By Steve Silverman
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Veteran free-agent wide receivers are very rarely hot commodities in the NFL.

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Teams that are looking for upgrades in the wide receiver department are looking to the draft instead of free agency.

After rookies like Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins and Kelvin Benjamin all made huge impressions last year, teams have been hesitant to give huge money to established veterans when they could get productive rookies at a much better price.

That’s why proven wide receivers like Michael Crabtree, Torrey Smith, Denarius Moore, Hakeem Nicks, Percy Harvin, Brian Hartline and Cecil Shorts signed for less money than was expected.

The market for veteran wide receivers has not dried up completely, as top-level players like Randall Cobb, Jeremy Maclin and Andre Johnson all have been paid handsomely. However, the trend is to let the veterans wither on the vine if a team feels like it can get anything close to that kind of productivity from a young receiver.

If the 2014 class was a good one, the 2015 wide receiver class is even better. There are at least eight wide receivers who have an excellent chance to hear their names called next Thursday night in the first round in Chicago (that sounds weird), and three more who could go in the second day.

This is not a case of a stock being overvalued, either. The eight receivers who could go in the first round have an excellent chance of being big-time contributors as rookies, and Pro Bowl-type players within the first three years of their careers.

The best of the bunch is Alabama’s Amari Cooper, while West Virginia’s Kevin White and DeVante Parker of Louisville are nearly as good and should be breakout performers.

The other likely first-round wideouts include Jaelen Strong of Arizona State, Breshad Perriman of Central Florida, Nelson Agholor of USC, Devin Smith of Ohio State and Philip Dorsett of Miami (FL).

Likely second-round choices include Rashad Greene of Florida State, Dorial Green-Beckham of Oklahoma – after transferring from Missouri — and Sammie Coates of Auburn.

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The wide receiver position is starting to take on many of the characteristics of the running back slot. Running backs have been devalued in the NFL for nearly a decade, and whenever a productive running back gives a team five years of service, the feeling is that he has either started to go downhill or will shortly. As a result, teams don’t like to pay running backs who are 28 or older, and prefer to go with the younger back with potential rather than the proven veteran.

The same thing is now starting to happen with wide receivers as well. Given the importance of the position and the dominance of the passing game, it probably will take quite a bit longer for the philosophy to take full effect, but it will happen.

Even though the NFL’s member teams basically print their own money, they still like to save a few bucks if they can.

The NFL lost one of its great players and representatives this week when former Chicago Bears outside linebacker Doug Buffone died.

Buffone, 70, played 14 years for the Bears from 1966 through 1979, and many of those years were spent playing next to Hall of Fame middle linebacker Dick Butkus. While Buffone was not a Hall of Famer, he was at the level right below and was a sensational tackler. He could get after the quarterback and was sharp in coverage. He had 24 interceptions during his career, and that’s the most of any linebacker in Bears history.

Buffone served as a football analyst at Chicago-based and CBS-owned WSCR-AM since the all-sports station’s inception in 1992. He served in many roles over the years, and he tackled all of them with the same enthusiasm he displayed on the football field.

I was lucky enough to work with him on many shows at 670 The Score over the years, and his warmth and enthusiasm made him an ideal radio host. Buffone played with an edge on the field, and he also brought it in front of the microphone. However, he always displayed his caring and concern for his co-hosts, co-workers and callers at a time when many chose the opposite approach.

In many ways, Buffone was one of the best representatives of the NFL, whether the league knew it or not. He was a top-level player for many years, and he loved the game long after his playing career came to an end. He never blamed others when his team lost or his career came to an end, as he simply realized that it was his privilege to play the game he loved. He received a paycheck for his effort, but was driven to play by his love for the game.

There was no “look at me” to Buffone’s personality, either. He may have been a high-level athlete, but he did not need his ego stroked. Instead, he wanted others to feel good about themselves, and he succeeded at that on an everyday basis.

Buffone belongs in the Hall of the Very Good as a football player. However, as a human being, he’s at the very top level of the Hall of Fame.

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He will be missed dearly.