I know it's becoming cliché, but what a difference a year makes.
Heading into the 2011 season, Team President Mike Holmgren offered a temporary salve regarding the Browns' young wide receiving corps. Back in August, Holmgren envisioned a Browns' offense that featured the likes of 2009 draft picks Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie.
Aug. 9, 2011
"Mo will be our No. 1 receiver — I expect him to be ... The offense will be more wide-receiver friendly. We're awfully young there. In a perfect world, I would like to increase the pile with a veteran. I think that's important."
As for Holmgren's "pile", the results were less than desirable.
Holmgren's presumed "No.1 receiver" Massaquoi missed most of the Browns' brief training camp with a leg issue, then was slowed again midway through the season. Massaquoi never found his role in Pat Shurmur's offense and was reduced to a third option as the season drew to a close. Massaquoi contributed a career-low 31 catches. Robiskie enjoyed relative health, but again proved to be a marginal talent and was released after a victory over Seattle.
The rest of the Browns' receivers were plagued by a litany of dropped passes – the kind of actions that continually derailed the team's already tepid offensive output. While veteran Josh Cribbs turned in his most productive season and young talent such as Jordan Norwood and Greg Little outperformed expectations, the entire unit was plagued by inconsistency.
Several months later, Holmgren was decidedly more defensive regarding this same group of receivers.
Jan. 6, 2012
"Do we think we have a pretty good group of wide receivers? Yeah. Did we drop too many passes? Absolutely. But, I think we see some things that you can build on. As an example, take a young man like Greg Little, he hadn't played much football, this year he played. Did he make some mistakes? Yes. Did he catch a lot of passes? Yes. Do you see something in him that you can build on for the future? I believe you do and you can kind of go through things like that. Do we have to make the pile bigger there and do we have to try and upgrade and make that stronger? I would say there isn't an offensive area that we won't look hard at and try and do that to so the receivers fall into that category as well."
Based on the malaise evidenced in 2011 and perhaps on the assumption that the Browns now have a full offseason to evaluate talent, it's likely that Holmgren may back his words with action in 2012. However, finding a quality wide receiver in free agency is among the more rare feats to occur in the NFL. Traditionally, most free agent wide receivers have built careers as second or third options – instead of the primary targets teams assume they can become.
NOT GOING TO HAPPEN
All that being said, at least three of the above names could be considered "No. 1" options on their respective teams. In purely physical terms, Wallace, Bowe and Jackson are superior athletes. Wallace is easily one of the league's fastest players and has improved in each of his three NFL seasons. In terms of a pure upgrade in talent, Wallace is light years ahead of any current Browns' receiver. However, the Steelers are likely to tag Wallace – if not offer him a long-term contract.
Bowe and Jackson represent more of the bruising type of wideout – the kind of player who can flourish in most offenses. However, each player is physically built for an offense like Brian Daboll's – one where receivers have to muscle for downfield position. The transition into a West Coast offense could prove problematic – or at the least not cost effective. Considering the staggering salary each player would command, the final results may not prove worthwhile.
As for Jackson, the Chargers are reportedly letting their veteran wide receiver test the free agent market. Initial estimates suggest Jackson is seeking 10 million dollars per season. A similar number could be attached to Welker, who is fully entrenched in the Patriot culture of winning. Of course, there are a number of ex-Patriots who can claim a similar distinction.
SUPER BOWL SPECIAL
Speaking of the Patriots, Manningham can thank Bill Belichick for his burgeoning stardom. As recent reports have suggested, Manningham's star-making turn in Indianapolis was the result of Belichick's decision to double the Giants' Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Manningham was left in single coverage and made a tremendous catch – just in time to become a highly paid free agent.
While Manningham would make a great story considering his Warren G. Harding roots, it's not clear that he is anything more than a third receiving option playing within a strong passing offense. Of course, Manningham has never been given such an opportunity. Obviously, athletic gifts and solid route-running skills are present. However, any financial decision has to be made outside of one highlight reel catch.
In the not too distant past, Jackson's inclusion as a free agent would have dominated the Plain Dealer's fan polls. The speedy Eagle wideout was perhaps the league's most dangerous player in 2010, but a concussion and contract squabbles rendered Jackson ineffective in 2011. Now, serious concerns have surfaced regarding Jackson's health. Also, any team that invests such a sum in Jackson also has to be wary of the young receiver's mercurial personality.
Still, Jackson is essentially the playmaker that has been lacking in Cleveland for over two decades. Throw in GM Tom Heckert's past history with Jackson and the allure grows stronger.
As for Meachem and Colston, both are very talented wide receivers who possess solid size, speed and experience. However, each receiver has enjoyed the luxury of playing in Drew Brees' talent-laden offense. Much like Manningham, it's not clear how either player will operate in a Cleveland offense that is continually starved for talent.
FOR THE RIGHT PRICE
Johnson is tremendously gifted and has produced in an offense void of playmakers for the past two seasons. An unheralded seventh-round draft pick, Johnson has slowly developed a reputation for being able to beat defenders deep – along with dropping passes. It's these concentration lapses – along with his unique commentary devoted to opposing players – that have raised Johnson's profile. In regards to free agency, Johnson is the rare wide receiving option that has the mentality of an undrafted player.
Lloyd and Amendola are similar players – only existing at different levels of NFL recognition. Lloyd is wildly acrobatic and has amazing raw skills. However, he has become more polished over the last couple seasons, beginning in Denver a couple seasons ago. Amendola is a classic slot receiver – the kind of player who is capable of quickness within a confined area of space. Amendola also has a familiarity with Shurmur's offense, which makes him an attractive free agency candidate.
You know how this works. Add Robinson and Morgan to an already lengthy list of battered free agent talent. Such a search is always hit or miss.
One would assume that Holmgren and Heckert will not again follow the same pattern of inactivity. After all, trying again in 2012 with the 2011 cast will likely produce the same results. It's obvious that the Browns need to add at least one wide receiver – focusing on both an outside threat and a slot receiver.
If such a strategy seems appropriate, then a combination of Jackson and Amendola makes sense. Jackson would instantly become the lone Browns' talent that would cause an opposing defense anxiety, while Amendola could benefit from the continual underneath dump offs that are a staple of Shurmur's offense. Additionally, both players have Cleveland ties. Jackson was drafted by a front office that included Heckert and Amendola was formerly coached by Shurmur.