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The Renaissance of the Wide Receiver

Having dynamic playmakers on the outside has never been more important in the NFL, a sign of the ever-evolving nature of offenses and the game as a whole

In the NFL, there are often shifts that happen with positions. For many years, the tight end position was a glorified offensive lineman. The fullback was a staple in every offense for decades, only for the position to be essentially extinct in today’s NFL. Quarterbacks were supposed to be statues in the pocket, dissecting the play and throwing the ball deep. These days, quarterbacks are expected to have a rushing element to keep plays alive and make things happen with their feet and arms. Change and evolution are inevitable in this sport. This change has come for the wide receiver position in today’s NFL. Where in the last decade the thought has been that an elite wide receiver is unnecessary, it can be argued that a playmaker at the position is the second most important position in a league that values offense and scoring points more than it ever has before.

The Exploding Contract

This off-season we saw multiple big-name receivers get massive new contracts, some with new teams. Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill signed deals with new organizations this year instantly making those offenses more dynamic on paper. Deebo Samuel re-signed with the 49ers solidifying the services of one of the most versatile offensive weapons in football. The Vikings seem like a team on the rise, and this is due to the breakout nature of Justin Jefferson, a similar dynamic that we saw take place in Cinncinati with Ja’Marr Chase last season. These are players that define what their offenses are trying to do, they are the centerpieces of the attack. So it only makes sense that they are compensated well for their efforts.

The NFL has always been a league of haves vs have-nots. And these days it is simple if you do not have a good quarterback and an electric receiver that can make things happen in the open field, then you are not a very good franchise. Consider a few teams this year that are projected to be struggling to compete. The New England Patriots, once the gold standard for success now find themselves in a situation with a young quarterback in Mac Jones that feels limited and has no dynamic playmaker at the wide receiver position to aid in his development.

When you look at the team that Davante Adams just left, the Green Bay Packers you find an elite quarterback in Aaron Rodgers without a reliable target. The result? Only scoring seven points against Minnesota this week while on the other sideline Justin Jefferson turned in a career day in the win. Having weapons at the wide receiver position is no longer merely a luxury in the NFL, it is a necessity for winning. So when people balked at the contracts that these players are receiving I found it odd because an elite receiver will unlock a quarterback’s potential and lead to winning, so why wouldn’t you want to pay top dollar to the best of the best at such an important position?

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An Evolving Game

I grew up a fan of the New York Giants, and I distinctly remember the moment that I got into the team. It was in the year 2000 when the team drafted Ron Dayne, the Heisman-winning running back from Wisconsin. Dayne was a powerful runner, a bruising back that doled out punishment to linebackers in the Big Ten on his way to setting numerous records. He was going to be paired with elusive running back Tiki Barber to form a “thunder and lightning” backfield. As a 13-year-old kid, I was enamored by this and was hooked on the team immediately. This was an era where a dominant running game was a must for success in the NFL.

This has been the case throughout the history of the game, up until very recently. In the last decade, very few Super Bowl teams have had an elite running back at the helm. The Seahawks come to mind with Marshawn Lynch, as do the 2013 Ravens and 49ers with Ray Rice and Frank Gore. But more often than not, the story of these Super Bowl teams has been the quarterbacks and receivers. Players in recent years such as Cooper Kupp, Mike Evans, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and so on.

The reality is that the old 1990s Dallas Cowboys' method of having the elite running back, dynamic receiver, and reliable quarterback is now a relic of the past. For most teams, it is having a variety of options at wide receiver headlined by a dynamic playmaker with an equally dynamic quarterback to get him the ball in space. Look at last year's Super Bowl as a prime example of this. The runners-up Cinncinati Bengals have a franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow, with a game-breaker receiver in Ja’Marr Chase and reliable targets like Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins that can make players miss in space. The eventual Super Bowl champion Rams have a veteran quarterback with amazing arm talent in Matthew Stafford. Surrounding him the team has all-world receiver Cooper Kupp with a dynamic playmaker in Odell Beckham Jr and a reliable third receiver in Van Jefferson.

To put it plainly, much of what made a primary running back so important in the past has now been tasked to most wide receivers. Where in the past offenses set up the running game to open up the pass, now teams use the short passing game with bubble screens and quick outs to open lanes for running backs. In essence, it has become a role reversal where the priority is now to make sure that the franchise quarterback has an elite wide receiver after they have the quarterback. This is why people are confident in the outlook of the Miami Dolphins this season as opposed to the outlook of the New England Patriots. The difference is easy to understand, the Dolphins have Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle and the Patriots do not.

The New Breed

With this increasing emphasis on the wide receiver position, the position itself has had to change. NFL offenses now are predicated on a high-volume passing attack that often starts with many short passes to set up the longer plays down the field. This means that wide receivers need to have the versatility to do both jobs. Elite receivers today have the hands and route running ability to operate in tight spaces on short routes but must also have the athletic ability to create separation downfield to make big plays.

This needed evolution means that it is not good enough to be a big physical receiver that can only run a fly pattern, just as it is not good enough to only be useful as a slot receiver running quick slants. These days, the bar is set at the skillset of Justin Jefferson, Davante Adams, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tyreek Hill. These are players that have the versatility to build an offense around. And this is not going to change any time soon.

If we look at the high school and college games, the best athletes and players are choosing to play two positions: quarterback and wide receiver. The cream of the crop is interested in positions that pay well at the professional level and require the least amount of hits, which is understandable. And as long as the elite talent plays wide receiver they will continue to be one of the most important positions in football.

In my view, there are 4 important must-have positions in football in 2022: quarterback (someone to move the ball downfield), wide receiver (someone to make plays when the ball is delivered), left tackle (someone to give the quarterback time to deliver the ball), and edge rusher (someone to stop the quarterback). The question becomes how do you rank them? What these elite wide receivers are showing us so far this season is that are we so sure that having an elite wide receiver isn’t higher on the priority list? They are making a very compelling case for that argument.

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