Wide receiver has always been one of the more glamorous positions in the NFL. Typically, wide receivers demand enormous amounts of attention on the field and off, are highly-paid and have colourful personalities. A quick youtube search of “NFL touchdown celebrations” will reveal a flair for performance from these players that is unmatched in much of professional sports. But more than that, as the NFL has increasingly become more of a passing league, having quality WRs can be the difference between an average offense and an elite one.
As the torch is passed from the last generation of great WRs like Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, new ones have emerged to take their place. Although a large part of a wide receiver’s production lies in his relationship with his team’s quarterback, truly great WRs find a way to make catches and score touchdowns regardless of who’s throwing the ball. This list will comprise the top 10 highest-paid wide receivers in the league this year in terms of their average salaries.
10. DeSean Jackson – Philadelphia Eagles – $9.4 Million
The diminutive wide receiver has become a key playmaker for the Eagles ever since he was drafted in the second round in 2008. Due to injuries to other WRs, DeSean Jackson was thrust into the starting role in his rookie year and was largely successful, breaking rookie team records for receiving yards and receptions. The only blemish on his rookie year was his unforgettable blunder on Monday Night Football versus the Dallas Cowboys where he famously dropped the ball before running into the end zone. Fumbles are normal in the NFL, but Jackson was running all alone and seemed more interested in celebrating than ensuring he had scored.
Apart from that, Jackson has been a threat in both the receiving and the punt-return game for the Eagles. Things were rocky between him and the team in 2010 as he publicly voiced his displeasure about his contract. In 2011, he chose not to report to training camp to demonstrate his frustration with his expiring contract situation. In 2012, when Jackson was finally set to become a free agent, the Eagles placed the franchise tag on him, finally giving him the contract he desired, with $51 million over five years. Jackson is a two-time Pro Bowler who has the chance to take it to the house every time he touches the ball and is deserving of the contract he finally received.
9. Steve Smith – Carolina Panthers – $9,437,500
The loud-mouthed, small wide receiver has always prided himself on being a hard-nosed player who is not afraid to make tough catches in the middle of the field or get in the face of opposing cornerbacks. Steve Smith was initially drafted in the third round of the 2001 NFL draft. In his first play as a professional he returned a kick for a touchdown, demonstrating a sign of things to come. Over the years, Smith has developed into an elite WR and he finally has an elite QB to play with in Cam Newton – after spending most of his career with average ones. In 2004 he broke his leg and missed the entire season, but came back strong in 2005, recording his best personal year and winning NFL comeback player of the year.
Things have not always gone smoothly for Smith as he has been involved in a variety of altercations over his career – the most notable one being when he punched teammate Ken Lucas in the face during training camp. Despite the altercations (and amazing voice bites) Smith has been an elite player who has been to five Pro Bowls and owns every franchise record for the Panthers at the WR position. He is currently in the second of a three-year contract extension that pays him $9,437,500 per year.
8. Andre Johnson – Houston Texans – $9,685,714
As compared to the last entry on this list, Andre Johnson is notably more low-key. The soft-spoken wide receiver is rarely heard from, but he is often seen on Sundays. Since being drafted third overall in the 2003 NFL draft, Johnson has consistently performed at an elite level for the Houston Texans. After a solid rookie season, Johnson took off in his second year and was named to his first Pro Bowl in recognition of his efforts.
In 2007, after his rookie contract expired, Johnson signed a huge six-year, $60 million contract and continued his strong play for the Texans. In 2010, he became the highest-paid WR in the league with a two-year extension that will keep him on their roster until 2016. He has had another solid year this year, but seems to becoming discontent with the continuing mediocrity at the QB position in Houston. Johnson is a six-time Pro Bowler and is one of only 40 players to have amassed 10,000 receiving yards.
7. Devin Hester – Chicago Bears – $10,243,750
Devin Hester is far and away the most confusing entry on this list. Hester is known as the best-ever returner in NFL history, but has never truly made his mark in terms of receiving. Currently on the Bears roster, Hester ranks behind all-star Brandon Marshall, up-and-comer Alshon Jeffrey and solid Earl Bennett. It’s hard to truly classify Hester, as at one point he was one of the most electric players in the league. When he stepped up to receive a punt or a kick, you knew there was a good chance he might run it back to the house. However, despite great efforts, he never turned into a dominant receiver, but more of a seldom-used deep threat.
Hester’s greatest receiving year came in 2009 where he got 757 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He received a lot of publicity for his frustration with his contract in 2008 and was finally awarded a huge $40.975 million deal over four years that finally expires at the end of this season. The Bears will be happy to have him off the books and they’ll have to re-sign star wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey who has been great this year. Despite never developing into a top WR, Hester has been a three-time Pro Bowler and holds the record for most punt-return touchdowns in NFL history.
6. Percy Harvin – Seattle Seahawks – $10,707,500
Percy Harvin is another curious entry on this list, but not for the same reasons as Devin Hester. No one can deny the game-breaking ability that Harvin gives you in the receiving and return game, but he has been unable to remain on the field for a number of issues. Harvin was a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2009 and immediately paid dividends when he was named rookie of the year. The next few years weren’t as kind, as a number of issues sprung up that forced Harvin to the sidelines. From viruses to migraines, Harvin had reasons to miss a number of games over a period of two years. In his last year as a Viking, Harvin finally played all 16 games and was a weapon for the team as they went to the postseason. When they could not agree on a new contract, the Vikings traded him to Seattle for a first, third and seventh round pick. He quickly signed a huge $64.245 million deal over six years – a huge risk for a Seattle team that is already overpaying Sidney Rice and will need to sign Russell Wilson in the coming years. Harvin has only appeared in one game and has 17 receiving yards this season because of a hip injury. He has been to one Pro Bowl and hopefully for Seattle, he can regain that form.
5. Vincent Jackson – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – $11,111,111
Vincent Jackson is a prime example of why players love to test out free agency, as he is a very solid player who was paid like an elite one. Jackson was initially a second-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in the 2005 NFL draft. In his first two seasons he was a reserve receiver, before injuries thrust him into a starting role in his third season. He continued to grow as a WR and ended becoming a Pro Bowler by the end of his rookie contract in 2010.
Jackson and the Chargers couldn’t agree on a long-term deal so they placed the franchise tag on him for the 2011 season. He responded with another Pro Bowl season and the Chargers finally allowed him to test free agency. The receiver-needy Tampa Bay Buccaneers offered him a massive $55,555,555 deal over 5 years, and he has been a quality player for them since. Jackson is a three-time Pro Bowler and a very strong player, but does not deserve to be paid more than superstar WRs like Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green and Dez Bryant.
4. Dwayne Bowe – Kansas City Chiefs – $11.2 Million
Similarly to Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe is another able player who is being paid more than some of the league’s superstars. Bowe was drafted by the Chiefs in the first round of the 2007 NFL entry draft and had a decent rookie year for the team. He grew into his role as a starting WR over the next few years and made his first and only Pro Bowl appearance in 2010 after his best year as a pro. Also similar to Vincent Jackson, Bowe and the Chiefs could not find any middle ground on a long-term deal. He was given the franchise tag in 2012, and despite Bowe’s decent production the Chiefs were the worst team in football which meant wholesale changes at the management level. Andy Reid came in and promptly awarded his number one WR a new contract worth $56 million over five years. He also saddled him with QB Alex Smith and they have failed to find chemistry throughout their first year together. Bowe is a solid starter with one Pro Bowl to his name, but might not be worth his current status of fourth highest-paid WR in the league.
3. Mike Wallace – Miami Dolphins – $12 Million
Again, free agency is fantastic for WRs. As the league becomes more pass-oriented, teams struggle to find weapons to add around their quarterbacks. This benefits players like Mike Wallace, who are not elite and have only one skill, but can add a lot a team. Wallace was initially drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft. In his first three seasons, he established himself as a premier deep threat in the league, even earning a Pro Bowl birth in 2011 and reaching a Super Bowl in 2010. In 2012, coming to the end of his rookie contract, Wallace began to hold out on training camp to push for a new deal. None was given to him and he decided to test free agency in the summer of 2013. Miami came calling and gave the speedster a $60 million, five-year deal. Crazily enough, the Minnesota Vikings actually offered more for the one-dimensional receiver, but he preferred the warmer climate. Though Wallace is a capable player, he is essentially more of a deep threat and that doesn’t allow him to be considered an elite player – although he is paid like one. So far this year Wallace has underwhelmed and may struggle to top 1,000 yards for the season.
2. Larry Fitzgerald – Arizona Cardinals – $15.75 Million
Larry Fitzgerald has seen it all in his time in Arizona. He’s played with hall-of-famers at quarterback, he’s played with practice squad quarterbacks, he’s played in a Super Bowl and he’s played on some of the worst teams in football. Through it all, he has remained a consummate professional and is truly one of the elite talents at the WR position. Fitzgerald was initially drafted third overall in the 2004 NFL draft and he has paid dividends for the Cardinals franchise. After a decent rookie season, he made his first Pro Bowl in his second year as a professional.
Fitzgerald has not missed a Pro Bowl since, even after the retirement of Kurt Warner and being forced to play with quarterbacks like John Skelton. In the summer of 2011 he was finally rewarded for his incredible play with a massive $126 million deal over eight years. He has been worth every dollar and remains the face of the Arizona Cardinals. In total, Fitzgerald is a seven-time Pro Bowler, one-time Super Bowl finalist and owns practically every Cardinals receiving record. He is fully deserving of this contract and continues to produce for Arizona.
1. Calvin Johnson – Detroit Lions – $18,812,500
Calvin Johnson, affectionately referred to as Megatron, is the only WR in the league truly paid as if he was a quarterback, and with good reason. No wide receiver in the NFL can alter a game like Megatron. He was drafted second overall by the Detroit Lions in 2007, one pick after world beater JaMarcus Russell for the Oakland Raiders. While the Raiders still feel the burn of that blunder, the Lions continue to reap the benefits of Oakland’s mistake. After failing with first round picks on receivers in 2003, 2004, and 2005 with Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams respectively, the Lions finally hit a home-run with Calvin Johnson.
After a solid first year and a half, the Lions traded Roy Williams to the Cowboys, leaving Johnson as the top WR. He responded exceptionally well, becoming the best WR in the league in short order. He received a gift when the Lions selected Matthew Stafford with the first overall pick in 2009 and both have grown together over the years. He was rewarded with a huge $150.5 million deal over eight years and has continued to be the best WR in the league. He is a three-time Pro Bowler, owns the record for most receiving yards in a single season and also holds the record for most consecutive 100+ yard game at eight. It is fair to say that the sky is the limit for this Decepticon.