The 2016 free agent class has already been lauded for its potential star power, especially at wide receiver. The Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas, Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant, Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones, and Cincinnati Bengals' A.J. Green could all potentially hit the open market after next season, which means all could play out of their minds in the upcoming season for eight-figure contracts with loads of guaranteed money.
We saw it last year with former Philadelphia Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin entering the final year of his contract. He racked up 85 receptions for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns. Maclin not only put up the best reception and yard totals of his career, he also played in all 16 games for just the second time. As a result, the Kansas City Chiefs forked over $55 million over five years with $22.5 million guaranteed.
There was also former Baltimore Ravens wide out Torrey Smith, who pulled down a career-best 11 touchdown receptions and wound up with the San Francisco 49ers to the tune of $40 million over five years with $22 million guaranteed.
No offense to Maclin or Smith, but the Bryants and Greens of the NFL regularly put up those numbers, and barring injury their production doesn’t figure to tail off next season.
The motivation will certainly be there to rival the $130 million contract the Detroit Lions gave to Calvin Johnson, and in terms of fantasy football the aforementioned top four wil be targeted by owners when drafts get going later this year.
But all four stud wide outs will be gone no later than the late second or very early third round, and thus owners can’t trust any will fall in their laps.
Should owners not luck into a Thomas or Jones there are still plenty of receivers who will be playing for new contracts next season. None of the five listed below will get the same kind of money as a Bryant or Green, but their pursuit of a big payday could payoff huge dividends for fantasy owners.
Here's five undervalued receivers who are entering contract years in 2015.
Michael Crabtree, Oakland Raiders
The former 49er crossed the bay to Oakland for a one-year, $1.3 million deal, and was quoted saying he has “a lot to prove.” The market wasn’t kind to Crabtree, who’s dealt with several injuries the last few seasons and his attitude and relationships with teammates has also been questioned. Still, it wasn’t too long ago that Crabtree put up 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012, the year San Francisco transitioned from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick.
He now enters a Raiders locker room with a young but determined quarterback in Derek Carr, who’s coming off a solid rookie year and already has a healthy and robust offensive in front of him. Secondly, the Raiders first-round draft choice and receiver Amari Cooper will garner a lot of attention from opposing defenses, which should only increase the number of targets Crabtree gets. Furthermore, the Raiders are going to a no-huddle offense, which means more opportunities for Crabtree and his fantasy owners. Crabtree’s ranked as the No. 55 receiver on FantasyPros.com, but he could wind up in the top 30 by season’s end, making him a steal in the seventh or eighth round in many leagues.
Percy Harvin, Buffalo Bills
Another talented player who’s been criticized for his poor relationships with teammates, Harvin inked a one-year, $6 million deal with Buffalo even though his production dipped across the board with 51 receptions for 483 yards and one touchdown between the Jets and Seahawks last year.
But like Crabtree, he’ll line up next to the Bills breakout star receiver Sammy Watkins, which could help revive Harvin’s reputation as a dynamic playmaker. Health is a big question, with Harvin appearing in only 10 games combined in 2012 and 2013. But he played in 13 last season, and at times he’s displayed the talent of a Bryant or Green.
The Bills situation at quarterback might be a red flag, with veteran Matt Cassel and former first-round pick E.J. Manuel vying for the starting job. But Harvin has too much on the line to worry about who’s targeting him.
Harvin’s well ahead of Crabtree as the No. 41 receiver, but he might slip to the eighth or ninth round in some leagues so owners could find a tremendous value pick before the double-digit rounds.
T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
An absolute monster last season, Hilton earned his first Pro Bowl berth with 82 catches for 1,345 yards and seven touchdowns. But the Colts haven’t locked him into a new deal. Which likely has more to do with Indianapolis only having $11.5 million in salary cap space and quarterback Andrew Luck next up for an extension.
Hilton will have to contend with veteran and former All-Pro Andre Johnson, tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, as well as rookie Phillip Dorsett. Referring to the Colts pick of Dorsett, Hilton told the Indianapolis Star: "There's nothing I can do about that. That's who they picked. That's cool with me."
If Hilton believes the team is preparing for a future without him that could make next season his audition for every other club in the league. Hilton’s a guy that will rank among Thomas and Green, and he won’t go lower than the third or fourth round next season.
Jarius Wright, Minnesota Vikings
As Teddy Bridgewater’s No. 2 target last season, Wright picked up 588 yards and two touchdowns off 42 receptions. Those are far from incredible numbers, in either real or fantasy leagues, especially when you consider last year’s top receiver Greg Jennings has now been replaced with speedster Mike Wallace.
But for owners looking to fill out their receiving corps, Wright could be an excellent No. 3. He was tied for the team lead with nine plays of 20-plus yards, which shows Wright is capable of busting out big plays. Furthermore, he totaled 335 yards after the catch.
And just like Bridgewater, Wright will benefit from the return of running back Adrian Peterson. Its unlikely Wright is drafted until the mid to late-teens in most drafts, if at all. As the fantasy season unfolds he’s sure to pick up speed on the waiver wire in a contract year.
Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
Off a blistering 145 targets, Jeffery’s yardage was down to 1,133 (compared to 1,421 yards in 2013), but he hauled in a career-best 10 touchdowns. Brandon Marshall was shipped off to the Jets, which should only create more targets for Jeffery.
But he’s only the ninth receiver off the board according to FantasyPros, which has more to do with quarterback Jay Cutler’s situation in Chicago than Jeffery. Cutler heaved 18 interceptions last season, his highest total since 2009, and new head coach John Fox has openly questioned Cutler’s job security.
Because of Cutler’s issues, Jeffery might slide in fantasy drafts, but shouldn’t. He should be in the ranks of Thomas, Green, Bryant, and Jones and figures to get paid as much after a big 2015. Expect him gone by the late second or middle of the third round after those top four, where he’ll be a tremendous value.