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Wide receivers’ stock has risen. This NFL draft could show how high.

Kentucky's Wan'Dale Robinson played all over the field in high school before realizing wide receiver was the way to go. (TSEG/Photo courtesy of TSEG)
7 min

In high school, Wan’Dale Robinson played nearly every position: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker, safety, returner. At Nebraska, he narrowed his focus to running back and wide receiver. But in 2021, when he decided to transfer, he had one goal: wideout — full time.

Robinson, at 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds, knew it was his most likely path to the NFL. He chose Kentucky, his home state’s flagship school, in large part because he knew the Wildcats would throw the ball a lot. In one season in Lexington, he caught 104 passes for 1,334 yards — both school records — and seven touchdowns. He only carried the ball seven times. He was a rising star at a position that was, at the next level, rising in its own right.

With offenses throwing more than ever and defenses scheming to stop receivers deep, gaining yards after the catch has become crucial to a wide receiver’s productivity and has sent the stock of those who do it well skyrocketing. Teams have acknowledged it this offseason by doling out big deals to even No. 2 receivers, such as Mike Williams of the Los Angeles Chargers (three years, $60 million) and Christian Kirk of the Jacksonville Jaguars (four years, $72 million).

“You know the value a receiver has now,” a smiling Robinson said of the flurry of offseason activity. If he also was imagining what the recent moves meant for his future earning potential, he restrained himself. “For me, at the end of the day, I just want to go in and help whatever team I’m a part of.”

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Yet as the demand for good wide receivers increases, so does the supply. It forces general managers around the NFL to confront a difficult question: Should they eat into their salary cap to pay their No. 1 receiver or try to find a cheaper option in the draft?

This offseason, Green Bay (Davante Adams) and Kansas City (Tyreek Hill) traded star wideouts without a safety net, while Buffalo gave its standout (Stefon Diggs) a new, top-of-market contract. The question will test the roster-builders with star wide receivers drafted outside the first round in 2019, including those with Washington (Terry McLaurin), San Francisco (Deebo Samuel) and Tennessee (A.J. Brown), all three of whom said they would not participate in on-field offseason drills without new deals.

Jason Fitzgerald of NFL salary database said he didn’t see the booming wide receiver market as a one-year blip. In fact, he said, more talented wideouts — including Seattle’s DK Metcalf and Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson — will get paid over the next few years and should solidify the top of the market closer to $25 million (Hill, Adams) than $20 million, where it once was.

“There’s just going to be too many players making above a certain number to where I don’t think teams are really going to be able to argue that these [big-money] deals are outliers anymore,” Fitzgerald said.

This is the era of the $30-million-a-year wideout. We’ll see whether it lasts.

Mark Dominik, a former NFL general manager who is a host for SiriusXM NFL Radio, saw a few other factors in the boost in wide receiver contracts — an increase in quarterback contracts, a rising salary cap — and he linked the trades of Hill and Adams to the growing power of stars leaguewide. He said all of these factors make it even more difficult to know what to do as a GM.

“You can … draft a receiver in the first and fourth rounds, and you might be able to clean your room up pretty good,” he said. “But having that for sure, [having] a go-to guy, is such a comfort for the quarterback and for the organization that you can convince yourself to make sure you keep him.”

For Robinson, the Kentucky wide receiver expected by most experts to be drafted in the third or fourth round, the demand for wide receivers has been welcome news, especially for a player who excels at yards after the catch as much as he does (5.7 per catch last season). He said he once worried about his slight frame and lack of receiver experience, but after San Francisco used Samuel as a dual threat in the playoffs, he highlighted his versatility for teams during his pre-draft visits as a way to stand out.

In the past few years, wide receiver classes have gotten significantly deeper. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah attributed the consistent depth to the popularization of seven-on-seven competition and spread offenses.

“You go to college and every team is playing with four and five wideouts, so that’s just the numbers game,” he said. “There’s never going to be a year where I think we go, ‘Man, this is a little light on wideouts.’ Every year, it’s just deep and deep and deep.”

The data suggests teams are seeing that and taking shots earlier and more often. In 2020 and 2021, there were 23 wide receivers drafted in the first two rounds, the most in a two-year span since at least 2000, according to Pro Football Reference.

Agent Adisa Bakari, who represents Robinson and Diggs, said the pass-heavy modern game has shuffled the order of position allocation boards across the league (while, of course, leaving quarterback at the top). In the past, teams paid, in a general order, at quarterback, left tackle, edge rusher, wide receiver and cornerback. Now, Bakari said, after quarterbacks and edge rushers in the first two tiers, it’s a battle among left tackle, wide receiver and cornerback — and the ability of a wideout to improve a quarterback has increased.

After some of the No. 2 receiver contracts surpassed Diggs’s deal this offseason, the Bills ripped up his old contract with two years remaining and negotiated a new one. Diggs signed a four-year deal worth $96 million, making him the fourth-highest-paid wideout by average value ($24 million).

The deal felt like a nexus of several trends, including the shifting market and the growing power of players. Bakari credited Bills GM Brandon Beane and the Pegulas, who own the team, for recognizing that.

“[They could have said], ‘We could stick it to the kid because contractually we got him for two years,’ ” Bakari said. “But how does that help us win? How does having a disgruntled player, who’s one of the best at his position and certainly a part of the fuel to our success, … help us win? They had the right presence of mind, in my opinion, and forethought to say, ‘We’re going to get this done, and we’re going to get this done correctly.’ ”

For Robinson, the idea of such life-changing money is too far away to fathom. He has been studying different wide receivers — the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp and Arizona’s Rondale Moore, a friend from back home — with the goal of not just making the NFL but sticking in it. He’ll learn this week whether the choice he made not long ago, to embrace the position full time, will pay off.

Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this report.

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