NFL teams in need of answers at receiver won't find many in the 2016 class of free agents.
In fact, once Alshon Jeffery is inevitably re-signed or franchise-tagged by the Chicago Bears, the receiver position will look like one of the weakest in free agency. Teams searching for help will either have to overspend on average talent or divert their attention to the NFL draft.
The thinning at the top is coming.
Jeffery is far and away the best receiver in the class, but the clock is likely ticking on his time as an available free agent.
"With general manager Ryan Pace flush with salary-cap room, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Bears don't have Jeffery playing for them in 2016," beat writer Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune wrote last week.
If the Bears can't get something done with Jeffery before next Tuesday, the tag should become an easy choice. Pace has to know that if Jeffery hits the market, there's a great chance several of the teams with salary-cap space will throw millions at the top offensive playmaker available.
Just how massive is the gap between Jeffery and the rest of the soon-to-be-available receivers? The next tier is home to the likes of Marvin Jones, Travis Benjamin, Anquan Boldin, Mohamed Sanu, Rishard Matthews, Rueben Randle, James Jones and Jermaine Kearse.
|Top Free-Agent WRs, According to Pro Football Focus|
|1. Alshon Jeffery||CHI||54||807||4|
|2. Marvin Jones||CIN||65||816||4|
|3. Rishard Matthews||MIA||43||662||4|
|4. Travis Benjamin||CLE||68||966||5|
|5. Jermaine Kearse||SEA||49||685||5|
|6. James Jones||GB||50||890||8|
|7. Rueben Randle||NYG||57||797||8|
|8. Nate Washington||HOU||47||658||4|
|9. Bryan Walters||JAX||32||368||1|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Marvin Jones looks destined to be the top receiver available, despite having one career game with 100 yards and zero seasons over 1,000 receiving yards. He set career highs in catches (65) and receiving yards (816) last season with the Cincinnati Bengals.
It's possible Jones—who caught 10 touchdowns in 2013—just needs a bigger opportunity in a different offense. But it's also easy to envision the 25-year-old becoming one of the most overpaid players of free agency next month.
The price floor of his next deal might be Golden Tate, who signed a five-year, $31 million deal with the Detroit Lions back in 2014. Then again, with the NFL looking at close to $1 billion in available spending money during free agency, Jones could find a team willing to spend $8 million or more per season.
Foolish as it may be, a few top receivers may not even mess with the open market. That includes Benjamin, who wants a new deal in Cleveland.
“Hopefully, I can lock up before March,” Benjamin said, per Zac Jackson of Pro Football Talk.
Benjamin was a breakout player in 2015, catching 68 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns. He said new Browns head coach Hue Jackson told him he “loves my skill set, loves my speed," making a return to Cleveland seem far more likely than a departure in free agency.
The pickings beyond Jones and Benjamin only get slimmer.
Boldin caught 69 passes for the San Francisco 49ers last season, but he's 35 years old and coming off his fewest receiving yards (789) since 2004. While still a serviceable player, Boldin will need to find a situation where he can be a complementary piece of the passing offense.
Sanu is only 26, but he's never produced a season with over 60 catches or 800 receiving yards. His versatility as a slot receiver, gadget runner and thrower will give him value, but there's no way a team can view him as more than a No. 3 or 4 receiver.
Matthews may be the most intriguing of the bunch. Only 26, he caught 43 passes for 662 yards and four touchdowns over just 11 games last season. He missed five contests with a rib injury, but he averaged over 15 yards per catch and produced two games over 100 yards. Matthews might have untapped potential, and the Miami Dolphins—who have a logjam at receiver—might not make a substantial effort to bring him back.
Randle—a second-round pick of the New York Giants back in 2012—doesn't turn 25 until May. While he's shown flashes of being a big-time player, the consistency has never developed. Still, teams may look at some of Randle's volume numbers—including his 938 receiving yards in 2014 and eight touchdowns in 2015—and open the checkbook.
Jones was released by both the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants last year. He lucked out by returning to Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers and the Packers needed a familiar face after losing Jordy Nelson to a season-ending injury in August. Jones led the Packers in receiving yards (890) and touchdowns (eight), but he turns 32 next month and Nelson will return in 2016. He might find his market cold once again.
Kearse, who turned 26 this month, set new career highs in catches (49), yards (685) and touchdowns (five). He produced despite functioning as a secondary option in a run-first offense.
Even the draft is a question mark. While teams have hit home runs on the receiver position in recent years, the 2016 class doesn't look as top-heavy.
"The wide receiver class is average, especially if you look at what was available in 2014 and 2015," Bleacher Report's Matt Miller said in an email interview. "To this point, there's no Amari Cooper or Odell Beckham in this class. In fact, all of the top receivers have question marks surrounding their game."
If teams agree with Miller's assessment, an average group of free agents might find an even sweeter deal waiting for them on the open market.
However, the potential money spent on the position won't mirror the quality of players available. Teams have money to burn, but 2016 looks like a bad year to have cap room and a need at receiver. Eventually losing Jeffery from the top will only make the group more underwhelming.
All contract information via Spotrac.
Zach Kruse covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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