Bad News – It is not a great time to need a wide receiver in free agency. Jarvis Landry expects to be paid like a top-five receiver, Allen Robinson will be coming off an ACL tear, and Sammy Watkins will almost certainly receive the franchise tag in Los Angeles.
However, there will likely be some new talent pumped into the market as teams begin to make cuts. Some may be cap casualties, others may not be producing on par with their sizable contracts. Regardless, here’s a list of wide receivers who may hit free agency that the Bears should consider pursuing.
These players are listed in order from most to least value for the Chicago Bears.
1. Demaryius Thomas / 2. Emmanuel Sanders
Now that the Redskins have traded for Alex Smith, Kirk Cousins will now get to test the market and will be due for a blockbuster deal. The Broncos are rumored to be in hot pursuit of Cousins and it’s easy to see why. Their defense is so good that even subpar quarterback play makes this team a playoff contender.
Cousins offers that and some, but at a price which Denver can’t currently afford. Spotrac currently has the Broncos at about $28 million which isn’t enough to get the job done considering Cousins will be demanding Matthew Stafford money in all likelihood.
The Broncos do have some ways to clear some cap room for Cousins. They will likely begin by jettisoning Aqib Talib, which would clear $11 million off their books. The next two candidates on the chopping block are the Broncos leading wide receiver duo of Thomas and Sanders. Denver would save a little under $8 million by cutting Thomas and around $5.5 million for parting ways with Sanders. A scenario where both move is unlikely, but both receivers are worthy of Chicago’s attention.
Thomas offers a big frame for Mitchell Trubisky at 6-foot-3 and boasts five 1,000 yard seasons. Additionally, Thomas has proven to be reliable from a health standpoint as well. He hasn’t missed a single contest since 2011. That said, Thomas won’t come cheap, and that’s a concern considering he’s entering his 30’s. Additionally, his larger build doesn’t fit into the offense that Matt Nagy typically likes to run. Neither of the Chiefs’ starting outside receivers eclipsed six foot.
Sanders, on the other hand, fits into Nagy’s concepts almost perfectly. He is capable of burning secondaries underneath with crisp route running and also torching defenses deep with his speed and explosiveness. Unfortunately for the Bears, it is far less likely that Sanders gets cut from a financial perspective. Denver would eat nearly half of Sanders’ salary should they cut him opposed to only a third of Thomas’ salary.
However, Sanders’ production of 555 yards last season was nearly doubled by Thomas’ 949 yards. Part of that is due Sanders missing four games, but injuries could be another reason the Broncos cut Sanders in favor of Thomas considering both of them are the same age.
Regardless of who the Broncos cut, both Sanders and Thomas could walk into Chicago and be the No. 1 receiver.
3. Allen Hurns
The last two seasons have to be considered major disappointments from Hurns’ perspective. After putting up 1,031 yards and ten touchdowns in 2015, he only managed to accumulate 961 yards and 5 touchdowns in the following two seasons combined. Part of that is due to Jacksonville’s struggles at quarterback, but the 26-year-old product out of Miami has regressed as well.
While the Jaguars have about $25 million in cap space, they have two other receivers in Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee who are about to hit the free agent market. None of Hurns’ $7 million salary due this season is guaranteed, so the Jaguars can cut him loose with no penalty whatsoever.
This would allow the Jaguars to front-load Lee’s and Robinson’s contracts in order to give them more flexibility in signing a quarterback as well as extending a player like Myles Jack after the 2018 season.
While Hurns has disappointed over the last two seasons, he provides big-play ability which has been sorely lacking from the Bears passing attack since Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery shared the field.
4. Michael Crabtree
Much like Hurns, Crabtree’s contract has no guaranteed money in 2018. The Raiders could recover 100 percent of the $7.6 million owed to the 30-year-old Texas Tech product. Crabtree saw his production fell by nearly 400 yards this season and it looked like he was a step slower throughout the year.
Jon Gruden may decide to cut Crabtree and add a younger receiver to help execute whatever exotic offense he brings back to the Raiders. Additionally, the Raiders could use the cap space to extend Khalil Mack in an attempt to keep him from hitting free agency after the 2018 season.
While Crabtree isn’t getting any younger, he offers a security blanket that Trubisky doesn’t have (considering Zach Miller’s return to football is doubtful at best). He is a reliable route runner and lethal red zone target. Crabtree may have seen his yardage dip considerably this season, but he remained productive in the end zone by snagging eight touchdowns, which was his third year in a row with at least eight touchdown grabs.
While he would by no means serve as a long-term solution, Crabtree could serve as an instrumental piece of Trubisky’s development for a reasonable price should the Raiders cut him.
5. Tavon Austin
The Rams put a lot of faith in Austin by offering him a rich four-year, $42 million deal. Through two years, they have gotten 985 yards of offense and five touchdowns. Not exactly a great return for $20.8 million over two years. The Rams have a chance to get out from under this deal and save $3 million towards the cap in the process.
While that doesn’t sound like a lot, the Rams have to sign or replace the likes of Trumaine Johnson, Sammy Watkins, LaMarcus Joyner, and Connor Barwin. For an offense as lethal as LA’s, it doesn’t make much sense to dole out $8 million to a guy who put up only 47 receiving yards in 2017.
Austin hasn’t proven a whole lot as a receiver in the NFL. His best season barely eclipsed 500 yards, and he needed over 100 targets to do so. However, a weapon like Austin could prove lethal under an offensive mind like Nagy who likes to put great athletes in space to make plays. While Austin hasn’t excelled as a receiver, he’s displayed some solid skills as a runner.
In fact, Austin averages over six yards a carry throughout his career. Austin cannot be the centerpiece free agent get for the Bears this offseason, but he could be a good player to buy low on.
6. Dez Bryant
Dallas is in an interesting spot. Dak Prescott is the cheapest quarterback in the NFL for his production, Ezekiel Elliott will be on his rookie deal for three more seasons, and the offensive line is mostly taken care of for many seasons to come with the exception of Zach Martin.
On the other hand, the Cowboys do have two important free agents to sign in DeMarcus Lawrence and Anthony Hitchens with only $20 million in cap space. One way they can make some room is by cutting Bryant which would save $8.5 million. While undoubtedly productive throughout his career, Bryant seemed to slow down a bit in 2017. He offered consistent production all season, but he didn’t dominate the way he used to in years past. Dallas may not believe that kind of production is worth his $16.5 million salary.
While Bryant would undoubtedly be one of the best receivers on the Bears roster skill-wise, his build and play style don’t match up with what Nagy typically likes to run. Additionally, Bryant has earned the reputation of a being bit of a head case throughout his career. Does Bryant offer enough production to warrant his price and baggage? My guess would be no, but if he does end up getting cut, it would be somewhat foolish of the Bears to turn a blind eye towards him.
Of course, assuming any of these players will get cut is entirely speculation considering they are all under contract, but it’s important to know that there is a reasonable chance that the free agent pool at wide receiver is far from solidified.