Four wildly productive wide receivers are expected to reach free agency in March. Only one of them is over 30 years old. This does not happen often.
Bowe's talent is undeniable, but his "baggage" scares some teams to death. Jennings has missed 11 games the past two seasons. The Pittsburgh Steelers know Wallace best, and they are expected to let him walk away after a disappointing 2012 campaign. Welker is tough to project away from Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' scheme.
I started thinking this week: What wide receiver out of this group would I target if I was an NFL general manager? Here's my list.
4. Wes Welker
Interested teams need to have a plan for Welker if they sign him. It's not all about the system with Welker, but it is largely about the mental telepathy Welker has with Brady. So much of Welker's production comes off option routes where Brady and Welker see the field with the same eyes.
That could be recreated on other teams, but it takes a heady quarterback and a coordinator that knows how to attack the middle of the field. Welker would fit great with teams like the New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons because they have great quarterbacks and could come up with a plan to take advantage of Welker's strengths. But it's easy to imagine Welker getting lost on the wrong team.
While he still has short-area quickness, Welker turns 32 next season. He drops way too many passes. He's a good piece to the puzzle, but not every puzzle.
3. Dwayne Bowe
I struggled with how to evaluate Bowe. He's quietly made strides over the last two seasons in consistency and the "little things" at the receiver position. A great man-press corner still gives Bowe problems, but there's no doubt he's a huge weapon in the red zone. He's mostly worked hard and kept the Kansas City Chiefs happy by staying quiet the last two seasons. But he was also playing for a contract.
Bowe relies on his physical dominance to beat cornerbacks. While he only turns 29 next season, is he a receiver that is going to age well as his dominance declines? Does he want it badly enough?
Bowe should get a contract close to what Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson earned last year. But he's not the same vertical threat and there's a much bigger question as to how Bowe will react to a huge contract. It's hard to get a read on Bowe's desire to be great. You have to worry that he'll view a big deal as the completion of a goal, rather than motivation to be one of the best in the NFL.
2. Greg Jennings
There are risks with Jennings because of his knee and groin problems over the last two years. He would not be ranked second here if not for how he looked when he returned to the Green Bay Packers late in the 2012 season. His after-catch ability was back. Jennings' hands, smarts and guile were never in doubt. Jennings strikes me as a receiver that will age well, like an Isaac Bruce. His intelligence and work ethic have never been in question and he's versatile enough to fit in any system.
Jennings might not be a true "No. 1" but he can line up anywhere on the field. He can break big plays and catch passes underneath. He oddly seems underrated because of his injuries, and that should keep his price tag lower than that of Bowe and Wallace. To use a draft prospect term, Jennings has a high floor. He's a relatively safe big ticket item that should improve any style of passing game.
1. Mike Wallace
Age matters. Speed matters. The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver has an edge in both departments over the competition. It's rare to be able to sign a receiver that is only turning 27 and who has *averaged * more than 1,000 yards a season throughout his career. Wallace has also averaged 17.2 yards per catch over that span, making him one of the top big-play threats in the NFL. Big plays are worth a little extra risk.
There has been an open question in Pittsburgh about Wallace's lack of improvement over the last few years. He tends to be a bit of a one-trick pony, and he appeared to let his contract situation distract him. He's not going to be Calvin Johnson, a true No. 1 receiver that can do everything and dominate a game. But how many of those guys are out there?
Wallace, like Welker, needs to find the right home. He needs a team that will play to his strengths rather than try to turn him into something he's not. The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, among other teams, have shown time and again this is a big-play league. Wallace adds an element that many offenses simply don't have. He's proven he can take the top off of defenses.
When drafting a receiver in the top 10, NFL teams hope to get a guy that defenses must account for. Wallace has already shown he can do it. He should get the biggest deal. He's the receiver I'd spend my money on.