For once, the NFL’s flashiest position is taking a back seat. Four days into free agency, many of the top available wide receivers somehow remained unsigned, including Kenny Golladay and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Even in an offseason in which teams are strapped by cap limitations, few could have predicted that some of the NFL’s most recognizable names would go this long without a team to call home. In fact, some cap experts expected the market for top players to remain as competitive as ever.
Ahead of the start of free agency, Pro Football Focus salary cap analyst Brad Spielberger helped create a robust 253-player database that includes contract projections for each player. The model factored players’ age, draft history, positional components, and PFF wins above replacement data, manually adjusted to account for injuries and suspensions. Despite the salary cap restrictions, Spielberger still expected teams to spend. “Teams can manipulate it like crazy if they want to,” Spielberger told me on Thursday, referring to the cap. “So team people will tell you the cash budget from ownership and the actual constraints you have. Basically, they say use your cash budget, just make all the deals fit, and then whatever you have to do cap-wise, figure that out.”
Spielberger’s model projected that Golladay would get a contract worth north of $21 million per year. Smith-Schuster should be looking at about $17 million in annual value. But so far, those deals haven’t materialized. Will Fuller V, who signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins, is the only premier free-agent wideout to sign a deal so far, more than four days since the start of the “legal tampering” period when players and teams could officially begin negotiations. Why hasn’t the wideout market been as active as expected? There are three possible explanations:
1. It’s not a normal offseason.
Following a pandemic-altered season in which fan attendance dropped significantly, the NFL’s salary cap decreased from $198.2 million in 2020 to $182.5 million. The shrink forced teams to get creative; clubs who entered the offseason well over the cap, such as the Saints, have moved players and restructured deals to inch closer to the necessary threshold. New Orleans has not only become the poster child for escaping cap hell, but also masterfully illustrated how voidable years—such as those in the contract of gadget quarterback Taysom Hill—can help a team maneuver around the cap.
This would be the simplest explanation for why the wide receiver market has failed to generate much activity, but it’s not that straightforward. As anticipated, there were a handful of elite players who earned market-setting money. That’s especially true for offensive linemen. The 49ers re-signed former All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams to a six-year, $138.06 million deal that will make him the highest-paid offensive lineman ever. The Chiefs signed former Patriots left guard Joe Thuney to a five-year deal worth $80 million, including two fully guaranteed years worth $32.5 million.
Other players also cashed in. Top pass rushers such as Matthew Judon, Trey Hendrickson, and Carl Lawson also signed rich deals. In the midst of their spending spree, the Patriots—who signed Jonnu Smith (four years, $50 million) and Hunter Henry (three years, $37.5 million)—cornered the top of the tight end market and overpaid. But this wasn’t the case for every position group. Most premier linebackers and safeties either remain unsigned or agreed to deals below their projected average annual value. Receivers have fallen in the same boat.
Spielberger explained that middle-tier and third-wave players were expected to take one-year deals so they could return to the open market. “Honestly, that isn’t really what happened,” he said. “If anything, I feel like the middle tier, some of those guys have done really well.”
Look no further than the deals given to receivers Corey Davis and Curtis Samuel. Davis, who signed a three-year, $37.5 million contract with the Jets, was considered one of the top 10 wideouts available, but certainly not the group’s best. Yet he netted $27 million in guarantees over the deal’s first two seasons, which ranks in the top 20 among receivers. Samuel signed a three-year, $34.5 million contract—he’d been projected to land a three-year, $27.5 million deal. But as the receiver group’s middle class made headway, the top of the group hasn’t made the same progress.
2. Player perception doesn’t match actual value.
The top of the 2021 receiver class offered star power, but these players have flaws. Golladay, entering his age-28 season, is coming off a five-game campaign in which he was plagued by a hip flexor strain. Last year, Fuller missed the final five games of his Texans career because of a PED suspension and will miss the Dolphins’ first game next season to complete it. Smith-Schuster has caught flak for his off-field influencer career and dwindling production over the past two years.
In a normal salary cap environment, there’s a chance all three would have signed to sizable deals by this point in free agency. However, Spielberger suggested there’s a disconnect between how much players perceive themselves to be worth compared to how NFL teams view them. He pointed out a recent example in pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, who didn’t generate the interest he expected to on the open market last offseason because of his injury history. Clowney ended up signing a one-year, $13 million deal with the Titans ahead of the 2020 campaign. Similarly, Fuller signed a one-year contract with the Dolphins worth more than $10 million after failing to secure a long-term pact this offseason, a trend Spielberger added is likely to occur for players who find that teams aren’t offering the long-term paydays they desire. According to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, the Bengals offered Golladay a “one-year prove-it type of deal” amid interest from the Giants.
“Most agents assume [players] get one contract and you get the rookie deal,” Spielberger said. “And you can assume you get one more deal. You’re not betting on a third—getting a third contract is a hell of a career. So that’s part of it too, where a guy is like, ‘I’ll take one-year fliers until I get my big deal. I’m not going to give a team four or five years of control on me if that’s the only long-term deal I ever get.’”
There’s a chance that the top of the receiver market might have drawn a bit more initial attention had the Buccaneers’ Chris Godwin and Bears’ Allen Robinson II each reached the open market. Both were given the franchise tag, preventing a frenzy that likely would have occurred for their services. Spielberger said that both may have still earned top money and been considered priority targets.
“Everyone hates the franchise tag, as they should,” Spielberger said. “But I’m sure right now [Godwin and Robinson are] kind of sitting there saying, you know, the franchise tag wasn’t so bad. But I think those guys are different. I think teams would’ve stepped up there, but I guess we’ll never know.”
3. The 2021 receiver class is loaded.
This may be the most compelling explanation of all. Teams could be utilizing their cap space to fill needs at other positions with an eye toward a talented rookie wideout class that could offer cheaper options.
As The Ringer’s Danny Kelly has previously detailed, the 2021 draft’s receiver class could be just as special as the 2020 group. Kelly included eight players in his top-50 March big board—LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase (no. 3), Alabama’s DeVonta Smith (no. 9) and Jaylen Waddle (no. 13), Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman (no. 29), LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr. (no. 30), Ole Miss’s Elijah Moore (no. 38), Florida’s Kadarius Toney (no. 40), and Purdue’s Rondale Moore (no. 41). And this draft has plenty of pass catcher depth as well, with guys like Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace, USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Clemson’s Amari Rodgers also drawing some attention.
“I think teams are sitting there going, ‘I can find a starter in the first two rounds of this draft class at wide receiver,’” Spielberger said. “‘I’ll sign a Curtis Samuel for $11 million per year. That’s fine. But I’m not gonna go out and spend on a Golladay or go break the bank for X name.’ I think that’s really the driving force there.”
As recent history has shown, the second round produces plenty of starting-caliber wideouts. Perhaps teams are simply content taking a gamble on the draft to find the receiving help they need.