Free Agency 2018: Wide Receivers
February 13, 2018
By Steve Thomas
Free agency is a great time of year for all NFL fans. Of course, it comes with ups and downs, but above all else, there are plenty of things to debate and talk about. That’s part of the fun for fans. In the case of the Redskins, some signings in the recent past ultimately proved to be historically bad (hi, Albert Haynesworth, hope you’re doing well; Adam Archuleta, I hope you’re enjoying your money), and others proved to be great (London Fletcher, Pierre Garcon, Desean Jackson, Zach Brown). This year, the Redskins have a myriad of needs, including wide receiver, running back, guard, defensive line, inside linebacker, and corner, at a minimum. Therefore, over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at some of the available free agents at various positions that the team may consider. This week, primarily because Washington just traded for a new quarterback (read my analysis of Alex Smith here), we’ll attack the wide receiver market first, at least as the market applies to what the Redskins should be looking for.
My principal criteria for this analysis is that the Redskins should be looking for a young receiver, not an older player who wants to either cash in on one final contract or find a playoff contender. At the same time, though, Washington also needs a veteran who can provide solid production and possibly provide a mentor for the young receivers on the roster like Josh Doctson and Robert Davis. The Redskins are in building mode, not Super Bowl mode, and therefore should not increase the overall age of the team.
#1 – Jarvis Landry
Landry, the consensus top receiver available this year, was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft out of LSU by the Miami Dolphins. Landry was measured at 5’11”, 205 lbs, and ran a 4.65 40 yard dash at the 2014 NFL Draft Combine, although he improved his 40 time to 4.51 at his pro day. During his four year career with the Dolphins, Landry has 400 receptions on 570 targets, for 4,038 yards, 10.1 yards per reception, and 22 touchdowns. He has been healthy, playing in all 64 games. His catch percentage over that 4 year period (70.2%) is elite, 9th in the NFL amongst all receivers and tight ends with 250 or more total targets (the Redskins’ own Jordan Reed is #1; see our analysis of Reed here). Landry did not have to grow into his role as an NFL wide receiver; he has consistently been one of the most productive receivers in the game since his rookie year:
2014: 112 targets, 84 receptions, 758 yards, 9.0 yards/reception, 5 TDs
2015: 166 targets, 110 receptions, 1,157 yards, 10.5 yards/reception, 4 TDs
2016: 131 targets, 94 receptions, 1,136 yards, 12.1 yards/reception, 4 TDs
2017: 161 targets, 112 receptions, 987 yards, 8.8 yards/reception, 9 TDs
At 25 years old, he is without a doubt one of the best slot receivers in the NFL; however, he is versatile and has been effective for Miami coming when split wide at times, as well. Every team, including the Redskins, can use a receiver who is as productive and talented as Landry, irrespective of his status as being principally a slot receiver and the presence of Jamison Crowder. Despite his lack of premier top-end speed, he is an incredible all-around athlete who routinely makes highlight reel-quality catches.
Landry, a three-time Pro Bowler at the top of the receiver market, will be looking for elite money, irrespective of his reputation as a slot receiver. For the sake of comparison, in 2017, the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins signed a 5 year, $81M contract with a $7.5M signing bonus $49M guaranteed overall, and cap hits of $18M in 2018 and $14M in 2018. This is the approximate minimum that Landry will be expecting from his 2018 employer. It’s possible that the Dolphins will place a franchise tag on Landry which will at a minimum greatly affect his ability to be signed by the Redskins. Either way, it is unlikely that Miami simply lets him go to free agency. If for some reason they do, Landry will have many teams vying for his services.
#2 – Allen Robinson
Allen Robinson has all of the qualities that make up a prototypical “#1 wide receiver” – hands, athleticism, size, playmaking ability. Robinson, who stands 6’3” and weighs 220 pounds, was drafted in the 2nd round out of Penn St. by the Jacksonville Jaguars. His only real knock is a lack of top-end speed – he ran 4.6 in the 40 at the 2014 Combine. This, of course, doesn’t mean that he isn’t an outstanding receiver; it just means that he isn’t quite a Terrell Owens clone. For his career, Robinson has 202 catches on 384 targets, 2,848 yards, 14.1 yards per reception, and 22 touchdown in 41 games played. His career catch percentage, 52.6%, is ranked 74th amongst all wide receivers and tight ends with 250 or more targets. On the surface, that catch percentage does not look promising, but this data should be evaluated through two lenses: (1) with Blake Bortles as his quarterback, Robinson has suffered from an extreme lack of quality passing, and (2) he has a fairly high yards per reception (22nd in the NFL form 2014-17 for receivers and tight ends with 250 or more receptions) and ran a good amount of deeper routes for the Jaguars, which means he’s had tougher passes thrown to him than, say a short-range possession receiver. Robinson’s yearly stats:
2014: 10 games, 8 starts, 81 targets, 48 receptions, 548 yards, 11.4 yards per reception, 2 TDs
2015: 16 games, 16 starts, 151 targets, 80 receptions, 1,400 yds, 17.5 yards per reception, 14 TDs
2016: 16 games, 16 starts, 151 targets, 73 receptions, 883 yards, 12.1 yards per reception, 6 TDs
2017: 1 game, 1 start, 1 target, 1 reception, 17 yards, 17.0 yards per reception, 0 TDs
The principal problem with Robinson is reflected in his 2017 stats – he tore his ACL in game 1 against the Texans, and the status of his recovery from injury will without a doubt be a factor in his free agency. Other than that, though, it’s his 2015 season that stands out: that year, he was an elite-level receiver despite Blake Bortles. Unlike Landry, though, he did not progress in his third year and his production dropped. That drop coupled with his knee injury means he represents a gamble of sorts that Landry does not. His market value should reflect that risk, and he should as a result be more affordable than Landry. In fact, if teams are not comfortable with his recovery from his ACL tear, it’s at least possible that Robinson ends up playing on a 1 year “bet on himself”-type contract; however, considering that the Jaguars don’t have many free agents this year, it’s just as likely that Jacksonville franchise tags Robinson to keep him off the free agent market irrespective of his health. Robinson is another player who will have multiple teams offering him contracts if he makes it to free agency.
Decent fallback options
#3 – Marqise Lee
Marqise Lee continues the tradition of highly talented, highly athletic players who come out of USC with big hype, but then fail to capitalize on that hype. Lee, who is 6’0’, 192 pounds, was drafted in 2014 by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He is a quality athlete who ran 4.52 in the 40 at the 2014 Combine. In his defense, Lee’s stats suffered from horrendous quarterback play, as is the case for his teammate Allen Robinson. For his career, Marqise has 171 receptions in 302 receptions, 56.6% catch percentage, 2,166 yards, 12.7 yards per catch, and 8 touchdowns. His year-by-year statistical breakdown:
2014: 13 games, 8 starts, 69 targets, 37 receptions, 422 yards, 11.4 yards per reception, 1 TD
2015: 10 games, 1 start, 32 targets, 15 receptions, 191 yards, 12.7 yards per reception, 1 TD
2016: 16 games, 6 starts, 105 targets, 63 receptions, 851 yards, 13.5 yards per reception, 3 TDs
2017: 14 games, 14 starts, 96 targets, 56 receptions, 702 yards, 12.5 yards per reception, 3 TDs
What is most noticeable about Lee’s statistics is that he slowly became more valuable and more of a key part of the Jacksonville offense in each successive year, culminating with him developing into a full-time starter during the Jaguars’ 2017 run to the AFC title game, despite a slight dip in targets. He hasn’t been a star as some thought he would be coming out of college, but he has become a solid starter. It’s possible that Lee’s productivity could continue to rise in a better passing offense than Jacksonville.
Since Lee has made progress and was a valued part of their successful 2017 team, it’s possible that Jacksonville will make a push to keep him. He may also want to stay in Jacksonville, provided the money is equal. NFL teams will not pay him as a #1 option, but they will see him as a quality starting-level player. Therefore, in terms of contracts, I expect him to receive offers in the 3 year, mid-level range, with cap hit in the $5M – $8M range and a decent sized signing bonus. Despite him perhaps not living up to his USC hype, he is a good young player with solid production who is better than a “prove it” deal.
#4 – Sammy Watkins
Watkins, 6’1”, 210 pounds, came out of Clemson in 2014 as the 4th overall pick by the Buffalo Bills with a huge amount of hype and promise. He didn’t live up to expectations, and the Bills first declined his 5th year option and then traded him to the Rams in August, 2017. Watkins seemingly had it all as a 2014 NFL prospect, with 4.43 speed (as measured at the Combine) and faster “game speed”, game-breaking athleticism, good size, and some off-the-charts numbers (101 receptions in 2013) on an admittedly talent-rich Clemson team that hadn’t quite reached its national championship peak at that time. During his 3 years with the Buffalo Bills, he produced 153 receptions in 276 targets, 2,459 yards, 16.1 yards per reception, and 17 touchdowns in 37 games/37 starts. His Bills’ numbers are affected by the fact that Buffalo was primarily a rushing team. Also, quarterback Tyrod Taylor is known as an athletic runner who has taken some time to develop as passer, although he has a quality deep ball. Including his 2017 with the Rams, Watkins has 192 receptions in 346 targets, 3,052 yards, 15.9 yards per reception, 55.4% catch percentage, and 25 touchdowns in his career. His year by year stats:
2014: 16 games, 16 starts, 128 targets, 65 receptions, 982 yards, 15.1 yards per reception, 6 TDs
2015: 13 games, 13 starts, 96 targets, 60 receptions, 1047 yards, 17.5 yards per reception, 9 TDs
2016: 8 games, 8 starts, 52 targets, 28 receptions, 430 yards, 15.4 yards per reception, 2 TDs
2017: 15 games, 14 starts, 70 targets, 39 receptions, 593 yards, 15.2 yards per reception, 8 TDs
Watkins’ 2017 was unsuccesful and not helpful to his cause, as his 39 receptions on a Rams team that led the league in points showed that he just wasn’t a valued member of the offense. However, his elite game speed and athleticism helps him get good yards after catch and makes him a valuable potential weapon if he can put it all together for a new team.
From a contract perspective, the Rams will almost certainly allow him to go to free agency. He should be available at a significantly lower rate than both Landry and Robinson. Watkins still benefits from his the lure of his potential, as at least some teams will be willing to take a chance on his natural skills and abilities in the hope that he can become what his draft status projected. He’s also had nagging injuries over his career that caused him to miss games at times. As is the case with Marqise Lee, the upper end of a contract offer for Watkins will probably be a 3 year deal, with mid-range money and low guarantees, with cap hit in the $5M – $8M range at most, and one year prove-it deal at the low end. No team, including the Redskins, is going to bring Watkins in at a pay scale reflective of a #1 passing option.
Emergency backup plan
Many Redskins fans will hate this thought, but given the state of the 2018 receiver market, Pryor, who stands nearly 6’5”, weighs 230 pounds, and runs a 4.3 40 yard dash, might not be a terrible option for the right price if both he and the team can get past what happened in 2017. Pryor’s story is well known – a uniquely elite, off-the-charts athletic freak who was the quarterback of highly successful Ohio St. teams between 2008 – 2010. He was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in round 3 of the 2011 supplemental draft. After several unsuccessful years as a quarterback, Pryor converted to wide receiver on a full-time basis in 2016 with the Cleveland Browns and then signed with the Redskins for the 2017 season. For his career as a receiver, he has 99 receptions on 186 targets, 52.2% catch percentage, 1,311 yards, 13.2 yards per reception, and 5 touchdowns. His year by year statistical breakdown:
2016: 16 games, 15 starts, 140 targets, 77 receptions, 1,007 yards, 13.1 yards per reception, 4 TDs
2017: 9 games, 2 starts, 37 targets, 20 receptions, 240 yards, 12.0 yards per reception, 1 TD
It doesn’t take a football genius to see that Pryor’s 2017 in Washington was not a success. He never became a key cog in the Redskins’ offensive wheel, didn’t appear to click with quarterback Kirk Cousins, and clearly had quite a bit to learn about being an NFL receiver. That having been said, Pryor apparently suffered from an ankle injury for most of the year and was eventually put on injured reserve for that reason. Head coach Jay Gruden stated to the media that Pryor’s vaunted 4.3 speed did not show up on tape. The fact of the matter is that the Redskins still need a receiver with his physical attributes. If the team thinks that his ankle injury was the primary cause of his unsuccessful season, generally, and the disappearance of his game-breaking speed, perhaps the team would be willing to sign up for Pryor, part 2, if the rest of the free agent market falls through. Pryor should be available for a lower price than 2017’s $6M guaranteed deal.
Josh Gordon’s story is somewhat infamous in NFL circles. From a purely skill and on the field standpoint, Josh, who attended Baylor University, is one of the top receivers in the game. At 6’4”, 220 pounds, and track speed in the 4.5 range, with even better game speed, Gordon is explosive, capable and dangerous. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2012 and was a Pro Bowler and 1st team All-Pro in 2013. Unfortunately, Gordon’s long history of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction derailed his career, and he was suspended from the NFL for parts of 2014, all of 2015 and 2016, and the first 12 gamesd of 2017. After several attempts at rehab and many personal meetings with Josh, Commissioner Roger Goodell finally lifted his suspension and allowed him to return to the Browns in week 13 of the 2017 season. In 2013, he had 87 receptions on 159 targets, a league-high 1,646 yards, 18.9 yards per reception, and 9 touchdowns. He played the final 5 games of 2017, catching 18 passes on 42 receptions for 335 yards, with 18.6 yards per reception and 1 touchdown on a Browns team with perhaps the worst quarterback situation in the NFL, which is an outstanding performance considering he hasn’t played in three years.
Absent his significant negative history, Gordon would without a doubt be a highly-sought after #1 option for almost any team in the league. Due to all of his suspensions, Gordon is an exclusive rights free agent in 2018, meaning that Cleveland would have to let him enter the free agent market in order for him to become available to the Redskins. Plus, considering his personal demons, he is probably better off surrounded by players and coaches who already know and support him. Nonetheless, if the stars align and the Redskins front office feels like the team could properly support this player, he has the possibility of absolutely thriving and excelling with a quarterback like Alex Smith who is smart and accurate and throws a quality deep ball.
As you can see, the wide receiver market is fairly limited this year. Neither of the top 2 receivers, Jarvis Landry and Allen Robinson, are likely to hit the free agent market, and the remaining players all have limitations to one extent or the other. Nevertheless, given the state of the Redskins’ receiving corps and a fairly large need to acquire a veteran free agent, I expect the team to sign someone. It could end up being a player further down the list who I haven’t discussed here, and if that’s the case, it will likely be a player who they are bringing in more on potential than proven prior production.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.
 All stats in this column are courtesy of www.pro-football-reference.com, with the exception of college stats, which are courtesy of www.sports-reference.com/cfb/. NFL Combine data is courtesy of www.nfl.com. Some limted background and college information is courtesy of Wikipedia.