A revolution occurred in professional football at the turn of the century. The St. Louis Rams offense emerged as the Greatest Show on Turf and led the NFL in passing for three consecutive seasons.
The streak ended after the 2001 campaign. During that period, the Rams, who were led by Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, averaged 4,992 passing yards per season.
Twenty years later, nine different teams threw for 4,500 or more yards. Further comparison shows only two teams eclipsed 4,000 passing yards in 2001. Nearly half of the league passed that number last season.
Yes, the NFL is a passing league.
To take full advantage of how the game has been trending over the last two decades, teams need weapons on the outside. Those playmakers are now more valuable than ever as the league continues to evolve, and the influx of talent from the collegiate ranks creates more opportunities in the passing game.
Last season, all 32 teams had three or more wide receivers on the field for 65 percent of the snaps, according to Sharp Football’s Warren Sharp.
Let’s backtrack for a second. While Warner’s “American Underdog” story became the basis of a Hollywood film, his wide receivers shouldn’t be considered secondary characters. Isaac Bruce is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Torry Holt went on to become a seven-time Pro Bowl selection. Az-Zahir Hakim served as a deep threat. And Ricky Proehl played 17 seasons in the league. The talent found among this group helped to create a storybook ending.
Traditionally, NFL economics were built around the concept of four premium positions.
Quarterback, offensive tackle, pass-rusher and cornerback held the most value based in part on how they affected passing games. Wide receiver officially crashed the party this offseason as an avalanche of movement occurred at the position, which helped reset the market.
The Green Bay Packers traded the game’s best wide receiver, Davante Adams, to the Las Vegas Raiders, and he subsequently signed a record-setting $140 million contract. The Miami Dolphins acquired Tyreek Hill from the Kansas Chiefs and signed him to a $120 million deal. The Dallas Cowboys flipped Amari Cooper and his $100 million contract to the Cleveland Browns. The Tennessee Titans decided to trade A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles during draft weekend, and he then signed a new $100 million agreement.
Those are just the biggest moves of the offseason (so far).
Currently, 12 different wide receivers are under contract with average annual salaries of between $20-30 million. Nine of those deals were agreed upon within the last few months.
Only three offensive tackles are making $20 million per season. Only one has at least a $100 million deal compared to four at wide receiver. A similar financial trajectory has taken place at cornerback, where three players at the position make $20 million or more annually, with two claiming at least $100 million in total value.
Scarcity remains the biggest difference between the traditional premium spots and the upstart position.
Only 32 starting quarterbacks exist, and some argue the NFL can’t even find enough quality options to fill all of those spots. Only so many men are big enough, strong enough and athletic enough to protect a quarterback at a high level from left or right tackle. Cornerbacks are arguably the most athletically gifted players on a football field.
Meanwhile, anyone with enough length, flexibility, core strength and explosivity tends to find his way to the defensive front to harass opposing signal-callers.
Wide receiver is different. Various body types, speed levels and skill sets can thrive in today’s game. For example, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Mike Evans is 6’5″, 231 pounds, and one of the league’s best at working down the field and sideline, whereas the Las Vegas Raiders’ Hunter Renfrow is 5’10”, 185 pounds, and extremely slippery working out of the slot. Yet the two finished only three yards apart with last season’s production.
Therein lies the value of being elite in a specific role.
Defenses are adept at keying in on specific talents in order to take them out of the equation or adjusting to make sure a player or a concept won’t repeatedly beat them. When a team has wide receivers with complementary skill sets, the position is far more difficult to defend. An opponent can’t consistently roll coverage toward one player or bracket one option.
Aside from Adams, there’s not a wide receiver who consistently takes over games with little to no help from his fellow targets.
It’s important not to have the same types of weapons. An “X” receiver, “Y” receiver and those working in the slot typically have different body types and abilities, much like the starting five on a basketball court.
On the gridiron, a squad should want a taller target, a vertical threat and someone with the quickness to quickly separate while working from the slot. Not everyone runs the routes the same way or has similar ways to win against tight coverage.
Those differences often lead to cohesion and greater effectiveness within the offensive scheme.
The NFL’s Top Five WR Corps
The league’s best wide receiver corps have players with varied skill sets as well as plenty of depth.
It’s not just about the top individual wide receivers. That’s why it became necessary to exclude the likes of the Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Chargers and New Orleans Saints, though all three were strongly considered.
The five best wide receiver corps for the 2022 season are filled with high-end producers, significant potential and plenty of quality options.
5. Miami Dolphins (Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Cedrick Wilson Jr., Erik Ezukanma, Lynn Bowden Jr.)
The Dolphins paid an exorbitant amount to acquire Hill, sending a first-round pick, a second-round selection, two fourth-rounders and a sixth-rounder to the Kansas City Chiefs, but his on-field performance could be well worth it. The 28-year-old wideout is the game’s premier deep threat and the league’s most explosive target.
Jaylen Waddle broke the rookie record last season with 104 receptions. Cedrick Wilson Jr. set career highs in 2021 with 45 receptions for 602 yards with the Dallas Cowboys. All three present inside-out versatility. The Dolphins also added Erik Ezukanma, who is a 6’2″, 206-pound target, in this year’s fourth round.
4. Las Vegas Raiders (Davante Adams, Hunter Renfrow, Demarcus Robinson, Keelan Cole, Mack Hollins)
Since Adams became the focal point of a passing attack in 2017, he hasn’t had a teammate manage more than 690 receiving yards. During that same span, Adams went to five Pro Bowls and averaged 101 catches, 1,239 yards and 11 touchdowns per season. Defenses knew exactly where the ball was going to go and still couldn’t do anything about it.
Now Adams is part of the Raiders, and he’ll have a little more help than he’s accustomed to. Renfrow was one of 10 receivers last season with more than 100 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards. In March, Adams praised Renfrow, telling reporters, “He might be able to teach me a few things.”
Neither Demarcus Robinson nor Keelan Cole is a stronger third or fourth option compared to some of the other depth found on this list, but both are established veterans capable of 400-plus-yard efforts.
3. Los Angeles Rams (Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson, Van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek, Tutu Atwell)
Cooper Kupp is coming off the single greatest season a wide receiver ever produced with 178 receptions for 2,425 yards and 22 touchdowns through the regular season into the playoffs and on his way to being named the Super Bowl LVI MVP. His contributions from the slot and as a blocker are vital to the offense’s success.
Last season, the Rams had Robert Woods and Odell Beckham Jr. on the roster, but injuries affected their playing time. Neither is currently with the team.
The Rams did sign Allen Robinson to a three-year, $46.5 million free-agent deal. The 28-year Robinson excels at contested catches down the sideline and already has three 1,000-yard campaigns. Van Jefferson posted an 802-yard campaign last season. Ben Skowronek is a 6’3″ target, and Tutu Atwell, whom the team drafted in last year’s second round, presents 4.32-second 40-yard-dash speed if he can crack the rotation in 2022.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage, Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman)
If ranking the best wide receiver corps were based purely on depth, the Buccaneers would run away with the title. Obviously, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are elite targets. Evans set an NFL record with eight 1,000-yard campaigns to start his career. Godwin is less than three years removed from finishing among the top three in receiving yardage. Injuries, including a torn ACL last year, derailed his last two campaigns.
General manager Jason Licht wasn’t content with his options on the roster and signed Russell Gage to three-year, $30 million free-agent contract after he posted back-to-back seasons with at least 66 receptions and 770 yards. Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman, Scotty Miller and Jaelon Darden could make the Week 1 roster.
The team even signed the top two leading receivers at the FBS level in Jerreth Sterns and Deven Thompkins as undrafted free agents.
1. Cincinnati Bengals (Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Mike Thomas, Trent Taylor)
The Cincinnati Bengals organization found itself at a crossroads last offseason. The team could have gone with either the top offensive lineman to properly protect quarterback Joe Burrow or select the best wide receiver prospect in the draft class. The franchise chose the latter path and benefitted greatly.
Ja’Marr Chase is special. The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year grabbed a league-high 10 touchdown receptions of 15 or more yards last season. The “X” receiver has yet to fully mature as a route-runner.
“Last year I was just out there running routes, having fun again,” Chase said in May, per Jay Morrison of The Athletic. “Now I’ve got all the small details down, like learning how to set people up before the next route. And I feel more comfortable with the offense.”
Chase isn’t the only reason why the Bengals are so dangerous. Tee Higgins is a massive 6’4″ target who’s coming off his first 1,000-yard campaign. Tyler Boyd is one of the game’s elite slot receivers, and he has two previous 1,000-yard seasons. That’s three 1,000-yard receivers on one roster who have the potential to be the team’s leading pass-catcher on any given Sunday (or Monday or Thursday).
Unsurprisingly, every team counted among the top five either traded for an elite target, signed one to massive contract extension and/or sunk a top-10 pick into the position.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.
The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.
The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.