Every front office and personnel department worked overtime last weekend trying to get a grip on their own free agents, potential free agents around the league, the upcoming Combine for draftable players and what the market may be at each position.
A number of front office people from around the league told me they anticipate what one GM called irresponsible spending when free agency opens up. Another front office executive said, "Just because we need a certain position player doesn't mean we should spend $15-20 million in guaranteed money for an average guy. That was done here in the past and it disrupts the locker room and distorts our draft process."
Getting a good feel for each position and the multiple talent pools from which to draw is critical for wise decision making and team building. Right now, the position that jumps out at me as hard to get a handle on is wide receiver.
It seems like every day the talent available is changing and it looks like it's turning into a buyer's market if a team is looking for wide receivers. Let's take a look at all of the talent pools for wide receivers. Keep in mind most NFL teams are going to carry five or six WRs on their roster when September rolls around.
Free agency hasn't even started yet and three players with experience have been released into the talent pool. Muhsin Muhammad (40 rec-570 yds-3TD) just came on the market, having been cut from the Bears. He follows the release of Marty Booker (50-556 yds-1TD), who was released by Miami, and Peerless Price, who was recently dropped by Buffalo. There will be at least four or five more receivers cut loose before free agency starts up in March.
The next wave of unannounced free-agent receivers to hit the street could very well include Donte Stallworth of the Patriots (46-697-3TD) and Javon Walker of the Broncos (26-287-0TD), because of roster bonuses due to them that the teams will not want to pay to keep the players. Do these players work with the club or do they take their chances on the street, where so many receivers will be lined up on the unemployment line?
Free agency should see about 30 unrestricted free-agent receivers and close to 10 restricted free-agent receivers come on the market. What will the Patriots do about Randy Moss, who caught 98 passes for 1,493 yards and 23 touchdowns last season? A one-year franchise tag will cost the Pats $8 million of salary cap space. Does Moss want to stay in New England at the other end of Tom Brady's passes? Is it a good idea to put a transition tag on him instead of a franchise tag and find out what his market value is at this point in his career? What if he didn't bring an offer back to the Patriots because he was concerned the Patriots wouldn't match the offer and he would be stuck in another situation like he was in Oakland?
There will be different levels of interest in free-agent receivers like Jerry Porter of the Raiders (44-705-6TD), Bryant Johnson of the Cardinals (46-528-2TD), Ernest Wilford of the Jaguars (45-518-3TD), Drew Carter and Keary Colbert of the Panthers, and David Patten of the Saints ... just to name a few. Keep in mind the best wide receiver in the draft last year was Calvin Johnson and he only caught 48 passes and four touchdowns. The most productive rookie was Dwayne Bowe of the Chiefs, who had 70 receptions and five TDs. But they were first-round selections and I'm fairly confident you can pick up a solid veteran from this list for less money than a first-round receiver this spring.
The last grouping of the veteran market is really uncharted waters. There are two terrific wide receivers that may come available -- but no one will discuss it openly on the club side; the signability could be a driving force. Larry Fitzgerald is scheduled to make close to $15 million this season in Arizona and an even bigger number in 2009. Roy Williams is in Detroit, where the offensive philosophy is changing to a more conservative style and there are more receivers than they need. The team also has other holes to fill on the roster. Sooner or later the Lions will have to address Williams' contract as it relates to what Calvin Johnson got when he came out in the 2007 NFL Draft. Can the Lions afford both? There will be team executives at the combine this week inquiring about these two premier receivers.
So think about it for a minute. Before teams even converge on the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week to evaluate the draftable wide receivers, there are a lot of options on the street which could drive the rookie wide receiver class down. Heading into this weekend there are somewhere between 3-5 wide receivers with potential first round grades. Another 5-7 with second-round grades, and 3-5 with third-round grades. In total, the 2008 NFL Draft should produce anywhere from 30-40 draft-eligible receivers. Add that number to the other talent pools, and NFL teams will have anywhere from 60-80 receivers to select from this offseason. That's a buyer's market!
Below is a quick look at some of the draftable wide receivers who are going to have to make a solid impression at the combine if they want to hold off the veteran competition for the big NFL money. My first reaction to the draft list was that it might not have been a great idea for underclassmen such as DeSean Jackson (Cal), Malcolm Kelly (Oklahoma), James Hardy (Indiana), Earl Bennett (Vanderbilt), Adrian Arrington (Michigan) and Devin Thomas (Michigan State) to come out of school early. Some of these guys are really going to get burned in this process -- especially if all the veteran talent becomes available.
One GM I talk with frequently believes the wide receiver talent in the draft is average at best and there isn't a Calvin Johnson in the class; there seems to be more risk at the top of the class. Here are the pre-combine favorites:
Potential first-round group
James Hardy, Indiana: The tallest receiver in the draft at 6-6 but a junior with a basketball mentality is how one personnel guy described him. Everyone is looking for the next Plaxico Burress. Hardy had 36 touchdowns in his three years with the Hoosiers and would be a good fit for a team with small receivers.
DeSean Jackson, Cal: Some have him ranked at the top of the receiver board because of his speed. He needs to do well in his interviews with some GMs this week if he wants to stay on top. Had 162 receptions and 27 touchdowns in three seasons at Cal, which is good production. Is he the next Terry Glenn?
Malcolm Kelly, Oklahoma: A big junior with 144 receptions and 21 scores in three seasons with the Sooners. He could wind up as the fastest big guy in the draft but that may not be saying much for a class of receivers with Jerry Porter-type speed.
Potential second-round group
Limas Sweed. Texas: A wrist injury has teams divided on this big receiver. He did have 124 receptions in college and has made big plays in big games.
Devin Thomas, Michigan State: A junior college transfer (JUCO) with one year of solid production. He needs to tear up the 40 time this weekend to stay in this group. His lack of college production may prevent him from making group one.
Potential third-round group
Earl Bennett, Vanderbilt: In the last two years he grabbed 161 balls and scored 15 times. One receivers coach I spoke with who is tough on route running told me he likes this kid.
Eddie Royal, Virginia Tech: His speed jumps out at you. He can get behind defenders. Another young player who was helped by working at the Senior Bowl.
Finally, teams like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago may need a big wide receiver. Dallas, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Jacksonville may desire a speed receiver. A team like Philadelphia may need someone to put it over the top. There should be little problem satisfying a team need at receiver this offseason.