It has never been a better time to be a top-tier player in the NFL. The money coming in hot and fast each month is finally starting to resemble the NBA max-contract model.
The past three months have produced two new QB cash kings in Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers ($50 million per year) and Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson (a fully guaranteed, $230 million deal). Top pass-catchers pushed the receiver market to $25-plus million. And just this week, Jaire Alexander brought the cornerback market into a new threshold at $84 million over four years with the Packers, less than a month after Denzel Ward hit the $20 million mark with the Browns.
No wonder league owners wanted a separate salary cap for big-money players back in the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. The players didn’t go for it. And now those owners will have star players occupying a bigger percentage of their salary cap each year — though the projected cap boom coming as soon as 2023 will help soften the blow.
More deals will come over the next three months, from former first-round picks to franchise-tagged players and midrounders emerging as superstars. At least 20 teams have a potential extension or long-term deal to address with a key soon-to-be-free-agent before the 2022 season kicks off. Let’s dig into that landscape, with Intel on players around the league looking for new contracts.
THE 2018 FIRST-ROUND PICKS (2023 free agents)
Jackson and the Ravens have been at a standstill for quite some time. Baltimore is prepared to do a deal, but Jackson hasn’t forced the issue — and has even dodged it, like an open-field tackler. He’s either incredibly patient, or he wants to get to free agency.
And you have to give Jackson credit here: He has made himself millions by waiting. The market has gone up exponentially since last summer, with four passers (Watson, Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen) all above $43 million per year. As a former MVP with 105 total touchdowns and an astounding 37-12 record as a starter, Jackson can justify at least asking for something in the ballpark of Watson’s five-year, $230 million deal.
The flip side is Jackson isn’t coming off a great year — his 50.7 QBR was well below what he put up in the previous two seasons — and was sidelined for five games, fueling the conversation about whether his dual-threat style of play will affect long-term durability. One league exec said the Ravens would be foolish not to at least consider paying Jackson on a year-to-year basis, going from the fifth-year option of $23 million for next season to two franchise tags.
Mike Tannenbaum says waiting to sign a new contract with the Ravens was a stroke of genius by Lamar Jackson.
The Colts would like to prioritize re-signing Nelson but know this will be costly. That’s why this deal could take time. The guard market is very reasonable, with Jacksonville’s Brandon Scherff being the highest-paid at $16.5 million per year. But that might be part of the problem. Nelson, 26, is widely considered the NFL’s best guard by a wide margin and could want closer to $20 million annually. I have heard the same sentiment from several veteran agents: Nelson will break the bank. While Nelson — who has a career pass block win rate of 94.7% — doesn’t play left tackle, this might be a left tackle conversation based on money.
Luckily for Nelson and the Colts, Indianapolis budgets for in-house talent and doesn’t spend big in free agency. The Colts still have $14.4 million in 2022 cap space, and that’s with Nelson’s $13.76 million cap hit off the fifth-year option included — which can be reduced on a new deal.
Expect talks between the Bears and Smith to heat up some time this summer. Even other Bears players close to free agency believe Smith is the priority for Chicago and new GM Ryan Pace. Smith has worked his way into top-10 linebacker status thanks to versatility and production. He has compiled 14 sacks, 17 pass deflections and five interceptions on his way to back-to-back second-team All-Pro nods.
With the top of the linebacker market approaching $20 million annually, Smith should push that number. He doesn’t have an agent and will essentially negotiate on behalf of himself, but he showed up to offseason workouts as a sign of good faith.
The Steelers have shown that first-round picks who become stars while on their roster will usually get rewarded a year out from free agency. T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and David DeCastro are among those who got extended before Week 1 of their fifth-year option season.
Fitzpatrick, one of the game’s top safeties, now falls into that category. But he also knows the Steelers operate on their own time, which means we should look ahead to sometime between July and the September kickoff. “They won’t be rushed into a deal,” a source said. Under recently retired GM Kevin Colbert, the Steelers also did not negotiate in-season.
Fitzpatrick will likely be coming for Jamal Adams‘ market-setting $17.5 million per year. He’s in the top five among safeties in interceptions since 2019 (11) and has 36 career pass deflections and two first-team All-Pro berths.
What further helps Fitzpatrick: The Steelers relented on their guarantee structures with Watt’s deal last year. Old Pittsburgh deals featured no guarantees beyond the signing bonus, but Watt has $80 million in guaranteed money on his four-year, $112 million deal.
The Chargers are open to a deal for James, an elite talent who put together a mostly full 2021 season after missing significant time from 2019-20. In fact, I’m told Los Angeles definitely believes this will get done. The Chargers see James as a true roster pillar, and James can take one of two paths strategically:
Do a fair market deal now.
Wait for Fitzpatrick to go first, and then slide in around — or slightly above — that number.
The Chargers did Joey Bosa‘s extension around the time training camp opened nearly two years ago, so that could be the blueprint here. James’ 75 tackles, two sacks and three forced fumbles last season don’t illustrate his full impact. Coaches and players say he’s the defense’s unquestioned leader.
A TRIO OF 2019 WIDEOUTS (2023 free agents)
The 49ers appeared to emerge from the draft with cautious optimism that they can solve the Samuel quandary. That might prove to be founded, but last we heard, Samuel hadn’t rescinded his trade request, was still skipping OTAs and hadn’t had his contract addressed in a meaningful way.
The 49ers’ decision to pass on any offers before the draft lessens the urgency for a trade. Other teams, such as the Jets, were pretty convinced throughout the process that San Francisco would not let Samuel go. If that remains the case, the Niners must mend the relationship and find a way to pay him.
Samuel’s agent, Tory Dandy, just did A.J. Brown‘s four-year, $100 million deal with Philadelphia, which included $57 million in guarantees. That can serve as a model of sorts for San Francisco and Samuel, who can argue he needs slightly more guarantees due to his ability to impact the game both as a wide receiver and running back.
As one team source said, the 49ers basically “couldn’t break the huddle” without Samuel last year. Consider that Samuel led the league in yards per catch (18.2) on 77 grabs while also adding 365 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns.
Matthew Berry reacts to Deebo Samuel’s top-five dynasty ranking for fantasy wide receivers.
The Seahawks have had chances to trade Metcalf, and some teams wondered if they might jump on those opportunities amid their rebuild. But the team’s actions — or inaction — spoke loudly. Seattle eschewed any offers for Metcalf and has settled in on him being a part of the long-term plans.
Metcalf’s size/speed combination is truly unique, and the Seahawks know he hasn’t even come close to his ceiling. Since entering the league in 2019, Metcalf has scored a touchdown on 13.4% of his catches (29 scores on 216 receptions), which is better than big-play artists Tyreek Hill (12.1%) and Davante Adams (10.6%) over that three-year span.
Keep in mind, Metcalf can be a long-term play for a future quarterback in Seattle. By not addressing quarterback in the draft, it’s clear the Seahawks are prioritizing overall roster strength, and a QB solution will fall into place from there. That strategy worked for Denver, who got former Seattle QB Russell Wilson to waive his no-trade clause because he knew he could win with the Broncos. That plan also worked for Tampa Bay, which persuaded Tom Brady to sign with talent on both sides of the ball.
The presence of Metcalf, wideout Tyler Lockett and newly acquired tight end Noah Fant makes for a good threesome to sell to a future veteran quarterback. But the Seahawks can also tap into a more-talented 2023 draft class at the position. I believe that’s all part of the equation when it comes to keeping Metcalf.
I’m told Washington spent mildly in free agency in part because it has budgeted for re-signing McLaurin. The Commanders see him as a true cornerstone and team leader. The money must validate that, and the ballooning receiver market — with $20 million per year serving as a mere entrance fee into the club — looms large here.
Through three seasons, McLaurin has averaged 1,030 yards annually despite playing with nine different quarterbacks, none of whom were long-term solutions at the position. That feat alone is worth serious coin.
FRANCHISE-TAGGED PLAYERS (2023 free agents)
Expect Bates to stay away from the Bengals for an extended period this offseason while bound to a franchise tag he is yet to sign.
This is one where I don’t sense much optimism. There has been no tangible progress on a deal, and it’s uncertain how close to the top of the market Cincinnati is willing to get. I can confirm the USA Today report that Bates does not intend to play on the tag, and when I asked a source involved what will happen if no deal is reached by July 15, the source said things will get “interesting.”
Whether Bates would be willing to miss games is still unclear. But the threat for this to snowball is certainly there. Bates would do very well in 2023 free agency, so he could play on the $12.9 million tag this year and hit the open market. The Bengals could also always opt to trade Bates, though there hasn’t been any movement on something like that.
It’s not lost on the player that Cincinnati has been active in signing external free agents, yet an in-house playmaker with a second-team All-Pro nod, 10 interceptions and 35 pass deflections in his career and plenty of locker-room credibility as a leader remains unsigned. As a result of recent deals for Trey Hendrickson, D.J. Reader, Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie, more than $52 million of the Bengals’ cap is tied to defensive line and cornerback.
It seems like anything is possible here, including a lengthy holdout.
The Chiefs are optimistic that they can sign Brown long-term, but one hurdle is Brown is between agents. It’s believed he’s in the process of trying to hire one now. But as of now, this is similar to the Jackson situation; no agent means the process can play out slowly.
Still, nobody is overly worried here. Kansas City has two-plus months to get something done. Brown made a Pro Bowl in his first year with Kansas City after it gave up serious draft capital to acquire him from Baltimore last offseason. Such an equation usually results in a long-term deal.
A long-term deal is certainly on the table over the next two months. The Cowboys will at least try to make one work. Quarterback Dak Prescott, coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore are all very high on him.
Schultz stacked up with some of the league’s best tight ends statistically last season, ranking third at the position in catches (78), sixth in yards (808) and fifth in touchdowns (eight).
The Browns showed they value Njoku this offseason by making him a long-term contract offer. The buzz around the league is the offer values more than $13 million per year, an impressive number for someone with just 1,754 receiving yards over five seasons. However, Njoku appears poised for a breakout with Watson as the new quarterback in Cleveland.
Now, the details, such as contract structure and guarantees, will tell the true story of how strong that offer really is. So this could play out like a standoff: If Njoku waits the Browns out, bringing things up against the July 15 deadline, will they sweeten the offer? Or will Njoku eventually just take what’s on the table?
It wouldn’t surprise to see him stay away from offseason workouts to press the issue.
I would be mildly surprised if Gesicki doesn’t play on the tag at this point. He’ll get a lot of single coverage with receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle on the outside, positioning the tight end to rack up big numbers in his fifth season as a catalyst for free agency.
Gesicki is widely considered a fringe top-10 tight end because of his stretch-the-field ability. His modest 10.7 yards per catch is misleading. In 2020, when risk-taker Ryan Fitzpatrick played part of the season, Gesicki averaged 13.3 yards per catch.
THE RAMS’ CONTRACT DECISIONS
The Rams are working with Donald’s reps on a new deal that promises to be record-breaking. This is expected to be an extension, re-packaging the remaining three years on his deal on a big raise. Top of the market for defensive players is $28 million annually, and Donald will be well above that when this is all said and done. He has been arguably the game’s best player for at least a half-decade.
Keep in mind that the retirement buzz around Donald — first delivered by NBC’s Rodney Harrison on the Super Bowl pregame broadcast — was always real. And it’s my understanding that Donald has a number he will play for. If it’s not met, retirement can still go down. Adding years to an already existing three-year pact takes Donald well into his mid-30s, and who knows if he wants to play that long? But that’s the best way for Los Angeles to stretch out the money for cap purposes.
Once the Rams take care of Donald’s deal, Kupp will be on the docket. His current deal makes him the 18th-highest-paid receiver on a per-year average ($15.75 million). Kupp is a free agent after the 2023 season and is coming off a historic year with 145 catches for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns, shattering a host of Rams’ single-season records.
This should be fairly easy to execute. Kupp clearly needs a raise, but his comments suggest he’s willing to find a sweet spot between respectability and keeping Los Angeles competitive.
THE 2019 FIRST-ROUND PICKS (2024 free agents)
This situation hit the trifecta of contract negotiations: the player’s social media scrubbing, the agent’s strong statement and the team shutting down trade rumors. All of that has left a lull in the action, but that can be a good thing. Post-draft, GM Steve Keim can hunker down with agent Erik Burkhardt and Murray and hash out something over the next few months.
The expectation leaguewide is Murray won’t be too eager to play this season without a new deal. Many NFL execs consider Murray in the same QB pantheon class as the Raiders’ Derek Carr, who recently got a $121.4 million extension over three years. Perhaps Murray can get slightly more per year due to age (24 to Carr’s 31) and a higher ceiling.
For all the drama surrounding Samuel’s deal in San Francisco, Bosa will likely be the priority because pass rush trumps wide receiver — and Bosa is an elite pass-rusher. He can patiently wait on Donald to do his deal and then tell San Francisco he’d like to be in that same ballpark.
One of the game’s premier linebackers, White does it all for Tampa Bay, from splash plays (15 sacks, four forced fumbles) to durability (45 games in first three seasons). Tampa Bay waited until late in Year 4 to extend 2018 first-round pick Vita Vea, so it wouldn’t shock if both sides wait a bit.
Don’t be surprised if the Lions and Hockenson knock out a deal this summer. He has been their most reliable pass-catching option with back-to-back 60-catch seasons.
Simmons has emerged as a top defensive tackle, and the Titans have no problem paying front-seven guys. Bud Dupree, Harold Landry III and Denico Autry all make big veteran money. Keep an eye on this situation.
Williams can wreck a game plan, and he proved to be a good fit for Robert Saleh’s defense. He posted six sacks and three pass deflections last year. The Jets will likely start to look at extension options for the 303-pound defensive tackle.
He has two years left on his current contract, and running backs typically don’t get paid early, but I’m hearing the Titans are at least open to a possible new deal with Henry.
Henry has salaries of $12 million ($15 million cap hit) and $12.5 million ($15.5 million) over the next two years. The Titans could lessen those two cap hits by extending him by a year or two, and they could build in escape hatches if Henry declines in his 30s. But right now, Henry is still considered the game’s top back.
One of the game’s premier slot receivers is a year from free agency, and the Raiders have proved aggressive so far under the Josh McDaniels-Dave Ziegler regime. Las Vegas expects to have some cap space freed up by June, so perhaps it digs in some time this summer.
The Packers love to take care of their top players, and Jenkins was widely considered a top-10 interior offensive lineman entering the year. Then he showed this year that he can play tackle, too, before tearing his ACL in November. (He is expected to make a smooth recovery from the injury.)
Whether Jenkins and his reps negotiate from a tackle perspective will be interesting, because the right tackle market sits at around $19 million per year, higher than the guard number ($16.5 million). The Packers and Jenkins might not be that far down the road yet, but the multiple-position factor could slightly complicate matters.
A Buffalo Bills player to be named later (2023 free agents)
Edmunds isn’t included in the 2018 first-rounders category because there hasn’t been much buzz about a deal. This would most likely be a top-three-linebacker-pay conversation ($19-plus million per year), and I’m not sure Buffalo would go there. But the Bills are proactive in retaining key players, so we’ll see.
Knox is an ascending tight end coming off a nine-touchdown season, and Poyer transitioned from early-career special-teamer to Pro Bowl safety. Poyer’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has approached the team about a new deal.
Mayfield must be included in any conversation about most interesting contracts. How Cleveland handles Mayfield’s $18.8 million guaranteed salary will dominate headlines, but he’s the one player on this list whose contract future isn’t exactly sunny.
Perhaps a new team is open to flipping that lump sum into a one-year extension, though that seems unlikely. Teams are basically waiting for Cleveland to release him at this point. Don’t expect fireworks until June, with mandatory minicamp fueling the intrigue.