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Free Agency Focus: Wide Receivers

Posted Feb 18, 2016

As we continue our position-by-position look at potential free agent targets, we look at a wide receiver position that should see plenty of team-to-team movement this spring.

What do you do when your team has a hot young quarterback on the rise? Why, you "surround him with weapons," of course.

Yes, it's a modern NFL cliché, right up there with "next man up" and "locker room chemistry." It's also true that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would want to get the most out of Jameis Winston's considerable talents by filling his huddle with as many dynamic skill-position players as possible.

The Buccaneers had the NFL's most productive tandem of running backs in 2015 in Doug Martin and Charles Sims, though they'll have to do a little work if they want to keep that pair intact. They've got pass-catching tight ends in Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Cameron Brate who are poised to increase their numbers significantly. And they have a receiving corps anchored by a 22-year-old standout (Mike Evans) and a veteran with six 1,000-yard seasons in the last eight years (Vincent Jackson).

So there are plenty of good pieces already in place around Winston, but the Buccaneers need more. When Jackson missed big chunks of the 2015 season due to injuries, the team struggled to find a consistent pass-catching presence opposite Evans. That was due in part to early season-ending injuries that took out Louis Murphy and promising rookie Kenny Bell. Murphy and Bell will be back in the mix in 2016 but the Bucs may still want to add competition to that group. That's doubly true given that Jackson is entering the final year of what proved to be a very worthwhile five-year contract inked in 2012.

After two straight offense-heavy drafts, Tampa Bay seems likely to use its premium picks on the defensive side in April. If that proves to be the case, perhaps free agency will be the means to adding depth on offense, including at wideout.

Between now and March 9, we will take a position-by-position look at the players who may be available when free agency begins, hoping to determine the ones who could be good fits for the Buccaneers. The usual caveat applies: This is not meant to reflect the opinions or strategies of Tampa Bay General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Dirk Koetter or any of their assistants. In fact, since the players mentioned below are still under contract until the start of the new league year, Licht and company could not comment on them specifically even if they wished to do so, lest they be guilty of tampering.

After looking at defensive ends/edge rushers on Wednesday, we'll now switch to the other side of the ball and study the available talent among…

Wide Receivers

As was the case with the edge rushers, there is one name that stands out at the top of the receiver list, and one name that likely won't be there when the market actually opens on March 9. Even after an injury-marred 2015 campaign, the Chicago Bears' Alshon Jeffery would surely command a big deal as an unrestricted free agent after an average receptions-yards-TDs line of 87-1.277-8.5 from 2013-14. That's why many expect the Bears to use their franchise tag on Jeffery while letting Matt Forte depart. That would be a similar choice to what the Dallas Cowboys did with Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray a year ago.

Even if Jeffery is off the market there is an intriguing mix of receiver types who are likely to be available. This is not unusual; the receiver position is often one of the most fertile in free agency. Among the many who switched teams last year were Jeremy Maclin, Michael Crabtree, James Jones, Ted Ginn and Kenny Britt, all of whom were at least moderate hits, if not better. There are always some swings and misses at receiver, too; among those last year were Percy Harvin and Andre Johnson.

This year, the list of wideouts who could change teams includes Cleveland's Travis Benjamin, Cincinnati's Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, San Francisco's Anquan Boldin, Miami's Rishard Matthews and Seattle's Jermaine Kearse. Oh, and James Jones and Percy Harvin are back on that list, too.

If you agree that the Buccaneers could make good use of a quick and shifty receiver to work the middle of the field between the enormous outside pair of Evans and Jackson – as we posited after watching Super Bowl 50 and Emmanuel Sanders – then Benjamin might be an interesting option. Benjamin (5-10, 172) is a little smaller than Sanders (5-11, 186) and he ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2012. He's a crisp route-runner who can make explosive cuts and isn't afraid of contact. Benjamin can also return punts, which is an area the Buccaneers have been looking to improve for years.

Benjamin had a 68-catch, 966-yard breakout season in 2015, and that underscores the difference between some of the available receivers. There is a group like Benjamin, Matthews and Marvin Jones who are just finishing their first NFL contract and might be on the verge of taking their production to another level. Then there are the Boldins and James Joneses, the receivers who are a little longer in the tooth but likely still have some productive years left. Getting a good player just as he's entering his prime is the dream scenario in free agency, but sometimes an established veteran is the answer to a short-term situation.

Like Benjamin, Marvin Jones had a strong season at the right time, hauling in 65 passes for 816 yards and four touchdowns in Cincinnati last year. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had plenty of good targets to which to distribute the football, headlined by A.J. Green, so it's possible that Jones or Cincy teammate Sanu could do more in a new situation. That's a risky bet, however, taking the #2 target from a strong passing attack and hoping he'll produce more like a #1 in your system. The Bucs learned that early in free agency with Alvin Harper. On the other hand, Tampa Bay doesn't really need an incoming player to become its new #1 receiver, given the presence of Evans.

At 6-1 and 200 pounds, Jones is bigger than Benjamin but he's shown a good ability to gain yards after the catch so might also be a good option in the slot. Matthews had 61 targets and 43 catches in just 11 games for Miami, but the Dolphins have a pair of up-and-coming young pass-catchers in Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker. Matthews might believe he can find a better opportunity for targets elsewhere in 2016.

Looking for sleeper possibilities this spring? Keep in mind that hundreds of players will find new NFL addresses during free agency, and not all of them are "home run" signings like a Vincent Jackson. Teams look to shore up their depth, too, and perhaps find a player who can rebound from a few down years or finally deliver on his perceived talent. When the Buccaneers signed Murphy in 2014, he had been with three teams in the three previous years, and he had a total of 46 catches in that span after hauling in 75 in his first two years in Oakland. Murphy has had a bit of bad luck on the injury front in his two years in Tampa, but he has been a very valuable contributor when healthy.

Maybe another former Oakland receiver could follow the same path: Rod Streater. Streater lost his place in the Raider offense last year, playing in just one game, but he had 99 grabs in his first two seasons and is still just 28. Brian Quick was the 33rd overall pick by the Rams in 2012 but he's never had more than 25 catches or 375 yards in a single season. He does have a fine career average of 14.6 yards per grab, however, and maybe still some untapped potential.  As for Harvin, retirement rumors have followed him around for a few months, but if he chooses to continue his career after being released by the Bills last week, he'll likely find at least one NFL suitor. He is, after all, still just 27 years old and, when healthy, one of the most unique weapons in the league.

Bucs' Overall Interest Level at the Position: Moderate

As long as Evans and Jackson remain in place, the Buccaneers wouldn't seem to be at the top of the list of teams that would go after an Alshon Jeffery-type of free agent. Still, the receiver free agency pool always features some second, third and fourth-level options, and the Bucs have not been shy about dipping into it. Over the previous four offseasons, Tampa Bay signed four unrestricted free agent receivers – Vincent Jackson, Kevin Ogletree, Louis Murphy and Lavelle Hawkins – and half of them worked out. The Bucs' offense is led by 22-year-old Jameis Winston, who had a marvelous rookie campaign despite working with an often-depleted receiving corps. It would not be a surprise to see the Buccaneers work on that receiver depth this spring, and free agency may prove to be the better option than the draft.