Why the NFL wide receiver market exploded in 2022 ... and who could benefit in 2023

Does the massive deal the Dolphins gave Tyreek Hill portend anything about future WR contracts? Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire

We believed the 2022 NFL offseason would be one of dramatic quarterback movement and it was. But what we didn't see coming was what happened to the wide receiver market.

Seemingly out of nowhere in March, while most of the NFL world thought franchise-tagged star Davante Adams and the Green Bay Packers were still working on a long-term deal, the news broke that Adams had been traded to the Las Vegas Raiders, who were giving him the type of long-term extension the Packers had been working to give him this time last year. The move sent shockwaves through the NFL, raising fresh questions about player empowerment in general and the effect on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (whose own "will he/won't he" drama had just mercifully concluded) specifically.

But the external reaction wasn't the half of it. Following the Adams move, NFL front offices began buzzing with news the Kansas City Chiefs were making Tyreek Hill available, the San Francisco 49ers' Deebo Samuel wanted a trade, the Tennessee Titans might have to trade A.J. Brown if they couldn't get him signed and the Seattle Seahawks' DK Metcalf could be on the move.

Some of that stuff was true -- the Chiefs traded Hill to the Miami Dolphins, and the Titans traded Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles. Some was not -- the Niners and Seahawks told interested teams Samuel and Metcalf were not being traded. But in the end, all four of those players, plus the Washington Commanders' Terry McLaurin, got the contract extensions they were seeking. The Los Angeles Rams extended Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp, even though he still had two years left on his contract. The Buffalo Bills extended Stefon Diggs before he even had a chance to express discontent with his place in the new wide receiver market.

Add in the extension the Carolina Panthers gave DJ Moore, and suddenly nine of the top 10 wide receiver contracts in terms of average annual salary were signed this offseason. In 2020, the average value of the top 20 wide receiver salaries was right around $17 million. In 2021, that number nudged up to around $17.5 million. A year later, it's $21.3 million.

Why? No other position made a jump like that this offseason. Not even quarterback, where growth at the top of the market continues to be steady if not dramatic. (Cleveland's fully guaranteed Hail Mary deal to get Deshaun Watson notwithstanding.)

"It's a passing league now, and nowadays you've got to have two dominant wide receivers on the team," said agent Tory Dandy, whose client list includes Brown, Samuel, Metcalf, the Los Angeles Chargers' Mike Williams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Chris Godwin and thus was smack in the middle of the whole salary explosion this offseason. "So I think, honestly, it's just become a premium position."

We talked to coaches, executives and agents around the league to try to figure out how wide receiver suddenly became a premium NFL position financially, what the driving factors were and, perhaps most importantly, what happens next. To start, though, we have to go back two years.