Historically, wide receivers haven’t had much success when changing teams. Much like most things in football, a lot of that depends on the context. Many of the notable receivers that end up moving on to new digs were second or third options on great passing attacks garnering larger paychecks to be the top guy on lesser teams. That often means a worse quarterback, more defensive attention, and higher expectations. As you can imagine, this usually doesn’t go so well. That isn’t the only scenario under which receivers switch teams and there are always exceptions, of course. But for every Terrell Owens to Philadelphia (and even Dallas) and Randy Moss to New England there are many more of the Peerless Price to Atlanta, Antwaan Randle El to Washington, or Mushin Muhammad to Chicago variety.
The 2013 offseason saw a bounty of noteworthy pass catchers move on to new teams via both free agency and trades. As expected, the results coming out of Week One were a mixed bag. Those entering good situations had strong outings, while others were too busy counting dollar signs to realize it was time to start playing football again. None had a bigger day than Anquan Boldin.
When San Francisco traded a sixth round pick for Boldin back in March, not even the most optimistic 49ers’ fans could’ve anticipated him having the type of impact that he had on Sunday’s 34-28 victory over Green Bay. Following the Achilles injury to Michael Crabtree, many had questions about who Colin Kaepernick would lean on in the passing game. Even with an impressive game from tight end Vernon Davis, it became readily apparent that player would be Anquan Boldin.
Boldin finished his San Francisco debut with 13 receptions for 208 yards and a touchdown. The last time that Boldin topped 200 yards receiving in a game? His NFL debut. As in, the first game he ever played as a professional.1 It wasn’t just the overall production that made Boldin stand out, it was the timeliness of that production. Nine of his thirteen receptions produced a first down or touchdown. He was targeted six times on third/fourth down and those targets produced 78 yards, five first downs, and a touchdown, including the game-sealing reception on 4th-and-2 late in the fourth quarter. Boldin made several of the tough, contested catches that he’s made his living on and looked far more like last season’s playoff-Boldin (with even higher volume) than he did regular season-Boldin. Of course, he won’t continue to rip off 200-yard games all season long. But it’s clear he will assume Crabtree’s role as Kaepernick’s most trusted confidant, more so than most anyone expected.
Wes Welker was the first of the big name receivers switching teams to make an impression, catching 9 passes for 67 yards and 2 touchdowns in Thursday’s demolition of the defending champion Baltimore Ravens. Welker continued to do Welker-like things, working the underneath areas out of the slot and running option routes better than anyone in the league. He caught each of his first eight targets, recording first downs or touchdowns on six of them, as Ravens’ slot corner Corey Graham proved incapable of staying with him. No player changing teams went into a more perfect situation than Welker did, swapping one Hall of Fame quarterback for another and sliding into a practically identical role as the one he excelled in with New England. Not to diminish Welker’s performance or ability, but it’s far more difficult to imagine him having the same sort of impact with Christian Ponder throwing him the ball. Denver had the league’s second best passing offense according to DVOA last season. With the addition of Welker and emergence of Julius Thomas, it’s quite likely that attack will be even better this season. The Broncos will need that to be the case while it waits for key defensive pieces like Von Miller and Champ Bailey to return.
The man replacing Welker in New England also had a strong debut. Tom Brady wasted no time getting Danny Amendola involved in the passing game, targeting him on five of his first six attempts. Amendola was incredibly efficient, picking up first downs on nine of his ten receptions, including seven of them on third down. Amendola did leave the game in the first half with a groin injury, something he’s been dealing with since the middle of the preseason, but would eventually return and actually did most of his damage following his return. Having the injury-prone label already attached to him, it’s certainly not encouraging for Patriots fans to see Amendola get dinged up this early on. Groin injuries are of the variety that tend to linger and never really fully heal during the season. But, provided he stays on the field, Amendola will be an effective, reliable target underneath. Though, that sentence basically sums up his entire career.
It wasn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns for receivers donning new threads. The two wide outs who cashed in with the biggest pay days struggled to do much of anything in their debuts. Miami’s Mike Wallace and Minnesota’s Greg Jennings combined for just 4 receptions for 48 yards on 12 targets in Week One. Which brings us back to our initial point about context. Wallace and Jennings are both talented football players. But each of them came from effective passing games, featuring multiple options for the defense to be concerned with, led by very good quarterbacks. Neither of them were bonafide number one options in the mold of a Brandon Marshall (who has recently switched teams twice and had success). When you remove them from that context that allowed them to be so successful and instead insert them into an offense with little else in the way of offensive weaponry and mediocre-at-best quarterbacks, these are the results you get.
Obviously, it’s only one week and no one should be making conclusions at this point. Wallace and Jennings could each go on to have productive seasons. But history has shown us time and time again that these types of players don’t pan out. Free agent wide receivers rarely prove to be the missing piece that puts a team over the hump. It should be a giant red flag when successful organizations such as the Steelers and Packers show little interest in holding on to a player while middling organizations like the Dolphins and Vikings jump to pay them top dollar. It is certainly possible to improve with free agency, but it rarely comes at the top of the market. San Francisco, New England, and Denver are happy to let other teams splurge on players like Wallace and Jennings while they sit back and pluck valuable players at a fraction of the cost, who fit their systems and don’t mortgage their long-term plans if the move doesn’t work out.