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Free agency outlook: Wide receivers

Take a look at photos of the top free agent wide receivers for 2015.

One way or another, the Broncos will have Demaryius Thomas back, even though his name sits atop this year's crop of unrestricted free-agent wide receivers -- and near the top of free agents at all positions.

The Broncos would like to sign him to a long-term deal, and even if they place the franchise tag on him by Monday, that effort is expected to continue, just as it did with their last two players to receive the franchise tag -- kicker Matt Prater (2012) and left tackle Ryan Clady (2013).

But once Executive Vice President/General Manager John Elway said that he planned to use the tag on Thomas if a contract wasn't reached, a degree of certainty washed over the position.

If Thomas gets the tag, the Broncos have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal with Thomas; if they don't, he will play the season with a salary-cap number of approximately $13 million, depending on where the cap settles.

Fellow starting wide receiver Wes Welker will not see the franchise tag, and his status will bear monitoring in the coming weeks after a season that began with a suspension that was ultimately reduced, saw a third concussion in 12 months after a collision in the preseason game against the Houston Texans and ended with his lowest reception, yardage and touchdown totals since 2006, his last season before joining the Patriots and becoming the "Slot Machine" who changed the perception of what slot receivers could do.

The market for wide receivers could be softer than usual this year. A combination of factors would contribute to this, including:

  • 1. SALARY-CAP CASUALTIES:A handful of proven receivers are already on the market, headlined by Brian Hartline, formerly of the Miami Dolphins, and ex-Atlanta Falcon Harry Douglas, both of whom were released this week. If there are more moves like this in the next week, this would create a glut of available quality that could drive down prices.
  • **2. YOUTH IN ABUNDANCE: *Last year's draft class was the deepest at wide receiver in a decade, going beyond standouts like Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin, Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, Buffalo's Sammy Watkins and the jawdropping Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants. Many teams -- including the Broncos, with second-rounder Cody Latimer -- could opt to fill holes by increasing the opportunities given to their younger, cost-controlled pass catchers.
  • **3. ANOTHER DEEP DRAFT: *Wide receiver is once again one of the best positions in terms of down-the-draft quality this year, with potential contributors likely still available in the mid-to-late rounds. A team seeking a returner who can offer some value on offense might be able to address this need in the third round or on the draft's third day.

It's going to be a buyer's market at wide receiver, and that means some teams that are cagey and/or patient should find value from a solid group.

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UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:**

RANDALL COBB, GREEN BAY:With Jordy Nelson receiving an four-year contract extension that included an $11.5 million signing bonus last year, there might not be enough room for the Packers to retain Cobb, who first made his name as an elite returner and then became one of the NFL's most effective slot receivers. Cobb and right tackle Bryan Bulaga are the Packers' top two priorities before the "legal tampering" period begins. Cobb had 91 catches for 1,287 yards last year in his breakout season; barring further injuries, greater output should be expected in the coming years.

DEZ BRYANT, DALLAS: Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones confirmed that his team will put the franchise tag on Bryant, keeping the prolific wide receiver off the open market. Just like the Broncos with Thomas, the Cowboys plan to work on a long-term deal with Bryant.

JEREMY MACLIN, PHILADELPHIA:After making a complete recovery from the torn ACL that cost him the 2013 season, Maclin posted the best season of his career, an 85-catch, 1,318-yard, 10-touchdown campaign that vaulted him into the upper echelon of NFL receivers. The question is -- how much of that was tied to Chip Kelly's offense? In his first four seasons under then-coach Andy Reid, Maclin was stolid, but never spectacular; all of his seasons saw him with between 55 and 70 receptions and 750 and 1,000 yards. In a dynamic offense, Maclin is productive, but if he goes to a team with issues in the passing game, his numbers could fall back to the respectable tallies of 2009-12.

TORREY SMITH, BALTIMORE:He's durable, and has not missed a game in his four-year NFL career. And last year, he found the end zone on a career-high 11 of his 49 receptions. But his receiving yardage and per-catch average were the lowest of his career as Steve Smith Sr. became Joe Flacco's go-to target. The Ravens aren't likely to overpay for a wide receiver, and Smith seems likely to fetch a heavy price on the open market. The afore-mentioned draft class at receiver is also likely to factor into Baltimore's decision.

MICHAEL CRABTREE, SAN FRANCISCO:His production has rarely matched his massive potential, with just one 1,000-yard season and 26 touchdowns over his six-year career. Crabtree has used his physical advantage as a blocker; he is the highest-rated blocking receiver available on the open market this year, according to ProFootballFocus.com. The status of fellow receiver Stevie Johnson could also affect Crabtree's future; on Saturday, multiple reports indicated that the 49ers could release Johnson to create salary-cap room that could be used to retain Crabtree.

KENNY BRITT, ST. LOUISOne of the great "might have beens" of recent years, Britt has not been the same since tearing his MCL and ACL in the Titans' Week 3 win over the Broncos in 2011, although in his lone Rams season, he got his per-game production near where it was before the injury, and would have done better if Shaun Hill had returned to the lineup sooner. In the last seven games of the season after Hill reclaimed the starting QB job, he averaged 16.1 yards per reception and 62.3 yards per game, which would have put him on pace for a 997-yard season. If he can stay healthy and avoid the off-field troubles that have plagued him, he would provide excellent value.

CECIL SHORTS, JACKSONVILLE:Fantasy owners know Shorts because of his predilection for racking up garbage-time receptions and yards over the last three years. In that realm, they count just the same, but in the real world, teams must consider that the bulk of his yardage comes against teams conceding the underneath pass with big leads. His numbers took a dip with then-rookie Blake Bortles firing passes last year, and while his career catch. Better passing could help him; of the 353 passes thrown his way, just 58.1 percent were on target.

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EDDIE ROYAL, SAN DIEGO: **Broncos fans know him well from his four seasons with the club (2008-11), and although he has never come close to matching the 91-catch, 980-yard performance of his rookie year, he had his best two seasons since then the last two years, and became a potent scoring threat, with 15 touchdown catches in that span. He's not the returner he once was; he hasn't run back a kickoff since joining the Chargers in 2012, and his punt-return average over three Chargers seasons is just 6.83 yards, but he showed in Week 14 against Denver that he's still capable of spawning an "Ed-die, Ed-die" chant from the fans via a 58-yard trek through Denver's punt-coverage unit.

REGGIE WAYNE, INDIANAPOLIS:Wayne wasn't the same after returning from a torn ACL suffered against the Broncos in Week 7 of the 2013 season, finishing with his lowest totals for receptions (64), yards (779) and touchdowns (two) for any season in which he played at least 15 games since 2003.

HAKEEM NICKS, INDIANAPOLIS:His 2014 season with the Colts was a disappointment and the least productive of his career, which was spent with the Giants until last season. For both Wayne and Nicks, the development of 2014 second-round pick Donte Moncrief, who began to blossom late last season, could lead both elsewhere.

OTHERS OF NOTE:

Denarius Moore, Oakland
Nate Washington, Tennessee
Mike Williams, Buffalo
Brandon Tate, Cincinnati
Vincent Brown, Oakland
Dwayne Harris, Dallas
Jernel Jernigan, N.Y. Giants
Derek Hagan, Tennessee
Eric Weems, Atlanta
Josh Morgan, Chicago
Brandon Lloyd, San Francisco
Santana Moss, Washington
Jason Avant, Kansas City
Darrius Heyward-Bey, Pittsburgh
Miles Austin, Cleveland
Robert Meachem, New Orleans
Seyi Ajirotutu, San Diego

STREET FREE AGENTS:

BRIAN HARTLINE, EX-MIAMI:The steady productivity that defined him in the 2012 and 2013 seasons vanished last year, leading to his release in what appears to be the Dolphins' overall restructuring of their wide receiver corps. Hartline had just 474 receiving yards last year despite starting all 16 games. Even in his best seasons, he didn't have a nose for the end zone; he had just five touchdown catches during his peak 2012-13 and scored twice last year.

HARRY DOUGLAS, EX-ATLANTA:After a career-best 85 receptions for 1,067 yards in 2013, Douglas' numbers were cut down by approximately half following the return of Julio Jones, and the Falcons decided he wasn't worth the $3.5 million he would have made in the last year of his contract. Although his numbers were down with fewer opportunities, he still logged the second most productive season of his career in 2014, and as a quick underneath threat, the 30-year-old veteran of seven previous seasons will draw interest.

JACOBY JONES, EX-BALTIMORE:His offensive production dipped drastically in 2014, leading to the Ravens' decision to release him this week, but he remains an effective returner, ranking fifth in kickoff returns (minium 10) with a 30.6-yard average (among returners with at least 10 opportunities, Omar Bolden led the league in 2014 with a 33-yard average).

TED GINN JR., EX-ARIZONA:As with Jones, he's not going to provide much on offense, but he remains a dependable returner and can fill in at multiple receiver spots in a pinch.

BRANDON GIBSON, EX-MIAMI:The stars never seemed to align for Gibson, who hurt his knee in 2013 after becoming the Dolphins' slot receiver, then found himself eclipsed by then-rookie Jarvis Landry last year.

OTHERS OF NOTE:

Donnie Avery, ex-Kansas City
A.J. Jenkins, ex-Kansas City
Greg Little, ex-Cincinnati

RESTRICTED/EXCLUSIVE-RIGHTS FREE AGENTS OF NOTE:

Cole Beasley, Dallas
Rod Streater, Oakland
Jermaine Kearse, Seattle
Jeremy Ross, Detroit
Jarrett Boykin, Green Bay
Andre Holmes, Oakland
Ricardo Lockette, Seattle

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