Mueller: Has the NFL WR market reached a breaking point? How much is too much?

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I’m not one for letting good players walk out the door.

I know from experience that talent is too hard to replace, even with the best-hatched plan, without taking a step backward. So I understand that, at least sometimes, proven teams need to overpay slightly for the sake of continuity.

But recent contracts for NFL wide receivers have forced me to at least question my philosophy. And that tells me that general managers and team-builders around the NFL are no doubt contemplating that question as well.

It’s not because these receivers lack talent. They are all really good players. But the contract numbers are making the team-building equation more complicated than ever.

The dilemma is twofold. First, if you’re going to pay a wide receiver more than $30 million per year, are you sure he’s a difference-maker and not just a guy who fits your system? And second, is it feasible to pay big salaries to more than one wide receiver on your roster?

Ten years ago, the NFL’s top-paid wide receivers made about $16 million annually, equaling about 12 percent of the $133 million cap. Today, A.J. Brown leads the way at $32 million annually on a cap of $255 million. That’s still just 12.5 percent of the cap. But let’s look closer.

In 2014, the two receivers making $16 million annually were Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, the clear standard-bearers at the position. There weren’t enough top-of-the-heap receivers that every new contract would reset the market. Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones and A.J. Green signed new contracts in 2015, but none exceeded $15 million per year. Fitzgerald’s and Johnson’s deals weren’t eclipsed until Antonio Brown hit $17 million per year in 2017 (a year after Johnson retired), just 10.2 percent of the $167 million cap.

The receiver market has already been reset twice in the past month, and we are on the verge of another jump with Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Ja’Marr Chase and Brandon Aiyuk all up for new deals. All four could plausibly reset the market, so we might be looking at $35 million per year — which would be 13.7 percent of the cap — or more. That leaves the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers with big decisions with implications across their rosters.

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Teams must take a hard look at where this money will come from. How much is too much for a non-quarterback? Does it make sense for a position group other than QB to exceed 20 percent of a team’s cap? How would that affect decisions elsewhere on the roster?

Jefferson is arguably the best receiver in the league, and Minnesota should certainly extend him. But the cost will tighten money to spend elsewhere, like on last year’s first-round pick, 22-year-old Jordan Addison, when his rookie deal ends. Of course, if the Vikings’ assessment of J.J. McCarthy proves accurate, a quality quarterback on a five-year rookie contract might be just what the doctor ordered. If I were running the Vikings, I would pay Jefferson and keep churning WR2 at the end of Addison’s deal.

Jerry Jones and the Cowboys probably need to be much more creative in dealing with Lamb. Jones already has a $50 million-plus quarterback quandary on his hands, with Dak Prescott having all the leverage in an endless game of chicken. As long as Prescott is the QB, the Cowboys’ evaluation skills might be challenged beyond most as they seek value from other receivers to pair with Lamb.

If I were the Bengals, I would probably sign Chase — who still has two years left on his deal — as soon as possible to avoid resetting the market after Lamb’s and Jefferson’s deals come in. Cincinnati already appears to be planning to let Tee Higgins walk after this season, which might necessitate another high NFL Draft investment at the position next year.

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The 49ers have a more complicated situation than the Bengals, having already paid Deebo Samuel ($23.8 million per year, $28.6 million against the cap in 2024) and with Aiyuk ($14.1 million against the cap in 2024) in the last year of his contract. Both players’ names have been popular in trade rumors this offseason. The Niners hedged their bet by drafting Florida receiver Ricky Pearsall in Round 1 last month, giving themselves options at the position.

My crystal ball tells me this group will undergo a renovation after the 2024 season. Aiyuk and Samuel are set to count $42.7 million against the cap this season. Add Pearsall and tight end George Kittle and that’s more than $56 million against the cap (22 percent) for four pass catchers. Samuel is the NFL’s eighth-highest-paid wideout and might rank third in the 49ers’ position room when it comes to route running and ball skills. Something will have to give.

Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel


Will Deebo Samuel, left, or Brandon Aiyuk be elsewhere in 2025? (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Players deserve whatever they can get — I am not here to dispute this — but even NFL teams with the most creative capologists will eventually be forced to pay for their extensions of credit, just like you and I. So what will they do about the rising costs of receivers?

When players get too expensive, nothing speaks louder than cheaper options.

Teams selected 35 wide receivers in the 2024 draft. That’s not unordinary, but the total of seven picked in Round 1 grabbed my attention. Sure, it might just have been a year with several special talents available. But it also might speak to a few other factors:

1. With experienced receivers becoming more expensive, teams need more cheap talent.

2. In this era of seven-on-seven competitions and wide-open passing offenses in college, receivers have more advanced skills at a younger age.

3. Good talent evaluators can identify and sequence receivers properly, with smoother projections to the NFL.

If you can identify the traits — beyond stats, height, weight and speed — that lend to a reasonably high hit rate on prospects, you can find value. These would be my top three traits, which you can find if you watch enough tape, for a receiver to fit any scheme:

• Create separation at the break point and/or change gears while underway in a route.

• See and distinguish coverage with your mind and reactions (or instincts), pre- and post-snap.

• Consistently extend to catch with your hands near defenders, allowing small guys to play bigger and big guys to be great.

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How WRs’ new leverage is changing roster-building strategies

The last few draft classes have been rich in receiver talent. Even in a watered-down free-agent pool this year, there were several good values. In short, you don’t have to pay top-notch to get value at wide receiver.

Some teams, such as the Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, have already picked a lane. (Of course, having a talented quarterback makes it easier for them to consider this road.)

The Packers and Chiefs traded Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill before the 2022 season instead of paying them. Adams got $28 million from the Las Vegas Raiders, and Hill got $30 million annually from the Miami Dolphins. The Bills traded Stefon Diggs to the Houston Texans this offseason, two years after signing him to an extension worth $24 million annually.

Though the Adams trade has not exactly worked out for the Raiders, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst has reworked Green Bay’s receivers via the developmental route.

Christian Watson, drafted in the second round in 2022, is a straight-line-fast long-strider who can eat up a cushion, take the top off defenses and catch when he’s covered. His game is similar to that of Jameson Williams, whom the Detroit Lions drafted 22 picks earlier. In Round 4 that year, the Packers took Romeo Doubs, who will make $1.1 million this year after catching 59 passes in 2023. Doubs’ ability to find soft spots and distinguish coverages resembles that of the Lions’ Amon-Ra St. Brown, at least stylistically.

Last year, the Packers took Jayden Reed (64 catches as a rookie) in Round 2 and Dontayvion Wicks (39 catches, 14.9 yards per catch) in Round 5. Given his acceleration off the ball and out of breaks, Wicks might have more upside than any of the above.

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Sure, it requires conviction in your evaluations, but Green Bay should be lauded for overhauling this group almost entirely with draft picks (none in Round 1), as those four receivers will cost a total of $6.3 million against the cap in 2024. Other teams should try to copy this economic model.

I’m not saying the Lions are wrong, but it’s a useful comparison. They reset the market by paying St. Brown $30 million per year even though he ranked 71st in the NFL in average air yards per target (7.75) and 39th in average yards per reception (12.7) last season. I understand the importance of keeping peace in the locker room and rewarding hard workers and leaders. He fits their system. But that signing might have ruffled a few feathers outside of the Lions’ front office and fans, who think it is money well spent. The Lions did let 29-year-old wideout Josh Reynolds walk, so they have shown they are willing to make tough choices, too.

The Chiefs, no doubt aided by Patrick Mahomes’ presence, have thrived since bailing on the market and going young, like the Packers. The Bills, with Josh Allen, have taken a similar route this offseason, choosing quantity over quality with reasonably priced veterans in Curtis Samuel, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Chase Claypool and second-round rookie Keon Coleman, after trading Diggs and letting Gabe Davis walk.

Of course, there are still teams on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Seattle Seahawks paid DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett a total of $41.3 million annually (they restructured Lockett’s deal this offseason), then drafted a receiver (Jaxon Smith-Njigba) in Round 1 in 2023. The Philadelphia Eagles paid Brown and DeVonta Smith this offseason a combined $57 million annually (22.4 percent of the cap), even after signing quarterback Jalen Hurts to a record deal last offseason.

The Eagles made those investments after struggling to draft and develop receivers, missing on top-60 picks in Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Jalen Reagor. I can’t help but wonder: Was paying Brown and Smith a reaction to their previous struggles at the position?

There’s not necessarily a correct way to handle the rising costs at wide receiver. If there is, I’m not sure we know it just yet. Many theories are still being tested.

But here is something to consider: Teams will always have to pay great money for good players at positions where there is true scarcity, like quarterback. But I don’t see wide receiver, especially in the modern NFL, as a position of true scarcity. As a result, the sticker shock of recent contracts has given me pause.

I’m still not for letting any good player walk, but with each market-setting deal, the costs are getting harder to justify.

(Top photos of Amon-Ra St. Brown, left, and Justin Jefferson: Cooper Neill, Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

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