The three marquee free agents on everyone’s mind this offseason are wide receivers Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Greg Jennings. The thought is that if the Patriots sign one of those players, the offense will suddenly take off into the stratosphere and be even greater than they have ever been before. Unfortunately, despite Brady’s restructured contract, and despite all of Robert Kraft‘s funds, there is a set limit on how much NFL teams can spend. They call it a salary cap.
With the restructured Brady deal, it’s nearly a foregone conclusion that Wes Welker will be brought back on a long-term deal. That limits the Patriots’ spending elsewhere and especially at the wide receiver position. The team already has tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez tied up to long-term deals, and while most assume Brandon Lloyd‘s team option won’t be picked up, it’s not a sure thing. Sources have told me Lloyd’s locker room issues are overblown and “not like Randy Moss towards the end.” Don’t write Lloyd out of the Patriots’ plans until they have to make that decision on March 16.
While the Patriots have plenty of cap room in 2013, that won’t always be the case. Gronkowski and Hernandez signed deals that benefit the cap early in their contracts, but get substantially bigger as the years go by.
Last season the Patriots completed 402 passes. Welker hauled in 118, Lloyd caught 74, Gronkowski and Hernandez caught 55 and 51 respectively, running backs caught 56, assorted receivers caught 38 and assorted tight ends caught 10. Of course, that was with Gronkowski playing 11 games and Hernandez appearing in 10. If each player had played a full 16-game slate, they would have caught 80 passes apiece.
When Gronkowski and Hernandez went down, Lloyd was forced to pick up the slack in the offense. If Lloyd leaves and Gronkowski and Hernandez miss nine games again, the Patriots will have around 74 receptions to replace. If Lloyd leaves and Gronkowski and Hernandez stay healthier, that number gets lower. If Lloyd returns, it gets much lower.
Wallace, Bowe and Jennings are all expecting contracts valued at greater than $10 million per season. The Patriots have to decide if a player who may not be the first, second or third option in the passing game is worth that money. Newsflash: It’s not. And while the Patriots have the cap room to accommodate Welker and one of those players, don’t forget the Patriots have other needs and other free agents to sign.
None of those three players are perfect fits for the offense, either. It sounds a lot simpler than it is, but the Patriots need a player like Moss. Of course, you could never expect a player with the same talent level as Moss, but a big bodied receiver who can snatch a Brady loft over a defender is what the team needs. They need a player who can threaten the intermediate to deep half of the field and they need a player who can attack the ball, rather than letting the ball arrive.
Wallace is actually fairly overrated as a deep-threat target. He’s as fast as any wide receiver in the league, but his 6-foot, 199-pound stature doesn’t do him any favors in getting leverage against bigger defenders. Wallace received 31 deep targets in 2012. He caught just six of those passes and dropped two. His 19.4-percent catch rate on deep passes ranked second to last in the NFL among players in the 50th percentile in deep passing targets, according to Pro Football Focus. Bowe didn’t do much better, catching five of 22 deep targets. Jennings caught just one of eight deep targets.
With a player like Wallace, you need pinpoint deep-ball accuracy. As great as Brady is, he doesn’t have that. In the past four years, Brady has ranked 17th, 16th, 11th and 28th in accuracy on passes over 20 yards.
Bowe is perhaps the closest to what the Patriots might be looking for, but he’s far from perfect from an attitude or skill standpoint. Even if Bowe was exactly what the Patriots are looking for, once again, is it worth it to pay a player who would be the fourth option in the passing game and fifth or sixth option overall over $10 million per season?
The Patriots would be best served addressing their need at wide receiver through the draft or trade. If Percy Harvin is made available, the Patriots should jump at the opportunity no matter the cost. Assuming he is not, there are plenty of big, physical receivers in this year’s draft class.
The order the players will come off the board hasn’t been determined yet, but Cordarrelle Patterson, Keenan Allen, DeAndre Hopkins, Terrance Williams, Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers are all over 6-foot-1 and most should be available in either the first or second round. New England has had difficulty developing young wide receivers in the past, but most of those players are further along than the typical Patriots pick.
New England has a tough decision on their hands regarding Lloyd. He may be moody, but you won’t find a better player for less money in free agency. Beyond those top three players, who should be out of the Patriots’ price range, there aren’t a ton of mid-priced options. The Patriots could look at Brian Hartline to play across from Welker, or cheaper options like Domenik Hixon, Devery Henderson or David Nelson.
None of those rookies or free agents are as sexy as Wallace, Bowe or Jennings, but for a team that relies so heavily on its tight ends and running backs, a second wide receiver should not be a $10 million option.