February 22, 2024

What to pay a wide receiver in today’s NFL is the latest economical and philosophical decision faced by general managers, and Thursday night’s first round of the draft showed on which side certain decision-makers fall.

The Titans dealt A.J. Brown to the Eagles once they reached a contract impasse. Clearly to Titans GM Jon Robinson, Brown’s value to this team — in its current construction — was not equal to $22-25 million per year. To Eagles GM Howie Roseman, a four-year, $100 million plus draft compensation was suitable.

“It’s hard to pay $25 million to a wide receiver and field a playoff type team with a quarterback and running back getting a big percentage [of the salary cap,]” one team exec told me Friday.

“You can’t have a high-priced QB and WR,” another team executive said. “The going rate [on a QB] is $35-40 million. You can’t turn around and pay a top-flight wide receiver 25 and build pieces around unless they’re cheap pieces.

“At some point you have to pay your tackle. If you can’t pay your young tackle, you’re constantly hitting reset. Then you can’t extend starting cornerback or free safety or edge rusher.”

The determination the Titans made is the same one the Kansas City Chiefs made when they traded Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins earlier this offseason. Davante Adams wanted out of Green Bay to go play with Derek Carr, so that isn’t a fair comparison. Still, Vegas was willing to part with first-round picks in order to secure veteran help over looking at the draft.

Tennessee shipped Brown to Philadelphia and got the No. 18 overall pick in return, and the Titans used that on physical receiver Treylon Burks (check out our tracker of every pick along with grades and analysis here). 

“I can’t say Burks is A.J. Brown, but from a fiscal responsibility standpoint I would have done the same thing,” a personnel executive said Friday.

For a couple of years, no one was touching the high watermark set by the Cardinals and DeAndre Hopkins at $27.5 million AAV. Top wideouts hovered in the $20 million per year range as GMs decided the Hopkins deal was so unique it was an anomaly that shouldn’t be used as a comparison tool.

Later, Adams broke the mark with his $28M AAV deal with the Raiders. And then Hill shattered it with the Dolphins at $30M AAV. But before there was a new ceiling, there was a new floor. The Jaguars signing Christian Kirk to a four-year, $72 million deal at the start of free agency had GMs around the league incensed and receivers (and their representation) licking their chops.

Brown, a far more accomplished receiver than Kirk, can’t play for $16 million per year, as he said the Titans offered in an interview with ESPN. So just as some of the top wideouts pushed up the top of the market, that next tier of players also saw their market price increase.

“The bar had kind of been raised on that position,” Robinson said Thursday night in explaining his difficult decision to part with Brown. “We were trying to work through that and find some common ground. But in the end just felt like it was at a spot we weren’t going to be able to get to.”

As prices of veteran receivers rise, the NFL is witnessing a surge in young receiver talent like never before. Thursday night, the league saw six receivers taken in the top 20 of the draft for the first time in the Common Draft Era.

The proliferation of 7-on-7 football tournaments has plenty to do with that. So does year-round football with the help of travel leagues. That trickles up to the college ranks, where many pro coaches have dipped to college and brought more advanced passing and route concepts with them.

“So you can imagine that amount of improvement that you can make when you’re throwing and catching from when you’re 5 and 7 all the way until you’re 18, and I think that’s what you’re seeing,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said at the combine in February. “You’re seeing the skill level of these guys really translate to the NFL game because they’re ready.”

Now that the first round of the draft is complete, one executive predicted the “wide receiver market will correct itself. And I mean with these trades, teams are going to say ‘you know what, I’m not paying these guys.'”

Perhaps. There’s still the matter of Deebo Samuel and DK Metcalf. Metcalf would like a new deal but isn’t making a public spectacle of it. (One source noted Metcalf’s father, long-time NFL veteran Terrance, would opt for his son to do his business in private.) Samuel has taken his demands public, even if he hasn’t fully explained why he wants out of San Francisco.

At this point, if the Niners were to ever trade Samuel, it doesn’t make sense to do it for future picks. San Francisco has a competitive roster today, so losing Samuel just to gain a rookie in 2023 isn’t good football business. If he goes anywhere this offseason — and I don’t believe he’s going anywhere any time soon, if at all — it’d have to be for a player or players.

And since Samuel has played this out in public, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll react publicly to not being moved this weekend while Brown was.

‘Hollywood’ Brown deal doesn’t fit the mold

One receiver move that doesn’t fit into the above narrative is Marquise “Hollywood” Brown being dealt to Arizona. Brown, 24, is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract but hasn’t had the type of career that would lend itself to a mega deal just yet.

No, the Ravens just decided they’d part with the speedster and Lamar Jackson’s good friend because the relationship had reached its end. As I understand it, Brown was disgruntled in his role in Greg Roman’s scheme and didn’t hide it. You’ll recall he deleted the Ravens from his social media platforms shortly after Kyler Murray did the same with the Cardinals earlier this offseason.

It didn’t help matters that the last taste in the mouths of the Ravens was the Week 18 Steelers game. Brown had just three catches for 37 yards on six true targets. He dropped one touchdown pass and had another catch jarred loose late in the game on a Minkah Fitzpatrick sideline hit. The Ravens would lose that game in overtime and miss the playoffs.

Ravens GM Eric DeCosta can still add at receiver via the draft and post-draft free agency. The Ravens like their speed with Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay. Mark Andrews is essentially a big wide receiver and James Proche may have the best hands on the team.

But there’s still the matter of smoothing things with Jackson, who one source described as “inseparable” from Brown. The Ravens had clued Jackson in on the move earlier in the week, so he wasn’t taken by surprise at the trade. I’m told Jackson “understands the business” and was ultimately happy for Brown, but he showed his emotions on Twitter nonetheless.

That tweet came shortly after the Ravens selected Tyler Linderbaum with the 25th pick acquired via the trade. Jackson later said his previous tweet had nothing to do with Linderbaum, and one source indicated it may have had to do with Jackson seeing photos of Brown at the Cardinals draft party. Another source disputed that and said Jackson was “just sad” his good friend was leaving.

We’ll know more when Jackson decides to speak publicly on things, but I’d just chalk it up to Jackson letting the emotion show after it really set in.

Explaining the Pats’ Strange pick

The Patriots taking UT-Chattanooga offensive guard Cole Strange was a shocker. But it’s also not shocking because … well, it’s Bill Belichick.

Belichick wouldn’t divulge the process behind taking Strange at No. 29. But one league source said he believed New England’s board had gotten wiped out at that point. I’ve had several teams tell me Strange had a second-round grade in their building. And in this year’s draft, picking at No. 29, you’re taking a second rounder anyway.

And though Strange comes from a small program, it’s a familiar one. Strange joined UT-Chattanooga in 2017 and played under head coach Tom Arth, a former NFL quarterback who is a John Carroll product. We know Belichick (like many in the NFL) loves John Carroll folks. Plus, Patriots defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington was on the UT-Chattanooga staff briefly in 2017 before going to New England.

Bucs’ likely move at No. 33

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers want everyone to know they’re comfortable selecting a defensive lineman at No. 33 overall Friday. If they do, I’d wager it’s Travis Jones or Logan Hall. But the Bucs could very well trade out of that spot if the price is right.

Open for business

The Giants will be listening to offers at No. 36 since they don’t pick again until No. 67. Chicago picks at No. 39 and again at 48, and I’m certain the Bears will entertain any offers to slide back from 39 to acquire more picks.

Buzz on how Panthers will add a QB

The Panthers are very interested in trading into the second and/or third rounds of the draft. They don’t have a pick until No. 137 and they’re afraid of missing the meat of the draft. But they don’t have any players on the trading block to acquire picks, so they’ll most likely have to deal future picks in order to move back into Day 2.

You’d think if they do that, they’d be eyeing a quarterback. It’s possible. But I think the winds are picking up on a veteran quarterback trade. We’ve known it could be Jimmy Garoppolo or Baker Mayfield, and I’d say there’s some more movement for Mayfield.

Some in the building are split on the QBs, and team owner David Tepper believes he possesses the leverage so he isn’t inclined to send much of anything to either San Francisco or Cleveland.

Some teams are high on Howell

Don’t be surprised if Sam Howell is the next quarterback taken in the draft. I had one team (that does not need a QB) tell me he topped their board at that position. Another team said they were surprised he wasn’t scooped at the end of the first Thursday night.

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