Is The WR Market Really Heading For Trouble?

There’s not much going on in the NFL world right now, but the demand for content never goes away. Recent topics of discussion have ranged from the inane — an AI-generated photo of Joe Burrow with a perm that fooled far too many people — to the mundane. 

But one worth digging into a little more is the current state of the wide receiver market. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio wrote an article headlined: “Will the receiver market go the way of the running back market?” Florio points out the number of receivers still waiting for lucrative contract extensions and wonders if the supply of talented wideouts will impact the demand, just like it did for running backs. 

Florio’s not the only one asking the question, or even the first one. Former NFL GM Randy Mueller, who has carved out a second career as a commentator, recently wrote an article for The Athletic titled: “Has the NFL’s wide receiver market reached a breaking point?” Fellow Athletic writer Robert Mays asked in a recent video “Is the wide receiver market about to crash?” Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer has mentioned in his columns for years that the people he talks to in NFL circles think the way the passing game is emphasized at the lower levels of football, like 7-on-7 camps and college spread offenses, has increased the supply of quality receivers entering the league — and that in the long run, it could make the position more replaceable


It is true the quality of receivers entering the league seems to have improved. Here’s a table tracking how many receivers have been drafted in the top ten picks, the first round and the first two days of the draft over the past decade. This is a proxy for how talented the NFL thinks the incoming class of receivers is: 

Year Top 10 First Round Day 1-2
2024 3 7 16
2023 0 4 14
2022 2 6 17
2021 3 5 15
2020 0 6 17
2019 0 2 13
2018 0 2 10
2017 3 3 14
2016 0 4 9
2015 2 6 14



If you took a rolling five-year average of the number of receivers drafted in the first three rounds, it would have increased every single year from 2019 to now. It’s understandable why this increased supply has led to speculation about whether the demand for wideouts will ultimately be impacted. If it’s easier to find quality receivers, you’d expect teams to change how they handle the position, particularly when it comes time to shell out money on long-term extensions or in free agency. 

The problem is reality has not matched projection so far. And I think there are good reasons to believe the demand for receivers is not going to slack off any time soon. 

The WR Market Is Still Booming

In 2022, the market for wide receivers exploded. In February of that year, there were four receivers who made more than $20 million a year. By August, that number was 14 — and that didn’t include a massive deal for Jaguars WR Christian Kirk that set Twitter abuzz back when it was a functioning social media platform. 


I noted in an analysis article that year that not only had receiver contracts grown with the salary cap, but teams were devoting a higher percentage of their salary cap to wide receivers. That’s backed up by data from Jason Fitzgerald with Over The Cap. The salary cap has grown by 92 percent over the past decade, while the top of the receiver market has grown by 109 percent. Per OTC, out of the top 20 receiver contracts ranked by percentage of the salary cap, 10 of them have been signed in the last three years. 

Teams are clearly putting more of a value on the position. Today, there are 19 receivers who have passed the $20 million a year watermark, and the market is still growing. Two wideouts — Eagles WR A.J. Brown and Lions WR Amon-Ra St. Brown — pushed past the $30 million per year barrier. 

(Technically Dolphins WR Tyreek Hill already hit $30 million a year but that factors in a balloon year on the end of his contract that was designed to artificially inflate his average. It’s money he will never see.)

Other wideouts who signed notable deals include Eagles WR DeVonta Smith, Colts WR Michael Pittman Jr., Titans WR Calvin Ridley, Buccaneers WR Mike Evans, Browns WR Jerry Jeudy, Jaguars WR Gabriel Davis and Falcons WR Darnell Mooney. Literally while I was writing this article, Texans WR Nico Collins signed a deal worth more than $24 million a year. At nearly every level, the receiver market either made gains or remained robust this offseason. 


Brown and St. Brown not only topped Hill but did so on contracts that aren’t inflated to nearly the same degree. Brown had multiple years remaining on the extension he signed with the Eagles as a part of the trade in 2022, but got significant guarantees and a better average annual salary. St. Brown got practical guarantees through three years, and while the deal is slightly backloaded it does not contain a glaring balloon year. Both moved the market forward. 

Smith got rolling guarantees on his deal that essentially work out to four years of security, and at $25 million a year he’s paid more in terms of average annual salary than all but five wideouts. It should also be noted that Philadelphia did this deal along with a raise for Brown, proving that teams can pay two star receivers and a franchise quarterback if they really want. The Eagles did this by extending Smith early, as they had two years of contract control left on his rookie contract and the extension is for three more years on top of that. 

Ridley sparked a bidding war after all and ended up with a massive contract even though he’s already 29 years old. The deal was for four years and $92 million, which works out to $23 million a year. It’s the rare contract that’s actually better in the short term, as the Titans have an out after two years and a little over $51 million. 


Jeudy signed a deal worth $17 million a year and $41 million guaranteed despite never reaching 1,000 yards in a season. That’s more than any running back has signed for — ever. While the Browns took a leap of faith with this contract, especially with the guarantees which run for three years, the average salary is just what a quality No. 2 receiver costs these days. Even average starters like Davis and Mooney got deals over eight figures as free agents. Both signed for $13 million a year with two years of guarantees. That’s Jonathan Taylor or Saquon Barkley money if you convert it to running back dollars. 

All of these receivers cashed in this offseason despite this being viewed as an outstanding class for wide receivers, even in the context of the stronger-than-usual batches over the past few years. We haven’t even mentioned the Texans’ trade for WR Stefon Diggs. Houston gave up a second-round pick in 2025 and agreed to chop the remaining three years off Diggs’ contract, giving him a chance at unrestricted free agency after he plays out this season and makes over $22 million. They did this despite already having Collins and Tank Dell on the roster, both of whom looked like future stars in 2023. Collins had nearly 1,300 yards receiving and eight touchdowns while Dell was on pace to top 1,000 yards as a rookie and scored seven times in 11 games before a season-ending injury. 


Why Is The NFL Valuing Receivers So Highly?

As you can see, the demand for receivers continues to remain high. There are a lot of reasons for this. Compared to running back specifically, there are some key structural differences. While teams need multiple backs to deploy a committee approach and keep everyone fresh and healthy, there’s usually only one running back on the field at a time. Conversely, the majority of plays run by NFL offenses are in three-receiver formations. 

That essentially triples the demand. The No. 3 running back has to play special teams to justify their spot on the roster. The No. 3 receiver is usually a starter who plays the majority of the snaps. 

Receivers also perform a more valuable skill on the football field. While they are dependent on the quarterback getting them the ball and the offensive line holding up just like running backs are dependent on their blockers, they are usually in isolated matchups. Instead of having to read an eight-man box and break several tackles to gain eight yards, a receiver only needs to beat one or two players for a huge play. 

That puts a premium on wideouts who are capable of winning their isolated matchups more often than not. The NFL is a passing league now and it’s hard to have a successful passing offense without talented receivers. Just ask Panthers fans who had to sit through last season. 


The NFL is also telling us how important receivers are by how much money they’re spending on the position. Teams lie all the time, except when it comes to how they use their draft picks and cap space. Of the top five non-quarterbacks in average annual salary, two are receivers and three are pass rushers. Zoom out to the top ten and there are four wideouts, six pass rushers. The top of the receiver market has outpaced every position except for quarterbacks, edge rushers and defensive tackles. That includes tackles and cornerbacks, two of the classic premium positions from longtime NFL conventional wisdom. 

In order for the supply and demand curve to be materially changed for wide receivers, it would require more than just a few years of good draft classes. The flow of quality prospects would need to continue unabated for five years and probably longer in order to stay ahead of the attrition in the NFL from age, injuries and other factors. If there’s a point where most teams can go four-deep at receiver without much of an issue, then we can talk about there being a surplus of talented receivers. 

So Why Haven’t These Other Receivers Signed Big Deals? 

The crux of Florio’s argument can be boiled down to four receivers who are still waiting for major contracts — Vikings WR Justin Jefferson, Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb, 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk and Bengals WR Tee Higgins. All four are more than deserving of cashing in, but every negotiation is different. There are factors in each situation that can explain why no deal has been signed yet, not the least of which is the fact that the season is still more than three months away. 


For instance, the 49ers tend to drag negotiations out with star players until training camp or later. They finalized the extension for TE George Kittle on August 14, 2020, and inked LB Fred Warner to a new deal on July 21, 2021. Star WR Deebo Samuel got his deal on August 1, 2022, after requesting a trade earlier that summer. And DE Nick Bosa signed his massive extension that gave him $34 million a season and made him the NFL’s highest-paid non-quarterback on September 6 last year. 

This approach by the 49ers isn’t due to any reluctance to sign these players to extensions. These are core players who have been key components of the team’s success the past few years. But by waiting, the 49ers avoid some injury risk and apply a little bit of pressure to the players who would love to get the money in their pocket as soon as possible. It’s a way to potentially get small concessions on the deal, like a more team-friendly structure or more money tied to incentives or bonuses. 

With Aiyuk, the 49ers have to balance a desire to keep a core player who they used a first-round pick on with how they’ve constructed the rest of the roster. San Francisco has a top-heavy roster with big money invested in multiple skill players on offense, including another receiver in Samuel. There’s also a looming deal for QB Brock Purdy which could push $60 million a year by the time the quarterback market settles next offseason. This doesn’t mean the 49ers can’t or won’t extend Aiyuk but it does mean they have to be incredibly cost-conscious with how they go about it. 


No matter what, the 49ers have hard decisions coming in the next year or two. If they extend Aiyuk, it likely means the end for some other big-money veterans. They could also decide they can’t afford Aiyuk and need to invest that money elsewhere on the roster. In that scenario, Aiyuk will still get his payday, it’ll just come from another team. 

This is true with Higgins, too. Right now he’s set to play out the 2024 season on the franchise tag worth $21.816 million fully guaranteed. Reports have indicated the Bengals and Higgins have not had extensive talks about a new contract. The two sides swapped proposals earlier this year with Higgins reportedly seeking something in the range of the three-year, $70 million deal the Colts gave Pittman, who was taken the pick after Higgins in 2020. Higgins’ camp felt the Bengals’ offer was too low to realistically negotiate off of, and talks have died off. 

This shouldn’t be that surprising. When it comes to managing money, the Bengals adhere to rigid guidelines with almost non-existent exceptions, such as not guaranteeing money past the first year of the contract. Cincinnati also has to weigh a potential extension for Higgins alongside the massive contract they gave Burrow and the eventual massive deal WR Ja’Marr Chase will sign. Fitting all three of those into the budget would be tricky. 


It’s not impossible, as the Eagles have proven, but the contract structure Philadelphia used to fit Hurts, Brown and Smith on their cap would short-circuit Cincinnati’s mom-and-pop accounting department. The most likely outcome seems to be Higgins playing out the 2024 season on the tag and the Bengals letting him walk as an unrestricted free agent in 2025. If he has a huge season, Higgins could cash in big. 

The Cowboys are another team that has tended to drag its feet when it comes to huge contract extensions in recent years, even if getting ahead of the market would have saved them money in the long run. To be fair, though, the agents for Lamb are probably not in a rush to compromise too much to get a deal done early, as the deal that Jefferson ultimately signs will go a long way toward defining the entire receiver market, including the eventual contract for Lamb. The former first-rounder probably won’t top Jefferson’s contract, but he benefits from slotting just under the ceiling Jefferson will set for the market. Signing before Jefferson would risk leaving money on the table. 

As for Jefferson, this extension admittedly should be done already. The two sides weren’t able to close the deal last year and Jefferson played out his fourth season, topping 1,000 yards despite playing in only 10 games due to injury. Jefferson is due $19.743 million under the fifth-year option this year and Minnesota technically has the franchise tag at its disposal next year, though if things get to that point it’s unlikely Jefferson would react well. 


There haven’t been specific reports about what is causing the delay between the two sides but there are some dots to connect. It seems like Jefferson isn’t just seeking to reset the receiver market, but is pushing to be the highest-paid non-QB in football. That would mean topping Bosa’s $34 million per year. The Vikings’ policy about guarantees is also likely a negotiating point. Minnesota doesn’t like to guarantee money past the first season and Jefferson is almost certainly pushing for at least the first three years of the deal to be fully guaranteed. 

For a paradigm-shifting, complicated contract like this, it makes sense that it’s taking the two sides some time. The delay has obviously created space for speculation and questions about Jefferson’s long-term future with the Vikings, and it doesn’t help that Minnesota has a history of trading away star receivers like Percy Harvin, Randy Moss and most recently Diggs. But there has been little credible buzz suggesting the Vikings and Jefferson won’t eventually get a long-term deal done. 

Even if the Vikings don’t pay Jefferson, someone will. And that’s the case for all of these players. One way or another, they all are going to get paid, even if it’s not by the team they play for right now. That’s why at the end of the day it’s tough for me to really wring my hands over the state of the wide receiver market. It pays well to be a receiver — and that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change anytime soon. 


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