cleveland; Nate Washington, Tennessee.