Dangers of opening wallets for WRs

March 6, 2013

Mike Wallace has blazing speed that can char a secondary.

Nobody in the NFL caught more passes of 40-plus yards between 2007 and 2011 than Greg Jennings.

They are the two most attractive wide receivers in the upcoming class of unrestricted free agents.

But based upon the history of the position, it may prove a costly mistake to ink either to the big-money contracts both are expected to garner once the signing period begins March 12.


For every wideout who establishes himself as being worth the cash like Vincent Jackson was in Tampa Bay last season, there are far more examples like Robert Meachem.

After Jackson left the Chargers for a five-year, $55.6 million contract during the 2012 offseason, San Diego targeted the swift Meachem as his replacement under the belief that he too could stretch defenses. Meachem was signed away from New Orleans to a four-year, $25.9 million pact with the third-highest amount of guaranteed money ($14 million) paid to a free-agent wide receiver that changed teams in free agency last season behind Jackson ($26 million) and Washington’s Pierre Garcon ($20.5 million).

Here’s what such a major expenditure got the Chargers: All of 14 catches for 207 yards and two touchdowns – none of which came in the season’s final six games with Meachem languishing as a reserve. Pouring more salt in the wound for the new Chargers front office, Meachem’s $5 million base salary in 2013 is guaranteed.

“Some people don’t think they have a (No. 1 receiver) so they go out chasing players,” Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said. “They try to fit that guy into their system to be a 100-catch guy right away. But you can’t just throw anybody in there.

“You can make some big mistakes. You see them made around the league in free agency. You’ve really got to pay attention to what direction you want your team to go and hopefully you’re getting your type of player.”

To that end, teams interested in Wallace and Jennings need to ask themselves some hard questions before opening their proverbial checkbook.

If Wallace and Jennings are so good, why weren’t they re-signed or designated as franchise players by their respective teams?

The circumstances surrounding both players are different. The Steelers tried re-signing Wallace as a restricted free agent during the 2012 offseason when he was coming off a career-high 72-catch campaign. But when Wallace’s asking price became too high, the Steelers opted to re-sign fellow wideout Antonio Brown to a six-year, $43 million deal. The Steelers couldn’t afford to also keep Wallace in the fold, especially with the club facing significant cap issues.

The Packers had the cap space to name Jennings their franchise player and debated doing so. But rather than designate a $10.54 million salary to keep him in the fold for one season, Green Bay opted to let Jennings hit the market. The Packers have three other quality wide receivers (Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb) plus a promising youngster in Jarrett Boykin. Green Bay also may want the cap flexibility to address the contract issues of three key players: Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and defensive tackle B.J. Raji.

Which player is better to sign?

This is an interesting debate. Wallace is a bigger gamble because the cost will be so great. He is expected to garner a contract equal to or greater than the contract extension Dwayne Bowe signed March 4 with Kansas City.

Rather than risk getting slapped with the franchise tag for a second consecutive season, Bowe inked a reported five-year, $56 million deal with $26 million guaranteed.

At 26, Wallace is three years younger than Jennings and has more upside. The combination of four factors – a new offensive system that emphasized quicker passes, a preseason contract holdout, too many dropped passes and the three-game absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger because of a rib injury – contributed to a significant decline in Wallace’s receiving yards in 2012.

A change of scenery could help Wallace rebound in a big way, especially if given more opportunities downfield like during his first three seasons in Pittsburgh.

“I believe he’s going to play well for somebody,” long-time NFL executive and SiriusXM NFL Radio analyst Bill Polian said of Wallace. “I’ve seen enough in him to tell me this guy is a pretty talented play-maker.

“If you want to get on Mike Wallace for dropping balls, Dwayne Bowe is the president of that club. If you’re going to say, ‘Dwayne Bowe is a great receiver,’ well, he drops the ball more than every now and then. So does Mike Wallace. Is it a fatal flaw? Probably not.”

Jennings has proven more sure-handed over the length of his seven-year NFL career. He led the league with 30 catches of 40-plus yards between 2007 and 2011. And at age 29, Jennings will be cheaper to sign than Wallace.

But it’s Jennings’ age and a recent injury history that could give interested suitors pause, especially when it comes to the length of contract being offered. Jennings missed the final three regular season games in 2011 because of a knee injury, then another eight last year because of a sports hernia.

Teams also may worry as he enters his 30s that Jennings will quickly lose some of the quickness that helped make him such a special wide receiver. T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Laveranues Coles were both in their early 30s when signed to lucrative free-agent contracts by Seattle and Cincinnati respectively. Seattle guaranteed $15 million of Houshmandzadeh’s five-year, $40 million contract; Coles received $9.75 million as part of a four-year, $28 million deal.

Both players were cut after only one season, causing the Seahawks and Bengals to take an unwanted cap hit.

Veteran receivers sometimes struggle adjusting to new offenses, especially if they spent all or the majority of their careers with one team like Houshmandzadeh did with the Bengals before leaving to Seattle. Some teams also make the mistakes of assuming a "No. 2" receiver like Houshmandzadeh was in Cincinnati behind Chad Johnson can make the leap to No. 1 status.

Polian points to how much Alvin Harper foundered in the mid-1990s after leaving his pairing with Michael Irvin in Dallas to sign a big-money deal with Tampa Bay.

“Alvin could run fast. That’s really all he could do,” Polian said. “But he got a ton of money from Tampa Bay because he played opposite Michael Irvin and always got single coverage. He ended up going to the Bucs and he was a complete bust.”

Are receiver-needy teams better off going through the draft and passing on Wallace and Jennings?

The ranking of the NFL’s top wideouts in 2012 indicates such. Of the top 17 receivers in catches, 14 played for the team that drafted them and a 15th (Victor Cruz) was signed as a college free agent by the New York Giants. The other two receivers (Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and New England’s Wes Welker) were acquired by trade.

While many media mock drafts don’t have a wideout being chosen in the top 10, talent like West Virginia’s Tavon Austin, Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson and California’s Keenan Allen may prove better first-round bargains even if they take some time to develop. Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy, whose team eschews signing free-agent wideouts under general manager Ted Thompson, said there is an advantage to having a young receiver grow in an offensive system by working in “all those seven-on-seven (drills)” with the same quarterback year after year like the Packers have right now with Aaron Rodgers.

“Communication is vital,” McCarthy said.

Jennings could make sense for Miami because he played in Green Bay under current head coach Joe Philbin, who was the Packers’ offensive coordinator. Wallace also is being linked to the Dolphins.

Asked at the NFL Scouting Combine how he approaches the signing of big-ticket free agents, Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said, “You’re always looking for value. Everybody wants a bargain. If you’re going to play in free agency, there’s not a ton of bargains out there, especially if you’re playing at the top of the market.

“You just have to feel confident that what you’re paying for is what you’re getting.”

That isn’t usually the case with wide receivers.

Alex Marvez and co-host Jim Miller interviewed Gary Kubiak and Mike McCarthy on SiriusXM NFL Radio.