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It’s an Incredible Time to Be a Wide Receiver in the NFL

Whether they’re young players entering the league via the draft or veterans commanding lucrative contracts, the market is very friendly to talented pass catchers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There were two classes of wide receiver on the move during the NFL draft’s first round. The players getting their first contract and those getting their second.

Six wide receivers were taken in the first round on Thursday. USC’s Drake London went no. 8 to the Falcons, followed by Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson at no. 10 to the Jets, Chris Olave, also from Ohio State, at no. 11 to the Saints, and Alabama’s Jameson Williams at no. 12 to the Lions. Both the Saints and the Lions traded up to draft their guys, sparking to life a first round that had been sleepy in terms of trades for the first several picks. Then, Penn State’s Jahan Dotson went no. 16 to the Commanders and Arkansas’s Treylon Burks went no. 18 to the Titans, rounding out the group taken in the first round.

There were other notable receivers on the move Thursday—those who were taken in the 2019 draft. First, the Ravens traded Marquise Brown to the Cardinals for the 23rd pick (Baltimore also gave up the 100th pick in the draft in the deal). Then the Eagles dealt the 18th pick to the Titans as part of a deal for A.J. Brown—Philadelphia subsequently signed Brown to a four-year, $100 million contract extension.

The extension is the reason both players’ draft year is notable. Both Marquise Brown and A.J. Brown were entering the fourth years of their rookie deals and had been vocal about wanting extensions this offseason. A.J. Brown’s situation was more pressing, since the Titans drafted him in the second round, meaning that there was no fifth-year option available on his rookie contract like there is on Marquise Brown’s, who was taken in the first round. Still, the Cardinals presumably have a plan to extend Marquise Brown this year after spending a first-round pick to acquire him, or else he’ll hit unrestricted free agency in 2024.

These trades are part of an ongoing trend of rising receiver value in the NFL. The prospects entering the league each year from college are as good as they’ve ever been and contract values for top veterans have skyrocketed. Earlier this offseason, the Packers and the Chiefs both traded high-profile wide receivers—Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill, respectively. There’s no question that both Adams and Hill are great players but, clearly, Green Bay and Kansas City feel better about finding cheaper players to replace them than they do about paying them record-setting money. The decisions follow in the path of the Vikings, who drafted Justin Jefferson in 2020 after trading Stefon Diggs to the Bills. Why wouldn’t smart teams move on and draft new receivers on cost-controlled rookie deals rather than pay up on second contracts?

The Titans seem to think that’s a very good question. GM Jon Robinson said the team couldn’t agree to terms on an extension with Brown, so it traded him for a pick it then used to draft Burks, a player who was routinely compared to him in the predraft process. Brown is 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds, played in the SEC, caught 85 passes for 1,320 yards and six touchdowns as a junior in college, and ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash. Burks is 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, played in the SEC, caught 66 passes for 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior, and ran a 4.55-second 40-yard dash. All the close comparisons in the world don’t mean that Burks will necessarily turn into the professional player that Brown has, but short of paying Brown the $25 million per season the Eagles were willing to, Tennessee feels like it found the closest thing.

Now for the Eagles: Philadelphia had draft capital to spend after acquiring extra picks by trading away quarterback Carson Wentz in 2021 and moving back from no. 6 in last year’s draft. It also had a relatively healthy salary cap situation, thanks to having swallowed Wentz’s dead cap hit last season and having quarterback Jalen Hurts on a rookie deal. Resource-rich and perhaps still a little wary of taking receivers in the draft after misfires on J.J. Arcega-Whiteside in 2019 and Jalen Reagor in 2020 (though last year’s first-rounder, DeVonta Smith, certainly seems to be working out), it made sense that the Eagles would be willing to pay up for the added certainty of acquiring a player who’s been a successful NFL star and is still only 24.

It remains to be seen what the Ravens will do now that they’ve moved on from Marquise Brown. In a vacuum, the decision tracks with the typical thinking of one of the NFL’s most value-conscious organizations: Baltimore got the majority of the cost-controlled years of Brown’s rookie deal, then dealt him for a draft pick higher than the no. 25 pick it originally used to select him. (Other NFL teams must find the Ravens very annoying.) The Ravens could draft a receiver in one of the later rounds, having taken safety Kyle Hamilton and center Tyler Linderbaum in the first round. They could also keep looking at the veteran market, particularly after June 1, when free agent signings no longer impact the compensatory pick formula and when Baltimore tends to do some shopping. Trading away a good, young receiver is an easier choice for a run-first team like the Ravens (the same could be said for the Titans), but presumably they will add at the position in the near future.

For the Cardinals, trading for Marquise Brown has advantages on and off the field.

One major benefit is that it should make quarterback Kyler Murray happy, given that Murray and Brown played together at Oklahoma (Brown had 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns in Murray’s Heisman Trophy–winning season in 2018) and are close friends. Murray wants a new contract and has been in conflict with the Arizona brass all offseason, but Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said Thursday night that Murray texted him fireball emoji after the trade for Brown went through and that he expects the move to placate his young passer.

“It better,” Keim said. “A lot.”

Brown may do well in Arizona, where his speed should be a nice complement to a group of mostly bigger pass catchers like DeAndre Hopkins, Zach Ertz, and A.J. Green and where he should get plenty of one-on-one matchups given the presence of Hopkins and the impact Murray, like Brown’s old quarterback Lamar Jackson, makes on the ground. Still, given that Arizona has Hopkins, Ertz, and running back James Conner on big contracts and that Murray is already upset over not having gotten the large extension he’s in line for, the choice to spend a first-round pick on a receiver who wants to get paid soon is a little curious.

In some ways, when considering these moves in addition to the Adams and Hill trades, it’s hard not to start drawing a distinction between the teams doing the trading away and the teams doing the trading for and wonder who has the right idea. On the one hand, the Titans, Ravens, Packers, and Chiefs have all said goodbye to good players, presumably because they have some confidence they’ll be able to replace them—an attractive notion when top receiver contracts are costing $25 million or more per year. On the other hand, it’s hard to call that a prevailing sentiment when every team willing to move on has found a trading partner happy to bear the costs. Adams signed a five-year deal worth $28 million per year with the Raiders and Hill signed a four-year deal worth $30 million per year with the Dolphins, both of whom, like the Eagles, seemed happy to pay. Normally, a healthy supply of a particular asset would make it less precious, but the league cannot claim that is happening with receivers yet just because some teams are choosing to sell high. It’s worth noting that there hasn’t been a real loser on either side of the argument yet—the Diggs trade and the Jefferson pick worked out pretty well for both the Vikings and the Bills.

There’s a way to look at these moves as something other than binary choices. Most of these teams, one way or another, are adding receivers. The teams that haven’t, like the Ravens and Packers, presumably will soon. Some teams are paying for the players they’re adding in draft capital, others in salary cap dollars—in either scenario, the acquiring team has an abundance of one of the two. Most teams are calibrating their risk tolerance for adding unproven NFL players against their own cap constraints, draft resources, and roster needs. With a rising salary cap, an aggressive crop of general managers, and blockbuster trades becoming more and more common, taking big swings and shifting and recouping large assets just isn’t that hard to do anymore. Maybe the supply of draftable receivers will continue to be so good that it will impact how veterans fare when they reach their second and third contracts, though that correction hasn’t happened yet. Maybe Burks won’t pan out for the Titans and will provide a counterexample to Jefferson that will make teams more wary of betting on draft picks, even first-rounders, over proven talent even if it’s more expensive. For now, demand is keeping up with the rising value of the position. The good news is that the supply is there. There are several good paths to getting a really good receiver in today’s NFL. The only thing that’s becoming inexcusable is not having one at all.