There are currently 12 wide receivers in the NFL with contracts that give them an average annual value of $20 million or more† Nine of those contracts — Chris Godwin, DJ Moore, Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Mike Williams, AJ Brown, Terry McLaurin and Stefon Diggs — were signed during this off-season. Just three years ago there was only one recipient making that kind of money, Julius Jones† The wide receiver market has exploded recently, and not like a high school ice bomb in the boys bathroom. I’m talking about scorched earth, Chernobyl several times. It has erupted to heights that no one could have predicted.
With so many huge contracts in wide positions, some fans are wondering if teams will be able to fill other positions with talented players. I am one of those people. With how big the quarterback and wide receiver markets have become, how are teams supposed to fill their offensive lines and defense with enough capable talent to win a Super Bowl? With the salary cap where it currently sits, it seems nearly impossible to have a franchise quarterback past their rookie contract, a top-tier wide receiver past their rookie contract, and an elite defense. The Buccaneers do, but that’s largely due to Tom Brady’s willingness to make pay cuts. The Green Bay Packers did, but had to get rid of Davante Adams to make way for Rodgers’ insane contract. The same goes for the Chiefs, but they didn’t even have that elite defense. They had a mediocre defense and an insane offensive line. Still, that was enough for the team to trade in star receiver Tyreek Hill.
There are three teams that can qualify: the Raiders, Browns and Rams. I’d argue the first two are borderline cases, though, as the Raiders’ defense is still iffy, even with Chandler Jones, and the Browns may never see their “franchise quarterback” suit in front of them. The Rams are the exception. Somehow they managed to get Matt Stafford and Cooper Kupp to huge contracts while also paying two of the biggest defensive contracts in the NFL: Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald. They are wizards with money. I don’t know how they do it, but their accountants and finance officers are clearly much smarter than I am.
You look at the other recipients making over $20 million a year and start to wonder, “Will any of these teams be able to keep these guys after their contracts expire?” On the surface, the answer is usually no. The Cardinals would likely drop DeAndre Hopkins in favor of Kyler Murray, who is currently seeking a massive contract extension. The Chargers have two receivers earning more than $20 million a year. Do you really think the Chargers could afford that if quarterback Justin Herbert didn’t have another rookie contract? How will the Eagles deal with AJ Brown if they have to pay Jalen Hurts more money? What about DeVonta Smith? What will become of the Bengal’s three-headed monster, Burrow, Chase and Higgins, once they all start looking for contract extensions?
It seems likely that the wide receiver position could become a revolving door of talented veterans forced to pack up and leave the city year after year to join a team that can afford their huge paychecks. . However, esteemed NFL agent Leigh Steinberg tells Deadspin that there is nothing to worry about.
“This off-season has been the fastest one-off blast at a position I’ve ever seen,” Steinberg said of the wide receiver contracts signed in recent months. “The whole question under the cap is ‘Who is replaceable and modular, and who is irreplaceable and non-modular?’ and a group of teams made the decision about a month ago that the wide receiver position is now irreplaceable.” However, if that were true, why did teams like the Chiefs, Packers, Cowboys and Ravens trade away their top receivers this offseason?When the position of the wide receiver is so important, and the belief is that a team with a talented wide receiver can do everything. have to spend on him, why didn’t those teams do that?
“Because the salary cap is specifically designed to create equality,” Steinberg said. “The specific design of the salary cap was to force dominant teams to lose crucial players.” That brings up an interesting point. The NFL salary cap has risen remarkably in recent seasons. In 2016, the limit was $155.27 million. Now it stands at $208.2 million — a 34 percent increase. However, player contracts have increased by a significantly larger amount. In 2016, Julio Jones had the highest cap hit of all wide receivers ($15.9 million† Today, Kenny Golladay has a greater number attached to him. Hell, Tyreek Hill’s average annual value is $30 million and that doesn’t include its signing bonus. That figure is an 88.66 percent increase from Jones’ full cap hit in 2016. The salary cap may be moving in an upward direction, but the salaries of quarterbacks and wide receivers are exploding at an even faster rate. So why is there nothing to worry about, despite the sharp rise in salaries?
Steinberg explained that while the markets for wide receivers and quarterbacks have exploded, NFL teams are also aware of other positional groups. “Offensive guard, center linebacker and running back have all declined in their criticality. It’s all supply and demand.” While the highest-paid wide receiver earns much more today than in 2016, the highest-paid left guard has remained more or less the same in 2022. In 2016, Oaklands Kelichi Osemele had a cap hit of $13.2 million associated with him. In 2022, Quenton Nelson of Indianapolis has a cap hit of $13,754,000. Not as big of a difference as you might expect. Based on how the percentage of the salary cap those values took up, the value of the left guard position has plummeted.
Now if you’re a guard, linebacker, or run back in high school or college and think, “What the hell? So you’re telling me I’m not going to make that much in the NFL now?” you owe that to the Bengalis. According to Steinberg, the success of teams that reach the Super Bowl and win becomes the model that other teams try to emulate. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. “There is a lot of imitation in football. The league saw these two teams focus on breakout-wide receivers in this year’s Super Bowl and be an integral part of their ability to pull off their attack. However, Steinberg doesn’t believe this is the key to success in the NFL. Steinberg continued: “The key to winning is an owner with stability and vision, a front office that excels at finding, trading and signing talent, and a coach with a system that works. The quality of players is not as valuable as the quality of ownership, the front office and the coaching staff when it comes to winning.
With so many wide receivers looking to make money in the market today, it’s becoming less likely that we’ll see elite veteran quarterbacks paired with elite veteran wide receivers, but that’s only for the short term. As the market continues to stabilize and we see more running back contracts dwindling along with other less valued positional groups, those great receivers will find their way back in alongside guys like Rodgers and Mahomes. The salary cap, as well as previous bad decisions by the front office, may prevent that at the moment, but according to Steinberg we can expect the balance to be reached in the near future.
In short, the wide receiver market may continue to grow for a few more years, but that’s no reason to worry about it collapsing altogether. There’s a reason so many teams salivate at the opportunity to get hold of someone with good hands. Other positional groups will suffer financially, but that’s how the free agent market works. Become invaluable, or lose value. Don’t expect wide receivers to fall in value any time soon.