The NFL Treats Elite Wide Receivers Very Differently From Top Running Backs

Teams used to operate as if they could find great receivers anywhere, but the best in the league are seeing their pay explode. Plus, thoughts on the proposed offseason changes and a recent Commanders hire.
Jefferson is now the highest-paid nonquarterback in the leauge, but several other receivers have cashed in this offseason.
Jefferson is now the highest-paid nonquarterback in the leauge, but several other receivers have cashed in this offseason. / Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

NFL minicamps are underway. Of course, the business of football makes headlines no matter what time of year it is. Here are my thoughts on a few recent items.

Wideout windfalls

Business for top-level NFL wide receivers is booming. The eye-popping contract for the Minnesota Vikings’ Justin Jefferson now puts an exclamation point on values for a position recently thought to be not dissimilar to the running back position. In other words, there was a feeling you can always find a good wide receiver, and only a couple of outliers needed to be paid. Now, while Jefferson’s contract is somewhat of an outlier, there is an ever-expanding group of receivers paid at a level exceeding that of virtually every other position besides quarterback.

I am actually more surprised by the continued ascension of the wide receiver market than I am with the continued ascension of the quarterback market. And Jefferson’s new contract has extension years that average an eye-catching $30 million a year, an average only exceeded by several quarterbacks, and Nick Bosa.

The explosion in this market started a couple of years ago when two players, Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams, were traded and simultaneously given then record $25 million-a-year extensions by the Miami Dolphins and Las Vegas Raiders. While those two players were once outliers with their deals, they have now been joined by a host of ascending wide receivers. And this offseason alone, that $25 million-a-year club has had several new members, including younger players such as Amon-Ra St. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Michael Pittman Jr., Nico Collins and Jefferson; as well as veterans A.J. Brown and Calvin Ridley. Salaries of $25 million a year, or more, is now the norm for top young wideouts.

Of the group of new contracts listed above, a couple of them stand out. Jefferson’s is the strongest in terms of total value, average, extension years, first-year cash, two-year cash, three-year cash, four-year cash, etc. Smith’s is the weakest; his $48 million over the first three years of the contract is the lowest of the group, by far, continuing this uncanny trend of the Philadelphia Eagles signing top players for team-friendly and below-market contracts. And Pittman’s is the most interesting: He and the Indianapolis Colts negotiated a three-year contract, meaning he will make $70 million over the next three years and then have another bite at the free agency apple at age 29 or before. That’s smart and strategic on Pittman’s part, as he may end up with more earnings over the next several years than any of these players.

And there will be two more massive deals to come, although we don’t know whether they will happen this offseason. The notoriously stingy Cincinnati Bengals and the recently reticent Dallas Cowboys must decide whether they are going to meet the market with Ja’Marr Chase and CeeDee Lamb, respectively, or take their chances on franchise tags and all that comes with that tenuous and lame-duck status. But if they pay, the market is clear: near, at or above the $30 million-a-year marker laid down by the Vikings with Jefferson (I am sure those two front offices are now cursing Minnesota’s front office.)

The dichotomy of the receiver position (traditionally a lower-paying one) with the running back position (still a lower-paying one) is stark.

The wide receiver market is no longer even comparable to the running back market. Besides the outlier Christian McCaffrey, at $19 million a year, and now Saquon Barkley, at about $13 million a year for two years, the market tops out at roughly $8 million a year. And, yes, that is one-third of the top of the receiver market. Are top receivers three times more valuable than top running backs? I would think not.

The same is true with the tight end position; top tight ends top out at roughly $15-17 million per year. The Chiefs have reaped incredible value from Travis Kelce over the years; he is essentially a big wide receiver making two-thirds of what top wide receivers have been making.

Shrewd general managers can take advantage of inefficiencies in the market with running backs and tight ends compared to wide receivers.

Reduced offseason vs. economics 

The NFL Players Association reportedly wants to exchange the present offseason calendar, one with OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamps from April to June, for one without no offseason but an earlier start to training camp, reportedly in late June or early July.

Theoretically, that makes sense. Of all the major American sports leagues, the NFL is the one with players who show up in the offseason (albeit with a much longer offseason). And this proposal continues the NFLPA priority, in recent collective bargaining negotiations, to decrease time in the offseason.

That priority, however, is music to the ears of NFL owners, who continue to wrangle more concessions in exchange for the “easy give” of less practice time.

I’m still not sure what the NFLPA received in exchange for a 17th regular-season game; if the players give up an 18th game for this, that is a lopsided trade in favor of management. I hope players listen to recent comments of the Indianapolis Colts’ Ryan Kelly discussing the continued sacrifice of players’ bodies in giving up the 17th and potential 18th game.

Commissioner Roger Goodell recently spoke almost nonchalantly about adding it. The union needs to fight that attitude and protect player health and safety.

I remember an owner saying to me once: “You mean we get what we want on the economics and all we have to do is give them more time away in the offseason? Where do I sign?”

Former student commanding Commanders

Last month I sent off another group of students into the working world as they graduated from Villanova Law to pursue their dreams of working in sports law and sports business. I was also proud this week to see the Washington Commanders name one of my former students to lead their football administration.

Brandon Sosna was a student of mine a decade ago at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. He was intent on following my path, wanting to manage a cap and negotiate player contracts for an NFL team, and maybe one day head up an NFL football operation. After doing so at the college level at Cincinnati and USC, he worked his way into the NFL and is now in a senior position with the Commanders as they reboot the team I grew up rooting for, once a jewel franchise in the NFL.

My students, present and former, are like my children: I do not favor anyone over the others. But I am always proud to see them succeed and progress through the sports industry. To the young people trying to get into sports, yes, it is hard and ultracompetitive, but there is always one thing that will separate you: Do the things that others do not want to do or are not willing to do. You will be surprised how that makes a difference.

Andrew Brandt