NFL wide receiver market reset: How a left tackle trade in 2017 led to the stunning Tyreek Hill a...

ByBill Barnwell via ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 6, 2022
ESPN

We can all see how moments on the field can impact the NFL for years to come. In 2018, the Rams went to a Super Bowl and failed to score a touchdown against the Patriots, which started an overhaul of their running game and eventually led to the decision to trade quarterbackJared Goff for Matthew Stafford. Three seasons later, Stafford's now-famous no-look pass to Cooper Kupp helped set up the game-winning touchdown against the Bengals in Los Angeles' title game return.

What's tougher to see, perhaps, is how moments and situations off the field can eventually lead to dramatic changes across the entire league. One team's decision or behavior might directly or indirectly lead to another team making a dramatic, unexpected change. The NFL landscape can be altered years after the fact by a single decision made thousands of miles away.

A pair of recent moves from the 2022 offseason led me to trace a path all the way back to October 2017. You can make a case that the owner of one team eventually caused two players on two other teams to be traded away. I'm going to lay out the timeline on how the Texans might very well have been responsible for the trades of Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill.

June 2017: Duane Brown doesn't report to mandatory minicamp

The two huge wide receiver trades we saw in March somehow all date back to a left tackle holding out. After the 2016 season ended, reports suggested that Brown, anine-year veteran who had made three consecutive Pro Bowls for Houston between 2012 and 2014,wanted to renegotiate his deal. With two years and $19.4 million remaining on his contract, the 31-year-old was likely hoping to lock in one more significant extension as he exited the typical peak years for offensive tackles.

The Texans didn't budge, citing a policy of not giving out extensions with two years to go on a player's deal. Most teams have a similar sort of policy, although they can be flexible when desired. (Then-Texans general manager Rick Smith, as an example, gave J.J. Watt a significant extension when Watt still had two years of team control left on his rookie deal, although one of those years was a fifth-year option.)

Brown continued to hold out through training camp and into the first six weeks of the regular season. At the last moment, to prevent his contract from rolling over without advancing one year toward free agency, he reported to the teamOct. 23, six days before Houston's game against Seattle.

October 2017: Bob McNair's comments spur controversy

On Oct. 27, 2017, however, the organization was thrown into chaos by the actions of its owner. Reporting on that day from ESPN's Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta detailed a contentious series of meetings between ownership and players around players kneeling during the national anthem and concerns about how protests were impacting the league's bottom line.

Bob McNair, the then-80-year-old owner of the Texans, reportedly expressed his disdain for player protests by telling his fellow owners, "We can't have the inmates running the prison."

McNair's players were furious. The Texans considered a teamwide walkout of practice on that Friday afternoon, and 10 players eventually did leave the facility, including star wideout DeAndre Hopkins. That afternoon, Brown was one of the primary voices representing Houston players. Brown criticized McNair's comments as "ignorant" and admitted that he wasn't sure about playing against the Seahawks two days later. Brown also said that McNair's comments "shouldn't discourage anybody" for standing up for their beliefs.

October 2017: Duane Brown is traded to the Seahawks

Brown played 68 snaps against the Seahawks in his season debut. The following day, the Texans traded him to those very Seahawks for cornerback Jeremy Lane, a fifth-round pick and a future second-round selection. As ESPN's Sarah Barshop noted at the time, this trade was not motivated by on-field issues; Brown had played well in his return against Seattle.

The timing of the deal, of course, was bizarre. The Texans had no other plan at left tackle, as journeyman Chris Clark had been filling in on the left side. They were starting a then-rookie quarterback in Deshaun Watson and were still competitive at 3-4, although Watson would tear an ACL in practice later that week and miss the remainder of the season. Brown had been holding out for months, and it seems unlikely that the Texans got a better offer in midseason than they would have before the year began.

Did Brown's position as the spokesperson for the players responding to McNair's comments cause the Texans to trade their only option at left tackle? We may never know for sure. McNair, whodied in 2018, apologized for his comments at the time only to say he regrettedhis apologysix months later. Smith left the organization at the end of 2017 to tend to his ailing wife.

At the very least, there's a reasonable case to be made that McNair's comments led to the Texans' trading away their starting left tackle. That hole at tackle ended up driving some of the biggest transactions in football over the next few seasons.

July 2018: Falcons restructure Julio Jones' contract

Most wide receivers don't start looking for a new deal with three seasons to go on their existing contract, but then again, most wide receivers aren't Julio Jones. The Atlanta star had three years and $34.4 million remaining on his extension in the summer of 2018 when he reportedly planned to hold out from training camp in the hopes of getting a new contract.

Look at the free-agent contracts from that offseason and you can probably understand why Jones felt underpaid. In a free-agent period in which the wideout market exploded, Sammy Watkins got three years and $48 million from the Chiefs, while Allen Robinson-- coming off a torn ACL -- inked a three-year, $42 million pact with the Bears. Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks each signed extensions that would pay them more than $50 million over the first three years of their new deals. Jones, coming off a four-year run in which he averaged 1,579.25 receiving yards, understandably felt like he deserved more than those players.

The Falcons basically put the problem off for a year. They moved $4.4 million of Jones' 2019 salary into the 2018 season, then took $1.5 million off his 2018 base salary, for a net of $2.9 million. They also promised to negotiate a new deal in good faith the following season, with team owner Arthur Blank noting that he expected Jones to be "a Falcon for life."

March 2019: The Texans sign Matt Kalil

After a season with 2017 fourth-rounder Julie'n Davenport struggling at left tackle, the Texans went into the 2019 offseason trying to find a solution on Watson's blind side. Their first move was to sign Kalil, a former No. 4 overall pick who had been slowed by injuries. He missed 14 games in 2016, signeda curious five-year deal with Carolina, then struggled through 2017 before missing all of 2018 after knee surgery.

The Panthers cut Kalil in 2019, leading the Texans to sign the 29-year-old to a one-year, $7.5 million deal with a $2.25 million signing bonus. Kalil wasn't guaranteed a starting job on the left side, but his experience was promising for a team that had just given up a league-high 62 sacks.

April 2019: The Eagles trade up in the draft ahead of the Texans and takeAndre Dillard

If this sounds strange, well, a lot can change in three years. Despite signing Kalil, it was clear that the Texans were still interested in a long-term solution at left tackle. They were reportedly interested in Dillard, but before they could presumably draft their left tackle of the future at No. 23, the Eagles jumped ahead of them and took Dillard at No. 22. Houston was forced to settle for Tytus Howard.

A few years later, this looks like a lucky break for Houston. Howard is not an NFL left tackle and was kicked inside to right guard last season, but he has at least been a passable lineman. Dillard has been nothing more than a desperation starter for the Eagles, who have watched late-round pick Jordan Mailata make the left tackle spot his own. Dillard has been Philadelphia's swing tackle, and it will likely decline his fifth-year option this spring.

If the Texans had gone ahead and drafted Dillard, they likely would have moved forward into 2019 and likely 2020 with the Washington State product as their starting left tackle. We can't say whether he would have worked out, but his presence on the roster would have kept the Texans from making another move that we'll get to in a minute.

June 2019: Brian Gaine is fired as Texans general manager

The Texans unexpectedly fired Gainejust 17 months into his tenure with the organization. They had gone from 4-12 to 11-5 in his only season as GM, so it was tough to blame the on-field product as a source of disappointment. Some of Gaine's decisions were questioned after the firing, including the inability to land a left tackle to replace Brown, but GMs generally don't get fired after their teams improve by seven wins.

After being brought in by coach Bill O'Brien to take over for the departing Smith, Gaine was essentially replaced by O'Brien. The Texans flirted with trying to add Patriots executive Nick Caserio, but after New England filed tampering charges, Houston moved forward with O'Brien in charge of personnel. (Caserio would later join the Texans, where he currently serves as general manager.)

O'Brien wasn't able to get a deal done with edge rusherJadeveon Clowney and traded him to the Seahawks, but the next move he made transformed the league.

August 2019: The Texans trade for Laremy Tunsil

With left tackle still looming as a problem, O'Brien moved all-in for a long-term solution. The Texans sent two first-round picks, a second-round selection, Davenport and Johnson Bademosi to the Dolphins for Tunsil, Kenny Stills and a fourth-round pick. The Texans crucially didn't sign the 25-year-old Tunsil to an extension as part of the deal, a move that ended up leaving them in a vulnerable position the following year.

The move made it clear that the Dolphins were starting over; three years later, tankingbecame a key component in Brian Flores' lawsuit against the organization. The Dolphins don't regret the trade, given that they've turned one of the first-rounders from the deal into three more first-round picks, courtesy of their deal with the 49ers. The Texans could have reaped that haul from San Francisco themselves if they had held onto their pick, which ended up being the No. 3 overall selection in the 2021 draft. Teams love to assume that their future first-rounders will end up being in the 20s because that move has worked for the Rams, but Houston shipped off two top-five picks in their trades to get Watson and Tunsil.

With no other serious competitors reported in those negotiations, the Dolphins probably wouldn't get the same sort of package for Tunsil from another team over the next year. Maybe they could have kept Tunsil and not tradedMinkah Fitzpatrickto the Steelers. In another universe, the Texans could have used the No. 3 pick to draft a quarterback such as Trey Lance or Mac Jones, allowing them to trade Watson a year ago instead of waiting until 2022 (Watson had requested a trade in January 2021). Watson might not have ended up with the Browns, and the 49ers might have gone a different route to replace Jimmy Garoppolo in the long-term.

And remember: The Tunsil trade doesn't happen if the Texans solve their left tackle problem before 2019. A Brown extension would have locked down this position for years. Drafting Dillard would have taken the Texans out of a left tackle search for a year or two. Kalil, who had already received $2.25 million and was being called the starter throughout August, was cut one day after the Tunsil trade and never played another NFL down. The league would look entirely different if the Texans didn't leave Watson's blind side hanging until the end of training camp.

September 2019: The Falcons ink Julio Jones to a significant extension

After promising to work with Jones on an extension, the Falcons were able to get things done just one day before the 2019 season began. With Jones coming off a 1,677-yard campaign, he signed a three-year, $66 million extension with $64 million guaranteed. This was a record-setting contract for a wide receiver, and it came when Atlanta still had two years of runway left on Jones' existing deal.

The organization was willing to do this deal early, in part, because its salary cap was becoming a disaster. Giving Jones an extension allowed it to reduce his cap hit to $10.4 million in 2019 and kept his 2020 figure at a manageable mark of $20.4 million. Keeping him happy was a plus, but the Falcons weren't able to realize any meaningful discount by doing a deal while he was still years away from unrestricted free agency.

I brought up Jones as a cautionary tale when writing about the Adams deal and how tough it is to assume that even the best receivers in football will continue to look like their normal selves into their 30s. Jones led the league in receiving yards at 29. The following season, he racked up 1,394 yards and six scores over 15 games. Since then, he has battled injuries, generating 771 yards in 2020 and 434 yards last season.

This deal turned out to be a disaster for the Falcons. Two years into the contract, their new regime decided to send the "Falcon for life" to the Titans for a second-round pick. They paid Jones a $25 million signing bonus as part of that deal, but by the time his extension actually began, he wasn't even on the Atlanta roster. They've paid $23 million in dead money for him over the past two seasons, and the resulting squeeze probably contributed to them moving on from Matt Ryan and starting over financially after the 2021 season.

Other players have held out, but Jones' move presented a framework for players who want to get more money, at least under the old collective bargaining agreement. Jones deleted all mentions of the Falcons from his social media, threatened to hold out of training camp and got the team to give him a little bit of money up front while promising to negotiate an extension the following year, which was likely one year earlier than they would have planned.

From the team perspective, though, this also gave organizations a path for placating frustrated players while putting off a new deal for another season. It was one way the Texans could have dealt with the DeAndre Hopkins situation, but from looking at the other moves they made, it was clear they were negotiating out of a totally different playbook.

2019-20: Bill O'Brien's contract extensions come in well above expectation

With O'Brien taking over the lead on player personnel after Gaine was fired, there was a noticeable trend in terms of the Texans paying over the odds for players in free agency or when re-signing their own talent. Some of these deals came after the trade you know I'm about to discuss, but improperly budgeting for a few of these extensions caused them to unnecessarily feel a financial crunch.

Take Tunsil's deal, for example. The top of the tackle market when he signed his extension was Lane Johnson's deal at $18 million per season, although that was more of a funny-money extension on a deal that still had three years remaining. The real top of the market was Trent Brown's four-year deal, which was worth $16.7 million per campaign. Typically, we would see a top-of-the-line tackle deal make a leap from that mark to approximately $18 million. Even if you wanted to honor the Johnson deal, the normal leap would be to something like $18.5 million.

Tunsil took home a three-year, $66 million deal. He also got a short enough deal to hit free agency for a second time before turning 30. It was an incredibly player-friendly deal and one that transformed the market for NFL tackles. Tunsil's deal is great for him, but from a league perspective, it's a reminder of why teams need to get a contract done when they make this sort of trade before the deal is finalized.

It would be one thing if Tunsil just exploited his leverage for a huge deal, but other Texans deals from this period were also surprisingly high. Watson's four-year, $160 million deal came in well ahead of expectations when compared to the deals for Goff and Carson Wentz after their third seasons. Zach Cunningham inked a four-year, $58 million deal with a middling track record. Nick Martin and Whitney Mercilus were paid like stars at their respective positions, while O'Brien paid over the odds in free agency for replacement-level players like Eric Murray and Randall Cobb.

Of these players, the only ones left on the Texans' roster are Murray (who took a pay cut last month) and Tunsil, who moved from one rebuild and joined another.

January 2020: The Texans blow a 24-0 lead against the Chiefs

For a moment, it looked like O'Brien's all-in move to get Tunsil was going to pay off. After a comeback victory over the Bills at home in the wild-card round, the Texans were set to try to advance past the divisional round for the first time in team history. At the end of the first quarter in Kansas City, the underdog Texans were up 21-0. No team had ever blown a first-quarter lead of at least 21 points in a playoff game, and Houston added three more points early in the second quarter.

You know what happened next. The Chiefs scored 41 unanswered points over their next six drives. The Texans failed on a fake punt and allowed four sacks during their unprecedented collapse, eventually losing by 20 points. The loss wasn't Tunsil's fault, but it was a sign that O'Brien's move to go all-in hadn't left the team with the sort of roster they needed to compete with the best team in the AFC.

If the Texans hold on to that lead, who knows what happens? They would have been at home in the AFC Championship Game against the Titans, who O'Brien & Co. had beaten in Week 15 (before sitting their starters and losing a meaningless Week 17 rematch). The Texans likely would have been favored with a chance to go to the Super Bowl. It's impossible to say whether they would have beaten the 49ers, but going to a championship game would have affirmed everything they had done over the prior two seasons. It also might have discouraged O'Brien from drastically changing his roster, including trading away arguably his best player.

March 2020: The Texans trade DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals

It's still stunning. After reports that there was some friction in the relationship between Hopkins and the only professional organization he had ever known, a trade came suddenly, and the terms didn't make any sense. The Texans had swapped fourth-round picks with the Cardinals and dealt Hopkins for a second-round pick and running back David Johnson, whose contract was drastically underwater. I wondered whether Hopkins had lost a limb.

The trade doesn't look any better in hindsight for the Texans, who paid Johnson more than $15 million for two years of replacement-level running back work. They used their second-round pick on Ross Blacklock, who has started three games across his first two seasons despite limited competition. The fourth-round pick was used to help trade for Marcus Cannon, who was cut after playing four games for Houston.

We also have more evidence that the package for Hopkins was well below what we saw for other, similarly talented wide receivers. The trades for Odell Beckham Jr., Stefon Diggs, Davante Adamsand Tyreek Hill each saw the team trading away their star wideout getting a first-round pick and additional draft selections in return. The Texans were able to get only a second-round pick and a player whose contract canceled out most of the value from that pick.

Initial reports after the trade suggested that Hopkins wanted to redo his deal with three years remaining, and after refusing to give Brown an extension with two years left, it should have been no surprise that the Texans blanched on giving Hopkins more money. As I mentioned, they could have followed the Jones path and given Hopkins a bonus up front on his original deal while promising to do an extension with two years left, but even that seemed like a bridge too far.

I don't think the Texans should have dealt Hopkins for the package they received, and they could have afforded Hopkins if they had managed the rest of their contracts more efficiently, but the contract the Cardinals eventually gave him might explain why they were willing to make the trade.

September 2020: The Cardinals hand Hopkins a spectacular extension

When the Cardinals acquired Hopkins, he had three years and just under $40 million remaining on his deal. They then handed him an unprecedented average salary for a wide receiver, as they negotiated a two-year, $54.5 million extension. The previous high for a wideout was the three-year, $66 million deal signed by Jones the prior September.

Like Jones' deal, Hopkins' was an extension on his already-existing deal, which still had significant runway remaining. Hopkins' deal, on the whole, was a five-year, $94.4 million contract, with three years and just over $60 million practically guaranteed. You can choose either the $18.9 million total average or the $20 million practical average, but he wasn't really ever getting $27.3 million per year. Half of the new money in the extension was paid up front as a signing bonus, while the other half was spread throughout the deal.

In the NFL, though, players (and agents) care about average annual salary, especially at the top of the market. There's a long-established trend of players near the top of their position becoming the highest-paid player in the league at that spot when they sign a new deal. It's more about pride and respect than anything else; for whatever accolades or quotes a player gets, nothing reinforces production and dominance more than becoming the highest-paid player at your position.

As a result, when the top of the wide receiver market began to approach the final year of their contracts, teams were facing an impossible problem. They were stuck negotiating off that $27.3 million average as the baseline for the top of the wide receiver market, even though that Hopkins extension doesn't technically start until 2023 and never really looked like $27 million per season. That was one thing for a player with three years left to go on his existing deal, but organizations negotiating deals for 2022 wanted to go off of the standard for contracts in the short term, which was Amari Cooper's mark of $20 million per season.

While the weirdness of the 2021 season and its reduced salary cap put some extensions on hold, that disconnect eventually led to two huge trades in a matter of days.

March 2022: The Packers trade Davante Adams to the Raiders

Adams' initial ask in contract negotiations was reportedly $30 million per season, which would be a leap above Hopkins. Again, given that Adams was a franchise-tagged free agent and Hopkins was under contract for years to come, this would have been a massive difference in terms of short-term value. Hopkins made $60.1 million over the first three years of his new pact; Adams would have been in a totally different stratosphere. The Packers could have franchised him twice and paid him $44.3 million, so there wasn't really a way to make that sort of money work.

In the end, they dealt Adams to the Raiders for a first- and second-round pick in April's draft. Adams signed a five-year, $140 million deal that exceeded Hopkins' average salary on paper but doesn't play out as lucratively in practice. Adams will likely take home $67.7 million over the first three years of this deal in practical guarantees, which is ahead of Jones and Hopkins, but by only $3.7 million.

Signing Adams to that deal would have been reasonable for the Packers; as I wrote at the time, it's tougher for the Raiders, who have to forgo the surplus value of two high picksto get Adams on their roster. If the Hopkins extension isn't so far out of line with the top of the wideout market, Adams likely comes in with a paper value of $23 million or so per year, and I wonder if Green Bay gets that deal done without having to trade away its star receiver.

March 2022: The Chiefs trade Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins

A few days later, the Chiefs followed in kind by deciding against an extension for their downfield dynamo. Hill was shipped off to Miami for a package of five selections, most notably the Nos. 29 and 50 picks in this draft. The trade leaves free-agent signingJuJu Smith-Schuster as Kansas City's top receiver.

Hill's deal is a step beyond what the Raiders paid Adams (and the Bills paid Stefon Diggs) by every measure. In terms of average annual salary on paper, he actually makes the leap to $30 million per season on a four-year, $120-million extension. He had one year remaining on his existing deal when Adams was a franchised free agent, but by the structure of his deal, Hill will take home $72.8 million over the next three years. That's the fourth-highest mark in the league for non-quarterbacks, as he will trail only a series of edge rushers in T.J. Watt, Joey Bosaand Khalil Mack.

As a position, wide receiver has now clearly surpassed left tackle and cornerback and become the third-most expensive spot on the positional spectrum. Positions don't usually give back these sorts of massive jumps in terms of contract value, which is why organizations with young wide receivers are going to ask themselves serious questions about their deals. Do the Steelers really want to commit $30 million per year to Diontae Johnson? Will the Seahawks do that for DK Metcalf, or the Titans with A.J. Brown? We're going to see teams that are willing to pay that price for star receivers and others that prefer to spend their money elsewhere.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, find themselves having come full circle from the Tunsil trade. After trading away young stars to amass a haul of draft picks, they are now the team trading picks for an immediate impact. From an offensive perspective, there's a lot to be excited about, with Tua Tagovailoa throwing to Hill and Jaylen Waddle. After adding left tackleTerron Armstead in free agency, Miami can expect to get the best out of its young quarterback in a critical third season for Tagovailoa.

At the same time, it runs into the same problem the Raiders have with Adams: It's so tough for any non-quarterback to deliver on this sort of contract with the added cost of the draft picks used to acquire that star. The Rams made it work with Jalen Ramsey, but he was still on a rookie deal when the Rams made their deal. You can argue that the Dolphins had extra draft capital from all their deals, but those picks could still have been used to acquire younger talent on team-friendly contracts. Hill is a dynamic receiver, but if he's not the same away from Patrick Mahomes, his contract will immediately look bad.

On the other hand, do you think the Texans look back on deciding against paying Hopkins with any level of fondness?O'Brien was fired four games after the Hopkins deal, the Texans went 4-12, and they've been irrelevant since. I don't think they collapsed in 2020 as a product of trading him -- and what has unfolded with Watson has nothing to do with that deal -- but it's not as simple as going for the cheaper option at a position, either. We'll see what happens with the Adams and Hill trades in a few years, but if the Texans simply re-sign Duane Brown all those years ago, the entire league might look drastically different.

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