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A Brief History of the NFL's Highest-Paid Non-QBs

In a twist to the NFL’s ever-exploding wide receiver market, the Minnesota Vikings made wide receiver Justin Jefferson the highest-paid non-quarterback in league history.  Anyone could have seen it coming.  Former quarterback Kirk Cousins waved goodbye to frosty Minneapolis and opted for sunny Atlanta, leaving the Vikings with tons of cap space which they promptly gifted to Jefferson instead.  Now armed with a rookie passer, the Vikings are inverting the traditional NFL model: get the receiver first, then fix your QB problem.

As far as plans go, it’s not half bad.  Cousins is no spring chicken, and coming off an Achilles tear, he’s not the healthiest chicken either.  And with J.J. McCarthy in the fold after the Vikings made him the 10th pick in the draft, the Vikings have made their new rookie’s transition a dream as he’ll get to hone his skills while throwing to one of the most spectacular receivers in recent memory.  Jefferson is the kind of player that makes you question everything you know about sports: he isn’t that big, and he isn’t a crazy athlete, but if you need a player to come down with a big catch with a defender draped all over him, it’s hard to think of a better option than Jefferson.

Of course, if you live in Cincinnati (or root for the Bengals), you might be inclined to say that Ja’Marr Chase is the right player for that particular job, and I wouldn’t disagree.  They’re both dominant players, but they do it in different ways.  What won’t be different, however, is how they’ll be paid.

If you need a starting point for Chase’s pending extension, look no further: the four-year, $140 million deal the Vikings just gave Jefferson is the model.  Will Chase exceed Jefferson’s deal?  Not likely.  If anything, it might be a tad lower.  But make no mistake, Chase will be made a very happy man in the near future – the Bengals would be crazy not to.

That’s because, like Jefferson, Chase is an elite, do-it-all receiver with the rare ability to completely dictate coverages because of his singularity on offense.  Those guys get paid.  The recent history of the highest-paid non-QBs in the league is filled with receivers and edge defenders…

**AAV is the average annual value of a long-term contract **

  • 06/2024 - Present – WR Justin Jefferson (4 years, $140 million extension; $35 million AAV)

  • 09/2023 - 06/2024 – DE Nick Bosa (5 years, $170 million extension; $34 million AAV)

  • 06/2022 - 09/2023 – DT Aaron Donald (3 years, $95 million extension; $31.7 million AAV)

  • 03/2022 - 06/2022 – WR Tyreek Hill (4 years, $120 million extension; $30 million AAV)

  • 09/2021 - 03/2022 – OLB T.J. Watt (4 years, $112 million; $28 million AAV)

  • 08/2020 - 09/2021 – WR DeAndre Hopkins (2 years, $55 million extension; $27.5 AAV)

  • 07/2020 - 08/2020 – DE Joey Bosa (5 years, $135 million extension; $27 million AAV)

  • 09/2018 - 07/2020 – DE Khalil Mack (6 years, $141 million; $23.5 million AAV)

…And then there’s Aaron Donald.

What’s striking about this list is how rapidly the title-belt changes hands.  Nick Bosa held his spot for all of ten months.  T.J. Watt held his for seven.  Tyreek Hill got three measly months.  In fact, since 2021, there have been five different players who could claim to be the NFL’s highest-paid non-QB.

That’s a product of the steadily-increasing cap.  What looks like a back-breaker could be more than palatable in three or four years.  By the time 2027 rolls around, the one thing we can predict with absolute certainty is that Jefferson won’t be the highest-paid non-QB in the league, and it’s possible he might not even be the highest-paid receiver in the league by then.  That’s how quickly things change in the NFL.

What’s also striking is how big receiver deals are getting.  DeAndre Hopkins used to be the NFL’s highest-paid non-QB at $27.5 million AAV, but less than four years after he signed his record-breaking extension, Jefferson inked his deal at $7.5 million more per year.  At that rate, we could see our first $40 million receiver before the end of the decade.  As a matter of fact, I’d bet on it.

It’s remarkable how far receivers have come.  Back in 2012, the Detroit Lions made Calvin Johnson the highest-paid non-QB at $16.1 million AAV.  Jefferson will make more than twice that in 2024.  Even crazier: when Johnson signed his extension, there were only two other receivers in the league (Larry Fitzgerald and Vincent Jackson) making more than $10 million per year.  Today, there are four making $30 million plus.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: it’s good to be a receiver these days.  Better than the stock market!

The last interesting detail about the above list is how, the further back you go, the less appealing those deals look.  Both Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack had to restructure their contracts this offseason to remain with the Los Angeles Chargers, while DeAndre Hopkins has declined to the point where he’s rarely mentioned amongst the best receivers in the league anymore.  But if recency bias has any merit, the league seems to have solved those issues.

Watt remains one of the most disruptive defenders in the league, and Bosa the Younger is entering that conversation too.  Hill is the most explosive offensive player in the league by multiple football fields.  Donald, obviously, needs no introduction as one of the greatest defenders of all time.  Does Jefferson belong in that group?  Absolutely.

So, go ahead, admire Jefferson’s new deal.  He certainly earned it, and it’s definitely something to behold.  But don’t get caught staring too long – otherwise, you might miss the NFL’s next mega-deal coming.  The clock is already ticking.

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