Of the Top 20 wide receivers in 2013, in terms of yards, 10 were playing on their rookie contracts. That includes Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, who in his second year led all receivers with 1,646 yards. Half of the league’s Top 20 wide receivers in touchdowns were also still in their rookie deals, including Bryant at number two and the league leader, Denver’s Demaryius Thomas.
And these young receivers are not necessarily premium draftees. Cincinnati’s Marvin Jones was a 5th round pick in 2012, and last year made the NFL’s top 10 in touchdown catches with 10. Keenan Allen was a 3rd round pick for the San Diego Chargers in 2013, and posted over 1,000 yards his rookie season.
Wide receiver appears to be a position in which young players on modest rookie deals can contribute big numbers. Perhaps this is what’s meant by the phrase “build through the draft:” Identify positions in which younger players can contribute, and resolve to churn those roster spots every four or five years.
Only two of the league’s 10 highest-paid receivers were on 2013 playoff teams, and it could be argued neither of those players was a difference maker. Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe is the top outside target in a run-first offense where Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles led the team in receptions and receiving yards; Seattle’s Percy Harvin spent most of 2013 injured, playing in one game and logging just one catch. Both the Chiefs and Seahawks made the playoffs with dominant defenses, as opposed to fearsome aerial attacks fueled by high-priced wide receivers.
Perhaps that’s the lesson – that team’s aren’t making the playoffs by overpaying wide receivers. Thomas in Denver and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, arguably the two best receivers in the 2013 playoff field, were both on rookie contracts.
Dez Bryant is an elite NFL talent, so he’s not exactly replaceable. The Cowboys can’t hope to let him go, and find another receiver in the draft to fill his shoes. What they can do is find another receiver to replace a portion of his production, AND upgrade at safety. Or linebacker. Or guard. Or any number of positions along the defensive line. They can be somewhat weaker at the wide receiver position, but stronger overall as a team.
A contract in excess of $60 million for Bryant means the Cowboys will retain one of the league’s best receivers, and some other area of the roster will go neglected for years to come. Miles Austin is a cautionary tale; Terrance Williams is a pep talk. It will be interesting to see if the decision makers at Valley Ranch are listening.