Jaguars’ Christian Kirk is proving he’s worth every penny of an eye-opening free agent deal

If there was an NFL Richter scale, the moment news broke that Christian Kirk would sign a four-year, $72 million deal — with incentives pushing it to as much as $84 million — would have registered as an 8.0.

Seismic news, indeed. Kirk, who had been Arizona’s third option at best during his four years with the Cardinals, was now getting paid as a guaranteed No. 1 option. Players and league executives couldn’t believe it. So much?! For him?!

Three weeks into the regular season and it looks like the Jaguars knew exactly what they were doing. General manager Trent Baalke paid a high price for Kirk, but so far you can’t argue that he hasn’t lived up to his contract.

Kirk is averaging six catches for 90 yards and a touchdown so far this season. The Jaguars are 2-1 as they face the undefeated Eagles today, and suddenly the Jags are no longer the laughing stock of the NFL.

Of course, Kirk has always been the Jags’ top pick in the wide receiver market. That’s because he fits the criteria they set before free agency began. The Jags wanted:

  • A player entering his second contract;
  • A player who has been relatively healthy in his career;
  • Someone who had the speed to separate from defensive backs;
  • A player who was young enough to grow and develop with franchise quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

The Jaguars saw what Kirk, still only 25, could become in their system. Kyler Murray isn’t known for his quick trigger, and Kirk was rarely the first option anyway. In Jacksonville, a more determined Lawrence could have gotten him the ball quicker.

Kirk averaged 3.3 yards per carry last season, above the league average of 3.0 and tied with the likes of Kadarius Towney, Deebo Samuel, Jalen Waddle and Brandin Cooks. Opponents didn’t respect Jacksonville’s speed last year, and teams were in man coverage 30.2 percent of the time against the Jags in 2021, 12th most in the league and above the league average of 27.9 percent.

Kirk broke his leg in the final month of his rookie year and then missed three games in 2019 with an ankle injury. He’s only missed two games (one due to COVID) since then, so the health box was checked.

After all, money wasn’t an issue. The Jaguars had plenty to attract in free agents, totaling about $56 million in cap space heading into the new league year.

The Jags knew Samuel was going to get more than $20 million a year sooner or later, so a number like $18 million a year for Kirk wasn’t that outrageous to them. Amari Cooper was on the trade block, but his injury history wasn’t attractive to Jacksonville. Big chance to snag Tyreek Hill or Davante Adams in a trade. And did you want to risk waiting for DK Metcalf or AJ Brown to be traded?

Looking beyond the draft, any receiver who would have made a difference in Year 1 would have been dumped with pick 15 or 20. The Jags at the time had picks No. 1 and 33, so they would be missing out on one of those guys in the middle part of the draft.

One team in the receiver market was willing to pursue Kirk in the $13 million per year range. They were quickly told that this would not be enough and went a different route. Jacksonville’s $18 million-a-year offer (with incentives that could raise it to $21 million a year) got the job done just two hours after the legal bargaining period opened.

“I’m not listening to it,” Kirk told CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco during training camp when asked what he thought about his contract talks. “People can have their opinion, people can talk. For me, I know what I’ve earned and I know what I’ve worked for. So for that, I’m just going to move forward and continue to be the player that I want to be. “

Only once before has Kirk strung together three consecutive weeks with at least six catches (Weeks 14-16 of 2021). Never before has he had three straight weeks with at least 70 receiving yards in each game.

Now he’s doing it in Jacksonville.

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