It’s hard not to get swept up in the hype of the Scouting Combine results and the upcoming NFL Draft, but don’t forget that Free Agency opens March 9th. This talented pool will significantly impact the direction of the draft come April 28th, since pick-ups dictate a team’s needs heading into #DraftDay2016. This article takes a look at the top fantasy WR players entering free agency in just a few days and they are listed in the order I would rank their potential fantasy impact. It was striking for me to see the drought of talented receiver free agents this season, especially when compared to the talented running back free agents. There are just more viable RB options than WRs available this season, which could mean a more WR heavy draft if teams do not find a good fit before April.
Note: If you’re wondering the timeline of off-season must-know football events (combine, etc.), then do yourself a favor and go to the following link, and set a bookmark, then send me a grateful tweet: http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000636092/article/key-nfl-offseason-dates-for-2016.
1. ALSHON JEFFREY, CHICAGO BEARS –Update 3/4/16 Chicago franchise tagged Jeffrey.
The likelihood of Jeffrey leaving Chicago is slim, as I can’t see a scenario where the Bears don’t resign their WR1 who finished the 2015 season with 54 receptions/807 yards /4 touchdowns and WR#42 overall. It was his worst season in the NFL, with one main reason: injury. Ailing from lingering leg (calf, hamstring) and groin injuries, Jeffrey missed seven games this season and had minimal impact in two more (week 10, 15). However, looking at the sample of games that he was active (9), He earned 100+ yardage in FIVE of them and finished in the top 25 for receiving yards SEVEN times (in top 10 THREE times). He’s still young at 25 (going on 26 soon) and a great athlete, but the soft tissue issues are something to be concerned about going into next season. Hopefully the offense will be more balanced, with Kevin White returning from injury and Langford stepping up into the RB1 role. One has to look no further than Jeffrey’s past two seasons to see the reasons Chicago should hang on to this top wideout. Playing in all 16 games both season, Jeffry caught 86 passes for 1,133 yards and 10 TDs in 2014 and 89 for 1,421 yards and 7 TDs in 2013. He finished 14th and 6thin reception yardage those seasons, respectively.
Consensus is that Bears may put a franchise tag on Jeffrey (update: I was right!), to give them more time to negotiate a long term deal. If they don’t, it would be a surprise and perhaps an indicator of within team management issues. Chicago announced that they WILL part ways with running back Matt Forte, so the handling of Jeffrey will tell us a lot about the Bears’ mindset and needs going into NFL Draft. Jeffrey could push to free agency to get a better deal if unsatisfied with offer, but Chicago is looking to keep him. The market is on Jeffrey’s side with several top tier WRs signing huge contracts recently (e.g. AJ Green, Julio Jones and Dez Bryant for around 70 mil/5 yrs) and if he goes on the market, he will be the one of the best offensive weapons available.
Important to Note: Jeffrey will get to finally team up with rookie Kevin White this season—a combo that could definitely help out Cutler and Chicago’s offense. They were slow and careful with White, let’s see if it pays off.
2. MARVIN JONES, CINCINNATI BENGALS
Marvin Jones was on my radar going into last season and I named him as one of my “underdogs” for the 2015 season. I’m proud to say that Jones made me proud, bouncing back from forgotten status after not playing at all in 2014 due to injury. Jones had a career year with 65/816 and four TDs. Both career highs for him in receptions and yards, Jones heads into free agency with momentum and could snag himself a nice deal AND offensive role for the 2015 season. He finished #40 in receiving yardage, but has good upside with increased opportunity. In 2013 season, he caught 51 for 712 yards and 10 TDS, so he could be great if given the targets.
Jones states in the media that he intends to “test the waters” of free agency and there will be no “hometown discount”. Jones deserves some WR1 consideration and may lean towards finding a team where this is an option, rather than accepting a role in the shadows of AJ Green for the duration of his career. Given that Jeffrey will most likely stay in Chicago, Jones will be the best wide receiver FA available and I can see several teams looking into his fit with their organizations. ESPN reports that Detroit Lions would be interested in picking up Jones if Megatron does retire (as it looks like he will). Jones and Tate could be a powerful combo with Stafford. Patriots have also been reported as having interest. I like Jones’ talent more than LaFell or Amendola’s .
3. TRAVIS BENJAMIN, CLEVELAND BROWNS
Benjamin impressed me with his growing abilities despite the merry-go-round of quarterbacks forcing him to constantly adjust on a week-to-week basis. His speed provides an opportunity for a big play any time he steps foot on the field. Catching 68 for 966 yards and 5 TDs in the 2015 season, Benjamin stepped up for the Browns and had 100+ yards receiving in three games, was the 2nd most targeted Browns receiver in the red-zone, and finished 29th among WRs in receiving yards. He had more yards last season than anyone else on this FA list. Yet, does this impress his new coach, Hue Jackson? Jackson has been vocal about his plan for the team and who this does not include (e.g. Manziel). There’s concern about the “flash in the pan” potential here, since last season was the first time Benjamin had such an explosion in production. He was targeted 3X the amount he was last season, so if Browns stick with Benjamin and continue to give him opportunities, he could add a John Brown-type explosion to the passing game.
Important to Note: If the Browns could take care of business this draft and gain a quality, consistent quarterback, we could see Benjamin blossom into a great WR2 alongside Josh Gordon. As I will elaborate on later with my #5 free agent Anquan Boldin, Benjamin and Gordon might benefit from the signing of a veteran wide receiver like Boldin to mentor to the young offense (including tight-end Barnidge as well).
4. RISHARD MATTHEWS, MIAMI DOLPHINS
Matthews ended up finishing this season outside the top 50 in receiving yards due to missing time with a rib injury and the increasing role of DeVante Parker in his absence. In the beginning of the season, he seemed poised to have a great run with two 100+yard games in the first three weeks. As the season went on, he averaged 3-6 targets but his yardage steadily dropped as well as his red-zone targets. Accordingly to NFLSavant.com, Matthews was the third is passing targets on the team overall but received many less targets in the red zone compared with Landry, Parker, Cameron, and Miller.
This leads me to think that Matthews will find a new home next year where he can have a bigger role. Miami has already spent money investing in Landry and Parker, so they will likely not resign him. Coming off a season where he had a career-best in receptions and yardage, he most likely won’t have difficulty finding a team that can benefit from his skills. Although, his health and durability may be of concern to teams since he has not played one full season since entering the NFL in 2012.
5. ANQUAN BOLDIN, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Believe it or not, TWO of my 2015 “underdogs” appear on this top FA list. Anquan Boldin, often overlooked, is actually one of the most consistent receivers in the NFL. Last season was difficult in SF and Kaepernick’s struggles limited Boldin’s upside, though he did manage to have two 100+ yard games and snag 69 receptions for 789 yards/four TDs. Boldin had 1000+ yard seasons in both 2013 and 2014, and was ranked in the top 25 WRs. He was targeted the most on the 49ers offense both overall and in the red zone. He makes big plays and could be the Larry Fitzgerald for a better offense. He ended up 44th in yardage this year, but think he could fit nicely with a team that needs a veteran’s patience, experience, and consistency. He’s not getting any younger at 35, so he will either way to contribute in a mentorship kind of way with a growing team or look to go out on top by looking into teams that are contenders now.
Possible Fits: TFA founder and fellow writer, Kevin Steele and I had a great discussion on Boldin’s veteran status being put to good use by some desperately needy teams like the Cleveland Browns. The other road 36 year-old Boldin may lean towards would be on a team that is an immediate playoff contender so he can end his career on a “high note”. The former scenario seems more likely to me, as Boldin has the potential to offer consistency and stability to a team as they foster the growth of their young receiver corp.
Some are speculating that Boldin could return to Baltimore to finish his career. That might leave the Ravens a little vet-heavy in my opinion with Steve Smith planning to return. Not to mention the already existing young WR corps in Kamar Aiken (if they resign him) and Perriman. Aiken carved out a solid offensive role after Smith’s injury and Perriman looks to finally be fully healthy and ready to make an impact. I would consider Baltimore a playoff contender with the right moves during off-season, so it isn’t out of the question. On the positive side, the consistency and toughness of Smith/Boldin combo with the upside and spark of the young receivers could be just what the Ravens offense needs. This said, Aiken is also up for free agency (see below), so the Ravens may choose to go with the vet OR Aiken, but perhaps not both.
Kamar Aiken, Baltimore Ravens
James Jones, Green Bay Packers
Rueban Randle, NY Giants
Brian Quick, St. Louis Rams
Jermaine Hearse, Seattle Seahawks
Percy Harvin, Buffalo Bills
Mohammad Sanu, Cincinnati Bengals