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Vikings knocked over the first domino in NFL’s pay revolution

In Sports
June 04, 2024

Every few years, there is a non-quarterback deal that feels like it’s destined to change some part of the NFL’s salary landscape.

Ndamukong Suh‘s 2015 contract with the Miami Dolphins put a defensive tackle on the threshold of earning a then-staggering $20 million per season. In 2018, Kirk Cousins reimagined the quarterback scale, locking in $28 million a year. In 2022 it was a bonanza: the Dolphins made Tyreek Hill the first $30 million per year wideout in NFL history, the Los Angeles Rams awarded defensive tackle Aaron Donald a $31.6 million per year extension — placing elite defensive linemen back into stratosphere — and Aaron Rodgers pierced the $50 million per season mark with the Green Bay Packers.

All of these deals either shook the ground or punched through a ceiling. On Monday, Minnesota Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson did both, signing a four-year, $140 million extension that makes him the highest paid non-quarterback in the NFL at $35 million per season.

Make no mistake, this was a wide receiver signing for quarterback money. It’s a deal that, when it’s overlaid with current starting QB contracts, puts Jefferson smack-dab in the middle of the pack: slotted just behind Aaron Rodgers’ $37.5 million with the New York Jets, and just in front of the newly minted $33.3 million average salary the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are paying Baker Mayfield. It also matches the $35 million the Vikings paid Kirk Cousins in 2023.

So while Minnesota’s previous starting quarterback might have left for the Atlanta Falcons, his salary didn’t. Now the Vikings will enter 2024 with a quarterback salary on the roster … but paid to the team’s No. 1 receiver.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JANUARY 07: Justin Jefferson #18 of the Minnesota Vikings celebrates after a touchdown during the third quarter in the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on January 07, 2024 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

The Minnesota Vikings are paying wide receiver Justin Jefferson a quarterback-level salary, and that has big implications for other wideout looking for new contracts. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

That’s meaningful in Minnesota as the Vikings are seizing on the rookie quarterback salary of J.J. McCarthy to pull this whole thing off — managing to keep the cap balanced in 2024 while also taking the sting out of $43.4 million in dead cap charges related to the departures of Cousins and defensive end Danielle Hunter. It’s even more meaningful to practically everyone else across the league who isn’t a quarterback, promising to raise the boats of every other elite positional player who bellies up to contract talks. That includes the best offensive tackles, defensive ends and cornerbacks — who along with the quarterback have traditionally been the league’s “big four” positions on the pay scale.

Well, you can add wide receivers into that matrix now, too, with eight of them now carrying an annual average salary of at least $25 million per season and several more on the way. Specifically: Cincinnati Bengals wideout J’Marr Chase, who will likely eclipse the deal Jefferson just signed, and Dallas Cowboys wideout CeeDee Lamb, who is expected to eventually sign a deal that will come close to matching Jefferson’s. After that, you have two more who now appear likely to get done in the coming months or 2025 free agency, with the San Francisco 49ers hoping to sign wideout Brandon Aiyuk to an extension that looks far less likely with Jefferson resetting the table, and the BengalsTee Higgins playing through 2024 on a franchise tag and likely heading to free agency next offseason.

All told, when those deals are finished, they are expected to be the finishing touches on a dozen receivers who are bracketed between $25 million and $30 million per season. That means they now have a lasting seat at the table with quarterbacks, and the elites at offensive tackle, defensive end and cornerback.

That’s a game-changer for the NFL. And the impact will reverberate to other places, too. Among them …

Jefferson’s deal ramping up the money for the elites and next-tier wideouts is going to have an impact on next year’s long-in-the-tooth free-agent class, too. With Higgins and Aiyuk both slated for free agency — and both seemingly destined to fall into that $25-$30 million per year range — some teams will be looking for an alternative to a bidding war. Some could turn to the draft, depending on how the next crop of college wideouts perform in 2024. Others will have a renewed focus on a free-agent class that is expected to have some big names entering (or exiting) the twilight of their careers. As it stands, the 2025 free-agent class is expected to include the likes of 30-somethings like the Houston TexansStefon Diggs, Chicago BearsKeenan Allen, Cleveland BrownsAmari Cooper, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Chris Godwin and Tennessee TitansDeAndre Hopkins. Realistically, Las Vegas Raiders wideout Davante Adams’ will also be entered into that group as a salary cap casualty next offseason.

Justin Jefferson leads all wide receivers in salary after landing a huge contract extension with the Vikings. (Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)

Justin Jefferson leads all wide receivers in salary after landing a huge contract extension with the Vikings. (Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)

That’s a lot of aging wide receiving weapons for teams to consider as a temporary measure to avoid locking themselves into a massive deal with Higgins or Aiyuk. And at least some of those players will spend the 2024 season proving they still have enough in the tank to get one last short-term deal. Nailing down exactly what a short-team deal will look like for some of those players is tricky, but one NFL general manager who spoke to Yahoo Sports pointed to the two-year, $26 million deal signed by Hopkins with the Titans prior to the 2023 season. At the time of that pact, Hopkins was on the doorstep of his 31st birthday. The GM said that would likely be the floor for veteran wideouts who still have one to two years of tread left and the capability to at least be a solid No. 2 option in the offense.

The bottom line: the richer the elite receivers become, the poorer it gets for the guys who are aging out of the league … while simultaneously keeping the latter on the radar as bridge fixes.

Jefferson is going to be extremely expensive. Fortunately for the Vikings, they have the luxury of taking on his deal with the balance of a rookie quarterback contract to keep the salary cap in good shape. Other teams aren’t going to have that same luxury, especially with high-end wideouts now ascending into an extremely lucrative class of salaries that used to be reserved for the “elite four”: quarterbacks, edge rushers, offensive tackles and cover cornerbacks.

Adding receivers to that mix of players who command titanic salaries makes it the “big five” and promises to push more teams into some precarious balancing acts if they have multiple players who are paid at the top of their positions.

As a general baseline, some team executives prefer a rule of thumb when it comes to having to balance out their cap with multiple elite level contracts. That baseline is this: If you have to work multiple superstar level contracts, the ideal threshold is keeping the top three salaries on your roster from consuming no more than 40 percent of the salary cap in any given year. How that three is divided up typically depends on whether your quarterback is on a veteran contract, which are fast becoming the most cumbersome commitments across the league. Typically, if you’re a good team with a quarterback inside the league’s top 10 paid at the position, you’re going to have multiple players who eat a large chunk of cap space. In those situations, the 40 percent rule becomes important.

To get a loose example of how this cap ideology is projected outward, take the Detroit Lions, who signed heavy-hitting extensions this offseason with three players: quarterback Jared Goff, wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown and offensive tackle Penei Sewell. If the current contract structures hold true, the Lions will take their worst “full” wallop from those deals on the 2026 cap, with Goff accounting for $69.6 million, St. Brown accounting for $33.1 million and Sewell checking in at $28 million. All told, that’s slated to be a $130.7 million hit on the books for three players. When you project the NFL’s cap growth, aggressive (but likely accurate) estimates from teams for the 2026 cap are landing in the range of $330 million. Not coincidentally, that would leave Goff, St. Brown and Sewell chewing up a workable 39.6 percent of the team’s cap in 2026 … which keeps the Lions in line with the 40 percent rule.

Prior to this offseason, it was rare for any team to have three players with such huge non-quarterback salaries. With receivers now transforming the “big four” paid positions to the “big five,” this crossroads will appear more than ever for teams. If you don’t believe that, look at the Dallas Cowboys’ conundrum with Lamb, quarterback Dak Prescott and edge rusher Micah Parsons. And after Dallas? The San Francisco 49ers will be on deck when quarterback Brock Purdy needs to be extended.

In the five drafts spanning 2020-2024, there have been an average of 5.6 wideouts selected in the first round. That’s 28 first-round wideouts in five years, the most for any five-year period in NFL history. And when you add in the 27 second-round wideouts in the same span, the league is truly in the midst of a tidal wave at the position.

Jefferson’s deal and those who lock in around it will likely serve to only grow that pipeline. More than ever, the best prep athletes on offense are shifting themselves away from the running back spot and into the wide receiver position.

The bloat in wide receiver money — paired with the league’s embrace of smaller wideouts — is bound to start shifting some of the best talent away from the cornerback spot as well. Particularly when players look at the size types of St. Brown, the Miami Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ DeVonta Smith.

Offensive creativity and expansion has made perceived height or size deficiencies more irrelevant than ever. Players can be 5-foot-10 and get paid. They can weigh 175 pounds and secure a bag. All of which will be food for thought when it comes to some players who are choosing between pursuing paths as cornerbacks and wide receivers. That’s going to have an impact on the mindset of some elite prep players who are dialing in their positional aspirations. Once Lamb, Chase, Higgins and Aiyuk secure new contracts, a total of 19 wideouts will have locked in average annual salaries of $22 million or more. Now take a moment to ponder how many cornerbacks are making that much on an annual basis.

It’s zero.

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