The True Value of Elite Receivers

How important are elite wide receivers in the game of the NFL in a modern sense really? We know just from an entertainment perspective there is very little else that is more exciting than a jump ball with a receiver snatching the ball from the corner and then telling him about it afterwards. The question in hand though is how much do receivers really impact a winning team?

In today’s very pass happy football league, we see all of this top of the line receivers getting paid top dollar to be a valued asset to the team’s quarterback. Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton, Demariyus Thomas, and many more. Outside of QBs it’s hard to find a position that the fans love more than anything else and is a highly debated topic of who is better than who. Let’s be honest we love nothing more than seeing a QB throw into triple coverage only to see the star wideout come down with the ball. How much do they produce to a championship team is the real question.

We’re going to really look into every championship team since the Baltimore Ravens that won the Super Bowl in 2000 and see how much a top of the line receiver helped out the team. Let me classify exactly what I consider to be a top of the line WR is one that is getting paid the elite level money of the top WRs and is actively producing like one so the offense is obviously reliant upon them. The reason both of those are requirements is because it is to show that a WR playing at a truly elite level and actually paying them for it does not result in championships. Essentially, proving that paying for elite production from that position does or does not result in the team success that every team strives for. 

2000 Baltimore Ravens won the championship based off of their all time great defense and the rushing attack of Jamal Lewis. A formula that has shown to be successful many times throughout the year their best receiver was not even a wide receiver. Shannon Sharpe led the team in every receiving category and took up only 8% of the team’s cap that year. He was not a 1,000 yard receiver and was not getting paid like one.

The Patriots that won 3 championships in the span of 4 years did not have any receiver making elite receiver money and only one of the 3 championship teams even had a receiver that had over 1,000 yards. The biggest contract they gave to one of their premier receivers was a 5 year 2.93 million dollar contract to Deion Branch when he was a rookie. Needless to say they were not spending big bucks on the guys who get to celebrate in the endzone the most.

The Buccaneers in 2002, like the 2000 Ravens, had an all time great defense with an offense that relied upon Brad Johnson’s ability to be efficient with the ball. Keyshawn Johnson, who was the closest thing to a great receiver the Bucs had just eclipsed 1,000 yards and was currently on a contract that was a 6 year 15 million dollar contract. At that time he is roughly taking up 3% of the cap.

The Steelers who won in 2005 off the backs of the best defense in the league, had Hines Ward and was taking up 7.5% of the cap. Ward also just missed the 1,000 yard mark. but had 11 touchdowns on the season. He reaches the criteria of an elite receiver in production but he does not take up a large portion of the cap like many other elite receivers we see today. In 2006 Ward was still on the same contract when the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals.

In 2006 Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne were paid 14 and 15.1 million respectively. The salary cap in 2006 was set at 102 million dollars. That means the Colts used up 28.5% of their salary cap on just two receivers that year alone which is the only case that can be found in the last 16 years of receivers getting paid and contributing like top of the line receivers on a Super Bowl winning team. 13.7% of the cap went to Harrison and 14.8% of it went to Wayne alone. No other top receiving option for the 5 years prior to this had their top receiving option take up more than even 8% of the cap.

We start getting on a trend here after this one hiccup year though. Plaxico Burress on the 2007 Giants took up 3% of the cap, Colston in 2009 took up 1.9% of the Saints cap, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks took up 0.7% of the 2011 Giants cap together, and Anquan Boldin in 2012 took up 4.9%. Then the 2014 Patriots had Brandon Lafell, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski take up a total of 8.3% of the cap.

2016 is the only other year that we can point to that had a receiver getting paid and performing like a top of the line guy. Demariyus Thomas took up 10.4% of the cap while Emmanuel Sanders took in 3.3%. The flip side to it is that Denver as we all know struggled with QB play. Peyton Manning was showing his age and the defense had one of the greatest runs in history. The were ranked 19th in yards per play, but it did not matter the way they suffocated offenses.

The point being made here is that the way to win is not from the receiving position. There are a few instances, but overall guys who get paid like elite receivers and perform like ones do not win championships. Last year Julio Jones took up 15.4% of Atlanta’s cap, Dez Bryant took up 11.2% of Dallas’ cap,and  A.J. Green took up 18.7% of Cincinnati’s cap. The highest paid receivers in the NFL that are still active and altogether those guys have 1 playoff game last year out of the 3 of them.

Calvin Johnson, the man who owned the title of best receiver in the league for the majority of his career never won a single playoff game while being the highest paid receiver for much of his career. In fact in 2008 Calvin Johnson put up 1,331 receiving yards, 12, touchdowns, and 78 receptions. Wanna take a stab at what his team’s record was with those amazing numbers? 0-16.

A wide receiver can play at an extremely high level and his team go 0-16. Should you place such a large portion of your cap into something that can control so little? This is exactly why in situations like the Dallas Cowboys in 2014 I questioned their choice of retaining Dez Bryant over Demarco Murray. Demarco Murray was the spearhead of that offense and the team fell to pieces since he left, because they do not have a reliable RB to push the team down the field. Players who can control the movement of the ball just simply mean more than receivers do.

Teams all around need to stop paying these receivers this much money when it does not produce wins. In the teams with great defenses and quarterback play is what wins championships. The long deep routes are exciting in August, but come December and January these guys are not playing. Teams need to stop building from the outside-in, because as we can see here receivers that take up more than 10% of a team’s cap space rarely wins.

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