Will V-Jack Get Fitzgerald-Type Coin?

Larry Fitzgerald's megadeal last season has the likes of Vincent Jackson, Calvin Johnson and DeSean Jackson salivating at the prospect of becoming $20 million-a-year targets. What they're discarding is the success of blue-light specials such as Victor Cruz (Giants) and Mike Wallace (Steelers) have helped their teams prosper at literally fractions of that price.

In the always interesting and ever changing world of NFL wide receivers, the prodigal Randy Moss is trying to get back into the league, New England pass catchers are attempting to get over their uncharacteristic Super Bowl XLVI drops, Roddy White wants to get across his point about commissioner Roger Goodell being overpaid, Hines Ward is trying not to get bounced out of Pittsburgh, the Detroit Lions will soon get down to contract extension negotiations with Calvin Johnson, and a legion of unrestricted veterans is anxious to get onto the open market, where free agent riches await.

What few of the league's pass-catchers don't seem to get, though, is that the position has been somewhat devalued the past several years.

That de-emphasis of sorts is a function of many components: Among them, the decreasing valuation of receiving statistics in an increasingly pass-skewed league; the continuing ability to replace departing pass catchers and the enhanced sophistication and play-making skills of young players at wideout; the basic cost-versus-reward tradeoff that has been magnified by the exponentially larger but divergent numbers in terms of both salary and production; and the diva element that seems to be inherent to the position.

Wide receiver hasn't yet evolved into a fungible spot to fill. At least not with guys like Calvin Johnson or Andre Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald or Greg Jennings around. It's hardly to the point where wide receivers are dime-a-dozen performers.

At the same time, however, the amount of turnover at wide receiver has been virtually unmatched over the past five years. And there is a growing chorus of league general managers and personnel men that doesn't covet wide receivers as it once did, because the recent history of the NFL has demonstrated that pass-catchers can be replaced. And can be had rather cheaply, as well.

Witness, Victor Cruz, the onetime undrafted free agent who salsa-ed his way into the Pro Bowl this past season.

All of which might not be great news for Moss, the peripatetic rolling stone who essentially wore out his welcome in three different league precincts in 2010, then temporarily retired after no one wanted him when he caught all of 28 passes in 16 games two years ago (82 wide receivers had more receptions), and then suddenly announced this week that he wants to return in 2012 from his one-year hiatus.

You know, kind of like Terrell Owens wanted a deal last year.

Former Indianapolis president and general manager Bill Polian opined this week that Moss -- a player whose route-running repertoire was not all that extensive even in his halcyon days and consisted mostly of sprinting up the boundary and carefully avoiding the middle of the field -- looked like a guy who had lost some speed during his most recent tour of the league. Compared to some of the talent evaluators to whom The Sports Xchange spoke this week, Polian might appear diplomatic.

"Maybe somebody will take a look," said one NFC general manager whose offense is in crying need of an accomplished wide receiver, but who won't remotely consider checking out Moss' remnant skills. "But, trust me, it won't be us."

Said an NFC personnel director: "You don't kick the tires, do you, when you already know that the tire is flat?"


Because the college game has followed the NFL lead in putting the ball in the air, more accomplished wide receivers are being produced on campuses, and not all of them are first-round draft choices. Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert said that the Steelers didn't consciously attempt to remake their wideout corps a few years ago. But since the 2009 draft, Pittsburgh has added Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders in their drafts, the trio that has dubbed itself as "Young Money," and none were selected higher than the third round.

The emergence of the three -- Wallace and Brown each rung up over 1,000 yards in 2011 -- has helped push Ward toward the door.

There's no doubt that elite wide receivers are attractive in the first round. Heck, there have been 36 first-round wideouts taken in the first round of the last 10 drafts, and seven of those years featured at least three top-round wideouts, and four had five or more. But the other stanzas, even the late rounds, have produced pass-catchers who can put up 50 or more receptions, move the chains, and keep the NFL's aerial games moving.

WR Malcom Floyd
Harry How/Getty
It's hard to argue that the premier wide receivers, such as Calvin Johnson or Fitzgerald, are special players. But there are other wide receivers who fit well into certain systems, and who can still make offenses click. There are systems, too, that are conducive to wide receiver success. Let's say Marques Colston, who averaged 94.2 receptions over the past five years, exits New Orleans as an unrestricted free agent this spring. As good as Colston is, the bet here is that the Sean Payton-Drew Brees offense will still post big numbers in 2012.

That's not to diminish the importance of Colston, merely to emphasize that wide receivers can be had.

Ever the salesman, agent Joel Segal contended this week that three NFL franchises have already indicated an interest in Moss. Of course, huckster Drew Rosenhaus claimed last year that some team would add Owens after he recovered from his knee surgery and staged a workout attended by zero NFL representatives. In case anyone missed it, Owens is playing indoor football. And not even in the arena-league majors.

Given the transient nature of a position that has included more than two dozen veteran trades in the last three offseasons, and where it seems teams are able to unearth plenty of fresh faces to catch the ball, Moss could find the market thin. One could argue convincingly that, in his heyday, Moss was an unparalleled playmaker. But it was 2008, an eternity ago in NFL time, when Moss snagged 23 touchdown passes from Tom Brady, and his skills have doubtless eroded.

Moss is 35 years old now and, his resume aside, he faces long odds. Not just to return to the league but to even get a contract.

When none of the three wide receivers who were finalists for the Hall of Fame gained induction again this year, Canton wannabe and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter suggested that the position wasn't appreciated enough anymore. That's probably not the reason that Carter, Tim Brown and Andre Reed once again failed the Hall of Fame selection committee's scrutiny. But there is some truth to the notion that is has become increasingly difficult to accurately assess the bloated metrics of the position in a pass-oriented league.

Before 1990, there was one wide receiver in league history, Washington's Art Monk in 1984, who registered 100 or more catches in a season. In the 22 seasons since, there has been at least one wide receiver who cracked the century mark in 20 of the campaigns. In 11 of the 22 seasons, there were three or more wide receivers with 100 catches, and seven seasons produced four or more.

In the past 10 years, when the passing game has really exploded, there has been an average of 16.7 wide receivers with 75 or more receptions, 19.1 with 1,000 yards or more, 6.9 with at least 10 touchdowns.

Unless Moss can convince some team that he is still special, that he has eluded Father Time and is ready to resume his likely Hall of Fame career, he probably will have a tough time getting into a training camp.

In the game of "get" being played by NFL wide receivers, it may be time for Moss to get real.

Around the League

--In the back-and-forth banter between Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay and recovering quarterback Peyton Manning, far too much of which has been public, there has been considerable speculation about the financial extent of their talks. Unless one is a fly on the wall, or has the pair's cell phones tapped, it's difficult to get an accurate read on the scope and substance of discussions.

But one person close to the talks, while characterizing them as "casual" and "friendly but pointed," told The Sports Xchange this week that there have been some numbers floated. Not necessarily to Manning, but to his representatives. The same person suggested that next week, when agent Tom Condon will be in Indianapolis for the combine workouts, will be "key but not definitive" on a decision about Manning's future. The Colts, of course, owe Manning a $28 million option bonus to trigger the remainder of his contract. Absent the payment, he will become a free agent.

--As first reported by The Baltimore Sun, and subsequently confirmed by various media outlets, Ravens officials and agent Joe Linta will huddle at the combine next week to begin discussions about a contract extension for quarterback Joe Flacco.

But while Linta has publicly contended that a top-five contact is apt for Flacco, based on the 44 victories in his first four seasons, the Ravens' starting point is more like the top 10.

No one from the team will contest that Flacco performed big-time in the club's division-round loss at New England this season -- that he essentially outplayed Brady in the game, and delivered what should have been the winning pass to wide receiver Lee Evans, who dropped the ball -- but there remains in the front office some "show me" remnants among the Baltimore decision-makers.

There is reason to believe that a ground work can be started that rewards Flacco as an elite player, but falls short of a top five status.

--No conspiracy-theory tampering stories, please, but there is as much fire as smoke, insiders suggest, to the connect-the-dot stories linking St. Louis pending free agent wide receiver Brandon Lloyd to New England.

Lloyd feels strongly that new Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels -- his onetime head coach in Denver and former offensive coordinator with the Rams -- is the man who basically resurrected his flagging NFL career and understands his skills-set better than anyone else.

And while his review of the New England tight-end oriented offense is anything but complete, McDaniels has already decided the Pats require a deep threat to stretch the field. Resurgent over the past two seasons, Lloyd has averaged 16.4 yards per reception in that stretch. In fact, even when he wasn't putting up big numbers -- just twice in his first seven seasons did Lloyd post 40 or more catches, and he had fewer than 25 grabs in four years -- he could always run deep, as evidenced by a career mark of 15.4 yards per reception.

Not since Randy Moss departed have the Patriots had a wideout capable of catching at least 50 passes per year and averaging 14-15 yards per grab. Over the past two seasons, New England wide receivers have ranked in the lower quadrant of the NFL in yards per catch.

--One of the less-publicized elements of the combine is the early-week session that involves players, members of the competition committee, and commissioner Roger Goodell.

Next week, the committee and Goodell will, committee chairman Rich McKay said, stress the improvements in safety and the role that was played by the move of the kickoff to the 35-yard line in reducing concussions. Goodell will again emphasize the initiative to better monitor concussions and head injuries.

For their part, though, players will discuss what they still feel is an inconsistency in some calls on the field, the definition of a "defenseless" player, and cut-block rules.

As noted several times here in past months, there is some feeling among players that the NFL needs to enhance guidelines protecting defensive players and running backs.

--Carter suggested this week that Moss could still run a 4.3-second 40-yard dash at age 35, and, not surprisingly, Moss agreed. In fact, Moss claimed to The NFL Network analyst and former New England teammate Heath Evans, who referred to the wide receiver as "the worst type of cancer," that he would still crack 4.4 seconds on the stopwatch.

That sent us scurrying to dig up what Moss clocked at the NFL combine in 1998. There are a ton of Google entries that purport Moss ran a 4.25 at that year's combine, which was a year before "official" records were maintained.

But the official combine documents from '98 indicate Moss was a no-show in Indy because of emergency surgery on six teeth. It is believed that he posted a 4.25 time in individual workouts or at his pro day.

Punts: Still no official word yet on whether top-rated quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III will participate in passing drills at the combine next week, but most scouts expect both to bypass them.

--In an informal survey of league decision-makers, a majority believed that there will be more franchise tags used -- NFL teams can begin assigning the marker on Monday -- than the record 14 designations of a year ago.

--There seems to be no threat that likely top five draft pick Justin Blackmon will make an agent change, but some family people close to the standout Oklahoma State wide receiver have urged him to perhaps add a family friend to a negotiating team led by big-time agent Todd France.

--Arguably one of the worst teams in the league at camouflaging its first-round intentions is Cincinnati, so many scouts pretty much assume the Bengals will choose a cornerback and running back with their two selections in the opening round.

--Expect 49ers officials to sit down with Condon in Indianapolis to discuss an extension for quarterback Alex Smith. The talks are expected to center more around the length of a proposed contract than the money involved. As noted here in the past, the 49ers, with Colin Kaepernick in the plans at some point, prefer a shorter deal, more in the area of three seasons than of five.

--Offensive tackle will again be a much-watched position at the combine, as it has been in recent seasons. But several scouts this week emphasized the growing importance of the guard spot, basically in terms of both power running and pass-blocking, and said it will draw plenty of interest in Indianapolis as well.

--At least two teams have ordered up defensive cut-ups of the San Francisco unit and will use them as teaching tools for their teams in terms of improved tackling.

*The last word: "Once you can't play anymore, they're going to let you go, so you definitely have to strike gold when you can." -- Detroit defensive end and pending unrestricted free agent Cliff Avril, per the Detroit Free Press, on his stance that he won't cede the Lions a so-called "hometown discount" in negotiations.

What should the Chargers do with Vincent Jackson? Discuss in the message boards.

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