Justin Jefferson Got *Paid*, Proving the NFL Is a Brand-New World

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Justin Jefferson Got *Paid*, Proving the NFL Is a Brand-New World

Justin Jefferson is by far the best wide receiver in the NFL, and now he is paid like it, inking an historic four-year $140 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings today. If you are unfamiliar with Jefferson, just watch him make the greatest catch in the history of football and run the best routes in the league and you’ll get it. There’s no one like him, and because of this new(er) development in the fundamental nature of the league, we may have to start putting his name in the conversation of best player in the NFL, in large part because of the importance of the position he plays.

Hall of Fame quarterback and former Denver Broncos General Manager John Elway once said, “the consensus you hear from those football people is get the quarterback and then get the guy who knocks them down.” Meaning that the nature of NFL roster building under a hard salary cap is that teams are willing to pay the most money to a quarterback and an edge rusher.

Elway said this after drafting outside linebacker and future Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and signing Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, executing this common NFL vision and rebuilding a team that would eventually win a championship in 2015.

Those days are over.

You still go get the quarterback, that position is the sun at the center of football’s solar system, but there has been a planetary realignment where wide receivers like Justin Jefferson have usurped the “guy who knocks them down” as the second foundational construct of a team’s roster.

The Kansas City Chiefs built a modern dynasty by incubating the best player in the NFL, Patrick Mahomes, for a year and then unleashed him with a dynamic set of weapons anchored by all-time great pass-catching tight end Travis Kelce and the greatest field stretcher since Randy Moss in Tyreek Hill (who through his on-field brilliance has made mainstream sports media completely forget he pleaded guilty to domestic violence and battery by strangulation of his then-pregnant girlfriend in 2014 while at Oklahoma State University, and he now finds himself under investigation again).

From that point forward, this copycat league did everything they could to copy the team beating everyone’s brains out. Heck, the Miami Dolphins even traded for Hill, attempting to be the most literal copycat in their bid to develop new young quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

Quarterbacks are the most important position on the field, and they need weapons to succeed. Modern NFL defenses have gained an upper hand the past couple of years by playing a two-high safety defense that has capped big plays and forced offenses to be more patient (RIP #LetRussCook), and it’s more important than ever to get a guy you can trust to make a play down the field.

Who cares if you can knock the other quarterback down if yours can’t move the ball? Besides, apparently all you need these days to break a supposed Hall of Fame quarterback a team traded two firsts and two seconds for is just to have two guys hang out 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, who knew!

Because NFL “contracts” are a farce designed to benefit the greedy owners, the headline number up top is not what matters, it’s the guaranteed money. That’s the actual contract, the rest is just a pinky promise. The previous high for guaranteed money in a wide receiver deal was A.J. Brown’s signing with the Philadelphia Eagles for $84 million, with Amon-Ra St. Brown’s contract with the Detroit Lions worth $77 million and newly paid Jaylen Waddle’s guaranteed money with the Miami Dolphins coming in next at $76 million.

Jefferson is getting $110 million. Nearly eighty percent of his nine-figure contract is guaranteed.

The Numbers Prove It

It’s still of utmost importance to get a guy who can knock people down on the edge, and no one would balk at the opportunity to make an elite pass-rusher like Cleveland’s Myles Garrett, San Fransisco’s Nick Bosa, Oakland’s Las Vegas’s Maxx Crosby, or Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt the second keystone of their roster, but those guys are few and far between. If you go to Spotrac and sort by percentage of the salary cap their contract is worth at signing, you will see a clear separation between edge rushers and wide receivers.

The aforementioned top pass-rushers still compare favorably to their flashy counterparts on offense by percentage of cap taken up, and Watt (15.34%) and Bosa’s (15.12%) contracts at signing comprised a larger share of their team’s cap than anyone else’s, including every wide receiver, with Hill’s figure being the highest at 14.41%.

It’s outside the top five to ten where you see a clear tilt in teams prioritizing wide receivers over edge rushers.

Cincinatti’s edge rusher Trey Hendrickson comprised 9.34% of the Bengals salary cap at signing, just missing out on the top ten. With Jefferson’s new deal, the eleventh-most expensive wide receiver is Chicago’s Keenan Allen at 10.10% of the Bears cap at signing. This trend accelerates the farther down you go.

By the time you get to 20th on both lists, Carolina’s Diontae Johnson and Houston’s Stefon Diggs, who were acquired this offseason by teams looking to aid the development of their young quarterbacks, both come in at 8.82% of their team’s cap, while New York’s new edge rusher Haason Reddick takes up 7.2% of the Jets cap.

These numbers fluctuate from year to year because of the Swiss cheese nature of NFL contracts, and obviously they are influenced by teams’ needs, as the Vikings are likelier to utilize their remaining cap space on edge rushers than wide receivers now, but one look at the Miami Dolphins proves this dynamic true.

In their quest to go all-in and be the NFL’s most aggressive win-now team, they helped set the market by trading a first-round pick to the Broncos for edge rusher Bradley Chubb and then gave him 10.57% of their cap for this year, a lower proportion than they just paid their number two wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (11.06%).

Teams very clearly do not prioritize getting the guy to knock the quarterback down after they get the quarterback anymore. They are desperately searching for guys who can help lift their quarterback up, and Justin Jefferson’s historic guaranteed money confirms this ongoing sea change towards a new theory of NFL roster building.

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