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The Eagles Know the Value of a Star Wide Receiver. So Do the Chiefs.

Philadelphia traded for A.J. Brown this offseason, just as Kansas City moved on from Tyreek Hill. What can the two strategies tell us about roster-building in the NFL?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Wide receiver movement defined the 2022 NFL offseason. Amari Cooper went to the Cleveland Browns, Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders, Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals. Those wide receivers who thought about changing ZIP codes but didn’t—Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf—got huge extensions. By the time the dust had settled, nine of the top 10 wide receiver contracts by average annual value were signed this past offseason.

All of this because the Jacksonville Jaguars gave Christian Kirk $72 million.

OK, not really—but wide receiver movement and the subsequent mega-contracts those receivers signed were the headlining stories of the 2022 offseason. It’s only appropriate that they are a headline story for Super Bowl LVII as well.

The Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles were two of the biggest movers in the whirlwind that ripped across the wide receiver landscape—but in opposite directions. The Chiefs traded the league’s preeminent deep threat, Tyreek Hill, to the Miami Dolphins for a slew of picks. Miami immediately signed Hill to a four-year, $120 million extension, the largest in league history for a wideout. (His $30 million average annual value still tops the charts for all non-quarterbacks save for Aaron Donald.)

Over a month later, the Eagles made their wide receiver move. While on the clock with the 18th pick during the first round of the 2022 NFL draft, the Eagles sent that pick and a third-rounder to the Tennessee Titans for A.J. Brown, whose extension talks had fallen apart when the ballooning wide receiver market put his price tag higher than the Titans were willing to reach. No issue for the Eagles: They signed Brown to a four-year, $100 million deal and made him the final piece of what would eventually become a Super Bowl offense.

And that’s our story. One team gave away a star receiver and made the Super Bowl; one team got a star receiver and made the Super Bowl, too. Which means it isn’t entirely a story about star receivers—it’s also a story about quarterbacks. It’s a story about winning windows and passing offenses. It’s a story about the future—about two teams that were in the Super Bowl recently, are back here again, and don’t want the train to stop there.

Let’s start with the Philly half. In the three drafts before the 2022 trade for Brown, the Eagles had taken receivers in the second round (J.J. Arcega-Whiteside), first round (Jalen Reagor), and first round (DeVonta Smith); Smith was the only notable success. They had tried to trade for Calvin Ridley and sign Christian Kirk. No dice. The Eagles still needed another receiver.

But they didn’t just need another receiver—they needed a particular kind of receiver. And for that particular need, there was no better fit than A.J. Brown.

The Eagles’ passing offense before Brown was limited. Jalen Hurts could not access the middle of the field. Just 36 percent of Hurts’s throws in 2021 landed between the numbers—only Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor threw between the numbers less often. And when the Eagles’ passing attack actually found the middle of the field, they were not dangerous—Hurts’s 0.11 expected points added per dropback and 5.56 air yards per attempt were both well below league average. This all made them easy to play against. As Ralph Vacchiano wrote for Fox Sports in August: “One defensive coordinator who faced him last season said it was such an obvious hole in the Eagles’ offense that his team wasn’t afraid to focus all its coverage on the edges and sidelines because they knew Hurts wasn’t likely to try to throw inside—which also helped the defense when he escaped the pocket and tried to run.”

The difficulty hitting the middle of the field, and inefficiency when doing so, had a few explanations. Short NFL quarterbacks generally struggle to see over their offensive line and layer the ball over linebackers. Hurts is only 6-foot-1. Throwing over the middle of the field also requires anticipation and touch—finer aspects of quarterbacking that were not the best clubs in Hurts’s bag as a college passer or a young NFL quarterback.

But another reason was the wide receiver talent available in Philadelphia. DeVonta Smith is a ludicrously gifted receiver for his frame—6 feet, 170 pounds—but that is not the sort of frame you want working over the middle of the field, where hits from closing safeties can be thunderous. The Eagles needed a receiver who would reward Hurts in the middle of the field—a receiver who could complete that dimension of the Eagles offense.

Enter Brown. Since he entered the league in 2019, only two receivers had more yards per route run between the numbers: Michael Thomas and Davante Adams. The Eagles offense could not have taken a step forward this season without a plan for the middle of the field—it would have remained one-dimensional, limited. Brown was as good of a plan as you could ask for.

It worked. Hurts is still below average in the rate at which he throws to the middle of the field (44.3 percent of the time, up dramatically from last season). But the Eagles are far more dangerous when targeting that area. Hurts’s depth of target is up to 6.54, 11th among quarterbacks this year. His EPA per dropback? 0.41, behind only Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow.

Some of this improvement belongs to Hurts alone. He has become more accurate, and operates with increased anticipation; he’s more comfortable buying time in the pocket, and does so with increased feel. But the bulk of the credit belongs to Hurts in context, and that context is Brown. This year, Brown is third in the league in yards per route run between the numbers. ESPN charts Brown with the second-highest rate of “in” routes among all receivers.

The effects of Brown’s excellence over the middle, and Hurts’s willingness to use him there, cannot be overstated. In finding a middle-of-the-field target, Hurts began cashing in on the previously untapped value of the Eagles’ dominant running game, which sets the table for easy play-action passes behind linebackers who step downhill into running lanes. In punishing defenses for skewing their coverage to routes outside the numbers, Hurts forces defenses to play honest ball, and can subsequently take the routes outside the numbers at which he and Smith and Dallas Goedert always excelled.

The Eagles entered 2022 with an offense that was incomplete—a lost jigsaw piece leaving a glaring hole right in the center of an otherwise completed puzzle. The Brown trade completed the picture, and the Eagles are in the Super Bowl because of it.

The Chiefs offense was never in question. It was perfect. It was a fire-breathing dragon that threw cannonballs and knives. Patrick Mahomes took the starting job in 2018 and did whatever he wanted to because he could and you couldn’t stop him, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah. From 2018 through 2020, Mahomes was first in EPA per dropback, first in explosive pass rate, first in adjusted net yards per attempt, and third in success rate, just to keep things spicy. (The two quarterbacks ranked above him, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck, are no longer in the league.)

Mahomes achieved this unyielding dominance by flouting the laws of nature. The plays that were supposed to break him didn’t. Mahomes’s EPA per dropback when pressured was minus-0.12, second-best in the league. Mahomes when blitzed? Forget it. He was better against the blitz than he was against a four-man rush. His explosive play rate went up, his sack rate went down, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio was a cool 36-to-1.

Defenses had already gotten wise to the game and stopped blitzing Mahomes by 2020—he was the second-least-blitzed quarterback that season. But in 2021, a defensive game plan really started to coalesce: a tactical retreat. It wasn’t just leaving Mahomes un-blitzed—it was taking those additional bodies, flooding deep and intermediate zones, and forcing Mahomes to play a methodical, dink-and-dunk brand of quarterbacking. Take the cannonball and knives away from the fire-breathing dragon and instead give him a scalpel and a pocketwatch. Stop the dragon from going on destructive rampages; force the dragon to be surgical and precise.

This worked. Mahomes’s depth of target dropped a full yard in 2021; almost 2 yards from his 2018 number. His explosive play rate dropped; his rate of throws that didn’t travel beyond the line of scrimmage jumped. The Chiefs offense was still very good—the dragon was still a dragon. But he was a dragon out of character, miscast.

An inescapable reality faced Mahomes and the Chiefs—one they always knew would come. After seasons of being resoundingly dunked on, NFL defenses had finally figured out how to gain some ground. The Chiefs offense would have to evolve.

But that was not the only inescapable reality that the Chiefs long knew would eventually face them and their star quarterback. As Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated wrote this week, the Chiefs began planning for the mega-contract they would one day hand to Mahomes the year that they drafted him. Before the big deal had kicked in, the Chiefs could be aggressive handing out free-agent contracts and trading picks for veteran players—Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark, Orlando Brown. But as Mahomes transitioned from being the most underpaid player in the league on his rookie deal to a perennial $40 million–plus cap hit, the belts would have to tighten in Kansas City. They began acquiring draft picks and prioritizing development—for the first time in his five years as the Chiefs’ GM, Brett Veach traded down last year.

But to acquire picks, you have to trade players. And the Chiefs had a player who would return a ton of draft picks. A player who once fit squarely into the fire-breathing offense, but not as neatly in the new surgical approach. A star receiver named Tyreek Hill.

The Chiefs could have easily kept Hill and made him work in their new-look offense. While known for his speed and used by the Chiefs as the league’s preeminent deep threat, Hill can take underneath patterns the distance; he can snap off routes and separate. Look at the way the Dolphins have used him—curls, stop routes, slants, in-breakers. Rarely do they just point Hill downfield and say “go” as the Chiefs once did.

But the Chiefs had stopped doing that in 2021. With all the defenders flooding the downfield zones and limiting Mahomes’s opportunities to attack vertically, the Chiefs were reimagining their future with a receiver who would demand to be paid for past production that he was unlikely to replicate in this new-look offense—all while he inched toward 30.

Tyreek Hill Routes by Year

Year Team Slant Rate Hitch Rate Vertical Route Rate (Go + Corner + Post)
Year Team Slant Rate Hitch Rate Vertical Route Rate (Go + Corner + Post)
2019 Chiefs 5.1% 14.0% 39.1%
2020 Chiefs 2.5% 16.2% 42.8%
2021 Chiefs 7.3% 18.3% 33.9%
2022 Dolphins 5.3% 14.6% 39.2%

So the Chiefs traded Hill away. With the money they saved, they signed JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Neither has been incredible, save for a peak game here or there. With one of the picks they got, they drafted Skyy Moore, another replacement receiver who hasn’t panned out.

None of it mattered—the Chiefs’ eggs were in Mahomes’s basket, and he delivered for them without Hill. This season, he was first in EPA per dropback, again. Second in explosive play rate and adjusted net yards per attempt. And this time, first in success rate—the percentage of Mahomes’s plays that end in a positive outcome. In 2022, Mahomes has the lowest depth of target in his career—for the first time ever, less than 10 percent of his passes went more than 20 yards downfield. But it’s also the highest success rate he’s ever had. It’s the most consistent the offense has ever been under Mahomes. He is the methodical dragon, the incremental beast. He’s evolved.

The story of the Eagles’ acquisition of Brown tells us something about the Chiefs’ decision to trade Hill. The Eagles needed to access the middle of the field—an area of the field they previously couldn’t—so they got the receiver they needed to do it. For the Chiefs, it was flipped. They could no longer rely on access to the deep portion of the field—an area they previously could—so they traded away the receiver who deserved $30 million for his prior dominance in that area.

But the story of the Chiefs and Hill also tells us something about the Eagles and Brown. Once you commit to paying your star quarterback $40 million–plus every year until the sun swallows the planet, as the Chiefs did when they signed Mahomes’s 10-year mammoth of a contract, you assume a reality in which that quarterback can lose a star receiver and not miss a beat. To justify that money, he must be able to shoulder a receiving corps with less talent than other passers.

The Eagles are not in that stage of their quarterbacking arc with Hurts—they are in the exact opposite stage. Hurts counts $1.6 million against the cap this season, appropriately ranked 53rd among all quarterbacks this year (he was selected with the 53rd pick). Hurts is cheap and developing—that means he both creates the cap room for a star receiver like Brown, and needs that star receiver to round out the rough edges of his game.

Despite the clear contrast between the two moves—one team giving and another getting; one team with a cheap quarterback who needs a boost, and the other with an expensive quarterback who can excel with less—they are connected by their orientation. They seem to point in opposite directions, but actually both point toward the future. They seem to point in opposite directions only if you think about the future of the NFL as a linear progression; it isn’t. It’s a cyclical progression, a pendulum’s swing, a life cycle defined by the quarterback position and the cost of keeping the stars who play it.