Although the 2020 NFL league year doesn’t officially start until March 18, moves are already being made by teams desperate to get a jump start on creating success next season. Trades and the franchise tag have dominated the headlines this week, with free agency rumors providing a steady undercurrent of intrigue. In the final part of a series of free agency pieces, this week, I break down the top free-agent wide receivers that could hit the market ahead of the 2020 NFL season.
2020 could be the most difficult time to be a free agent wide receiver in the NFL. The 2020 NFL Draft class has historic levels of quality running throughout all three days. Players like Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Henry Ruggs III are headline names, but teams are likely to be able to find productive college talent all the way through to the seventh round.
An early run on quarterbacks and offensive tackles could see the teams with the most significant wide receiver need, like the Las Vegas Raiders, fill that need comfortably without having to pay the money that someone like Amari Cooper could command in free agency.
With the need for immediate success, however, some teams will prefer to take that proven commodity over the potential college talent. So, who should these teams be targeting?
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is thought to be a key domino as a top free-agent wide receiver. However, it would appear that the Bengals will try and keep him in the house to provide a reliable target for the presumptive quarterback, Joe Burrow.
1. Damiere Byrd – OSM Grade: 36.3
In all honesty, Damiere Byrd’s name wasn’t the one I was expecting to be writing about as the top free-agent wide receiver ahead of the 2020 season. The former undrafted free agent out of South Carolina has hardly set the NFL alight with his production.
However, as is so often the case, he has been a story of injury and a lack of opportunity. Several times in his career, when it’s looked like he was finally going to get the opportunity to shine, it has ended on injured reserved. In 2017, he broke his arm against the New England Patriots. He bounced back from that to break the Carolina Panthers kickoff return record with a 103-yard touchdown in a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but found himself back on injured reserve not long after.
In the 2019 season, he found his opportunity to shine with the Arizona Cardinals. Although his production doesn’t automatically leap off the page, 359 yards and one touchdown is hardly WR1 material, looking at OSM and NGS shows why he could provide a decent option for a team at a low cost compared to others in the wide receiver market.
Byrd received two elite OSM grades in 2019. In the Cardinals Week 15 win over the Cleveland Browns, he received a grade of 52.21 after racking up 86 yards on six targets. He followed that up with a grade of 49.13 in the Week 17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He secured his first receiving touchdown of the year on his way to 74 receiving yards from eight targets.
Those two games show a snapshot of what he can do. From 14 targets, he secured 13 catches. His 69.6% completion percentage is the best amongst the top free-agent wide receivers on this list. It’s top 10 of all wide receivers in the NFL.
Then there’s his ability to create separation. Byrd creates as much separation as the likes of Deebo Samuel and Tyreek Hill but with less cushion at the line of scrimmage. Again, it’s the best of all the top free-agent wide receivers on this list.
In an offense with Larry Fitzgerald and the emerging star that is Christian Kirk, Byrd only accounted for 11.84% of the Cardinals total air yards. If he finds a bigger role at a team, you can expect to see his production increase remarkably.
2. Randall Cobb – OSM Grade: 35.42
After eight seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Randall Cobb found himself in a totally different environment with the Dallas Cowboys for the 2019 season. The move rejuvenated him, and he heads into 2020 as part of a very difficult predicament for “Americas Team.”
The situation is one that has been very well documented. The Cowboys have a lot of players to pay and not enough cap space to pay them. While a lot of focus has been placed on keeping Amari Cooper in the building, it might be wise for the Jones family to pay a little more attention to Cobb.
Cobb’s production in 2019 was his best for several years. He had his most total receiving yards (828) since 2015 and his most receiving yards per game since 2014 (55.2 YPG). Most impressively, he had his highest yards per catch of his career, averaging 15.1 yards per catch.
Using OSM, we can see how Cobb helped to make the most of his opportunity in his new home.
He had three elite graded games last season, although it is worth noting that two of those were against the distinctly awful Washington Redskins. The highest of those, a 50.48 grade, came in the Week 17 win over the Redskins in AT&T Stadium. Cobb accounted for 81 yards on five receptions for an average of 16.2 yards per catch. Against another NFC East rival, the New York Giants, he received a 49.30 grade after racking up 69 yards on an average of 17.3 yards per catch.
Cobb has the lowest catch completion percentage of anyone on our top free-agent wide receivers list. However, he has excelled in comparison to the others in making yards after the catch. He has a +0.6 yards differential in yards after the catch above expectation, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but no other receiver on this list has a positive differential in that metric.
Will Cobb be reunited with Mike McCarthy in Dallas, or will they let the wrong receiver walk out the door?
3. Allen Lazard – OSM Grade: 34.22
Allen Lazard was probably one of the feel-good stories of the 2019 season. Having entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Lazard found his way to the Packers at the end of 2018. He was cut from the original 53-man roster at the start of the 2019 season but got back on the team, made a name for himself, and ended the year as the second receiver in Green Bay.
Now he heads into 2020 as one of our top free-agent wide receivers—quite the journey.
From a pure production perspective, people will point to his 103 yards and a touchdown during the Packers win over the Giants in Week 13 as a breakout game. However, to get a true idea of what he contributes to an offense, look no further than the Week 8 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Lazard earned an OSM grade of 52.79 in the 31-24 victory. His 42 yards were a way short of his 103 yards from the Giants game, but he caught everything thrown at him that day. He also created 4.5 yards of separation, second amongst wide receivers that week.
His ability to create separation shouldn’t be underestimated. He created more separation in 2019 than players like D.J. Chark despite having less cushion to work with than the Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver.
The Packers are a firm favorite, as always seems to be the case, to land a wide receiver in the first round of the NFL Draft.
What will that mean for Allen Lazard?
As an exclusive rights free agent, Lazard’s future will rest in the hands of the Packers. He’s a fan favorite, and as one of the most productive players on the team in 2019, he will most likely return to Green Bay for 2020.
4. Emmanuel Sanders – OSM Grade: 33.41
When the 2020 NFL league year begins on March 18, Emmanuel Sanders will have just turned 33. He’s on his third team, having been drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, having won a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos, and having so nearly won another with the San Francisco 49ers. He has had several significant injuries in his career.
However, he believes he deserves another big payday. As one of our top free-agent wide receivers, we agree.
Let’s start with two elite graded performances from the 2019 season. Sanders provides a unique opportunity to show that OSM is a true indicator of a player’s own contribution to the offense as those elite grades come from two teams, with two systems, and two quarterbacks.
The first came for the Denver Broncos in their Week 2 loss to the Chicago Bears. Despite the defeat, Sanders was our WR5 that week with an OSM grade of 42.58. He contributed 98 yards and a touchdown off 11 catches.
Then, for the 49ers, he received a 40.72 OSM grade for his part in the Week 14 thriller against the New Orleans Saints. He accounted for 157 yards of the 49ers offense on just seven catches for an astounding 22.4 yards per catch.
His 869 yards in 2019 maybe a little shy of the three consecutive 1000+ yard seasons he had with the Broncos, but that is more a by-product of the 49ers system than his inability to produce.
His catch completion percentage in 2019, 68%, was up there with the best in the league. Amongst the players on our top free-agent wide receivers list, no other receiver faced the amount of tight coverage he did. His yards after catch performance met expectation, whereas nearly every other player fell some way short of that expectation.
Emmanuel Sanders can still produce in the NFL. The question is now, where will he achieve that production in 2020?
5. Amari Cooper – OSM Grade: 32.78
The last player on our top free-agent wide receivers list brings us back to the Dallas Cowboys conundrum. A lot of attention is on the organization, especially where Dak Prescott is concerned, but Amari Cooper is the true conundrum.
What do the Cowboys have in him? Do they have a truly elite wide receiver who can consistently lead a team to glory?
His performances since arriving in Dallas during the 2018 season would seem to indicate that they do. After a mediocre start to 2018 with the Oakland Raiders, Cooper came to life and ignited the Cowboys offense as soon as he arrived via a mid-season trade.
During 2019, he posted three elite graded games as per OSM, further indicating that he should be the long-term answer at wide receiver for the Cowboys. In the Week 3 win over the Miami Dolphins, Cooper posted his highest grade of 2019 with a 43.93. He accounted for 88 yards and two touchdowns, catching six of seven targets.
Two weeks later, Cooper wowed AT&T stadium with a career-high 226 receiving yards and a touchdown against the Packers. Despite the performance earning him a grade of 40.24, the Cowboys couldn’t maximize his contribution, losing 34-24.
Cooper’s best performances came in the early part of the 2019 season.
His worst, a grade of 18.85, came more recently. In the Week 16 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, he caught only 33% of his targets for just 24 yards. The defeat ultimately cost the Cowboys the NFC East title and a place in the playoffs. Over their final six games of the year, Cooper never broke 100 receiving yards, and the Cowboys only won twice.
Herein lies the conundrum.
Can Amari Cooper be the wide receiver that leads the Cowboys to the success they believe they deserve?
Cooper clearly believes he can and spoke recently about wanting to be a Cowboy for life. There is the possibility that Dallas places the franchise tag on him, to try and figure the conundrum out before agreeing to a long-term deal.