In an NFL offseason that saw unprecedented levels of player movement, wide receivers dominated the news cycle. It felt like a star receiver got dealt or inked a record-breaking contract every other day. Three Pro Bowl pass catchers—Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and A.J. Brown—switched teams. Marquise Brown and Amari Cooper were also dealt. D.K. Metcalf is still a Seahawk but has been the subject of unrelenting trade rumors for a few months now, and the same goes for Deebo Samuel in San Francisco. Fresh off the best statistical season in NFL history, Cooper Kupp signed a new contract that will pay him an average salary of $26.7 million per year over the next half-decade.
Even with all of those big moves, though, Christian Kirk’s deal with Jacksonville may have created the most noise. Now, a good chunk of that came in the form of LOL Jaguars memes, after the team gave a receiver with no 1,000-yard seasons on his résumé a four-year, $72 million contract that could be worth up to $84 million. But the signing also sparked a fascinating positional value discussion. With so many skilled receivers already in the league, and more entering each year—nearly two months after Kirk’s payday, six receivers were selected in the first round of the NFL draft, which led all positions—would Kirk be one of the last people to benefit from the rapidly expanding receiver bubble? With so many talented wideouts in the league, the supply would eventually surpass the demand, right?
Maybe so, but we haven’t hit that point yet. Just last week, the Commanders gave Terry McLaurin, who averaged just more than 1,000 yards through his first three seasons, an extension that made him the fifth-highest-paid receiver in the league. McLaurin is far better than his numbers imply—you can blame Washington’s QB situation for that—and he’s completely deserving of the $71 million in new money that Washington gave him. But this is yet another case of a receiver gaining—and using—leverage; it’s another move away from the days when Terrell Owens had to give his QB the silent treatment, fight teammates in the locker room, and do sit-ups in his driveway just to force his way out of Philadelphia.
So where is all this newfound agency coming from? The most logical explanation can be found on the field. The sport’s evolution—with spread-out offenses and more athleticism on both sides of the ball than we’ve ever seen before—has made receivers with more robust skill sets, as well as deeper receiving corps in general, invaluable. Pass catchers have to be able to do a little bit of everything; and the second and third spots on the receiver depth chart have become just as important as the first.
Take the case of McLaurin. His ability to line up out wide or in the slot and to win at every level of the field is certainly worthy of a hefty contract in today’s NFL. And though his modest production looks like a mark against him, the Commanders have largely left him on an island without good quarterback play or receivers who can keep opposing defenses from selling out to stop him. Richard Sherman, who doesn’t typically go out of his way to compliment receivers, made a similar observation last February.
“If he had anybody else beside him and they couldn’t just double him and cloud him all the time, he’d be special,” Sherman said on the Cris Collinsworth Podcast. “But that’s the hard thing: They can’t find anybody else.”
McLaurin’s versatility allows Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner to move him all over the formation. That’s why he’s so valuable. But without another receiver to pull coverage away from him, it doesn’t really matter. Turner is often forced to use his most talented player as a decoy, which is an effective strategy at times, but not an optimal use of McLaurin’s skills.
That’s not to say that it’s impossible to field a successful offense with a one-man show at receiver. The Packers won a lot of football games through the past three seasons with Adams doing just that.
here is the packers target heat map from this season with closed captioning on pic.twitter.com/B5Q7GVtA5Y— Seth Gazinaa (@pff_seth) January 12, 2022
But we saw the limits of that setup in Green Bay’s abrupt exit from the playoffs last season. The 49ers sold out to stop the NFL’s best receiver and forced his backups to beat them. They couldn’t, and the Packers offense managed just one touchdown in the season-ending loss. An unbalanced receiving corps may be enough to beat the Bears and Lions—especially when you have the league’s MVP supplying him with perfect passes—but things get trickier in the postseason when the other teams are just as talented.
Adams’s solo brilliance is becoming increasingly rare in the NFL. Look at the top of the league’s receiving charts from last season and you’ll find a list of guys who have a good no. 2 option behind them: Ja’Marr Chase had Tee Higgins. Hill had Travis Kelce (and now has Jaylen Waddle). Kupp had Odell Beckham Jr. after Robert Woods went down with an injury. Mike Evans had Chris Godwin. Justin Jefferson has Adam Thielen. Brown has had Corey Davis and Julio Jones.
Building a receiving corps is often compared to building a basketball team—in that players of varying body types and athletic profiles are needed to play specific roles—so it makes sense that “super teams” have become a trend in both sports. Much like in basketball, football defenses have spent decades learning how to limit one star offensive player. None of the tactics that make current NFL defenses so successful are new, but we’re seeing them more frequently. For instance, Bill Belichick has been employing his famed “1 Double [Jersey Number]” concept, which is just man coverage with a double-team on a specific receiver, as far back as the early 1990s:
1st column on the left page of Belichick's Game Plan: "1 Double 83" is a Cover 1 bracket on Andre Reed. Shows both a Deuce & Rabbit bracket. https://t.co/sUKgpplwM5— James Light (@JamesALight) August 11, 2017
But Belichick was lauded at the time for taking these extreme measures in part because other teams weren’t doing the same. That’s not the case in today’s NFL. Beyond those dedicated double-teams, we’re seeing defensive coordinators employ more concepts that naturally create two-on-ones. The coverage that the Broncos use to bait Dak Prescott into a interception last season was one of the more popular third-down calls across the league in 2021:
Broncos playing man match and gets Dak to throw a pick. Cooper's guy passes off route to the robber and then robs the dig. Assuming Prescott did not see this exchange. pic.twitter.com/aixDsjJ9RE— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) November 8, 2021
The Saints run a similar concept on this play, in which the Bucs are able to get Chris Godwin open with a pick play before the safety lurking in the middle of the field takes over coverage and stops him short of the sticks:
We’ve also seen an increase in teams playing man coverage with two safeties deep on third down, which can allow defenses to create brackets on two receivers.
In last season’s AFC title game, the Bengals routinely dropped an extra guy into coverage, leaving only three pass rushers to get after Patrick Mahomes, in order to create more of those two-on-ones:
As The Ringer’s Ben Solak observed last season, NFL teams have increasingly shied away from blitzing the league’s best quarterbacks. Instead, defenses have opted to send fewer rushers and flood the field with coverage players to create a numbers advantage. Since 2015, the NFL’s blitz rate on third down has dropped from 10.1 percent to 7.0 percent, per Sports Info Solutions. Today’s quarterbacks are just too good to challenge with more aggressive coverages, so defenses have decided to gang up on the receivers instead.
The only way to combat increased numbers in coverage is to field more competent receivers. After all, a defense can’t throw double-teams at every pass catcher on the field. So unless the pendulum swings back in the other direction and offenses try to punish defenses with power run games—which is increasingly unlikely given the growing influence of analytics on the NFL—the value of a good receiver will only continue to increase. At a certain point, the football world will have to acknowledge that this isn’t a bubble that’s destined to pop. It’s just the way things are now.