Unlike the list of free-agent running backs, which we tackled last week (pun intended), this class of free-agent wide receivers is chock full of star players. Even after looking past the first few names, there’s a long list of fantasy-relevant players that could see their value spike in the right landing spot.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the average pass rate for NFL teams in 2021 was 58% with the lowest number coming in at 50%. Even more prevalent was the amount of time NFL offenses lined up with three or more wide receivers on the field, which was nearly 65% of the time. Long gone are the days when teams roster one alpha at the position along with a couple of other capable bodies. In the modern NFL, most clubs look to team up two or three studs and stack depth further down the roster.
The Cincinnati Bengals were heavily criticized when they passed up an opportunity to solidify their offensive line in favor of another wide receiver, selecting Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick in last April’s draft. Fast forward nine months and the Bengals found themselves in the super bowl after lining up with three or more wide receivers at nearly an 80% clip, the second-highest in the NFL. Who was the only team to do it more often? Their Super Bowl opposition, the Los Angeles Rams, did so a whopping 88% of the time.
Not that you didn’t believe me, but the proof is in the pudding. NFL teams covet quality wide receivers more than ever before. The increase in wide receiver heavy formations, combined with the quality and depth on the market sets the table for an exciting offseason with plenty of movement.
Let’s see what this group has to offer, starting with the most valuable names.
While everybody and their mother were sparking a fantasy football youth movement at the wide receiver position, Davante Adams was quietly being drafted as WR6 in dynasty startups last August, according to Dynasty League Football. Youngsters Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, A.J. Brown, and D.K. Metcalf were all being drafted ahead of him, along with Tyreek Hill.
With the uncertainty surrounding Aaron Rodgers, you can see why Adams’ ADP dropped throughout the offseason after his WR1 finish in 2021. On the other hand, it often seems that Adams’ greatness is easily overlooked. He’s now finished as a top-two PPR WR in three of the last four seasons, only falling short in 2019 when he played in just 12 games. Through the last four seasons, he’s averaging 7.6 receptions, 93.2 yards, and .8 touchdowns per game. If you remove his 12-game season in 2019, he’s totaled 349 receptions, 4,313 yards, and 42 touchdowns in his last three seasons of at least 14 games played. That’s a per-season average of 116 catches, 1,438 yards, and 14 touchdowns.
As the uncertainty around Rodgers remains, the same can be said for Adams. Rodgers has said he will look to decide his fate prior to March 8th, the deadline for a franchise tag, which would allow the Packers and Adams time to determine their future. Regardless, it feels like this is headed towards a franchise tag, but that comes with complications. The Packers are currently $48 million over the cap and a tag for Adams would be just short of $20 million. I’m no mathematician, but it seems that would put the club nearly $68 million over the cap, which can’t be good.
Perhaps the biggest wrinkle to all of this is that if the Packers trade Rodgers, they will still carry his salary on their cap until the new league year begins on March 16th. In addition to it representing the new league year, March 16th is also the opening of free agency and the deadline for teams to be under the cap. Along with many others, I believe Rodgers is on his way out. In that scenario, the team could tag Adams and let Rodgers’ salary fall off on the 16th while making smaller cutdowns along the way to limbo themselves beneath the salary cap.
This would allow the team to hang onto Adams while they regroup, following a Rodgers trade and all the maneuvering to get under the cap. From there, the two sides could continue negotiating towards a long-term deal.
A Two-Fer Deal?
While many speculate that Adams will tail Rodgers wherever he lands, a new team would need to absorb at least $60 million between the two, and probably even more. Not to mention, this team would need to give away a treasure chest of assets for a Rodgers and Adams trade in the first place. It’s fun to speculate that the two will remain together for a new team, but I can’t see it happening.
If Rodgers leaves, I envision the Packers tagging Adams with the hope of working on a long-term deal. However, the star wide receiver has implied he does not want to be tagged and may want out if Rodgers is gone. Keep an eye on the Las Vegas Raiders who recently hired Josh McDaniels and have over $20 million in cap space if the Packers are forced to tag and trade Adams.
He’s one of the best in the business no matter where lands and should be treated as such.
Prediction: The Green Bay Packers franchise tag Davante Adams and trade him to the Las Vegas Raiders, who sign him to a long-term contract.
After enduring the unfortunate fate of a torn ACL and MCL in week 15, Godwin not only faces a lengthy rehab process but also finds himself without a contract. The free-agent-to-be was pegged as the third-best player on the market by PFF and will be just 27 years old later this month. Godwin appeared to be on brink of becoming one of the best wide receivers in the game, but as PFF goes on to note, “Godwin is at his best destroying zone coverages from any alignment. He struggles a little more (though only relatively) when he has to face press-man coverage, and that probably keeps him away from a true No. 1 role in an offense.”
After playing a full 16 game slate in his first two seasons, Godwin has been unable to play more than 14 games in any of the last three seasons. Most of his past ailments have been centered on his hamstring, but he has missed time with various injuries. Still, the former third-round pick out of Penn State has racked up 4,643 receiving yards in his first five seasons.
He put himself on the map in 2018 with 842 yards and seven touchdowns, but 2019 represented his true breakout season. He caught 86 passes for 1,333 yards and 9 touchdowns, finishing as fantasy football’s WR2 while playing in 14 games. After playing in just 12 games in 2020 and registering a line of 840 and seven, Godwin climbed back over the thousand-yard mark in 2021 with 1,103 yards and five scores.
Jenna Laine, who covers the Bucs for ESPN, held a Q and A on her Instagram story where she stated that resigning Godwin is a “priority” for the club. They should be able to afford his services, which Spotrac projects at $18.1 million per year, depending on the quarterback situation. The quarterback situation will dictate the team’s financial situation but could also be a factor in Godwin’s decision to stick around or not. There are plenty of landing spots that make sense for Godwin from a schematic and financial standpoint. If Mike Williams leaves, he could be a fit for the Chargers. The Bears and Colts also stand out as potential suitors.
I don’t know who will be behind center for the Buccaneers in 2022, but I don’t see them letting Godwin get away. His fantasy value is somewhat dependent on the quarterback, obviously, but he should be treated as a high-end WR2 nonetheless.
Prediction: Chris Godwin signs a long-term contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The enigmatic Mike Williams joins the free-agent pool following his best season as a pro. After a virtually non-existent rookie season, Williams made a splash in year two with ten touchdown receptions to go with a respectable 664 yards. Still, he had yet to live up to his lofty draft capital of seventh overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.
You could argue that 2018 was something of a breakout season due to his double-digit touchdown grabs. If that doesn’t do it for you, perhaps his 1,001 receiving yards in 2019 does. But considering he found the endzone just twice, it’s tough to call that a breakout season. His 2020 stat line of 756 yards and five scores certainly doesn’t qualify as a breakout season, but the Chargers still opted to pick up his fifth-year option.
If none of the above qualifies as a breakout season, his 1,146 yards with nine touchdowns should be enough to grant him the elusive fifth-year breakout. A couple of major factors help contribute to Williams’ success in 2021. First, Justin Herbert had his first training camp as the starter while taking the leap from Offensive Rookie of the Year to an elite, franchise QB. Second, the Bolts implemented a new coaching staff, including Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi.
Lombardi had big plans for the athletic wide receiver from the jump. “I see a big role for him,” Lombardi said prior to the season. “If I were a betting man, I’d bet on nice numbers coming from him on the stat sheet, that’s for sure.” Williams took on the role of ‘X’ receiver in the offensive that allowed Michael Thomas to flourish for years. There is such a thing as “coach speak,” meaningless bits of information without tangible results. And here’s a coach literally telling us that a player is going to put up strong numbers. Tip of the cap to you, Mr. Lombardi.
Now that his talents have been unlocked, Williams figures to draw plenty of interest this offseason. Spotrac thinks so at least, projecting his market value at $16.7 million per year, although it’s important to note that Williams is eligible for the franchise tag. The important question, however, is how teams will view Williams. Can he be an elite number one receiver, or is he better suited as a high-end number two?
His combination of size, speed, length, and ball skills would be a good fit in many offenses. The best fit? Back with Mr. Lombardi, where the Chargers have plenty of coin to go around, keeping Williams in the WR2 mix.
Prediction: Mike Williams sigs a long-term contract with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham’s career thus far is unlike any other we’ve witnessed. The only thing that kept Beckham from making an immediate splash in the NFL was a hamstring injury that sidelined him the first four weeks of his rookie season.
In his first three games of NFL action following the injury, he tallied just 106 yards but found the end zone three times. If you don’t believe in the post-bye rookie bump, Beckham would like a word. After the team’s week 8 bye, the rookie averaged 133 yards and exactly one touchdown per game the rest of the way, totaling 1,305 yards and 12 scores. If he wasn’t already a superstar, the infamous one-handed catch in week 12 against the Cowboys propelled him there.
OBJ would go on to clear 1,300 receiving yards and record double-digit touchdowns in each of his first three seasons. Up until the 2021 season, he had surpassed 1,000 yards in every season in which he played at least 12 games. Beckham’s stardom in the spotlight of the big apple was as bright as any NFL player could be.
From Cleveland to LA
So, went wrong in Cleveland? Just about everything, and it ended in dramatic fashion when Odell Beckham Sr. took to his Instagram account to criticize Baker Mayfield. You truly can’t make this stuff up.
To his credit, Beckham resurrected his image by fitting into a championship team with no hiccups, contributing mightily to a Super Bowl win. Unfortunately, it came at the expense of another torn ACL, the same one he tore 16 months ago. His two catches for 52 yards and a touchdown proved to be vital, while his exit from the game exposed the Rams’ weaknesses without him.
Beckham is now on record saying he would take less money to remain with the Rams. A $1 million bonus for winning the Super Bowl sure helps ease the pain of taking a smaller contract going forward, but the injury he suffered in the Super Bowl may force his hand.
I pegged the Patriots as a strong contender to sign Beckham in the offseason, but it’s tough to see a team handing out a big contract to OBJ after he tore the same ACL yet again. If he resigns with the Rams, he can rehab in LA while working towards a late-season return when the team figures to be making a playoff push.
The @RamsNFL are very optimistic they will re-sign OBJ. Team brass and Sean McVay say he’s been a ideal fit. He’s impactful. Explosive. TD maker.— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) February 13, 2022
He can max out his $3 million in incentives with a W today but the Rams are certain it won’t be his last paycheck with them.
Prediction: Odell Beckham Jr. signs a two-year contract with the Los Angeles Rams, with the second year containing a player option.
Another wide receiver who experienced a serious injury at an inopportune time, Smith-Schuster suffered a season-ending shoulder strain in week five, knocking him out for the season. After reportedly turning down more lucrative and longer contract offers, Juju chose to take less to stay in Pittsburgh and hopefully increase his market value for 2022. Needless to say, this plan backfired on the TikTok star.
Not only did Juju miss 12 and a half games but you’d have to squint at the box score to find his production in the first four and a half games. He averaged just 32 receiving yards during this stretch and failed to find the endzone. To his credit, he did return in the playoffs when he caught five passes for 26 yards in the team’s loss to the Chiefs.
None of this bodes well for the former Trojan, especially with a solid free agency class of wide receivers and a draft that stacks a nearly endless amount of depth at the position. With that being said, Juju was notoriously young when he entered the NFL and just turned 25 with nearly 4,000 yards of NFL production.
2022 Free Agency
There will be suitors for his services, but it figures to be a softer market than he hoped for. Interested teams will look at what he did as a secondary option to Antonio Brown in an attempt to replicate his usage from those two seasons. As a rookie in 2017, Smith-Schuster posted 917 yards and seven touchdowns, following it up with 1,426 yards and seven scores in 2018. After notching those 2,343 yards across his first 30 games, he’s tallied just 1,512 yards in 33 games since.
Juju has reiterated once again that he’d like to remain in Pittsburgh, but he later appeared to say good bye to his first NFL city following the end of their season. The Steelers don’t seem to feel the same way about Smith-Schuster as he does about them. We know that the Chiefs and Ravens were in pursuit of the slot receiver last offseason, but Baltimore added Rashod Bateman after they whiffed on Juju. The Chiefs still have a need, but so do teams like the Eagles, Colts, and others.
Ultimately, I believe Juju says yes to the Chiefs this time around. The teams that were able to slow down Andy Reid’s offense were bracketing Tyreek Hill, limiting the big plays downfield. Juju’s slot presence would help take the pressure off Travis Kelce underneath and open up the deep ball. In this setup, look for Juju to settle in as a WR3 with WR2 upside.
Prediction: Juju Smith-Schuster signs a multi-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Allen Robinson has 99 problems and they’re all QBs. From Blake Bortles to Chad Henne in Jacksonville. From Mitchell Trubisky to Nick Foles in Chicago, before getting off the train after one year of the Justin Fields experience, Robinson has yet to team up with a productive NFL QB.
As Robinson made his way to the windy city, the consensus was that he had been held back by the QB play in Jacksonville. His 548 yards and two touchdowns across a 10-game rookie season showed that he belonged, while his breakout campaign in year two showed that he could be among the best. Robinson exploded for 80 receptions, 1,400 yards, and 14 touchdowns in 2015, finishing as fantasy football’s WR4 in standard scoring and WR6 in PPR. The Jags arrow was pointing up in 2016 when they reached the AFC Championship game with an offense built around Leonard Fournette, unfortunately, Robinson’s numbers dipped to 73 grabs for 883 yards and six scores.
Injuries and Down Seasons
Before signing with the Bears in 2018, Robinson would lose his 2017 season to an ACL tear in the first game of the season. An unfortunate injury, but the explosive young receiver was finally escaping the struggling Blake Bortles for a brighter outlook. The Bears had a shiny new QB by the name of Mitchell Trubisky who struggled in his rookie season but was ready for a big year-two leap. The problem is that leap never came. Still, Robinson accumulated 3,151 yards and 17 touchdowns over his first three seasons in Chicago. The 2021 season was not so kind to Robinson who begrudgingly played on a franchise tag, leading to 410 yards and one touchdown in 12 games.
While Robinson looks to find his way out of the QB purgatory space he’s been operating in since he entered the league, he should draw interest from plenty of teams betting on a rebound from the former Pro Bowl wide receiver. Robinson never was a separator with speed or quickness, he can still win as a clean route runner and contested-catch option.
The Colts seem to be a fit, but who will play QB in Indianapolis? The Patriots might be in the mix, but they need more of a separator. Robinson is from Detroit, generating speculation that he could return to his hometown to play for the Lions, but again, that doesn’t solve his QB problems.
The Jacksonville Jaguars made Robinson a second-round pick in 2014, and he rewarded them for that decision. Could the former Penn State Nittany Lion reward them if the franchise makes him a priority once again? New Head Coach Doug Pederson won a Super Bowl with a similar wide receiver in Alshon Jeffery, but more importantly, Robinson could aid in the development of Trevor Lawrence. The former Clemson star has yet to establish himself as a quality NFL QB but is oozing with upside.
A pairing of Lawrence and Robinson in Jacksonville would put the latter immediately back into the WR2 mix.
Prediction: Allen Robinson signs a multi-year agreement with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The running theme of free-agent wide receivers coming off an injury continues with Michael Gallup, who missed time with three total injuries in 2021. An ankle sprain and calf sprain suffered in the first game of the season sidelined Gallup for the next seven games. Upon returning to action in week 10, the former CSU Ram put together a highlight reel of special plays but lacked consistency as the Cowboys’ number three wide receiver. One of those highlight-reel grabs came in a week 17 loss to the Cardinals when Gallup suffered a torn ACL on a 21-yard touchdown catch.
While the highlight reel receptions are nice, the torn ACL puts a dent in Gallup’s free agency plans. Those plans may not include the Cowboys. Although he has implied that he would like to return to Dallas, he’s also stated that he hopes he “did enough here in Dallas over the last four years to get what I deserve” in an exclusive interview with Heavy. What he believes he deserves is a long-term contract. For the Cowboys to offer Gallup such a deal, they would likely need to move on from Amari Cooper who is set to make $20 million. Cooper’s contract does provide an out with just $6 million in dead cap, but we know Jerry Jones loves superstars wearing the star on their helmets.
Bumped to #3
Before CeeDee Lamb donned the star on his helmet, Gallup posted 1,614 yards and eight touchdowns in his first two seasons, with 1,107 and six coming in his second season. The arrival of Lamb stunted Gallup’s breakout, but he remained productive with 843 yards and five scores in 2020 before the myriad of injuries struck in 2021.
If a team can be patient with Gallup, who underwent surgery on February 10th, they can certainly be rewarded. The delay in surgery was necessary to let the swelling decrease, but the hope is that he can be ready by August.
Free-agent wide receiver Michael Gallup is recovering well from knee surgery after tearing his ACL in early January, per source. The current expectation is he’ll be 100% by August.— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) February 17, 2022
It’s important to note that this report, coming on the heels of free agency, is likely a message to teams who may be worried about inking Gallup to a big contract. Whether he is 100% by August remains to be seen, but that’s not what should attract teams to his services. What should attract teams is his versatility to win one on one and the ability to stretch the field.
This angle of Michael Gallup’s TD grab is just gorgeous. pic.twitter.com/bXLULVoHWA— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) December 3, 2021
If Gallup is indeed looking for what he deserves in his next contract, that should come with a bigger opportunity as well. An opportunity to grow alongside Justin Fields in Chicago would allow him a bigger role on the field and in your fantasy lineup. It would be a downgrade at QB, no doubt, but the increase in usage would put him in the WR2/3 range.
Prediction: Michael Gallup signs a multi-year contract with the Chicago Bears.
D.J. Chark Jr.
The first four seasons of Chark’s career have been full of highs and lows. After a slow rookie season in which he tallied just 174 yards, Chark cleared 1,000 yards in his sophomore campaign and was rewarded with a trip to the Pro Bowl. With the strong sophomore campaign and a fantasy finish of PPR WR17 came high expectations for Chark. He appeared in 13 games in his third season, recording 706 yards and five touchdowns, and failing to build on the chemistry that he and Gardner Minshew had created.
After playing in just four games this past season, one thing has remained a constant during Chark’s career: injuries. He’s missed a total of 22 games across four seasons, which doesn’t count the games he left injured and did not return. Plus, he wasn’t very effective in the four games he played this season when he totaled just 154 yards and two scores. Of course, not many Jaguars were productive under Urban Meyer.
At 6’4” and 199 lbs, Chark has all the talent in the world. His combine scores put him in the 97th percentile in the 40-yard dash and speed score, while his burst score placed him in the 93rd percentile. The questions surrounding Chark’s game are not talent-related, but rather health and consistency related. If those two things can straighten out, his arrow will point way up.
Most players that hit the free-agent market seek out a long-term deal, but Chark might be wise to take a shorter prove it deal. Sporting the lengthy injury history, NFL teams are going to be reluctant to hand out a long-term deal worth what he seeks financially. He doesn’t turn 26 until September and if he can put together a healthy season of over 1,000 yards, he could cash in before turning 27.
Like any free agent, much of his value depends on the offense he winds up in, but Chark cannot be counted on as more than a WR3/4 right now. But make no mistake, baby Chark doo doo doo doo doo doo has WR1 upside.
Prediction: D.J. Chark Jr. signs a one-year prove-it deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
On the one hand, Christian Kirk is primarily a slot receiver who lacks the quickness to consistently win there and has yet to register a 1,000-yard season. On the other hand, Kirk is a former second-round pick who is just 25 years old, offering a versatile skill set with the ability to lineup anywhere on the field, and is coming off a career year with 982 receiving yards and five scores.
Running hot and cold for most of his career, Kirk hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations as a second-round pick. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a good player, however. Although he lacks elite quickness at the point of attack, Kirk’s top speed allows him to take the lid off defenses. He also may just be scratching the surface of his upside. After a respectable rookie season of 590 yards and three touchdowns, the Texas A&M product took a small step forward, recording 709 yards and three scores in his second season. After dipping down to 621 yards, and finding the endzone six times in 2020, Kirk showed signs of a breakout last season.
Overall, he’s been a reliable number two or three wide receiver who can move all around the formation and has played in 56 of his teams 65 games in four seasons. He offers quality top-end speed and has a knack for making big plays. With that kind of resume, he may have priced himself out of the Cardinals’ plans. Arizona is staring at a balance sheet that has them $3 million above the salary cap, according to OverTheCap. There are ways to maneuver this, of course, but the team has a whole host of free agents, including Zach Ertz, James Conner, and Chase Edmonds.
If the Cardinals can’t afford to keep Kirk around, he could fit into the Colts’ $35 million available cap space and their offense on the field. The Colts lack a consistent option behind Michael Pittman, especially with T.Y. Hilton considering retirement. While the team doesn’t typically invest in free agent wide receivers, preferring to draft and develop, they are in need of jump-starting the passing game. While the club debates whether to move on from Carson Wentz or not, Jim Irsay may be growing impatient with the front office and coaching staff, according to Zak Keefer of The Athletic, which could prompt Chris Ballard to take a swing at a wide receiver this offseason.
If Kirk does find himself in Indianapolis, his value will hinge on the QB situation. His consistent role in the offense would keep him in the flex range with room for upside.
Prediction: Christian Kirk signs a long-term contract with the Indianapolis Colts.
Will Fuller V
Set to reenter free agency, as he did last offseason, Fuller is coming off a puzzling season with the Dolphins. In 2020, the speedster notched a career year with 879 yards and eight touchdowns with the Houston Texans. There was a lot of hype surrounding Fuller’s fit in South Beach, but he would go on to play in just two games and record four catches for 26 yards.
The assumption, at least outside of the organization, was that Fuller would return from a thumb injury that was keeping him on the sidelines. That never happened, and Fuller’s visit to sunny South Florida may have been a short one.
There are plenty of teams that would be interested in a healthy Will Fuller, but the only thing you can truly count on with Fuller is an injury, unfortunately. He still has a place in this league, though his options may be limited, and that place may be Detroit. Antwaan Randle El wants to add competition to the room, specifically a guy that can win downfield. The Lions aren’t going to be a prime destination for the top players on the market, and coincidentally, Fuller likely won’t be an option for the top teams in the league with his injury history.
It’s a near certainty the Lions will add a rookie, but an explosive veteran like Fuller could go a long way for this club. At this point, Fuller can’t be counted on as anything more than a WR4 with some upside.
Prediction: Will Fuller signs a multi-year agreement containing team options with the Detroit Lions.
It’s impossible to predict what’s next in the Antonio Brown saga, but if he were to land on a roster, the Ravens seem like as good of a bet as any. His cousin, Marquise Brown, is on the team, and then there’s this:
Prediction: Antonio Brown signs a one-year deal with the Baltimore Ravens.
Outside of the list above, there is a bevy of veteran wide receivers on the market that will find a new home. Jamison Crowder is the type of under-the-radar signing that won’t get a ton of attention up front but can make a big difference in the long run. Emmanuel Sanders and A.J. Green offer the veteran pedigree that can shape a young WR core that needs a strong voice.
Isaiah McKenzie, Russell Gage, and Braxton Berrios all made splashes throughout the season that may propel them into a nice contract this summer. Will their current teams prioritize them, or will a new team have big plans for them? Will James Washington or Cedric Wilson thrive if given a larger role?
There are a lot of questions entering free agency, and a lot that will come as a result of free agency. While I can’t predict the status of every name on the market, I can leave you with this:
Bonus Prediction: The New England Patriots acquire Calvin Ridley in a trade with the Atlanta Falcons.