The WR landscape has gotten more expensive and more volatile. A.J. Brown’s $25 million-a-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles is the fourth this year to cost more than 10% of the salary cap in terms of AAV.
Such massive spending on a single WR was unseen years ago. Before Julio Jones in 2019, no WR made $20 million a year or ate up 10% of the cap. DeAndre Hopkins blew Jones’ contract out of the water in 2020, earning $7 million a year more and eating up 13.7% of the Cardinals’ cap space. The market in 2021 was down due to covid-19. Top prize Kenny Golladay only made $18 million a year when he signed with the Giants, 9.9% of the cap.
Rolling in the Benjamins
Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams signed new contracts worth more average per year than Hopkins in absolute terms. Hill’s contract takes up 14.4% of the Dolphins’ salary cap. Seven WRs signed contracts averaging $20 million or more a year, and 15 got paid $10 million or more a year. Sure, part of it might be the Jaguars front office and ownership being irredeemably incompetent, but in 2022, Christian Kirk at WR costs $11 million more than Ja’Marr Chase.
Veteran WRs are getting too expensive for teams to hold onto. Young playmakers outperforming their first deals demand their payday as soon as they hit their third-year eligibility. But NFL decision-makers think they can find a new one in the draft. Hence the proliferation of blockbuster trades this offseason.
This has significant implications not just for the makeup of NFL football teams but also for dynasty fantasy football rosters.
Team managers with Hill, Adams, and Brown will see downgrades in QB play for their WR1. Deebo Samuel’s prospects, too, are uncertain outside of Kyle Shanahan’s system.
The elite WRs who demanded new contracts went to teams with worse QBs and fewer wins last season. That makes sense because only a desperate team would be willing to part with what is needed to acquire a top 10 WR. By nature, any WR who is putting up good enough numbers to be able to demand such a trade is more than likely going to be playing for an above-average team. They raise the team, and the team raises them. So the direction they will go is down.
Adams did end up on a team that has run a more aggressive and faster-paced offense than his former team, but both Adams and Hill are on teams that scored fewer touchdowns one year ago. Obviously, the additions of each of them will help score more TDs, but they were probably on better offenses before they left.
Marquise Brown was traded to Arizona because the Cardinals QB demanded it. Because the goal was to improve the passing game, not to save cap space, he moved to a better situation.
Davante Adams to Las Vegas
Adams is in the best situation of the traded QBs. While Derek Carr is significantly worse of a passer than Aaron Rodgers, the Raiders ran significantly more passing plays per game last season than the Packers did. Vegas ranked sixth in the NFL in total pass attempts per game. Carr had five 300-yard games in his first seven games.
Tyreek Hill to Miami
The disparity in QB quality between Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa is much larger than the number suggests. Even in Mahomes’ worst season since his rookie year, he was still 12 points better than Tua in PFF grade and 2,100 yards better. Miami did improve its offensive line, and Tua might make strides. New Fins coach Mike McDaniels started his career as an intern on Mike Shanahan’s Broncos and comes from five years of tutelage under Kyle Shanahan, so he could scheme something up to suit Hill.
But it is hard to imagine that Miami could be in a much better situation than Kansas City, even in the best-case scenario.
A.J. Brown to Philadelphia
The Eagles and Titans are similarly run-heavy teams. The Titans did throw the ball a little bit more often. Ryan Tannehill has a much arm than does Jalen Hurts. His passing grade is 12 points better.
Marquise Brown to Arizona
The Marquise Brown trade covers changes at the QB spot. It is also essential to keep QBs happy and keep them on their rookie deal as long as possible. With Kyler Murray agitating for a trade, the Cardinals temporarily satisfied him by getting him a new weapon. The Cardinals’ air raid offense will likely give Brown more opportunities, although it moves him down the pecking order. It’s a more obvious win for Murray.
It makes sense that the Titans, Chiefs, Niners, and Packers are first, second, third, and seventh, respectively, in terms of cap dollars spent on QB. These teams cannot hold onto high-priced QBs and elite WRs demanding deals in the new marketplace.
Prospects for 2023 and Beyond
What does this mean going forward? In 2023, Justin Jefferson, Tee Higgins, and Michael Pittman Jr. hit their third years. The Vikings spend the sixth most in the NFL on QB, and Kirk Cousins’ contract costs $36.25 million against the cap in 2023, with $30 million of that guaranteed. Jefferson is already performing approximately equal to Adams, who is in his prime. If A.J. Brown, who had half as many yards and half as many TDs last season as Jefferson, can make $25 million a year, and Adams can make $28 million, then Jefferson should make over $30 million AAV.
Higgins and Pittman are not at the elite WR tier yet, but they will get expensive if they keep up their development. Pittman doubled his reception and yardage numbers from 2020 to 2021 and saw his PFF grade jump by 15 points. Now he has a new QB coming into Indy.
Higgins also hit 1,000 yards for the first time and ranked as the ninth-best receiver in PFF grade. He is eligible for a new contract the same year as Burrow and one year before Chase. It would be challenging to keep all three of them together.
The incredible offseason we have witnessed is going to become the new normal. Expect more big-name trades, more juiced deals, and more volatility in the WR market.
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