Christian Kirk may have made fools of the sports take industrial complex. Kirk earned six catches in each of his games this season, and over both of them, has totaled 195 receiving yards, seventh in the NFL behind luminaries like Justin Jefferson, Cooper Kupp, and A.J. Brown.
A $21 million average value certainly seems like quite a bit – it would have ranked third among receiver contracts when it was announced and would have ended the offseason ranked tenth among all receiver contracts.
Was Christian Kirk overpaid, or was it just right?
It was certainly a surprise to see that kind of number for a receiver like Kirk, who hadn’t broken 1000 yards and was pushed down the depth charts by impact trades, draft selections, and signings in Arizona.
That had a knock-on effect. Kirk is well aware of the apparent fact that his contract “set” the wide receiver market, and there has been some discussion that his contract pushed up the eventual values of the contracts for Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, D.K. Metcalf, Deebo Samuel, and A.J. Brown.
Throw in the fact that Jacksonville — so beleaguered at receiver that two of their top three targets from 2021 are no longer on the team — has a reputation for overpaying in free agency and overall ineptitude, and you’ve got the perfect storm for a narrative about overpaid players and underwhelming performances.
It was unfair to Kirk not just because it’s in his best interest to secure the most he can for himself but because much of the reporting was misleading. Kirk’s contract has $12 million in incentives that he has yet to qualify for, making it a much more reasonable $18 million a year contract, ranked 19th among receivers in average annual value and 23rd in cap-adjusted average.
Not only that, Jacksonville has an out after two years – the only guaranteed money left on his contract in 2024 is the pro-rated signing bonus money, meaning they could save $11.5 million in cap space by cutting him before the 2024 season or $16.5 million by cutting him before the 2024 season.
He also was more than just a receiver who couldn’t break 1000 yards – he led the Cardinals in receiving in 2021 and had to deal with an offense occasionally helmed by Colt McCoy and one that fell apart midway through the season.
They hit at least 30 points a game seven times in the first nine games and only twice after that. The passing game generated a passer rating of 109.8 in that span at 265 yards a game, followed by a rating of 87.6 and 235 yards a game.
Before Kirk ever hit the field, it looked like a good contract for Kirk and the team but was reported as anything but. And it turns out he’s making good on his expectations, even the inflated ones that people may have demanded after the first round of reporting.
Kirk is currently generating 2.79 yards per route run – just behind Jefferson and Brown but ahead of Kupp. If he finishes the season with that pace, he’ll have over 1600 receiving yards.
Like many of the top receivers, he will probably cool off in terms of production as a product of statistical regression. But he has demonstrated the talent to get there. Not only that, Jaguars offensive coordinator Press Taylor is using his talents in exactly the ways necessary to unlock a player like Kirk.
Here, Taylor designs a motion for Kirk to shift to the running back position, forcing the Colts into a check. The Jaguars can be reasonably confident that the check in the red zone is to some form of split-safety zone look, likely quarters. They know that it means that slot corner Kenny Moore will have an instinct to protect the outside and will hesitate to play inside leverage.
The Jaguars clear out the rest of the underneath defenders with a drag route from Evan Engram and prevent the safety from poaching the route with a corner route from Zay Jones. That corner route signals a common red zone concept called “smash” that puts a receiver underneath Jones’ route, and Moore is primed to defend that.
Instead, Kirk runs an in-breaking route that gives him a full head of steam – he has another second or two of acceleration because of his position as a backfield defender and doesn’t have to do anything like beat contact at the line of scrimmage – that allows him to muscle into the end zone.
Kirk’s skills after the catch give him the touchdown, but his overall skill as a route runner allows him the credibility to run any route from the backfield, forcing Moore to respect flat or pivot routes.
While he does a good job creating separation in routes, he can struggle at the line of scrimmage against the press. So, the Jaguars make sure they can preserve his after-catch capability and explosive route-running by keeping him off the line of scrimmage, often in the slot and sometimes in the backfield.
His quick reaction time and quick hands also make him an ideal hot receiver against blitzes, and he has a history of adjusting his routes to space from what the offenses at Texas A&M and Arizona required of him.
While he still needed seasoning as a technician when entering the league, his growth there has helped the Jaguars find ways to put him in space and use him as a potent weapon in what the Jaguars hope to be a resurgence.
It’s not likely that the Jaguars will be content with him as the primary receiver, but he can become an incredible complement to a talented receiving corps with outside threats. And before they acquire one, he can take the burden of being a lead receiver.
Thus far, both parties in the contract have made good on what they needed for this to be a successful signing, especially as it helps second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Kirk should be a fun player to watch throughout the season and a good lesson for the rest of us.