2014 NFL Free Agents: Exploring the Wide Receiver Market

Nick Kostos@@thekostosContributor IFebruary 19, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agents: Exploring the Wide Receiver Market

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    NFL free agency is set to open March 11, and there is a very deep pool of wide receiver talent to choose from, headed by Eric Decker of the Denver Broncos.

    In today's pass-happy NFL, it's important to have a number of solid receivers, as evidenced by the two participants in Super Bowl XLVIII. While the Broncos had a more ballyhooed corps of Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Decker, the Seahawks had Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Percy Harvin

    Fortunately for NFL teams, there are a number of options to choose from. Whether you're looking for a receiver with size (Kenny Britt), speed (Tate), someone to operate out of the slot (Julian Edelman) or a boom-or-bust talent (Hakeem Nicks), there's something for everyone.

    In this column, I've broken down seven of the top wide receivers set to hit the free-agent market. I'll tell you what they did in 2013, what you can expect from them in 2014 and beyond and offer ideas as to where they might end up signing.

    It's time to explore the wide receiver market for 2014 NFL free agency.

    Note: This article has been modified from its original version for free agents who have already been signed.

Eric Decker

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    Eric Decker of the Denver Broncos is undoubtedly the jewel of the wide receiver market, and with good reason: He's a terrific player.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Decker finished 2013 as the 11th-best wide receiver and the best slot receiver in the league. He hauled in 87 catches for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns as part of the most prolific offense in NFL regular season history.

    Of course, those numbers came with Peyton Manning under center for the Broncos.

    Despite Decker's rare combination of size (6'3") and speed, questions do abound about his ability to replicate that kind of production with a lesser signal-caller throwing him the ball. He did have seven drops (per SportingCharts.com) but otherwise had an outstanding year.

    In an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio (h/t Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com), Decker said he needs to do "what's best for (his) family," and with the Broncos possessing a less-than-deal cap situation, it seems likely that he'll play elsewhere in 2014 and beyond.

    Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald wrote that Decker could command as much as $10 million per season.

    Decker might be miscast as a true No. 1 receiver, but his talent is undeniable. If he signs with a team with an established quarterback, look out, as he'll put up eye-popping numbers once again. He might not put up huge statistics on a lesser team, but he'll still contribute heavily regardless of where he ends up.

Hakeem Nicks

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    New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks looms as the most interesting receiver option set to hit the free-agent market.

    Nicks is coming off a dreadful 2013 season. He finished as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 69th-ranked receiver, and that could be generous. He failed to catch a touchdown pass and wasn't on the same page with quarterback Eli Manning all season, leading to drops and interceptions. It was truly a nightmarish campaign heading into free agency and one in which his effort was called into question.

    Nicks has also battled injuries, as he's never played 16 games in a season, and according to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network (h/t Jordan Raanan of The Star-Ledger), he was repeatedly fined for missing team meetings and treatments.

    Despite all the negatives, Nicks still has a tantalizing combination of size (6'1"), strength and speed, and he does have a championship pedigree, having helped the Giants win Super Bowl XLVI. He's also only 26 years old.

    Nicks is a player with significant boom-or-bust potential. Is he closer to the player he was early in his career or the no-show he was in 2013? You can bet your bottom dollar that a receiver-needy team will fork over the money to find out.

Julian Edelman

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    New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman had a fantastic season, catching 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. He was quarterback Tom Brady's security blanket throughout and was a vital cog in the Patriots' aerial machine.

    He finished the season as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 28th-ranked receiver and the fourth-best slot receiver. B/R's lead AFC East writer Erik Frenz wrote a piece after the season breaking down Edelman's big campaign.

    The comparisons to former Patriots receiver Wes Welker ring true. The men are similar in stature (Edelman is 5'10", while Welker is listed generously at 5'9") and are both demons operating out of the slot. 

    While the natural inclination is to call Edelman a "system" player who wouldn't find similar success outside of Foxborough, he proved last year that he's good enough to play well anywhere. If he does sign elsewhere, don't expect 100 catches, but do expect an excellent slot receiver who can move the chains with aplomb.

James Jones

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    While it might appear on the surface that Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones had a down year in 2013, the fact that quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed seven games must be factored into the equation.

    Jones only caught three touchdown passes last season after hauling in 14 in 2012, and he finished as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 55th-ranked receiver. He's a veteran receiver who is trusted in the locker room.

    But the Packers' surplus at receiver might make Jones expendable. The team also has Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and the emerging Jarrett Boykin at the position, so re-signing Jones might not be a top priority for general manager Ted Thompson.

    It's worth noting that the last time Jones was a free agent (2011), Rodgers publicly lobbied for the team to keep him, per Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com. The two obviously have a rapport, and Rodgers' opinion most certainly matters.

    Jones is about to turn 30, but he appears to still have a few good years left in him. If he re-signs with the Packers, then he's likely to put up similar numbers to his 2013 season, albeit with a few more touchdowns. And if he signs with another pass-happy team with a solid quarterback, he'll also find success.

Golden Tate

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    Seattle Seahawks receiver Golden Tate is set to enter free agency with a Super Bowl win on his resume, which always helps when filling the coffers.

    Tate finished 2013 ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 22nd-best receiver. He caught five touchdowns in the regular season and also contributed heavily in the return game. And he possesses excellent speed.

    After the club won Super Bowl XLVIII, Tate told 950 KJR Radio in Seattle in early February (h/t ESPN.com):

    I probably shouldn't even say this right now, but I'm going to say it anyway just because I love Seattle. Honestly, 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, you win a game once a monthsomething like that. I would much rather stay in the situation that I have now for a little less than to go and try to break the bank somewhere else.

    With Tate looking to stay in Seattle on a club-friendly deal, he might be eliminated from the free-agent pool before he even dips in a toe. If Tate does remain in the Emerald City, expect similar numbers to last year. And if he signs elsewhere, that team will be bringing on a deep threat at receiver who is capable of making big plays in the return game.

Emmanuel Sanders

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    Last season, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders set career highs in receptions (67), yards (740) and touchdowns (six), but he didn't necessarily replace the departed Mike Wallace like the team might have hoped.

    The 5'11" Sanders does have solid speed, and he finished the year as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 60th-ranked receiver. 

    Sanders isn't expected to return to the Steelers, as Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that the club expects second-year receiver Markus Wheaton to step into his role.

    Ideally, Sanders would operate primarily out of the slot, and he's miscast as a true No. 2 receiver. But in the right system and with other weapons around, there's little doubt he could be very productive.

Kenny Britt

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    As of right now, Tennessee Titans receiver Kenny Britt is in real danger of being labeled a first-round draft bust. There's no other way around it.

    Since being selected by Tennessee with the 30th pick of the 2009 draft, Britt has only caught 157 passes and 19 touchdowns. He's also faced a number of off-field issues, as he's been arrested a staggering eight times since coming into the league, per Will Brinson of CBSSports.com.

    Britt was so bad in 2013 that Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had him ranked 110 out of a possible 111 receivers. He only caught 11 passes last year.

    Despite all the issues, Britt still has outstanding size and ability. It's not outside the realm of possibility that he could put it all together and and have a few big seasons.

    Adam Caplan of ESPN tweeted in February that he expects Britt to sign a short-term deal, which seems about right. At this point, no team would or should be willing to sign Britt to a long-term, big-money deal. He'll likely face a "prove it" year in 2014 and then reenter the market in 2015.