NFL teams are starting to see the value in picking wide receivers early and often after a period where the investment did not match the return.

Of the 29 wide receivers picked in the first round from 2012-2019, only four made the Pro Bowl as a wide receiver. There were some considerable busts during that time period that could have given teams a bit of pause picking that position early. Over the last five years, there have been 18 total wide receivers that received All-Pro recognition. There were twice as many non-first-round picks (12) as there were first-round picks (six) among that group.

Taking this data into consideration, it's worth asking: Why is the league expected to introduce at least five wide receivers in the first round of NFL Draft next Thursday night in Las Vegas? The answer comes down to opportunity costs.

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was considered an outlier when he signed a contract extension in 2020 with an average annual value of $27.25 million. The field has caught up with the talented pass-catcher this offseason, as new deals for Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams have eclipsed essentially every benchmark previously set in the Hopkins contract. Buffalo's Stefon Diggs got $24 million in average annual value with nearly $50 million fully guaranteed. 

And the drum beat has already started with the next star wide receivers slated to hit the market, such as San Francisco's Deebo Samuel, Tennessee's A.J. Brown, Seattle's DK Metcalf and others. To this point in the article, Hopkins is the only wide receiver mentioned who was picked in the first round.

In the two draft classes prior to Hopkins receiving the contract extension, there were four total wide receivers picked in the first round. In the two years since the extension, there have been 11 picked in the first round. Five-plus more are expected to be taken in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. 

The Giants made Kadarius Toney the No. 20 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Over the course of the first four years of his contract, Toney carries roughly a $3.4 million average annual salary cap hit. The salary cap was set at $208.2 million for the upcoming season, meaning that Diggs, Hill and Adams each account for more than 10% of their respective team's salary cap. 

Consider the value that teams like Cincinnati and Minnesota are getting right now from Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase. Their day will come to cash in, but the league is starting to push back on some of these rising wide receiver costs. The Chiefs have already shown they were willing to move on from Hill after considering the financial investment and draft capital received in a trade. Despite the NFL becoming a pass-happy league with an emphasis on a player's ability to make plays post-catch, Kansas City was willing to place faith in Patrick Mahomes and his ability to elevate those around him. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, Caesars Sportsbook has the Over/Under on wide receivers picked in the first round at 5.5 with juice to the Over. The five players who most commonly appear in first-round projections are Ohio State's Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, Alabama's Jameson Williams, USC's Drake London and Arkansas' Treylon Burks. Those five would likely need to be picked along with North Dakota State's Christian Watson, Penn State's Jahan Dotson and/or Georgia's George Pickens joining them.

If the over does cash on first-round wideouts, the rising cost of their veteran counterparts will likely be one of the reasons why.