It’s no secret that the Jacksonville Jaguars need a wide receiver. Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert struggled for most of the season. Although plenty of his struggles were due to his own shortcomings, his performance was also significantly affected by the team’s complete lack of competent pass catchers.
The Jaguars have been on a mission to find a true No. 1 wide receiver since the retirement of Jimmy Smith. They tried finding one in the first round of the NFL Draft, but Reggie Williams and Matt Jones simply didn’t pan out.
They tried signing Jerry Porter, a former Raiders number two receiver, to act as their number one—but Porter wasn’t up for the task and was cut after one season. This past year, they tried ignoring the problem altogether, hoping it would resolve itself.
That ill-conceived plan failed as well.
The NFL is a passing-centric league now. Ten years ago, the St. Louis Rams were the only team to throw for 4,000 yards. This past season, 10 teams accomplished that feat. Though not every team has an elite-wide receiver like Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald, the majority of teams have a go-to receiver capable of making plays with the game on the line.
Fifteen teams had a receiver with over 1,000 yards in 2011 (17 players), and 24 teams had one with 800 or more (33 players). Scroll down to the very bottom of the list of teams’ top receivers and you’ll find the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose highest receiving total belonged to tight end Marcedes Lewis with 460. Simply put: The Jaguars need a number one guy.
The list of 2012 free agents is especially long at the wide receiver position. There are young stars, aging veterans and players that haven’t yet had a chance to prove themselves as starters. Here are some of the better options available:
- Vincent Jackson, Chargers
- Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs
- Mike Wallace, Steelers
- Reggie Wayne, Colts
- Pierre Garçon, Colts
- Wes Welker, Patriots
- Steve Johnson, Bills
- Brandon Lloyd, Rams
- Marques Colston, Saints
- Robert Meachem, Saints
- Laurent Robinson, Cowboys
- Mario Manningham, Giants
- DeSean Jackson, Eagles
That’s a very deep list. All of these players are not created equal, though. Some are possession guys, while others are deep threats. Some guys have great hands and some have butterfingers. Some are older veterans and others are young guys.
Which one of the above wide receivers would be the best fit for the Jaguars?
Let’s use process of elimination to find out. Keep in mind we're looking for the best option, not just any option that makes sense—there will be many of those.
1. Is he a restricted free agent?
The price to sign an elite-unrestricted free agent is cash—loads of it. The price to sign an elite-restricted free agent; however, is both loads of cash and a highly-valuable draft pick. Any elite player eligible for free agency is going to receive the highest tender possible. In the case of this season, that price is a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Eliminated: Mike Wallace
Wallace is a great player, but paying a monster contract and the seventh-overall selection in the draft to obtain him is simply too high a price to make sense for the Jaguars.
Remaining: Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garçon, Wes Welker, Steve Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Laurent Robinson, Mario Manningham and DeSean Jackson
2. Has he proven he's a true number one receiver?
The next criterion we will use to eliminate some of these players is whether or not they have already proven themselves to be true No. 1 receivers in the past. The Jaguars need a guy who has already shown he can be a number one, not another Jerry Porter-style experiment.
Eliminated: Pierre Garçon, Robert Meachem, Laurent Robinson, and Mario Manningham
Garçon, Meachem, Manningham and Robinson all had solid seasons, but they would better fit the profile of a number two masquerading as a number one—if they were the only receiver the Jaguars signed this offseason. Similar to Jerry Porter, these guys simply haven't proven they can be "the guy."
Remaining: Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker, Steve Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, Marques Colston and DeSean Jackson
3. Will he even make it to free agency?
The franchise-tag deadline occurs before the start of free agency, and I also believe one or more of the remaining receivers will never make it to free agency—either due to being franchise tagged or being re-signed by their current team.
Eliminated: Wes Welker, Dwayne Bowe and DeSean Jackson
I don't see any scenario in which the Patriots allow Welker to hit the open market. They will either franchise him or agree to a contract before the start of free agency.
In the case of Bowe, the Chiefs will have to decide whether to franchise him or Brandon Carr. But given the fact that they already gave cornerback Brandon Flowers a massive extension, I foresee them using the tag on Bowe and allowing Carr to hit the open market.
Rumors are flying that the Eagles will franchise Jackson, which means he will likely be off the market as well.
Remaining: Vincent Jackson, Reggie Wayne, Steve Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and Marques Colston
4. Is he consistent?
The Jaguars need a consistent No. 1 receiver—a guy whose performance fluctuates wildly on a weekly basis just won't cut it as a number one.
Eliminated: Vincent Jackson
Jackson averaged one game with under 30 yards receiving out of every four, way too often for a true No. 1 receiver. The other four all went an average of nine games with under 30-yard performances. Though he has had some big games, he's just too streaky to be a dependable number one target for Blaine Gabbert.
Remaining: Reggie Wayne, Steve Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and Marques Colston
Let's look at each of the remaining four individually:
Age in 2012: 33 turning 34
2011 stats: 16 games, 75 catches, 960 yards, 60.0 yards/game, 12.8 yards/catch, 4 TD
2010 stats: 16 games, 111 catches, 1355 yards, 84.7 yards/game, 12.2 yards/catch, 6 TD
Age in 2012: 25 turning 26
2011 stats: 16 games, 76 catches, 1004 yards, 67.1 yards/game, 13.2 yards/catch, 7 TD
2010 stats: 16 games, 82 catches, 1073 yards, 62.8 yards/game, 13.1 yards/catch, 10 TD
Age in 2012: 31
2011 stats: 15 games, 70 catches, 966 yards, 64.4 yards/game, 13.8 yards/catch, 5 TD
2010 stats: 16 games, 77 catches, 1448 yards, 90.5 yards/game, 18.8 yards/catch, 11 TD
Age in 2012: 29
2011 stats: 14 games, 80 catches, 1143 yards, 81.6 yards/game, 14.3 yards/catch, 8 TD
2010 stats: 15 games, 84 catches, 1023 yards, 68.2 yards/game, 12.2 yards/catch, 7 TD
Looking at these profiles, some things stick out. Wayne and Lloyd are either 31 or older and had their stats massively decline from 2010 to 2011. They both scored five or less touchdowns and put up under 1,000 yards in 2011. They are obviously good players, but the statistics suggest they're not the kind of guys that should top Gene Smith's board.
Which of the remaining four wide receivers should be atop Gene Smith's free agent board?
That leaves us with Steve Johnson and Marques Colston.
Was Colston's statistical increase due to Drew Brees' historic season, or was it his true talent shining through?
Was Johnson's seemingly lack of progress in 2011 due to anything specific?
What's worth more, previous stats or age?
With all these factors in mind, the wide receiver I believe that should top Gene Smith's board in free agency is: Marques Colston.
Colston put up his best season at age 28, and has developed his game by playing with one of the league's best quarterbacks. He is a very good route-runner and catches the ball with his hands. He only dropped two passes in 2011 on 105 targets. He can play both outside and in the slot.
Marques Colston is the wide receiver that should top Gene Smith's board in free agency. Come March 13, it's time to back up the money truck.