The wide receiver business is booming, but it might not be worth it


It costs a lot to acquire and retain a good wide receiver on an NFL team.

Not only did a record number of nine broads sign new deals in 2022 worth at least $15 million a year in average annual value — including six for more than $20 million a year — but two starters from Prow Bowl were also traded this offseason for a huge pick of draft packages.

The Jacksonville Jaguars handed Christian Kirk a sky-high contract, and the move snowballed into blockbuster trades and record extensions for Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill. The Las Vegas Raiders gave up a first- and second-round pick before giving Adams $28 million in AAV, while the Miami Dolphins traded a first, second, two quarterbacks and sixth to the Kansas Chiefs City before signing Hill for a $30-million-a-year deal. Others like DJ Moore, Stefon Diggs, Chris Godwin and Mike Williams have also won new contracts worth at least $20 million a year.

Are these offers worth it? Should teams sign $20 million AAV contracts and/or give up several high draft picks in the process?

The teams will have to quickly make a decision. That trend seems to have trickled down to the next generation of receivers waiting for mega-deals: Seattle’s DK Metcalf, Tennessee’s AJ Brown, Washington’s Terry McLaurin and San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel. The bottom three are already planning to skip voluntary on-field activities this spring, while Samuel has requested a trade from the 49ers despite the Niners’ willingness to re-sign.

The Price of Doing Wide Receiver Business

Ten years ago, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson signed a seven-year, $113 million contract that would have earned him $16 million a year. That mark set the record for the position in the NFL at the time, but would now rank 22nd on the list of all-time annual salaries for a catcher.

Johnson’s average annual salary is now the norm for a good receiver, and the bar for signing the top job keeps rising. Julio Jones crossed the $20 million per year threshold in 2019 with the Atlanta Falcons, while DeAndre Hopkins pushed that number to $27.25 million in 2020 with the Arizona Cardinals. This offseason, Adams broke Hopkins’ record before Hill took first place eight days later.

The money won’t stop flowing, but it comes at a major cost to a team’s ability to put together a winning roster.

The Dolphins paid dearly to acquire a proven receiver like Tyreek Hill, and they’re not the only NFL team to do so. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Six receivers signed new contracts that will be at least 10 percent of their team’s salary cap when overtime rolls around, but only one of them (Adams) added more than 0.50. Earn above replacement (WAR), according to Pro Football Focus, with 0.78. For reference, PFF compares a player with a WAR of 1.0 to a player worth $40-50 million per year. In this case, Adams is worth the $28 million the Raiders will pay him in 2022, but Hill’s $30 million annual salary is an overpayment considering his WAR was 0.47 in 2021.

That’s a lot of money to pour into a player who won’t affect a team’s ability to win in the regular season, and the best teams in the NFL last season didn’t spend that much on receivers. Only eight of the position’s top 20 spenders have made the playoffs, and the two Super Bowl teams in 2021, the Bengals and Rams, have spent 8 and 10 percent of the salary cap, respectively, on their entire recipient body.

Eric Edholm's final fictional draft of 2022. The real draft begins Thursday in Las Vegas.  (Yahoo Sports)

Eric Edholm’s final fictional draft of 2022. The real draft begins Thursday in Las Vegas. (Yahoo Sports)

Give up more to pay more

The Cardinals, Raiders and Dolphins failed to sign Hopkins, Adams and Hill. They had to exchange assets for the right to pay these receivers their recording contracts. They weren’t the only ones doing it. The Cowboys traded for Amari Cooper in 2018 before signing him to a $20 million AAV deal in 2020, and the Bills acquired Stefon Diggs in 2020 and signed him to a $22 million annual contract over the course of of the last offseason.

That’s a lot of lost potential added value for a team.

Let’s take a look at the Adams and Hill trades. The Raiders lost approximately .947 WAR after sending picks No. 22 and 53 to the Packers, Pro Football Focus draft pick WAR estimate, while the team recovered the perceived WAR of 0.78 from Adams. The Dolphins overpaid Hill even more, sending around 1.275 WAR to the Chiefs but returning just 0.47.

On the face of it, these were both “losses” to the teams that acquired and paid for the star receivers. Especially because Adams and Hill will count for 13.6% and 13.9% of their respective teams’ cap from 2023.

But it’s impossible to fully determine their value compared to the value the Raiders and Dolphins gave up, given the new offenses and because we won’t know what the Packers and Chiefs will do with their extra picks.

Arizona grossly underpaid Hopkins when the Cardinals sent running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and 2021 fourth-round pick to the 2020 Texans. The Cardinals have already won the perceived WAR reckoning adding Hopkins’ .702 WAR and losing .686, but the trade looks even worse for the Texans after Houston used the second-round pick on a player with just two sacks and 24 tackles in two seasons in the nose of tackle Ross Blacklock.

On the other hand, you have the Diggs trade, which looks like a net positive for both parties. Buffalo sent picks Nos. 22, 155, and 201 in the 2020 draft as well as No. 134 in the 2021 draft to Minnesota for Diggs and pick No. 239. The Vikings won the trade according to the WAR estimate of PFF adding 0.904 WAR and losing only 0.63. However, the Vikings drafted receiver Justin Jefferson at No. 22, and his .55 WAR nearly matched Diggs’ 2020 total, but at a fraction of the cost. Diggs hit a cap of $11.7 million in 2022, while Jefferson hit a cap of $3.5 million.

The Raiders are betting big on Davante Adams to lift their offense.  (AP Photo/John Locher)

The Raiders are betting big on Davante Adams to lift their offense. (AP Photo/John Locher)

So, are these moves worth it?

Football is about risk management. And trading multiple draft picks — and their cheap rookie deals — just to spend at least $20 million a year on a player who could only touch the ball 15 times a game is a huge risk.

This bet depends on where a team feels competitive. Adams, Hill, Hopkins and Diggs are among the top 10 receivers in the league who can completely take over games if used correctly, and a draft pick could turn into a failure in a year.

If a team feels more comfortable with a proven asset in the wide receiver who knows the system or can learn the system and has a quarterback they trust to use that $20 million weapon correctly, the deal is probably worth it. Acquiring such a player can also help teams answer questions about their quarterbacks, which seems to be the case with the Dolphins bringing in Hill for Tua Tagovailoa, for example.

Here’s a bit of caution for teams looking to spend big on Metcalf, Brown, McLaurin or Samuel: Neither the Cardinals nor the Bills have moved past the conference championship since adding Hopkins and Diggs, and only one of 15 best active receiver contracts has been won. a Super Bowl after signing their new contract. That player is Mike Evans, and that was after the Buccaneers signed Tom Brady in 2020. Only three of the teams ranked in the top 10 in receiver spending also have double-digit win totals (per BetMGM) this season at also come.

The draft has also proven to be fertile ground for young receiver stars in recent years and could be again in 2022. These rookie deals are attractive to teams who believe they have greater needs elsewhere and could prevent franchises to spend more on receivers after seeing how little impact they can possibly add to a team.

What’s happening with Samuel — whether it’s a deal with San Francisco or a trade elsewhere — could be the first indication of where this trend is headed.


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