Free-agent primer: Receivers
If there's one thing NFL teams should remember when assessing this year's free-agent receivers, it's the Eric Decker conundrum. Decker was a featured player in the Broncos' offense in 2012 and 2013, teaming up with Peyton Manning for 87 catches for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final year in Denver. Those numbers lined Decker up for a five-year, $36.25 million contract with $15 million guaranteed from the New York Jets, a team whose quarterback situation was far less defined. Decker had some good moments during his first season with his new team, but his dip in productivity indicates he may not be the No. 1 receiver the Jets had envisioned when they signed him last spring.
When dealing with receivers on the open market, teams must know more than the players they want—they must also factor in how those players' skills will fit within their systems. Amid the this year's class of free-agent receivers has its share of bargains.
• Randall Cobb: It's not that Cobb's skill set itself is overrated, but if a team is going to throw $8-10 million at a slot receiver, they need to commit to using him the right way. I could easily see some NFL team looking at Cobb on tape, convince itself that he's a No. 1 outside threat in the Percy Harvin or T.Y. Hilton mold and have his numbers drop in an unfamiliar situation. Cobb led the NFL with 12 touchdown receptions from the slot last season, but when he was injured the year before, Jordy Nelson stepped into that slot role and was highly productive. Cobb earned all but 21 of his targets from the slot and caught a grand total of six passes over 20 yards in the air all season. This is not to say that Cobb is easily replaceable, just that he'd be best-served on a team with a lot of creative slot packages and a vertical receiver like Nelson who will take deep coverage away and allow more openings underneath. A team like ... say ... the Packers?
[daily_cut.nfl]• Jeremy Maclin: Similarly, Maclin's career year should be taken within the context of a Chip Kelly offense that creates openings for receivers through location and formation, with help from a hurry-up tempo that forces defenses to stay honest. Maclin caught 85 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns as the main target in Philly after DeSean Jackson's departure, but his entire body of work is less encouraging. Maclin's previous best season was 2010, when he caught 70 passes for 964 yards and 10 touchdowns, but that's also the last time he lasted a full 16-game slate. He could duplicate his Philadelphia numbers in the right system elsewhere, but when you have to use that qualifier, it's buyer beware.
• Michael Crabtree: Some enterprising team may look at the dumpster fire the 49ers' passing game turned into last season and assume that Crabtree could turn things around with a change of scenery. That team may be right, but there's also the possibility that the 85-catch, 1,105-yard, nine-touchdown campaign he put together in 2012 is the best we'll ever see from him after the Achilles injury he suffered in 2013. Crabtree's 10.3 yards per reception in 2014 was the lowest of his career, which would imply that he's turning into a possession receiver at age 27 (and turning 28 in September). But can you really shell out to take on a possession receiver who dropped 10 balls in 102 targets and 78 catchable passes, per Pro Football Focus, last season?
• Cecil Shorts III: Shorts ranked 30th in Football Outsiders's opponent-adjusted metrics among all receivers in 2012, but the downside to Jacksonville's passing game has hit him as hard as anyone. He's a good receiver with some speed whose route awareness has improved since he came out of Mount Union in 2011, and in the right offense, he could be a better-than-average player with true bargain potential. When assessing those types of bargains, lean towards receivers who have been productive despite horrible quarterback play. Speaking of which ...
• Kenny Britt: Yes, Britt has a history as a knucklehead, but he's also been productive despite the fact that his primary quarterbacks have been Vince Young, Kerry Collins, the downhill version of Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker, and the Rams' revolving door at the position in 2014. Britt has said that he wants to stay in St. Louis with head coach Jeff Fisher, who mentored him in Tennessee as well, but he should be considered as a potential steal if he actually had a good quarterback throwing to him.
• Brian Hartline: The Dolphins recently cut ties with Hartline and his bloated contract, but overpaid doesn't necessarily mean done in the NFL—it's just that with so many other failures at the position (hello, Mike Wallace), Miami struggled to find the best use of Hartline's talents. He's a mid-level player with some speed and after-catch ability who could see a return to the 1,000-yard seasons he posted in 2012 and 2013 on a team that hasn't given up on him.
Injured player to watch
• Denarius Moore: Moore was once one of the NFL's better deep threats, which nobody seemed to see because nobody was watching the Raiders over the last few years unless they absolutely had to. The arrival of rookie quarterback Derek Carr made Oakland's offense a lot more interesting, but Carr also made it a lot more horizontal—short passes defined the Raiders' attack in 2014. Moore's targets on passes over 20 yards in the air have decreased exactly by 10 in the last two seasons, from 22 in 2012 to 12 in 2013 to two last season. He played in just 10 games last year, missing time with knee and ankle issues (as well as time spent in Tony Sparano's doghouse), but he could surprise in a different place where the deep ball isn't such a rarity.
Veteran to watch
• Andre Johnson: The Texans have said that they'll release Johnson if they can't trade him, which is a guaranteed way to ensure that you won't be able to trade a guy. A second problem is Johnson's contract, which gives him a $10.5 million base salary in 2015, an $11 million base salary in 2016 and a 2015 cap number of $16,144,583. Odds are the Texans will cut Johnson loose and save a few million, but they could regret it over the long haul. The tape of Johnson's 2014 season shows a player with a great deal of potential in an offense with no functional quarterback. He'll be 34 years old entering the 2015 season, but Johnson still has the ability to get open with decent speed, a lot of toughness and a great deal of route awareness. Put him on a team with a productive passing game and a need for a big, tough receiver who can make contested catches over the middle, and you might just have something special.
Biggest wild card
• Veteran castoffs via trade vs. the 2015 draft class: After last year's draft class of receivers—one of the best in NFL history, with seven different rookies amassing at least 51 catches—it's unclear whether teams will spring for veterans like Johnson and Chicago's Brandon Marshall. Like Johnson in Houston, Marshall has been assured of nothing regarding his future in Chicago. And this draft class of receivers looks to be almost as strong as the one we saw in 2014, with at least five receivers who played at a level that could garner them first-round status.