Christian Kirk was a successful second-round pick for the Cardinals.
But he left a hole in the team's wide receiver corps after signing a stunningly big free-agent deal with Jacksonville, and his path – along with several headline-grabbing wide receiver moves this offseason – only underscores the value of finding a wide receiver in the draft, and the evolution of NFL analytics when it comes to the salary cap and roster building.
It's why a Cardinals' pick of a pass catcher at No. 23 is a real possibility in Thursday's first round.
"When guys hit free agency and they get paid the kind of money they get – you're looking at left tackles, corners, guys that are really hard to find … obviously quarterbacks, and now receivers are playing into that a little bit," Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. "When you see some of the salaries that these guys are getting at the receiver position, if you can get a No. 1 receiver, there is no reason not to take one."
The Cardinals have their big-money receiver in DeAndre Hopkins. They would have liked to keep Kirk, but at $17 million a season, that possibility ended quickly – and was a reason the team spent a second-round pick on Rondale Moore a year ago.
The Packers moved on from Devante Adams rather than pay a huge contract. The Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill. The Cowboys dealt away Amari Cooper. The 49ers have decisions to make about Deebo Samuel.
As drafts seemingly provide potential high-end receivers every year (and a lot of them), it makes more sense to swap out a younger receiver for one that might make mega-dollars and use that money (and cap space) elsewhere on the team.
"You look at somebody like Justin Jefferson who obviously is a great example, where he was picked in the draft, his average per year is like $3 million a year," said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. "You get cost control on a player like that at that price for four years plus a fifth-year option versus having to go the veteran route and having to pay that huge, huge number to get a premium guy. If not pay him, then you've got to trade a bunch of assets to go get him. To me I think that's why this year we see wideouts get pushed up a little bit more maybe than in years past."
Overthecap.com reviewed values of free-agent contracts at every position against their value as a draft pick. Not surprisingly, the spots that should be considered for first-round picks are the spots Keim often speaks about: quarterback, left tackle, edge rusher, and now, wide receiver. Interior defensive line and cornerback are the other two that are hard to find/expensive to pay on the open market.
(The rest of the offensive line, interestingly enough, should be found after the first round, according to this value chart.)
It's not just about money, of course. "We're always trying to find a young guy to develop after losing Christian," coach Kliff Kingsbury said, and while Moore is expected to have a much bigger role, the necessity for the Cardinals to bring in a potential bigger, younger outside guy to pair with Hopkins remains.
There will be excellent wideouts off the board by the time the Cardinals pick, but Jeremiah could see as many as six from the position go in the first round.
Keim said with receivers a team wants someone who can "absolutely run and uncover" from top cornerbacks, which would seem a must if a team looked for one in the first round.
The Cardinals haven't spent a first-round pick on a wide receiver since Michael Floyd in 2012, or the year before Keim became GM. Now that receiver has moved up a notch in the way the position is valued, that could change.
"Christian Kirk goes out the door, you bring A.J. Green back but you don't think he's going to be there for a long period of time, you could make the case for the wideout there," Jeremiah said.