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2011 NFL Free Agency: 5 Best Wide Receivers on the Market

Chuck StanecContributor IIIMay 10, 2011

2011 NFL Free Agency: 5 Best Wide Receivers on the Market

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    GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 23:  Wide receiver Plaxico Burress #17 of the New York Giants warms up for the game with the Arizona Cardinals on November 23, 2008 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The Giants won 37-29.  (Photo by Stephen Dun
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    When NFL owners decide to stop pouting and bring their football back to the yard, the league's free agency period is expected to be a high-flying extravaganza. Partly, that enthusiasm exists because this could be one of the most populated free-agent classes ever.

    If the new collective bargaining agreement allows for players with four years of tenure to join the unrestricted free-agent pool, then look out! When those flood gates of the signing period open, it is going to be a 32-team battle royale for the best and the brightest, the dazzling and spectacular, the gritty and the bold.

    If a certain network doesn't pick up the pandemonium with NFL Draft-esque coverage, they are doing us a disservice.

    Of course, I'm not talking about an circus similar to National Signing Day, where each player stands in front of a table throughout the course of the event with a group of team hats in front of them and then says, "I'll be playing ball next year for [insert whoever]," and picks up the hat and puts it on.

    I'm talking about the big wigs of football sitting on stage, as normal, discussing the breaking news as it comes in. I'm talking about instant analysis, roster breakdown, everything we deserve and more. Hell, this could springboard free-agent periods for years to come to start at noon on a March Saturday rather than midnight when half the nation is asleep.

    This could be Christmas 3.0—a day of BBQ and beer with the guys as a prelude to the draft.

    Of course, this is all fanciful wishing. The reality is some teams have shown us their hands by the way we watched them draft college players in April. Another fact: This is going to be a huge year for free-agent wide receivers.

    Before I attempt to break down the top five—all of which come with at least one red flag—at the position this offseason, allow me to wet your palate with my Honorable Mention to the list.

Honorable Mention: Plaxico Burress

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    ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 14: Plaxico Buress #17 of the New York Giants celebrates a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on September 14, 2008 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    I can't decide if Plaxico is one of the top five at the position in this free-agent class or not. He certainly could be and most think he would have been if it wasn't for a 20-month prison stint that also resulted in a bullet hole in his leg.

    Think about this—in nine seasons, he has over 7,800 yards receiving. Nothing special, I get it. However, in his rookie year, he broke his wrist the first quarter of the season and didn't figure it out until the 12th game. Then, of course, he shot himself in 2008 and played in only 10 games.

    What intrigues me is that of the five full 16-game seasons he's logged, four of them have resulted in a thousand yards or better performances.

    The other side of the coin says that he'll be 34 by the time the season starts, he hasn't played in two years, and who knows where his head is at. Sure, there is the Mike Vick comparison because people want to believe he can make the comeback.

    But let us not kid ourselves—there are many more stories that end up 180 degrees from where Vick is to ignore the possibility that Burress could suffer the same fate as those less fortunate.

Santonio Holmes

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 23:  Santonio Holmes #10 of the New York Jets celebrates after he scored a third quarter touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2011 AFC Championship game at Heinz Field on January 23, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvani
    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    Holmes averaged 4.3 receptions a game for just over 62 yards—far from inspiring—but his six touchdown catches in 12 games ranks as his second-best performance as a pro.

    In Holmes' defense, it was his first year playing in New York and his four-game suspension to start the season did not help his cause. Holmes has shown he can be very productive when he wants to be.

    I honestly felt that pairing him with Braylon Edwards would be a detriment to his professional career.

    Edwards has never tried to hide the fact he saw himself as a diva amongst the football world. He once proclaimed he was too big for Cleveland, among other things.

    Edwards also never tried to hide the fact he had the worst case of the drops since Edward Scissorhands. All signs that point toward a bad influence.

    Since Holmes has relocated from the 'burgh, he has done nothing but be on his best behavior. That's something that should ease concerns for any prospective team.

    Chances are good the Jets are not going to let Holmes leave New York, but while he's available, anything could happen.

Vincent Jackson

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    SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 12:  Vincent Jackson #83 of the San Diego Chargers carries the ball on a reverse against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first quarter at Qualcomm Stadium on December 12, 2010 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty
    Harry How/Getty Images

    A DUI and a pissing contest with his team, the San Diego Chargers, cut Jackson's season to five games.

    While head coach Norv Turner has publicly praised Jackson, it's still up in the air whether or not he will be returning to San Diego, although the Chargers have already named him their franchise player—if that designation still exists once the lock out comes to an end.

    On the open market, the 6'5" wideout plans to garner a significant amount of attention for a couple of reasons: He's on the right side of 30; he's huge and very physical; he's the type of player that can absolutely change an entire offense with his production.

    In the 2008 and 2009 seasons, he caught 127 balls for over 2,200 yards and 16 scores. If he can return to form once the 2011 season begins, the team that signs him will be getting their money's worth.

Sidney Rice

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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 28:  Sidney Rice #18 of the Minnesota Vikings in action against Asante Samuel #22 of the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on December 28, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    A serious hip injury curtailed his 2010 season in Minnesota.

    What most will remember heading into the free agency period will be Rice's 2009 year with Brett Favre at the helm when he pulled down 83 balls for 1,300 yards and eight scores.

    Rice is expected to receive a lot of attention from teams running the West Coast system; however, the 24-year-old second-round pick could be the most risky of the top five. He really only has one good season to hang his hat on, and having missed 10 games last year should significantly impact the dollars he sees on the open market.

    On the upside, Rice has very good speed, catches the ball well in traffic and has the ability to make things happen after the catch. If 2009 was not just a one-year wonder, whichever team wins his services should be very pleased.

Steve Smith

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    HOUSTON - OCTOBER 10:  Wide receiver Steve Smith #12 of the New York Giants goes up high in front of cornerback Glover Quin #29 of the Houston Texans in the first half at Reliant Stadium on October 10, 2010 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Im
    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Another player seriously looking to rebound from injuries last year is Steve Smith (nine games, 48 rec., 529 yds, three TDs).

    A lot is made about wide receivers in their third year in the league, and Smith didn't disappoint. In 2009, his 107 receptions ranked second in the league (Wes Welker—123) and he also led the Giants in yards with 1,220.

    Bottom line on Steve Smith: He catches everything thrown his way. Other than only being 5'11", he has no deficiencies in his game and could be a tremendous mentor to other young players at his position.

    The G-Men only offered Smith the one year tendered, which tells me the offense may have outgrown his services with the emergence of Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. Not to mention, the front office also drafted rookie Jerrel Jernigan in the third round in this year's draft.

    If they can't keep him on the cheap, Smith will most likely be suiting up for another team this coming season.

James Jones

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    ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06:  James Jones #89 of the Green Bay Packers runs for yards after the catch against James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas. The Packers won 3
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    My wild card in the top five—James Jones.

    Last season was by far his most productive. He received the second most targets largely in part to the majority of the coverage being shifted to both Greg Jennings and Donald Driver.

    What remains to be seen from Jones is his ability to handle the No. 1 or No. 2 receiver role in the offense. So, was his 2010 season an aberration and product of more highly regarded receivers worth covering, or is he really beginning to come into his own?

    Everyone knows how explosive the Packers offense was last year, even considering they had so many players finish the year on IR. Jones' production immediately increased with the loss of Jermichael Finley during the Week 5 game against the Washington Redskins.

    However, there were games during the year—even without Finley—that Jones seemed to disappear.

    If James Jones can become more consistent with his week-to-week productivity and prove he has the intangibles to be a go-to guy in the game plan, he will be a great addition to the team that signs him. Otherwise, giving big money to a guy that only shows up in half the games might cost someone their job.

    The drafting of Randall Cobb early in the draft has made Jones expendable and may have officially signaled the end of his stay in the Cheese City.

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