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2014 Free Agency Preview - WRs

By Kevin English 9:04am EST 3/5/14

The 2013 free agent WR class carried name value, but it failed to deliver in fantasy.

Greg Jennings? Nope.

Mike Wallace? Yikes.

Darrius Heyward-Bey? Ugly.

Danny Amendola? Too soon.

The 2014 class couldn’t turn out much worse. But plenty of questions linger about this group.

How will Eric Decker, Julian Edelman and James Jones perform outside of their familiar (and favorable) environments?

Even when healthy, Hakeem Nicks isn’t a sure thing.

Beyond the big names, young talents like Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate are slated to hit free agency. Both could provide WR3 value on the right team.

Then there’s Kenny Britt, Sidney Rice and Brandon LaFell. These guys have serious flaws (plus binders full of doctors notes for Britt and Rice).

Doug Baldwin, a restricted free agent, should return to Seattle. The rival 49ers already re-signed Anquan Boldin to a 2-year deal. And the Eagles brought back Jeremy Maclin on a 1-year pact.

Making matters worse for players -- and better for GMs -- is the WR talent in May’s draft. We could see 10-12 WRs taken in the first 2 rounds. That won’t affect an elite free agent such as Decker. He’ll still get a lucrative deal. However, the rookies might deny some lower-level free agents a shot at landing in a fantasy-relevant situation.

You can find the hodgepodge of available veterans at the very bottom. First, though, let’s examine the most intriguing free agents who will hit the market on March 11.

Note: Players are ranked based on potential 2014 fantasy impact.

1. Eric Decker

You can’t ignore Decker’s production over the past 2 seasons. You can’t ignore the QB he’s caught passes from, either.

With Peyton Manning under center, Decker’s compiled consecutive seasons of 85+ catches, 1,000+ yards and 10+ TDs. The 27-year-old has also remained durable, appearing in all 32 games.

His best statistical year came in 2013 on an offense that featured 3 other bona fide pass catchers: Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker. Defenses simply couldn’t devote a lot of attention to Decker.

And that’s the main question for #87. Can he produce outside of Denver’s all-star offense? Well, let’s go back to 2011 to see how Decker performed without Manning.

That season -- Decker’s 2nd in the NFL -- he posted an encouraging 55-612-8 line. He caught 4 TDs from Kyle Orton and 4 more from Tim Tebow. Decker added a 90-yard punt return TD.

We’ve witnessed Decker improve immensely over the last 2 seasons. He’s now a nifty route-runner with deceptive speed, evidenced by his 14.8 yards per catch last season. And at 6’3, 214 pounds, he’s able to outmuscle most DBs.

Decker certainly boasts an impressive combination of size and athleticism, but he remains unproven as a #1 WR. That adds risk to his free-agent profile.

Denver doesn’t have the money or need to bring Decker back, so look for him to sign elsewhere shortly after the market opens. The Colts have emerged as a potential landing spot. The fit makes sense both in fantasy and reality. Veteran Reggie Wayne is an unknown coming off a torn ACL, while T.Y. Hilton would help distract opposing defenses. Andrew Luck wouldn’t provide much of a drop-off from Manning. And we know that owner Jim Irsay isn’t afraid to make a headline-grabbing move.

Regardless, we fully expect Decker to follow the money trail out of Denver. That’ll likely snap his 2-year streak of top-10 fantasy finishes.

2. Hakeem Nicks

Nicks recently turned 26. He should be entering his prime, an exciting time for a player already with two 1,000-yard seasons on his résumé.

Instead, he’s coming off 2 straight underachieving, injury-altered seasons. Questions arose about his effort. He’s earned several fines for his tardiness to team meetings. And he’s done little to help fantasy owners.

2013 marked a new low. Despite playing 15 games and catching 56 balls, Nicks never found the end zone. He added 7 drops -- a testament to his lack of focus.

To his credit, Nicks recorded a sparkling 16.0 yards-per-catch mark. That number reflects the sneaky deep threat he proved to be from 2009-2011. But it might have been the product of defenses ignoring him (or Eli Manning’s arm strength).

2014 will be a huge year for Nicks. If motivated, he’s capable of parlaying a short-term deal into a long-term pact. The Jets and Ravens are reportedly interested in his services. There’s a connection to Carolina, too. Nicks played his college ball at UNC, and Panthers GM Dave Gettleman worked in the Giants' front office through 2012.

Nicks’ recent poor health and production will make him a risky signing. But it also figures to have him come relatively cheaply – both for NFL teams and fantasy squads.

3. Golden Tate

The Seahawks already cut Sidney Rice. Lose Tate, and the WR corps could be in trouble.

Now, they’ll have every opportunity to retain Doug Baldwin, a restricted free agent. He’s considered highly unlikely to escape the Emerald City. But do they have the cash to satisfy Tate?

The 25-year-old just enjoyed his best overall season, snagging 64 balls for 898 yards and 5 TDs. That’s not the ultra-impressive breakout that some expected. Seattle’s conservative attack didn’t do him any favors, though. Just don’t underestimate his ability with the ball in his hands. Pro Football Focus credited him with forcing an NFL-high 21 missed tackles. He’s undeniably dynamic in space.

A former 2nd-round pick, he might command the salary of a borderline #1 WR on the open market. As you’ll see, there’s not a ton of proven talent for GMs to sift through. However, after the Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory, Tate discussed the possibility of taking a hometown discount.

“I probably shouldn’t even say this right now but I’m going to say it anyway just because I love Seattle, honestly,” Tate said. “I would rather take a little less to be happy and win ballgames than to take way more and go to a crappy city where the fans don’t give a crap about the team.”

We don’t know if Tate has changed his tune over the past month. But a change of scenery would likely provide more targets and boost his fantasy stock. Detroit and Carolina provide the most intriguing (and realistic) fantasy fits.

4. James Jones

Packers HC Mike McCarthy is a big fan of 3rd-year WR Jarrett Boykin. That’s good news for Jarrett … not so much for Jones.

"I'm as high on Boykin as anybody in our building," McCarthy said last month. "He had a heck of a year, and I still think he has another jump in him."

With Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson already rostered, it doesn’t make sense for the Packers to overpay a 30-year-old role player. Predictably, Jones’ agent -- Frank Bauer -- isn’t optimistic about his client returning.

“I don’t think [GM] Ted Thompson wants him,” Bauer said.

While Green Bay looks poised to move on, Jones’ age shouldn’t deter WR-needy teams from biting.

Boasting plus size, Jones tallied 21 TDs across 2011 and 2012. His scoring dipped to a disappointing 3 TDs in 2013, although he did set a career high with 817 yards. Yes, he filled the void left by Cobb. But Jones also played almost half of his games without Aaron Rodgers.

Jones ditched his drop-prone label, too. He’s mishandled just 7 passes over the past 2 seasons despite seeing 196 targets over that span.

And don’t underestimate his subtle shiftiness. Per Pro Football Focus, Jones forced 10 missed tackles last season. That placed him among the top 20 WRs league wide, despite just 59 catches. Names like Alshon Jeffery, Vincent Jackson and T.Y. Hilton sit below him on the list.

The Giants have been mentioned as a possible landing spot for Jones. Their recent hiring of OC Ben McAdoo -- formerly of the Packers -- is the only connection we see. New York will lose Hakeem Nicks, but Rueben Randle provides an adequate replacement. Look for Jones to settle in elsewhere as a 2nd or 3rd receiving option.

5. Julian Edelman

Edelman truly broke out in his 5th pro season. He tallied a 105-1,056-6 line -- all easily career highs -- and finally managed to stay healthy for 16 games.

With quick-twitch ability, Edelman quickly became a top target for Tom Brady. He drew 146 targets, the 10th highest mark among WRs. He garnered double-digit looks on 8 separate occasions, particularly impressive when you consider Edelman dropped an unhealthy 13 balls. As we saw, Brady’s patience was tested.

Despite the sudden surge, we can’t help but think the Patriots’ system significantly boosted his play. Brady and OC Josh McDaniels revere him. And his usage stemmed from key injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola.

We’d bet against him having a Welker-like impact outside of New England, especially if he lands in Baltimore or Houston, two rumored destinations. The Pats offer fantasy stability, regardless of Gronk's and Amendola’s health. Edelman should test the free-agent waters, but don’t be surprised if a soft market brings him back to the Pats.

6. Emmanuel Sanders

Sanders nearly bolted to the Patriots as a restricted free agent last April. The Steelers could have let him go and received a 3rd-round pick in return. Instead, they matched New England’s offer sheet, ensuring he’d return to Pittsburgh. It’s a move they might regret.

In fairness, the Steelers needed WR help after losing Mike Wallace. But Sanders never really impressed in his 1st full season as a starter. He gained 740 yards on 67 grabs -- a subpar 11.0 yards per catch. The 27-year-old added 6 scores, though 5 of them came from inside the 10-yard line.

Sanders could still develop into a dependable starter. Will he have that chance in Pittsburgh? GM Kevin Colbert’s quotes at the NFL Combine lead us to believe that he won’t.

"Emmanuel came back and had a nice year for us, and we were happy to have him," Colbert said. "Where he goes in free agency and what his market is, we don't know at this point, but he certainly performed for us last year. And we'll see where it is in the future."

If he indeed moves on, Sanders won’t have trouble finding a new home. The Jets and Ravens are rumored to have interest. Beat writer Tim Twentyman mentioned Detroit as a possible destination, too.

7. Kenny Britt

You might have forgotten, but this guy actually used to be good. Really good.

In fact, Britt still believes he’s worthy of being a team's top option.

"I am going to be a #1 receiver somewhere else if I am not here [in Tennessee] next year, and that is guaranteed," Britt said at the end of the season. "I am definitely going to be a receiver that makes plays on Sundays and makes something happen for a team."

We admire the optimism, but Britt’s comments are foolish. He’s coming off a season with almost as many drops (7) as catches (11). He missed 1 game due to a rib injury, while a rift with the coaching staff led to 3 healthy scratches.

Quite simply, Britt hasn’t rebounded from a 2011 torn ACL. A questionable attitude hasn’t helped, and it’s highly likely to limit him to 1-year offers in free agency. After all, Tennessee was unable to deal the talented but troubled receiver prior to the trade deadline.

Britt will land on an NFL roster this spring. The former 1st-rounder doesn’t turn 26 until September, so he’s not a lost cause. But he also has lots to prove before we can consider him anything more than a late-round flier in fantasy drafts this summer.

We’d like to see Britt reunite with HC Jeff Fisher in St. Louis. He had his 2 best seasons under Fisher back in Tennessee in 2009 and 2010. And the Rams are still in need of playmakers.

8. Andre Roberts

In 2012 -- Roberts’ 3rd season -- he tallied a promising 64-759-5 line. Starting all but 1 game, he benefited from the arrival of Carson Palmer and the presence of Larry Fitzgerald.

But thanks to an emerging Michael Floyd, Roberts took a step back in 2013.

His receptions dipped to 43, while his yardage hit a 3-year low of 471. Two TDs did little for his fantasy value.

There’s a chance Roberts returns to Arizona -- but it’s not looking good. As the Cardinals' official website notes, HC Bruce Arians wants a slot man who can “stretch defenses.” Roberts -- an athlete who’s quicker than he is fast -- doesn’t fit Arians’ profile.

A move away from Arizona stands a decent shot at boosting his fantasy stock. Just don’t expect that boost to be substantial. League evaluators probably don’t see him as a potential #2 WR, meaning he’ll need to land in an ultra-favorable spot to be considered in 2014 fantasy drafts.

9. Brandon LaFell

LaFell set career highs in 2013. Unfortunately, those highs -- 49 catches and 5 TDs -- didn’t do much for fantasy owners.

His team wasn’t impressed, either. After trying to extend his contract before the season, Carolina reportedly only wants LaFell back at a discount. We can’t say we’re surprised.

The 4th-year WR gained just 627 yards last season despite starting all 16 games. Only 4 receptions went for more than 20 yards. He added 8 drops and 1 fumble.

It was a serious letdown for the former LSU standout. He caught passes from an improving Cam Newton. He also had Greg Olsen and Steve Smith distracting defenses. Yet the possession receiver managed to finish outside the top 45 fantasy scorers regardless of format.

At 6’2, 210 pounds, LaFell is capable of moving the chains. Four years into his career, though, we’re not expecting him to become a major playmaker. Unless the 27-year-old lands in the perfect environment (Detroit, perhaps), his odds of being a reliable fantasy option are slim.

10. Sidney Rice

Set to owe him $8.5 million in base salary, the Seahawks had no choice but to release Rice before free agency. And so they did, putting Brett Favre’s former top option on the market.

There’s not much to discuss from a numbers perspective. Hip and knee injuries -- plus concussions -- have limited Rice to 9 games or fewer in 3 of the past 4 years. He played a full season for Seattle in 2012. That led to a promising 50-748-7 line. But a torn ACL suffered last October has Rice’s future in doubt.

Recent reports claim he’s recovering at a rapid pace. If healthy, he should land a 1-year, “prove-it” deal in the coming months. While the 27-year-old has the body of a 35-year-old, Rice’s 6’4, 200-pound frame at least carries red-zone appeal. He’s someone to root for, but you simply can’t count on him in fantasy.

11. Ted Ginn

Color us pessimistic, but we’re not buying into a late-career emergence from Ginn.

Sure, he turned out to be a solid 1-year signing for Carolina. Appearing in all 16 games, Ginn caught 36 balls for 556 yards and a career-high 5 TDs. A yards-per-catch figure of 15.4 confirms what we already knew -- he’s fast. Extremely fast.

Ginn’s 4.3 speed aids him on special teams. He owns 6 career return TDs, though the last 1 came in 2011. Over the past 2 seasons, his 94 combined returns have yielded a long of just 41 yards. Ginn holds a reputation as a guy who seeks out the sideline on returns. And, well … it’s valid.

Ginn’s slight build isn’t meant to go over the middle of the field. He’s a prolific situational deep threat, though, and we witnessed his upside in 2013.

It’s hard to pinpoint where this soon-to-be 29-year-old lands. But we’d bet against Ginn attaining any bit of consistency in fantasy football leagues.

Other Free Agent WRs

Jacoby Jones

Dexter McCluster

Jerome Simpson

Nate Burleson

Darrius Heyward-Bey

Danario Alexander

Jerricho Cotchery

Mario Manningham

Jason Avant

Josh Morgan

Tiquan Underwood

Santana Moss

Jacoby Ford

Robert Meachem

Austin Collie

Andre Caldwell

Domenik Hixon

Kyle Williams

Deion Branch

Devin Hester

Joe Webb

Lavelle Hawkins

Dezmon Briscoe

Kevin Ogletree

Louis Murphy

Seyi Ajirotutu

Josh Cribbs

Brandon Tate

Plaxico Burress

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