The 2022 NFL playoffs proved once again that it’s a quarterback league. The Divisional Round featured arguably the top six quarterbacks in the NFL in Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and Joe Burrow in the AFC, and Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Matthew Stafford in the NFC.
But today’s NFL has also become a wide receiver league. Six of the top eight leaders in receiving yards last season reached the Divisional Round — LA’s Cooper Kupp, Green Bay’s Davante Adams, Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase, San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel, Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill, and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs. Other star receivers in the Divisional Round included Travis Kelce, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham, and A.J. Brown.
The importance of elite wide receivers has been reflected in the free agency market this offseason. Washington’s Terry McLaurin became the latest to cash in when he signed a three-year extension worth up to $71 million, per reports. At more than $23 million per year, McLaurin is the 12th receiver to average at least $20 million per season.
The quarterbacks still dominate the top of the salary structure, representing the 11 highest-paid players and 14 of the top 20 in the NFL.
But teams are valuing young receivers more than ever. Wide receiver has leaped ahead of left tackle, edge pass rusher, and lockdown cornerback as the second-highest valued position.
Of the 43 players who make at least $20 million per year, there are 15 QBs, 12 receivers, 6 pass rushers, 4 defensive tackles, 3 cornerbacks, and 3 left tackles.
“I have never seen a positional market skyrocket in one offseason like WRs are this one,” tweeted former NFL agent Joel Corry, now a salary cap expert for CBS. “There were 4 WRs in the $20M per year club when the offseason began. There are now 12 despite Julio Jones getting cut. The number should grow before the regular season starts.”
Corry is likely referencing Samuel and D.K. Metcalf, young stars who have yet to receive a contract extension and are playing for identical $3.986 million salaries in the final year of their rookie contracts. Both should easily surpass $20 million per year when a new deal comes.
Otherwise, almost every young star receiver has gotten paid, with McLaurin the latest. Hill became the first non-quarterback to reach $30 million per year on his deal with the Dolphins, though realistically it’s more in the $25 million range. Adams got $28 million per year after finagling a trade to the Raiders, nudging ahead of the $27.5 million the Cardinals gave DeAndre Hopkins a couple of years ago.
Kupp gave the Rams a relative break at $26.7 million. The Eagles traded for Brown from the Titans and gave him $25 million per year.
The Bills adjusted Diggs’s contract to pay him $24 million per year. The Panthers gave D.J. Moore $20.6 million per year. The Buccaneers gave Chris Godwin $20 million per year even though he tore his ACL last season. The Chargers gave $20 million to Mike Williams to basically match running mate Keenan Allen, who is making $20.25 million.
Several receivers are just below the $20 million threshold, too. The Texans’ Brandin Cooks makes $19.88 million per year. The Saints’ Mike Thomas makes $19.25 million, and the Jaguars’ Christian Kirk and Lions’ Kenny Golladay make $18 million.
And, shrewdly, most of these contracts are short-term commitments, just three or four years. This will give the receivers another bite at free agency while they are still in their late 20s.
It wasn’t too long ago that alpha receivers were not considered worth the investment. Jerry Rice in 1994 was the last player to lead the league in receiving and win the Super Bowl until Kupp did it last season. For all the fireworks produced by the early 2000s Rams and Colts and their star receivers, each team only won one Super Bowl each. The Patriots won six without an alpha receiver, though Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski were no slouches.
But today’s pass-happy NFL requires elite weapons along with a top quarterback. The last few Super Bowl champions also have been loaded at receiver. Last year, Stafford had Kupp, who won the NFL’s Triple Crown and Super Bowl MVP, and Beckham. In 2020, Brady had Godwin, Evans, and Gronk. In 2019, Mahomes had Hill and Kelce.
A handful of teams are taking the opposite approach in free agency, betting on depth in the NFL Draft, which always seems to be loaded at receiver. The Titans are the best example. Instead of paying Brown as he enters his prime, they traded him to the Eagles and drafted his replacement in Treylon Burks with the 18th pick. Burks is three years younger and will make $3.6 million per year.
The Chiefs opted to let the Dolphins pay Hill and find cheaper options in free agency and the draft. The Bengals’ two young stars, Chase and Tee Higgins, have a combined cap hit of $10 million in 2022.
But the trend is clear. NFL teams increasingly are spending big not only on star quarterbacks, but on a star receiver, too.
Goodell still has the power on an appeal
As we await word on whether Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will face any discipline for potentially violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, sports law attorney Daniel Wallach offered insight into a small but important change to the process from the new collective bargaining agreement signed in 2020.
The disciplinary process removed commissioner Roger Goodell as the initial hearing officer and gave the job to an arbitrator jointly appointed by the NFL and NFL Players Association. For the Watson hearing, the arbitrator is former US district judge Sue L. Robinson, who should issue her decision before training camp.
Of course, Goodell or his designee remains the arbitrator for any appeal, so the power is still very much in Goodell’s hands. And the biggest change in the CBA is that Goodell now has the authority to increase the punishment on appeal if he doesn’t like Robinson’s decision.
If she comes back with a two-game suspension, the NFL can appeal and Goodell can increase Watson’s suspension for as long as he sees fit. The NFL is arguing for a suspension of at least a year.
However, if Robinson rules for no suspension or punishment for Watson, then the NFL cannot appeal and the case is closed. The NFL can only appeal the ruling if Robinson imposes punishment.
Robinson surely knows these ground rules — no punishment lets Watson off the hook, while punishment she decides on could be changed by Goodell. It will be fascinating to see this dynamic play out.
Snyder trying to run out the clock?
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform said Commanders owner Daniel Snyder has “refused to accept service” of a subpoena to testify. It appears Snyder is trying the age-old tactic of running out the clock.
Snyder first declined the committee’s invitation to testify voluntarily at its hearing two weeks ago, choosing to party on his yacht at the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France. Snyder instead forced Roger Goodell to answer for two decades’ worth of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Snyder and the football team, and why the NFL never asked investigator Beth Wilkinson to produce a written report of its findings.
The oversight committee has since attempted to subpoena Snyder to testify in a deposition, but to no avail. Snyder responded that the committee only offered one date, June 30, and his attorney is out of the country.
“While the Committee has been, and remains, willing to consider reasonable accommodations requested by witnesses, we will not tolerate attempts to evade service of a duly authorized subpoena or seek special treatment not afforded to other witnesses who testified in this matter,” the committee said in a statement.
But evading responsibility is exactly what Snyder appears to be doing. The Republicans on the House committee made a mockery of the hearing on June 22 and made clear that they thought investigating the Commanders was a waste of time. Snyder is banking on them saving his back if they win this election cycle.
“Come January, if Republicans take back the House, Oversight Republicans have no intention of continuing an investigation into the Washington Commanders and will return the Committee to its primary mission of rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government,” Austin Hacker, a spokesman for committee Republicans, said in a statement last week.
Edelman, Bennett criticize ex-teammate Garoppolo
An old episode with the Patriots resurfaced last week when Martellus Bennett and Julian Edelman piled on Jimmy Garoppolo for the quarterback’s decision in 2016 not to play in Weeks 3 or 4 after suffering a sprain in his right (throwing) shoulder. Bennett said on the McCourtys’ podcast, “You can’t win with a [expletive] at quarterback,” and Edelman said on the I Am Athlete podcast, “I can understand why Marty thinks like that.”
It’s understandable that Garoppolo’s Patriots teammates thought he was being a little soft. Garoppolo participated in practice in the days leading up to the Week 4 game against Buffalo, but was a surprise scratch on game day. Jacoby Brissett, who tore ligaments in his right thumb the previous week and could barely grip the ball, basically ran out the clock for 60 minutes as the Patriots lost to the Bills, 16-0.
However, Bennett’s and Edelman’s comments need a little more context. First, in looking back at the episode, there was a lot of doubt Garoppolo would play with his injured shoulder. Then-Bills coach Rex Ryan predicted all week Garoppolo wouldn’t play.
“It’s one thing to let Tom Brady play if he doesn’t practice all week. You can trust him to be crafty and get through it,” an AFC executive told the Globe at the time. “But with a young guy, you don’t know if he can make the throws, and you don’t know if he can handle it.”
It also sounds like sour grapes from Bennett and Edelman — Garoppolo had the contract leverage to tell the team he didn’t want to play. Few players have that leverage, but Garoppolo did after playing six excellent quarters to start the season. He was playing for $742,958 in 2016, and had made himself millions in just six short quarters. A year later, he was traded to San Francisco and signed a $136 million contract. Can you blame Garoppolo for not wanting to risk everything by playing with an injury to his throwing shoulder?
The episode didn’t seem to hurt Garoppolo in the eyes of Bill Belichick, who still tried to sign him to a contract extension and eventually take over for Brady. And Garoppolo has been to a Super Bowl and an NFC Championship game in five seasons with the 49ers.
IT DOESN’T GO AWAY
Bills QB Allen still rues loss to Chiefs
Five-plus months haven’t been enough to heal Josh Allen’s broken heart from the Bills’ 42-36 overtime playoff loss to the Chiefs. Allen threw two touchdowns in the final two minutes of regulation, but the Bills couldn’t stop Patrick Mahomes either, and Allen never touched the football in overtime. It led to a rule change this offseason guaranteeing both teams a possession in an overtime playoff game.
“It doesn’t make me feel any better when someone comes up and says, ‘That was the greatest game I’ve ever seen,’ ” Allen said.
Allen went 0 for 2 on coin tosses that game, and it still haunts him.
“Up to that point I think I was 9-0 throughout the season,” Allen said last week. “In our production meeting, it was jinxed … They brought up that stat, ‘You’re 9-0.’ I go 0-2 on coin tosses that game. I switched it up, I went heads first and then I went tails at the end, and it was obviously flip-flopped.”
For the first time since the rookie salary structure was implemented in 2011, all 32 first-round picks got fully guaranteed four-year deals. That includes Patriots guard Cole Strange, the 29th overall pick who was the last first-rounder to sign his deal ($12.25 million over four years). In 2011, only the top 21 picks got four years fully guaranteed. Last year it was the top 28 picks. A small win for the agents … Though the Seahawks acquired Drew Lock in the Russell Wilson trade, it’s interesting to hear former longtime Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright support Geno Smith for the starting job, saying he is “Team Geno all the way.” Smith, the former Jets QB, went 1-2 filling in for Wilson last season but completed 68.4 percent of passes with five touchdowns and one pick. “The dude has a cannon for an arm,” said Wright, who played for the Raiders last season after 10 years with the Seahawks. “The man can play. Just trust him, just trust Geno.” … Though retiring was supposedly his idea, Bruce Arians continues to do interviews and remind people he’s still working for the Buccaneers in an advisory role. He told the Eye Test for Two podcast he’ll be “upstairs” on Sundays and during the week his job is a “ ‘What do you think?’ job,” he said. “Everybody asks me what do I think, and they know they’re getting a brutally honest answer, whether it be [owner] Joel Glazer, [GM] Jason Licht, [head coach] Todd Bowles, or [offensive coordinator] Byron Leftwich.” … Per the Sports Business Journal, the NFL has shifted executive David Highhill to a new position called VP & GM of Sports Betting. His role will be designed around safeguarding inside information and ensuring the integrity of the game … The NFL also is getting new bidders for its Sunday Ticket package, with DirecTV set to finally relinquish it after this season. Disney, Apple. and Amazon have submitted bids, per CNBC, but a deal has been delayed because the NFL also is looking to include a stake in NFL Media in the sale … Sad to see Le’Veon Bell and Adrian Peterson, who both played briefly in 2021, already resorting to a celebrity boxing match July 30 in LA. Bell made $45 million over eight NFL seasons and Peterson made $103 million over 15 seasons … Bengals running back Trayveon Williams, who has 208 rushing yards in three NFL seasons, will co-teach a class on Name, Image, and Likeness at Texas A&M starting in the spring of 2023, per Bengals Wire. “That’s something I want to build my brand on, being more than an athlete,” Williams said.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.