Quarterbacks drive the car in the NFL, but they need help. Supply them with insufficient horsepower and even the good ones will bog down to some degree.
We saw it last season when Eli Manning's offensive line fell apart. We saw it when Tom Brady seemingly at once lost all his key weaponry, and when Colin Kaepernick lost both Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree for stretches. Matt Ryan certainly missed Julio Jones. Even the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks hit some rough patches offensively when quarterback Russell Wilson lost both projected starting receivers, Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice.
A look ahead shows 10 notable wide receivers under age 35 entering contract seasons: Dez Bryant, Randall Cobb, Crabtree, Jordy Nelson, Hakeem Nicks, Cecil Shorts, Torrey Smith, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Roddy White. Their teams must decide over the next nine months how much value each holds. Right now, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson are the only NFL wide receivers earning more than $11 million per season, but they figure to have company within the next year, as these other 10 "name" receivers enter the final year of their contracts.
With the help of two NFL GMs, an offensive assistant and a defensive coordinator, I ranked them in order of their likelihood to cash in on big deals next offseason, led by a player considered a "must" to re-sign by one of our sources.
Bryant lined up on the perimeter for 89.1 percent of his routes last season, the highest percentage for any player on this list. Versatility is great and teams certainly feature players from the slot, but being labeled as a "slot guy" isn't the best thing for a player's value in evaluators' eyes. "It's such a difference when you have outside guys that can stretch the field," a veteran assistant coach said.