With the removal of three wide receivers who received the franchise tag — Dwayne Bowe of the Kansas City Chiefs, Wes Welker of the New England Patriots and DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles — and the Buffalo Bills keeping Steve Johnson off the free-agent market with a five-year, $36.25 million contract a week before the 2012 league year began, there were about 10 notable free-agent wide receivers on the market.
This year's crop was headlined by Vincent Jackson, who left the San Diego Chargers to sign a five-year, $55.555 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Marques Colston, who re-signed with the New Orleans Saints for five years and $36.3 million. Several mid-20-somethings Pierre Garcon, Laurent Robinson, Robert Meachem, Josh Morgan, Eddie Royal and Mario Manningham drew the most attention, signing contracts in the opening days of free agency, while a pair of over-30 free agents — Reggie Wayne and Brandon Lloyd — signed after the period had been open for a week to 10 days.
Since players are paid based on what they're going to do, and not what they've already done, age was likely the factor in the earlier signings of Garcon, Meachem & Co. Still, Wayne and Lloyd are shaping up to be the biggest producers and bargains of the group.
Signed to a three-year, $17.5 million contract that included $7.5 million in guaranteed money, Wayne's $5.833 million per year average ranks well below what Garcon ($8.5 million) received, and is nestled closer to the deals signed by Robinson ($6.5 million per year), Meachem ($6.375 million), and Morgan ($5.75 million). Yet, Wayne has been the most productive wide receiver of the entire free-agent class.
Through four games, Wayne has more targets (60), receptions (36) and yards (506) than any other receiver in the group, and his two touchdowns are bested only by Colston (four). To put Wayne's production into context, he has nearly as many receptions (39 to 36) and receiving yards (605 to 506) and touchdowns (three to two) than Garcon, Robinson, Meachem and Morgan combined. Wayne is taking home $7.5 million in cash this season, which is tied for 16th among NFL wide receivers. Garcon, Robinson, Meachem and Morgan will combine to earn $39.104 million in cash (base salary, signing bonuses, roster bonuses and workout bonuses) in 2012.
Wayne has also logged 281 snaps in the four games, which is only surpassed by Lloyd, who has logged 381 snaps (76.2 per game) in five games with the Patriots. Lloyd's deal with the Patriots has a base value of $12 million over three seasons, but an additional $3.5 million is available in incentives tied to his receiving production (2012-14) and Pro Bowl appearances (2013-14).