Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Wide Receivers
Michael Mountford takes a look through the most attractive wide receivers who will be on the market at the start of the new league year.
Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Wide Receivers
You’ve been reading along with our Projected Lineups series on a daily basis and have checked the PFF Free Agent Tracker more times than you can count, so you’ll be happy to see that we’re now ranking the top free agents available — the potential answers to the holes apparent on those team-by-team charts. We’ll be taking on a couple positions a day this week and discussing our Top 10 at each.
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.
The 2014 free agent class might lack elite talent and depth. It is a year that has multiple interesting players, some of them have shown flashes of talent but surrounded by questions marks. Without further ado here are the Top 10 free agent wide receivers for 2014:
Here are the 10 best available as the 2014 free agency period nears:
1. Hakeem Nicks – Signs with Indianapolis
2013 Grade: +0.1
2013 Snaps: 845
Hakeem Nicks headlines the 2014 Free Agent wide receivers. In 2013 Nicks had his worse season as a pro, however that does not take away from what he has shown since entering the league in ’09. What separates Nicks from all the other free agents is that he has shown the ability to be one of the upper-tier WRs. In the 2011 playoffs Nicks had 28 receptions for 445 yards (205 YAC) and graded out at +7.6, which is the second highest grade we have given out for a WR in the playoffs.
Nicks has shown great ability, but the past two seasons has been hampered with multiple injuries. The biggest question mark is if the two years when he has been hurt will slow him down, or if he is able to recover and become the threat he showed in his first three seasons. Nicks is a player who has never shown the ability to take the top of a defense, instead he’s a dangerous intermediate threat who can make things happen after the catch.
If Nicks can come into the 2014 season with full health he can be a major addition to any team. He is the one WR in this class who has the ability to play at an elite level and could provide a boost to any passing attack. Any team who gives him big money will have to hope he is back to his best and that he can stay on the field.
2. Eric Decker – Signs with the New York Jets
2013 Grade: +16.7
2013 Snaps: 1,288
Since Eric Decker became a full time starter in his second season, he has consistently improved each year. Part of this improvement can be put down to Peyton Manning becoming his QB, but to think that Decker in his own right has not become better would be unfair on him. Over the past three seasons Decker has improved his Drop Rate fromm 16.98 in 2011 to 8.45 in 2013. While he does not have the hands of Larry Fitzgerald, Decker is now in the middle of the pack in that regard.
Through his career with Manning, Decker has showed ability in working the short to intermediate areas, but last year there was a clear difference in his production on deep passes. Some people will point to Manning regaining more arm strength after his multiple neck surgery, but Manning only attempted 11 more passes over 20 yards in 2013 than 2012 and his Accuracy Percentage actually went down. Decker was only targeted two more times in 2013 than 2012, but went 15-25, 509 yards and 5 TDS compared to his 2012 numbers of 8-23, 257 yards and 2 TDs.
Decker has defanitely had the benefit of a top quality QB, but is solid in his own right. While he might not have the upside of Nicks, he is without doubt a capable WR who has no history of missing time with injuries.
3. Golden Tate – Signs with Detroit
2013 Grade: +10.8
2013 Snaps: 936
The biggest strength in Golden Tate’s game is his ability to gain yards after the catch. In 2012 and ’13 Tate has forced 45 Missed Tackles, while no other WR has more than 35 in the same span. Unsurprisingly Tate also has one of the best Yards after Reception Average in the league, managing 7.9 YAC/Rec average last season.
One of the biggest plus is for Tate is how exceptional a Punt Returner he is. Before 2013 he had only had returned 14 punts, however in 2013 the Seahawks made him their primary punt returner. The Seahawks benefited mightily from this move, while Tate only had one return over 40 yards, he consistently helped improve Seattle’s field position. Tate averaged 11.5 yards a return and graded out as the top punt returner.
Tate however has struggled on passes between 10-19 yards down field, gaining just 69 of his 959 yards on intermediate routes. While he is not the most complete WR in the game he makes up for it by being one of the best after the catch WR in the game.
4. Anquan Boldin – Re-signs with San Francisco
2013 Grade: +19.9
2013 Snaps: 1,003
When the Baltimore Ravens traded Boldin for a sixth round pick, it seemed at the time like a bad move. After the fact it looks even worse. Boldin has seemingly slipped into the Tony Gonzalez stage of his career perfectly as he struggles to create separation but manages still to win battles with his body and willingness to get the ball. Last season only two players who had over 85 targets did not have a interception when the ball was thrown their way, one was Roddy White, the other was Boldin.
While Boldin had the highest grade of any free agent WR in 2013, he only came in fourth on this list due to his age — he’ll turn 34 in the middle of next season. On a short-term deal Boldin will be a valuable asset to any team.
5. James Jones
2013 Grade: +2.9
2013 Snaps: 924
Jones had his best season in 2012 where he graded out at +8.0. Over the past three seasons he has shown that he is a capable WR and has the ability to make plays. While some people remember Jones’ 2012 campaign for leading the league in TDs, his best attribute is his production on passes under 10 yards.
When looking at what he has achieved so far in his career, though, it is easy to have cause for concern. The biggest question mark on Jones will be how he does when Aaron Rodgers is not his QB and when he is the more than the third- or fourth-best WR on the team. When Rodgers was hurt this season, Jones managed to still be a decent player, though.
Jones will be a very interesting free agent as he has a useful skillset if he is put in a position to succeed. If counted on to be one of the top two WRs for a team, we may see him struggle in his post-Green Bay days.
6. Julian Edelman – Re-signs with New England
2013 Grade: +12.7
2013 Snaps: 1,165
In 2013 Julian Edelman seemed to have the perfect storm to have a breakout season. When all the other weapons for Tom Brady went down or struggled, the only consistent pass-catcher became Edelman. The Pats used Edelman effectively as a WR who could attack the middle of the field — when targeted across the middle and short of 20 yards, he had an 83% catch rate for 803 of his 1229 yards.
It is clear that Edelman is a good underneath WR but when asked to do anything more, the limitations are clear. In Edelman’s career he has only been targeted 26 times on passes over 20 yards, with a catch rate of 23%. There will be questions this offseason on how he will do outside of the Patriots’ system; it is very possible that he will be more valuable to the Pats than to any other team.
7. Riley Cooper – Re-signs with Philadelphia
2013 Grade: +5.2
2013 Snaps: 1,060
Prior to the 2013 season, Cooper looked like he would become another of the league’s many below-average role player WRs. However, the hiring of Chip Kelly and his innovative offense made Cooper into a useful option and for the first time in his career he graded in the positive.
What Cooper does provide is a big target and though the 6-foot-3 receiver’s highest catch percentage in his first three seasons was 52.3%, in 2013 he managed to bring that up to a 59.6%. Cooper does make up for his lack of efficiency with the ability to make big plays, averaging over his career 15.8 yards per catch, all done with little to no YAC.
8. Emmanuel Sanders – Signs with Denver
2013 Grade: +1.5
2013 Snaps: 810
Emmanuel Sanders could be one of the more interesting free agent WRs this year. Over his first three seasons Sanders showed himself to be a capable role player who played mostly out of the slot (56%), but in 2013 the Steelers moved him into a full-time outside role (only 14.3% in the slot). Sanders excelled in using the middle of the field last season, gaining 65% of his yards there, but his yards per catch fell off by 2.5 yards from his career average of 13.6 — likely due to the way he was being used.
Sanders could receive a decent deal if a team believes he is able to develop into a solid second WR, however, he might be best served as a team’s third option.
9. Jerome Simpson – Re-signs with Minnesota
2013 Grade: +6.8
2013 Snaps: 658
Jerome Simpson will always be remembered for his touchdown when he did a front flip over Daryl Washington in 2011. His outstanding athletic ability, though, has rarely translated on to the field. In 2013 Simpson demonstrated that he’s a viable deep threat and still has the chance to become a more rounded WR, but he has rarely put a string of strong games together with only had seven games graded above a +1.0, out of 46 he has played in. While Simpson has struggled to put it all together on the field, a team might take a chance on this talented player on a ‘prove it’ deal.
10. Kenny Britt
2013 Grade: -13.2
2013 Snaps: 305
Summary: If anyone looked at the 2013 game film of Kenny Britt they would be shocked to see his name mentioned in any Top 10 free agent WR list. However, what should not be forgotten is how he played in 2011 before he tore his ACL, when it was looking like Britt was on his way to becoming a top-level WR.
In 2010 he was making strides in becoming a big playmaker, as he averaged 3.06 Yards Per Route Run. The problem is those days seem a long time ago, in 2013 Britt had seven drops on 33 targets and recorded the seconnd-lowest overall grade for a WR, on only 305 snaps. The ability that Britt flashed in ’09 and ’10 when he was one of the best deep threats in the league means there could be plenty of teams willing to give this talented WR a second chance to turn his career around. Maybe a change of scenery will do the trick.
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