It’s about to get really crazy for NFL fans. Free agency starts Tuesday, but with the tampering period already underway teams have been given a little leeway to talk to impending free agents. When the new league year opens, my everyday productivity will come to a screeching halt. I’ll be refreshing Twitter relentlessly and feeding the monster inside of me that craves NFL news all the time. Where’s my phone charger?
49ers fans have identified the teams’ needs as outside linebacker, defensive line, safety, cornerback and wide receiver. Today we’ll talk about wideout, a position which presents an interesting quandary for the team.
Their starting core of Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and A.J. Jenkins is pretty solid on paper. Unfortunately, the game is played on the field and only one of the aforementioned — Crabtree — had a truly great 2012 season. Manningham and Williams both suffered season-ending injuries and Jenkins was historically bad in the opportunities he had. The success of this group hinges completely on the recovery of Manningham and Williams. I liked what I saw from both of them and we haven’t had much of a chance to see what either could do with Colin Kaepernick throwing the ball, but there’s no telling how the injuries will affect them going forward. Nevertheless, their presence on the roster makes the type of wideout the 49ers may be targetting hard to gauge. Will they make Manningham a cap casualty? Are they disappointed in Williams’ development? Or are they in the market to complement them? One thing is certain — the 49ers have to bolster their depth at the position after the ungraceful exit of Randy Moss, and the market is there for the 49ers to re-energize their receiving corps.
First, let’s look at a couple wide receivers who don’t make sense for the 49ers.
Wes Welker — UFA
2012: 118 catches, 1,354 yds, 6 TDs
Welker is Pro Football Focus’s top ranked free agent receiver at +14.1 overall and he’s been a stud during his career with the Patriots. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion he may be one of those wideouts whose production is bolstered by the guy throwing him the ball. It’s not to say he’d be worse with Kaepernick, but unless the 49ers plan on shaping the future around him (and they’re not), he’ll command too much money on the market for their taste.
Danny Amendola — UFA
2012: 63 catches, 666 yds, 3 TDs
Amendola is PFF’s second-ranked free agent wideout at +13.0. 49ers fans know all too well what a fantastic possession receiver Amendola is, but the caveat with him always seems to be “if healthy.” At 5-11, he’s another Williams-type wide receiver with a more troublesome injury history. San Francisco may show interest, but they won’t be alone. They’d be better off saving their money and going forward with Williams, who’s young and still developing as both a slot receiver and a deep threat.
Victor Cruz — RFA
2012: 86 catches, 1,092 yds, 10 TDs
The Giants have let the supernova wide receiver slip into restricted free agency and have until Tuesday to place a tender on him. If they can’t come up with a long-term deal by then, they’ll probably use a first-round tender (a nice haul considering Cruz was an undrafted free agent when New York originally acquired him). He’s certainly a playmaker, but will the 49ers be willing to shell out a first-round pick and a big contract to land him? This seems like something they’ll pass on.
Mike Wallace -UFA
2012: 64 catches, 836 yds, 8 TDs
Wallace was slated as the fourth-worst wideout on PFF with an overall score of -4.5 after having somewhat of a down year with the Steelers. His deep threat abilities didn’t disappear in one season, and the prospect of Kaepernick-to-Wallace sounds a lot better than Smith-to-Wallace. Unfortunately, the 49ers would be one of many teams in the sweepstakes for him (the Dolphins have emerged as leaders in the race) and he’s probably too expensive for their cap allowance.
Now for a couple wide receiver who could end up on the 49ers’ radar
Domenik Hixon — UFA
39 catches, 567 yds, 2 TDs
Coming in fourth overall on PFF’s free agent wideout list at +8.2 overall, Hixon is an intriguing option for the 49ers. Living in the shadow of Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, Hixon only played 389 snaps in 2012 (compared to Cruz for example, who played 918). He caught 39 of his 59 targets for 567 yards (14.5 YPC) and two touchdowns. At 6-2, he brings the height the 49ers may be looking for, while his 4.48 40 isn’t something to be overlooked. Despite his six years in the NFL, he’s never been a big name and he likely won’t start an enormous bidding war. There could be value for the 49ers here.
Greg Jennings — UFA
2012: 36 catches, 366 yds, 4 TDs
The Packers’ 7-year wide receiver is going to hit free agency market with a solid resume after catching passes from Brett Favre and Aaron Rodger for his entire career. He’s 5-11, 198 lbs and runs a sub-4.5 40, but he certainly seems to play bigger than his dimensions suggest. Jennings had a disappointing 2012 regular season, catching only 36 passes for 366 yards (10.2 YPC) and four touchdowns after missing half of it with an abdominal injury. He made $3.88M in 2012 but his injury history may prevent him from earning more. Would the 49ers be willing to pay him as much to be a staple in the offense for the next few years?
Ramses Barden — UFA
2012: 14 catches, 220 yds, 0 TDs
Barden is another in a long line of Giants wide receivers who looked good catching Eli Manning’s passes. Despite scoring a -0.8 for his 2012 season on PFF, he’s been a player I’ve seen a lot of 49ers fans talk about on Twitter as an under-the-radar target for Harbaalke. Why? He’s 6-6, 224 lbs. His 4.68 4o isn’t fast … at all. But he’d make a pretty incredible red zone target on height alone. He’s only caught 29 passes for 394 yards and no touchdowns — and that’s his four-year CAREER stat line. He made just over $500K, so the 49ers could afford to check him out for next to nothing.
Danario Alexander — RFA
2012: 37 catches, 658 yds, 7 TDs
Alexander is the guy I’m really hoping the 49ers make a push for. The 6-5, 217 lb wide receiver is a restricted free agent, but the Chargers aren’t expecting to tender him. If a team wants to make an offer and San Diego decides not to match it, they’ll get no compensation for him. He had 37 catches for 658 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and he was arguably the best receiver the Chargers had. He caught 68.5% of his targets last season while averaging 17.5 YPC and Philip Rivers had a 134.1 QB rating when throwing to him (h/t @PFF_Jeff). The question for Alexander — and the likely reason for the Chargers’ reluctance to re-sign him — is his health. He’s suffered various lower body injuries during his collegiate and professional career, a serious red flag if any team is considering a long term deal.