In a booming receiver market, NFL GMs see challenges, and the draft sees opportunities

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In high school, Wan’Dale Robinson played almost every position: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker, safety, returner. In Nebraska, he narrowed his focus to running back and wide receiver. But in 2021, when he decided to switch, he had one goal: wideout – full time.

Robinson, at 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds, knew it was his most likely path to the NFL. He chose Kentucky, his home state’s flagship school, largely because he knew the Wildcats would throw the ball a lot. In a Lexington season, he caught 104 passes for 1,334 yards – both school records – and seven touchdowns. He only carried the ball seven times. He was a rising star in a position that rose to the next level in itself.

With offenses throwing more than ever and defenses planning to stop receivers deep, it has become crucial to get yards after the catch for a wide receiver’s productivity and has sent the stock of those who do well up into the air. The teams have recognized this offseason by handing out big deals to even No. 2 receivers, such as Mike Williams of the Los Angeles Chargers (three years, $ 60 million) and Christian Kirk of the Jacksonville Jaguars (four years, $ 72 million).

“You know what value a receiver has now,” one smiling Robinson said of the amount of off-season activity. If he also imagined what the recent moves meant for his future earning potential, he held back. “For me, at the end of the day, I just want to go in and help the team I’m part of.”

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But as the demand for good wide receivers increases, so does the supply. It forces general managers around the NFL to confront a difficult question: Should they eat in their paycheck to pay their No. 1 recipient or try to find a cheaper solution in the draft?

This offseason, Green Bay (Davante Adams) and Kansas City (Tyreek Hill) exchanged star widows without a safety net, while Buffalo gave his standout (Stefon Diggs) a new top-of-market contract. The question will test the roster builders with star-studded receivers drafted outside the first round in 2019, including those with Washington (Terry McLaurin), San Francisco (Deebo Samuel) and Tennessee (AJ Brown), all three of whom said they did not would participate in offseason drills on the field without new appointments.

Jason Fitzgerald of the NFL’s salary database overthecap.com said he did not see the booming wide receiver market as an annual blip. In fact, he said, more talented wideouts – including Seattle’s DK Metcalf and Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson – will be paid over the next few years and should strengthen the top of the market closer to $ 25 million (Hill, Adams) than $ 20 million, where it once was.

“There will just be too many players earning over a certain number, where I do not think the teams will really be able to argue that these [big-money] agreements are outliers longer, ”Fitzgerald said.

This is the era of the $ 30-million-a-year wideout. We’ll see if it lasts.

Mark Dominik, a former NFL general manager who hosts SiriusXM NFL Radio, saw a few other factors rise in wide receiver contracts – an increase in quarterback contracts, a rising salary cap – and he linked Hill and Adams’ trade together to the growing power of stars throughout the league. He said all of these factors make it even harder to know what to do as a GM.

“You can … prepare a receiver in the first and fourth rounds, and you might be able to tidy up your room pretty well,” he said. “But with that for sure, [having] a go-to guy is such a comfort to the quarterback and to the organization that you can convince yourself to keep him. ”

For Robinson, the Kentucky wide receiver who is expected by most experts to be drafted in the third or fourth round, the demand for wide receiver has been welcome news, especially for a player who excels on yards after catching as much as he does (5.7 per catch last season). He said he was once concerned about his small frame and lack of receiver experience, but after San Francisco used Samuel as a double threat in the playoffs, he highlighted his versatility for teams during his pre-draft visits as a way to stand out.

In the last few years, the classes with wide receivers have become significantly deeper. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah attributed the consistent depth to the popularization of seven-on-seven competition and widespread offenses.

“You go to college and each team plays with four and five wideouts, so it’s just the numbers game,” he said. “There’s never going to be a year where I think we say, ‘Man, this is a little light on wideouts.’ Every year it’s just deep and deep and deep.”

The data suggests that teams see it and take pictures earlier and more often. In 2020 and 2021, there were draft 23 broadband receivers in the first two rounds, mostly in a two-year period since at least 2000, according to the Pro Football Reference.

Agent Adisa Bakari, who represents Robinson and Diggs, said the pass-heavy modern game has mixed the order of position distribution boards across the league (while, of course, leaving quarterbacks at the top). Previously, the teams paid, in a general order, for quarterback, left tackle, edge rusher, wide receiver and cornerback. Now, Bakari said, after quarterbacks and edge rushers in the first two teams, it’s a battle between left tackle, wide receiver and cornerback – and a wideout’s ability to improve a quarterback has increased.

After some of the No. 2 receiving contracts surpassed Diggs’ deal this offseason, Bills tore up his old contract two years back and negotiated a new one. Diggs signed a $ 96 million four-year deal, making him the fourth highest paid wideout in terms of average value ($ 24 million).

The deal felt like a link between several trends, including the changing market and the growing power of the players. Bakari credited Bill’s GM Brandon Beane and Pegulas, who own the team, for acknowledging it.

“[They could have said]”We could keep it for the baby because we contractually got him for two years,” Bakari said. “But how does it help us win? How does it help us win to have a dissatisfied player who is one of the best in his position and certainly part of the fuel for our success? They had the right presence in mind, in my opinion, and intended to say, ‘We get this done, and we get this done right.’ ”

For Robinson, the idea of ​​such life-changing money is too far-fetched to grasp. He has studied various broadband receivers – the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Coup and Arizona’s Rondale Moore, a friend from home – with the goal of not just getting to the NFL, but sticking to it. This week he will learn if the choice he made not so long ago to embrace the full-time position will pay off.

Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this report.

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