Leading up to the official start of free agency on March 12, packers.com will examine the league’s unrestricted free agents, position by position. In the third installment, we look at the wide receivers and tight ends.
GREEN BAY—A simple way to get a handle on this year’s crop of free-agent wide receivers and tight ends is to break it down into three rather distinct groups.
There are guys who will generate a lot of buzz, second-tier producers who lack the spotlight, and late-career vets looking for one more shot.
With Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe having signed a new deal on Monday, most of the buzz likely will be around these players – receivers Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, Wes Welker and Brian Hartline, and tight ends Delanie Walker, Dustin Keller and Tony Gonzalez.
Wallace is the classic stretch-the-field speedster who has averaged a healthy 17 yards per catch over his four-year career with the Steelers and caught 32 TDs. He has a reputation for dropping too many, but he’s been trying to land himself a big contract since his breakout season in 2010 (60 catches, 1,257 yards, 21.0 avg., 10 TDs) and has finally reached free agency.
Injuries have cost Jennings 11 games over the past two seasons and he’ll turn 30 the first month of the regular season. He looked like he was back to his yards-after-the-catch self with his 120-yard, two-TD game at Minnesota in Week 17, but that was also his first 100-yard game since mid-2011. The Packers reportedly made Jennings an offer to stay last year, but he expects to do better and Bowe’s new five-year contract could help him. Bowe is just one year younger than Jennings and is reportedly now the third-highest-paid receiver in the league, behind Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson.
Welker’s numbers are practically off the charts – 112 receptions or more in five of the last six seasons, including three years with better than 1,300 yards. Two questions here: Will the Patriots even let him reach free agency (Tom Brady’s new deal freed up some salary cap room, possibly to help keep Welker, and negotiations are reportedly ongoing), and at what point will the soon-to-be 32-year-old start to decline?
Hartline is the sleeper in this first receiver group, coming off his first big season in Miami. He had 74 catches for 1,083 yards in 2012, working with a rookie QB in Ryan Tannehill, yet, Hartline found the end zone only once. Some may think he had a right-place, right-time kind of year, but others might see a steady producer hitting his stride.
At tight end, Walker became a favorite target of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the second half of the season and impressed with his runs after the catch, averaging a wide receiver-like 16.4 yards per grab.
Keller steadily increased his numbers in his first four years with the Jets until injuries robbed him of eight games in his fifth season last year. Gonzalez was supposedly retiring, but it’s assumed if he comes back it will be only to sign with the Falcons.
The second tier features the more under-the-radar types who have respectable track records but who aren’t generally viewed as go-to guys.
Two of the receivers are from St. Louis in Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson. Amendola will be more highly sought after and is probably at the top of this group, though injuries have limited him significantly the past two years.
A former Ram, Donnie Avery, had his best season last year with the Colts, catching 60 passes. Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs didn’t do much as a receiver last season, but interest could be high from teams needing a proven return specialist (San Francisco’s Ted Ginn Jr. is available as a returner, too). If there’s one more name to sneak into this group at receiver it might be Domenik Hixon, who has flashed at times in a deep Giants receiving corps.
Another Giant, tight end Martellus Bennett, had his best season in 2012 following four so-so years in Dallas. Washington’s Fred Davis also fits this category but lost half of last season to injuries, while Miami’s Anthony Fasano is another steady guy and frequent red-zone target.
Finally, there’s a substantial list of recognizable names that have been around a long time and who are at, or very near, the end. Receiver Brandon Stokley re-emerged in 2012 upon being reunited with QB Peyton Manning in Denver. Another former Manning target, tight end Dallas Clark, continued to produce for Tampa Bay in his 10th season.
Stokley and Clark don’t carry the baggage some of the others do, where questions beyond simply age – be it injuries or other issues – arise with names such as Deion Branch, Steve Breaston, Plaxico Burress, Braylon Edwards, Devery Henderson and Randy Moss at receiver, and Kevin Boss, Chris Cooley and Benjamin Watson at tight end.
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