Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Great Wide Receiver Chase of 2011 (aka Braylon or Bust)

Since the day Jay Cutler was acquired (actually, if your memory can stretch back to the hazy days of the pre-Cutler era) the need for the Bears to pair him with a quality wideout has been a battle cry throughout the fanbase. I spent most of the last two offseasons arguing that the Bears had plenty of targets and that they just needed an offensive line that would allow Cutler to find them. I still stand by that. I think the fact that Bears wideouts have averaged 171 receptions for 2130 yards and 13 TDs in the last two years shows that they aren't as devoid of talent there as many people said they were.

The problem that we've all noticed is the similarity in size and skillset between Johnny Knox (6-0'', 185 LBs), Devin Hester (5-10", 185 LBs), and Earl Bennett (6-1", 205 LBs). Earl's the biggest of the three, but is also the slowest, unfortunately. The need for a big target at wide receiver who can challenge the middle of the defense on intermediate throws (while remaining a deep threat, something that Earl, the Black Bobby Engram, is not) and be a red zone target is obvious. So now we get to the age old question of who this wide receiver should be. I don't think it's going to be our CFL import Andy Fantuz (but that's okay, Andy, Saskatchewan really could use you), and Devin Aromoshadu sucked about as much as I figured he did and will also be off the roster, so that leaves us with these free agents (among others that I didn't deem worth listing):

Santonio Holmes
Vincent Jackson
Sidney Rice
Brad Smith
Braylon Edwards
James Jones
Mike Sims-Walker
Santana Moss
Randy Moss
Terrell Owens
Plaxico Burress

Santonio Holmes' production has been excellent and he's an outstanding deep threat, even if he's the same size as Hester and wouldn't be the "big" target needed, but I don't think the Jets will let him go. All of the signs and rumors point toward Santonio being the wideout that the Jets will give the highest priority to, which should leave Edwards on the market.

Vincent Jackson was a popular choice, but he was just franchised by the Chargers and will no doubt require a king's ransom. Not gonna happen.

Sidney Rice has the size the Bears would want (6-4, 200) but has only produced in one of his four years in the NFL and had major issues last year. I wouldn't be opposed to signing him, but I think the Bears may want to go with someone without the injury and possible one-year wonder stigma.

Brad Smith is a decent sized option at 6-2, 210, but he's never really produced much as a wide receiver and his primary value is on special teams, where opportunities would be few and far between for him, especially considering Devin Hester's role on special times may expand as his role on offense diminishes with a new wide receiver taking over his former starting job.

James Jones is a very talented wideout who has always produced great numbers as a #3 (outside of some drops) and is the heir apparent to Donald Driver. I really don't think the Packers will let him walk, and even if they did, his size isn't quite what the Bears need at 6'1, 208.

Mike Sims-Walker is a guy with decent height at 6'2 who has managed 14 touchdown receptions in the last two years. He hasn't really produced consistently in the yardage department (although Jacksonville wideouts in general don't really produce much since Garrard is a game manager who is fond of his backs and tight ends) but he'd be worth taking a flyer on if the Bears end up devoting more of their money in free agency to the line than to a wide receiver (and I wouldn't object to that strategy).

Santana Moss is one name I've heard bandied about, which is odd since he's going to be 32 and is also no bigger than Hester. His production has been great on some very pedestrian Redskins offenses, and last year he managed 92 receptions and 1115 yards despite Donovan McNabb's struggles. At the right price this could be a great signing, but I fail to see how he adds any kind of diversity to this wide receiving corps, especially since his numbers weren't that much better than Johnny Knox, who is often compared to Moss.

Then we get to the three big rotting names out there in Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Plaxico Burress (you could probably throw Chad Ochocinco out there, since he's probably going to be traded or released).

Moss couldn't produce last year in ideal conditions in New England with Tom Brady throwing him the ball and then he disappeared in Minnesota and Tennessee. Plenty of wide receivers would in those situations, but the odds are that Moss's production would be nowhere near what it needs to be to overcome the giant nuisance that he is. I'm not one to overrate team chemistry, but if he's going to put up Rashied Davis-like numbers it's not worth having to deal with him.

Terrell Owens is more interesting that Moss in that he actually produced very respectable numbers (983 yards and 9 TDs) despite catching the ball from a much-diminished Carson Palmer, but he's really not even worth discussing because there's not a snowball's chance in hell that the Bears would ever take a chance on him. They've had multiple opportunities and have never been interested in. They may take a chance on a guy with a few legal issues, but not a guy they deem disruptive in the locker room, and Owens has absolutely burned those bridges. Plus, gambling on a guy at age 37 is risky, gambling that that same guy can produce those same numbers or better again at age 38 is just plain foolish. Maybe they will sign him, actually.

Plaxico is the flavor of the moment, and it's understandable, I guess. Our last big memory of him is his excellent Superbowl performance, he almost singlehandedly made Eli Manning into a serviceable NFL quarterback, and he's huge (6'5", 226). However, he's going to be 34 years old and he hasn't taken a snap in over two years. I think it's ridiculous that people are using Michael Vick as a comparison. 1) Vick is younger. 2) Vick plays a different position that doesn't require the top end speed that wideout does (and while Vick is still a great scrambler, he's not as fast as he once was) 3)Vick looked like crap in 2009 before a year of conditioning and practice got him ready to assume the starting job. I'm not willing to take a chance that Plaxico can get ready in an abbreviated offseason, learn the complicated routes of the Martz playbook and manage to be the consistent contributor the Bears need. They need someone to pair with Johnny Knox (or possibly Earl Bennett, with Knox moving to the slot) on the outside as a starter, not a gimmick player. Plaxico doesn't fit the bill.

That leaves us with my preferred target, Braylon Edwards. Braylon's relatively young (he'll turn 28 this year), he's got good size at 6-3, 211 LBs, he's got enough speed to be a deep threat as well as an over-the-middle guy (averages 15.8 yards per catch for his career) and he's produced very well considering the talent he's had throwing him the ball.

An average of 735 yards and 6 TDs may not seem all that great, but this a man who has had to play with Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, and Mark Sanchez. His 2007 season is damn near miraculous since he managed to 1289 yards and a whopping 16 touchdown passes from Derek Anderson. Last year he managed 53 receptions for 903 yards and 7 TDs catching the ball from ol' Rico Mirerez himself, which is a quality output considering that, according to Football Outsiders, Sanchez missed him a whopping 48% of the time he tried to get the ball to him.

Edwards also has managed to cut down on his dropped passes, something that plagued him in Cleveland (his 15 dropped passes in 2008 lead the league). He's dropped just 12 (possibly 14, exact drop stats are hard to find) in two years as a Jet.

So there's my hope. If the Bears make Braylon Edwards their top target in free agency they'll be getting exactly what they need to round out that receiving corps, and there will still be some mid-ranged guards with starting experience that they can look at without having to throw big money at a guy like Logan Mankins.