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Dearth of top receivers may create uncertainty in free agency

By Matt Rybaltowski | CBSSports.com
Victor Cruz is the only free agent (restricted) receiver to earn four stars from WalterFootball.com. (USATSI)

As all 32 NFL franchises prepare for the free-agency frenzy that will begin in less than two weeks, several teams could significantly bolster their wide receiving corps with the addition of a marquee player from a presumably strong class.

A closer look at this year's group of wideouts reveals a crop that is ranked slightly below last year's free-agent pool both in terms of game-changers at the top and in depth. The ratings could provide general managers with cause for concern as they ponder whether to add a burner such as Mike Wallace or a crisp route-runner and dependable intermediate receiver like Greg Jennings.

WalterFootball.com, a website which contains one of the most detailed free agency and mock draft databases on the internet, uses a five-star rating system to rank free agents. Last season, a dozen receivers earned at least a three-star rating, including former Cowboys wide receiver Laurent Robinson, the No. 12 ranked wideout, who signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract with the Jaguars. For this year's class, only seven receivers received three stars, a designation given to a productive starter.

A number of top receivers, including Wallace may have lost millions by failing to ink long-term deals last offseason. In 2012, WalterFootball.com gave Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Wes Welker four-star ratings or higher, after each finished in the top 15 in the league in receiving yards. All three either received the franchise tag or a first-round tender by their clubs. This offseason, only Victor Cruz, a restricted free agent with the Giants, earned at least a four-star rating.

Last March, the Buccaneers handed out the most lucrative contract to a wide receiver in free agency when they agreed to a five-year, $55 million deal with Vincent Jackson. The former Chargers' receiver, who received $36 million guaranteed, responded by finishing the season ranked fifth among wideouts in efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus. Wallace, Jennings and several other prominent receivers, however, could be spending hours by their phones waiting for the right deal if they expect to receive one of Jackson-esque proportions.

“I like Mike Wallace," a general manager with a need at receiver told Peter King of Sports Illustrated last week. "But I'm not paying him Vincent Jackson money. Not even close."

If the aforementioned wideouts are not plucked immediately when free agency begins on March 12, a host of No. 2 receivers could be impacted as the market value for the position is determined. Take for instance, Danny Amendola, the Rams' slot wide receiver, who is widely considered a less-experienced, less-accomplished version of Welker. Amendola could be wise to sit patiently and wait until Welker is signed before he makes his move in free agency.

Lacking a playmaker at receiver, the Rams might have to be more expeditious. Of the Rams' top six wideouts in 2012, only Brian Quick, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis are currently under contract. St. Louis, which is roughly $11 million under the cap, will likely make receiver its top offseason priority.

“Offensive playmakers come in all shapes and sizes,” said Rams general manager Les Snead last week at the NFL Scouting Combine. “They can be 5-foot-8, they can be 6-foot-5. They can come in and help you block and score points. You always look for weapons.”

The Rams could receive competition from teams such as the Dolphins and Bills, which both enter free agency with a great deal of cap flexibility. Miami has $80.304 million tied up in active contracts for 2013, while Buffalo has a little over $100 million ($101.672). The projected cap for next season will be set at $123 million, CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora reported.

A lightly-regarded class of receivers in the NFL Draft could increase the value of several unheralded young free agents with vast potential. Chargers third-year receiver Danario Alexander, for example, set career-highs in several categories in 2012 with 37 receptions, 658 yards and seven touchdowns. The numbers appear pedestrian, at best. A team in need of a physical, rangy receiver could take a risk on Alexander, who possesses size at 6-5, 217 pounds, but has a history of injuries.

It's the same risk the Jaguars took last year with Robinson and the 49ers took with former Giants receiver Mario Manningham. A year after finishing with career-highs of 54 receptions and 11 touchdowns, Robinson was limited to seven games by a series of concussions in 2012. Manningham, meanwhile, had his season cut short by a torn ACL and PCL in late-December. He ended the year with 41 receptions and one touchdown.

Despite the dearth of first-round talent at the position, a number of cap-strapped teams could add a wideout with a mid-round pick. The list includes: the Jets, Bears, Vikings, Texans, Steelers, Packers, Seahawks, Broncos and 49ers -- all teams with less than $10 million in cap space. Even if the Patriots re-sign Welker, they could use additional help if they part ways with Brandon Lloyd.

The confluence of high-risk, top-shelf receivers, a lack of cap space among teams in need of a playmaker and few game-changers in the first round of the Draft could create an intriguing few weeks once free agency begins.

“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,” said Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland at the Combine. “You just have to feel confident that what you're paying for is what you're getting. That's always been a philosophy of mine, that the value of the production and the value of the ability, they match, and that you're not overpaying for a lesser talented player.”

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, subscribe to our RSS Feed, watch Pro Football 360 daily at 3 p.m. ET and NFL newsletter. You can also follow Matt Rybaltowski @mattrybaltowski.

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