Restricted Free Agent Wide Receivers
1. Mike Wallace, Steelers
Scouting Report: A third-round steal in the 2009 draft, Wallace quickly passed Limas Sweed to be Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver as a rookie. The Steelers felt comfortable trading Santonio Holmes during the 2010 offseason, primarily because of Wallace's emergence, and he's led the team in receiving two straight years. While Wallace is sometimes billed as a straight-line speedster, his ability to take the top off a defense opens things up for other players. Wallace has been durable for his size (6'0/199) and has yet to miss a game due to injury. He's averaging 18.7 yards per career reception with 24 TDs. In 34 starts, Wallace has averaged 78 yards per game. Only eight NFL wide receivers had more first-down catches in 2011. Wallace ran a 4.33 forty time at the 2009 Combine, also demonstrating explosion with a vertical leap of 40 inches and 10-foot, 9-inch broad jump. Not yet 26 years old, Wallace is the most dynamic deep threat in the AFC.
Availability: The new CBA prevents restricted free agents from receiving the old first- and third-round tender, a once-prohibitive tag for interested teams. The highest tender is now a first-round only designation, requiring clubs in pursuit to surrender a top-32 draft pick if they propose an offer sheet the restricted free agent's current team cannot match. In other words, Wallace can be acquired for a first-round pick and contract the Steelers decline to pay. Pittsburgh is strapped for salary cap space and may balk at any contract proposal that contains a large first-year roster bonus. As a top-ten NFL receiver, Wallace is well worth the money and draft choice.
Prediction: Ravens on a five-year, $47.5 million contract.
2. Danny Amendola, Rams
Scouting Report: Undrafted out of Texas Tech in 2008, Amendola spent time on the Cowboys and Eagles' practice squads before securing a spot on the Rams' 53-man roster in September of 2009. He earned St. Louis' full-time slot receiver job a month later, also returning punts. Amendola led the Rams in receiving in 2010, but was lost for the year in Week 1 of 2011 with a dislocated left elbow. A torn triceps was discovered in the same arm and Amendola had surgery. A quicker-than-fast slot receiver, Amendola is an efficient pass catcher with nine career drops among 133 receptions. He averages only 8.0 yards per career catch, however, and runs in the 4.6 range at 5-foot-10, 186. Amendola lacks versatility to play the outside receiver positions.
Availability: Short on playmaking ability, Amendola will generate little to no interest on the restricted free agent market. If the new Rams front office wants to retain Amendola, they can safely do so with a second-round tender. The round-two tag is valued at just over $1.9 million.
Prediction: Rams on a one-year, $1.927 million contract.
Wide Receiver Trade Candidates
1. James Jones, Packers
Overview: Essentially black-balled on the free agent market after two unforgettable playoff drops, Jones settled for a three-year, $9.4 million contract to stay in Green Bay last July. The deal was incredibly affordable for a durable, 27-year-old playmaking wide receiver. While drops are an ongoing issue, Jones has averaged 14.5 yards per career reception and scored 17 touchdowns over the past three seasons despite making just six starts. Jones, who packs 208 pounds onto his 6-foot-1 frame, is a physical possession receiver willing to make tough grabs in traffic. His bread and butter is run-after-catch. Jones is a backup in Green Bay, and 2011 second-round pick Randall Cobb will have a bigger role on offense in 2012. While staying with the Pack is Jones' most likely scenario, he could be an interesting trade target for receiver-needy clubs during training camp. His salary is a reasonable $2.3 million, and Jones could start for at least ten teams.
Prediction: Stays with Packers.
2. Arrelious Benn, Bucs
Overview: The 39th pick in the 2010 draft, Benn slumped through a pedestrian first season (25/395/2) before tearing his left ACL in late December. While Benn recovered quickly enough to start the Buccaneers' 2011 opener, he was part of the problem in a receiver corps that created little separation from defensive backs all season long. Benn shared time with Dezmon Briscoe for most of the year, breaking 75 yards once in 14 appearances and averaging 13.5 yards in his final four games. Benn figures to be stronger and faster a full year removed from the ACL tear, but he hasn't proven much better than Briscoe, and Tampa Bay is starved for a vertical field-stretcher to book end Mike Williams. Benn, when healthy, is much more of a possession threat. The odds are ultimately against GM Mark Dominik giving up on Benn after two seasons, but he's a tradable commodity with a cheap salary ($490K) and not an especially good fit for the offense.
Prediction: Stays with Buccaneers.
3. Louis Murphy, Raiders
Overview: Murphy led Raiders wideouts in catches (41) and yards (609) in 2010, but fell behind Jacoby Ford, rookie Denarius Moore, and an emerging Darrius Heyward-Bey last season. Behind the eight ball after August hernia surgery, Murphy returned as a fourth receiver at midseason and experienced more groin tightness late in the year. Murphy goes 6-foot-3, 205 and ran a 4.43 forty coming out of Florida in 2009. He's in the last year of his rookie deal, and that's when teams often begin looking to unload players for trade. It seems unlikely that the Raiders would be willing to extend Murphy's deal. The 25-year-old has history with new Bengals assistant Hue Jackson, Jets wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal, and Seahawks assistant head coach Tom Cable.
Prediction: Traded to Jets for seventh-round pick.
Other Wide Receiver Trade Candidates: Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Hartline, Ramses Barden, Riley Cooper, Brandon Gibson.
Wide Receiver Release Candidates
1. Santana Moss, Redskins
Overview: The Redskins' split end in two-wideout sets and slot receiver in three-wide packages, Moss started the 2011 season hot with at least 70 yards and/or a touchdown in each of the team's first four games. Moss fractured a bone in his left hand in Week 7, however, and missed the next four weeks before finishing the season slowly. He failed to clear 50 yards in five of the final six games. Moss still handles himself well on underneath patterns, but he's no longer a vertical threat. The Redskins are unlikely to release Moss because doing so would cause a salary cap hit. Going on age 33, however, this will likely be Moss' last year in D.C.
Prediction: Stays with Redskins.
2. Nate Burleson, Lions
Overview: A veteran slot receiver with limited playmaking ability, Burleson struggled through an error-prone second season in Detroit. His nine drops led the Lions and tied Burleson for seventh in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Burleson also ranked seventh in penalties among wideouts while averaging a career-low 10.4 yards per catch. Burleson has entered the non-guaranteed portion of his contract, and is owed a $4 million salary in 2012. GM Martin Mayhew stated in January that Burleson is not a candidate for offseason release, but he may have to restructure to stay on. Set to turn 31 before the season, Burleson is expected to be the No. 4 option in Detroit's passing game, behind Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, and Titus Young.
Prediction: Stays with Lions after pay cut.
3. Chad Ochocinco, Patriots
Overview: Acquired last July for a 2012 fifth-round pick and sixth-rounder in 2013, Ochocinco was painfully slow to pick up the Patriots' offense and failed to capitalize on increased playing time when Aaron Hernandez missed two early-season games with a knee injury. As of mid-October, teammates were still telling Ochocinco where to line up for certain offensive plays. Ocho fell behind Tiquan Underwood and Julian Edelman on the depth chart in December, and finished the regular season with 276 yards on 15 receptions in 15 appearances. He was a healthy scratch for the AFC Championship Game. At age 34, Ochocinco's separation skills have declined sharply and he is mentally unreliable. Ochocinco is due $4.6 million in 2012 salary and bonuses.
Prediction: Released by April.
4. Lee Evans, Ravens
Overview: Attempting to address their need for perimeter speed, the Ravens sent a 2012 fourth-round pick to Buffalo in exchange for Evans on August 12. After racking up 128 yards and a touchdown on six catches in two preseason games, Evans suffered a high left ankle sprain and was totally ineffective while attempting to play through the injury in September. The Ravens shut Evans down for all of October and most of November. He returned for the stretch run but could not get open, finishing the regular season with four catches for 74 yards in nine games (two starts). In the AFC Championship Game, Evans had a critical would-be touchdown catch stripped from his hands by Patriots CB Sterling Moore. Now 31, Evans is due a $1 million roster bonus on March 18 in addition to a $3.275 million base salary. His cap number is $5.61 million.
Prediction: Released before the bonus due date.
5. Hines Ward, Steelers
Overview: Ward was listed as a "starter" in eight of the Steelers' 2011 regular season gamebooks, but five of his starts occurred in the first five games and he was demoted to fifth receiver at midseason, falling behind Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, and Emmanuel Sanders. Ward averaged 14 snaps played in Pittsburgh's final nine games, including the playoffs. His 8.3 yards-per-reception average was easily a career low, and Ward's 381 receiving yards were his fewest since 1998, Ward's rookie season. Turning 36 in March, Ward has deteriorated into a slow-moving slot receiver who struggles mightily to get open and is easily taken out of plays by physical press coverage. In late January, Ward underwent surgery to remove loose bone fragments from his right ankle. He has a $4 million base salary for 2012.
Prediction: Released in early March.
Other Wide Receiver Release Candidates: Anquan Boldin (if Ravens pursue Wallace), Mike Williams (Seattle), Devery Henderson, Donald Driver, Jacoby Jones, Michael Jenkins, Ben Obomanu.