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NFL free agency can sometimes be a mirage. From far away, the depth of some of the positions in any given year's free-agent class can appear to be full of top-tier contributors. Come the start of a new league year when teams can actually make moves on the players who make it to the open market, free agency's offerings can be a lot more slim than anticipated.

That is certainly the case with the 2024 offseason's wide receiver class. The Cincinnati Bengals', Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Mike Evans and Indianapolis Colts' Michael Pittman Jr were expected to headline the group, but now two of the three are off the board. 

The Bengals applied the franchise tag on Higgins, who won't be hitting the open market. Evans agreed to re-sign with Tampa Bay on a two-year, $52 million deal with $35 million guaranteed. What does that mean for receivers left on the market? Let's take a look.

1. Pittman now atop free-agent class ... and might also not hit open market

Michael Pittman Jr. had perfect timing producing his first 100-catch season in 2023 at age 26, and just before becoming a free agent. The 109 catches he totaled were fifth most in the NFL this past season and rank as tied for the fourth most in a single season in Colts history. They're the most since current Indianapolis wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne went off for 111 back in the 2010 season. 

The massive target (6-foot-4, 223 pounds) is now the free-agent class' top option, although he may not actually even hit the open market based off what Colts general manager Chris Ballard said at the NFL Scouting Combine last week.

"Here's what I'll tell you, we've had talks with his agent, who is really good. His agent has been doing it a long time. He's really good at what he does. We'll work hard to get a deal done," Ballard said via transcript. "It's [the franchise tag] a tool we have. I'm not going to say we're not going to use it, but I'm not going to say we are. Hopefully we can come to an agreement and find some compromise on a deal."

Compromising just became a lot more difficult for the Colts since Evans just signed for an average annual value of $26 million a year with $35 million guaranteed entering his age-31 season. Armed with the knowledge of that deal plus the Colts having $66.1 million in effective cap space, the sixth most in the NFL per, Pittman knows he can ask for a boatload of cash. On a related note, the 2024 franchise tag value for the wide receiver position is $21.8 million.

2. Wide receiver options thin out fast

The gap between the Higgins-Evans-Pittman tier of free-agent wide receivers and the next couple of tiers is like going from fine dining to fast food. The next group has what teams are looking for, but the quality is clearly different. 

Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley finished with decent end-of-year numbers (1,016 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns on 76 catches), but he was prone to going missing in action for three to four weeks at a time, vacillating between a 100-yard game and then three or four weeks totaling below 50 yards. That type of inconsistency as he approaches age 30 forces a pause and a closer examination of what he has to offer going forward.

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Marquise Brown, a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, has failed to launch into the stars five seasons into his career. His high-level speed remains, but he has yet to become a consistent WR1-like producer so far. Bills wideout Gabe Davis has a much different game than Brown, but he is similar in that his production hasn't matched his hype across the last couple of seasons. 

3. Remaining wide receivers set up to become overpaid

Ridley, Brown and Davis have their warts as discussed above. However, they are the best of the rest, meaning they will likely be paid considerably more money than expected at the start of the offseason given the lack of availability of the tier 1 wideouts this offseason. 

At least when those three get PAID, a case can be made that it was fair to bet on their potential in different surroundings. The next few options -- Darnell Mooney, Tyler Boyd, Odell Beckham Jr., Curtis Samuel, DJ Chark and K.J. Osborn -- are exiting situations where it was unclear what their value could be (Mooney, Samuel and Osborn), or they are approaching or on the wrong side of 30 (Boyd and Beckham). 

Had Evans truly become available as an unrestricted free agent next week, he would have had at least a quarter of the entire league vying for his services, according to The Athletic: the Tennessee Titans, Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, New York Giants, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars all had interest. Those teams will assuredly be redirecting their time and resources toward the next level of this free-agent receiver class in short order.