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DK Metcalf, Deebo Samuel, and the Next Generation of Wide Receiver Contracts

In a time of unprecedented guaranteed money, why did several top receivers sign for two or three years rather than four or five? Let’s explore the forces shaping the NFL wideout market.

When the NFL salary cap jumped by $25.7 million ahead of the 2022 season, the wide receiver salary market surged right along with it. Star wideouts like Tyreek Hill (Dolphins), Davante Adams (Raiders), and Cooper Kupp (Rams) reset the market in terms of total value, total guaranteed money, and average annual value. For their part, AJ Brown (Philadelphia) and Stefon Diggs (Buffalo) cashed in with four-year deals of their own.

The expectation for teams that spent big on each of these five players is simple: playoffs or bust.

Meanwhile, wide receivers DK Metcalf (Seattle), Deebo Samuel (San Francisco), Diontae Johnson (Pittsburgh), DJ Moore (Carolina), and Terry McLaurin (Washington) specifically did not sign four- or five-year deals; four of these young wideouts opted for three years, while Johnson extended himself for just two.

The reason for this isn’t so baffling, however — each of their teams faces a level of uncertainty regarding their spending future, and with the salary cap jumping higher and higher as revenue from the league’s new broadcast and streaming deal pours in, it was arguably in the very best interest of the receivers to secure solid now, but reserve the flexibility to jump back into the free agency pool sooner rather than later.

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Before we go deeper, let’s take a look at the details of these five wide receiver contracts:

  • DK Metcalf (Seahawks): 3 years, $72 million // $58.2 million guaranteed
    • Can opt out one year early following the 2024 season
  • Deebo Samuel (49ers): 3 years, $71.5M // $58.1M gtd.
    • Can opt out one year early following the 2024 season
  • DJ Moore (Panthers): 3 years, $61.8M // $41.6M gtd.
    • Can opt out two years early following the 2023 season
  • Terry McLaurin (Commanders): 3 years, $68.3M // $53.1M gtd. 
    • Can opt out one year early following the 2024 season
  • Diontae Johnson (Steelers): 2 years, $36M // $27M gtd.
    • Can opt out two years early following the 2022 season

With the exception of Samuel’s 49ers, a fan could argue that the teams on this list are trending downward. San Francisco is an interesting case study due to rising sophomore quarterback Trey Lance ; the Bay Area boys have high hopes that the former North Dakota State signal-caller will be their franchise QB for years to come. Their belief is so deep, in fact, that Jimmy Garoppolo — who is in the last year of a five-year, $137.5 million contract and set to make a hefty $25.6 million this year — is being sidelined. 

If Lance is indeed the next big thing, Samuel is in good shape (and in any event, the game-breaking “wide back” has 81% of the total value of his contract guaranteed). Still, he has the opportunity to re-enter free agency at 28 years old if the franchise isn’t going in the sort of direction he desires.

It may very well be that in one or two short years, Davante Adams (five years, can’t optout before age 32 season) and Tyreek Hill (four years, can’t opt out before age 31 season) might be jealous of the sheer flexibility this younger pack of playmakers has baked into their active pacts.

Deebo Samuel contract and salary breakdown, via Spotrac

Taking a look at Metcalf, Moore, McLaurin, and Johnson, it’s notable that each of their teams is likewise dealing with some uncertainty at quarterback, but without the bullish outlook the 49ers have:

  • Metcalf and the Seahawks saw Russell Wilson traded out of from Seattle, leaving Geno Smith and Drew Lock in a quarterback battle. Smith went 1-2 as a starter last year, while Lock was 0-3. 
  • DJ Moore’s Panthers have opted for new arrival Baker Mayfield in Week 1, who edged out Sam Darnold. Both quarterbacks ranked in the bottom five in QB rating last year.
  • McLaurin’s Commanders will likely be starting Carson Wentz after acquiring him from the Colts. Wentz ranked ninth in quarterback rating in 2021, but lost a late-season game to the lowly Jaguars that cost Indy a playoff trip. 
  • Diontae Johnson and the Steelers saw Ben Roethlisburger retire, which means the likes of Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, and rookie Kenny Pickett are left to battle it out. Trubisky barely played for the Bills last year, while Rudolph sat behind Big Ben.

It’s notable that each of these receivers was scheduled to enter restricted free agency coming off their rookie deals following the 2022 season. Playing on a contract year is risky — betting that hard on oneself can mean a windfall, but a serious injury can strike at any time, such as we saw with Odell Beckham Jr. in the Super Bowl with the Rams. Opting for a shorter extension is another sort of self-bet, but one that sidesteps some key uncertainty for a player nearing the end of his rookie contract.

Yes, the idea of a wide receiver (or any other player) betting on himself isn’t new, but we’re witnessing an escalation of the NFL salary cap that is historic in nature, particularly following the dip brought about by COVID shortfalls in 2020. It’s all served to create unique opportunities on the salary market that have played out across the wideout position in unprecedented fashion.

Whether these investments truly change the fortunes of the teams involved in the form of a Super Bowl run is anything but certain; it’s worth noting that the Rams (Cooper Kupp) and Bengals (Ja’Marr Chase) both made it to the big game last season with No. 1 wideouts making well below their “real” market value. But what we do know for sure is that this new wave of wide receiver contracts is both getting guys paid and handing them flexibility with regards to entering and re-entering free agency like never before.

Hill, Adams, and Kupp have set the economic pace in their late 20s and early 30s, but the next generation is already rising — and fast. By the time Metcalf, McLaurin, Moore, Johnson, and Samuel decide to become free agents, we might just look at Kupp’s three years and $80 million as an absolute team-friendly steal by comparison.

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