If you don’t love free agency — the rumors, speculation, and unbridled hope that comes out of it — are you even really a football fan? It’s one of my favorite times on the football calendar.
With the new league year set to kick off next week, we’ll spend the next few days previewing the skill position players set to hit the market, with wide receivers next on the docket. Unlike the lackluster running back group, the wideout crop is deep and stuffed with intriguing names. Some big-time fantasy risers could come out of this section of the free-agent market if the right teams get involved.
Let's break the group into seven classifications, starting with a tier of two guys who aren’t technically available.
High-end No. 1 WRs (Franchise Tagged)
It was zero-percent surprising the Bears and Buccaneers elected to slap the franchise tag on these players. Robinson and Godwin are two of the best wide receivers in the game and could be the alpha receiver of any offense.
Godwin is a stone lock to return to Tampa next season. However, the story might not be completely over for Robinson. The receiver hasn’t been happy with the negotiation process thus far and won’t be thrilled by the tag. The Bears’ books won’t be happy about it either, as his $18 million tag cost will be tough to fit under their bad cap situation. There’s at least a chance he’s traded.
Fringe/Potential true No. 1 WRs
It was surprising that Kenny Golladay didn’t get the tag from the Lions considering they just don’t have many good young players. But despite being a hideous roster, they aren’t flushed with cap space.
Kenny Golladay isn’t on the same true-alpha tier as Robinson or Godwin but he’s not far off. I’m bullish on the idea Golladay would make just about any offense better. People act like he's a Kelvin Benjamin-level separator but he improved dramatically in that area every year prior to his injury-wrecked 2020. No doubt he'd be best maximized by an aggressive passer willing to rifle in contested throws to him, but he’d be a catch for anyone.
Will Fuller is an interesting case because he was used and played like a fringe No. 1 receiver last season. With DeAndre Hopkins gone, it was the first time he was asked to be that player and he passed the test with flying colors. The PED suspension throws a bit of a wrench into the discussion about whether that was sustainable. Still, contending teams that need a vertical element (aka, all of them) should take the gamble on Fuller.
He brings rare dynamism — when he's on the field, that is.
Strong No. 2 WRs
Curtis Samuel thrived in a role that asked him to man the slot and handle running back duties with the 2020 Panthers. He’s also functioned as a downfield route-runner in previous versions of the team’s offense; he just never timed things up with a healthy Cam Newton to turn that role into production. Samuel is an ideal second-contract buy for a team interested in pairing a versatile athlete with their established No. 1.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is what he is. He’s a physical presence from the slot who wins against zone coverage, after the catch, and in contested situations. That’s a great second fiddle but not a No. 1. Hopefully, you’ve thrown out the numbers from his first two seasons when evaluating his future contract value.
Corey Davis has always been a bit unfairly maligned because the Titans packed wild expectations on him when he was strangely drafted fifth overall. Davis wasn’t straight bad in his first two seasons as a pro. Rather, he was just an average starting receiver while operating in the hideously dull Marcus Mariota offenses. Fully healthy in his fourth season, he enjoyed a fantastic year across from A.J. Brown in one of the NFL’s most efficient passing offenses.
It’s almost like environment matters. Shocking.
Davis shouldn’t be anyone’s target as a top receiver but he’s a nice fit in the rugged No. 2 role.
Solid No. 2 WRs
Marvin Jones has always had an “Old-man game.” This should serve him well as he actually enters his 30s this year. He could be a sweet bargain for teams hunting a solid but unspectacular second receiver.
John Brown was a victim of both Buffalo’s depth at the position and the pandemic salary-cap squeeze. He still has plenty left to offer. He’s a new addition to the market but could be a bargain signing for a team in need of some speed.
If you still think Nelson Agholor stinks you didn’t watch his games last year. Agholor’s 15.1 average-depth-of-target mark was by far the highest of his career. He knocked it out of the park playing an entirely different role than the slot position he owned in Philly. Adding him won’t bring headlines, but it could pay underrated dividends.
Possible No. 3 WRs
T.Y. Hilton had some rough moments in 2020 but he’s a step above some of the other declining stars available this offseason. Hilton should only line up on the inside, which he’s done before, going forward. He’d make sense on a veteran team that’s looking for a low-volume slot option.
You can probably write this off to personal-evaluation bias but I’m interested in tracking where both Higgins and Cole end up, even if it’s a return to their current teams.
Higgins has always shared a good connection with Baker Mayfield and finally got a chance to show off his skills after Odell Beckham Jr. went down with an injury. Higgins is probably best suited as a flanker and third on the depth chart, and could end up as just "that guy" back in Cleveland.
There were times in 2020 when Keelan Cole was the best receiver on the Jaguars roster with DJ Chark consistently banged up and LaViska Shenault on the slow burn as a rookie. If Cole lands on a high-powered offense, I’d keep tabs on him.
A case all to himself
Don’t get me wrong, in no way was the 2020 version of Antonio Brown as good as he was at his peak. That’s not a huge knock considering his peak was quite literally one of the five best wide receivers to ever grace an NFL field. I was pretty surprised that once he got comfortable in the Bucs offense just playing pro football again, Brown operated as a well above-average to really good starting receiver.
If he was any other human, the current version of Brown’s game would put him up with the Golladay/Fuller group on this list.
But his name is still Antonio Brown. Therefore, all the baggage just probably isn’t worth it to any team other than Tampa Bay.
Bigger names than games
The players listed above — and, really, any like them — will get plenty of attention because of their past resumes. However, I’m not sure any of them have quality starting caliber-play left to offer. It would take a dream of a landing spot to even get them on the fantasy radar. And even if that were to happen, it’d still be a long road ahead.