NFL market remains unfair for some of its best pass-catchers

NFL Free Agency

The NFL’s positional salary structure and lack of financial imagination has forced some of its top pass catchers to be paid far less than others.

Nine of the top 25 receivers in the National Football League last season weren’t actual receivers, including three of the top 10—at least by their official positional name. Instead, they are tight ends and running backs. And somehow that makes all the difference.

If that sounds like a silly nuance to separate out one pass catcher from another, you’re right. In today’s pass-happy NFL, receptions abound for all involved—running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends, so much so the league’s leaderboards feature a varied mix of all three. Everyone lights up the box score. Everyone receives the glory.

Unfortunately, only one position receives the paycheck.

This offseason, a wide receiver could break the financial barrier of $20 million annually for the first time—depending on how tenacious Amari Cooper‘s representatives are going to be. Cooper’s market value is projected to be $19.7M per year by Spotrac, and he’s undoubtedly the top free agent available this spring at the position.

The numbers are already there for receivers, given that the cap hits for Sammy Watkins of the Kansas City Chiefs were at $19.2 million in 2019 and $21 million in 2020. Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints will average $19.25 million until 2025 with his five-year, $96M+ deal signed in 2019.

Other highs abound at receiver as well, from the incredible $64 million guaranteed given to Julio Jones or the $65 million in practical guarantees for Odell Beckham, Jr.

Here’s where the issues begin, and for our purposes, it’s important to go back to the aforementioned list of the NFL’s top receivers. Using total receptions in 2019, a list led by Thomas with 149, it’s not long before a non-wide receiver makes an appearance—at No. 2 overall with running back Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers.

Here’s a quick rundown of non-wideouts and where they appear on the list of the NFL’s receptions leaderboard:

The average paycheck for each of these players in 2019 was approximately $4.05 million—an incredibly disproportional number compared to the on-field production. Simplifying the terms in this manner is admittedly problematic, since many of these players were/are on slotted rookie deals (Ekeler, Kittle, Kamara, Cohen, Fournette), but the reality is that none of them can come close to the ceiling of their fellow pass-catchers—if only they played a different position.

In 2014, Jimmy Graham set the high mark for tight ends at around $10 million per season. Since, NFL general managers have kept the market at that same price. Kelce, widely considered the best at the position, averages just under $10 million per season, and from there, the averages drop dramatically.

It’s possible that new deals for Hunter Henry and/or Austin Hooper push this figure up a tad, but at most it will be an average of $10.5 to $11 million annually. When Kittle finally hits the open market, he might even push the ceiling to $12 or $13 million. Even then, the very best at the position will only be making around 60 percent of what top-tier wide receivers command.

The forecast is even worse for running backs, who are almost universally viewed with with a glass half-empty outlook. If a running back has proven himself, then he’s viewed as having been overused. Until then, he’s unproven. It’s a catch-22 for a position that, for many teams, is never going to require a major investment.

In fact, while tight ends are at least trending ever-so-slowly upward, the market for RBs might be shifting downward. Zeke Elliott is making $15 million per season with the Dallas Cowboys and both sides might be satisfied with the deal, but the rest of the four highest-paid running back contracts are each a cautionary tale (Todd Gurley, LeVeon Bell, Devonta Freeman, David Johnson). NFL GMs are likely going to take a quick look at this list and consider carefully just how much they really want to give Derrick Henry this spring.

In short, Elliott’s deal in Dallas is such an outlier that there’s no reasonable expectation for the market to continue to climb higher or even match his deal in the near future. Perhaps a rare prospect like Saquon Barkley will command similar dollars, but for the general market, running backs are going to remain an undervalued asset despite the high production—perhaps it should be said the “just-as-high production.”

The NFL’s passing emphasis will only continue in years to come given the success of teams like the Chiefs in 2019, which means pass-catchers will continue to be rewarded. Yet for some reason, entrenched positional categories have created deep financial ruts which cannot be escaped in a league lacking financial imagination.

Pass catchers should be able to point to their production alone to determine their value, no matter the position played. Unfortunately for many players, the market remains unfairly tilted in favor of the traditional wide receiver and it’s likely going to stay that way until someone pays the cost to disrupt it.

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