SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. BUCS SHOULD PASS ON LACKLUSTER FREE AGENT WR CLASS
At first glance the 2017 free agent wide receiver class has plenty of appealing names for Tampa Bay – established veterans with 1,000-yard seasons that could step in and be the No. 2 option opposite Pro Bowler Mike Evans.
Big-bodied targets like Chicago’s Alshon Jeffery and Los Angeles’ Kenny Britt with big catch radiuses to help Jameis Winston and the ability to go up and win 50-50 balls.
Speedsters like Washington’s Desean Jackson and Kenny Stills capable of taking the top off of defenses and forcing defensive coordinators to keep both safeties back in coverage, which helps open up the running game.
Armed with $70,065,114 in salary cap room in 2017, according to OverTheCap.com, the Buccaneers have the chance to be big spenders and movers and shakers at the start of free agency in March. General manager Jason Licht favors the draft and abhors free agency due to its low success rate, but the fact is that he did quite well with free agents last year, signing cornerback Brent Grimes, defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr. and helping special teams with the addition of punter Bryan Anger and cornerback Josh Robinson.
Among Tampa Bay’s most pressing roster needs heading into 2017 is a bona fide receiver capable of turning in a 1,000-yard season as a complement to Evans or taking over for him as a primary target if Evans gets injured. The Bucs missed Vincent Jackson when the 6-foot-5 receiver went down with a partially torn ACL during the Carolina game in Week 5.
Jackson was one of the best free agent signings in team history as he caught 268 passes for 4,326 yards (16.1 avg.) and 20 touchdowns in Tampa Bay after signing a five-year, $55,555,555 deal in 2012. Jackson was 29 years old when he became a Buccaneer and made an instant impact with 72 catches for 1,384 yards (19.2 avg.) and eight touchdowns, which was one of three straight 1,000-yard seasons before his productivity greatly diminished in 2015 due to knee injuries.
In my opinion there aren’t any Jacksons in this year’s free agent crop. I don’t see any elite Pro Bowl receivers among the supposed big names. Now that might be okay because Evans is Tampa Bay’s Pro Bowler and what the Bucs need is a very good secondary option for Winston in the passing game. But keep in mind that any of these big-name receivers will be signed for more than Evans makes, and that’s an issue.
Evans is one of a few NFL receivers to start their pro career with three 1,000-yard seasons. The 23-year old star is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is set to earn $4.65 million and the team can pick up his fifth-year option because he was a first-round pick. However, Evans, who has become one of the league’s elite receivers, likely won’t be satisfied making around $6 million when Pro Bowlers like Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald average over $14 million per season.
Evans can’t be expected to be happy making $4.65 million in 2017 when Mohamed Sanu, Atlanta’s No. 2 receiver opposite Jones, will be making $6 million with a $7.4 million cap charge. What needs to happen first is Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg working on a contract extension for Evans in February and keeping their homegrown talent happy.
After getting a new deal done for Evans, Tampa Bay can explore free agency and see what the market value is for some of these receivers and see which ones best fit Koetter’s offense – and the Bucs locker room from a chemistry standpoint. Let’s take a look at the top receivers available, but don’t hold your breath that any will be wearing red and pewter in 2017.
Miami WR Kenny Stills – 6-0, 195 – 24 (turns 25 on Apr. 22)
Stills was traded from New Orleans to Miami after just two years with the Saints. Word has it that New Orleans head coach Sean Payton didn’t like Stills’ attitude, and the drafting of speedster Brandin Cooks in the first round of the 2014 draft made Stills, a similar player, expendable despite recording a career-high 63 catches for 931 yards and three touchdowns.
The former Oklahoma receiver didn’t live up to that production during his first year in Miami, catching a career-low 27 passes for 440 yards (16.3 avg.) and three touchdowns. But going from Drew Brees to Ryan Tannehill will do that to a guy. With new head coach Adam Gase on the scene in Miami this year, Stills’ numbers improved to 42 receptions for 726 yards (17.3 avg.) with a team-high nine touchdowns, which was also a career high.
Stills is one of Gase’s favorite weapons, and the Dolphins are expected to put the full-court press to re-sign their third-leading receiver. If the Bucs are inclined to pursue Stills they could promise him the starting job opposite Evans in Tampa Bay where he would get more than the 81 targets he received last year. In Miami, Stills is behind Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker on the depth chart.
Stills caught a 76-yard touchdown against Tampa Bay in the 2013 season finale and his 4.32 speed would be a welcomed addition to Koetter’s offense. Yet there are some big questions surrounding Stills. Does he want to leave Miami? How big is his price tag? And are his attitude issues a thing of the past, or will a big payday have a detrimental effect on the 24-year old big-play producer?
Washington WR DeSean Jackson – 5-10, 175 – 30 (turns 31 on Dec. 1)
Jackson, who is entering his 10th year in the NFL, is coming off his fifth 1,000-yard season after catching 56 passes for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. Jackson also had two years in which he eclipsed 900 receiving yards, and has 498 catches for 8,819 yards and 46 touchdowns in his career.
What is appealing about Jackson is his speed and ability to make explosive plays. Jackson owns a 17.7-yards per catch average over his career, and averaged 17.9 yards per reception last season. While durability can be a problem as he’s missed eight games over the past three years, Jackson did have 19 catches of 20 yards or more, which is the most of any free agent wide receiver and four more than Evans had in Tampa Bay last year. Jackson had five catches of beyond 40 yards or more, including an 80-yard touchdown against Philadelphia, which is where his NFL career began.
Jackson has hinted at returning to the Eagles, which is where he played from 2008-13, but he hasn’t ruled out returning to the Redskins, either. With Jackson turning 30 in December, he knows this will likely be his last NFL contract and will want to cash in. The Bucs need a speed receiver capable of making explosive plays in Koetter’s offense, and Jackson is still one of the league’s elite home run hitters.
The downside to signing Jackson is his tendency to have his concentration lapse, as the Washington Post recently wrote: “When he streaks past defenders to turn routine receptions into 67- and 80-yard touchdown catches, Jackson makes it easy for fans and coaches to feel he’s irreplaceable. But he’s less reliable in practice, opting out of offseason workouts and practice as it suits. He can also go through spells during games when he doesn’t appear fully engaged.”
Jackson should be the only receiver age 30 or older that Licht is thinking about, and he must think long and hard about bringing such a flamboyant personality into the Bucs’ locker room, which has great chemistry right now. The primary thing that makes Jackson special is his game-breaking speed, and at age 30, how long will he possess that and how many elite years does he have left?
Los Angeles WR Kenny Britt – 6-3, 223 – 28 (turns 29 on Sept. 19)
It took Britt eight years to get his first 1,000-yard season in the NFL, but he did it – barely. With Case Keenum and rookie Jared Goff throwing him the ball, Britt emerged as Los Angeles’ primary receiver this year, his third with the Rams organization. Britt caught 68 receptions for 1,002 yards (14.7 avg.) and five touchdowns in 2016.
Britt has 309 catches for 4,881 yards and 30 touchdowns in his career and checks a few boxes for the Buccaneers. At 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, he’s a big receiver, and he’s capable of making big plays downfield with his 4.47 speed. Britt had three catches of 40 yards or more, including a season-long 66-yard touchdown against New England.
With only one missed game in the past three seasons, Britt has proven to be quite durable, which is a plus. But how much money will a receiver who will be 29 years old coming off his lone 1,000-yard season make in free agency?
If Britt, who has the size to break tackles and get yards after the catch, wants a better quarterback situation in 2017 and wants to be second fiddle to Evans and make far less than a more accomplished No. 2 receiver like Mohamed Sanu made in Atlanta last year with a five-year, $32.5-million deal ($6.5 million avg.), then the Bucs might be interested.
But at the end of the day, it’s more likely that the Bucs will invest in a rookie and decide to pay Evans handsomely and consider that money better spent than on Britt.
Chicago WR Alshon Jeffery – 6-3, 218 – 26 (turns 27 on Feb. 14)
Jeffery is the most physically talented wide receiver slated for free agency. After failing to come to terms with Chicago on a long-term deal, Jeffery played with the franchise tag last year and made $14.6 million. So what did the Bears get for their money in 2016? Jeffery played in just 12 games due to a PED (performance-enhancing drug) suspension, but was having a disappointing season before his suspension in mid-November. He wound up catching just 52 passes for 821 yards and two touchdowns. Jeffery’s 52 receptions were the second-lowest of his career, while his two TDs was a new career-low.
That’s not how a player wants to play in a contract year, and if it were just one season it might raise some flags, but Jeffery missed seven games due to injury in 2015 and caught just 54 passes for 807 yards and four touchdowns. He did have a breakout season in his second year in the league in 2013, catching 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns. That was followed up by an 85-yard reception campaign in which he posted 1,133 yards and 10 scores in 2014.
Jeffery’s best two years came playing opposite Brandon Marshall in Chicago as the big receivers wrecked havoc on opposing secondaries from 2013-14. But when Marshall was set to become a free agent the Bears knew they couldn’t afford to keep both receivers and traded Marshall, who was older, to the New York Jets and attempted to work on a long-term deal with Jeffery, a former second-round pick.
The problem with Jeffery is that his production says he’s a No. 2 receiver, but yet he wants to be paid No. 1 receiver money. The Bucs have been down that road before with the likes of Alvin Harper and Bert Emanuel in the past. The difference is that Tampa Bay already has a No. 1 receiver in Evans, but the team simply can’t afford to pay Evans and Jeffery each an average of $15 million per year.
And does Tampa Bay even want a player that has missed 11 games over the past two years – during two contract years – due to injury and suspension? Remember Dirk Koetter’s popular phase: “the best ability is availability.”
Tennessee WR Kendall Wright – 5-10, 191 – 27 (turns 28 on Nov. 12)
Wright, who was the Titans’ first-round pick in 2012, has never lived up to the hype, and has only produced one 1,000-yard season. That came in his second year in 2013 when he caught a career-high 94 passes for 1,079 yards and two touchdowns. But even during that season, the Titans expected more than an 11.5-yard average from a player who has 4.42 speed.
Wright did have a career-high six touchdowns in 2014 while catching 57 passes for 715 yards, but he struggled over the past two years with his numbers falling to 36 receptions for 408 yards and three touchdowns in 2016. After the Titans picked up his fifth-year option, Wright had his worst NFL season with 29 catches for 416 yards and three scores.
Wright has 280 career catches for 3,244 yards and 18 touchdowns, but hasn’t played like a first-rounder. At 5-foot-10, 191 pounds, Wright lacks ideal size to be a starting wide receiver. And without blazing speed and quickness, Wright struggles to get open at times. The Titans don’t seem thrilled about re-signing the Baylor product, who was their fourth-leading receiver.
With Licht being close friends with Tennessee general manager and executive vice president Jon Robinson, don’t expect the Bucs to pursue Wright if the Titans don’t want to sign him to a contract extension. That would speak volumes.
Cleveland WR Terrelle Pryor – 6-4, 223 – 27 (turns 28 on June 20)
Pryor is an interesting player. After entering the league as a former Ohio Stae quarterback with Oakland in 2012 – and failing – he came to Oakland in 2015 as a backup and made the transition this offseason to wide receiver. Of his 79 career catches for 1,071 yards and four touchdowns, 77 of those came this year for 1,007 yards, in addition to his four scores.
Pryor notably upset NFL cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Adam “Pacman” Jones, who called him out publicly after defeating the Browns earlier this season and saying he wasn’t that good. Pryor did have six catches for 131 yards against Jenkins in a 27-13 loss to the New York Giants, but totaled just three catches for 21 yards in two losses to Cincinnati.
Keep in mind that Pryor’s stats aren’t that great, especially considering the fact that the Browns lost 10 games by double-digits in 2016 and that a good deal of his receptions and receiving yards were stockpiled in garbage time when Cleveland was trying to play catch-up.
At 6-foot-4, 223 pounds, Pryor has ideal size to start opposite Evans, and with 4.42 speed he can make plays downfield, evidenced by four catches over 40 yards in 2016. But while no one can question Pryor’s work ethic in making the difficult transition to receiver at the NFL level, his personality does rub people the wrong way and he may not be a good locker room fit.
The bigger question will be if Cleveland actually attempts to re-sign their leading receiver. Pryor, who is represented by Drew Rosenhaus, is open to staying with the Browns, but wants a big payday. In my opinion, it’s too risky for Licht to ask the Glazers to open up the Bucs’ checkbook for a player who has one year’s worth of playing experience at the receiver position and may not be a great locker room fit.
There are some other names out there in free agency, too. New England wide receiver Michael Floyd was the No. 2 target opposite Fitzgerald in Arizona, but was cut due to character issues and was arrested in December for a DUI that prompted his release. Licht knows Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim well having worked in Arizona and he helped draft Floyd.
If Arians and Keim cut Floyd, who was claimed by New England, that’s a clear sign for Licht and the Bucs to stay away unless it’s for a cheap, one-year, prove-it deal. Floyd, a former first rounder, is in the final year of his rookie contract that is paying him over $3 million this season.
Four other household names are all age 30 or older. Cincinnati’s Brandon LaFell, 30, signed a one-year deal worth $2.5 million and is making the most of that opportunity with 64 catches for 862 yards and six touchdowns. If he were to think about taking a similar deal to play in Tampa Bay, I think Licht would be interested. But there’s too much risk at shelling out $6 million per season on an average player like LaFell, who has bounced around the league.
Carolina’s Ted Ginn, Jr. is 31 and has produced 752 yards and four touchdowns this season and saw his numbers dip in 2016, which could be an indication that he’s losing the speed that once made him special. His receiving average dropped from 16.8 in 2015 to 13.9 this year, while his touchdowns fell from 10 a year ago to just three this past season.
In Washington, 31-year old Pierre Garcon topped 1,000 yards and had 79 catches and three touchdowns, but was making over $8 million as Washington’s leading receiver in 2016. Do you think he’ll take a pay cut? Me neither.
Anquan Boldin is 36 and produced eight touchdowns this year in Detroit, but his 8.7-yards per catch average was the lowest of his career. Father Time has caught up to Boldin and he simply can’t run any more.
So what’s the conclusion? Some of these players in this lackluster free agent class would actually look great in Tampa Bay – in Madden 2017. The reality is that a lot of these No. 2 receivers will end up getting paid the No. 1 receiver money that Evans deserves to be paid. The Bucs simply can’t afford to strangle their own salary cap for years with that much money at one position.
Between Jones and Sanu, Atlanta will have $22.3 million worth of salary cap space tied up in their top two receivers next year and that dollar figure will only go up as those contracts progress.
The best move for the Bucs is to ink Evans to a long-term extension now before he hits the free agent market along with Odell Beckham, Jr. and Brandin Cooks as a bidding war could only make keeping Evans more expensive. Then the Bucs should re-sign special teams captain and contributing receiver Russell Shepard, who improved as a pass catcher in 2016 and would make an ideal fifth receiver.
Then Tampa Bay should then select two receivers in the upcoming draft – one like Western Michigan’s Corey Davis, who was featured in PewterReport.com’s initial 2017 Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft, who is capable of being a starter and the No. 2 man on the depth chart, and another receiver, such as West Virginia’s Shelton Gibson or Texas A&M’s Josh Reynolds, who is capable of challenging Adam Humphries for the third spot on the depth chart. The loser of that dual winds up as the Bucs’ fourth receiver.
The 2016 draft is deep with talented wideouts and those players will come much cheaper – and have higher ceilings – than any of the available free agent receivers. Licht needs to trust director of college scouting Mike Biehl to find two good receivers and trust coaching ace Todd Monken to get them ready to play as rookies.