2015 Top Free Agents: Wide Receivers
You’ve surely had a flip through the PFF Free Agent Tracker by this point, so this set of articles will build nicely on what you’ve already seen. This, our yearly effort to sort the top free agent options at each position, will present a position a day and offer a Top-10 of what’s available.
It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
1. Dez Bryant – Franchise Tagged by Dallas
2014 Grade: +21.4
2014 Snaps: 1,024
Headlining 2015’s group of free agent receivers, Bryant exploded in 2014 after posting decent grades in his first four seasons, finishing the year at +21.4 overall, behind only Antonio Brown. In helping the Cowboys to their first playoff berth since 2009, he bested all of his peers in getting to the end zone, scoring 16 times while forcing 20 missed tackles and posting one of the league’s highest catch rates on deep passes (53.6%). Consequently, Dallas likely won’t let him see the open market with the Franchise Tag an option in addition to locking their star wide receiver into a long-term contract.
2. Demaryius Thomas – Franchise Tagged by Denver
2014 Grade: +16.5
2014 Snaps: 1,123
Another first rounder from the 2010 draft class, Thomas had a slow start to his career in Denver, but naturally saw a striking improvement in production with the change from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning throwing in the ball. In the three seasons since Manning’s arrival, Thomas has been one of our top-graded receivers, surpassing 10 touchdowns and 1,400 receiving yards each year. He ended 2014 somewhat poorly with two drops in Denver’s playoff loss to the Colts. He otherwise played well and has consistently shown ability in the entire route tree, as evidenced by his 2.78 Yards per Route Run, which was good for second among receivers this season.
Like Bryant, it would come as a surprise to see Thomas make it to the start of free agency without being franchised or re-signed by the Broncos.
3. Randall Cobb – Re-signed with Green Bay
2014 Grade: +16.4
2014 Snaps: 1,076
Cobb is possibly the most versatile player on this list. He’s spent time as a returner on special teams in addition to snaps from the backfield, outside, and in the slot, where he’s been one of the most productive receivers over the last several seasons. Cobb has scored five more touchdowns and gained almost 400 more yards from the slot than any other player in 2014. He will certainly be a coveted player if he makes it to the open market, given he’ll be just 25 when the 2015 season starts and is coming off of career highs in receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
4. Jeremy Maclin – Signed with Kansas City
2014 Grade: +9.1
2014 Snaps: 1,043
After a rough 2012 season during which he dropped nine passes and graded at -13.2 overall, Maclin suffered a torn ACL during training camp and subsequently missed the entire 2013 season. Finally healthy, he took full advantage in his first season taking snaps under coach Chip Kelly, catching 85 passes and 10 touchdowns with just one drop and his 2014 PFF grade was a career high. However, most of his grade came bunched up in a handful of games – including consecutive games at +3.0 in Weeks 8 and 9 – with the rest being somewhat average.
It will be interesting to see whether he remains with the Eagles or opts to test the market after playing well on a one-year deal. In 2014 he lined up almost exclusively on the outside at right wide receiver and caught passes more on that side, though he saw targets all over the field vertically, including 22 via screens and 20 on go-routes.
5. Torrey Smith – Signed with San Francisco
2014 Grade: -1.5
2014 Snaps: 901
Smith is an interesting case, as he’s been primarily used as a vertical receiver during his tenure with the Ravens and led the league in Deep Targets his first three seasons. That number went down in 2014, though he was still targeted on average more than 18 yards downfield and reached the end zone a career-high 12 times. Even with the increase in touchdowns, Smith didn’t grade particularly well as he struggled with drops – only three receivers had more than Smith’s 11. Through this point in his career, he’s finished with a positive overall grade in just one of four seasons (2012).
The question going forward will be whether he can eliminate the drops and further expand his play beyond the deep threat niche that he’s developed in Baltimore. Age and health are in his favor heading into free agency – Smith just turned 26 and hasn’t missed a game since being drafted. At the moment the Ravens don’t have a whole lot at the position outside of an aging Steve Smith, so retaining Torrey makes sense.
6. Kenny Britt – Re-signed with St. Louis
2014 Grade: +2.1
2014 Grade: 813
Like Maclin, Britt is a former 2009 first round pick coming out of a one-year contract. He made our list last season and several of the points still apply. He’s fairly young (will be 26 at the start of the season) and outside of some issues off of the field, looked extremely promising in 2010 and early in 2011 before he went down with a knee injury. In his first year in St. Louis and back under Jeff Fisher, Britt managed to play well despite the team’s uneasy situation. Primarily targeted on downfield throws (16.0 yards Average Depth of Target), he caught 48 passes with just three drops. While playing in more than 75% of the team’s offensive snaps, the passes thrown in his direction resulted in more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (three).
Given his best seasons have come with Fisher at head coach and it seems fitting for him to resign on a team without an established top receiver, though his age and potential should draw some consideration from other teams.
7. Michael Crabtree
2014 Grade: -7.3
2014 Snaps: 740
The third player from the 2009 first round to make this list, Crabtree enjoyed a breakout season in 2012, especially after the team switched to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. He hasn’t regained that form after tearing his Achilles prior to the 2013 season. He still managed 68 catches in 102 targets in 2014, but gained just 698 yards on those plays and especially regressed in his ability to get yards after the catch with a career-low 3.9 YAC per reception. That’s concerning, given the majority of his work over the past three seasons has come on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. This was also the second season in which he’s hit double digits in drops with 10.
Crabtree could see a lot of action from teams hoping another year removed from his Achilles injury will bring him closer to what we saw in 2012.
8. Eddie Royal – Signed with Chicago
2014 Grade: +1.0
2014 Snaps: 773
Royal has yet to duplicate his 91 catch rookie season, but he’s been decent in San Diego with 15 touchdowns and more than 1,400 yards over the last two seasons playing from the slot. The bulk of his work came between the numbers during the 2014 season, and he was most effective there with 40 catches in 44 targets at short or intermediate distance. Royal isn’t a dynamic player that will carry an offense and he’s the oldest player on this list (29 when the 2015 season starts). Still, he’s a decent and comparatively cheap option that provides some ability after the catch and good elusiveness with 20 forced missed tackles over the last two seasons.
9. Cecil Shorts – Signed with Houston
2014 Grade: -8.2
2014 Snaps: 753
Playing in Jacksonville after being drafted there in 2011, Shorts has been a part of one of the least stable offenses over that time and his grades reflect that. However, he’s contributed to the team’s struggles with at least seven drops in each of the last three seasons. Potential suitors will look at the flashes during the 2012 season when Shorts led the Jaguars in touchdowns and receiving yards while gaining more than 17 yards per catch.
10. Hakeem Nicks
2014 Grade: -9.2
2014 Snaps: 662
Our top free agent wide receiver a year ago, Nicks went to the Colts on a one-year contract and, despite playing with Andrew Luck, did not regain the form we saw early in his career. He finished with a career-low average gain of 11.4 yards on 44 receptions, struggling to do much after the catch when he did get the ball. He did have a couple of notable games late in the season, including a +1.4 performance in the first round of the playoffs. Otherwise it was as rough season for the former first rounder, who played less than 50% of the team’s offensive snaps after being above 80% in the four seasons before that.
Like several players on this list, his age should still make him a somewhat attractive option in free agency, so there should still be some looks despite consecutive below-average seasons.
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