Which NFL wide receivers are worth top-of-the-market deals? Ranking the 2019 class, predictions for Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin, A.J. Brown

Which NFL wide receivers are worth top-of-the-market deals? Ranking the 2019 class, predictions for Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin, A.J. Brown post thumbnail image

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:

Jump to a wide receiver:
A.J. Brown | M. Brown | Hardman | Johnson
Metcalf | McLaurin | Renfrow | Samuel

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:

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