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Why NFL wide receiver market has been so muted this offseason compared to last year


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The wide receiver market has mostly been at a standstill for much of the past week, as teams have remained disciplined with their price points for the remaining talent available.

And there’s logic behind it.

While so many await word on potential new destinations for Arizona’s DeAndre HopkinsDenver’s Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, as well as free-agent Odell Beckham Jr. and potentially even Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins, plenty of factors must be resolved before anything is set in motion.

To this point, it’s played out to a predictable outcome.

“The market is down because people didn’t think it was a good group of receivers,” a high-ranking team executive told The Athletic. That sentiment was echoed by several more team executives who were granted anonymity to speak freely.

Allen Lazard (Jets, four years, $44 million), Jakobi Meyers (Raiders, three years, $33 million) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (Patriots, three years, up to $33 million with incentives) have signed the most lucrative new deals to this point of free agency, but none broke the bank with a deal that was disproportionate to their market value.

None rank in the top 25 at their position in average annual value or guaranteed money. None rank in the top 20 in total dollars over the life of their contract.

So far, this year’s receiver market pales in comparison to a year ago when Davante Adams (five years, $140 million), Tyreek Hill (four years, $120 million) and A.J. Brown (four years, $120 million) orchestrated trades and landed the three most lucrative receiver contracts in history. Last year also saw Stefon Diggs (four years, $96 million), DK Metcalf (three years, $72 million), Deebo Samuel (three years, $71.55 million), Terry McLaurin (three years, $68.4 million), Mike Williams (three years, $60 million) and Chris Godwin (three years, $60 million) ink monstrous extensions. Or even when Christian Kirk (four years, $72 million) raised eyebrows with a free-agent contract with the Jaguars that ultimately proved prescient.

But the past couple of weeks have been more about who’s on the market as opposed to a market correction. Lazard, Meyers and Smith-Schuster highlighted some of the more solid signings in free agency, but they simply haven’t played to the same caliber as the record-setting wideouts from an offseason ago.

“This year’s free-agent market was compressed,” another executive said. “The top guys weren’t No. 1s in terms of skill set or production.”

That’s why teams have attempted a more creative path to player acquisition, as the Browns did Wednesday by trading for Jets receiver Elijah Moore. When the free-agent well has dried, it’s time to assess a different cost evaluation. (Another approach has been to zero in on tight ends, as the Giants acquired Darren Waller from the Raiders and the Patriots signed Mike Gesicki as a complementary pass-catching piece to Hunter Henry.)

The Broncos have had numerous discussions about Jeudy and Sutton, and the Cardinals have made calls about Hopkins, according to league sources. But the asking prices have remained high on a couple of fronts because the Broncos and Cardinals are hoping to exercise the leverage of having the supply when other teams have the demand.

The Broncos have told teams they want at least a first-round pick for Jeudy, according to league sources. They haven’t felt any need to give away the 15th pick of the 2020 draft, who only turns 24 in April because new head coach Sean Payton could still find the spark to help him reach his potential.

But as rival teams analyze Jeudy, they’re seeing a receiver who has missed time each year with injuries and has yet to amass enough production over long, consistent stretches. It’s fair to wonder how much of the latter critique has been circumstantial, as the Broncos have been one of the worst offensive teams in the league for three years.

Either way, to this point there’s been no deal as the Broncos continue to think more highly of Jeudy than other teams, at least in terms of price point. Sutton’s name has also come up, but he isn’t viewed as a No. 1 receiver, so the Broncos’ asking price has remained too high for him as well, according to league sources.

Hopkins is in a different category. He has unquestionably been one of the NFL’s premier offensive threats since his breakout season in 2015, but he turns 31 in June, has been slowed by injuries for a couple of years and served a six-game suspension last season for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy.

With a new Cardinals regime, headed by GM Monti Ossenfort and coach Jonathan Gannon, rival teams know Hopkins would be a salary dump, which significantly reduces his trade value. That’s why teams like the Patriots, who had an early conversation with the Cardinals, don’t plan to pursue him unless there’s a substantial change in philosophy, according to a league source.

Higgins, meanwhile, is entering the final year of his contract and has been another name to watch because teams know the Bengals also have to pay quarterback Joe Burrow and wideout Ja’Marr Chase. General manager Duke Tobin said there are no plans to move Higgins, and that proclamation seems to line up as rival teams still don’t believe he’s available, according to league sources. (Then again, there has been a long list of players over the years who were publicly deemed “unavailable” until they privately became available, typically based on the tenor of contract negotiations.)

Beckham remains the most high-profile free agent, and he has drawn interest, according to sources close to the receiver and around the league. Thirteen teams attended his workout this month in Arizona, and they generally came away impressed. They noted that he still looked like a starter, cutting and changing direction with fluidity while catching the ball extremely well.

Teams also said he was still working his way back into shape and didn’t look as explosive as he did in his prime, which should be expected for a 30-year-old with two ACL repairs. It’s not a knock — just a reality. Beckham visited teams toward the end of the 2022 regular season but wasn’t healthy enough to contribute for the stretch run, so there shouldn’t be any false expectations at this early point in the offseason.

It’s unclear what type of contract Beckham would require to sign, but a few team executives believed an incentive-laden deal would be fair under the circumstances. There’s still time for this to shake out.

This is all why teams have been disciplined and not desperate over the past couple of weeks. Plus, this is a golden era for receivers in the draft. The talent is continuously available, and the offensively tilted rule changes have yielded more opportunities for these gifted wideouts to stand out earlier than perhaps a decade ago.

“Because of the rules, I think wide receiver is a position you can make an impact early in your career from a draft standpoint,” a third executive said. “You can always find wide receivers.”

A fourth executive added, “It’s a position that we think is easily replaceable because of the draft every year. The price is going up to $20-25 million (per year) for a good one. Most teams can’t pay two of them, so they try to get an asset to replace one with a draft pick. It’s a never-ending cycle.”

There are times when it’s certainly appropriate to take advantage of a loaded market or to pay a transcendent talent who is already on your roster. It’s unlikely there were any remorseful buyers from the booming market in 2022.

But this offseason is down, the money has reflected as much and the high-profile holding patterns have remained as a result.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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