First it was Davante Adams, then Tyreek Hill. In 2021 they were second and third in the NFL in receptions respectively, both vital to the offense of two of the NFL’s best teams. Now, they’re gone — and the Jacksonville Jaguars played a huge role.
On Wednesday the Chiefs announced they were trading Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins in exchange for five picks, including Miami’s first rounder in 2022. It came one week after the Packers dealt Davante Adams to the Raiders for another bevy of picks. Adams signed a five-year, $141.5 million deal. Hill got his money too, being given a record-breaking four-year, $120M deal that makes him the highest paid wide receiver in NFL history.
Both have the Jaguars to thank.
Jacksonville’s biggest splash signing on the opening day of free agency was luring Christian Kirk to North Florida with a four-year, $72M deal that could be worth as much as $84M if he hits performance escalators. It was a king’s ransom for a receiver who was a perennial third option in the Cardinals offense, and only earned significant time as a starter in 2021, where he finished with 982 yards. Banking on promise, paired with having to pay a “bad team tax,” the Jaguars obliterated the wide receiver market with a single deal. Kirk wasn’t just 27th in the league in receiving yards last year, he wasn’t even viewed as the best receiver in this group of free agents — so when he got paid like an elite franchise cornerstone, everything shifted.
The tenor suddenly changed. It became clear Green Bay wasn’t going to be able to sign Adams to the long-term extension they hoped, precipitating his trade. Hill had been engaged in discussions with the Chiefs as well, but now money had become the sticking point. You really can’t blame either Adams or Hill in this scenario. If someone like Kirk is making $74M, with $37M guaranteed — then it’s absolutely within reason that two of the NFL’s best are worth nine-figure contracts.
This was, simply put, impossible for either team to absorb. With Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes on big-money contract extensions, it’s unrealistic to commit over a quarter of the salary cap to two players — not without jeopardizing the rest of the team as a result. Meanwhile the shared DNA of Las Vegas and Miami is that they’re not vastly overspending at the QB position. Derek Carr is at the tail end of an extension signed in 2017 that will count just over $19M against the cap this year, while Tua Tagovailoa is still on a rookie contract. Both teams had the space to absorb a mammoth cap hit from a top-flight receiver under the NFL’s new ballooning pay.
The paradigm shift underscores how ill-prepared the NFL was for receiver pay to explode. A year ago Amari Cooper was the only WR to make over $20M, with the majority of top receiver contracts falling in the $10-15M range. Now, there are five receivers set to make over $20M, with another seven earning over $15M. There is going to be a lot of pain moving forward and exceedingly tough decisions. While QB and WR pay are increasing exponentially, the salary cap is not keeping up. In the last four years the cap has only risen $20M, while positional salaries have boomed, especially on offense.
This means that unless there’s significant cap relief in 2023 allowing teams to spend more (something owners are likely loathed to do because it eats into their profits), teams will have to begin deciding whether they want to pay an elite quarterback OR an elite receiver, because they likely cannot afford both. Players deserve to get paid, and they’re going to find someone to pay them, whether or not that means competing for a contender or not.
The most interesting wrinkle to all this is when we look at how effective young receivers have been in recent years. NFL offenses are so like college in modern football that the idea of a slow onboarding process, or the 1-2 year build to being a top receiver is gone. Justin Jefferson broke the NFL’s rookie receiving record in 2020, then it was immediately bested by Ja’Marr Chase. In fact, 11 of the NFL’s top 25 receivers by yardage were still on their rookie contracts in 2021.
So while we’re going to see contracts balloon at the position for proven talent, we could also see a churn start to effect the position when it comes to the best teams, similar to what we’ve seen at running back — though for different reasons. The popular belief now is that top-tier teams no longer sign rushers to big extensions, instead they let them walk after their rookie contracts, and find another. It’s an unfair system designed to account for running backs breaking down and becoming injury prone. Now we could see that with receivers too, but instead teams will let them walk because of their upcoming payday.
In turn this will place a greater onus on scouting departments that can find NFL-ready receivers immediately, so teams can maximize their production on cheap, subsidized rookie contracts — then move on.
While it’s entirely likely we would have seen these contracts rise on their own naturally, there’s no doubt that Jacksonville’s signing of Christian Kirk expedited the process. Players who would have accepted $80-90M deals are now seeking $120-140M. The yearly impact has gone up from $15M to now approaching $30M. There is no doubt that the agents for Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill mentioned Kirk’s contract in negotiating their new deals, and as a result both Green Bay and Kansas City are weaker teams today as a result.
This new normal is not something the NFL was prepared for, and it’s going to be fascinating to watch it unfold over the coming 2-3 years. Either the salary cap jumps significantly, or teams will need to completely change how they’re doing business and building teams. Either way, we have the Jaguars to thank.