The wide receiver market has escalated in a way that seemed unimaginable when the offseason began. There were four wide receivers with contracts averaging $20 million per year or more (Keenan Allen, Amari Cooper, DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones) at the end of last season. Now, there are 14 members in the $20 million-per-year wide receiver club despite the Titans releasing Jones in March.
To help put this unprecedented salary explosion into perspective, the 14th-highest-paid wideout on a multi-year contract in 2021 was Jarvis Landry at $15.1 million per year He was released by the Browns during the offseason.
The Chargers got the ball rolling by signing Mike Williams to a three-year, $60 million contract with $40 million fully guaranteed before the March 8 deadline teams had to designate franchise players. Williams' franchise tag would have been $18.816 million. The Chargers are the only NFL team with two $20 million-per-year wideouts. Allen signed a four-year contract extension averaging $20.025 million per year with $50 million of guarantees during the 2020 preseason.
Another important catalyst to the historic salary escalation was the Jaguars signing Christian Kirk to a four-year, $72 million contract (worth up to $84 million through incentives for a maximum value of $21 million per year) with $37 million fully guaranteed when free agency began. His $18 million-per-year deal easily exceeded all reasonable projections of his contract. Kirk didn't have 1,000 receiving yards in any of his four NFL seasons with the Cardinals. He is expected to consistently be a 1,000-yard receiver because of the contract. Kirk will be a $20 million-per-year wide receiver if he can continually have seasons with 90 catches and 1,100 receiving yards.
The next big move was the Raiders acquiring wide receiver Davante Adams, who was designated as a franchise player, from the Packers for 2022 first- and second-round picks. Adams signed a five-year, $140 million contract with the Raiders. There are $65.67 million in guarantees, of which $42.75 million was fully guaranteed at signing in the deal. The maximum value of Adams' contract is $141.25 million because of an annual $250,000 Pro Bowl incentive.
On paper, Adams became the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver ahead of Hopkins, who signed a two-year, $54.5 million extension averaging $27.25 million per year with the Cardinals right before the start of the 2020 regular season. In actuality, Adams has $67.5 million for three years because there's $72.5 million over the last two years. He isn't going to play 2025 and 2026 for $36.25 million each when he's 32 and 33 years old.
Kirk's contract seemingly was an important data point in D.J. Moore's negotiations with the Panthers. Moore was scheduled to play the 2022 season under a fully-guaranteed $11.116 million fifth-year option. He is under contract for four years worth $73 million, which is $1 million more than the base value of Kirk's deal. When the existing $11.116 million is subtracted out, there's $61.884 million of new money for three new contract years averaging $20.628 million per year. $41.6 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Conventional wisdom suggested Chris Godwin would hit the open market when he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee late in the 2021 regular season, but he was franchised by the Buccaneers for a second straight year at $19,179,600. He signed a nearly identical three-year, $60 million deal to Williams' shortly after quarterback Tom Brady ended his brief retirement.
Signability became an issue for the Chiefs with wide receiver Tyreek Hill after the Adams deal. He was dealt to the Dolphins for five draft picks: 2022 first-, second- and fourth-round picks in addition to 2023 fourth- and sixth-round picks. Hill was given a four-year, $120 million extension, which has $72.2 million in guarantees, by Miami. $52.535 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Hill has the distinction of being the NFL's first $30 million-per-year non-quarterback with his extension. Realistically, he has a three-year extension for $75 million because of $45 million in 2026, the final contract year.
The Bills remedied Stefon Diggs being underpaid after outperforming the five-year, $72 million extension (worth up to $81 million through salary escalators) he signed with the Vikings in 2018. He received a four-year, $96 million extension in early April with $70 million of guarantees where $47.985 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
The Titans surprisingly traded 2019 second-round pick A.J. Brown to the Eagles during the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft for 2022 first-round and third-round picks. Brown was rewarded with a four-year, $100 million extension containing slightly more than $57 million of guarantees in connection with the trade.
The Rams smartly recognized that Cooper Kupp's contract needed to be addressed. The three-year, $47.25 million extension (worth a maximum of $49.5 million through salary escalators) Kupp signed in 2020 left him vastly underpaid with the wide receiver market going haywire.
Kupp had a season for the ages in 2021. He nearly broke the single-season record for receptions and receiving yards. Kupp's 145 receptions and 1,947 receiving yards are both second on the single-season list. He also topped the NFL with 16 receiving touchdowns to become the first player to win the receiving triple crown since Steve Smith in 2005 by simultaneously leading the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Kupp signed a three-year, $80.35 million extension averaging $26,783,333 per year in early June. The deal has $75 million in guarantees, of which $35 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
The Commanders gave Terry McLaurin a three-year, $69.6 million extension averaging $23.2 million per year with just over $53 million of guarantees in early July. The deal is worth as much as $70.6 million through salary escalators and incentives.
DK Metcalf received a three-year, $72 million extension from the Seahawks at the beginning of training camp in late July. His $24 million-per-year-deal has $58.22 million in guarantees, which includes the biggest signing bonus ever for a wide receiver at $30 million.
Finally, the Metcalf deal provided a blueprint for the 49ers to reach an agreement with Deebo Samuel, who requested a trade during the early part of the offseason. Samuel signed a three-year, $71.55 million extension averaging $23.85 million per year with $58.167 million in guarantees where $41 million was fully guaranteed at signing. The maximum value of the deal is $73.5 million because of incentives.
The salary explosion should make other wide receivers potentially in line for paydays next offseason excited. It's going to be slim pickings in free agency with wide receivers because the most desirable ones who were entering contract years signed extensions which have escalated the market.
The next wide receiver in the $20 million per year club could be Marquise Brown. The 2019 first-round pick quietly requested a trade from the Ravens because of a run-heavy offensive system. Brown, who had career highs of 91 receptions and 1,008 receiving yards in 2021, got his wish during the first round of this year's draft.
The Cardinals gave up their 2022 first-round pick (23rd overall) to get Brown and a 2022 third-round pick. Brown should have an instant rapport with Kyler Murray since he was his quarterback at Oklahoma during the 2018 college season.
2023 will be Brown's contract year as he is slated to play on his fully-guaranteed $13.413 million fifth-year option. The first six games of the regular season could go a long way in determining the level of a contract extension next offseason. Hopkins, who has been one of the league's best wide receivers for the past several years, will be serving a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance enhancing substances policy. Thriving as the number one option in Arizona's passing game during Hopkins' absence could put Brown in position for a contract in the same vicinity as his fellow 2019 draftees (A.J. Brown, McLaurin, Metcalf and Samuel).
Mike Evans will be in the final year of a five-year, $82.5 million extension in 2023. At the time of signing in 2018, Evans' deal made him the NFL's second-highest-paid wide receiver. In the almost four and a half years since Evans signed, he has dropped to 21st on the wide receiver pay scale.
Evans has had 1,000 or more receiving yards in each of his eight NFL seasons. The eight consecutive seasons are the longest 1,000-receiving-yard streak in league history to start a career. Only five other players (Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt and Jerry Rice) have ever had a streak of at least eight years.
Barring injury, Evans will surely extend the streak to nine seasons. Godwin is coming off a serious knee sustained at the end of last season and tight end Rob Gronkowski, a favorite target of Brady's, has retired.
Evans turning 30 next August could be a cause for concern in an extension, even if he isn't showing signs of decline. His leverage may come from the Buccaneers wanting to lower his $23,698,500 2023 salary cap number. The Buccaneers have the NFL's fifth-most 2023 salary cap commitments at $246.04 million, according to NFLPA data. The 2023 salary cap is projected to be in the $225 million range. At the very least, the Buccaneers should be willing to put Evans on par with Godwin on a short-term basis.
2020 draft picks become eligible for contract extensions on Jan. 9, a day after the 2022 regular season ends. It will make sense for the Vikings to be extremely proactive with Justin Jefferson if his 2022 season is anything like the first two years of his career. Typically, it is more costly the longer a team waits to sign a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
Jefferson has had the best two seasons for a wide receiver to begin a career in NFL history. He is averaging 98 catches, 1,508 receiving yards and nearly nine touchdown receptions per season. A comparable season or better could give Jefferson the ammunition to become the first wide receiver to hit the $30 million-per-year mark on a deal that isn't artificially inflated by a high salary in the final contract year.
CeeDee Lamb becomes the clear-cut top receiving option in the Cowboys' passing game with Cooper being traded to the Browns in March. He should top his career highs of 79 catches for 1,102 yards with six touchdowns in 2021 this season. Exceeding Cooper's best season marks with the Cowboys (92 receptions/1,189 yards/eight touchdowns) wouldn't be a surprise, either. Lamb should blow past the five-year, $100 million contract with $60 million of guarantees where $40 million was fully guaranteed that Cooper signed in 2020. The Cooper deal will be at least three years, if not four years old, when Lamb signs an extension. Since most first-round picks don't sign new deals after three NFL seasons, an extension in 2024 is more likely. By merely adjusting Cooper's deal for salary cap inflation (if that's the timing) should put Lamb in $25 million to $26 million-per-year range.