NFL Draft Daily: Should you pay big money to wide receivers or keep drafting them instead?

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. After all, there are only 35 days until the 2022 NFL draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

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.

Miami gave Hill $72 million in guaranteed money as part of his new deal. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Since entering the league in 2014, Adams has the second-most touchdown catches, trailing only Mike Evans. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Chase accounted for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns in his rookie season. (Wikimedia Commons)

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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2021 NFL Award Predictions: Najee Harris, Patrick Mahomes in line for some hardware

The NFL is back! Before the season gets underway in full on Sunday, I wanted to go on record with my predictions for who will win the major awards handed out at the end of the regular season. I am so glad that football finally here again!

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Harris scored 30 touchdowns in his senior year at Alabama.

Winner: Najee Harris, RB, Steelers
I am incredibly way of the Steelers’ offensive line, but this is going to be about volume. No one else in Pittsburgh’s running back room has proven themselves in the NFL. Harris is going to be in line for a 350-touch season. The team seems committed to running the ball and relying on its defense to win games. That sets up a great situation for the former Alabama star to shine and take home the award.

Runner Up: Mac Jones, QB, Patriots
Some of this is about Jones’ situation and some of it is due to his talent. He might have been the most pro-ready quarterback in the 2021 draft class. Now, he will play with a revamped Patriots offense behind a good offensive line. He also feels like a great fit for Josh McDaniels’ offense. His ability to make plays from the pocket and take care of the football bodes well for him having an impressive 2021 season. I think there might be too many hiccups for him to win the award. Quarterbacks tend to be dissected more intensely than any other position. I think it is too much to expect him to match Justin Herbert’s numbers from a year ago. He will be in the conversation, but I believe he will ultimately come up short.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Winner: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Broncos
It only took one preseason game for Surtain to flash the potential that made him the No. 9 pick in the 2021 draft. He raced back a 30-yard pick-six against the Vikings in the Broncos’ preseason opener. Now, it was just the preseason, but that is the type of playmaking ability that will win Rookie of the Year. Without an elite edge rusher in this draft class, at least right out of the gate, there is a good chance we see either a corner or linebacker take home the award this year. I’m backing Surtain, who was my top corner prospect in 2021.

Runner Up: Jamin Davis, LB, Washington
Davis flew up draft boards with his speed and instinctive playmaking style. He has the intangibles to become a sideline-to-sideline linebacker at the next level. Washington also has arguably the best defensive line in the NFL, which means Davis should have plenty of clear sight lines to the quarterback and ballcarriers. That front four eating up blocks will free up Davis to diagnose and go make plays. There will be a decent amount of competition for the award this year with Jaelan Phillips and Zaven Collins poised for big roles early in their careers, but I like Davis to stand out.

Offensive Player of the Year

Jones ran for a career-high 1,104 yards in 14 games in 2020.

Winner: Aaron Jones, RB, Packers
Jamal Williams and his 70 receptions over the past two season are in Detroit. A.J. Dillon might still be there, but he is definitely a change of pace back. He will get carries, but I think Jones is in for a monster season. This offensive line will get better when David Bahktiari returns. Until then, Jones can run behind Elgton Jenkins. He will also continue to be involved in the passing game, where he has seen 131 targets over the past two years. This is going to be one of the best offenses in the league again and I expect Jones to be a huge part of that.

Runner Up: Tyreek Hill, WR, Chiefs
It helps to play with Patrick Mahomes, but Hill is a special talent. After a 1,400-yards-from-scrimmage, 17-total-touchdown season, Hill had a legitimate claim to win the award in 2020. Sammy Watkins is now in Baltimore, so there is potential for Hill’s target share to even increase in 2021. With an improved offensive line, Mahomes will have even more time to drop dimes to Hill deep downfield.

Defensive Player of the Year

Winner: T.J. Watt, LB, Steelers
Well part of this was an assumption that Watt would ball out in a contract year, but I still think he is in line for a special season. He has had at least 13 sacks in each of the past three seasons, including his league-leading 15 a season ago. He plays in a dynamic defense with tons of talent around him. Opposing teams will not be able to zero in on him in pass protection, at least not on every down. In addition to leading the league in sacks, Watt also tallied a league-high 23 tackles for loss. He is a disruptive force on a team that will be led by its defense.

Runner Up: Aaron Donald, DL, Rams
Six straight First-Team All-Pros, seven straight Pro Bowls, four straight seasons with at least 11 sacks. It would unwise to predict anything but another stellar season by Donald. He is the best interior pass rusher in the NFL and one of the best ever. He is going to have plenty of pass rushing opportunities as well with the Rams seemingly poised to score a decent number of points on offense. Opposing teams will definitely need to be playing catch up. I think he will come close to securing another Defensive Player of the Year award.

Coach of the Year

The Bills are 23-9 over the past two seasons.

Winner: Sean McDermott, Bills
Expectations are understandably high for the Bills. Following a return to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1993. Josh Allen led a high-powered Buffalo offense that won the AFC East, however, the defense took a major step back. The front office invested in some young defensive players over the past few drafts. If the Bills can become a more complete team and McDermott gets this defense back to its 2019 form en route to a 13- or 14-win season, I think he will be more than deserving of the award.

Runner Up: Brandon Staley, Chargers
A rookie head coach winning Coach of the Year? I think it could happen. The Chargers retooled their offensive line, get back some major contributors from injury on defense and have a talented, young quarterback to lead the way. Los Angeles likely won’t win the AFC West, that’s the downside to playing in the same division as the Chiefs, but the Chargers are definitely in contention for a wild card spot. I think if L.A. gets to 11 wins this season, which feels attainable given their talent and schedule, Staley should be in consideration for the award.

Comeback Player of the Year

Winner: Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys
I had Prescott picked well before I saw his season-opening performance against the Buccaneers. He plays in an offense loaded with weapons and was on a legitimate MVP pace in 2020 prior to his injury. I expect we will see a 5,000-yard season from him, especially with the extra regular season game. After coming off a serious ankle injury, it will be great to see Prescott get back to full strength.

Runner Up: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers|
If his brief appearances in 2020 were any indication, McCaffrey is still the best running back in the NFL. He is such a difference-maker in Carolina’s offense with his ability as a runner and as a pass catcher. It will be interesting to see how he gels with new Panthers quarterback, but I think his usage and productivity sets him up well to be in the mix for Comeback Player of the Year.

MVP

Mahomes has thrown 114 touchdowns since taking over the starting job in 2018.

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
What if I told you the most talented quarterback in the NFL is going to play behind the best offensive line he has ever had in 2021? Well that is exactly what is going to happen in Kansas City. Mahomes was in the mix for MVP in 2020, but his production slowed a little bit down the stretch. With more time to pick apart opposing defenses a bevy of talented weapons to throw to, I think 50 touchdowns is within reach for Mahomes again. If he plays in all 17 games, I could definitely see him averaging three scores per game.

Runner Up: Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks
I’m not totally sold on the Seahawks in 2021, but I still believe in Wilson. He has two reliable receivers on the outside in D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. I think new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron will help this offense avoid the second-half fallout it had in 2020. Through the first half of the year, no one could touch Wilson. He was tearing apart secondaries and toss touchdowns like it was no one’s business. Despite a major slowdown in his final eight games, Wilson still tossed 40 touchdowns. I think he can match that total while cutting down on the 13 interceptions he threw to truly challenge for MVP.

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All photos are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.