Last week, we began our series of pre-free agency primers by examining a position that could soon flood the market with available talent. Even with a possible rush of starting-caliber safeties into the free agent pool, however, that position will still likely cede the spotlight to wide receiver.
The potential for big-name movement at the wide receiver position is high this year. Drew Brees, Ray Rice and Carl Nicks might be the most coveted players on the current list of pending free agents, but few observers expect them to actually hit the open market. It seems quite possible, in contrast, that a decent number of players from this list will be available: Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, Robert Meachem, Reggie Wayne, Mario Manningham and Wes Welker. Just the two Jacksons alone must have some league offensive coordinators rubbing their hands together in gleeful anticipation, though the Philadelphia receiver might be the first one off the market if he gets the franchise tag soon, as reports are indicating may happen.
Will any Tampa Bay Buccaneer coaches be among that number? We know only that, in an overall sense, the team has indicated that it expects to be more active in free agency than it has been in recent years. Will that specifically include the receiver position, and it's potential bounty on the open market? Buccaneer decision-makers obviously do not plan on sharing their free agency strategies beforehand, but the purpose of this series of primers is to get the lay of the land at each position on the depth chart before the market opens on March 13. As such, we will be discussing five categories of information in each article:
- How might the Buccaneers' own list of pending free agents affect the position?
- What level of talent will potentially be available at that position on the open market?
- How effectively could a need at that position be addressed in the early rounds of the draft instead?
- What is the Buccaneers history in free agency at that position?
- How did that position perform for the Buccaneers in 2011?
After starting with the safeties, we now move to the other side of the passing equation. Coming up next week: linebackers and tight ends. As always, player evaluations and other conjecture is not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers' coaches or player personnel staff.
Positional Free Agency Primer: Wide Receiver
- Tampa Bay's own pending free agents
This is one area in which the Buccaneers will not be contributing heavily to the free agent market. The only receiver among a dozen pending unrestricted free agents for Tampa Bay is veteran Micheal Spurlock, who had just two receptions in 2011. The converted quarterback is a proven weapon as a return man and did have something of a breakout season in 2010 with 17 catches for 250 yards and two touchdowns. Buccaneers brass has obviously valued Spurlock's abilities for several years, and he is a respected veteran in the locker room. However, his name is not likely to be highlighted nationwide in the company of those mentioned above.
Up-and-coming wideout Preston Parker, who had 40 catches last year and was actually second in that category on the Bucs' roster among receivers, technically has an expiring contract. However, he is an exclusive rights free agent and is thus certain to return as long as the team extends him the necessary qualifying offer.
Essentially the entire receiving corps for the Buccaneers was built in 2009 and 2010, so it is not a veteran group with pending free agency issues on the horizon. Starters Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn were both drafted in 2010, the same year Parker and Dezmon Briscoe came aboard as free agents. Sammie Stroughter, whose production was limited by injuries last year, was drafted in 2009. The Buccaneers may well be interested in adding to their receiving corps, but they aren't expected to suffer any significant losses at the spot.
- The potential free agent market
Again, the potential impact here is enormous. One may argue that Welker, he of the league-leading 554 catches over the last five years, is a virtual lock to return to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Even if that happens, it's possible that this widely-varied group of receiving weapons will be available to NFL shoppers:
- Vincent Jackson (San Diego)…Stands 6-5, has game-breaking speed and leaping ability and has averaged a stellar 17.5 yards per catch in his career
- DeSean Jackson (Philadelphia)…Much smaller than the other Jackson but even more game-breaking speed and a threat to score from any yard-line, though the Eagles appear determined to keep him (or at least keep the option to trade him)
- Marques Colston (New Orleans)…Huge, productive and dependable, with more than 70 catches, 1,000 yards and seven TDs in each of the last three seasons
- Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City)…A rising star in the Colston mold who has averaged 77 catches for 1,160 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past two seasons
- Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis)…Potentially less-valued at 33 years of age but he came just 40 yards shy of posting his ninth consecutive 1,000-yard season last year, and that was without Peyton Manning
- Stevie Johnson (Buffalo)…Sudden star in 2010 proved that it was no fluke with his second straight 1,000-yard season this past fall
- Brandon Lloyd (St. Louis)…Led the league with 1,448 receiving yards in Denver in 2010 and neared 1,000 again in 2011 despite being shipped to the Rams a month into the season
- Robert Meachem (New Orleans)…A deep threat in New Orleans who could see his numbers (roughly 40 catches per season) skyrocket on a team with fewer legitimate targets
- Mario Manningham (N.Y. Giants)…Last season making the most important catch in Super Bowl XLVI, is just a year removed from a 944-yard, 9-touchdown campaign in 2010
And that's just the cream of the crop. There are potential breakout candidates like Jerome Simpson, Ted Ginn and Harry Douglas. There are potential bounce-back veterans with big seasons on their resumes like Plaxico Burress and Braylon Edwards. There are still-young receivers who just had their best seasons in a new location and could be on the cusp of a string of productive years, like Laurent Robinson, Legedu Naanee and Early Doucet.
Essentially, there is likely to be a receiver of just about any stripe available to the team that wants to make a run at acquiring pass-catching talent. There is also very real reason to believe that many of these receivers will actually make it to the open market. One would guess that Colston and Meachem are happy in New Orleans' high-powered offense, but it will be quite a chore for the Saints to re-sign Brees, Nicks and their two free agent receivers. Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson and Stevie Johnson have had, to varying degrees, disagreements with their current employers that could motivate them to look for work elsewhere. Wayne and the Colts may want a new start if the Manning era is coming to an end in Indy. The Giants may have too many options at receiver to be able to keep Manningham at a high price. And so on.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
In the end, the NFL Draft is often more of a threat to the earning power of the free agent receivers than any flooded veteran market. Teams may be reluctant to break the bank for a new weapon in the passing game if they can find equally intriguing – and considerably younger and cheaper – options in the draft.
As it turns out, the 2012 class of draft-eligible receivers is considered relatively deep, though not extraordinarily top-heavy. Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon can generally be found in the top five of the experts' mock drafts, but he might be the only player at his position to go in the first half of the opening round.
That said, the second, third and fourth rounds could be very fruitful for teams looking to restock at wide receiver, as the Buccaneers did in 2010 with Benn and Williams. Baylor's Kendall Wright, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery are all considered possible first-round picks who could slide into the second frame. Teams with an eye on DeSean Jackson in free agency could get a similar type of player, though obviously less proven, in Wright. Miss out on Vincent Jackson and you might eye Floyd as the same sort of big-play big man. Blackmon, who splits the difference in size between those two, could be the kind of all-around playmaker that Wayne has been for so long in Indy.
The likes of LSU's Rueben Randle, Wisconsin's Nick Toon, Arkansas' Joe Adams and Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill should keep the receiver position busy in the draft's middle rounds. There's even a highly-regarded wideout from new Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano's program at Rutgers, Mohamed Senu, who could sneak into the first round.
Because the Buccaneers pick fifth overall in the first round, they are one of the teams that is mentioned in connection with Blackmon. It's a similar position for the team as it found itself in during the spring of 2007, when Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson was considered that draft's can't-miss prospect at receiver but he was drafted at #2 overall while the Bucs were slotted at #4.
It's difficult to imagine any team not seriously considering Blackmon with a top-10 pick, if he is available, but the Buccaneers could decide that there is a better combination of need and talent to drive their top selection. Thanks to the depth at the position and how high they pick in the next two rounds as well, Tampa Bay could look elsewhere in Round One and still find an impact pass-catcher in the next few rounds. That notion could inform how seriously they consider making an addition in free agency.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
This is one position where the Buccaneers have made some bold moves in free agency in the past, with mixed results.
Things didn't start out well for the Bucs in the receiver market. Just three years into the current free agency system, having already made some legitimately good hits with the likes of Hardy Nickerson, Martin Mayhew, Barney Bussey, Vince Workman, Charles Dimry, Jackie Harris and Lonnie Marts, Tampa Bay went even bolder in 1995 and swiped wide receiver Alvin Harper from the Lombardi Trophy-laden Dallas Cowboys. Harper had developed into one of the league's top deep threats playing opposite Michael Irvin (as evidenced by his NFL-leading 24.9 yards per catch in 1994), and Buccaneers brass believed he could transition to a number-one receiver in a different offense. Harper was supposed to give Trent Dilfer a go-to receiver in Dilfer's first full season as a starter.
Of course, as most Buc fans know, it didn't work out that way. Harper didn't look like a number-one receiver in Tampa and his stay was tumultuous both on and off the field. He eventually played just two seasons with the Bucs, recording 65 catches and three touchdowns. He would appear in just 14 more NFL games, with two receptions, after that.
The Bucs tried again three years later with Bert Emanuel, who was actually a restricted free agency in Atlanta. The converted college quarterback was coming off three straight 900-plus-yard seasons, but again it didn't work out in Tampa. He played just two seasons with the Bucs, like Harper, and never topped 41 catches, 636 yards or two touchdowns. Like Harper, he didn't play much after that, either.
The tide turned in 2002 with the signings of Joe Jurevicius and Keenan McCardell, both of whom were key pieces in that year's Super Bowl-winning formula. McCardell wasn't technically an unrestricted free agent – Jacksonville released him for salary reasons in June, at a time when such a maneuver made sense from a salary cap standpoint – but he was definitely one of the Bucs' primary targets. McCardell and Jurevicius gave Brad Johnson two additional targets to go with Keyshawn Johnson, and it all came together in the postseason, when all three contributed huge plays. The rest of Jurevicius' Buccaneer career was hampered by injuries, but McCardell turned in a brilliant 2003 before being traded away amid a salary dispute.
Johnson, for his part, was a mostly successful offseason acquisition for the Buccaneers but he doesn't really fit here as he came over from the Jets in a trade. Later, he would in turn be traded to Dallas straight-up for Joey Galloway, who is another one of the franchise's most successful offseason pick-ups, especially at wide receiver.
There hasn't been much free agency action at receiver for the Buccaneers since 2002, especially if one doesn't include David Boston and Antonio Bryant. Both Boston and Bryant had been out of football for at least a year when the Bucs signed them (in 2006 and 2008, respectively), so they weren't unrestricted free agents. Boston didn't pan out for Tampa Bay but Bryant was so good in 2008 (83-1,248-7, with several spectacularly athletic grabs) that he got the franchise tag heading into 2009. A knee injury derailed Bryant the following season, however.
Basically, the Buccaneers' free agency history at the receiver position boils down to the two early misses on Harper and Emanuel against the double-dip success in 2002. The current crop could be an opportunity for the team to tip the balance.
- 2011 Performance
The Buccaneers' passing game took a step back in 2011 after a very promising 2010, but few were pointing fingers at specific players. Quarterback Josh Freeman actually threw for slightly more yards and had a higher completion percentage in 2011, but his interceptions went up by a significant margin and his TD passes went down. Mike Williams exactly duplicated his 65-catch total as a rookie but his yards went down by almost 200 and his touchdowns dropped from a team-record 11 to three. Arrelious Benn made a slight jump from 25-395-2 to 30-441-3, but it wasn't enough to make a big difference. Sammie Stroughter and Micheal Spurlock saw their production go down (the former due to injury) but Dezmon Briscoe and Preston Parker pitched in with bigger numbers to make that a wash.
In the year of the passing game in the NFL, the Buccaneers offense lacked a downfield dimension; that, combined with the uptick in turnovers, made 2011 much less satisfying than the strong 2010 campaign hinted it would be. New Head Coach Greg Schiano has stated that his offensive approach involves taking shots downfield, and the Bucs think they have some of the pieces in place to make that happen. Benn and Briscoe, in particular, have shown the ability to get downfield in flashes.
Summary: The depth and strength of the potential 2011 free agency class of receivers should make just about any team in the league at least take a look at what is available. One must say "potential," of course, because a month still remains in which teams can negotiate exclusively with their own pending free agents, or even utilize a franchise tag. The Buccaneers do not have a long history of hitting the jackpot with free agent receivers, but if one includes trades for Keyshawn Johnson and Joey Galloway, they have been able to identify some very useful players to acquire over the past decade. Tampa Bay wants more of a downfield threat out of its passing attack; that could involve getting more out of the receivers on hand or adding help from the free agent market.