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Are the NFL’s Elite Wide Receivers Actually Underpaid?

You can make good money as a wide receiver in the NFL. But guys like A.J. Brown and Tyreek Hill need a salary that matches their skillsets.

Two of the NFL’s elite wide receivers have spent the first half of the season achieving things on the field that we’ve just never seen before. 

Tyreek Hill‘s blazing speed and quick-twitch route running mastery has him off to the best start for a wide receiver in league history. The Miami Dolphins‘ dynamo caught eight balls for 112 yards and a touchdown in a 31-17 win over New England on Sunday as the Dolphins improved to 6-2. Hill’s 1,014 yards receiving through eight games is the most since 1961. His 2,724 total receiving yards with Miami is the most by a player through 25 games with a team in the Super Bowl era — 99 more than Odell Beckham Jr.’s first 25 with the New York Giants.

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NFL’s Next Gen Stats tracks the league’s fastest ball carriers in running speed, and Hill’s 22.01 miles per hour during a 64-yard Week 5 reception is the speediest play in the league this season. Hill is so dominant that he has three of the eight fastest plays in the league this season. Prior to the start of Week 8, the combination of Hill and QB Tua Tagovailoa generated 52.5 expected points added in 2023, lapping the field and on pace to break the QB-WR EPA record set by the Super Bowl-winning duo of Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp for the 2021 L.A. Rams. 

In Philadelphia, Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown became the first player in NFL history with six consecutive games of at least 125 receiving yards in a shootout win Sunday over Washington.

Yet Tyreek Hill doesn’t have a salary that reflects his value, and neither does Brown. Hill is making an average of $30 million a year on a four-year, $120 million deal. Brown is on a four-year, $100 million contract, which comes out to an average of $25 million annually. This is despite both seemingly outplaying their annual average value, given their historic production levels.

This begs the question: Are elite NFL wide receivers actually underpaid?

While Pro-Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric hasn’t produced a year in which a wide receiver was the NFL’s most valuable player, there’s a case to be made that top players at the position should be paid more. In its explanation of an early adaptation of an NFL WAR stat, Pro Football Focus calculated that wide receivers had the second-highest positional value behind quarterbacks, ahead of defensive backs, linebackers, and linemen.

Quarterbacks are still the unquestioned salary kings, getting the largest contracts in terms of total money, AAV, and annual percentage of the cap. This year’s top 15 earners in cap percentage are all QBs, per Spotrac, including Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Daniel Jones, and Derek Carr. 

Is Wilson worth 21.58% of the cap? Is Jones worth 17.79%? Hill makes 13.35% of Miami’s cap, the highest total for a receiver in 2023, and is vastly outperforming that total. Brown accounts for just over 11% of Philadelphia’s cap, though other wideouts making more than 11% of a team’s cap space in Davante Adams and Kupp are having relatively quiet seasons. However, both those players earned those contracts following elite productivity that led to depression playoff runs and for Kupp, a championship and a Super Bowl MVP.

Spotrac’s seemingly random sample of 104 players calculates their monetary value on the open market. While QBs take up the first six spots, seven of the subsequent 10 on the list are receivers. Four of those players — Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and CeeDee Lamb — are projected to deserve nine-figure contracts over the next few seasons.

As running backs become less valued in today’s game, the impact of game-changing, big play wide receivers will only grow. That’s good news for a crop of excellent young wideouts who could see huge paydays with their elite outputs. And it might just be time for these rising stars to start getting a bigger piece of the pie.

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About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.