*With some of the hottest available names agreeing to contracts ahead of the official start of free agency, Matt Harmon considers how each new receiver-team pairing will work, ranking them from the best fit to the worst. *
1) Allen Robinson to Chicago Bears
No team had a more glaring hole on the wide-receiver depth chart heading into free agency than the Bears. Chicago was set to return a cast of unproven entities with a series of questions about their health. A big move at the position was destined to come.
Early Thursday morning, that move came. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Allen Robinsonplans to sign with the Chicago Bears when free agency officially opens on Wednesday. The Bears will ink a No. 1 wide receiver for young QB Mitch Trubisky, while Robinson joins a team ready to make him a key piece in its offensive evolution.
Last season, the Bears fielded an offense stuck in the mud of an era long since gone by in the NFL. Ultra-conservative passing supplemented the run-first, grind-it-out approach favored by John Fox-coached teams. Chicago decided to hit hyperdrive and accelerate into the 21st century with a pair of coaching hires. The team tapped former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy to be its head coach and play-caller. Nagy brought former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich to sit at his right hand as offensive coordinator. Both men were known for up-tempo, progressive spread offenses at their previous stops.
The way Nagy and Helfrich approach offensive design is a major reason why the Robinson signing is a tremendous fit. One of the biggest culprits in Robinson's down 2016 season lied in where he was targeted. Far too many of his 151 targets came on low-percentage throws deep down the sideline, as Next Gen Stats shows in the chart below.
The lack of use in the middle of the field caused over 50 of Robinson's targets in 2016 to come on plays where he had less than a yard of separation. That's the most for any wide receiver over the last two seasons. If Nagy designs a similar offense to the one employed by the Chiefs during his tenure as offensive coordinator, that will not be an issue in Chicago. As Next Gen Stats quantifies in the chart below, no team created more space for its wideouts than Kansas City the last two seasons.
Creating more space with "layup throws" for Trubisky was already going to be a priority for the Bears in 2018. Most expect them to follow the Sean McVay plan. As a rookie in 2016, Jared Goff's tight-window throw rate was a league-high 25.9 percent. In McVay's first season at the helm in Los Angeles, that figure came down to 14.3 percent (31st). In 2017, Trubisky finished 13th in tight-window throw rate (18.8 percent). That went poorly, with a 27.3 passer rating. It's an easy comparison to make, and a similar plan could set Trubisky on the same rebound path Goff strolled down in his second season.
Nagy and Helfrich were already set to create a more favorable offense for their quarterback with their congruent spread-offense philosophies. Now they've found a No. 1 wide receiver who is up to the task in assisting their efforts. The move is only made better by how desperately Robinson also needed to find a team ready to use his talents in a more efficient manner.
2) Albert Wilson to Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins telegraphed for almost a year that they were ready to sever ties with Jarvis Landry. The move finally came to pass Friday, when Landry was sent packing to Cleveland for a pair of draft picks. Shortly thereafter, Miami identified a replacement for Landry in former Chiefs pass catcher Albert Wilson. The one-time undrafted free-agent signee enjoyed career highs in catches (42), yards (554) and touchdowns (three) last season as the Chiefs' primary slot receiver. He will slide right into Landry's vacated position.
The way the Chiefs deployed Wilson last season was nearly identical to how Landry was used in Miami. Both players function in the same areas of the field, as Next Gen Stats shows us.
Average yards of separation: Wilson, 4.1; Landry, 3.2.
Intended air yards on targets: Wilson, 6.4; Landry, 6.4.
Wilson was also a valuable player with the ball in his hands last season. Next Gen Stats developed a metric that measures yards after the catch adjusted for the separation a receiver has when targeted. In other words, receivers who beef up their YAC totals on "wide open" targets in space are dinged, and players who create more YAC are highlighted. Wilson ranked sixth-highest among wide receivers last year, averaging 1.91 separation-adjusted YAC per reception.
Essentially, the Dolphins found themselves a steeply discounted version of Landry. Wilson will sign a three-year, $24 million contract with the Dolphins, while Landry carried a $16 million franchise-tag cost with him to Cleveland. While he might not approach the 100-catch totals Landry annually pushed for in Miami, Wilson will provide a great return on that investment.
3) Sammy Watkins to Kansas City Chiefs
Contract terms agreed to: Three-year deal for $48 million, including $30 million guaranteed at signing.
Already laden with playmakers Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs added another piece to Patrick Mahomes' offense by agreeing to a deal with Sammy Watkins. On Tuesday morning, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the three-year deal will come with $30 million guaranteed at signing. It's a hefty commitment to taking another step offensively.
Watkins' 2017 season with the Rams was widely viewed as a disappointment from a surface-level perspective. However, his 93.1 passer rating when targeted on tight-window throws was impressive. Operating in tight coverage was already a strength of the Chiefs' entrenched top wideout; quarterback Alex Smith had a 99.0 passer rating when throwing to Hill in tight windows.
Hill developed true No. 1 receiver ability last season after operating as a gadget player in his first pro campaign. Yet, the Chiefs still maximize his value by moving him across the formation and locating him on downfield targets. Watkins, on the other hand, will fill in as a traditional X-receiver. Over 78 percent of his targets last season came when he lined up out wide, and he had a 122.2 passer rating on those throws. He's also a better target on short-area throws than given credit for, with a 122.6 passer rating on targets traveling 10 or fewer air yards. Watkins' ability to offer a complementary skill set to Hill reveals the true reason for this signing. The fit works, with the move getting downgraded only because of the cost, which was slightly on the pricey side.
4) Taylor Gabriel to Chicago Bears
Contract terms agreed to: Four-year deal.
The Chicago Bears were justifiably not content to just add Robinson to the wide receiver room. After securing the top outside wide receiver on the market, they turned their sights to former Falcons big-play weapon Taylor Gabriel. "Good Morning Football's" Peter Schrager reported Tuesday that Gabriel will head to Chicago on a four-year deal.
As with the Robinson agreement, this is another move that shows Bears head coach Matt Nagy is committed to constructing an offense akin to what the Chiefs ran the last few seasons. Gabriel fits in well with Nagy's brand of creative spread attack that provides space for the point-guard quarterback. In 2016, when he was last paired with another one of the NFL's top innovative minds, Niners coach and former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Gabriel averaged 3.2 yards of separation on his targets. He'll also provide the team with a player who can win in the open field. Gabriel ranked ninth among wide receivers last year, averaging 1.49 adjusted YAC per reception. This Next Gen Stats metric shows which wide receivers gain extra yardage beyond just what they're expected to get based on the separation they had when thrown to.
5) Paul Richardson to Washington Redskins
Contract terms agreed to: Five-year deal for $40 million, with $20 million in guarantees.
The Washington Redskins clearly needed to upgrade the wide receiver position, with Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson being the only two players on the depth chart with any tangible promise. The team swung big, as NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported Tuesday that they are expected to sign former Seahawks receiver Paul Richardson to a five-year, $40 million deal.
Richardson broke out in 2017, playing 16 games for the first time in his pro career. Despite a twice-torn ACL being part of his injury history, Richardson remains a lethal downfield threat. The former second-round pick hauled in seven deep balls for 275 yards and three scores in Seattle last year. He'll join another great deep threat in Doctson, who, with Richardson, was in the top 13 in Next Gen Stats' ranking of deep threats. While that might cause some to worry that their skill sets are redundant, Richardson's presence as the X-receiver should help Doctson avoid constantly running into No. 1 corners in press-man coverage as he looks to orchestrate his own breakout.
Washington's move to sign another vertical receiver signals it's looking to make sure Alex Smith's 2017 season was not an outlier but a sign of the future. Smith, who will take the reins at QB as a result of the trade Washington agreed to with Kansas City in January, led all quarterbacks in deep-ball yardage (1,248) and passer rating (134.7) by a decent gap. Doctson and Richardson operating on the outside will give him a fighting chance to at least push for the top 10 in 2018, even if a No. 1 encore is unlikely.
Richardson's addition is unlikely to change the course of Washington's passing offense in the way an addition like Allen Robinson might have. But he will solidify their three-wide receiver set. The move will be judged by Richardson's ability to stay healthy and help Doctson unlock his potential with the tactical leverage his deep speed provides.
6) John Brown to Baltimore Ravens
Few teams entered free agency with such a dire need at wide receiver as the Baltimore Ravens. Mike Wallace already hit the open market. Jeremy Maclin was a disappointment in his first season with the team and was released Wednesday. Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore combined to catch 28 of 73 targets last season. To patch up the leak, they agreed to terms with former Arizona Cardinals wideout John Brown and former Washington receiver Ryan Grant.
It feels like a lost age, but at one point, Brown looked like one of the prime budding superstars in the NFL. Ever since his breakout 1,000-yard campaign in 2015, injuries amid a sickle-cell trait diagnosis have derailed his progress at multiple turns. If the Ravens are going to get a starter out of this dice roll, the first step will be Brown showing that a change of scenery and medical staffs can get his health back on track.
Brown showed flashes of his ability in the last calendar year. Primarily a vertical threat, Brown averaged 14.9 and 15.7 air yards on his targets over the last two seasons, respectively. Despite that, he's still managed to consistently get open, averaging 3.0 and 2.8 yards of separation in 2016 and 2017 on all his routes when the quarterback releases the ball. Brown is a marvelous vertical receiver, but when he's healthy, he's so much more. This is a precise route-runner who can create separation across the route tree, not just deep patterns.
Quarterback Joe Flacco's downfield passing prowess has eroded as his career has gone on. He ranked 33rd in deep-ball passer rating last season, with a paltry 40.2. If Brown returns to form, he's just the type of wideout to assist the aging passer. Knowing whether Brown will ever return to form is anyone's guess. But taking the chance to find out is more than worth it for the Ravens.
7) Danny Amendola to Miami Dolphins
Contract terms agreed to: Two-year deal for $12 million, with $8.25 million in guarantees.
Miami obviously wanted to revamp its wide receiver room, and the Dolphins are on their way to doing so. Yet, it's worth wondering if they're bringing in two players who are both most effective when used on the interior. Amendola saw 87 percent of his targets when lined up in the slot last season.
Amendola is a solid role player who came up huge in clutch moments for the Patriots during his time there. Perhaps Adam Gase just wants him in a young wide receiver room as a stabilizing veteran presence. But Miami still doesn't have a true No. 1 wide receiver to dictate coverage on high-leverage outside routes and win contested passes. It appears the organization's holding out a last string of hope that DeVante Parker can still be that player. However, the Dolphins' quarterbacks posted a miserable 14.9 passer rating on tight-window throws to Parker last season.