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Offseason Lowdown

NFL Free Agency Primer: Receiver, Tight End

by Denny Carter
Updated On: March 13, 2022, 9:54 pm ET

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Quarterback and Running Back Primer

The “legal tampering” period begins Monday, with free agency formally kicking off on Wednesday. As we have learned in recent years, deals should begin to flood in on Monday, with the official Wednesday kickoff more of a suggestion than a rule. With the salary cap back on the rise after last year’s COVID pause, the money spigot will once again be set to full flow.    

Teams With The Most Cap Space (via the indispensable OverTheCap.com as of 3/8)

1. Chargers — $56.316 million
2. Dolphins — $51.317 million
3. Jets — $48.816 million
4. Colts — $42.217 million
5. Jaguars — $38.987 million
6. Seahawks — $35.534 million
7. Bengals — $34.640 million
8. Commanders — $33.383 million
9. Steelers — $28.811 million
10. Lions — $26.503 million

Teams With The Least Cap Space 

32. Packers — -$45.844 million
31. Saints — -$45.242 million
30. Cowboys — -$23.649 million
29. Rams — -$20.273 million
28. Bucs — -$16.473 million
27. Vikings — -$15.004 million
26. Titans — -$7.867 million
25. Giants — -$7.647 million
24. Chiefs — -$5.420 million
23. Bills — -$2.037 million

Teams That Could Address Wide Receiver In Free Agency: Colts, Seahawks, Jaguars, Commanders, Chargers, Jets, Raiders, Steelers, Lions, Browns.

The Big Names At Wide Receiver 

Allen Robinson. A year after Robinson posted 1,250 yards on 102 receptions, Bears coaches more or less phased him out of an offense devoid of talent outside David Montgomery and Darnell Mooney. By season’s end, A-Rob’s primary function was blocking for Mooney on wide receiver screens. Robinson in 2021, quite amazingly, was not fantasy relevant. At 28, it’s unlikely Robinson has reached a career cliff. It would be understandable if the veteran lost interest in 2021, playing for an atrocious franchise and a lame duck coach who made one inexplicable decision after another. Robinson was targeted on a meager 20 percent of his routes last season, trailing guys like Corey Davis and Ray-Ray McCloud. Perhaps a serious midseason bout with COVID-19 derailed A-Rob in his final season with Chicago. 

Robinson's Best Fit: Every potential destination for Robinson has its clear and present downside, but the Dolphins represent his clearest path to targets. Behind Jaylen Waddle in the pass-catching pecking order, Robinson could re-establish himself as a physical wideout in what will hopefully be a forward-looking Miami offense in 2022.

Christian Kirk. If Kirk was ever going to produce as something resembling a WR1, he would have done it for the Cardinals in 2021. The team lost DeAndre Hopkins and turned not to Kirk but to Zach Ertz and Antoine Wesley. Kirk may have established himself as the king of prayer yards in his disappointing 2021 campaign. 

Kirk's Best Fit: Kirk needs to be signed by a team that won’t rely on him as their No. 1 pass catcher. Perhaps that’s the Colts or the Raiders. Offseason scuttlebutt about Kirk landing in Cleveland should trigger a gag reflex in every fantasy manager. He would certainly be overdrafted if he were to wind up in the Browns’ low-volume passing game led by the reliably unreliable Baker Mayfield

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster, after posting one of the most dominant rookie campaigns in league history, has never approached that form in the four subsequent seasons. His 2021 gambit to take a lot less money to return to Pittsburgh and show what he could do failed miserably. Smith-Schuster, 25, again missed time with injuries and confirmed he can’t play on the outside. The 15.8 yards per reception from his rookie season ain’t walking through that door in 2022. 

Smith-Schuster's Best Fit: JuJu could be a halfway decent fit for the Colts. He could be the team’s full-time slot guy while Michael Pittman dominates outside targets. An offense designed to feed Jonathan Taylor at any cost could leave few targets for anyone besides Pittman. 

Will Fuller. Fantasy managers should get over the hurt Fuller caused them in 2021 and prepare to draft the uber-productive wideout in 2022. Limited to four receptions over two games as a Dolphin in 2021, Fuller will have plenty of free agent intrigue based on his stellar 2020 campaign in Houston. Fuller, entering his age-28 season, was a borderline fantasy WR1 before his 2020 ended with a league-imposed suspension. 

Fuller's Best Fit: Fuller would seem to satisfy the Raiders’ never-ending need for speedy field stretchers. He could take the top off of opposing secondaries the way Henry Ruggs did before his NFL career ended after seven weeks of the 2021 season, leaving Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller to dominate intermediate targets. 

D.J. Chark. The big-bodied receiver who went for 1,009 yards and eight scores for the Jags in 2019 has let down fantasy managers over the past couple seasons, in part due to terrible QB play. A horrific 2021 ankle injury that ended his season after four games didn’t help. The Jaguars have expressed interest in re-signing Chark. They should have competition though: ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler suggested the Eagles could make a run at Chark, entering his age-25 campaign. 

Chark's Best Fit: The Eagles’ ultra-run heavy offense would be a decidedly bad spot for Chark’s fantasy usefulness. He could complement Amon-Ra St. Brown nicely in Detroit, a team in desperate need of a field stretcher. 

A.J. Green. The Cardinals did their best to make Green a thing in 2021. He averaged 6.13 targets per game and fell into some late-season volume with DeAndre Hopkins sidelined. Heading into his age-34 campaign, there’s (almost) no hope for a career resurgence for the once-dominant Green. He’s now five years removed from his last fantasy-relevant season. 

Green's Best Fit: The Bengals? Maybe the team, now an aspiring Super Bowl contender, could welcome back its prodigal son for one more season behind Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase

T.Y. Hilton. Hilton has been on the verge of retiring for what seems like half a decade, though Colts GM Chris Ballard recently indicated Hilton would return to the league in 2022. It’s now a matter of whether the Colts — in desperate need of a receiver upgrade — will give Hilton another one-year deal. Hilton, 32, finished with just 23 receptions for 331 yards and three touchdowns in 2021. His extra gear is long gone.

Hilton's Best Fit: There might not be one for a deep threat who can no longer be used as a deep threat. Perhaps the Colts could figure out a role for the veteran if he wants to stay put. 

Sammy Watkins. The Ravens. During his lone season in Baltimore, Watkins was given every chance to be the No. 2 behind Marquise Brown. Injuries and ineffective play ended any hope Watkins would emerge as a reliable WR2 for Lamar Jackson. He posted career lows in nearly every major statistical category, and he’ll be 29 in 2022. Some team will sign Watkins to a one-year deal with the (misplaced) hope he could rediscover some of his early-career form. 

Watkins' Best Fit: Maybe the Seahawks could deploy Watkins as a WR3. Probably Watkins wouldn’t be able to take many (any) targets from Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf

Jamison Crowder. All Crowder has ever done is produce when given the opportunity. A classic compiler who can command slot targets that turn him into a veritable PPR cheat code, Crowder, 28, would be a solid fit for a team in need of a reliable underneath target. 

Crowder's Best Fit: The Panthers would make sense for Crowder. He could man the slot while D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson — if he returns in 2022 — play primarily outside. Carolina’s horrific quarterback situation would cast some doubt on Crowder’s fantasy prospects, of course. 

Zay Jones. Jones endeared himself to the Raiders to an almost comical degree in 2021. Coaches raved about him, Derek Carr talked nonstop about Jones’ work ethic, Vegas-area children’s choirs sang songs about Dear Zay. A new coaching staff might not be as keen on keeping Jones around in 2022, even after he recorded 30 receptions in the team’s final five regular season games. 

Jones' Best Fit: Jones, 27, could carve out a surprisingly large role in an offense that lacks much wideout talent. Maybe his veteran leadership could create some demand on the open market. The Jaguars and Jets jump out as potentially decent fits for Jones. 

Byron Pringle. Pringle in 2021 more than tripled his 2020 receptions (42) in 2021 while seeing 60 targets as the distant third option in Kansas City’s passing attack. An undrafted free agent he grinded his way from the practice squad to the starting lineup, he profiles as a solid if unspectacular possession receiver who drew plaudits for his willingness and ability to block in KC’s offense. 

Pringle's Best Fit: Pringle would seem to fit well as a third option in the Pittsburgh or Carolina offenses. That’s if the Chiefs decide to let him walk and roll with Mecole Hardman as their presumed No. 3 pass catcher in 2022. 

Emmanuel Sanders. The Bills shoehorned Sanders as their No. 2 receiver for the entire 2021 season … until the games really counted and Josh Allen fed Gabriel Davis, who wasted away on the Buffalo bench while Sanders ran empty route after empty route in the regular season. Sanders struggled with various injuries in 2021, as is common with soon-to-be 35-year-old wideouts. Sanders’ route running and experience seem to be his best selling points headed into free agency. 

Sanders' Best Fit: Any team needing veteran leadership in the receivers' room should look into Sanders as a one-year rental. The Jets, Lions, Jaguars, and Commanders would be reasonable destinations for ol’ Manny. 

Zach Pascal. Pascal was shockingly the Colts’ second leading target getter in 2021, drawing a cool 60 looks behind alpha WR1 Michael Pittman. Pascal in four seasons with Indy showed he can be a serviceable WR2/3, using his big frame well in the red zone. 

Pascal's Best Fit: Darnell Mooney is the only Bears wideout under contract today, and Pascal could make a natural target for former Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus as he reshapes Matt Nagy’s disastrous roster. Pascal could conceivably begin the year as a starter for Chicago if they don’t land a high profile wideout in free agency.

Keelan Cole. The Jets tried desperately to make Cole a key part of their wideout rotation in 2021 after a 2020 season in which he caught a career high 55 balls for 642 yards and six touchdowns in Jacksonville. It didn’t work out, as you may or may not know. Seventh on the team in targets, Cole ran a route on about 50 percent of the Jets’ passing downs in 2021. He goes into his age-29 season as a depth option, likely for another team. 

Cole's Best Fit: A return to Jacksonville could work out for the Jaguars and Cole, depending on other free agency moves they make. Cole would require a rash of receiver injuries to emerge as a fantasy-relevant wideout.

Jakeem Grant. The diminutive Grant, primarily a kicker returner who was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2021, had a weird three-game stint in which he was the Bears’ No. 2 receiver behind Darnell Mooney last season. Beyond that, he was hardly used as a pass catcher.

Grant's Best Fit: Grant would bring some explosiveness to the Seahawks beyond Lockett and Metcalf. We could see several teams vie for the electric return man.

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Teams That Could Address Tight End In Free Agency: Packers, Bucs, Bengals, Jets, Lions, Chargers, Titans, Saints, Cardinals, Seahawks, Texans.

The Big Names At Tight End

Zach Ertz. Ertz continued his Witten-esque run as an unstoppable compiler in Arizona last season at the ripe old age of 31, reeling in 56 receptions in 10 regular season games for the Cards. He can still find the soft spot in a defense — a valuable skill that would make him a security blanket for whoever lands him in free agency. 

Ertz's Best Fit: Sticking with the Cardinals would probably make the most sense for both parties. Ertz demonstrated solid chemistry with Kyler Murray in the season’s second half, benefiting from Kliff Kingsbury’s horizontal raid offense. Look for Ertz to gravitate toward contending teams, thereby eliminating the Jets, Lions, Colts, and Texans. The Chargers would make an intriguing fit for Ertz in 2022. 

Rob Gronkowski. Gronk’s eternal pledge to never catch a pass from someone not named Tom Brady could be broken in 2022 if Brady remains retired and Gronkowski signs with another team. It’s fair to question whether Gronk — soon to be 33 — can be as effective without Brady under center. 

Gronk's Best Fit: Offseason reporting has connected Gronkowski to the Bills and Cardinals. It would be an upset, however, if Buffalo signed Gronk — a western New York guy — to play ahead of ascendant TE Dawson Knox. Keep an eye on the Bengals after Gronkowski showed interest in playing with Joe Burrow. Cincinnati has the seventh-most cap space heading into free agency. 

Robert Tonyan. The touchdown-scoring machine in Aaron Rodgers’ offense missed half the 2021 season following a torn ACL in Week 8. He was hardly used as an every-down player in Green Bay’s offense, running a route on 57 percent of Rodgers’ drop backs before the season-ending knee injury. Tonyan scored a touchdown on 18.6 percent of his catches over the past two years. 

Tonyan's Best Fit: Familiarity with the Packers offense and a clear connection with Rodgers makes Green Bay the best fit for Tonyan. Tight end-hungry teams like the Colts or Lions could swoop in and give Tonyan an offer he can’t refuse coming off a serious injury. 

Tight End, Also Out There: Jared Cook enters his age-35 season as a free agent who will surely land somewhere in the coming weeks, continuing his career as an always-tempting streamer. … C.J. Uzomah is likely headed out of Cincinnati as the Bengals, with plenty of cap space, look to upgrade at tight end. … Ricky Seals-Jones showed enough signs of life in Washington to generate some sort of market in free agency. … Mo Alie-Cox truthers could finally see their guy sign with a team that would use the human tank as their primary pass-catching tight end. … O.J. Howard, 27, looks to get his career back on track after an injury-marred run in Tampa. … Gerald Everett could stay in Seattle with former Rams OC Shane Waldron a year after he posted a 48/478/4 line, but that was with Russell Wilson. … Hayden Hurst, 28, will likely leave Atlanta after he was targeted three or fewer times in nine of his active games in 2021.