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The past few weeks in the NFL are like nothing ever seen before. Massive trades with league-altering implications are occurring on a daily basis. Record deals are being signed at every step. Welcome to the league’s version of March Madness. One of the most interesting trends in all of these moves has to do with the wide receiver position.
Tyreek Hill became the latest NFL superstar to be traded and the deal highlights the growing divide between two schools of thought as it pertains to the value of wide receivers. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest moves we’ve seen this offseason involving receivers.
Los Angeles made the move to keep Mike Williams in house. The Chargers offered him a three-year, $60-million deal to do so. That contract makes him the sixth highest paid receiver by annual average, tied with Chris Godwin and Amari Cooper. Los Angeles now has two of the top six highest paid receivers in the NFL. Keenan Allen makes just a shade over $20 million per year himself. Jacksonville shocked everyone the following week by splashing out $84 million to sign Christian Kirk. The deal included $37 million in guaranteed money and made Kirk the 10th-highest paid receiver in the league on average. He has yet to reach 1,000 yards receiving in one season in his career.
Shortly after Kirk signed with Jacksonville, Dallas shipped Amari Cooper to Cleveland in what mostly amounted to a salary dump. The Cowboys received a fifth-round pick and swapped sixth-round picks with the Browns to complete the deal. Say what you want about Cooper, but he is a four-time Pro Bowl with five 1,000-yard seasons in his career. He will carry a pretty sizable cap hit in 2023 and 2024, but teams typically have a way of restructuring those to minimize that cap hit.
Then, a week ago, the Raiders reunited Davante Adams with his college quarterback Derek Carr. They sent a first- and second-round pick to Green Bay in order to land him. They promptly made him the highest-paid receiver in the league with a five-year $140-million pact. That benchmarked lasted less than a week.
Wednesday saw the Dolphins acquire Hill for five draft picks, including their first and second rounder for this year. Hill wanted to be the highest paid receiver in the league. He got the same amount of money as Adams, but he earns it in one year less. Hill’s new annual average is $30 million.
What I find really interesting is the two competing schools of thought on the wide receiver position right now. On one hand, you have a handful of teams that are willing to pay big money and premium draft capital to bring in proven veterans. On the other, you have teams willing to move on from proven receivers in an effort to save cap space and recoup draft picks. ESPN NFL draft analyst Jordan Reid recently said he could see the wide receiver position treated much like running backs are in the NFL: It is important to have a good one, but you don’t need to overpay to keep them. I think I might be coming around to this line of thinking.
We have seen some phenomenal receiver classes come out in the past few years. 2019 was thought to be a weaker group, but D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, Diontae Johnson and Hunter Renfrow all went in the middle rounds. 2020 produced Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Henry Ruggs, Justin Jefferson, Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman Jr., Chase Claypool and Darnell Mooney. 2021 was not quite as prolific, but was headlined by Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. If Amon-Ra St. Brown, Elijah Moore and Rashod Bateman take the next step this upcoming season, it could be another special draft class.
2022 is shaping up to be another impressive class. Garrett Wilson, Drake London, Chris Olave, Jameson Williams and Treylon Burks are all widely considered first-round prospects. Christian Watson and George Pickens could crash the first-round party as well. There is depth beyond that top group as well, as has been the case with each of the previous three draft classes.
The point is, it seems like we are entering the golden age of young receivers. Jefferson, Chase, Metcalf, and Samuel are unquestionably among the top 10 in the game. Brown, Lamb, Waddle, Smith, McLaurin, Higgins and Johnson are all in the top 25 at the position. Every one of those guys is currently on their rookie contract.
You don’t necessarily have to spend big to have elite talent at the position. Look at Stefon Diggs and Cooper Kupp. They’ve been two of the best receivers in the NFL over the past two years. They make about half what Hill and Adams are set to make on an annual basis. They could also be due for big raises if this is how much elite receivers are making on the open market.
Let’s be clear, having and paying an elite receiver can be a winning strategy. The Chiefs won a Super Bowl with Hill. The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. That being said, if we are going to start seeing teams paying quarterback-level money to wide receivers, it is hard to see that trend continuing.
It might work in Miami and Los Angeles, where they have quarterbacks on their rookie contracts. But for the Raiders, there is a good chance that having to pay both Derek Carr and Davante Adams is going to put a pretty big squeeze on where they can build the rest of their roster. Especially without a first or second-round pick this season.
There are exceptions to every rule though. Adams, Hill, Kupp, Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins are all game-changing players and likely worth the investment. The same is true for running backs with Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey (when healthy), Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook.
What I think we are going to see is a decline in interest in the middle class of receivers. Paying for elite talent makes sense. Paying guys like Kenny Golladay, Christian Kirk, Robby Anderson, Corey Davis and Michael Gallup likely won’t be worth the investment when you can find replacement level players or better in the draft. That sentiment is true of every position, I just think we are going to start to see it applied more with receivers. It will be a very interesting trend to watch and one that will be greatly impacted by how well the Raiders, Dolphins, Packers, Chiefs and Chargers do in 2022.
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