NFL free agency for teams in need of major help looks much different than it does for those trying to plug a few lineup spots.
“I mean, we have, what was it, 26, 27 free agents?” Bears GM Ryan Poles said at the combine earlier this week.
If it seems like $25 million in cap space just doesn’t go as far as it used to, it’s true for the Bears when they have all those free agents and only five draft picks.
They’ll no doubt recoup some cash by cutting a few players, which might help their cap status. Then again, that only adds to the pile of roster spots they’ll need to fill in free agency.
“It just really changes the focus, a little bit of maximizing, like I said, that second, third wave of free agency and making sure that we get the right type of players in,” Poles said.
So what did Poles mean by that statement, exactly? What are the second and third waves of free agency? Who are these types of players?
It depends on the position. In most positions it can still mean good players. At wide receiver, there will be a huge difference between the cash paid for a second- or third-wave player as opposed to one at other positions. This is because wide receivers come at a premium.
Players like DJ Chark, Chris Godwin and Christian Kirk are not third-wave players in free agency. They are going to require contracts averaging $11 million or more according to Spotrac.com.
In free agency, even an eighth-year receiver like the Jets’ Jamison Crowder, who has averaged 58 receptions and never got to 900 yards in a season, could command $10 million a year or more.
In fact, Spotrac.com does average salary projections for free agents each year and usually is spot-on, give or take a million or two, and projects he will get $12.3 million a year.
Sign a $12.3 million-a-year free agent and even with prorated bonuses and salaries structured in a cap-friendly fashions, the $25 million in cap space the Bears have will rapidly vanish.
Here are receivers who could be found in free agency after the rush to sign the big-ticket items.
These are your examples of second- or third-wave types.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Packers
Spotrac.com estimates the former Packers receiver will come in at $8.7 million even though he has never had more than 38 catches in any of his first four seasons. He had a high of 690 yards in 2019 and high of 38 catches last year. The big thing driving up Valdes-Scantling’s price: Speed. He averages 17.5 yards a catch, but how hard can that be when the defense is totally focused on Davante Adams?
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers
They could be way off on this one as Smith-Schuster has had as many as 1,426 yards in a season and 111 catches, but that was 2018. He did make 97 catches for only 8.6 yards a catch in 2020 but is coming off yet another injury. He has played a full schedule in only two of his five seasons. The potential for a bigger contract exists but Pro Football Focus says he’ll need to settle for another one-year, $8 million deal like last year because he played in only five games during 2021.
Russell Gage, Falcons
With 72 catches for 786 yards and 66 fo4 770 yards the last two years, and four touchdowns in each, he seems set to make a bigger impact. At 6-foot, 184 pounds, he’s in the Darnell Mooney mold and not really a classic X receiver. Projected at $7.5 million a year or four years, $30 million by Pro Football Focus.
AJ Green, Cardinals
Well removed now from his knee issues, Green last year showed he can easily be a bridge X-receiver as a 34-year-old this season. Spotrac says $7 million for him and PFF says $7.25 million. He had 848 yards on only 54 catches and three TDs last year, although if he had one more easy catch the Cardinals would have beaten the Packers.
Will Fuller, Dolphins
Go ahead, take a chance. It’s like one of those carnival games where they seemed rigged. Fuller is a real burner who can beat defenses deep. PFF says he’ll take a one-year, $7 million prove-it deal. Injuries constantly plague him. Last year he played in two games. He hasn’t played in more than 11 games since his rookie year of 2016 with Houston, when he was in 14. So no, he hasn’t played a full season. He still averages 14.7 yards a catch and when able to play in just 11 games in 2020 he caught eight touchdown passes.
Braxton Berrios, Jets
A small slot at 5-9, 190, he caught 46 passes and 37 in 2021 and 2020 and for some reason is projected at $6.7 million a year even though his numbers appear on par with what Damiere Byrd has done. The Bears would be better off bringing back Byrd than looking at Berrios.
Deonte Harris, Saints
The tiny Saints (5-6, 170) reciver and returner is a Tarik Cohen type who led the NFL in punt returns in 2019 and last year played his biggest role as a receiver, averaging 15.8 yards on 36 catches. He’s actually a restricted free agent here but considering he was undrafted and the Saints are cash-strapped as usual, there appears little chance they would be able to tender him an offer that would give them draft pick compensation or keep him from entering unrestricted free agency . $5 is a guess. It’s almost what Cohen got.
Sammy Watkins, Baltimore
At 6-1, 211, Watkins is big enough to be an X-type and fast enough for Z or slot. He is a do-it-all and projected at $5.5 million by PFF after a $5 million deal last year. He burned the Bears and Kindle Vildor for the reception that ruined their comeback at Soldier Field. At 29, he wasn’t used last year enough by the Ravens with a career-low 27 catches in 14 games after 37 in 14 games the previous year at Kansas City.
Cedrick Wilson, Dallas
This should be a receiver for any team trying to save money but with a need. He stepped forth for the first time when the Cowboys needed it last year with 45 catches for 602 yards and six TDs. At 6-2, 200, he is capable of playing outside or inside and is 26. Spotrac and PFF both set him at about $6.3 million a year.
TY Hilton, Indianapolis
Would Matt Eberflus bring in a 32-year-old 11-year veteran he’s very familiar with after another injury plauged year with 13 games and 23 catches? Hilton is three years removed from really big numbers, like 1,270 yards receiving and 76 catches. PFF says $6.5 million and Spotrac $6.2 million.
Zay Jones, Las Vegas
He always shows promise but never has been able to do more than 11.7 yards a catch and never more than 56 catches. He’s made two TD catches since 2018, when he had seven. PFF has its value at $6 million.
Keelan Cole, NY Jets
Another receiver who shows promise but doesn’t quite deliver or get the chance. At 6-1, 194, he has averaged 14.4 yards a catch with 187 receptions in five seasons. Projected at $6 million by PFF.
Emmanuel Sanders, Buffalo
If you think you can squeeze another year from an aging slot receiver, he could be an answer. His 42 catches for the Bills were his fewest since 2011 in his second year with the Steelers. From 2013-20 he averaged 71 receptions and has been projected around $5 million.
Byron Pringle, Kansas City
Size to go all over the formation, he just started to deliver in the second half of last year with 42 receptions for 568 yards for five TDs. At 6-1,201 the projection is $3.2 million a year. And remember he played for the team employing Poles so there is insight into his development.
Demarcus Robinson, Kansas City
A X-type receiver who has been between 21 and 46 catches the last five seasons, he probably could do more but Tyreek Hill is the man with the Chiefs. He made 14 TD catches in the last four seasons and is projected at $2.9 million a year. Another receiver who Poles knows well.
Calif Raymond, Detroit
A slot and Z-type receiver who never had double digit catcheshis first four years but last year stepped up with 48 receptions for 576 yards and four TDs. He’s also a solid point returner and is projected at $2.9 million a year.
Laquon Treadwell, Jacksonville
More from the bargain basement, than the seocnd or third phase, Treadwell is projected at $1 million and is X-receiver size without the production. He’s been closer to a Breshad Perriman than Brett Perriman in production terms. Last year’s 33 receptions for 434 yards was a sign of life.