One of the most frustrating moves from the Dallas Cowboys this offseason was trading away Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns for a measly fifth-round draft pick. Of course, this trade wasn’t about the draft pick the Cowboys received in return but rather getting Cooper’s $20 million base salary off the books. The team now has a quarterback making $40 million annually on average and that can be a little stressful on the cap, so it becomes very important to spend money wisely.
While the Cowboys have been criticized for not finding ways to “keep’em all”, it’s worth mentioning that most teams in the NFL handle things in a similar fashion. Teams with a great quarterback and a great wide receiver come to a crossroads when it’s eventually time to pay them both. And that means organizations are forced to make a tough decision, pay the quarterback or pay the receiver? Considering the demand for a quality quarterback is a top priority, that means star receivers who command big contracts could be moved to create more financial flexibility. That sentiment has never been more true than this past offseason when two of the league’s top receivers were traded away. In fact, take a look at the league’s three most expensive wide receivers and how they are no longer with the team that drafted them.
Tyreek Hill, $30 million AAV (highest paid WR in the league)
Hill has been one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL since entering the league in 2016. A fifth-round steal, “Cheetah” has earned Pro Bowl honors in all six seasons he’s been in the league where he’s averaged over 1,000 yards and over nine touchdowns a year in that span. He had 15 touchdown catches in 2020 and is coming off a career-high 111 receptions last season. Hill is showing no sign of slowing down. Why would the Chiefs let him get away?
It might have something to do with that 10-year, $450 million contract Kansas City gave Patrick Mahomes a couple of years ago. The Chiefs' star quarterback has a cap hit of $36.8 million this year (second-highest in the league) and that number will go up to $46.8 million next year. So, instead of Hill flying around, the team will have to rely on the services of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mecole Hardman, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
Davante Adams, $28 million AAV (second-highest paid WR)
If you don’t think Hill is the best wide receiver in the league, it might be because you think Adams is. Similar to Hill, Adams has also averaged over 1,000 yards receiving and over nine touchdowns per year. He’s not the blazer that Hill is, but Adams has established himself as one of the top possession receivers in the league. His size allows him to win 50/50 balls regularly. Honestly, Adams can do it all and is coming off one of his best seasons as a pro where he had a career high in receptions (123) and yards (1,553).
Adams is an extreme talent, but his services don’t come cheap, and neither does that of Aaron Rodgers, who Green Bay just made the highest-paid quarterback in the league at an AAV of over $50 million per year. The Packers are hoping that talented arm is so good that a receiving core like Allen Lizard, Christian Watkins, and Sammy Watkins will suffice.
DeAndre Hopkins, $28.3 million AAV (third-highest paid WR)
What the Houston Texans got in return for Hopkins (they got RB David Johnson and a second- and fourth-round draft pick) wasn’t nearly equivalent to Hopkins’ value as a player. But like the Cooper trade, it wasn’t about what they could get in return, but rather all about the money.
At the time, the Texans were preparing to sign then quarterback Deshaun Watson to a pricy extension. Watson had a big year in 2020 but never saw the field last year as there have been numerous sexual assault allegations made against him. The Texans managed to move away from him, scoring three first-round picks from the Cleveland Browns, who turned around and extended his contract by giving him the most guaranteed money in NFL history.
The Arizona Cardinals did just sign Kyler Murray to a five-year, $250 million deal making him the second-highest paid quarterback in the NFL; however, the cap hits for the first the next two years are low. Come 2024, that hit jumps all the way to over $50 million, but by then they might have other plans for Hopkins.
Looking across the league, this pattern exists more than we might realize. The quarterback with the largest cap hit for the 2022 season is Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill ($38.6 million). His price will continue to go up, which could be why the Titans traded away A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles when he was in the last year of his rookie deal. The Eagles have since re-signed Brown to a four-year, $100 million extension. Philly has a quarterback who is only halfway through his very cheap rookie deal.
Minnesota is another team that made a similar move. Kirk Cousins continues to be a huge burden to his team’s cap, and the Vikings traded away star receiver Stefon Diggs to Buffalo, who at the time still had quarterback Josh Allen with two years left on his rookie deal. The Vikings came out okay though as they received a first-round draft pick in return to select Justin Jefferson who has emerged as one of the best young receivers in the NFL.
Having a lot of money tied up in both the quarterback and wide receiver positions just isn’t something teams can pull off, unless you’re either the Los Angeles Rams who are mortgaging their future for great things right now or the Cleveland Browns who always seem to make all the wrong moves.
We can be upset at the Cowboys for parting ways with Cooper or we can be satisfied that they have really good alternative choices in CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. We might seem a little worried about the weapons around Dak Prescott with Cooper gone, but he has a lot more quality targets than many of these other high-priced quarterbacks. This becomes especially true if Lamb becomes one of the premier receivers in the league. The Cowboys signed Cooper to a big deal a couple of years ago, but that was before Lamb fell into their lap during the 2020 NFL Draft. They could have addressed a different position considering how strong their WR group was, but they drafted pure and that turned out to be huge. And Gallup’s $11.5 million AAV (ranks 26th in the league) could be one of the better bangs-for-your-buck second-contract wide receiver investments in the league. How this all plays out is still unknown, but we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the Cowboys may have found a way to have the best of both worlds.