The most overpaid receiver in football? Christian Kirk is worth every penny

The most overpaid receiver in football? Christian Kirk is worth every penny

Zak Keefer
Sep. 15, 2023

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After all the noise, he sought the silence.

It stung at first, the hate, the cynics, the “Can you believe how much the Jaguars just gave Christian Kirk?!?” tweets he kept seeing, half the league laughing at a team for betting that big on him, this slot receiver with 17 touchdowns in four seasons who’d never been a true No. 1. Yeah, when his agent first told him the offer — four years, up to $84 million — his response was the same as everyone else’s.


“Holy crap, this is real?” he asked himself.

It was, and nobody could believe it. Not even Christian Kirk. But while he sat in bed with his fiancée on the first day of free agency in March 2022, soaking in a career-defining moment, shaking his head at the kind of life-changing money that still gives him chills, Googling where to live in Jacksonville, Fla., Kirk was becoming a social media punchline, the newest face of the league’s overpaid wide receiver position, the latest instance of a desperate franchise dishing out a bloated contract most assumed it would quickly come to regret.

And for a minute, the negativity buried Kirk like a tidal wave. He was being mocked around the NFL, and it pissed him off.

“A major overpay,” an NFL executive told The New York Post, and at that point, he wasn’t the only one thinking it.

“How we locking down guys who get paid more than us,” Rams All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey vented on X, formerly Twitter.

Kirk heard it all. Read it all. Saved plenty of it, too, screenshotting 20 or 30 of the most vicious posts, storing them in his phone, logs for a fire that was lit that afternoon. Months later, when a friend asked for everyone’s “Word of the Year” on social media, Kirk replied with the first one that came to mind.

“Overpaid,” he wrote with a smirk.

“There wasn’t a single thing being said about it that was positive,” he says now. “Not nationally. Not even locally in Jacksonville.”

The knocks hung in his mind for weeks.

“Fitz, they’re dragging me through the mud,” he finally texted his close friend and former teammate in Arizona, Larry Fitzgerald.

“Why do you care?” Fitzgerald wrote back.

“Well …”

“It doesn’t matter. It does not matter. You know what type of player you are. I know what type of player you are. So why give this any energy?”

“You’re right,” said Kirk. “You’re right.”


To that point, Kirk knew nothing about Jacksonville. Didn’t know the name of the stadium he’d be playing in. Didn’t even know where the city was in Florida. But he did know the Jaguars had themselves a young quarterback, and in Trevor Lawrence, Kirk saw a future. “The No. 1 reason I chose to come here,” he says, and yes, that includes the money. Before he hit the field with Lawrence for training camp last summer, Kirk glanced at those screenshots once more, a reminder of all the noise and negativity that accompanied his arrival.

He knew there was only one way to quiet it.

“I couldn’t wait for the silence,” he says.

And then?

Kirk smiles.

“Sure enough, three weeks into the season, crickets …”

This time, the Jaguars had a plan. One that actually made sense.

But social media doesn’t have time for strategy. Or context. Or nuance. Here’s what all those tweets left out: In the spring of 2022, Jacksonville’s front office was determined to move on from the Urban Meyer mess, and privately, the staff knew a culture shift wasn’t going to be easy — or cheap. As the team inched into free agency under new coach Doug Pederson, the Jaguars decided on a novel approach: They would pay a little more for character.

In some cases, a lot more.

Maybe the rest of the league would laugh. They didn’t care. The locker room needed new voices, and Lawrence, fresh off a disastrous rookie season, needed better weapons.

“We knew what we were doing,” says offensive coordinator Press Taylor, who arrived with Pederson that winter. “And if it cost us a little more, we were fine with that.”

It did. The Jaguars dished out more than $155 million in guaranteed contracts over the initial 48 hours of free agency, inking Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff, tight end Evan Engram and wideout Zay Jones, among others. But no addition, and no contract, earned them more scrutiny than Kirk’s. The four-year, $72 million deal — worth up to $84 million with incentives — made him one of the highest-paid receivers in football, a class no one believed Kirk belonged in.


The statistics, misleading as they can sometimes be in this league, bore that out. Across four years in Arizona, Kirk never had a 100-catch season, never had a 1,000-yard season, never even had a year with more than six touchdowns.

Now he was making more annually than Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Cooper Kupp and Mike Evans?

(Hill, Diggs and Kupp have all landed new deals since, surpassing Kirk’s.)

“Here’s why Christian didn’t have big numbers in Arizona,” Fitzgerald explains. “I was there. (DeAndre) Hopkins was there. A.J. Green for a few years. So he never got the opportunity to shine. He always had somebody in his way.”

Nobody would be in his way in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars needed Kirk in the locker room as much as on the field. This wasn’t merely a team trying to climb from the chaos of Meyer’s scandal-stained tenure; it was also a team fighting its own reputation. The “same ole Jaguars” stigma was real, the coaches quickly learned, and they needed some new blood to change that. They knew it’d be easy for some to lean on past thinking, and past habits, when the hard moments of the season inevitably arrived.

They wanted players who’d essentially say, “The hell with that.”

Kirk was one of them.

Practice was critical. That’s where it’d have to start. So the Jaguars sought that out in free agency, asking around the league about daily habits, chasing players who worked just as hard on Wednesdays as they did on Sundays.

Fitzgerald knew what Kirk would bring. In 2018, he was in the twilight of his career — already one of the best to ever play the position — when Kirk arrived, this eager rookie wanting to do all of the little things right, day after day. Kirk, Fitz says, reinvigorated him.

“You get older, you become jaded, and even though you don’t wanna be that curmudgeonly veteran who says, ‘I don’t wanna go to practice today,’ or, ‘I’ve done all this s—’ it’s hard not to,” Fitzgerald admits. “Christian shows up with this youthful exuberance and I was like … ‘I need this energy. I’ve done some great things, but I need to be doing what he’s doing.’ He gave me a boost. My last three years were way better because of him.”

Larry Fitzgerald (right) says Christian Kirk’s presence in Arizona invigorated him. (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

That’s the player the Jags’ coaches needed.


It was another veteran teammate in Arizona, tight end Zach Ertz, who left Kirk with something that stuck in his mind long after his last season in the desert ended. In January 2022, the Cardinals were prepping for a playoff game the same week that Pederson — the coach Ertz won a ring with in Philadelphia — was hired in Jacksonville. “If you hit free agency and you have a chance to play for Doug, do it,” Ertz told him. “You’d be perfect for the type of team he wants to build.”

So when Jacksonville reached out on the first day Kirk hit the market, his mind went back to Ertz’s comment. Then it went to Lawrence, whom he knew was just getting started.

This was starting to make sense. And it didn’t hurt that the offer was downright staggering.

“Man, this organization believes in me,” Kirk remembers thinking. “This validates everything I’ve been working for.”

While he Googled places to live in Jacksonville, and while his contract figures swept across social media, the texts started to roll in, from his teammates in Arizona who’d seen the backlash and wanted Kirk to know one thing: he did deserve this.

Chandler Jones reached out. Budda Baker. Fitzgerald. Hopkins. Green.

“If we’re really gonna get down to it, to what this game really means to me, I don’t do it for the money,” Kirk says. “It’s part of it, sure. It changes your family’s life. But my real happiness comes from the respect of my coaches, my teammates and my peers. That’s it. When future Hall of Famers reach out and tell you that you earned this, well, that was all I needed to hear.”

To start the 2022 season, Kirk went for 117 yards in the opener against Washington. He caught two touchdowns in a Week 2 rout of the Colts, then another in a Week 3 rout of the Chargers. From the jump, he was everything the Jaguars thought he’d be. But any sort of validation, he learned, wouldn’t come externally.Because he didn’t hear a thing.


“I knew nobody was gonna be like, ‘Oh, we were dead wrong about him, he’s actually a pretty good receiver,’” Kirk says with a smile. “It doesn’t work like that, and that’s fine.”

2022 season, inc. playoffs
Rec. Yds
1st DWN
*Denotes career high

His value surfaced in other ways, just as the coaches anticipated. His teammates started to notice his production on Sundays wasn’t an accident. He never took a day off, never coasted through a practice. He lifted the offense with him.

“Christian works like a first-year guy in the league, like he’s battling for a roster spot,” says running back Travis Etienne. “Guys are attracted to that. They respect that.”

Problem was, the losses kept piling up. After a 40-14 beatdown in Detroit in Week 13, the Jaguars were 4-8. Rinse, repeat on another lost season? The hell with that. After the team landed back home that evening, Kirk asked Lawrence and a few teammates to swing by his house — the two live in the same neighborhood — and with “Sunday Night Football” on in the background, the veteran wideout got right to the point.

Things needed to change. Lawrence needed to be more vocal, more demanding.

“If you don’t like something, tell them,” Kirk remembers saying. “If you’re not comfortable with a call, tell them. If something doesn’t feel right, tell us.”

In other words: Let’s get real with each other. We’ve got thick skin. We’re 4-8. We don’t have a choice.

Most important?

“We couldn’t fall back on that here we go again mindset,” Kirk says. “It’s easy to do that around here.”

He wouldn’t let them. Lawrence wouldn’t, either. The Jags ripped off five straight wins to close the regular season and earn their first AFC South title since 2017.

It was also the first time they hadn’t finished last in the division in five years.

A bond built on golf courses around Jacksonville that spring — quarterback and receiver, feeling one another out amid 4 1/2-hour rounds — served as the catalyst behind the team’s second-half surge. One afternoon, a few weeks in, Kirk remembers it hitting him. “This guy gets it,” he thought of Lawrence. He just needed time to grow.

And that’s why Kirk was comfortable, six months later, keeping it real with him. Kirk wanted Lawrence to take ownership of not only the offense but the franchise. He knew the Jaguars were close; six of their eight losses were by a score or less. In a league decided by ever-slimmer margins, they were on the doorstep, even if no one else saw it. Lawrence needed to push them through.

Kirk gave him the nudge.

“You have this vision of most wideouts, and they aren’t like Christian,” Lawrence says eight months later. “Honestly, the way he carries himself kinda reminds me of a quarterback. That’s part of the reason we hit it off right away. He understands way more than just what he’s doing. He sees the big picture.”

A season that in years past would’ve stumbled into January was instead resuscitated. The playoff opener against the Chargers followed a similar script: awful start, electric finish. A 27-0 hole became a 31-30 win. Kirk caught the final touchdown.

Same ole Jaguars?

“Not anymore,” he says with a smile.

Christian Kirk’s first year in Jacksonville started with a monster game, but the Jaguars’ season didn’t take off until late. (Scott Taetsch / USA Today)

An hour after the Jaguars’ ninth training camp practice, their only at TIAA Bank Field this summer, Kirk slips into a seat at the team’s sparkling new $120 million practice facility next door. All around him, there are hints of a new era, and new expectations.

“That was easily the most fans I’ve ever seen at practice since I’ve been here,” he says.

The transformation has been “night and day,” he points out. Kirk and the newcomers learned quickly in Jacksonville: It’s hard to keep the attention of a city that’s usually checked out — with good reason — by mid-December.

Not last year. And in Kirk’s mind, not moving forward.

“Obviously, we all believe, everyone in that locker room,” he says. “But the fans? They have to believe as well. We have to feel it from them, too.”

Did he feel it when he first arrived?

Kirk pauses, thinking back to last summer. “No,” he says.

But the perspective he arrived with serves as a humbling and necessary reminder: Things can change quickly in this league, and often do. A sizzling finish to one season does not mean it’ll carry over to the next. It did Sunday, when the Jags scored the game’s final 14 points in a 31-21 victory over the Colts — their seventh win in their last eight games, dating to last season. Kirk caught just one pass on three targets, as Calvin Ridley confirmed what everyone who watched the team in training camp already knew: He’s Lawrence’s new No. 1 target.

Kirk’s role was never going to be confined to a stat sheet. More than once last season, Taylor would pull Kirk aside after a game and apologize for not getting him more targets. “That’s on us,” the coordinator would say. No sweat, Kirk would respond.

“Never complained once,” Taylor says. “Not a single time.”

He owns more ambitious aims. The mocking sentiment Kirk remembers hearing last year when the wins started piling up — “Oh, the Jags are actually good?” he says, “like we were getting a pat on the back” — won’t be the same this fall.

“This year, when we win, it’s gonna be like, ‘That’s what we expect,’” Kirk says. “The Jags are a good football team. End of story.”

And he believes they will be for some time. He didn’t come here to win one playoff game.

“If I could have it my way, I’d love to retire as a Jag,” Kirk says. “Trevor’s not going anywhere. I don’t want to, either. That’s my mindset. God-willing, if everything goes as planned, I’d love to stay here until the end of my career.

“This wasn’t just a pitstop.”

And it wasn’t merely a money grab, either, no matter what the initial headlines screamed. Seventeen months after he landed a payday few believed he deserved, Kirk looks back on that moment through a different lens.

A test, he calls it.

“For me, it was like, ‘OK, this is how God works. He gives you these blessings, but the moment you think you can sit back and be comfortable, he says, ‘BOOM, take this.’”

Kirk took it. He heard the hate, saved the screenshots, then had the best season of his career, helping lift a downtrodden franchise to the divisional round of the playoffs. The noise didn’t last. Kirk earned that silence, relished it, and a year later, marvels at how much the narrative around him has shifted.

One minute, he was Christian Kirk, the most overpaid receiver in football.

The next, he was Christian Kirk, worth every damn penny.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic. Photos: Cooper Neill, Nic Antaya / Getty Images)

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Zak Keefer

Zak Keefer is a national features writer for The Athletic, focusing on the NFL. He previously covered the Indianapolis Colts for nine seasons, winning the Pro Football Writers of America's 2020 Bob Oates Award for beat writing. He wrote and narrated the six-part podcast series "Luck," and is an adjunct professor of journalism at Indiana University. Follow Zak on Twitter @zkeefer