Most of the chatter surrounding the hyped 2021 NFL impending free-agent wide receiver class has focused on recent Super Bowl champion and one-time 1,300-yard wideout Chris Godwin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, three-time 1,100-yard Chicago Bears veteran Allen Robinson II and physically enticing two-time 1,000-yard Detroit Lions receiver Kenny Golladay.
But at least a pair of wide receivers garnering significantly less attention ahead of free agency deserve more consideration, especially if they come cheaper as a result. After all, for the first time ever, the salary cap is expected to drop substantially in 2021, and a lot of teams will struggle to make ends meet.
So instead of splurging on Godwin, Robinson or Golladay—all of whom have their warts—teams in pursuit of free agents at that position would be smart to consider that the league's top two players in terms of yards per target in 2020 are currently on track to hit the open market.
Neither is named Godwin, Robinson or Golladay.
|2020 NFL leaders in yards per target|
|1. Will Fuller V||11.7|
|2. Rashard Higgins||11.5|
|3. Julio Jones||11.3|
|4. Justin Jefferson||11.2|
In a breakout season in which he ranked first in yards per target and ninth among qualified receivers in yards per game, 2016 Houston Texans first-round pick Will Fuller V truly arrived.
If not for a late-season suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances, Fuller would have easily gone over 1,000 yards with double-digit touchdowns despite playing for a bad team.
Meanwhile, after stars Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry often trumped him during his first four seasons in the league, Rashard Higgins finally had an opportunity to shine with the Cleveland Browns in 2020. He delivered with a yards-per-target average that trailed only Fuller in a drop-free campaign.
The 2016 fifth-round pick might not be as gifted as any of the receivers mentioned thus far, but he put up 294 yards and scored twice in his final four regular-season games and was the Browns' leading receiver in their Divisional Playoff matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Those guys don't have the profiles associated with Godwin, Robinson and Golladay, or even popular impending free-agent receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, T.Y. Hilton of the Indianapolis Colts or Corey Davis of the Tennessee Titans. But the reality is all six of those players are far from being sure-things.
- Godwin was merely a third-round pick in 2017 and he's fallen short of the 900-yard mark in three of his four seasons. His stock could be inflated by that off-the-charts 2019 campaign, but it's entirely possible he's a one-year wonder and will fail to live up to expectations elsewhere. We also have little evidence that he can excel as a true No. 1 receiver without benefiting from the presence of a star like Mike Evans.
- Robinson is an exceptional player who consistently delivered in a weak offense the last three years in Chicago, but he did drop seven passes in 2019 and is entering his eighth season. It's possible he's peaked.
- Hamstring and hip injuries were just the latest afflictions suffered by Golladay, who missed all but five games in 2020 and has made it through just one complete season in his four-year career. His durability makes him a questionable investment ahead of his age-28 season.
- Smith-Schuster is only 24, but after averaging 78.1 yards per game in his first two seasons, that rate plummeted to 49.4 the last two years. Drops have also been an issue, and he arguably became a distracting presence in Pittsburgh down the stretch in 2020.
- Hilton is a four-time Pro Bowler, but he's now 31 and is coming off the worst two seasons of his career. It's fair to wonder how much more the nine-year veteran has left.
- Davis is intriguing because he was the No. 5 overall pick just four years ago, but he's never hit the 1,000-yard mark and he's scored just 11 touchdowns in his career. Higgins matches him there despite far fewer snaps.
And yet, all six of those guys are likely to command more money on the open market than Higgins, while several will probably earn more than Fuller.
The elephant in the room for Fuller is his suspension. For what it's worth, he has said that stemmed from a prescription medication he was using that he thought was permitted. It's possible that means he won't be any less effective and could continue to improve moving forward, but, at the very least, the ban could cause some teams to question his dependability. After all, his lack of durability was a factor prior to the 2020 campaign.
But that's exactly why Fuller could come at a discounted price, just as a limited body of work is likely to limit Higgins' windfall. The former might be a slightly larger gamble than some of the other guys listed above, while the latter might not have the same ceiling as most of them. But there's a very good chance one or both will represent more bang for someone's buck in 2021 and beyond.
One other factor to consider is this year's wide receiver draft class, whose volume of talent "rivals" a 2020 class that saw a record 13 wideouts go off the board in the first two rounds, according to Dane Brugler of The Athletic. Those guys will come even cheaper than most if not all of the aforementioned free agents that become available, which might be another reason to save some cheddar on a lower-tier option like Fuller or Higgins if you have the draft capital to grab a pass-catcher on Day 1 or Day 2 of the draft.
Everyone wants the best, but the league's most successful teams are usually smart and savvy and less splashy on the free-agent market. Some free-agent positional groups are worth spending a premium on, especially if there's a can't-miss talent at the top of everybody's list.
This wide receiver class is intriguing and deep, but the guys at the top are not worth that premium—especially with alternatives like Fuller and Higgins potentially on the table.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.