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It Was a Good Day to Be a Free Agent Wide Receiver

Much like offensive linemen in recent years, a weak draft class fueled a free-agent spending spree on wideouts with . . . less-than-stellar résumés

Two years ago, the Atlanta Falcons were the laughingstock of the NFL for a day-long news cycle after signing receiver Mohamed Sanu to a five-year deal worth up to $32.5 million. Sanu was coming off a down season in a contract year (33 catches, 394 yards in Cincinnati); many pundits believed $6.5 million per year deal was far too much considering his résumé.

Now, consider the scene on the first full day of the “official” start of free agency for 2018. Sanu has averaged 62 catches for 678 yards over his first two seasons in Atlanta. On Tuesday, Marqise Lee, a No. 2 receiver with similar numbers to Sanu through his first four seasons, agreed to sign a four-year deal worth up to $38.5 million to remain with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’ll earn about $3 million more annually than Sanu. It’s the perfect example of the trend that emerges every year in free agency, but usually for a different position group. In 2018, the mediocre-to-good wide receivers are getting paid the kind of money that has been reserved for good-to-great players at that position.

In the flurry of free-agent signings on Tuesday, it became clear that receivers were getting paid this year. The reason could have a lot to do with the NFL draft. Teams selecting receivers in the first round in recent years haven’t seen a great return on their investments, and that trend threatens to continue this year with what’s perceived as a weak class of receivers. Basically, if you need a wideout, you better get him this week.

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It was offensive linemen who cashed in during the start of free agency in recent years. Driving that market was the dearth of quality, pro-ready linemen coming out of college—the rise of spread offenses has been blamed for that. Similarly, it could be argued that there’s been a decline in receiver play at the college level as spread offenses have evolved. For years, NFL general managers have bemoaned players coming into the league not being able to run a full route tree. GMs aren’t shy about sharing thoughts on how unimpressive the 2018 draft class of receivers—led by Alabama’s Calvin Ridley (who did not wow at the combine or his pro day) and followed closely by no one in particular—is shaping up to be.

“As you know, there are certainly draft classes of receivers over the years that have been strong and some that have not been,” Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said at the combine. “There are some mid-round guys that are going to be impactful in this league. I think [the 2018 WR class] is an interesting group with a lot of numbers, but are not necessarily at the top . . . I think there are some interesting players who can contribute as twos, threes and fours.”

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Two things happened in 2017 to punctuate this thesis. Last year only nine teams attempted passes on at least 60% of their plays. That was the lowest number to meet the 60% threshold since only seven teams did it in 2010, and it’s down considerably from the 15 squads that reached it in 2014. Secondly, last year’s rookie receiving class likely scared people off. The top five receivers selected—top-10 picks Corey Davis (Titans), Mike Williams (Chargers) and John Ross (Bengals), plus second-rounders Zay Jones (Bills) and Curtis Samuel (Panthers)—combined for 87 receptions, 901 yards, two touchdowns and 32 games missed. With the forecast looking cloudy for this next batch of receivers, it was good timing for veteran receivers hitting free agency.

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And that’s likely why you saw receivers flying off the shelves on Tuesday. Sammy Watkins joins Andy Reid for three years and $48 million after an underwhelming year for the Rams. Allen Robinson, promising in 2015, is returning from an ACL tear but was still considered good enough to get $14 million per year from Chicago. Paul Richardson had a solid 700-yard season last year, but five years and $40 million seems rich. Ditto the three years and $24 million Albert Wilson (career-high 42 catches for K.C. in 2017) will get from Miami, and the $29 million over four years Ryan Grant (84 career receptions in 64 career games for Washington) will get from Baltimore.

For comparison’s sake, Robinson’s deal brings him a shade under Julio Jones’ $14.25 million per year. Wilson and Richardson will make as much per year as Kenny Stills and Marvin Jones. Grant is scheduled to make more per year than Robert Woods, who signed on the first day of free agency last year, at $6.8 million per year.

None of this is to say these players don’t deserve their money; you’re worth what someone is willing to pay you, after all. But a weird time for the WR market translated to great timing for them.

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