The cost for a No. 1 receiver is rising and two teams have already traded their guys rather than pay up. In this issue:
- Why the price tag is growing
- Why teams might get sticker shock
- The next elite WRs due for mega-money — or a trade
The Big Picture: Resetting The WR Market
Inflation isn’t just a thing in the real world. Prices are going up in the NFL too, and outside of quarterback there might not be a position that has seen an explosion of value like wide receiver.
In the span of about a week, Raiders WR Davante Adams and Dolphins WR Tyreek Hill inked massive deals worth well over nine figures in total value, deals their former teams in Green Bay and Kansas City were unwilling to offer up. In doing so, they pushed forward a receiver market that had been largely stagnant since the Falcons gave WR Julio Jones three years and $66 million in 2019. That worked out to $22 million a year, which is the general rule of thumb for how NFL contracts are stacked up against each other. Adams signed for $28 million a year and Hill’s deal averages $30 million a season.
Inside the numbers
Admittedly there’s some funny money propping up the total value of Adams and Hill’s deal. For instance, the second and third years of Adams’ contract aren’t guaranteed until March 17, 2023, meaning the Raiders could cut Adams before then and be on the hook for just $22 million. The final two years in 2025 and 2026 when Adams will be 33 and 34 have base salaries of more than $35 million each, more than half the total value of the deal and money Adams will probably never see. The last year of Hill’s deal contains $45 million of the $120 million in new money he signed for — cash that’s also unlikely to make its way from the team’s bank account to Hill’s pocket.
Still, if you look at the actual commitments those teams made, they reveal progress. The Raiders will pay $22 million a year one way or another for Adams, either over one season or three. Hill is due $72 million over the next three years which is for practical reasons guaranteed, an average of $24 million a year. Both bested previous high marks for guaranteed money and if taken as average annual value would still reset the market.
(For the sake of simplicity, we will not get into Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins’ contract. He signed a two-year, $54.5 million extension in 2020, which is $27.25 million a year in new money. However, he had three years still left on his deal at the time, making the total average about $18.8 million a year.)
Another way to look at how things are shifting is the percentage of the cap allocated to wide receivers on these contracts. Football Guys’ Adam Harstad has a running list going back several years that shows the tiers teams tend to break these guys into.
Christian Kirk signs basically the same deal as Robert Woods got two years ago (adjusted for cap) and everyone acts like the apocalypse is upon us.
Meanwhile Mike Williams got Dez/Demaryius/DeAndre money a week ago and nobody seemed to notice. pic.twitter.com/IOWznKF2or
— Adam Harstad (@AdamHarstad) March 14, 2022
If we take some of Harstad’s list and make a few additions from recent contracts, this is what we get:
|Name||Year||APY in millions||% of cap|
You can see Jones and Saints WR Michael Thomas resetting the market back in 2019. Deals for Amari Cooper, Keenan Allen and Robert Woods, among others, slotted in underneath them. Depending on whether you look at the total AAV or the guarantees, Hill and Adams are either right in line with the top of the market or pushed it dramatically forward.
It’s hard to make a clean comparison with 2021 because of the drop in the cap due to the pandemic, but the Giants’ big deal for WR Kenny Golladay is where you can start to see the real uptick in the market. He’s at the top of the other wideouts Harstad has bucketed him with in terms of percentage of the cap, but if you stack up their production, there’s a huge gulf.
One deal is just an aberration. But the Chargers’ deal for Mike Williams made it a trend. He slots in at the end of that tier for cap percentage at least but has less than 3,000 yards and the fewest receiving touchdowns of any of them in the three seasons prior to signing their deal. Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin and Panthers WR D.J. Moore stack up more favorably but these are still solid comps for them in terms of salary.
And of course, there’s the Jaguars putting Christian Kirk in the same bucket as Adams, Woods, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Not all of those guys had the name recognition when they signed their deals like they do now, but even so Kirk’s resume is lacking in comparison.
What makes these deals so impactful is that they come at a time when it seems like more talented receivers than ever before are entering the league. A record 13 were selected in the first two rounds in 2020 and that was followed up with seven in the top 50 picks last year. We could easily see another five or six wideouts go in the first round at the end of this month.
There’s been some speculation the supply could outweigh the demand, and that it might make more sense to go younger and cheaper at wideout rather than tie up tens of millions of dollars in a veteran whose production can be replaced. And we have seen receivers like Will Fuller and J.J. Smith-Schuster hit free agency with dollar signs in their eyes and be disappointed by the offers that are out there, so there is some downward pressure on the market.
But the deals for guys like Golladay, Williams and Kirk stand as a counterweight, showing that at least some teams are willing to pay a bigger slice of the pie for less production. That indicates more value placed on wideouts, not less. That makes sense given the dominance of the passing attack in the modern NFL.
To be effective, teams need at a minimum three legitimate weapons in the passing game to funnel the offense through. You can get there with running backs and tight ends too, it doesn’t have to be three receivers, but elite receiving tight ends are hard to find and receivers tend to be more explosive than all but a small handful of running backs. And in recent seasons we’ve seen the incredible value a bonafide, matchup-proof, No. 1 receiver can have.
That’s the context a number of talented wideouts from the 2019 draft class find themselves in now, entering contract years and eligible for an extension for the first time; Seahawks WR D.K. Metcalf, Commanders WR Terry McLaurin, Titans WR A.J. Brown, 49ers WR Deebo Samuel and Steelers WR Diontae Johnson. Here’s how they stack up statistically over their first three seasons:
Given how the market has moved this offseason, the absolute floor for most of these guys should be $20 million a year. Realistically it will probably take something in the range of $21-$22 million a year to tempt guys like Metcalf, Samuel, Brown and McLaurin, and if they’re willing to play out their contracts they could possibly cash in even bigger. Over The Cap projects the tag for receivers in 2023 to be $20.1 million.
If that’s too steep for some of these teams, that’s where we could potentially see a trade factor into the equation. Most of the time, teams prefer to keep their young players coming off rookie contracts, so it’s hard to see Tennessee or Washington letting Brown or McLaurin go. Same for Samuel, especially because his rushing production adds so much to San Francisco’s offense.
There’s a reason why Metcalf’s name keeps being connected to trade rumors right now, though. Do the run-first Seahawks want to commit that much money to a receiver, especially after trading Russell Wilson? They “intend” to sign Metcalf to an extension, but obviously we just heard the same song and dance a month ago at the Combine with Wilson…
Johnson’s situation also bears watching, as Pittsburgh has a history of letting receivers leave rather than signing them to big-money second deals — with certain exceptions. There are also veterans like Diggs, Buccaneers WR Mike Evans and Rams WR Cooper Kupp who have just two years left on their respective deals and have no doubt taken notice of the deals signed by Adams and Hill. There have already been some rumblings regarding potential raises for Diggs and Kupp, who rank No. 3 and No. 1 respectively in receiving yards over the last three seasons, ahead of Hill and sandwiching Adams.
Kupp seems like someone the Rams can talk into taking less. It’s worth noting Diggs has already been traded once, however, and both the Packers and Chiefs decided they couldn’t afford to pay top-tier money to both a quarterback and a wide receiver. Will the Bills follow that same route instead of giving Diggs a deal that’s sure to be comparable to Hill and Adams? It would be a shock, but this offseason has already been full of those. Teams that have quarterbacks on rookie contracts like the Cardinals and Chargers are also worth watching. Chargers WR Keenan Allen has an out in his deal next offseason…
After this batch, there will be plenty more. Vikings WR Justin Jefferson has already nearly matched McLaurin in receiving yards in just two seasons and will be eligible for an extension summer 2023. Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb and Bengals WR Tee Higgins are viewed as ascending players, and others like Colts WR Michael Pittman, 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk and Broncos WR Jerry Jeudy could join the conversation.
And sometime in probably 2024 or 2025, Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase will reset the market in another big way if his rookie campaign was any indication — especially considering how the cap is projected to grow. Under the old CBA, the salary cap was going up by $10 million a year. That should increase significantly in the new CBA with new media rights deals worth $10 billion a year kicking in next year as well as growing gambling revenue. The cap could hit $300 million in as little as five years.
Better get used to sticker shock, for wide receivers and other positions.
This Week In Football
- The pace of things has certainly slowed down, but this week wasn’t without any surprises. The midweek bombshell was Buccaneers HC Bruce Arians stepping away into a front office role and DC Todd Bowles being promoted to head coach. Arians is one of the league’s better coaches but he had been starting to step back this past year. Tom Brady obviously has a major say in the offense and OC Byron Leftwich has been calling the plays. Bowles is more than qualified and Tampa Bay ends up benefiting from no other team hiring him away the past two seasons. In the end, the Bucs should be just fine.
- There may not be any shocking news imminent between the Ravens and QB Lamar Jackson, but this is definitely a situation worth watching. Jackson is about to enter the final year of his deal and there’s no inclination an extension is close. Jackson is representing himself, so the circle involved is tight and little is known about how negotiations are going. The Ravens say they are committed to signing Jackson long-term, but that so far he just hasn’t shown much urgency to get a deal done. It’s a weird situation, and the lack of info has led to a lot of speculation that Jackson is willing to play out this year and two more years under the franchise tag to hit unrestricted free agency. The quarterback hit back against that narrative on Wednesday but it’s still unclear what he wants or what he’s waiting for.
- We are now firmly in the second wave of free agency. The initial bidding frenzy is over and the next deadlines for action will be the draft at the end of April followed by the end of the qualifying period for compensatory picks. There are still plenty of big-name players available, though, either via trade or free agency. The biggest is probably Browns QB Baker Mayfield as a former No. 1 overall pick but don’t expect any resolution to his situation soon. Cleveland has zero leverage. They can’t even sell keeping Mayfield as an alternative to a potential Deshaun Watson suspension — though they tried — and at this point it seems teams are willing to wait the Browns out until they eat most of Mayfield’s salary or just release him. The Panthers traded Teddy Bridgewater in a salary dump around the draft last year. Similar timing might make sense for Mayfield and the Browns.
- Speaking of the Panthers, they’re widely viewed as one of the teams, along with the Seattle Seahawks, who still need to make a move at the position. If the season started today, they would be trotting out Sam Darnold and Drew Lock respectively. Carolina is weighing a lot of options, including drafting a rookie or pursuing a trade. Their GM Scott Fitterer made some headlines when he didn’t rule out the idea of Cam Newton coming back for another season. However, I imagine that’s probably closer to Plan D for all parties involved. Carolina doesn’t see Newton as much more than a backup and short-yardage weapon, while the former MVP seems to prefer a landing spot with a team better equipped to win.
- After weeks of courtship, LB Bobby Wagner finally made a decision to sign with the Rams and stay in the NFC West on what on the surface is a five-year, $50 million deal. This is fascinating for a number of reasons. He’ll be 32 before the start of the season and there are some signs of slippage. He had his worst PFF grade since 2015 and the impact plays were down. The Rams’ defensive system has devalued and de-emphasized linebacker for years but they obviously see Wagner as the type of star worth making an exception for. This is also twice as much as Los Angeles was rumored to be willing to pay, although we’ll have to wait for the full contract details to truly judge that. I suspect this is less player-friendly than it appears.
- The Giants are still shopping CB James Bradberry with the goal of getting a pick in addition to cap savings from moving on from the veteran. From a talent perspective, Bradberry is still a solid corner but the Giants are hard up against the cap and teams know it, tanking their leverage. The Chiefs, Texans and Colts are among the interested teams (Kansas City is also mulling a deal with CB Stephon Gilmore), but at this point it looks like New York is going to have to settle for a late-round pick or something like swapping picks in the fifth. After getting no takers for their trade balloon for RB Saquon Barkley, the Giants are also backing off the idea of trading him as well.
- Saints S Malcolm Jenkins announced his retirement on Wednesday after 13 seasons. He was the pinnacle of consistency and leadership for a long time, and was a part of the first-ever Super Bowl title for two separate organizations. Though he wasn’t the flashiest player, he was incredibly solid. He stuffed the stat sheet in a number of categories and is a Hall of Fame person off the field. Whatever industry he goes into next will be getting a star.
Nickels & Dimes
Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…
It is hard to understate the impact of the five-year, $230 million, fully-guaranteed deal the Browns gave Watson. It’s an NBA-style contract, something NFL players have been eyeing for ages. And there should be positive benefits for everyone, not just quarterbacks. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora points out the funding rule, leftover from decades ago when the NFL wasn’t basically printing money, requires the Browns to put a $180 million check in escrow. That’s a lot of cheddar, even for billionaires, and one not all owners will be comfortable writing. They’ve used it in the past to argue against guaranteeing large sums of money, but this could pave the way for the owners to voluntarily abolish it, which would be a win for the players without having to fight at the bargaining table…
With Sean Payton out, the Taysom Hill quarterback experiment is predictably coming to an end. Hill will be a tight end going forward, and his contract makes him the 10th highest-paid at the position. He has 34 career receptions for 388 yards, which would have been 25th in 2021…
Speaking of tight ends, I can not emphasize enough how massive a value Travis Kelce is for the Chiefs. He’d be the 22nd highest-paid receiver but has more receiving yards in the past three years than anyone not named Adams, Diggs or Kupp…
That value only goes up now that Hill is gone. The Chiefs were probably hoping he’d take the same kind of sweetheart deal…
Yes, I believe this. Had a great conversation with the* power that be at the Owners Meetings. I agree that 25-26M not really that much to keep him, in today’s market given the importance of the position. Season to season, you’re either trying to win the Super Bowl, or you’re not. https://t.co/7ctExpiuQA
— IG: JosinaAnderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 31, 2022
Just to focus on one part of this argument, while Garoppolo’s $26 million is half of the yearly average for top quarterbacks, it’s all set to hit the cap this year. That’s a major difference. If we look at 2022 cap hits, Garoppolo’s is the seventh-highest in the NFL. So either the 49ers are dedicating that chunk of money to a backup or they traded three first-round picks for a backup…
Keeping Garoppolo and hoping the market changes due to injury is a decent enough play for San Francisco, especially because Garoppolo will be rehabbing and won’t take reps away from Trey Lance. They cannot realistically keep him into the season, though, and in my opinion, anything they say to the contrary is just to salvage some leverage and trade value…
Trading down in the NFL Draft is good. However, not all trade downs are very helpful nor are all trade ups catastrophic
— Conor "F1 is Paying Off Americans" McAnalytics (@ConorMcQ5) March 25, 2022
This is fascinating, and the accompanying article is worth digging into. In his lone draft so far, Fitterer accumulated what basically was the value of a mid-first just by trading down…
Nothing else is on the NFL calendar between now and the draft, which means draft season can really kick into gear. Keep an eye out for some NFLTR mocks coming soon (shameless plug about having 2020s most accurate mock). Since this issue was all about the receivers, here’s some impressions on this class:
- Ohio State’s Chris Olave – Fast, polished, a slight build but can still do damage after the catch and in tight catch situations. Reminds me of who the 49ers thought they were getting in Dante Pettis…
- Georgia’s George Pickens – Basically a baby Allen Robinson. Put the ball in his zip code and he’ll go get it. Not just a possession receiver either…
- Arkansas’ Treylon Burks – If you were disappointed by the 40 time, do two things: Remind yourself he’s 225 pounds and go back and watch him pull away from everyone in the SEC. He’s not polished but I think he might end up being overthought like Metcalf was…
- USC’s Drake London – Got a lot of wiggle for a big guy. Reminds me a lot of Brandon Marshall as someone who can just vacuum up receptions and be a pain in the rear to tackle…
- Purdue’s David Bell – Heck of a football player but that 40 time is tough. And his agility drills don’t make up for it like you’d hope…
- Alabama’s Jameson Williams – Lightning-fast and that’ll keep him in the first round despite the torn ACL…
- Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson – For a lot of people, Wilson is the consensus top receiver in the draft. Jerry Jeudy was seen in a similar way in 2020 and hasn’t yet put it together and I think Wilson has a lot of parallels…
- Clemson’s Justyn Ross – Between the spine injury and his horrendous pre-draft workouts, Ross might be a late-round pick at best. I still don’t think he forgot how to play, though…
- North Dakota State’s Christian Watson – Literally one of the most athletic receivers to enter the league in decades…
- Penn State’s Jahan Dotson – Catches everything in sight but his size might limit him as an outside receiver. Tyler Lockett vibes…
- Alabama’s John Metchie – Another torn ACL which will impact his rookie season. Solid in a lot of areas but perhaps not a standout in any one…
- Western Michigan’s Skyy Moore – Getting some buzz as a slot receiver, reminds me of Christian Kirk…
- Cincinnati’s Alec Pierce – Combine workout wonder who attacks the ball in the air. A little stiff in the hips though. Think Gabriel Davis…
- Kentucky’s Wan’Dale Robinson – Gadget-style weapon who has plenty of experience at running back and slot receiver in college. Not nearly as big or sturdy as Deebo Samuel, though…
- Memphis’ Calvin Austin – Blazing fast but just 5-7. The NFL is becoming more pass-happy which has allowed smaller players to thrive but Austin would still be a historical aberration…