2016 NFL Free Agency: Wide Receiver Overview

Last week we looked at the upcoming free agent running backs and this week we will continue our run up to the offseason with a look at who is available at wide receiver. Though we don’t have the top line talent available this year at wide rceiver there are certainly some viable second and third targets with upside. We’ll look at the players projected stats for the year and where the biggest name players may slot into the salary ranges at the position in 2016

Alshon Jeffery, Bears

Jeffery missed 4 games this season and is still on pace for over 1,300 yards this year. He has been a dominant receiver in every sense of the word with over 1,400 yards in 2013 and 1,100 yards in 2014. He’s done it with two quarterbacks (Jay Cutler and Josh McCown) and both with and without help from a secondary target in the offense. He is everything you want in a receiver with great size at 6’4”, good hands, and youth.

Jeffery ranks in our domination index (a measure of how much that player accounts for production at the position) around a 225 on a per game basis, which means he essentially counts for over 50% of the Bears offense at receiver. The only player more important to a team’s receiving core is Julio Jones of the Falcons at a 240. 

Despite whatever fire sale may be going on in Chicago there is no reason to imagine that Jeffery would hit free agency. The Bears should just apply the franchise tag to him if they don’t work out an extension first. When he does sign a new contract he won’t come cheap. His only problem in earning the top market contract is he doesn’t carry the same name value or recognition as Dez Bryant ($14M), Demaryius Thomas ($14M), Julio Jones ($14.3M), and AJ Green ($15M) and by missing the four games he won’t get the same hype as Deandre Hopkins of the Texans.

That said he is better than T.Y. Hilton of the Colts who recently signed an exaggerated $13 million contract and I would think that would be his floor price, but on a more reasonably structured contract. The more he can do over the next month to really inflate his stats the more the media push will help him inflate his price when the time comes for the Bears to finally sign him. If they don’t work out a deal he is better equipped to deal with the one year tag than others because he is so young as the tag won’t really impact the way teams view his future as long as he remains healthy.

Predicted Value: 5 years, $65-69 million

Michael Crabtree, Raiders

Crabtree bet on himself this year by taking a one year contract with the Raiders to prove he was worth more than what teams offered him last season and thus far it has paid off as he is well on his way to a 1,000 yard season with the resurgent Raiders. That being said, if his goal was to establish himself as a number 1 receiver, Crabtree has not done that, but he complements Amari Cooper nicely, is healthy, and seems to mesh fine with his team.

One of the biggest negatives for Crabtree is his age. While age for a wide receiver is not what it is for a running back as many receivers are very productive in their 30’s, he had an uphill battle to do what Jeremy Maclin did last season and turn a one year contract with the Eagles into a massive multi year contract with the Chiefs. Maclin was the dominant player on the Eagles offense and was two years younger than Crabtree is now. That was never a realistic goal for him, in my opinion, but if the goal was to hit near the top of the second tier he may accomplish that.

What type of role exists for Crabtree is another question. While he was a first round pick years ago, his production never reached that level. He doesn’t really have a specialty. He’s not a burner. He doesn’t have an over the top catch rate. He doesn’t outleap players on the field. Though he has been fine in Oakland I think that some teams will believe there is a reputation on a player than can cause locker room issues with a poor attitude when the balls don’t come his way. That likely scared off teams last season too.

Eddie Royal recently received $5 million a year while a washed up Dwayne Bowe earned $6.5 million so I think Crabtree should at least be in that range. The highest end for nearing 30 bracket would include DeSean Jackson at $8 million and Brandon Marshall at $10 million and neither should be attainable by Crabtree. The perfect match for him lies in Oakland where he can play the role of being the number 2 to Cooper’s eventual true number 1 role. Oakland has a lot of money to spend and as long as they can get to that $6.5 millionish range he should take it.  If he overvalues himself and overplays his hand, he’ll land on another one year contract.

Predicted Value: 4 years, $26-28 million

Rueben Randle, Giants

The Giants have always expected big things from Randle, but unfortunately it has been an inconsistent ride for the young receiver. Randle flashes at times and had a huge 290 yards to close out the last two games of the 2014 season, but for every day you believe Randle has arrived when he catches 7 passes for 110 yards he will follow that up with a 2 target, 10 yard game.

The one big thing going for him is that he is very young. He can afford to take a one year contract in hopes of having the one big season to launch his value over the top. He can probably convince a team that he is still developing and in year 5 he’ll be ready to explode. But it helps to have at least one standout season as you head to free agency and right now he doesn’t have that. He can probably be a steady number two player that one way or another can get you between 800 and 900 yards by seasons end and will be priced accordingly.

If Randle had that one break out year or some real standout quality he probably could have been Torrey Smith and grabbed $8 million a year from a team clinging to hope he can be a 1. Instead he will lock himself into a role where he’ll likely get signed by a team with another proven target in the offense. A fair market given his age and production is somewhere in the realm of Golden Tate or Eric Decker.

Predicted Value: 5 years, $32-$34 million

Travis Benjamin, Browns

Benjamin has always been fast, but he has never been able to find a consistent role in an offense until 2015. Benjamin is on pace for over 1,200 yards and 8 touchdowns on the season. Those are major numbers especially when you consider his QB’s were McCown/Manziel and the next closest threats on his team are Brian Hartline and Andrew Hawkins. Benjamin essentially accounts for half of the production of the Brown’s receiving production.

The biggest hurdle for Benjamin in free agency is to shed the flash in the pan label. What he has done this year is basically 4 times better than what he has done in any other season in his career. Teams should always approach that with caution. He also holds value on punt returns with his speed. But every team in the NFL is going to ask whether Benjamin can be DeSean Jackson, another small frame speed player, or is he Devin Hester, who could never produce consistently as a receiver?

Benjamin is a difficult receiver to slot because of the lack of consistent production and less than ideal size. My guess is he fits more in the range of the Julian Edelman, Doug Baldwin, Emmanuel Sanders type of contracts. These essentially have downsides in the $4.5 million a year range with upside values of a million or two more based on production. Golden Tate was probably the top contract earner ($6.2M) off walk year contract numbers.

His best earning potential should come from Cleveland, however. He is now more productive that Andrew Hawkins who the Browns gave a $3.4 million a year contract that was heavily frontloaded ($5.4M in the first two years) after just 995 total receiving yards in three years while buried on the Bengals depth charts. He is also more productive than Dwayne Bowe who they signed to be their top target this offseason at $6.5 million.  So from this particular team there is enough precedent to get him in the $5-6 million range unless they really make no attempt to re-sign him.

Predicted Value: 3 years, $15 -$18 million

Rishard Matthews, Dolphins

Matthews found his way into the starting lineup this season following the trade of Mike Wallace and he is on his way to the first 1,000 yard season of his career.  Much of what was written above about Benjamin applies to Matthews as well. Matthews had a relatively non-descript career until this season and now he is putting it all together just in time for a new contract.

Matthews has better size than Benjamin but is not as explosive. He makes up for that by being a better possession receiver with an over 70% catch rate but there are times when Matthews doesn’t seem n the same page as his quarterback. Of the two my guess is Matthews would be less in demand because teams won’t view the possible upside to be as high though there should be less risk with Matthews.

Like with many others, a lot of free agency is going to be spent discussing the past and what has caused his surge in production. I see Edelman as the most logical comparison where the first big season comes very unexpectedly and the lack of perceived upside might limit his value. He currently I the most productive Dolphins receiver with an index of 154, so he may be a priority for Miami to keep since they have such limited options at the position.

Predicted Value: 4 years, $17-$18 million

Marvin Jones, Bengals

Jones missed all of 2014 with foot injuries but has claimed the starting job opposite AJ Green and seems to have settled nicely into the role of second/third target in the offense. While Jones’ statistical output might equal some of the other free agents I think he’ll be looked at as a step below, not really possessing the upside of some of the other players and possibly needing two players to be paired with in the passing game. That being said there is probably less risk involved with him than some of the others.

The best landing spot for Jones, if he leaves Cincy, would be with a team that has an established number 1 and a decent tight end. Kansas City and San Diego would be the kind of teams where they would not expect too much and get a good return. Even Carolina might be an interesting destination depending on what the Panthers anticipate getting from Kelvin Benjamin next year.

Predicted Value: 4 years, $16-$17.5 million

Mohamed Sanu, Bengals

Sanu had career highs in both yards and touchdowns last season and another year of growth would have helped him jump a tier, but with AJ Green and Jones healthy and an emergent force at tight end, he has clearly taken a back seat as he makes the run to free agency.

Sanu’s best hope for free agency is that a team views him as a higher level Andrew Hawkins, where the players overall numbers are considered lesser than the talent simply because of the abundance of players at his position. I think that would help him extend his reach in free agency and land him more playing time in an offense that might see him as a low level number 2.

Predicted Value: 3 years, $9-$10.5 million

Jermaine Kearse, Seahawks

Kearse is on pace for his best season in the pros, looking at almost reaching 700 yards and factoring in on about 25% of plays to receiver. He has the ability to create some big plays which probably bumps him into the low level 2 tier for some teams rather than a pure 3.

Seattle will need to decide if they want to continue with Kearse or expect Tyler Lockett or Paul Richardson to take over the spot. If they opt to let him walk he would probably be a nice low cost option with the potential for a few big plays on a team that throws the football more than Seattle.

Predicted Value: 3 years, $9-$10.5 million

The Best of the Rest

James Jones has had a ridiculous season for the Packers with a dominator score of 138.2, 5th among potential free agents. But Jones is older and was released this year by both the Raiders and Giants. I cant see a market outside of Green Bay though he should get to the $2-3 million range…Nat Washington is getting a lot of opportunities to put up stats, but at 33 it is hard to picture him earning much more than yearly contracts in the $1 to $1.5M per year category…Leonard Hankerson took a one year contract with Atlanta and will find himself in a similar role next season…The remainder of the group is probably in minimum salary territory.

The Free Agent Class

Here is the current group of players we have listed as unrestricted free agents this upcoming season. Projections are based on how players performed so far and how many games are remaining for their team, which is why injured players are projecting higher than their current stats. Special teams value simply indicates of the player plays around 20% or more snaps on special teams, which can increase the likelihood of a new contract. The dominator index is a measure of how much of the team receiver output that a player is responsible for across four categories. A score of 400 would represent all of a teams receiver output.

Player2015 TeamAgeSnapsSpecial Teams ValueProj TgtProj RecCatch RateProj YardsProj TDDominator Index
Alshon JefferyBears2629.9%No148.092.062.2%1364.08.0128.4
Travis BenjaminBrowns2775.0%No130.076.058.5%1202.08.0193.4
Rishard MatthewsDolphins2770.9%No107.475.470.2%1142.99.1155.7
Michael CrabtreeRaiders2971.9%No155.491.458.8%1104.06.9150.9
James JonesPackers3289.9%No70.950.371.0%973.713.7138.2
Nate WashingtonTexans3357.0%No116.760.752.0%959.07.087.2
Malcom FloydChargers3578.0%No80.042.052.5%818.06.095.3
Rueben RandleGiants2588.1%No92.062.067.4%768.04.0101.5
Marvin JonesBengals2681.1%No98.359.460.5%761.16.9122.9
Jermaine KearseSeahawks2670.5%No62.042.067.7%676.02.0104.7
Leonard HankersonFalcons2756.9%No83.647.156.4%623.64.380.4
Mohamed SanuBengals2764.6%No61.741.166.7%617.10.060.1
Bryan WaltersJaguars2938.3%No62.547.576.0%570.00.050.9
Lance MooreLions3365.2%No64.044.068.8%514.06.098.0
Miles AustinEagles3247.8%No48.025.152.4%422.92.366.0
Darrius Heyward-BeySteelers2954.6%Yes58.034.058.6%418.04.072.8
Keshawn MartinPatriots2629.1%No28.024.085.7%380.04.030.0
Chris OwusuJets2629.4%No52.024.046.2%320.00.017.1
Jeremy RossRavens2811.1%Yes42.027.064.3%
Andre HolmesRaiders2820.4%Yes25.113.754.5%244.66.949.0
Chris GivensRavens279.7%No23.615.063.6%
Jordan NorwoodBroncos3055.2%No41.125.161.1%
Josh BellamyBears2733.2%Yes34.316.046.7%180.62.347.1
Jason AvantChiefs3330.2%No28.018.064.3%
Brandon TateBengals290.2%Yes2.32.3100.0%125.72.318.5
Andre CaldwellBroncos3117.9%Yes20.613.766.7%
Rod StreaterRaiders282.5%No10.010.0100.0%
Brian QuickRams2715.3%No16.36.540.0%
Marc MarianiBears2922.5%Yes13.72.316.7%
Brandon GibsonPatriots280.0%No0.00.00.0%
Seyi AjirotutuEagles290.6%Yes0.00.00.0%
Denarius MooreBills281.3%No0.00.00.0%
Kyle WilliamsBroncos280.0%No0.00.00.0%
David NelsonSteelers300No000.0%000
Dorin DickersonTitans280.0%No0.00.00.0%
T.J. GrahamSaints270.0%No0.00.00.0%