NFL Free Agency 2012: WR Market Not As Impressive After Franchise Tags

ST. LOUIS, MO., - JAN. 1: Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd #83 of the St. Louis Rams sit on the bench in the second half of the game against the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 1, 2012, at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo. The 49ers defeated the Rams 34-27. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)

Once considered a deep pool of talent, this group of free agent wide receivers could be drying up as teams get nervous about letting their top offensive threats leave and thinking about the franchise tag. Who are the next best options?

Free agency in the NFL is just a tease. Less than a week ago, it looked like there was a bumper crop of free agent wide receivers. Now, a deep pool of experienced free agent pass catchers is drying up faster than the Aral Sea. If you were hoping your team would add Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe or another pricey addition, it might be time to start considering the secondary market for receivers.

Jason La Canfora of the NFL Network has reported that sources close to Vincent Jackson expect him to receive the franchise tag. The Chargers are not ruling out that option in spite of a potential $13.7 million price tag. We don't know what will happen with Jackson, the top receiver who could potentially hit the market.

The Chiefs want to keep Bowe "one way or another." Many expect Wes Welker to get the tag. Marques Colston could stay in New Orleans, depending on what route the team goes with free agent guard Carl Nicks. The Eagles are "excited" about the possibilities for DeSean Jackson in Philly. Pittsburgh says keeping restricted free agent Mike Wallace is a priority.

So who is left among the top free agent receivers?

Stevie Johnson

The Bills and Johnson are still far apart on contract talks according to the latest reports. Buffalo's front office has some innate fear of using the franchise tag, and they are not expected to work through their trepidation in Johnson's case.

Johnson's history of untimely drops and mental lapses will keep him from earning a contract similar to what Vincent Jackson would in free agency. With all or even most of the names above off the market, Johnson would likely be the grand prize winner among free agent receivers -- if he hits the market.

Brandon Lloyd

Acquired by the St. Louis Rams at the trade deadline last year, Lloyd has been open about his desire to reunite with Josh McDaniels in 2012. McDaniels now works for the Patriots, who could use a deep threat at wide receiver.

Lloyd's decision to hire Tom Condon as his agent could complicate a reunion with McDaniels, given the icy relationships between the Pats and Condon. In recent remarks, Condon also made it quite clear that money is a priority in choosing a 2012 team. He makes so much sense for New England.

Mario Manningham

The Super Bowl hero figures to be in for a nice pay day. Peter King recently speculated that Manningham could fetch a deal worth an average of $7 million per season. He is just 26 and one year removed from a 60-catch, 944-yard season. Manningham is an outside threat capable of picking up yards down the field. His stock is high after the catch in Super Bowl XLVI.

Reggie Wayne

The 33-year old Wayne looked lost at times last year without Peyton Manning at quarterback. Wayne might opt to follow Manning in free agency. Wherever he lands, Wayne can still contribute, but not as the top option in an offense.

Laurent Robinson

Many expect him to return to the Cowboys. Robinson had a breakthrough season last year, thanks in part to finally staying healthy. He has said that he wants to stay with the Cowboys, and the two sides might have been able to work out a deal if not for a fluky rule in the CBA that prevents them from re-signing him until free agency begins on March 13. Could that window allow another team to swoop in?

Pierre Garcon

I was amazed to see that Garcon had the best season of his career without Peyton Manning, catching 70 passes and accumulating 947 and six touchdowns with the space debris the Colts had at quarterback this season. Garcon will be 26 this season, and the Colts may want to try and hang on to him in order to keep a receiver to pair with Andrew Luck. But he recently declined a five-year contract offer from Indy. He wants to hit free agency.

***

The players listed above all come with their own question marks, and the list gets really iffy after that. Hey, Randy Moss is also said to be looking for work, so there is that. What once looked like a terrific class is now merely a good class with the franchise tag taking away the top talent. The big question mark in this group is whether Vincent Jackson hits free agency. If he doesn't, there is no superstar in this group.

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