Jeff Howe will break down one position of the free-agent class each day. However, free agency won't begin until the NFL has a new collective-bargaining agreement. On Thursday, running backs were covered.
The Patriots have a mix at wide receiver with veterans Wes Welker and Deion Branch leading a group of youngsters, including Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman and Taylor Price, but the thinking is the Patriots should make an upgrade at the third receiver position.
The best option, at least for the 2011 season, would be through free agency, because quarterback Tom Brady has typically enjoyed the majority of his success with veterans who understand how to beat defenses. And with a starting-caliber veteran, the Patriots would give Tate and Price an extra season to develop.
Here's a look at the 2011 free-agent class.
Head of the Class
1. For all the hype he generated during his holdout in 2010, Vincent Jackson hasn't posted great reception numbers, but he's a tremendous downfield threat. The 6-foot-5, 241-pounder's best seasons were in 2008 and 2009, when he totaled 127 catches for 2,265 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 17.8 yards per grab. Jackson is going to demand a huge paycheck, but it will be interesting to see how his skills translate to a different offense if he leaves San Diego.
2. Santonio Holmes is a masterful route runner who has shown his value in clutch situations. He had 52 receptions for 746 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games with the Jets in 2010, but those numbers were skewed because he was adjusting to a new offense after a four-game suspension and also had to bear through Mark Sanchez's learning process. Holmes would be an ideal No. 2 receiver, but his potential as a No. 1 has yet to be defined.
3. Sidney Rice garnered a decent amount of hype after the South Carolina product was taken in the second round of the 2007 draft, but he's been a disappointment in three of his four seasons. He had a tremendous season during Brett Favre's revitalization in 2009, when Rice caught 83 passes for 1,312 yards (15.8 yards per catch) and eight touchdowns, but his 2010 campaign was essentially washed out due to a serious hip injury. So, who is Rice? If he can capitalize in an offense with a great quarterback, he'll be worthy of a big paycheck this offseason, but if teams are worried that he'll continue to underachieve, his market will be restricted.
Diamond in the Rough
Mike Sims-Walker was a bigger prospect at Central Florida than Brandon Marshall, and Sims-Walker broke out with 63 receptions, 869 yards and seven touchdowns in 2009. The 6-foot-2, 197-pounder has the frame and talent to be a good outside receiver, but he's been buried in a Jacksonville offense that doesn't go down the field that much. Sims-Walker took a step back in 2010 with 43 receptions, 562 yards and seven touchdowns, so he won't command a big contract. But if a team with an upper-echelon quarterback came calling — say, the Chargers — Sims-Walker could make a huge jump.
Fit for New England
Donte Stallworth fits the profile of a successful third wide receiver for the Patriots. He has already played well for them — despite falling off in the second half of the 2007 season — and he could be had for cheap money. Stallworth wants to play for the Patriots, who could take a low-risk flier on him, and he's determined to get his career back on track. Stallworth has been victimized by injuries in his career, so that would be a concern.
1. The Bengals could still cut ties with Chad Ochocinco, which would ramp up the speculation that he could fit with Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
2. Former Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress is scheduled to be released from prison in June, and many of his old teammates have said they'd like him to return to New York.
3. Randy Moss is coming off the worst season of his career, and he won't get that big-money contract he lobbied for in September. In fact, it would be surprising if he signed anywhere until at least the start of training camp.
4. Terrell Owens revived the tail end of his career with 72 receptions, 983 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games with the Bengals, and the 37-year-old probably won't have to wait well into the summer to get his next contract.
5. Steve Smith (the Giants' version) coming back from microfracture surgery on his knee, and there's no reason to believe he'll do a whole lot in 2011. However, Smith had 107 receptions, 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns in 2009, and he'd be a good long-term project for a team that is willing to take a loss next season. Sign him to an incentive-laden two- or three-year deal, and see what happens.