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Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Best wide receiver targets for AFC North

By Jamison Hensley

If you're a team looking to shop the free-agent market for a wide receiver -- and the Bengals, Browns and Ravens are expected to do so -- you'll find a lot of talent with the "buyer beware" label.

Vincent Jackson has coveted big-play ability as well as character issues. DeSean Jackson has jaw-dropping speed and a diva complex. And Steve Johnson has been a scoring machine the past two seasons (17 touchdowns) but lacks the speed and size to be an elite wide receiver.

The teams in the AFC North won't be taking such risks when it comes to addressing wide receiver in free agency. Spending money on a big name will earn headlines in March, but finding the right fit will lead to more wins in the fall.

Here are the three wide receivers whom the Bengals, Browns and Ravens should be targeting in free agency:

Bush
Wayne
The Baltimore Ravens need to pursue the Colts' Reggie Wayne. He's the most accomplished wide receiver in this free-agent class but there will be less competition for him than the younger and more explosive pass-catchers. And, at age 33, Wayne will have a narrow list of teams as well because he wants to go somewhere he can win a championship. The popular theory is Wayne will follow Peyton Manning in some sort of a package deal. The Ravens, though, have an inside edge over teams with safety Ed Reed, who was Wayne's roommate at the University of Miami and can recruit his friend to play in Baltimore.

Upgrading the wide receiver position has been a yearly project for the Ravens. They have added declining veterans like T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Lee Evans in the past two years with little success. These moves would've been great if the Ravens were playing fantasy football five years ago. Wayne, who has averaged 94 catches and 1,246 yards the past five seasons, can give Baltimore a legitimate third target at wide receiver, something quarterback Joe Flacco has never had in four NFL seasons. He would fit perfectly in Baltimore because he is a more effective route-runner than Torrey Smith, is faster than Anquan Boldin and is more dependable than Evans. Some have linked the Ravens to Randy Moss, but Wayne can provide more production with fewer headaches.

Meachem
Meachem
The Cincinnati Bengals should go after the Saints' Robert Meachem. The Saints receiver who will garner most of the attention is Marques Colston, and some team (perhaps San Francisco) will overpay for him as a result. The Bengals have more money to spend than a Kardashian -- $60 million in salary-cap room, in fact -- but they rarely get into bidding wars. Cincinnati will see more value in Meachem, who has been overshadowed by Colston, Lance Moore and Devery Henderson in New Orleans. Meachem's production will exceed the level of contract he'll receive.

His career statistics won't impress you. He had 40 catches last season and he's never had a season with more than 722 yards receiving. So, why would the Bengals want Meachem? He's scored 20 touchdowns in the past three seasons, averaging one for every 6.5 catches made. This is extremely attractive for a Cincinnati offense that ranked 26th in the NFL in the red zone.

While some will criticize the Bengals for not spending for a bigger name receiver, their situation doesn't warrant it. They're looking to take a step up from Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. They're not looking for a No. 1 wide receiver. Cincinnati needs a receiver who is a reliable route-runner, who can take some attention away from A.J. Green and who can earn the trust of quarterback Andy Dalton. So much of Dalton's game is anticipation, and that was difficult to do with his No. 2 and No. 3 receivers from last season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Simpson and Caldwell caught only 53 percent of the passes thrown in their direction (87 of 164). Meachem caught 68 percent last season, and he's even more dependable in the end zone, where he pulled in four of the five passes thrown to him there.

Garcon
Garcon
The Cleveland Browns need to sign the Colts' Pierre Garcon. Cleveland has one of the worst wide receiver groups in the NFL and desperately needs a No. 1 target. But team president Mike Holmgren wants to build this team through the draft, so it would be a surprise if the Browns went after a top-tier wide receiver. Still, the Browns can't stand pat in free agency even if they decide to draft a wide receiver in the first round. Some have linked Cleveland to the Giants' Mario Manningham, but the better fit is Garcon. He gives the Browns what they need the most at that position -- speed.

Whether the quarterback is Robert Griffin III, Matt Flynn or Colt McCoy, Cleveland has to add playmakers, or at the very least receivers who can get open deep. Garcon finished with four catches of 40 yards or more and three of his touchdowns were over 40 yards. In comparison, the Browns had six catches of 40 or more yards as a team last season. Plus, Garcon's stock went up when Peyton Manning went down. His catches, yards receiving and yards per catch all increased last season when his quarterbacks were Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky. He proved he can produce no matter what the level of quarterback play. At a time when the Browns need to make all the right moves to make up ground on the rest of the division, Garcon is an extremely safe bet.

The only team in the AFC North not looking to make a significant addition at wide receiver is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their biggest concern is keeping Mike Wallace. By March 5, the Steelers have to determine whether to put a first-round tender on the restricted free agent or the franchise tag. The chances of Pittsburgh holding onto Wallace if he remains a restricted free agent is 50-50.

Some teams see a deep threat whose career yards per catch average is 18.7. Others see a one-route receiver who fell silent in the second half of the season when defenses played deep zone coverage against him. But it only takes one team -- New England, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore or Kansas City -- to pry Wallace away. Then, the Steelers would join the rest of the AFC North teams in search of free-agent wide receiver.