Entering the 2014 season the NFL has become more pass oriented than ever before. A plethora of up-and-coming quarterbacks are competing with the established old-guard to see who can be the face of the league from year to year. As great as the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have played over the past decade; neither they nor any of the game’s rising stars would be able to have the level of success they have enjoyed without top level talent surrounding them.
This year, the wide receiver position is one of the more talent laden of the free agency crop. From young up and comers such as Dexter McCluster, Golden Tate, and Eric Decker to established veterans like Anquan Boldin and James Jones, there are a surplus of options on this year’s market. Here are my choices for the top 10 free-agent wide receivers in 2014 from 10 to 1.
10) Kenny Britt, 25, 6th season, 6' 3" 223lbs
Career: 157 REC 2,450 YD 19 TD
Kenny Britt was by far the player I wrestled with the most over his inclusion. When on the field Britt has shown a level of talent that can be matched by few in the game today.
It is because of his potential that he was able to sneak on to the list, but Britt is by far the biggest Gamble at wide receiver in free agency; if he can remain on the field, Britt could pay huge dividends.
Sidelined by both injuries and off the field concerns (run-ins with law-enforcement) have prevented Britt from playing a complete season outside of his rookie year. In 2013 Britt played in 12 games, recording only 11 catches for 96 yards and zero scores. The talented but troubled wide receiver has clearly fallen out of favor with the Titans coaching staff. The up-and-down quarterback situation Britt has been forced to endure during his NFL tenure has not helped to his numbers.
There will be at least one team in the league willing to roll the dice on signing a (hopefully) productive Kenny Britt. Teams that are the most likely suitors include Oakland, Tennessee, St. Louis, where his former head coach, Jeff Fisher, now controls the team and is in need of an impact player to complement his young receiving corps.
9) Jacoby Jones, 29, 8th season, 6'2" 215lbs
Career: 194 REC 2,602 YD 14TD
Jones is a seven-year veteran coming off a two-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens. The former Houston Texan has proven an invaluable member of the special teams game as well as a proven receiver in Baltimore. Jones has proven to be a durable player missing only 9 games over 7 seasons (four of which were due to knocking knees with a teammate this season on a punt return) and is a solid number two wide receiver. Despite the time missed he still managed 37 catches for 455 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2013.
While Jones possesses breakaway speed he really needs to play with a true number 1 wide receiver to have a solid breakout season. While talented Jones does not possess the skill set to carry a teams passing game as the number one option. Most likely destinations for Jacoby Jones include Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta.
8)Dexter McCluster, 25, 5th Season, 5’8” 170lbs
Career: 172 REC 1,500 YD 5 TD
Many people will look at those numbers and ask how is this guy number eight on a top ten list? It is McCluster's versatility that bumps him over Jones and Britt to the eighth spot. McCluster has lined up at every conceivable skill position on offense for Kansas City over the past four seasons, and coupling that with his production in the return game (three punt returns for touchdowns in four years, 4 returns of 40+ yards) makes McCluster a valuable open market commodity.
McCluster has shown steady improvement over the years, as his receiving totals have climbed from 21 catches for 209 yards his rookie season to career highs of 53 receptions for 511 yards and 2 TD in 2013.
In the proper system McCluster could be a big play waiting to happen if his coaching staff knows how to maximize his abilities. Most likely destinations include New England, Jacksonville, and remaining in Kansas City.
7) Hakeem Nicks 26, 6th Season, 6’1” 208lbs
Career: 311 REC 4,622 YD 27TD
Hakeem Nicks served as a stalwart for Eli Manning and the Giants offense over his first three seasons in the league. The talented wide receiver managed to top 1000 yards receiving twice while scoring 24 touchdowns during that span. The last two seasons have been markedly different however, as the emergence of Victor Cruz dropped Nicks to number two on the depth chart. Since that time Nicks has managed only 109 receptions for 1,588 yards and 3 scores (the three TDs were all in 2012).
Injuries have played their role in Nicks’ declining production levels, as he has yet to manage playing a complete 16 game season. The injury questions and the apparent decline of Nicks’ production have some teams wondering whether he was a product of system and not as good as originally advertised, or if he just needs a fresh start to regain the stature he held earlier in his career. The teams that make the most likely destination for Nicks are Oakland, New England, and Atlanta.
6) James Jones 29, 8th Season, 6’1” 208lbs
Career: 310 REC 4,305 YD 37TD
Number six on the list has comparable career numbers to Nicks, but lacks the name recognition of the Giants’ wide out. James Jones has played his entire career in Green Bay, hauling in passes from both Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers (not a bad list of QBs to play with). 2012 served as Jones’ breakout season as he tallied (at the time) career highs in catches (64), yards (784), and touchdowns (14).
The Packers had hoped to continue building on that success in 2013, but quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down with an injury in midseason, leading to a revolving door at quarterback until his return (the team had three different quarterbacks during Rodgers’ absence). Jones’ performance was greatly affected by the Rodgers injury and saw his touchdown numbers plummet from 14 to 3, despite setting a new career mark for receiving yards in 2013.
Jones has proven a durable player missing only 8 games in seven seasons, and played full campaigns in five of those years. A team looking for a veteran receiver with speed on the edge could do much worse than James Jones in free agency. The Jets, Jaguars, and Raiders are likely destinations should James leave the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
5) Golden Tate 25, 5th Season, 5’10” 202lbs
Career: 165 REC 2,195 YD 15 TD
Golden Tate was selected by Seattle out of Notre Dame in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft, and has proven to be a workhorse at wide receiver. Tate has proven durable, missing only a single game in four seasons, and over that span he has established himself as a top possession receiver in the NFL, catching 94 passes for first downs.
2013 provided Tate with the opportunity to show his skills in the return game, as he took over punt return duties, tallying 51 returns for 585 yards, good for over 11 yards a return. It also proved to be Tate’s best season as a pass catcher, as he totaled 64 catches for 898 yards and 5 touchdowns. Tate’s age, experience, and production all combine to produce one of the more attractive free agent wide receivers this offseason. The bad news for the League outside of Seattle is that Tate has expressed his willingness to take a hometown discount to remain in Seattle. Should that fall through however, both the Browns and the Jets could make excellent destinations for the up and comer.
4) Julian Edelman, 27, 6th Season, 5’10” 198lbs
Career: 174 REC 1,770 YD 10 TD
2013 saw Julian Edelman bust out in a big way for the Patriots, as he stepped up in the absence of, well everyone from the 2012 season. Edelman’s breakout year was highlighted by 105 receptions for 1.056 yards and 6 touchdowns. To put that in perspective, his career numbers to that point were 69 catches for 714 yards and four scores over four seasons.
Many will take up the argument that Edelman is the product of the Patriots quick passing attack, which very well could end up being the case. Many of the questions that were being asked about Wes Welker as he headed into free agency last offseason are applicable to Edelman as well. Are his 2013 numbers an aberration, a product of playing with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in a depleted and untested receiving corps? Can he replicate those numbers elsewhere?
In Edelman’s case, I believe the answer is yes. Edelman played quarterback in college and has shown a willingness to do whatever it takes to contribute as a teammate (changing positions, special teams) and win games. His experience as a quarterback has proved invaluable in his field awareness, as Edelman has hauled in 88 catches for first downs.
Durability was a question in regards to Edelman entering 2013, as he had only played in 48 of 64 games in his first four seasons. Edelman did finally manage to stay on the field for the entire slate last year.
The Patriots have expressed a desire to retain Edelman, at the right price. Edelman’s camp has made it clear that he is looking for a solid payday after his emergence in 2013, and it is unlikely he will return to New England for the ’14 campaign. Likely suitors include the Chiefs, Jets, and Seattle.
3) Jeremy Maclin 25, 5th Season, 6’ 198lbs
Career: 258 REC 3,453 YD 26 TD
Jeremy Maclin has served as a solid number two to DeSean Jackson during his time in Philadelphia. Maclin has been a consistent producer at the NFL level, hauling in 56, 70, 63, and 69 passes from his rookie campaign in 09 through 2013 respectively. Maclin is a prototypical NFL wide out, possessing speed and great hands. Maclin also has a mind for knowing exactly where he needs to get for a first down, converting 158 of his career receptions into first downs (61%).
Maclin is similar to Tate in age and experience, but it is Maclin’s size as well as having played in a pass oriented offense in Philly that makes him a desirable free agent. Another similarity to Tate is Maclin’s willingness to remain with his original team, even if it means taking a discounted deal. That being said, a return to the Eagles is by no means a guarantee and teams like the Jets, Raiders and Jaguars should all be in the market for the talented young receiver.
2) Anquan Boldin, 33, 12th Season, 6’1” 220lbs
Career: 857 REC 11,344 YD 65 TD
The elder statesman of this year’s free agent crop, there is little that Anquan Boldin has not accomplished in his storied career. A three time pro-bowler and a Super Bowl Champion with the Ravens in 2012, Boldin far and away brings the most experience and gravitas to the team that he signs with.
A blend of a speed and possession receiver, Boldin’s size provides him with the durability to come across the middle of the field as well as go up for the long ball down the sideline. Over the course of Boldin’s likely hall-of-fame worthy career, he caught 557 of his 857 receptions for first downs.
In 2013 Boldin posted his finest season in the last five, totaling 85 catches for 1.179 yards and 7 scores. Despite his age, the veteran wide receiver has shown no signs of slowing ignoring the fact that he suffered knee injuries early in his career.
The biggest question in regards to where Boldin will play next year is his motivation. At 33 does the drive for another ring supercede the chance of one last big payday? Unfortunately for Boldin, salary cap restrictions may make those two desires mutually exclusive. There are few teams in contention that could bring in Boldin at a fair market value deal, while a number of rebuilding teams have cap space to spare.
Should Boldin leave the Bay Area, Atlanta, Miami and the Texans could show interest.
1) Eric Decker, 26, 5th Season, 6’3” 214lbs
Career: 22 REC 3,070 YD 33 TD
The most coveted receiver on the market this offseason is Eric Decker. His combination of size age and production has GMs across the league dizzy with anticipation of what he could bring to their teams.
The past two years have seen Decker emerge as a solid 1A or high end #2 receiver under the tutelage of Peyton Manning in Denver. Decker has posted back-to-back 1000 yard campaigns in 2012 and 13, and his 24 touchdowns over that time are tied for third in the league with Demaryious Thomas, behind only Jimmy Graham and Dez Bryant.
There are several questions regarding Decker however, ranging from can he be a true number one receiver (as he has had the most talented receiving corps in the NFL around him the past two years) to did his stinker of a performance in the Super Bowl hurt his value in free agency?
The biggest question mark by far concerning Decker is one that has been a common refrain in this article; can Decker replicate his success elsewhere (i.e. without Peyton throwing him the ball)? I say yes, as prior to Manning’s arrival Decker had produced a 44 catch/612 yd/8 TD season in 2011, which surely bodes well for his future wherever the ends up (remember Tim Tebow was quarterback in Denver that year, which should count Decker’s numbers double).
While the market is wide open for Decker’ services, I see the three teams making the biggest push for the 26 year old as Cleveland, the New York Giants, and Jacksonville. A return to Denver is highly unlikely given the demand for Decker and the upcoming expiring contracts Denver will face over the next two seasons.