San Francisco wide receiver Deebo Samuel last week added yet another storyline to the wildest offseason in recent NFL history. After an All-Pro campaign, the 26-year-old superstar responded to an extension offer from the 49ers by requesting a trade. In another offseason, this might be the biggest story of the month. This year, it feels like more of a surprise that anybody would want to stay with his current team.
Naturally, after seeing Davante Adams (Raiders) and Tyreek Hill (Dolphins) get traded before Samuel made his own request, I started wondering about Samuel’s classmates from the 2019 draft. One of the best wideout classes in recent memory is about to hit free agency, as the only first-rounders in the group who would qualify for a fifth-year option are Marquise Brown and N’Keal Harry. Some of the league’s best young wideouts — including Samuel, A.J. Brown (Titans) and Terry McLaurin (Commanders) — are eligible for extensions this offseason.
And like Samuel, it’s unclear whether those wide receivers will stick around. The wideout market made a huge leap this offseason, with Adams and Hill raising the bar at the top north of $24 million per season in real money. Christian Kirk, who would be a step below many of the wideouts I’m about to discuss, is averaging $18.8 million over the first three years of his free-agent deal with the Jaguars. A couple of years ago, $20 million was the ceiling for wideouts; now, it might be the floor for the best young wide receivers.
There are some teams that think their money is better spent elsewhere. After franchises were mostly burned by their first-round picks at wideout from 2015 to 2017, we’ve seen wideouts excel on their rookie deals over the past few seasons. Five were drafted in the first round a year ago, when 15 of the first 91 picks came at the position. This year, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have 18 wideouts coming off the board in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. As the top of the market gets more expensive, rookies will become even bigger bargains.
With that in mind, I sorted through the eight most prominent wide receivers from the 2019 class and broke down who I’d want to invest in over the next several seasons, ranking them from 1 to 8. My picks were based on how I think each player would perform if he were surrounded with average teammates in an average offense as opposed to how he might perform based in his current offense, given that we have no idea where anybody is going to end up in the modern NFL.
I also gave my best guess for what will happen to each of them as they reach the end of their current deals. Let’s start with the top of the 2019 class:
Pick in 2019 draft: No. 51
Brown hasn’t had quite the season-long ceiling we’ve seen from Samuel and DK Metcalf over his first three years, but his annual production has been the most consistent of this bunch. He ranks third in receiving yards with 2,995, just narrowly behind Metcalf (3,170 yards) and Terry McLaurin (3,090). Brown leads the class of 2019 in receiving yards per game (69.7).
On a route-by-route basis, Brown and one other player are head and shoulders above the competition. Over the past three seasons, he has averaged 2.75 yards per route run. Samuel ranks second at 2.59, and there’s a huge drop-off between Samuel and third-placed Metcalf (2.06). As I’ll get to in the Samuel section, he has missed more time than his Tennessee counterpart, and Samuel’s efficiency stats are dominated by something remarkable (but unsustainable) that he did in 2021.
Furthermore, Brown dominates targets when he is on the field to a greater extent than any of the other players in this class. He has been targeted on more than 27% of his routes since 2019. The only wide receivers who are thrown the ball on a higher percentage of their routes since then (with a 1,000-route minimum) are Davante Adams, Mark Andrews and Cooper Kupp. It’s one thing to get a wild target share and catch lots of short passes, which is true for pass-catching running backs and gadget players such as Kadarius Toney, but Brown’s average target comes nearly 12 yards down the field. The closest comparable to him over this time frame is Stefon Diggs. And while Justin Jefferson wasn’t yet a pro in 2019, the Vikings star’s rate stats in 2020 and 2021 also are virtually identical to Brown’s over the past three years:
Why hasn’t Brown had that sort of dramatic breakout that we saw from Metcalf in 2020 and Samuel a year ago? The Titans simply don’t have him on the field much. He has averaged just over 25 routes per game. Metcalf, who also plays in a run-heavy offense, averages 31.5. Diggs has averaged just under 33, while Jefferson is at 33.5. A difference of eight routes per game might not seem like much, but that amounts to 136 routes and 37 extra targets per year for Diggs and Jefferson.
It’s fair to wonder whether the Titans are trying to protect their star wide receiver. Brown has missed six games and most of a seventh with various injuries, notably to his hamstrings and knees. According to Brown himself, the knee injury he suffered in September 2020 was reportedly severe enough for Tennessee’s training staff to initially rule him out for the season, although he ended up missing just two games. He admitted this as he was livestreaming from the hospital after undergoing double knee surgery, although a post to his Twitter account said he was not in his right mind and was only undergoing “small procedures.”
Even when Brown has been healthy and present, though, the Titans have played him less frequently than the vast majority of other wideouts. He was actually on the field for 81% of the snaps in the games he played in 2020, before dropping down to 69% last season. Most wideouts of his caliber typically play at least 80% of the offensive snaps and often more. One notable exception is former teammate Julio Jones, who typically came in closer to 75% during his time with the Falcons. But until the Titans use Brown as a true No. 1 wideout, it’s going to be difficult for him to produce that sort of truly dominant season he seems capable of mustering.
That season could come as early as 2022, although he’ll need Ryan Tannehill & Co. to hold up their end of the bargain. Brown has every incentive to play more often and produce a career year if he doesn’t sign a new deal. If he does, the Titans will be motivated to get the most of their significant investment. There’s no guarantee he will be as efficient if given a larger role, but he hasn’t slipped much so far.
There’s always a possibility Brown could take up that larger role for another team. In another livestream, he seemed to suggest that Tennessee’s offers had yet to surpass $20 million per season on a new deal. With DJ Moore getting $20.6 million per year on his new contract, Diggs hitting $24 million and Tyreek Hill making it all the way to $25 million (after throwing out a fake number in 2024), it’s difficult to imagine Brown settling for $20 million.
The projected franchise tag for wideouts in 2023 is barely over $20 million, meaning the Titans would have to pay more than $44 million to franchise Brown twice. That’s the likely baseline for his new deal.
The Titans have gone over that two-franchise-tag mark in re-signing their other offensive cornerstones, Tannehill and Derrick Henry, who got an average of about a 9% premium over a two-tag total during the first two years of their extensions. Applying that to Brown and wide receivers and we end up with approximately $48 million over two years. I’m willing to bet Brown ends up signing a deal with Tennessee around that average of $24 million per season. He also is the most likely wide receiver in this group to produce something truly spectacular in the years to come.
Prediction on what will happen with Brown: Signs a four-year, $96 million extension with the Titans.
Pick in 2019 draft: No. 76
Here are the quarterbacks who have thrown passes to McLaurin:
McLaurin has been saddled with replacement-level quarterback play for the vast majority of his brief NFL career. It stretches back to his first game, when he had five catches for 125 yards and a score and was narrowly overthrown on what should have been an additional 73-yard touchdown.
The quarterback on the other side of the field that day was Carson Wentz, who has now joined the Commanders. Wentz collapsed to a shocking extent behind an injury-riddled line in Philadelphia, and after being given a fresh start in Indianapolis, he also wore out his welcome there. The only other guys since the merger to start three consecutive seasons for three different teams as their team’s primary quarterback as they turned 30 are Case Keenum and Joey Harrington. It’s not exactly an auspicious grouping.
What’s also true, though, is that Wentz still projects to be the best quarterback McLaurin has played with as a pro. Wentz had his issues last season, especially at the end of the campaign, but he still ranked ninth in the NFL in Total QBR, 13th in passer rating and 13th in adjusted net yards per attempt. He was good enough to support a breakout season from Michael Pittman Jr., whose second-year stats (88 catches, 129 targets, 1,082 yards, six touchdowns) were similar to McLaurin’s (87 catches, 134 targets, 1,118 yards, four touchdowns). We would all be more excited if McLaurin had Russell Wilson under center, but Wentz was 14 spots ahead of Heinicke in the QBR rankings a year ago. McLaurin’s ceiling is higher with the quarterback change.
As the only prominent receiving threat on a team whose quarterbacks aren’t often throwing their receivers into space, McLaurin has had to earn his catches. Just 32.8% of his receptions over the past three years have come when he has been open, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, while a mere 10.1% have come when he has been wide open. Only four players have been wide open on targets less frequently, and they’re all bigger wideouts than the 6-foot McLaurin: DeVante Parker, Allen Robinson, Marvin Jones and Amari Cooper.
It’s difficult to judge just how much better McLaurin has been than his teammates, if only because there has been turnover throughout the offense. Besides McLaurin, the only other player who took an offensive snap in that 2019 opener against the Eagles still left on the Washington roster is center Chase Roullier. McLaurin has a plus-2.8% CROE (completion rate over expectation), which is ahead of his other teammates with 100 targets or more over that time frame (Thomas, plus-1.7%, and J.D. McKissic, minus-6.3%). If you want to say that the eye test tells you McLaurin has been held back by his quarterbacks, I wouldn’t argue with you.
While there have been some concerns that the Commanders might not be acting aggressively to lock up their star wideout, I’m not sure why they would have any reason to hesitate. This is a team whose only offensive players with cap hits north of $10 million are Wentz and wide receiver Curtis Samuel, neither of whom has guaranteed money left after 2022. The Commanders have used five of their past six first-round picks on defensive players, with Haskins as the lone exception. They’ve been popularly linked to wide receivers at pick No. 11, but even if they were to draft a wideout in the first round, they could move forward with McLaurin and the new pick as their starting combination into 2023 and beyond (after cutting Samuel).
The Commanders should have more motivation to get a deal done with McLaurin than just about any other team on this list should with their respective wide receivers. This organization needs any bit of good press or positive vibes it can find after yet another depressing offseason. Signing McLaurin won’t erase or wash away the allegations of sexual harassment by executives and financial impropriety by ownership, but it will allow Washington to keep a homegrown player. Signing McLaurin now could lock in the 26-year-old before a breakout season.
Prediction on what will happen with McLaurin: Signs a four-year, $100 million extension with the Commanders.
Pick in 2019 draft: No. 64
Metcalf had a frustrating 2021 amid a disappointing season for his team. The 6-foot-4 wideout remained a force in the red zone, scoring nine times inside the 20, but his broader numbers fell across the board. Of course, he was without Russell Wilson for four games and had a visibly compromised Wilson for a couple of more, so it would be easy to chalk up the discouraging year to a meaningful dose of Geno Smith and move onto 2022.
Well, not so fast. When you look at the on/off splits for Metcalf in 2021, he was significantly better with Smith on the field. Granted, some of that is a product of Smith throwing him an 84-yard touchdown and being a part of his biggest play of the season by more than 40 yards. But Metcalf was a superstar with Smith under center and much more disappointing with Wilson at quarterback:
Metcalf’s expected catch rate between the two quarterbacks was about the same. NFL Next Gen Stats’ model expected him to catch 57.2% of the passes thrown to him by Wilson and 59.5% of the passes thrown to him by Smith. The difference, beyond that long touchdown, is that Metcalf caught just about everything Smith threw to him over that four-week span and was at a below-average rate when Wilson was on the field.
I would chalk this up more to randomness in a 23-target, four-week sample than anything else. As an example, over that same four-week stretch, Kyle Pitts posted a plus-21.7% CROE on 24 targets from Matt Ryan. Across the other 13 weeks of the season — despite having the quarterback throwing the vast majority of the passes in his direction — Pitts posted a minus-4.6% CROE across 86 targets. I wouldn’t use this to draw any conclusions about Metcalf not meshing well with his now-traded quarterback, especially since that duo looked scintillating together for most of 2020.
What I would wonder, though, is whether Metcalf might benefit from a less vertical offense. Notice that the average pass he was thrown by Smith came in nearly four yards shorter than the typical throw from Wilson. We know Metcalf is capable of winning contested catches downfield and running away from tacklers, but is that really the best use of his talents?
In both 2020 and 2021, Metcalf was better as an underneath receiver than he was as a deep option. In 2020, he averaged 0.46 expected points added per play (EPA) on passes within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage and 0.39 EPA per play on everything deeper. In 2021, he was down across the board, but the splits were similar, at 0.19 EPA per pass within 20 yards of the line and 0.11 EPA per pass on 20-plus yard throws.
This is not the case for other players. Wide receivers across the NFL typically produce more EPA on deeper throws than they do on shorter ones. Other wideouts averaged 0.18 EPA more per deep pass in 2020 and 0.23 EPA more per deep pass in 2021. Metcalf’s EPA per pass declining on those 20-plus yard throws is atypical. I wouldn’t suggest the Seahawks should stop throwing the ball deep to him, but I might argue they did so too often over the past few seasons.
If the Seahawks do throw shorter passes without Wilson, this could mitigate some of the issues we’re expecting Metcalf to have as part of the downgrade from the longtime Seattle starter to Smith, Drew Lock or whomever else the Seahawks consider adding this offseason. Then again, there’s a chance this offense looks like something out of the 1970s if Pete Carroll indulges his instincts, so we can’t count on any clear idea of what this offense will do on a week-to-week basis until we actually get there.
This also assumes the Seahawks don’t trade Metcalf before then. Carroll & Co. have publicly suggested they intend to sign him to an extension, but then again, Carroll also said he had “no intention” of trading Wilson in March and then dealt away the best quarterback in franchise history six days later. At the very least, I’m taking the organization’s proclamations with a grain of salt until it actually gets a Metcalf deal finished.
Dianna Russini reports the latest on DK Metcalf’s status with the Seahawks.
When I wrote about the Wilson deal, I kept coming back to the idea that the Seahawks’ offense had evolved into a different sort of offense to the one Carroll believes wins NFL games. For a coach who repeatedly harps on how important it is to run the football, he had built a team with an expensive quarterback and one expensive wide receiver in Tyler Lockett. It took years for Carroll to commit to throwing the ball at a high rate in neutral situations despite having Wilson, and the coach abandoned the plan after one season. If the Seahawks want to be one of the league’s most run-heavy teams, paying a quarterback $50 million per year on a new deal didn’t add up.
And if that’s true, what about paying a pair of wide receivers more than $40 million per season combined? Lockett is just starting a four-year, $69 million extension, and the structure of that deal makes it difficult for the team to move on before 2024. A new deal for Metcalf would come in at around $25 million per season. Trading Wilson freed up loads of future cap space for the Seahawks, who are projected to have more than $70 million next offseason. Organizations typically want to surround a young quarterback with as many weapons as possible, but do the Seahawks value the wide receiver position enough to invest that much in their two starters?
In most places, it would be an easy decision to re-sign Metcalf. There are some concerns about how a wideout with his size and strength will age, but he hasn’t missed a game in three seasons. He underwent foot surgery after playing through foot pain all season, but not many teams would realistically see enough in Metcalf’s profile to move on. Most teams wouldn’t trade Wilson to start Lock, either.
Prediction on what will happen with Metcalf: Traded to another team before the 2022 season begins.
Pick in 2019 draft: No. 66
Terry McLaurin has played with less notable quarterbacks, but Johnson also has spent his career without a capable passer. Ben Roethlisberger went down injured for the season after six quarters of football in 2019, and his throws didn’t have any zip when he returned the next season. After a rookie year with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, Johnson has spent the past two seasons running hitches, screens and glance run-pass options. For a guy whose closest comps based on physical traits coming into the league were Kenny Stills and Jaylen Waddle, it’s still remarkable to see this sort of route chart:
Diontae Johnson’s route chart in 2021 pic.twitter.com/ZTGdBOc4HB
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) April 23, 2022
Since 2020, Johnson and Cooper Kupp are tied for the league lead with 181 targets within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Nobody else is above 153. Kupp has been more productive in short yardage, but their numbers are relatively similar; his targets have produced 143 catches for 1,044 yards, while Johnson’s have resulted in 134 receptions and 941 yards. The difference between these two within five yards amounts to drops; Kupp has four on those throws, but Johnson has 13.
Once you get past that five-yard mark, though, you see the difference in terms of what these receivers have been able to do. With throws traveling at least six yards in the air, Kupp’s 136 targets have produced 1,877 yards, while Johnson’s 133 targets only have generated 1,143 yards. The league’s wide receivers generated 2.71 yards per route run on those passes; at 2.66, Johnson is just below average.
Johnson is right at league average on throws traveling 16 or more yards downfield, which were almost exclusively limited to lobbed fades down either sideline in this Pittsburgh offense. The deep middle of the field was basically off limits. He has three catches on throws traveling at least 20 yards in between the numbers over the past two seasons, which is tied with guys such as Damiere Byrd and Byron Pringle. One of those throws was from Rudolph, while another came on a Roethlisberger scramble and throw on the run, which seemingly combined everything the Steelers didn’t typically do on offense into one single play.
The big question, of course, is whether Johnson wasn’t productive in that part of the field because the Steelers didn’t have a quarterback who could reliably make those passes or because it’s just not his game. I suspect it’s the former, given that JuJu Smith-Schuster (three catches), Chase Claypool (four) and James Washington (four) weren’t exactly racking up big plays deep over the middle, either. If the Steelers had a quarterback who threatened teams vertically on a reliable basis, it could unlock an element of Johnson’s game we haven’t been able to see very often.
Unfortunately, Johnson wasn’t a vertical threat in 2019, because his quarterbacks couldn’t reliably deliver the ball downfield. I’d like that to change in 2022, but I’m not optimistic about the combination of Rudolph and Mitch Trubisky being much of an improvement. The Steelers are expected to pursue a quarterback in this week’s NFL draft, but I’d be more optimistic about Johnson’s numbers spiking if Pittsburgh had managed to acquire Russell Wilson or even Jimmy Garoppolo.
Eventually, the Steelers will land a quarterback who can throw vertically, but I wonder what happens with Johnson before then. Pittsburgh has done an incredible job of landing impact wide receivers in the middle rounds of the draft, including Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster and Johnson. One year after drafting Johnson, they landed another one with Claypool, who had an excellent rookie season before struggling in Year 2.
If the Steelers can find these wideouts time after time in the second and third rounds of the draft and pay them less than $2 million per season, does it really make sense to pay one of them about $20 million more on a long-term deal? I pitched a trade of Claypool to the Packers in my mock draft. But wouldn’t it be logical for the Steelers to trade Johnson to get draft picks or a player at a position they don’t develop quite as well?
I would be more comfortable moving Claypool than Johnson, if only because the fourth-year wideout soaks up so much volume in this offense. If the Steelers draft a quarterback in the first two rounds, they’ll have the cap space in 2023 to surround Johnson with talent. With Claypool, Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth all still on rookie deals at that point, there’s going to be plenty of space to extend Johnson. It would be a surprise if the Steelers didn’t re-sign the 25-year-old before then.
Prediction on what will happen with Johnson: Signs a four-year, $98 million extension with the Steelers.
Pick in 2019 draft: No. 36
Samuel’s request for a trade led me to think about this wide receiver class and take the closer look that you’re seeing in this article. By multiple accounts, it seems the 49ers were interested in giving Samuel a market-value deal for a breakout wide receiver, but he wasn’t impressed, and he wants to leave the organization. If they do trade him, the team that acquires the 26-year-old would be giving up significant draft capital and paying him something in the ballpark of $25 million per season.
I’m not sure that’s a great idea. We know how devastating Samuel can be at his best, and he was a true difference-maker for the 49ers in 2021, but we can’t count on him to be that sort of player on a new deal. He left absolutely no meat on the bone last season, and it isn’t reasonable to expect him to be as efficient with big plays.
Start with his work as a receiver. Samuel is a devastating player with the ball in his hands, but he just finished a season with three different catches of 75 yards or more. Nobody else in the NFL had more than one, and the last time a single player had three such catches in a single season was Lee Evans in 2006. (Samuel didn’t have one in 2019 or 2020.) Samuel’s efficiency pops because of those ridiculously deep plays, but think about how many great downfield receivers we’ve seen over the past 15 years who haven’t pulled that off once, let alone more than once.
Those big plays drove astronomical marks of yards per route run (3.1) and yards per target (11.8). Viewing his production in terms of success rate and measuring what percentage of his targets generated positive expected points for the 49ers, Samuel comes in at 48.7%. Of the 34 wideouts who had 100 or more targets last season, he ranked 27th. That’s actually down from his 2019-20 mark, when he turned 55.6% of his targets into successful plays — but when he also wasn’t looking like real-life Tecmo Bo Jackson.
Jeff Darlington gives the latest information on Deebo Samuel requesting a trade from the 49ers.
Samuel didn’t attract an otherworldly target volume (26.3% of routes), so those big plays were what really drove much of his value as a receiver. Over the second half, he transitioned into more of that hybrid role, where he was again efficient in a difficult-to-sustain way. He scored eight touchdowns on just 59 rush attempts. Seven of those came from outside the 5-yard line. He led all rushers with those seven scores outside the 5-yard line, even though Jonathan Taylor (302 carries), Najee Harris (296) and Joe Mixon (277) had dramatically more attempts.
Samuel scored once every 8.3 attempts outside of the 5-yard line; the only guys who have been even close to that mark over the past 20 years are quarterbacks and scatbacks such as Darren Sproles and Leon Washington. They’ve managed to pull it off once in a career, but it hasn’t been remotely sustainable. Samuel can still be a valuable runner without scoring touchdowns — look at his conversion that set up the game-winning field goal against the Packers in the playoffs — but there’s a big difference between running for first downs and scoring a touchdown once every eight carries.
There also have been suggestions Samuel might not want to stay in that hybrid role after leaving San Francisco, which would further diminish his profile. He can certainly be a No. 1 wideout without carrying between the tackles, but he actually produced more DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) as a runner than he did as a receiver a year ago. The Samuel we saw in the first half of 2021 could be a legit top wide receiver, but that guy also had gains of 76, 79 and 83 yards on his résumé by Halloween.
There are other concerning elements buried below the 2021 highlights. Samuel fumbled four times on just 136 touches. He dropped 10 passes, and while one-year drop numbers don’t mean much to me, he dropped eight passes on 124 targets between 2019 and 2020. He also has struggled to stay healthy, missing 11 games and all but one snap of a 12th across three years. He has a history of hamstring injuries going back to college and a Jones fracture of his foot in his past. It would be tough to expect him to play 17 games every year.
On top of all that, the team that acquires Samuel will have to count on its own ability to maximize his skillset. He would be leaving an offense run by Kyle Shanahan, who is in a small circle of candidates as the best playcaller in football. Shanahan has a long track record of putting his weapons in unique positions to succeed. What are the chances that, say, the Lions could do the same thing at the same level if they traded for Samuel?
All of this isn’t to say that Samuel is a fraud or that he shouldn’t have any trade value. He is super talented. He plays bigger than his 6-foot frame. He’s brave going over the middle and explosive after the catch. Even if he won’t have a handful of 75-yarders in his bag each year, he is capable of being a No. 1 receiver if he gets thrown the ball more often or plays with a better quarterback.
Of course, when a team trades a high draft pick and gives out a top-of-the-market extension, it isn’t trading for “capable of being a No. 1 receiver.” The 49ers are going to expect teams to pay for the 2021 version of Samuel, and he is going to expect his new organization to pay him like he’ll be that guy. Both are well within their right to do so. I just don’t love the chances of him looking like that player multiple times on his new deal.
Even if he takes a step backward in 2022, Samuel might still be a better option than the other players on this list. (He finished with 550 more yards from scrimmage than anybody else in the class of 2019.) The injury history and the uncertainty about whether he’ll be in the hybrid role moving forward cause me to drop him here.
Prediction on what will happen with Samuel: Franchise-tagged by the 49ers after 2022 season.
Pick in 2019 draft: No. 25
I’ve found the reaction to talking about Brown over the past couple of weeks to be fascinating. When I pitched the idea of Brown going to the Chiefs on Twitter, I saw four different types of responses. There were Ravens fans who didn’t want to trade Brown at any cost and Ravens fans who wanted to dump Brown for anything they could get. Likewise, there were Chiefs fans who were desperate to add him and others who had absolutely no interest in any sort of deal at any cost.
Brown can certainly be frustrating at times, but he deserves more credit than he’s getting in public conversations about these receivers. He is more of a star (or a star more often) than it would seem if you only pay attention to his drops. They’re a problem — he had seven drops a year ago, and four of them would have likely produced touchdowns if caught — but having a wide receiver who can separate vertically and get open for long scores is valuable, even if he doesn’t always catch those deep opportunities.
Going back from the start of 2020 and through Week 13 of 2021, when Lamar Jackson played his last full game of the season before suffering a high ankle sprain, Brown’s numbers were right alongside other significant wide receivers. Over that time frame, he caught 128 passes for 1,635 yards and 14 touchdowns. That’s similar to A.J. Brown, who had 116 catches for 1,690 yards and 14 scores over that same period. Mike Williams, who just got $20 million per year on a new deal from the Chargers, had 109 catches for 1,672 yards and 12 touchdowns over that same stretch, and he needed to run 101 more routes than his Ravens counterpart to get there.
Marquise Brown’s numbers also are limited by the offense in which he plays. Over that same time frame, he ranked 18th among wide receivers in target rate (25.7%), 21st in yards per route run (2.04) and 31st in yards per target (7.93). The problem is that the Ravens simply don’t throw the ball much. During those 28 games, Jackson and Tyler Huntley threw the ball 29.7 times per contest. Only the Patriots threw the ball less frequently.
Let’s say, for example, we could just swap Brown into the Chargers’ offense while keeping his rate stats as consistent as possible. If we assumed he ran routes at the same percentage that he does with the Ravens, was targeted as often as he has been and gained as many yards per route as he does in Baltimore, he would have produced 155 catches for 1,970 yards and 17 touchdowns over that stretch. That’s in line with what Brandin Cooks, DeAndre Hopkins and Terry McLaurin produced around that same time frame, good for somewhere around 10th or 11th among wideouts in terms of production. All we’ve done there is just move Brown from an offense that has barely thrown the ball over the past two seasons to one that throws the ball much more often.
It’s not that simple, and if Brown were a truly dominant target, the Ravens would throw him the ball more often. Those arguments are true, but I’m bringing this up to point out that he already plays a significant, efficient role in a passing attack, just in one we don’t often see throw the ball or play at a fast pace. He is the power hitter stuck in a pitcher’s park. Any comparisons between Brown and the other wideouts in this class have to consider that context.
Are there concerns with Brown? Absolutely. He has only missed three games across three seasons, but he has been banged up and been anonymous at times while playing through injuries. Dealing with those injuries and then the absence of Jackson for the final few games of the season led to a disappointing second half. He was on pace for a 98-catch, 1,449-yard, 13-touchdown campaign at the midway point a year ago, but after topping 60 yards six times in his first eight games, he didn’t do that once after Week 9. He also fumbled three times after not fumbling once during his first two seasons.
That lack of volume and the disappointing end to 2021 leaves Brown in an interesting position. He’s signed for $2.1 million in 2022, and the Ravens could pick up a fifth-year option for $13.4 million in 2023. At $15.5 million over two years, he is going to make less over the next two seasons than most of the players on this list would average per season on their new deal. The Ravens don’t seem in a rush to extend him, and after paying tight end Mark Andrews, using a first-round pick on wideout Rashod Bateman and seemingly resigning themselves to a series of franchise tags for Jackson, I’m not sure general manager Eric DeCosta & Co. are really in position to give Brown something north of $20 million per season on his next contract.
I wonder if there might be an opportunity for an enterprising team to take advantage of this relative lull in Brown’s value by making a deal. We’ve seen the Ravens trade players DeCosta wasn’t going to be able to re-sign to get draft capital in return, even if it meant sending offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to the rival Chiefs a year ago. Marquise Brown would make sense for Kansas City, although signing Marquez Valdes-Scantling reduced its need at the position. As it is, it seems more likely Brown will spend two more years in Baltimore and hit free agency at age 26.
Prediction on what will happen with Brown: Leaves the Ravens in free agency after the 2023 season.
Pick in 2019 draft: No. 149
Renfrow’s improvement in 2021 was a reminder of how players have more than one path toward getting better. Some breakouts come when a player gets a similar amount of playing time as he did the prior year, only to be drastically more productive and/or efficient in the process. The Raiders’ slot receiver went in a different direction by remaining efficient while upping his usage.
Renfrow wasn’t that much better on a snap-by-snap basis in 2021 than he had been in 2020, but with Darren Waller injured for chunks of the season and Henry Ruggs being released in November, Renfrow had to take over as the team’s top receiver. His target rate jumped from 21.6% in 2020 to 25% last season — 26.1% without Ruggs or Waller in the lineup.
Renfrow had similar rate stats in terms of EPA per target, EPA per route, yards per route run, air yards per target and yards after catch. The big difference was jumping from 22 routes per game to more than 30 and increasing his target share in the process. If this sounds like I’m slighting his season, I’m not. Typically, as players’ roles expand, they become less efficient. For Renfrow to up his routes by 25% and grow slightly more efficient in the process is impressive. This is like a good spot-up shooter in basketball turning into a player who takes over games in key moments as the focal point of the offense without losing any of his shooting percentage.
Renfrow also drastically improved his catch rate, with his 80.5% mark coming in 8.8 percentage points above the expectations of Next Gen’s model. The only wideouts in the league with 100 targets or more who posted a better CROE were Tee Higgins, Christian Kirk and Tyler Lockett. Renfrow was at plus-1.4% the prior season. I’m not sure how sustainable that catch rate or CROE will be moving forward, but it’s impressive to even see that occur in a single season.
If anything, Renfrow was even more valuable by situational context; he was targeted on a whopping 36.4% of his routes in the red zone, the highest rate of any receiver, while scoring nine touchdowns on 18 targets. His target rate rose to 26.4% of his routes on third and fourth down. Derek Carr looked toward him in big moments.
And then, the Raiders traded for Davante Adams. Adams might be the league’s best red zone receiver. Heck, he might be the best receiver in football, period. Waller is back after missing the better part of seven games a season ago. I don’t think the Raiders should have stayed put at wideout — and I have my own issues with the Adams deal — but Renfrow’s path toward being the No. 1 receiver or getting that sort of usage is much murkier now than it was during the second half of 2021.
Would it be shocking, though, if Josh McDaniels’ offense left plenty of targets for his slot receiver? Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and even Jakobi Meyers were all able to garner significant volume out of the slot for the Patriots when McDaniels was their offensive coordinator. You might chalk that up to Tom Brady, but even Eddie Royal had 79- and 105-target seasons for the Broncos during McDaniels’ year-plus in Denver. Renfrow likely won’t have the league’s highest red zone target rate again in 2022, but his volume will probably fall closer to what we saw in 2021 than where it was in 2020.
Renfrow would land there as a solid second receiver, albeit without the sort of top-tier ceiling we see for Samuel and Marquise Brown. For the Raiders, Renfrow’s contract negotiations could be difficult. The former fifth-round pick’s contract is a bargain even after getting a proven performance bonus raise to $2.5 million, but does general manager Dave Ziegler want to pay Renfrow, say, $18 million per season? Adams just took home a massive new extension. Carr’s new deal is really a $7.5 million payment to give the Raiders the option of handing him three years and $116.3 million, but he’s either going to get a raise or be released in 2023. And Waller’s deal, one of the biggest bargains in football, is probably due to be renegotiated. How much are the Raiders willing to invest in their passing game?
If the Raiders aren’t willing to pay, another team will be interested. Renfrow is going to make every quarterback’s life easier, and he seems to play better when the Raiders have needed him most.
Prediction on what will happen with Renfrow: Signs a three-year, $57 million extension with the Raiders.
Pick in 2019 draft: No. 56
Hardman might superficially resemble Marquise Brown, but the differences in context between the two are dramatic. Hardman plays in one of the league’s most pass-happy offenses with an incredible downfield passer and has never been able to carve out more than an ancillary role. He has fumbled seven times on 236 touches, and for a guy who was supposed to be a downfield threat, he has only averaged 8.7 air yards per target over the past two seasons.
Realistically, Hardman’s role with the Chiefs has primarily been manufactured touches, as 44% of his receptions and more than 33% of his receiving yards have come on throws within three yards of the line of scrimmage. Those are screens and tap passes. For Brown, to make a comparison, just under 27% of his receptions and 13% of his receiving yards since 2020 are on those throws.
As a deep threat, Hardman has just nine catches on 30 deep targets for 327 yards and a score over the past two seasons. He has two drops, including what should have been a touchdown against the Ravens last season in a game the Chiefs eventually lost. His role more often amounts to wind sprints, as Hardman is only targeted on 13.9% of his routes traveling 20 or more yards downfield and averages 1.6 yards per route run on those forays. For comparison, other wide receivers who have run at least 100 routes downfield over the past two years have averaged 2.9 yards per route run.
The easiest argument in defense of Hardman would be that he has been stuck on a team with Tyreek Hill, and it’s understandable to hope that Hardman gets more opportunities in 2022 now that Hill has been traded to the Dolphins.
When Hill has been off the field, though, Hardman hasn’t been a dramatically different player. His rate stats do go up a bit — his target share improves from 19.2% to 22.6% and from 1.67 yards per route run to 1.93 — but not in the ballpark of where Hill was sitting in this offense when on the field. The Chiefs further lessened the talk of Hardman assuming the Hill role by signing Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and while the former Packers wideout only is on a one-year, $8.6 million deal, Hardman will be a free agent after this season.
Stranger things have happened than a Hardman breakout — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his numbers rise this season as the Chiefs find more solutions to throw downfield — but I think he represents a sunk cost at this point. The Chiefs traded up to draft him in the second round in 2019 while they were dealing with the possibility of a Hill suspension. That never came, but taking Hardman when DK Metcalf and Terry McLaurin were still on the board turned out to be a misstep, independent of what happened with Hill.
Prediction on what will happen with Hardman: Leaves the Chiefs in free agency after the 2022 season.