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  • Writer's pictureChristian Novarro

2024 NFL Free Agency: Projecting Deals for this Year’s Top Wide Receivers


After the Kansas City Chiefs victory at Super Bowl LVIII, the 2024 NFL offseason is officially underway. While the Chiefs will spend the next few weeks celebrating their second consecutive Super Bowl, and their third in five years, the other 31 teams will try to figure out how they can dethrone them in 2024. The first opportunity to do so will open in mid-March when teams can begin to acquire talent via free agency. One position group which will surely receive plenty of attention this year is the deep wide receiver class headlined by Mike Evans, Tee Higgins, and Michael Pittman.[1]

 

Since entering the league back in 2020, Cincinnati Bengal Tee Higgins (25 years old) and Indianapolis Colt Michael Pittman (26 years old) have proven extremely reliable for their respective teams. Both players are coming off their rookie contracts with two 1,000+ yard seasons and three consecutive seasons of 900+ yards.[2] However, neither player has fully established themself as an elite WR1. For the past three seasons, Tee Higgins has been the Bengals second option behind Ja’Marr Chase – quarterback Joe Burrow’s former LSU teammate. Additionally, Higgins is coming off an injury-riddled season that was the worst of his young career.[3] Pittman, on the other hand, has been a reliable top option for the Colts’ sub-par passing offense since 2021, but he has not shown (a) the explosiveness or (b) the necessary redzone production to be paid like other elite receivers.

 

Mike Evans, however, has been one of the NFL’s top receivers for a decade. He has earned over 1,000 receiving yards in all 10 of his seasons played.[4] In the NFL’s history, that is (a) the 2nd longest run of consecutive 1,000-Yard receiving seasons (Hall of Famer Jerry Rice had a stretch of 11), and (b) the most consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons to begin a career.[5] In addition, Evans was an All-Pro in 2023 for the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, with 1,255 receiving yards and a league-leading 13 receiving touchdowns. He has impressively had at least 13 receiving touchdowns in three of the last four seasons.[6] The only drawback is that Evans will be 31 next year. Given his age and mileage, teams in the free agency market will wonder how long he can sustain this level of play.

 

Contract Projections

 

The market for Higgins, Pittman, and Evans will likely be around $22-$26 million averaged per-year (“APY”), and their actual deals may vary depending on several factors, including whether each player even reaches free agency. There is a possibility that all three are either (a) given the franchise tag or (b) resigned by their respective teams. In addition, cheaper receiver options such as Calvin Ridley and Marquise Brown, and a deep rookie class, could hurt the trio’s market.[7]  Although these players may not actually reach free agency, below is an example of potential deals that each could make if they hit the open market.

 

Mike Evans 

Contract Projection


Despite age and other options via free agency and the draft, Evans is still the most productive, proven player on the market. Furthermore, older receivers such as Cooper Kupp (31years old in the first year of his extension) and Davantae Adams (30 years old in the first year of his deal) were paid handsomely after All-Pro seasons.[8] Evans’ projected deal above is less valuable than the Adams and Kupp deals – they received $28 million APY and $26.7 million APY, respectively – as Evans is slightly older and was slightly less productive than both during their contract years.[9] Nonetheless, a contending team looking for an elite receiver will pay Evans top-end money. It would not be surprising if Evans finishes his career with the Buccaneers, but there is a chance he will ultimately jump to another team that may be closer to winning a Super Bowl.

 

Tee Higgins

Contract Projection


Despite Tee Higgins primarily operating as a WR2 for the Bengals, the market suggests that he will be paid like a WR1 if he is not tagged or resigned by the Bengals. The deal above puts him around A.J. Brown’s $25 million APY and D.K. Metcalf’s $24 million APY range.[10] All three players are big, imposing receivers on the outside with big-play ability and great production in the redzone. Tee Higgins and D.K., for example, averaged identical yards/reception, yards/target, yards/game, and receptions/game for their career in similar situations – both had elite quarterbacks alongside another good receiver.[11] In addition, neither of the three receivers exceeded 1,000 receiving yards during their contract year.[12] Although the NFL’s salary cap has increased 16% since A.J. Brown signed his deal, it would be surprising if Tee Higgins exceeds his $25 million APY.[13] Higgins and Brown have similar numbers, but Brown was slightly better while serving as his team’s top receiving option. In the end, it is likely that Higgins will resign with the Bengals and take a team-friendly discount at around $22-23 million a year.

 

Michael Pittman


 

Michael Pittman should expect a similar deal to Tee Higgins considering that both will likely be viewed as fringe-WR1 options. However, it is likely teams will value Higgins slightly more due to his big-play capabilities, and his abilities in the redzone.

 

In the end, it would be surprising if the Colts let Pittman reach free agency. Colts quarterback, Anthony Richardson, is coming off an injury-riddled rookie season and the team needs to surround him with as much help as they can. Accordingly, it is likely the Colts will end up giving Pittman the franchise tag and/or resign him to a long-term deal.

 

Other Free Agents

 

Calvin Ridley

 

The most intriguing option behind Mike Evans, Tee Higgins, and Michael Pittman is certainly Calvin Ridley. Although Ridley missed the entire 2022 NFL season for violating the NFL’s gambling policy, he was very solid in 2023.[14] Ridley finished the 2023 season with 1,016 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns while playing in all 17 games for the Jacksonville Jaguars.[15] Of the top four receivers, Ridley is the least likely to be resigned or franchise tagged. Josh Allen, the Jaguars top edge-rusher who recorded a career-high 17.5 sacks this season, will also be a free agent in March.[16] If the Jaguars cannot reach an extension with Allen (and there are no indications that they will), they will most likely franchise tag him over Calvin Ridley – teams can only franchise tag one player per year.

 

Ridley is in a unique situation. His first three seasons were phenomenal, and he was even an All-Pro back in 2020.[17] However, his numbers dipped after being away from the league for almost two years. He averaged around 9.5 yards/target and 14 yards/touch in 2019 and 2020, but those numbers dropped to 7.5 yards/target and 12 yards/touch in 2023.[18] Nonetheless, the market suggests that Calvin Ridley could still receive a deal worth around $60 million total and $20 million APY. Los Angeles Chargers receiver Mike Williams signed a three-year deal worth $60 million with a $21 million signing bonus after posting 1,146 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns in 2021.[19] Calvin Ridley’s mock contract mimics Mike Williams’ deal in length and structure, given the two players’ similarities in age and production over (a) their career and (b) their contract years.[20] However, it would not be surprising if Ridley gets up to $23-24 million annually. If Evans, Pittman, and/or Higgins do not reach Free Agency, Ridley’s demand will increase. Furthermore, a team might pay a premium for Ridley in the hopes that he returns to his pre-suspension form.

 

Marquise Brown (26), Darnell Mooney (26), Gabe Davis (25)

 

Other intriguing options include Marquise Brown, Darnell Mooney, and Gabe Davis.[21] Marquise Brown and Darnell Mooney are both two years removed from 1,000-yard seasons, and Gabe Davis has had 750 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns in two straight seasons.[22] However, this year’s deep rookie class will hurt these players’ markets the most. Some experts believe there are up to 15 receivers that could be drafted in the first two rounds of the 2024 NFL Draft.[23] Teams looking to add a cheap pass catcher will likely prefer to do so via the draft as opposed to free agency. Nonetheless, Allen Lazard and Jakobi Meyers each got deals last year worth $11 million per year.[24] There is a possibility these receivers will land deals somewhere above that, with Marquise Brown getting the best contract given his skillset, athleticism, and past production as a WR1.

 

Having multiple weapons in the passing game is crucial in today’s NFL. Luckily, plenty of talented options are going to be available this offseason. With today’s pass-heavy league driving up demand, coupled with 2024’s over-saturated receiver market, it will be exciting to see where these deals land.

References:

[1] Brad Spielberger, 2024 NFL Free Agency Rankings: Wide Receivers (19 Jan 2024)  https://www.pff.com/news/nfl-2024-nfl-free-agency-rankings-wide-receivers

[3] Id.

[5] Scott Smith, A Cascade of Mike Evans Milestone (4 December 2023) https://www.buccaneers.com/news/cascade-mike-evans-milestones-data-crunch-week-13-2023

[7] Spielberger, supra.

[12] Id.

[14] The Athletic Staff, Calvin Ridley on gambling that led to NFL suspension: ‘in a dark moment, I made a stupid mistake’ (8 Mar 2023) https://theathletic.com/4288684/2023/03/08/calvin-ridley-gambling-suspension/

[18] Id.

[21] Spielberger, supra.

[23] Campbell, supra.

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