Team-by-team WR picture: Packers, Cowboys need upgrades


It's roster-remake season, as NFL teams get ready to overhaul or tweak the personnel formulas upon which their 2018 fortunes hinge. Before free agency and the draft open the transaction floodgates in earnest, let's review the needs of each team at four key positions: running back, receiver, cornerback and quarterback. Who needs a serious upgrade? Who can promote from within? Who can stand pat? And who should be thinking seriously about the long-term future?

Today, Matt Harmon assesses each team's receiver situation.


Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald confirmed to the Arizona brain trust that he will return for a 15th NFL season. The future Hall of Famer cleared 100 catches in each of the last three years and still thrives in his unique role as the team's big slot receiver. The depth chart beyond Fitzgerald, however, is almost completely barren. Jaron and John Brown are set to hit free agency, leaving behind diminutive speedster J.J. Nelson and the unproven Chad Williams. The Cardinals must explore adding at least two new potential contributors to their wide receiver room this offseason through the draft and free agency.

Baltimore Ravens: Baltimore has one of the least desirable wide receiver situations in the league. Mike Wallace is set to hit free agency -- if he leaves, Jeremy Maclin will be the lone player with any track record on the roster. The Ravens could even look to get Maclin's $7.5 million cap hit off the books for 2018, as they're one of the teams tightest to the cap, and he was a disappointment after inking a two-year deal last offseason. If both veterans are gone, the depth chart is ghastly. Breshad Perriman is theoretically the next man up, but he caught 10 passes all of last season and ended up a healthy scratch on more than one game day. His career is trending in every direction but the right one. The Ravens need a complete overhaul, including a major investment in the wide receiver room.

Buffalo Bills: Buffalo will return Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones from a group that ultimately wasn't effective in 2017. Next Gen Stats shows that the Bills wide receivers had an average 2.47 yards of separation from defenders when the quarterback released the ball, ranking dead last in 2017. Benjamin has never been known for his ability to create separation, but it's worth hoping he'll be better in his first full season with the team after he came to Buffalo via trade in the middle of last year. Jones will look to rebound from a disastrous rookie season where he caught just 36.5 percent of the balls thrown his way. The Bills are just another team that needs to add multiple options to their wide receiver stable for 2018.

Carolina Panthers: Reports are already out that the Panthers plan to "overhaul" their wide receiver group outside of Devin Funchess, Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd. That top three offers both intrigue and the ability to leave you wanting more. Funchess took a massive leap forward last year by setting career-highs across the board (63 catches for 840 yards and eight TDs), but it's still worth wondering if he's a true No. 1 wide receiver, as he heads into his contract year in 2018. Samuel's rookie campaign was defined by injury, but he started to flash his playmaking potential in his final game last season. Byrd has been a darling of Panthers offseasons past and did look legit when he wasn't hurt last year. If an overhaul is indeed in order, expect multiple additions to the wide receiver room from Carolina this year. At least one should come in the form of an experienced free agent, in case one of the Panthers' trio of interesting youngsters (Byrd is the elder statesmen at 25) doesn't take the next step.

Chicago Bears: The Bears need to add receivers who can win at all levels of the field. This past season, Chicago quarterbacks posted a paltry 72.4 passer rating on throws to wide receivers in the short area (fewer than 10 air yards), per Next Gen Stats. Even worse: The Bears' 2017 wide receiver corps managed just two deep receptions (20-plus air yards) all year, the lowest total in the league. Given that the team is flush with cap space, Chicago could be a big player at this position in free agency -- and could also hit the draft class hard in April. Keep an eye out on what the team does with Cameron Meredith, who looked on the cusp of a big 2017 before tearing his ACL in the preseason. Meredith is a restricted free agent this offseason and how the Bears approach his tender will let us know if they think he can be a part of their solving the position going forward.

Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley have been the three most-targeted wide receivers on the Cowboys' roster in every season since 2013, and they're all on the books for 2018. However, the trio will count $25.5 million against the salary cap on their current deals. That's a pretty penny to pay for a group that amassed just 1,720 yards and 10 scores on a combined 273 targets in 2017. Beasley's contract is the only one that won't come with a hefty helping of dead cap to get out of, but the rumor mill has been buzzing about a possible Bryant release since before the sun even set on the 2017 regular season. Categorizing Dallas is tough because, honestly, the 'Boys need to do a little bit of everything. They need to plan for Bryant's future, either by cutting ties with the declining veteran or changing his role to no longer have him as their primary X-receiver. He should be ready to go on the Larry Fitzgerald plan by spending more away from outside press coverage. The team ought to promote from within and elevate 2017 rookie Ryan Switzer into Beasley's role as the slot receiver. One thing is painfully clear from watching this team last season: not upgrading the wide receiver corps in some fashion would be front office malpractice.

Green Bay Packers: Green Bay finds itself in a comparable situation to the Dallas Cowboys, with a pair of longtime friends set to take up a large chuck of cap space despite unproductive 2017 seasons. Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will both count over $12.5 million against the cap. Cobb hasn't come close to replicating the 2014 season that once earned him this hefty contract, while Nelson utterly vanished from the offense the moment Aaron Rodgers injured his collar bone, averaging 21.3 yards per game after Week 6. The Packers inked Davante Adams to a new contract before he hit free agency this offseason, essentially booking him to be the team's No. 1 wide receiver going forward. Temptation will certainly exist in Green Bay to restructure some deals and ride it out with Cobb and Nelson for another year. However, new blood, youth and speed would do this team well. The team should sever ties with one or both of the veteran receivers, and only return one on a reduced salary as purely a slot receiver if Green Bay can't stomach jettisoning both. After that, the Packers should turn their attention to the free-agent crop and 2018 NFL Draft in search of a gifted young pass catcher to line up across from Adams.

Indianapolis Colts: With the disappointing Donte Moncrief set to hit the open market, the Colts currently have just T.Y. Hilton and a list of bottom-of-the-roster types under contract for 2018. Chester Rogers is the only one of that second group to have caught a pass for the team in 2017. Indianapolis is far from short on team needs, with the offensive line and defense still on the annual docket for a retooling and the running back room almost barren, but the Colts cannot afford to leave their wide receiver corps unaddressed.

Oakland Raiders: Rumors were swirling toward the end of the regular season that Michael Crabtree might not be back with the Raiders in 2018, but Jon Gruden's hiring appears to have decreased the odds of that happening. Even if Crabtree is back, the Raiders need to add some competent bodies at the wide receiver position. Top receiver Amari Cooper is coming off his worst year as a pro, a campaign riddled with drops, poor usage and disappearing acts. Behind those two, there is nothing of note. Seth Roberts hasn't done much to earn the cemented third receiver role he's carried the last two season, and Cordarrelle Patterson is still not a true asset as a traditional wide receiver. The Raiders' offense was one of the more disappointing units in league last season. An influx of talent at wideout would help them avoid carrying that designation for a second straight season.

Washington Redskins: Washington will need to do some self-scouting on the receiver corps this offseason. If the Redskins decide they're comfortable with Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson as their top two options, then they are free to just pursue depth, as not much is behind them on the roster. It's an appealing reality, given that both players are still young and carry meager cap hits for the 2018 season, but both have provided evidence that they should be questioned. Crowder didn't take the leap many expected him to in 2017, despite clearing 60 catches for the second straight season. He didn't look comfortable when the team tried to bump up his outside reps. Doctson finished with just 35 catches after usurping Terrelle Pryor in the starting X-receiver role, but flashed big-play potential in what was essentially his first exposure to the pro game after a lost rookie season in 2016. The former TCU product has the gifts to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, but it will require a leap of faith to presume he makes that developmental jump while working with a new quarterback who, at least given how they've both functioned in the past, is an awkward fit with what he does well. The Redskins should pursue at least a couple of possible contributors to, at worst, complement Crowder and Doctson.


Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals presumably drafted John Ross at No. 9 overall last season for a reason, but you'd hardly know it from Marvin Lewis' apparent lack of faith in the rookie wide receiver. Ross suffered through injuries, something he's no stranger to, and finished his first NFL season without a catch. It's tough to count on a player like that, but the Bengals must at least attempt to discover if they'll get anything out of their top-10 pick. The coming season should be viewed as a "sink or swim" moment for Ross.

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars signed Blake Bortles to a contract extension over the weekend, which freed up some needed cap space. The organization should immediately look to use some of that breathing room to secure the rights to No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson via the franchise tag. Jacksonville can take a similar approach to that of the Philadelphia Eagles and Alshon Jeffery. The Super Bowl champions signed Jeffery to a one-year, $9.5 million deal to serve as a "prove it" pact after he spent much of his final Chicago years dealing with injury, but they quickly rewarded him with a long-term deal when he put good play on the field. Robinson missed all but one game in 2017 with a torn ACL, and the franchise tag would buy the Jaguars time to gauge where the player who once scored 14 touchdowns for them is in his career arc. Fellow 2014 NFL Draft class alums Marqise Lee (free agency) and Allen Hurns (cap casualty?) could exit the roster this offseason, but the Jaguars have replacement plans in house. The team's 2017 fourth-round pick Dede Westbrook flashed some of the big-play ability that netted him the Biletnikoff Award in his final collegiate season after he came off injured reserve. Fellow rookie Keelan Cole outshined him, despite coming from the undrafted ranks, and led the team in receiving. Cole looks like a player who could be this run-heavy squad's No. 2 receiver across from Robinson.

Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs will break in a new quarterback this season with Patrick Mahomes at the helm, and might finally look to open up the offense to get more contributions from their wide receiving talent. Tyreek Hill looked more than comfortable in his role as the team's top wideout, and Kansas City has a pair of possible complementary players waiting in the wings. Chris Conley is an intriguing athlete with the frame of a top-flight, split-end wideout -- he will return after a season-ending injury cut his 2017 campaign short. Demarcus Robinson flashed in the rare moments when he got targets while replacing Conley. The Chiefs look like they're at least ready to concede the first year of Mahomes' run as the starting signal-caller might be a rebuilding period. The organization should use 2018 as an evaluation moment for some of these athletic young receivers.

Los Angeles Rams: The Rams could elect to franchise tag Sammy Watkins but NFL Network's Mike Garofolo believes Lemarcus Joyner will be the one to draw the designation. If Watkins leaves, Los Angeles doesn't need to trip over itself to find his replacement. Robert Woods outshined him as the team's top possession receiver in 2017, and Cooper Kupp is due for a bump in targets as a developing big slot. The Rams also have an in-house candidate to fill Watkins' X-receiver position in Josh Reynolds, a deep sleeper to watch in 2018. Reynolds flashed in replacement of Woods when the veteran missed time last year and was excellent at tracking the football in college.

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks appear to be headed for an offseason full of retooling and the wide receiver room is no exception. Doug Baldwin will return to defend his honor as one of the NFL's top slot receivers, but there is not much in the way of proven players surrounding him. Paul Richardson is set to hit free agency, and while Tyler Lockett has appeared on the cusp of a breakout before, his 2017 season coming back from a broken leg was a slow process. Lockett could establish himself as a starter, but the team needs to decide whether it can throw him into that role without competition. The only other alternative on the roster is 2017 rookie Amara Darboh, who caught eight passes after being a surprise third-round pick by Seattle. Russell Wilson runs an unconventional offense not built on receivers running precise routes with timing, so the team could eschew making major moves at this position, especially with pressing needs on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary.

Tennessee Titans: The Titans drafted Corey Davis at the fifth overall pick in 2017, but injuries derailed his first NFL season. Davis didn't find the end zone in the regular season, but scored twice against New England in the playoffs and is indeed a gifted young player. Tennessee needs to make several layers of changes to their offense, and making Davis the gravitational center of the pass-catching corps is high on the list. Elsewhere, fellow 2017 rookie Taywan Taylor flashed speed and play-making ability on his 16 catches. The Titans should allow veteran Eric Decker to walk in free agency and give their former third-round pick a promotion to join Davis and Rishard Matthews in the three-wide receiver sets.


Detroit Lions: Detroit has one of the best one-two punches at the wide receiver position in contested catch dominator Marvin Jones and slot maven Golden Tate. Each of them crossed 1,000 yards in 2017 and are on the books for 2018. Behind them, the Lions have a potential gem in 2017 rookie Kenny Golladay. The Northern Illinois product stands 6-foot-4 and showed vertical ability in his first season by averaging 17 yards per reception.

Houston Texans: The Texans' offense was cooking when Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller were all on the field together in 2017. Watson should return in time for training camp this summer and get right back to restoring this scoring unit to full strength. Hopkins was an All-Pro even without Watson in the fold for the majority of the season and we know what to expect from him. Fuller is the more intriguing player, as he appeared to finally be ready to take the next step when he hit the field in 2017. The lightning-fast receiver popped in an absurd seven touchdowns in four games with Watson, but predictably faded with the Texans' other, subpar quarterbacks unable to get him the ball after that. Houston should return Hopkins and Fuller as its top receivers in 2018 and focus resources to other areas of the roster.

Los Angeles Chargers: Keenan Allen earned Comeback Player of the Year honors for turning in a career year after missing all but one half of football in 2016. He'll return as the central figure of the Los Angeles passing game in 2018. Tyrell Williams is set to hit restricted free agency after a 2017 that was a poor encore for a breakout 1,000-yard campaign the year prior. He could draw the eyes of teams that want to utilize him more, but the Chargers will have matching powers. If Williams is pried away, the Bolts have the speed of Travis Benjamin and 2017 seventh overall pick Mike Williams as options to take his starting gig. Williams caught just 11 of 23 targets in a rookie year where he missed most of the offseason and multiple weeks with injury, but the Chargers won't be quick to throw in the towel on the jump-ball specialist.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings have an enviable top two at the wide receiver position in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, both flush with athletic gifts and technical prowess. Whoever takes snaps for Minnesota in 2018 will be giddy to exploit the talents of that duo. The only real question the Vikings must ask themselves is how much longer they wish to participate in the Laquon Treadwell experience. The 2016 first-rounder was a distant third among the receivers with 200 yards and has just 21 catches through two pro seasons. The Vikes could look to trade him, if any suitors still exist, as their need at the position that existed when he was drafted has quickly vanished.

New England Patriots: Brandin Cooks turned in a 1,000-yard season in his first year with the Patriots, a feat not matched by many newcomers to that system. Julian Edelman will return after missing all of 2017 with an ACL injury, but he will do so in a crowded receiver room. The Patriots' roster is overflowing with NFL success, draft-day pedigree and developmental potential. Cooks and Edelman are joined by Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt and 2016 Super Bowl hero Malcolm Mitchell, among others on the 2018 salary cap books.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles won the Super Bowl while having one of the league's best offenses, thanks in large part to a completely rebuilt receiving corps. Alshon Jeffery quickly settled in as the top outside pass catcher and earned an extension after coming to Philly on a one-year deal. Nelson Agholor looked like a transformed player after moving to the slot receiver position vacated by the team trading Jordan Matthews to Buffalo. Torrey Smith was a shrewd veteran free-agent addition, even if he played a bit smaller role in the offense. Jeffery and Agholor will be back to reprise their 2017 positions, while Smith could be cut to free up needed cap room. Even if the latter's vertical ability leaves the offense, the Eagles have a replacement waiting in the wings in 2017 Day 3 draft pick Mack Hollins.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown led the NFL in receiving yards despite missing two games to end the regular season, and the Steelers got an outrageously efficient rookie season from JuJu Smith-Schuster. Pittsburgh is set with those two as its top wide receivers and still has the always-dangerous Martavis Bryant under contract for 2018. However, the Steelers could look to deal Bryant to a team more willing to make use of him after he made public his displeasure with a lack of targets early last year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The entire Buccaneers offense had a down season in 2017, and that included Mike Evans. After leading the NFL in targets in 2016, Evans cleared 1,000 yards for the fourth straight year -- this time by a single yard -- and scored just five times. Yet, he's still one of the more gifted receivers in the league and just needs more stable play from the quarterback position to find consistency in his production. The 2018 season will be his contract year. DeSean Jackson is on the books to join Evans on the roster this season and should be pushed by 2017 rookie Chris Godwin. The third-round pick popped on film and produced when called upon in his first NFL season. He should be squarely on the breakout radar should Tampa Bay find its way on offense.


Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons' offense predictably took a step back after a wildly efficient 2016 season when they scored 71 more points than any other team. As such, expect them to at least take a look at the status of their skill-position players outside of Julio Jones. Big-play threat Taylor Gabriel strangely saw his role vanish in the offense with Kyle Shanahan no longer employed as offensive coordinator. He will likely leave in free agency. Mohamed Sanu has been a reliable possession receiver for Atlanta since inking a five-year deal prior to 2016, but the team needs more behind him and Jones. Both receivers will be 29 years old this season, so while a major overhaul is not needed, it would still behoove the Falcons to at least add young depth at the position.

Cleveland Browns: Cleveland finds itself in an interesting spot regarding its wide receiver corps. The top two options on the depth chart headed into 2018 both carry their share of questions. Josh Gordon (suspensions) and Corey Coleman (injuries) have given the Browns plenty of reason to wonder if they can count on them going forward. At their best, something we've seen far more often and more recently from Gordon, these two are gifted talents at the position who can fill a starting lineup. The Browns have so many other needs that they may consider just acquiring mid-level options to serve as contingency plans or possible replacements down the line if Gordon and Coleman take more missteps.

UPDATE: The Browns are expected to trade for Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Friday.

Denver Broncos: Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are currently set to count for the second- and fourth-highest cap charge, respectively, on the Broncos' 2018 roster. And both have already reached their 30s. Some have raised questions about whether one or both could be released to free up cap space, but it appears the Broncos will try to keep the band together in order to lure a big-name quarterback to Denver. Even if they're back, John Elway and company need to turn an eye toward the future of their wide receiver corps. The Broncos haven't had a wide receiver outside of Sanders or Thomas hit 30 receptions since Wes Welker caught 49 passes back in 2014. Outside of 2017 third-round pick Carlos Henderson -- who is quite gifted, but missed all of his rookie season with injury -- no one on Denver's roster offers much hope of developing into a starter.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins slapped the franchise tag on top slot receiver Jarvis Landry, but NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport still believes other teams could snag him via trade. If Landry is gone, he takes a large slice of the passing-game pie with him. In that scenario, Miami will have several tough questions it needs to answer. The team must decide whether it's ready to give up the ghost regarding hopes that DeVante Parker -- after three injury-filled, disappointing years -- will ever develop into a high-end starting receiver. A pair of young receivers in Leonte Carroo and Jakeem Grant need to be vetted for possible promotions if Landry exits South Beach. The Dolphins are far from flush with cap space -- and Kenny Stills, who has been a hit as a free-agent signing, comes with a $9.8 million cap hit and could be jettisoned with little dead cap.

UPDATE: The Browns are expected to trade for Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Friday.

New Orleans Saints: A real argument exists to crown Michael Thomas a top-five NFL receiver after he turned in 92- and 104-catch seasons during his first two pro campaigns. Fellow 2017 starter Ted Ginn will join Thomas in the lineup once again, after he filled his role well with 787 yards and four scores in his first year with the team. Not much exists beyond them, though, with Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman slated for restricted free agency. Snead, in particular, once looked to have a bright future after earning over 100 targets in both 2015 and 2016, but vanished from the offense last year. An early season suspension derailed a breakout path for Snead in 2017 and he came back without a role and never got up to speed. Perhaps he re-emerges for the team as a factor, but with no depth to complement Thomas beyond the 32-year-old Ginn, the Saints should think about locking in more contributors.

New York Giants: The Giants should waste little time in inking Odell Beckham to a contract extension, though it seems to be a situation destined to drag out in passive-aggressive fashion across the public sector. Beckham is the type of franchise-altering talent whose presence overshadows other issues on the New York offense and whose absence exposes them. Beckham's asking price is sure to be high and new GM Dave Gettleman was notoriously tough in contract talks when he held that position for the Carolina Panthers. Elsewhere, the Giants came out of a disastrous 2017 season with mostly bad wide receiver memories, outside of Sterling Shepard's growth. The 2016 draft pick was excellent when he was healthy last season and showed himself worthy of being Beckham's long-term running mate. The Giants will have to consider contingency plans beyond those two, however, with an eye toward asking those players to work with a young quarterback sooner than later.

New York Jets: The Jets uncovered a diamond in the rough in undrafted wide receiver Robby Anderson. A dangerous vertical playmaker, Anderson scored all seven of his touchdowns on deep passes (20-plus air yards) in 2017, per Next Gen Stats. Unfortunately, Anderson reminded us in mid-January that opposing secondaries aren't the only place he's capable of causing problems, as he was arrested in Florida on multiple felony charges. Given that this is his second arrest in less than a year, the talented wideout could be subject to league discipline. The only other proven player on the Jets' roster is veteran Jermaine Kearse, who turned in the best season of his career after serving as a piece of the trade that brought the Seahawks Sheldon Richardson. New York's brain trust must decide whether to purse contingency plans for Anderson should he slip up again or whether they believe 2017 rookies ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen are ready for expanded roles. That duo combined for just 15 catches in Year 1.

San Francisco 49ers: San Francisco is a popular match for high-priced, free-agent wide receivers by the hordes of eager sports writers. Indeed, the team could use a split-end receiver and a true No. 1 wideout who can dictate coverages. However, on the surface, the team does appear to have a more interesting top three than widely given credit for. If veteran Pierre Garcon, one of the most underappreciated players at the position, can make it back from a 2017 neck injury, he should slide right into a high-volume flanker role. Marquise Goodwin showed last season that he's more than just a track star, nearly hitting 1,000 receiving yards. Fifth-round rookie Trent Taylor flashed the ability to be a starting-caliber slot receiver. The 49ers could certainly use an X-receiver to complete the picture, but they'll have to weigh what their future looks like when deciding how much of their resources to sink into that endeavor.

Follow Matt Harmon on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB.



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