NFLTR Review: Why The WR Market Blew Up This Year

It was a good year to be a receiver, as well over a dozen cashed in big-time this offseason. In this issue:

  • It’s not just inflation — the NFL changed how it valued WRs this year
  • Theories as to why that happened
  • Who’s the next WR to get the bag?

The Big Picture: 2022’s Wide Receiver Boom

Money has been flying around at the wide receiver position this offseason. In February, the NFL had just four receivers who made more than $20 million a year. One of those was Julio Jones until he was cut by the Titans.

Despite that, there are currently 14 members of the once-exclusive $20 million receiver club. It’s become less of an elite standard and more of a baseline. Even someone like Jaguars WR Christian Kirk, who has never made a Pro Bowl or even recorded a thousand-yard season, got $18 million a season. Back in 2012, Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald dramatically outpaced the rest of the market with deals worth just over $16 million a year. That’s Hunter Renfrow money right now. 

Of course, it makes perfect sense for contracts to keep getting bigger and bigger because they’re tied to the salary cap which has grown every year except for 2020, the pandemic season. Adam Harstad, a fantasy football writer at Football Guys, has a terrific article with contract data he’s been tracking for wide receivers. He’s shown that while the total value for deals goes up as the cap does, NFL teams actually have defined tiers they slot receivers into. All the elite receivers who have reset the market for the past several years have signed for somewhere in the range of 10-11 percent of the total salary cap. Top-10 caliber receivers fell in the nine percent range, there was another tier in the eight percent range for players with less of a track record or longevity concerns, and then high-end slot receivers or clear No. 2 wideouts fell in at seven percent or less. 

That changed this offseason. Here’s a table of notable wide receiver contracts signed in the past few seasons:

Most recent deals and their % of the cap
Name Year APY % of cap Cap
Diontae Johnson 2022 18.5 8.89% 208.2
Deebo Samuel 2022 23.85 11.46% 208.2
D.K. Metcalf 2022 24 11.53% 208.2
Terry McLaurin 2022 23.2 11.14% 208.2
Hunter Renfrow 2022 15.85 7.61% 208.2
Cooper Kupp 2022 26.7 12.82% 208.2
A.J. Brown 2022 25 12.01% 208.2
Brandin Cooks 2022 19.85 9.53% 208.2
Stefon Diggs 2022 24 11.53% 208.2
Tyreek Hill* 2022 30 14.41% 208.2
Davante Adams* 2022 28.5 13.69% 208.2
D.J. Moore 2022 20.6 9.89% 208.2
Christian Kirk 2022 18 8.65% 208.2
Chris Godwin 2022 20 9.61% 208.2
Mike Williams 2022 20 9.61% 208.2
Kenny Golladay 2021 18 9.86% 182.5
Tyler Lockett 2021 17.3 9.48% 182.5
Robert Woods 2020 16.25 8.20% 198.2
Keenan Allen 2020 20.05 10.12% 198.2
Amari Cooper 2020 20 10.09% 198.2
Julio Jones 2019 22 11.69% 188.2
Michael Thomas 2019 19.25 10.23% 188.2

*Adams and Hill have inflated final years, so their contracts are adjusted to reflect more closely how the team is viewing them as an investment with guaranteed money over years. Other contracts like Brown and Diggs have similar features but not as egregious. 

You can clearly see the percentages are growing, indicating teams are placing a higher value on wide receivers than they have in the past. Up and down the market, teams bumped receivers up a tier higher — at least — than you would expect accounting for historical numbers. 

For instance, the deal the Chargers gave WR Mike Williams was worth 9.6 percent of the cap, which puts him in the same company as Demaryius Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins back when they signed their first extensions in 2015, per Harstad. However, both players were far more prolific than Williams, plus Godwin and Moore for that matter who signed almost identical deals. Here’s how all of them performed in the three years before their extensions, with Golladay added in for good measure:

Name Receptions Yards TDs Awards*
Thomas 297 4,483 35 3x PB, 2x AP2
Bryant 273 3,935 41 2x PB, AP1
Hopkins 265 3,685 21 PB, AP2
Golladay 155 2,591 18 PB
Williams 173 2,903 16  
Godwin 249 3,276 21 PB, AP2
Moore 246 3,525 12  

*Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections

The Kirk deal is another example. He was primarily a slot receiver with the Cardinals, and top slots have historically signed deals in the seven percent range. That’s what Renfrow got from the Raiders on his extension — although even then he signed just a two-year deal, another notable sign of the market shifting toward the players. But Kirk’s deal was a tier higher, and the way the rest of the offseason unfolded shows it might not just have been Jacksonville getting over-eager in free agency. 

Adams’ deal wasn’t too far out of line with what you’d expect historically for a top-level wideout. Hill established a new frontier, though, breaking into the 11 percent range even when adjusting for the dummy year at the end of his deal. Brown and Kupp came after him and pushed the salary bar even further into the stratosphere beyond 12 percent. The rest of the 2019 class of receivers, McLaurin, Metcalf and Samuel, solidified those gains, coming in above 11 percent. While they’ve been impressive and likely get a boost due to their youth, look at their production compared to players like Thomas and Bryant who signed for less than 10 percent of the cap in the last decade. 

Name Receptions Yards TDs Awards*
Brown 185 2,995 24 PB
McLaurin 222 3,090 16  
Metcalf 216 3,170 29 PB, AP2
Samuel 167 2,598 10 PB, AP1
Samuel total*   3,148 21  

*Rushing production factored in

All three are great players, but they’re not out-producing the top players from the past decade. Their production is just valued more. 

Teams are at their most honest when they’re using draft picks and cap space; the precious, finite resources at their disposal to try and build a team that can win. So when the league as a whole starts allocating a bigger percentage of the cap to the position, it’s worth paying attention to. The premium positions have historically been quarterback, pass rushers and left tackles. Based on this year, we can add wide receiver to the list. 

Why Is This Happening?

Positions changing in value isn’t a new concept. We’ve seen quarterbacks become more and more important as the rules have changed to favor the passing game. Conversely, running back value has cratered the past two decades. With passing effectiveness being so pivotal to success in the modern NFL, it makes sense for wide receivers to see an increase in positional value. 

But that’s not what people inside the league and media members with their ears to the ground have been speculating. Supply outpacing demand is one of the reasons running backs lost so much value, and there was a school of thought that might happen at receiver too. The rise of 7-on-7 passing camps in high school and spread offense taking over college football has led to a prolific number of talented receivers entering the NFL every season. The 2019 class that just moved the market in a big way was a big piece of that, and things haven’t slowed down in the two years since. 

Backs are also incredibly reliant on their supporting cast, and that’s true of receivers to an extent, too. A lot has to go well between the offensive line and the quarterback before receivers get the ball. Teams like the Steelers have had a lot of success treating the position as replaceable, cycling through all but the really special players and drafting replacements to keep the pipeline stocked each year. The Packers, Chiefs and Titans also elected to pursue cheaper options at wide receiver rather than pay the premium this offseason. 

However, there are a few key reasons receivers will probably continue to maintain their importance even if the flood of talent doesn’t abate (and it doesn’t look like it will). Two-thirds of all offensive plays in the NFL last season had at least three receivers on the field. Factor in depth and that’s a level of demand that’s hard to fill. Compared specifically to running back, good wide receivers can also often maintain a high level of play through their late 20s and into their early 30s. A star receiver also has a much bigger impact on the game due to their ability to dictate matchups and win through the air instead of on the ground. 

If we compare receivers to other premium positions, there’s a case for them being No. 3 in importance behind quarterback and pass rusher and ahead of left tackle, cornerback, etc. Offensive line play is a “weak link” sport. Having stars is important, but ultimately a line is only as good as its worst player because defenses can isolate them and attack. The same is true in the secondary — a shutdown corner that can erase half the field is valuable, but it doesn’t matter as much if offenses can complete passes to the other side all day. 

Wide receiver and pass rusher are strong link positions. Having the best player who can win their matchup the majority of the time is more important than depth. The Bengals are a terrific case study here. They passed on OT Penei Sewell to take WR Ja’Marr Chase even though they had an offensive line that was horrific and a pretty strong pair of receivers in Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. Although they gave up a ton of sacks last season, their ability to dictate matchups and beat any kind of coverage due to the talented trio of Chase, Higgins and Boyd overcame that for most of the season and the Bengals ended up in the Super Bowl. 

Their pass protection still let them down in the end — it’s really hard to win a Super Bowl — but there’s a strong chance they wouldn’t have come as close as they did without adding a talent like Chase. And the Rams won in large part because of the performance of two strong link players: DT Aaron Donald and Kupp. 

What’s Next? 

Most of the receivers from the 2019 class who were eligible and worthy of extensions have already signed them. Steelers WR Diontae Johnson was one of the stragglers, and hopefully everything we’ve written so far has helped illustrated why Pittsburgh got a tremendous steal and Johnson left millions on the table

The lone holdout so far is Cardinals WR Marquise Brown, who is entering his first season in Arizona after they flipped a first-round pick to the Ravens for him in a draft-day trade. They still have two years of control with a fifth-year option in 2023 at a sum of about $13.4 million. And Brown has had an inauspicious start to his Cardinals tenure with a hamstring injury and speeding arrest. 

Still, he’s expected to play a huge role with the six-game suspension for Hopkins to start the season, and the price can only go up, so there’s a good chance the Cardinals are motivated to do a deal. In his first three seasons, Brown has totaled 195 receptions for 2,361 yards and 21 touchdowns. He hasn’t been named to the Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team. From a resume perspective, he’s somewhere between Kirk and Williams. 

However, Brown can point to a run-first offense in Baltimore as having limited his output, and he has the additional leverage of the first-round pick Arizona traded for him. $20 million a year should be an absolute floor for his deal, and there’s a good chance Brown could make millions more if he has a strong season in 2022. 

Patriots WR Jakobi Meyers and Packers WR Allen Lazard are other members of the 2019 class who could cash in in a major way in free agency in 2023, especially with the class looking majorly depleted. Veterans like DJ Chark, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jarvis Landry will also be back on the market after signing one-year deals. 

After that, Vikings WR Justin Jefferson and Chase are the two big fish who will be up for new deals in the coming years. It’ll be fascinating to see if they settle into the new slotted values the NFL has in the 12 percent range, or if they push the market even further. 

This Week In Football

  • It’s been relatively quiet news-wise this week but that doesn’t mean there’s not stuff to get to. Top of the list is the situation between the Bears and LB Roquan Smith, which already was not good and took a turn for the worse this week. Smith has been negotiating his own extension with the team and “holding in” until something gets worked out. He evidently felt talks were going poorly enough that he released a statement this week formally requesting a trade. He’s gunning for $20 million a year which would reset the market for inside linebackers but there are conflicting cases to be made on whether he’s worth that level of deal. He’s one of the few pillar players on Chicago’s roster right now but that’s also a big leap for new GM Ryan Poles and HC Matt Eberflus to make in their first season. Unless things deteriorate even further, there are probably too many obstacles for a trade between Smith’s position, contract demands and the picks the Bears would want in return. Things can change but the best bet for Smith is probably playing out the season and trying to cash in as an unrestricted free agent in 2023. 
  • Smith wasn’t the only player unhappy with his current contract and trying to pressure their team into a trade. Browns RB Kareem Hunt skipped two days of team drills in another “hold in” to try and pressure Cleveland into giving him an extension or trading him. He’s in the final year of his deal and due about $6 million. The Browns held firm, however, like they’ve done in the past with other situations. Hunt was fined and is back in practice. Like Smith, his best bet is probably to play out the 2022 season, hopefully ball out, then try and cash in next spring. Neither has the leverage to force anything else. 
  • The Jets caught an awful break when OT Mekhi Becton had to leave practice with an injury to his right knee, the same knee that caused him to miss nearly the entire 2021 season. Early optimism quickly faded and the bad news set in that Becton would be forced to miss another season due to injury. It’s a blow to the player, as Becton had worked hard to come back from a tricky injury and had something to prove in 2021. He’s still only 23 but the NFL can be unforgiving. Missing two years is tough for anybody. For the Jets, it blows a massive hole in an offensive line that will be critical to their hopes of developing QB Zach Wilson. They turned to free agency, signing veteran OT Duane Brown to what might be a pretty sizable deal for this time of year. As far as Plan B’s go, it’s not bad, but New York is already teetering on having a positional disaster at tackle. Not ideal for a season in which the Jets were hoping to take a step forward. 
  • Whether it happens this week or next, there’s a strong chance the NFL will suspend Browns QB Deshaun Watson much longer than the six games he’s currently set to serve. When that happens, Cleveland will have to re-evaluate its options at quarterback, and the obvious fit on the market is 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo.’s Mary Kay Cabot, who is about as plugged in as anyone to the Browns’ front office, reported they will reconsider Garoppolo if they lose Watson for an extended period of time. Considering she previously was pumping the brakes on anyone besides Jacoby Brissett or Watson starting this season, that’s a notable shift. As we outlined last week, Garoppolo to Cleveland makes a ton of sense, the big question is whether San Francisco gets anything in a trade or still has to release the veteran. 
  • Ravens K Justin Tucker was briefly knocked from the perch of NFL’s highest-paid kicker by Steelers rival Chris Boswell, but that didn’t last long. Baltimore restored balance to the universe with a four-year, $24 million extension for Tucker. He’s the most accurate kicker in NFL history right now at 91 percent, and while he doesn’t have the big kick record of someone like Adam Vinatieri, he’s got some more time to catch up given he’s just 32 — plenty young for a kicker still. 

Check This Out

One of my favorite things about the start of camp is how it brings out the big guns with some CONTENT. Check out these awesome pieces from the past week. 

  • Robert Mays of the Athletic has a terrific piece about the rise of the “power slot.” Slot receivers having a ton of success isn’t new, but the archetype of the position has changed. In recent years, we’ve seen bigger players like Michael Thomas and Cooper Kupp thrive from the inside and put up absolutely monster numbers. They have the quickness and savvy to win matchups against just about anyone from there, but their size also opens up more options for the offense as a whole. Good piece to read in conjunction with the analysis above about the WR market this offseason. 
  • The Ringer’s Kevin Clark talked to Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes and others in Kansas City about Mahomes’ “slump” last season. And the big thing I left the piece thinking is that if last year was a slump, the NFL is absolutely not safe from Mahomes for a long, long time. It feels like we’ve become inoculated to his greatness to a degree, and shinier, newer quarterbacks are getting more attention. Mahomes remains an assassin, though, and I bet he reminds the league of that in 2022. 
  • ESPN’s Seth Wickersham absolutely does. not. miss. If he’s writing a profile or in-depth piece, you can count on him getting to the essential essence of the characters in his story and revealing truth, whether they want it revealed or not. In this feature on Rams HC Sean McVay, he benefits from a willing subject, but the anecdotes here are just incisive. It’s a look into the gritty side of like on top of the mountain we don’t always see. 
  • The NFL is all about great athletes and the Athletic’s Bruce Feldman takes a look at the next generation with his Freak List of college football’s 100 most impressive athletes. It’s always a fun read for the jaw-dropping accomplishments and to see some of the NFL’s future stars, even if they come from less-heralded backgrounds.

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