What happens when the league’s tragicomedy franchise hands a market-resetting contract to a middling receiver? Lunacy. Absolute lunacy.
The stench of the four-year, $ 72m deal that the Jaguars handed to Christian Kirk in the opening hours of free agency last month wafted through Las Vegas during the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday. Someday soon, we’ll look back on the Kirk signing as the first domino that injected chaos into the NFL’s carefully calibrated ecosystem – a sliding doors moment that will swing divisional races, title games and that most vapid of terms: Legacies.
Ever since Jacksonville signed Kirk, the league’s wide receiver market has turned gaga. Do you pay your star receiver? Do you not? If you don’t, will he play? Is it better to try to recreate your star’s success in the aggregate with a couple of cheap rookies or tie him down to a long-term deal that absorbs an eye-watering percentage of the salary cap?
For the better part of a month, superstar receivers have taken the answers into their hands, eyeing the contract first and figuring out which team will hand it to them later.
The names of players who have moved read like a who’s who of the All-Pro ballot. First, there was Green Bay dealing Davante Adams to the Raiders. The Tyreek Hill-to-Miami deal followed. On draft night, Titans star AJ Brown joined the growing list of Big Name Receivers On The Move – the Titans trading Brown to the Eagles for a first-round pick. All signed record-shattering deals as soon as their moves were finalized.
The Ravens jumped into the game, too, sending Hollywood Brown to the Cardinals for a late first-round pick, a move that wasn’t exactly endorsed by quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Meanwhile, the specter of a Deebo Samuel trade hung over the evening: Teams battled against the clock as they tried to chuck a package at the Niners that would tempt them into dealing a unique talent away. Samuel may still be traded before the end of the draft. And if not him, then perhaps DK Metcalf or Terry McLaurin. Any trade feels plausible.
It’s not just the veteran market that the Kirk deal has distorted, either. The gold rush among the league’s star receivers has forced a re-assessing of the value of the position in the draft. Over the past half-decade, the idea of taking a receiver early in the draft has felt like overkill. There are so many gifted pass-catchers being churned out by the college system that the value was in throwing as many darts at the dartboard in the middle rounds as possible – the Packers have still not taken a receiver in the first round for 20 years, despite Aaron Rodgers’ persistent groaning.
On Thursday night, the league set to work tilting that logic on its head. Any rookie deal represents value over a $ 20m-per-year deal for a veteran. So why not offer a pick or two to move up to land the receiver of your choice? The Titans used the pick they received from the AJ Brown trade to select Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks, a comparative talent who will cost a fraction of the salary Brown will earn in Philly.
The league has split into two worlds: You’re either trading away a star receiver or looking to acquire one, whether that’s digging into the veteran market or trying to vault up the draft order. The Lions and Saints both pushed their way up the first-round pecking order despite having pressing needs elsewhere on their rosters – most notably at quarterback. The Lions handed over future picks to move up to grab Alabama speedster Jameson Williams, landing a big-play receiver before they considered finding someone who could throw him the ball.
This is the new way of doing things. The state and style of the college game lends itself to an increasing number of receivers entering the draft. The specific mechanics of the road trees in college and the pros have started to blend, making it easier for a rookie receiver to make an instant impact. As NFL teams have shifted away from rhythm and timing-based offenses into systems based around pace-and-space, the goal has been to find receivers who can do damage with the ball in their hand after the catch, or who have the speed that makes the quarterback’s life easy.
It was a night in which quarterbacks were overlooked in favor of the protectors who could buy an extra beat in order to push the ball downfield, or the athletes who could turn simple completions into chunk yardage; only the Steelers took a shot at a quarterback in the first round, waiting until the 20th pick to select Kenny Pickett.
In total, six receivers were selected within the first 18 picks. That means that nine first-round choices were used this year on receivers, either selected by a team or traded for one of the wantaway stars.
Across the league, decision-makers continue to take giant swings in the name of scoring points. Moderation is out; excess is in vogue. And it’s not just receiver specific. Teams have become more freewheeling with their once oh-so-precious draft picks. Nine trades were orchestrated on draft night. Twenty-seven total first-round picks were traded in the end. Two picks were traded three separate times, with teams jockeying to ensure they withdrew maximum value from their draft slot.
We have the Rams to thank for the shifting mindset. The NFL, as the cliché goes, is a copycat league. The post-process era of draft pick fetishization birthed a market inefficiency. Draft picks were overvalued (draft picks can be anything!). Rams’ head honcho Les Snead built a champion with a dose of humility: He recognized that he couldn’t accurately identify the finest college prospects at a higher clip than his peers. He embraced what he did not know – and chased certainty.
Snead decided that it was better to deploy his most valuable assets to secure known commodities rather than guessing on prospects, swinging big trades for Jalen Ramsey, Matthew Stafford and Von Miller, three of the Rams ’most crucial contributors during their Super Bowl run.
That same mindset has filtered around the league. Some have channeled the chase-a-proven-quarterback route. Others have forked over a gaggle of picks to get receivers who could put them over the top. Some have inverted the Snead mindset, pouring draft picks into packages in order to move up the draft to focus on on Their Guy ™, regardless of the perceived positional value or their starting spot when the opening round of the draft first began.
Teams used to hoard draft picks like a squirrel preparing for winter. Now, the league has gone full Oprah. You get a draft pick! And you get a draft pick!
As the timelines for teams – the executives, coaches, fans – fray, the notion of meticulous, long-term building is going the way of the dodo. Reckless abandonment is in. If you don’t win within two years, you’re in trouble; it’s best to try to microwave some success. Who knows, grab yourself a top young quarterback and hand him his receiver buddy and you might ride that magic all the way to an unlikely Super Bowl run.
Whenever there’s a draft class that lacks high-level quarterback prospects, the opening night of the draft tends to be a dud, one reserved for the evaluation geeks. But who knew that all that was needed to light a fire under such a year was an under-fire general manager handing a desperate contract to a so-so receiver.