Thursday, September 29

NFL: It’s a good time to be a pro wide receiver — and it’s only going to get better

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CNN
 — 

“I like to stop and appreciate stuff along the way.”

To be sitting in the famous black and silver of the Las Vegas Raiders, associated with toughness and winning, is a 21-year dream come true for Davante Adams. And sometimes, he likes to just soak it all in.

It’s March and the All-Pro wide receiver has just been traded to the Raiders after eight successful years with the Green Bay Packers, reuniting him with his college quarterback, Derek Carr.

The move – which tore arguably the best receiver in the NFL away from arguably the best quarterback, Aaron Rodgers – sent the league into overdrive, in particular the wide receiver market.

Adams looks on during the first half of the 2022 Pro Hall of Fame Game between the Raiders and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

With Adams – who signed a five-year, $141.25 million contract with the Raiders after joining, making him the most expensive receiver at the time – the first big domino to fall in free agency, teams began to reevaluate their own position group, resulting in the fabric of the league being shaken up with big trades and even bigger contracts.

In addition, the trend of teams selecting exciting receivers early in the draft continued, with seven being drafted among the first 34 picks.

The historic success of Ja’Marr Chase last year as a rookie continued the run of first-year wide receivers producing from day one, whereas previously they might have struggled.

So why have teams suddenly decided that the position group is one of such importance, and one which requires huge assets to be invested in?

According to Grant Caraway, founder of wide receiver training site, First Down Training, a stylistic change to the way the game is being played – brought to the fore by current San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan – has helped facilitate a change in the way teams value wide receivers.

“The offenses have changed. Everybody’s moving to that air raid, throwing the ball 40, 50 times a game,” he told CNN Sport. “So they need athletes out there to be able to have success because like in an air raid system, you’re trying to stretch the field.

“You have four or five receivers on the field the entire time, so you’re going to be getting a lot of one-on-one match ups. That’s just how it’s going to go because you’re trying to stretch the field, so if you got guys who can win those match ups and you have those guys who can create separation…

“And so I think that’s why you’re seeing such a push nowadays because everybody’s trying to find that guy who can, for the best value possible, they don’t have to drop $100 million and get Davante Adams, they can draft a guy who runs good routes and gets separation. And that’s why I think the offenses are evolving and I think that’s what people are constantly looking for: those receivers who can win and win in one-on-one match ups.”

Adams catches a pass during the team's first fully padded practice during training camp.

Money, money and more money – it’s been an offseason of spending on those whose job it is to catch the ball. Outside of Adams’ monster deal, top-level receivers have been on the move, getting paid as they go.

After Adams, the biggest and possibly most shocking move was Tyreek Hill swapping Kansas City for Miami’s South Beach, traded from the Chiefs to the Dolphins before signing a massive four-year extension worth $120 million with $72.2 million guaranteed – the new highest paid contract for anyone at the position group.

In the following weeks, DeVante Parker left the Dolphins to go to the Patriots, Marquise Brown was traded from the Baltimore Ravens to the Arizona Cardinals and the Tennessee Titans traded A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles. The latter agreed to a four-year extension worth $100 million with $57 million guaranteed shortly after.

Not only that, but other receivers were tied down with their own monster deals. After a Super Bowl-winning season, in which he won the receiving triple crown – leading the league in receptions, yards and touchdowns – Cooper Kupp signed a three-year extension worth up to $80 million with the Rams.

Stefon Diggs agreed to a four-year, $96 million contract extension with the Buffalo Bills, Terry McLaurin signed a three-year extension worth up to $70 million with the Washington Commanders and D.J. Moore signed a three-year extension worth $61.9M with the Carolina Panthers.

Stefon Diggs makes a catch during Bills training camp.

Caraway says the swathe of high-paying contracts this summer comes in part down to agents sensing a change in the environment.

“If they want that solid receiver one, they got to pay for it,” he said.

“And I think that the guys who negotiate the contracts, the agent and all that stuff, they probably know that and they probably come at the organization with that kind of like: ‘OK, listen, if you want this caliber of a player on the team, you’ve seen what he’s been able to do for other teams’ – like Davante Adams in Green Bay.

“That was their guy. That’s like the best receiver in the league, everything he does looks so easy, it almost seems like he’s head and shoulders above the other receivers on the team. So going into that contract negotiation, they’re like: ‘Hey, listen, if you want this type of player on your team, what he can do for your team, you got to pay the man.’”

And Drew Lieberman, founder of the Sideline Hustle and personal wide receiver coach to numerous NFL players, believes that an “NBA mindset” – with players happier to move teams more frequently in the search of a better fit – has creeped into NFL players’ psyche.

“It used to be in the NFL that guys tried to stay on one team for as long as possible,” he told CNN Sport. “And there are a few guys who decided that the No. 1 thing they wanted to do was get paid as much as possible, which is their right.”

Cooper Kupp makes a touchdown catch over Eli Apple of the Cincinnati Bengals during Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.

As Chase scorched past seven Chiefs defenders for a remarkable 72-yard touchdown in Week 17 to seal the Bengals’ place at the top of the AFC North, it was easy to forget that this was his first season in the league.

Just 21 years old at the time, Chase enjoyed a historic rookie season in the NFL. In the three-touchdown, 266-receiving-yards afternoon against the Chiefs, not only did he set an NFL record for most receiving yards in a game by a rookie, but he also broke the record for receiving yards in a season by a rookie.

That record had been set just the year before by Minnesota Vikings star Justin Jefferson.

Although first-year receivers have often struggled to produce at the highest level from day one, the trend of rookies stepping in as No. 1 options is now definitely something real – from Chase and Jefferson to DK Metcalf and DeVonta Smith.

So how are rookie wide receivers so much more adept at entering the league and producing from day one? Both Caraway and Lieberman noted that the rise of multi-sport athletes has helped teach receivers attributes that set them apart.

Chase makes a one-handed reception as Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey defends during the first quarter of Super Bowl LVI.

Phoebe Schechter, former coach with the Buffalo Bills, said some of the league’s biggest stars have benefited from playing non-contact football.

“And that’s essentially just quarterback, receiver and defensive back play. And for me, that’s almost made the biggest difference,” she told the Around the NFL Podcast. “You’re looking at your (Patrick) Mahomes, your (Justin) Herberts, guys like that who have grown up playing seven-on-seven.

“I mean, imagine having pass gally every single week since you’re 10 years old. Definitely, you’re going to learn how to read a defense and be able to react and, no doubt, that’s not to take away from the unbelievable athleticism that we seem to be growing in this world.”

The advent of the internet and social media has also helped reduce the “information gap” between the top of the game and its up-and-coming stars, Lieberman explains.

“Just with the internet … there’s a lot of great accounts online and on social media that teach the game,” he said. “I think when I started coaching like 10 years ago, the biggest thing I noticed was there’s just a huge information gap between how we teach the game and how we coach the game at the highest level versus what you’re exposed to in high school and younger.

“It’s a totally different game the way it’s talked about, the detail in which you’re game planning and attacking things with and all of that. The preparation and the amount of detail and in the game plans and kind of the nuances and how the game works, it’s never really explained to you at those lower levels. I think a lot of that information is more widely available.

“I know guys who watch YouTube highlight videos of their favorite players over and over and over. That wasn’t necessarily available 10 years ago the way it is now, where there are so many videos and so much footage for guys to study.”

A busy offseason could spell the end of something, with players perhaps finding long-term homes and the pay checks they think they deserve.

So why does it feel like just the beginning?

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