Over the weekend, CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora suggested that the Cleveland Browns may use some of their salary cap excess to target Pittsburgh Steelers' wide receiver Mike Wallace, who is about to become an unrestricted free agent.
While it's an attractive prospect—Wallace will likely be one of the most sought-after players when free agency kicks off next month—he's not really what the Browns need. Sure, he could be a good complement on the outside to Josh Gordon, but Wallace is basically a get-down-the-field-and-get-open receiver, and they already have someone who fits that profile. The Browns would be better off targeting a receiver who can add a new dimension to their offense.
Like the New England Patriots Wes Welker.
Welker, who is entering into his 10th season in the NFL, has spent the last two seasons as one of the most-targeted receivers in the league and has been an integral part of why the Patriots have had one of the highest-scoring, most productive offenses in league history.
However, Welker is set to be an unrestricted free agent this year. Last year, he was given the franchise tag, but it seems unlikely the Patriots would tag him for a second straight season. Though there's always the option of a new contract, Bleacher Report's Erik Frenz thinks that letting Welker walk away and play elsewhere in 2013 would be the best move for the Patriots. And if they go that route, the Patriots loss could be the Browns gain.
In 2012, the Browns didn't really employ a full-time slot receiver. Rookie Josh Cooper was thrown to 16 times in the slot over the course of six games, Greg Little had two games as the starting slot receiver, and in Weeks 9 through 15 that job belonged to Mohamed Massaquoi, but no one receiver made the position his own.
That had more to do with then-head coach Pat Shurmur's offensive philosophy than the Browns not having someone capable of doing the job. With Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner running Cleveland's offense this year, a slot receiver should be more valuable. Though someone currently on their roster—like Little, considering Travis Benjamin proved himself better-suited to working the outside along Gordon—could take up this role, none would compare to the boost to the offense that Welker would bring.
In Welker's time with the Patriots, he's had but one season without 1,000 receiving yards. That same season—2010—was also his only in New England without 100 receptions. Granted, that's with Brady throwing to him, so expectations should be tempered in Cleveland, whether it's Brandon Weeden or someone else as his quarterback, but his ability to catch much of what's thrown to him would provide the Browns with an additional, much-needed weapon to extend drives.
Further, Welker would bring a veteran presence to Cleveland's quite young receiving corps and the offense, in general. Weeden, Benjamin, Gordon and Cooper are all entering their second seasons in the NFL, while Little has been in the league for three. A player with Welker's experience can provide a bit of mentorship to these young players and teach them some of the more nuanced aspects of the receiver position and the passing game.
Welker can make an impact on the field no matter where he's targeted. The only area of the field in which he didn't catch a pass in 2012 was outside the numbers on the right at a depth of 20 or more yards, where he was thrown to four times. While he is almost equally as versatile, his preference is the deep ball. And when Wallace wasn't getting that kind of attention from Ben Roethlisberger in 2012, the receiver's production dropped, which he attributed to an inability to focus.
The only area in which Wallace has performed better than Welker since 2009 is in scoring. Welker's highest touchdown total in that time was nine, in 2011, while Wallace had 10 in 2010 and eight in each of the last two seasons. But that's due in part to how each receiver was used in their respective systems and not an indicator that Welker wouldn't be a scoring threat in Cleveland.
Welker can come at a lower price tag over time than Wallace—Welker is nearly 32 years old and likely won't be in the league for many more years, while Wallace is just 26 years old and looking for a lucrative long-term deal. The reason why the Patriots don't want to tag Welker this year is based on price—$11.6 million in 2013. He'd not get that kind of money in a two-year deal in Cleveland, but that's what Wallace could cost, if not more, on a contract at least twice as long.
Wallace is also a boom-or-bust type of receiver who relies on his quarterback making him a better player rather than the other way around. Welker, in contrast, could help Weeden or whoever Cleveland's quarterback is this year just by being on the field. Welker is more of an upgrade for the Browns and at a far better price, whether he's paired up with Brady, Weeden, Colt McCoy or anyone else.
Welker needs to be on the top of the Browns' free-agent priority list this offseason, not Wallace. Yes, Wallace is tempting—he's a flashy, speedy, scoring threat and, even better, he'd be taken away from the Steelers and wearing the uniform of their oldest rivals. But for nearly guaranteed results, leadership abilities and a more manageable cap hit, Welker is the far better addition to the team.