NFL free agency is just about upon us! History typically hasn’t been kind to wide receivers switching teams, but that doesn’t mean some of the league’s available talents at the position won’t be playing elsewhere in 2021.
Arguably the two biggest names in the class, Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson, have already been franchise tagged and thus won’t hit the open market. Note that the latter receiver in particular could still be playing elsewhere come September due to a potential trade.
There aren’t exactly a plethora of high-end options guaranteed to settle into featured roles remaining on the open market, but that shouldn’t stop us from getting a grip on each prospective free agent WR’s 1) general career success to this point, 2) best-case landing spot, 3) worst-case destination, and 4) most realistic new team.
Note that each WR’s dream, nightmare and best-guess spots are determined through a mix of fantasy football and real life purposes. Volume is king in fantasyland, so we need to identify realistic landing spots when it comes to projected workload and not just focus on which units are expected to score the most overall points.
WIDE RECEIVER: WILL FULLER
Breakdown: Every week was Will Fuller week until a silly thing known as PED use had to get in the way. The man truly only missed due to 1) limited snaps due to a Week 2 hamstring injury, and 2) playing in a borderline monsoon in Week 10:
- Week 1: 8 receptions-112 yards-0 TD
- Week 2: 0-0-0
- Week 3: 4-54-1
- Week 4: 6-108-1
- Week 5: 4-58-1
- Week 6: 6-123-1
- Week 7: 3-35-1
- Week 9: 5-100-1
- Week 10: 5-38-0
- Week 11: 6-80-0
- Week 12: 6-171-2
We don’t know what Fuller was taking, so speculation regarding if whether it was something that helped him not get injured for the first time in his career is fair.
Still, it’s easy to see how having Fuller’s field-stretching speed in the fold can immediately elevate an entire offense. Deshaun Watson has averaged 8.8 yards per attempt vs. 7.6 and 26.1 fantasy points per game vs. 23.1 with Fuller compared to without since 2017, while DeAndre Hopkins was also far better in the fantasy points (20.3 vs. 18.9) and TDs (0.81 vs. 0.43) per game departments with the Texans’ speedster even though he had more targets per game without.
Fuller was the PPR WR8 in fantasyland before getting suspended; he’s a legit No. 1 WR who can take a passing game from good to great in a hurry.
Dream spot: Rams. “Wherever Deshaun Watson winds up” is also a viable answer. We saw Sean McVay get productive seasons out of field-stretchers like Sammy Watkins (39-593-8) and Brandin Cooks (80-1,204-5) in 2017-2018 before things took a turn south over the past two seasons. Pairing Fuller with one of the league’s 1) brightest offensive minds, and 2) strongest-armed QBs, would be good for real life and fantasy business alike.
Nightmare spot: Honestly I’m not sure one exists. I truly believe all 32 NFL teams would be better with Fuller on them. So my answer has a caveat: the Texans, but with Watson either getting traded or deciding to sit out. In this scenario we’d have Fuller continuing to see even opportunity with Brandin Cooks, only someone like A.J. freaking McCarron would be at QB. Sheesh.
Best-guess spot: Colts. It’d make sense if Fuller offers his services to the highest bidder; only the Jaguars, Jets and Patriots have more cap space than the Colts at the moment. The expected departure of T.Y. Hilton and potentially Zach Pascal could leave them without two of their starting receivers from a year ago. I like Michael Pittman and Parris Campbell, but more depth is needed. We saw Carson Wentz play the best football of his career in 2017 with the help from field-stretching talents Torrey Smith and (healthy) Mack Hollins.
WIDE RECEIVER: JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER
Breakdown: It’s unclear just how much JuJu was hampered by injury in 2020. He didn’t miss a game, but looked like a shell of his former self athletically. Obviously the 24-year-old talent doesn’t have many miles on the odometer; just realize he found himself in rough company in just about any efficiency metric last season:
- PFF receiving grade: 67.9 (tied for No. 61 among 84 WRs with 50-plus targets)
- Yards per reception: 8.6 (No. 82)
- Yards after the catch per reception: 4.2 (tied for No. 50)
- Yards per route run: 1.29 (tied for No. 68)
Clearly life without Antonio Brown drawing away coverage hasn’t been kind to Smith-Schuster, but what happened to the elusive YAC-threat that we saw cause all kinds of problems for defenders in space?
Smith-Schuster is one of just 11 WRs in NFL history with at least 3,500 receiving yards before turning 25. He’s shown the ability to operate as one of the league’s most productive receivers; the (literal) million dollar question is whether or not that same player is around these days.
Dream spot: Raiders. Derek Carr throws a b-e-a-utiful deep ball; he just doesn’t choose to throw it all that often. Enter: JuJu, who would be an instant upgrade over the least-realistic NFL player alive in Hunter Renfrow. The likes of Darren Waller, Henry Ruggs and (maybe) Nelson Agholor would pull away some coverage, while it’s tough to find another non-Steelers team that could afford him a higher target projection.
Nightmare spot: Eagles. This offense has had a hard enough time stretching the field in recent years; adding the current edition of Smith-Schuster would only further muddle up the shallow and intermediate areas of the field for this passing game. Throw in the reality that Jalen Hurts figures to operate a run-first attack, and this marriage likely wouldn’t do much to fill up the stat sheet.
Best-guess spot: Jets. Only the Jaguars have more available cap space, and current starting slot receiver Jamison Crowder is a candidate to be cut. Would I build the passing game around JuJu if I were running the Jets? Absolutely not, but I’m not, and I wouldn’t put it past this ever-dysfunctional organization to make an ill-advised splashy free agent signing for one of the league’s social media darlings.
WIDE RECEIVER: KENNY GOLLADAY
Breakdown: The artist known as Babytron posted 70-1,063-5 and 65-1,190-11 receiving lines in 2018-2019 before being limited to just five games in 2020. When healthy, Golladay combines enough size (6-foot-4, 213-pounds) and speed (4.5-second 40-yard dash) to give any corner in the league problems.
Concerns over Golladay’s separation ability are probably overblown considering his demonstrated high-end contested-catch ability. Overall, he joins Michael Thomas, Chris Godwin and Stefon Diggs as the only wide receivers to catch at least 60% of their contested targets since 2017 among 81 qualified players. Nobody has a higher PFF receiving grade than Golladay (96.8) on contested targets since he entered the league.
Receivers capable of getting consistently open are incredibly valuable; just realize Golladay is a rare breed capable of turning 50/50 balls into 60/40 propositions with stunning regularity. It’d make sense if the 27-year-old talent doesn’t age incredibly with this sort of skill set, but for meow he’s anybody’s idea of a high-end talent on the outside.
Dream spot: Bengals. We’ve already seen Joe Burrow demonstrate pin-point accuracy and ball placement; let’s try to get that deep ball in better shape by upgrading from AJG to Golladay. Some (me) will argue that Auden Tate is capable of picking up the slack in three-WR sets alongside Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, but Golladay would undoubtedly be a higher-upside option.
Nightmare spot: Patriots. This passing game was a disaster last season. While adding Golladay would certainly help the other receivers and whoever winds up under center, he would face more concentrated coverage than ever before with a likely downgrade in talent at QB. Golladay is like Fuller in that he possesses a skill set capable of elevating any offense, so this is more of a low-end outcome for Golladay’s fantasy stock than anything else.
Best-guess spot: Cardinals. Obviously DeAndre Hopkins is Kyler Murray’s No. 1 WR, but adding Golladay on the outside would allow Christian Kirk to get back to the slot and finally give this offense a true downfield nightmare for defenses to worry about. What will secondaries do when faced with the prospect of leaving either Golladay or Hopkins in single coverage? I don’t know and would love to find out; hopefully the Cardinals feel the same way.
WIDE RECEIVER: COREY DAVIS
Breakdown: We saw a few flashes from the former No. 5 overall pick during the 2017-2019 seasons, but it took until 2020 for Davis to truly resemble a high-end receiver. Obviously life as the third option in an offense featuring Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown produced less tough matchups than usual; just realize Davis largely did nothing other than ball out last season.
Don’t believe me? Let’s play a game:
First up is Player A:
- PFF receiving grade: 87.2
- Yards per reception: 15.1
- Yards after the catch per reception: 4.4
- Yards per route run: 2.58
And then we have Player B:
- PFF receiving grade: 86.4
- Yards per reception: 15.1
- Yards after the catch per reception: 4.5
- Yards per route run: 2.6
Naturally Davis is Player A. Julio Jones is Player B. Madness.
I’m not here to argue that Davis is as good as Julio. That idea is fiction. Still, Davis does deserve credit for his work in 2020 and has earned treatment as a higher-end WR2 at worst ahead of next season.
Dream spot: Jaguars. A three-WR set featuring Davis, D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault would be a brilliant way to kick start the Trevor Lawrence era. High-end volume would be likely while this defense undergoes inevitable growing pains. Jacksonville would afford Davis life as a true No. 1 pass-game option without putting him in a situation where he’ll attract all the coverage.
Nightmare spot: Dolphins. I maintain Tua wasn’t as bad as most made him out to be as a rookie, but putting Davis in an offense with same-sized No. 1 WR DeVante Parker and contested-catch artist Mike Gesicki could clog things up for everyone involved. This isn’t to say Davis wouldn’t improve this passing game; this spot would just be underwhelming and would hurt the target ceilings for all parties involved.
Best-guess spot: Ravens. I’d prefer the Ravens tried to get Lamar Jackson a true No. 1 WR like the Bills, Browns and Cardinals have all done for their respective young signal-callers, but Davis would at least provide them with an outside receiver capable of winning in all areas of the field. His fantasy stock wouldn’t love this move, although triple-digit targets would certainly be in his potential range of outcomes.
WIDE RECEIVER: CURTIS SAMUEL
Breakdown: Early-career injuries limited Samuel to just 22 of 32 games through his first two seasons. Still, the 2017 second-round pick flashed enough ability as both a rusher and receiver to think a breakout campaign could be on the way with a larger role. This volume was afforded to Samuel in 2019 to the tune of 105 targets; the problem was that Kyle Allen failed to provide anything resembling league-average QB play.
Friendly reminder Curtis Samuel would've gone for 1,500+ yards in 2019 with something resembling a professional QB under centerpic.twitter.com/i4yZIrksNr
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 10, 2021
Things improved considerably in 2020, as Samuel posted 77-851-3 receiving and 41-200-2 rushing lines while working as a slot WR/RB hybrid for most of the season.
This versatility is what makes the 24-year-old talent so alluring for basically any offense in the league. Samuel has shown the ability to work as an effective rusher and receiver while lining up just about anywhere. This hasn’t translated to a ton of consistent production thus far, but this could also be chalked up to life in a crowded passing game with a combination of injured and erratic QBs under center.
Dream spot: Packers. Putting Samuel in the league’s reigning No. 1 scoring offense would give Aaron Rodgers his most versatile chess piece since prime Randall Cobb. The fit would seemingly be perfect between field-stretching WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling and All-World talent Davante Adams. This is literally my single favorite free agency fit for any player regardless of position.
Nightmare spot: Like Fuller and Golladay: I’m not sure one exists. I’ll go with the Ravens due to their 1) run-first offense, 2) crowded backfield, and 3) failure to develop high-end pass-game talent in recent years. This group would be better with Samuel than without; I just have my doubts regarding Samuel’s fantasy upside in this scenario.
Best-guess spot: Washington Football Team. There’s a clear opening at No. 2 WR across from Terry McLaurin as well as a history between Samuel and former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and OC Scott Turner. We probably wouldn’t see Samuel get many reps at RB with similarly versatile backs Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic holding things down, but the right QB could make this a productive marriage for everyone involved.
BEST OF THE REST
- Antonio Brown probably earned himself a bit more money elsewhere thanks to his 1) good behavior, and 2) good, albeit not spectacular, play. The artist known as Mr. Big Chest turns 33 in July but can still play after earning PFF’s ninth-highest receiving grade among all receivers with at least 25 targets. The Jets make sense as a team with both an open depth chart and plenty of available funds.
- Sammy Watkins balls out in January and Week 1 on an annual basis. The soon-to-be 28-year-old WR is still a plenty solid No. 2 or No. 3 option even if he’ll never live up to his status as the No. 4 overall pick of the 2014 draft. Watkins hasn’t played all 16 games since his rookie season.
- John Brown was a cap casualty after dealing with injuries for most of 2020. The artist known as Smokey put up a 72-1,060-6 receiving line in 2019 and was the Ravens’ best WR in 2018; the man can play when healthy (just ask Stephon Gilmore). There should be plenty of potential suitors for the soon-to-be 31-year-old field-stretching WR, but expecting a true 1.A or 1.B role might be a bit of a reach.
- T.Y. HIlton has averaged a 5-79-0.4 receiving line in 82 career games with Andrew Luck, and a 3.9-56.1-0.3 line in 51 games with everyone else. Targets were hard to come by with Philip Rivers spreading things around in 2020, but Hilton wasn’t exactly popping off the film as someone who should’ve been fed far more opportunities. We’ve almost certainly already seen the best years of Hilton’s career.
- Marvin Jones has scored nine touchdowns in three of the past four years; a reunion with Matthew Stafford in L.A. makes a lot of sense even though I’d prefer to see them complement Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods with more of a pure field-stretching option.
- Emmanuel Sanders was a better ball away from scoring the go-ahead TD late in the Super Bowl all the way back in 2020. The fact he managed to go for 61-726-5 in 14 games last season is impressive considering he was working with Drew Brees’ noodle arm and whatever the hell Taysom Hill is. He’s probably a more realistic target for the Packers than one of our highlighted options (I’m not happy about it, either).
- Nelson Agholor should be a top-two WR somewhere in 2021; he’s earned it.
- A.J. Green looked like a shell of himself in 2021, putting up five (!!!) goose-egg performances and regularly being outplayed by his teammates. His name should get him another chance somewhere; it’s just tough to expect much of a resurgence from the longtime stud receiver based on what we saw last season.
- Breshad Perriman has performed well with each of the Browns, Buccaneers and Jets since leaving the Ravens. We saw some great moments in 2020, particularly when Joe Flacco replaced injured slot-feeder extraordinaire Sam Darnold. The thought of Perriman joining the Chiefs as a cheaper replacement for Watkins is borderline erotic.
- Alshon Jeffery looked washed in 2019 and proceeded to catch six passes for 115 yards and a score in seven games last season despite having zero competition for targets. Similar to AJG: Jeffery’s name should get him another chance somewhere; it’s just tough to expect much of a resurgence from the long-time stud receiver based on what we saw last season.
- Golden Tate is the swaggiest TD scorer of the 21st century, but hasn’t been the same sort of YAC monster during the past two and a half seasons with the Eagles and Giants. Tate is still a reliable slot receiver; we just shouldn’t expect him to work as an offense’s No. 1 or No. 2 pass-game option these days.
- Larry Fitzgerald is a surefire Hall of Famer, but sheesh things were rough in 2020. No WR averaged fewer yards per reception than Fitzgerald among 84 qualified players. Credit to old man Fitz for not dropping a pass, but signing him up to be anything more than a reliable No. 3 WR (at best) seems like wishful thinking.
- Rashard Higgins possesses a comically bad athletic profile but has overachieved throughout his career thanks to A+ chemistry with Baker Mayfield. It’s tough to see Higgins sustaining his efficient ways elsewhere, although it wouldn’t be the first time the 26-year-old receiver has proved perceived haters like me wrong.
- Josh Reynolds failed to take control of the Rams’ No. 3 WR job even without Brandin Cooks in the picture last season. There are only a handful of spots where we could expect Reynolds to work as anything more than the offense’s No. 4 WR.
- Keelan Cole outperformed expectations throughout his time with the Jaguars and will be 28 in April. Similar to Reynolds: Cole is fine, but don’t expect many (any?) teams to throw a No. 3 WR role his way.
- John Ross has the sort of speed to get plenty of second chances; I’d love to see him with the Rams to replace Reynolds as the team’s No. 3/No. 4 WR. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, bad-ass speed.”
- Chris Conley is the proud promoter of Club TopShot and has the sort of size (6-foot-2, 213-pounds) and speed (4.35-second 40-yard dash) to continue to earn a job somewhere.
- DeSean Jackson simply hasn’t been able to stay healthy over the past two years, but there should be a suitor willing to give a non-guaranteed deal to the (still) speedy receiver.
- Dez Bryant caught it. Things didn’t look great with the Ravens, but then again what receiver has looked great with them in recent memory. Regardless, don’t expect anything resembling a featured role for the x-man at this point in his career.
- Adam Humphries was the recipient of an odd bidding war between the Patriots and Titans during the 2019 offseason; don’t be surprised if he’s the starting slot receiver somewhere come September.
- Demarcus Robinson doesn’t figure to fetch a starting role anywhere other than Kansas City; this Mecole Hardman truther is hoping that he leaves anyway.
- Kendrick Bourne is a natural fit in the slot with the Jets under ex-49ers assistant turned OC Mike LaFleur if Jamison Crowder winds up being a cap casualty.
- Tim Patrick is underrated because of the Broncos’ younger receivers, but the restricted free agent regularly made the most of his opportunities in 2020 and is an under-the-radar option to ball out elsewhere with an enhanced role.
- Allen Lazard battled injuries in 2020. The exclusive rights free agent figures to be back due to his ongoing love affair with Aaron Rodgers.
- Zach Pascal: the sort of solid enough receiver that you’ll inevitably overlook only to be shocked that he’s starting ahead of your preferred rookie come Week 1.