The Giants made Odell Beckham, Jr. the NFL's highest paid wide receiver at $18 million per year late in the preseason with a five-year, $90 million contract extension. The deal is worth as much as $95 million through salary escalators based on Beckham performing like he did in his first three NFL seasons, where he averaged 96 catches for 1,374 yards and nearly 12 receiving touchdowns. Beckham's $65 million in overall guarantees is the most ever in wide receiver contract. $40.959 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Beckham's contract became the new financial benchmark for wide receivers in most key contract metrics but didn't dramatically reset the market as some, including myself, anticipated. There's potential for the bar to be raised significantly before the start of the 2019 season because of the high quality of wide receivers entering the final year of their respective rookie deals and the veteran wideouts in line for contract extensions.
WR market stagnation
The top of the wide receiver market has remained relatively stagnant under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. The lack of growth with the average salary of the league's highest-paid wide receiver since the CBA was implemented in 2011 is highlighted in the following chart:
|Year||Highest Paid WR||Team||Avg. Salary|
|2018||Odell Beckham, Jr.||Giants||$18,000,000|
The highest-paid wide receiver's contract in 2018 only averages 11.5 percent more than in 2011. The top wide receiver contracts haven't come close to keeping up with the growth in the salary cap. When Fitzgerald signed his contract, the salary cap was $120.375 million. It is currently at $177.2 million, which is a 47.2 percent increase. The NFL's preliminary projections put the 2019 salary cap between $187 million and $191.1 million, so wide receiver salaries will lag further behind if nothing changes.
Fitzgerald and Johnson had the type of leverage that doesn't exist anymore because of how the rookie contracts for top picks were structured prior to the rookie wage scale being implemented in 2011. The latter years of these contracts typically became unmanageable for teams with highly productive top picks because astronomical cap numbers from earning easily achievable salary escalators and incentives paid these players near the top of their positional markets. Some teams, like the Lions, would compound the problem by restructuring rookie contracts for immediate cap relief, which would raise the cap numbers in remaining years.
These factors helped Johnson receive a seven-year, $113.45 million extension in 2012 where $53.25 million was fully guaranteed at signing, which is still a record for wide receivers. It would have been virtually impossible for the Lions to franchise Johnson at over $25 million when his rookie contract expired after the season. Lowering his 2012 salary cap number, which was slightly more than $21 million, was a necessity.
A similar dynamic existed for Fitzgerald with the Cardinals. The rookie contract Fitzgerald signed as the third overall pick in 2003 laid the groundwork for his first couple of veteran deals that consistently put him at the top of the wide receiver market. In fact, the seven-year, $113 million extension with $45 million in guarantees Fitzgerald signed prior to the start of the 2011 regular season made him the league's highest paid non-quarterback, just as Johnson's subsequently did for him.
Potential market movers
Beckham's time as the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver could be short-lived. The agent community thinks high-end contracts exist to be surpassed.
Jones, who is considered the consummate professional, skipped all of the Falcons' offseason activities last year because he was dissatisfied with the five-year, $71.25 million extension he signed in 2015. The Falcons weren't willing to renegotiate his contract since he had three years remaining.
Jones' salary for 2018 was increased by $2.9 million right before Atlanta's training camp opened to avert a holdout. The six-time Pro Bowler also received a commitment that his deal would be redone in 2019. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff recently acknowledged that Jones' contract would be addressed during the offseason without giving a timetable for a new deal.
Jones, who turns 30 next month, isn't showing any signs of slowing down. He led the NFL this season with 1,677 yards, and his 113 receptions were tied for fourth most in the league. Jones' eight touchdown receptions were his most since 2015. He also topped the NFL in receiving yards in 2015 when he had a career best 1,871. Jones cracked the 1,500-yard receiving mark in 2018 for the third time in his eight NFL seasons.
Nobody has more receiving yards than Jones' 4,530 since the start of the 2016 season. He is currently the all-time leader in reception yards per game with 96.7 each outing.
Jones becoming the NFL's first $20 million-per-year wide receiver wouldn't be surprising if his deal is done in a timely fashion. However, Beckham's record guarantee mark may not be eclipsed since Jones is on the verge of turning 30.
A contract extension for 2016 fifth-round pick Hill is reportedly one of the Chiefs' offseason priorities. Hill had the finest season in Chiefs history for a wide receiver. He set a franchise record with 1,479 receiving yards, which was fourth in the NFL. He also set career highs of 87 catches and 12 touchdown receptions. One of the NFL's most explosive playmakers due to his rare speed, Hill led the league with 27 receptions of 20 yards or more. His 17.0 yards per catch was fifth in the NFL.
The three-year contract averaging $16 million per year and containing $30 million fully guaranteed Kansas City gave Sammy Watkins in free agency establishes a salary floor for Hill since he is clearly Kansas City's primary wide receiver. It's conceivable that Hill eclipses Beckham's contract.
A Cooper extension has seemed inevitable ever since the Cowboys gave the Raiders their 2019 first-round pick (which turned out to be 27th overall) to get him as the late October trading deadline was approaching. Cooper is the legitimate receiving threat Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott had been sorely missing prior to his acquisition.
It didn't take long for Cooper to make his presence felt while getting acclimated to a new offense. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones declared Cooper was "making a bid for his cash" after catching eight passes for 180 yards and scoring two touchdowns against the Redskins on Thanksgiving. It was the most receiving yards by a Cowboys wide receiver since Dez Bryant's 224 in 2012. Cooper's effort earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. The Cowboys went 7-2 with Cooper in the lineup to win the NFC East with a 10-6 record. The four-year veteran had his third season with at least 70 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards despite the challenges of a midseason trade.
Joel Segal will likely drive an extremely hard bargain for Cooper, who is under contract in 2019 for $13.924 million thanks to Oakland exercising its option for a fifth year last April. He has leverage because the Cowboys didn't make the trade for Cooper not to be in Dallas long-term.
Segal made Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack the NFL's highest paid non-quarterback at $23.5 million per year on the six-year extension containing $90 million of guarantees he negotiated in conjunction with his client's trade from the Raiders on Labor Day weekend. More impressively, Segal got the Rams to grossly overpay wide receiver Tavon Austin, a current Cowboys backup, on a four-year extension in 2016 averaging approximately $10.5 million per year with two years remaining on his rookie contract.
The Watkins contract will also be relevant to the Cooper negotiations because of Dallas' pursuit him in free agency. Watkins was given an offer that was competitive with the deal he took from the Chiefs. Segal is unlikely to consider anything that isn't significantly better the Watkins deal as a good faith offer.
The wide receiver franchise tag is likely to be in excess of $18 million based on the formula in the CBA to calculate non-exclusive franchise numbers provided the 2020 salary cap is above $200 million. It is expected to be almost $17 million for the 2019 league year. A second franchise tag for Cooper in 2021 at a CBA-mandated 20 percent could approach $22 million. Segal will probably use this information about the franchise tags to his advantage in negotiations.
Thomas, the Saints' 2016 second-round pick, holds the NFL record for most catches (321) during the first three seasons of an NFL career. Thomas' 321 receptions are also the most in the NFL since he made his debut. His 3,787 receiving yards are fifth in the NFL during this span. Thomas led the league with 125 receptions in 2018, which is the fifth-best single season catch total in NFL history.
The Saints don't have a history of paying skill-position players top dollar during the Drew Brees era. Tight end Jimmy Graham became the NFL's first $10 million per year tight end in 2014 after arduous negotiations where he was designated a franchise player. The Saints seemed to quickly develop buyer's remorse. Graham and a 2015 fourth-round pick were traded to the Seahawks for a 2015 first-round pick and center Max Unger the following March.
Patience may be Thomas' best friend given these dynamics. His best bet may be letting the wide receiver market become well-defined by letting others sign first.
A.J. Green, Bengals
Green could also enter into the wide receiver salary equation. 2019 is his contract year and the Bengals have a history of signing core players to extensions rather than letting them hit the open market. Green, who will be 31 in July, was limited to nine games this season because of a toe injury requiring surgery. He had career lows of 46 receptions and 694 receiving yards.
Adjusting Green's current $15 million-per-year deal, which was signed in 2015 when the salary cap was $143.28 million, to a 2019 salary cap environment would put him in the $20 million-per-year neighborhood. Any Green extension will not have comparable security to the top wide receiver deals because Cincinnati veteran contracts are historically light on guarantees.
When the dust finally settles before the 2019 season starts, it will be surprising if Beckham remains the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver. There's a chance that he won't be one of the five highest paid by average yearly salary. Beckham's guarantees are more likely to hold up in the marketplace since Jones and Green are older players who would be signing third NFL contracts.
A wide receiver returning to the top of the non-quarterback salary hierarchy, as Fitzgerald and Johnson did, seems like an impossibility because it would take more than a 30 percent increase from Beckham's deal when the top of the market has barely moved a third of that percentage-wise in the last eight years. If one of more wide receivers gets to the $20 million-per-year mark, it should be considered a tremendous development given the market stagnation.