Top free agents: Wide receivers
Sidney Rice: WR, Minnesota
Rice has a history of injuries, including a hip injury in the 2009 NFC Championship Game that resulted in his missing the majority of the 2010 season. He finished with just 17 receptions for 280 yards and two touchdowns.
Potential landing spots: Minnesota, New England, St. Louis
Even though the Vikings did not offer a contract prior to the lockout and decided to place the franchise tag on Chad Greenway rather than Rice, I still believe they’ll try and retain his services after he explores his value on the open market. When New England traded Randy Moss to the Vikings, Tom Brady lost his big-play receiver and had to rely on the dink and dunk game of Wes Welker and Deion Branch. Rice would give them a home-run threat and again open up the short middle of the field for Welker to return to his 2009 dominance. Even after drafting Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis, and Greg Salas in the second, third, and fourth rounds of the NFL draft, the Rams could be interested in adding Rice to an offense that could easily throw the ball 40 times per game. No matter where he signs, it will most likely be an incentive-based contract that will minimize future risk for teams that do pursue him.
Santonio Holmes: WR, New York Jets
Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez averaged just 178 passing yards per game in the four games Holmes missed due to suspension last season. After Holmes returned, Sanchez averaged 235 per game.
Potential landing spots: New York Jets, Washington
Re-signing Holmes will be the main initiative of the New York Jets’ front office as soon as the lockout is lifted. With three free-agent wide receivers (Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Brad Smith), the Jets must be confident they will at least retain two of them as they waited until the fifth round before selecting a possible replacement in Jeremy Kerley from TCU. I can’t imagine Holmes signing anywhere else, although I do believe Washington will try hard to convince him otherwise.
Vincent Jackson: WR, San Diego
Jackson played in only five games last season and finished with 14 catches for 248 yards, but his previous two seasons he had back-to-back 1,000-yard outputs with 16 touchdowns.
Potential landing spot: San Diego
While the Chargers were still able to put up huge offensive numbers during the 2010 season, I find it unlikely they will part ways with their most consistent big-play receiver. Jackson hasn’t helped his marketability with his two DUI arrests and subsequent citation for driving with a suspended license, but I think Jackson will be playing for the Chargers in 2011. However, he probably won’t get the long-term contract he held out for.
Steve Smith: WR, New York Giants
Smith is another receiver near the top of this list that had a stellar 2009 season and then missed a major portion of 2010. Smith only played in nine games, and his absence could be to blame for Eli Manning’s up-and-down season that ended with a career-high 25 interceptions.
Potential landing spot: New York Giants
Smith is recovering from knee surgery and claims he’s on schedule for a complete and healthy return. While it is likely some other teams show interest in Smith, the Giants placed a second-round tender on him and are highly likely to retain him in 2011. With the potential loss of starting running back, Ahmad Bradshaw, it’s a real possibility the Giants will have to rely on their passing game even more in 2011. To do so, they will need a healthy Smith and Hakeem Nicks to continue to build on his breakout sophomore season.
Braylon Edwards: WR, New York Jets
Edwards has yet to reproduce the numbers of his 2007 season with the Browns, when he caught 80 balls for 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns, but he did complement Santonio Holmes nicely on the field in 2010. Edwards is at his best when the Jets’ running game opens up the play-action pass. However, the team doesn’t consider re-signing him a top priority.
Potential landing spots: Carolina, Chicago, New York Jets
Carolina could desperately use the help on the outside as its top three wide receivers combined for just 121 receptions and 16 touchdowns in 2010. By adding Edwards opposite Steve Smith, the field would stretch both vertically and sideline to sideline, opening up even more rushing lanes for a team that averaged 115 yards on the ground in 2010. Chicago finished last season as the fifth-worst passing offense and failed to define a true No. 1 receiver. Devin Hester and Johnny Knox are speedsters, but the offense would greatly benefit from a big-possession receiver.
James Jones: WR, Green Bay
Jones enjoyed his best year as a pro in 2010, hauling in 50 passes and averaging nearly 14 yards per catch. He also tied his career best in touchdown receptions with five.
Potential landing spots: Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati
Chicago would be interested in Jones as he is familiar with the division and is comfortable playing in bad weather, but he’s never been counted on as the “go-to guy” and that may put Chicago right back in the same situation. Cleveland drafted a big, physical Terrell Owens-like receiver in Greg Little from North Carolina in the second round, but Jones could be a perfect complement. I’m not convinced the Browns can improve the fourth-worst passing offense on the shoulders of Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie again. Cincinnati is in a similar situation after drafting A.J. Green in the first round and likely losing Owens to free agency. Jones to Cincinnati makes even more sense if they decide to explore trade options for Chad Ochocinco.
Plaxico Burress: WR, New York Giants
Burress hasn’t played in the NFL since the 2008 season, but he’s averaged 871 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns over his nine-year career.
Potential landing spots: Houston, Philadelphia, St. Louis
Of the three teams I listed, Houston makes the least sense to me schematically. It already has a dominant big-play receiver in Andre Johnson, so Burress wouldn’t add another dimensional threat to its passing attack. Philadelphia could use Burress to strategically create mismatches for DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, as the three would create matchup nightmares for any defensive secondary. St. Louis would give him the best chance to come in and be the immediate No. 1 target for Sam Bradford. The Rams would be attracted to Burress’ skill-set in the same way they are to Sidney Rice.
Steve Breaston: WR, Arizona
In what was expected to be his first full season as an NFL starter, Breaston started just 11 games as he battled a knee injury. When healthy, he hauled in 47 receptions for 718 yards and just one touchdown. His statistics were also somewhat deflated in part to the quarterback situation in Arizona.
Potential landing spots: Arizona, Kansas City
If Arizona can trade for Kevin Kolb or attract another top free-agent quarterback, the duo of Breaston and Larry Fitzgerald could be very dynamic. He isn’t quite at the level of Anquan Boldin, but he would provide a similar 1-2 punch that the Cardinals had when Kurt Warner led them to Super Bowl XLIII. Kansas City could enter the mix, not only based on Todd Haley’s familiarity with Breaston, but also because it could desperately use a precise route runner to complement Dwayne Bowe and first-round draft pick Jonathan Baldwin.
Zach Miller: TE, Oakland
Miller is the first and only tight end to appear on this list and is well deserving to be mentioned as one of the best available pass-catching free agents this offseason. Miller was named to his first Pro Bowl last season and once again led the Raiders in receiving, his third time in his first four seasons. Miller’s 60 catches in 2010 was the eighth best total by a tight end last season.
Potential landing spot: Oakland
With the Raiders seeming content with losing Nnamdi Asomugha to free agency and already re-signing defensive lineman Richard Seymour, Miller will be their biggest priority once the signing period resumes.
Randy Moss: WR, Tennessee
Moss had a tumultuous 2010 season, but his career numbers speak for themselves. He is a rare talent that catches the jump ball better than anyone in the NFL . . . when he wants to.
Potential landing spots: New England, New York Jets
Moss isn’t going to be the long-term solution anywhere at this stage in his career, but he may provide a one-to-two year patch for an offense that is desperate for big plays in the passing game. The Patriots probably will not show immediate interest in Moss, but if anyone knows how to get the best out of him, it’s Tom Brady. The Jets have shown a propensity to sign veterans and fit them into a locker room full of personalities. Moss may be the next in line to garner the attention of Rex Ryan, but only if they lose Edwards to free-agency.
ON THE BUBBLE:
Malcom Floyd: WR, San Diego
Mike Sims-Walker: WR, Jacksonville
Mike Williams: WR, Seattle
Terrell Owens: WR, Cincinnati