The rookie wage scale implemented by the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 has accelerated the pace of draftee signings. More than 75 percent of draftees have already signed contracts in the four weeks since the NFL Draft took place.
With draft pick deals being done so quickly, teams can now devote more attention to signing players in a contract year to extensions. Last year, signings during the summer and leading up to the start of the regular season took players that would have been highly sought after in free agency or franchise-tag candidates off the market. A.J Green, Julio Jones, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson are among those who got new deals.
Early contract extensions can allow teams to lock up very good to great players for a number of years at more affordable rates than if their contracts had expired. The Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks are fortunate Newton and Wilson signed extensions. Although Newton and Wilson are among the NFL's highest-paid players with contracts averaging $20.76 million (includes $60 million in guarantees) and $21.9 million per year (with $61.542 million in guarantees), each would have been in a position to easily top the existing salary standards by playing out their rookie contracts.
A $25.94 million exclusive franchise tag, which is the average of the top five 2016 quarterback salaries (typically salary cap numbers) when this year's restricted free agent signing period ended on April 22, would have been necessary. The exclusive tag and the types of seasons Newton and Wilson had would have given them leverage for long-term deals averaging more than $25 million per year with more than $70 million in guarantees.
The salary cap has risen by approximately eight percent annually over the last couple of years. Continued growth at this rate will put the 2017 cap at approximately $168 million, which should benefit good players that hit the open market next offseason.
Here are 12 players that could sign contract extensions prior to the start of the regular season.
Conventional wisdom suggested that the Saints would sign Brees to an extension before free agency started on March 9 to lower his league-high $30 million 2016 cap number. A new deal would have given the Saints more flexibility to improve a team possessing a historically bad defense in 2015.
Brees appears to hold most of the cards in negotiations with the Saints. He is entering the final year of the five-year, $100 million deal he signed in 2012 to become the NFL's first $20 million-per-year player and reset the league's pay scale. The $10.85 million of his $19.75 million base salary became fully guaranteed without an offset on Feb. 10.
An agreement could have already been reached if Brees, a former member of the NFLPA's executive committee and a named plaintiff in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL during the 2011 lockout, were willing to give the Saints some sort of hometown discount. It will probably take restoring Brees as the NFL's highest-paid player -- currently Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco at $22,133,333 per year -- on a front-loaded deal with player-friendly guarantees in order for him to sign.
Tom Condon, Brees' agent, recently said in an appearance on the Rich Eisen Show that the Saints seem comfortable carrying Brees' cap number. Using a franchise tag on Brees in 2017 if he plays out his contract will cost significantly more than current cap figure. The 37-year-old's franchise tag number will be $43.09 million, which is based on 144 percent of his 2016 cap number.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay hopes to sign Luck, the first-overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, to an extension prior to the start of training camp in late July. Luck is scheduled to make $16.155 million for the upcoming season, which is the fifth-year option of his rookie deal. Irsay publicly acknowledged that Luck would get a nine-figure deal with a shocking number earlier this offseason.
Luck has leverage in negotiations. A majority of NFL executives would likely still choose him as the quarterback to build a franchise around despite his unimpressive and injury-plagued 2015 season. The expectation is Luck will have a bounce-back year that could rival his 2014 campaign in which he led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes, was third in passing yards (4,761) and seventh in passer rating (96.5).
It was widely assumed that Luck would change the NFL salary landscape with his next contract where he would possibly become the NFL's first $25 million-per-year player while setting the standard in most key contract metrics prior to his challenging 2015 season. As long as Luck is willing to exploit his leverage, it's still a realistic possibility.
The Eagles have been one of the most proactive teams this offseason in extending the contracts of core players well in advance of free agency. Tight end Zach Ertz, safety Malcolm Jenkins and offensive tackle Lane Johnson have received contracts which make them among the highest-paid players at their respective positions.
Philadelphia's only signing priority that hasn't inked a new deal is Cox, who is making the transition to 4-3 defensive tackle under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Cox's agent is Todd France. He also represents Marcell Dareus, who signed a six-year, $95.1 million extension (worth a maximum of $100.35 million through salary escalators) with the Buffalo Bills days before the start of 2015 regular season. That contract contains $60 million in guarantees, the new benchmark for a defensive player. France being adamant about the Eagles topping Dareus' deal was expected at the outset of negotiations. There have been Philadelphia media reports of Cox's camp rejecting an offer containing $60 million in guarantees. France quickly refuted this notion.
Under contract in 2016 for $7.799 million, Cox has been absent from Philadelphia's offseason activities because a new deal isn't yet in place. If the absence extends to the upcoming June 14-16 mandatory minicamp, the Eagles can fine him $76,580 for missing the three days.
Bell is the NFL's best dual-threat running back when healthy. In 2014, he became the only running back, besides Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson, to record at least 1,300 rushing yards (1,361 yards) and 800 receiving yards (854 yards) in the same season.
Bell's 2015 season was derailed in Week 8 after he tore the MCL and PCL in his right knee on a controversial sideline tackle by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. If videos of Bell playing basketball are any indication, he seems to be making a good recovery from knee surgery. He is expected to be ready for the 2016 regular season opener.
The injury has affected the timetable for an extension. It's conceivable that a new deal would already be in place with a healthy 2015 season.
A decline at the top of the running back market doesn't help Bell's cause, either. With the likely retirement of Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson is the only running back with a deal averaging over $10 million per year. That deal expires after the 2017 season. Jamaal Charles, who signed a two-year, $18.1 million extension in 2014, is the league's second highest-paid running back by average salary at $9.05 million per year.
Bell may have a tough time exceeding the maximum value of the five-year extension Jackson signed with the St. Louis Rams in 2008, which was approximately $49 million ($9.8 million per year), because of the current state of the running market. Placing a franchise or transition tag on the 24 year old in 2017 would be a consideration if he plays out his contract. Assuming a similar eight percent increase in the cap as in recent years, the 2017 running back franchise and transition numbers should be in the neighborhood of $12.4 million and $10.15 million. A transition tag would come with risk because the Steelers would only get a right to match an offer sheet, which may not be much of a deterrent to other NFL teams.
NFL.com's Ian Rapoport recently reported that the Cardinals and Mathieu's agent, Condon, are in deep negotiations. An issue that needs to be resolved before a deal can be made is how to treat Mathieu's playing position. Although he earned first team All-Pro honors in 2015 as a safety, he played cornerback 62.3 percent of time according the ESPN.com. Pro Football Focus had Mathieu's playing time at cornerback in 2015 as 67.5 percent.
Mathieu, who was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate before tearing the ACL in his right knee with two games left in regular season, doesn't want to be confined to either position. He wants to be paid like a top defender.
Mathieu, who tore the ACL in his other knee during the 2013 season, wants to make sure he is completely healthy before he returns to action even if he misses the start of the 2016 regular season. Earl Thomas is the NFL's highest-paid safety at $10 million per year. Top-paid cornerbacks, like teammate Patrick Peterson, are in the $14 million to $15 million per year range with $45 million to $50 million in guarantees.
A fair compromise might be paying Mathieu in the middle, which would be in the $12 million to $13 million range with $30 million to $35 million in guarantees. If an agreement isn't reached, a franchise tag fight resulting in a grievance hearing could take place in 2017. Franchise tags are determined by the position where the player participated in the most plays during the prior season under the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement. The $13.952 million cornerback franchise tag is $3.146 million more than safety number this year.
Collins has unmatched versatility as an outside linebacker. He is able to cover bigger wide receivers, tight ends and running backs while also being a force against the run that is capable of rushing the passer. He earned his first Pro Bowl berth and second team All-Pro honors in 2015.
It may be necessary for the Patriots to set the market for outside linebackers who aren't considered pass rushers with Collins. Lavonte David is the current benchmark. He received a five-year, $50.25 million extension from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last August. Approximately $25.5 million is guaranteed and the deal could be worth as much as $54.75 million because of base salary escalators relating to Pro Bowl and All-NFL selections.
The Patriots need to get either Collins or Hightower signed to an extension before early next March since a 2017 franchise tag can be used on only one of them. Hightower is practically everything the recently retired Jerod Mayo used to be for New England before injuries diminished his effectiveness.
Mayo got a five-year, $48.5 million extension (including $27 million in guarantees) near the end of the 2011 season when the salary cap was $120.375 million. The Patriots are likely going to have to do better than that with Hightower since it is essentially a five-year-old deal. An equivalent contract to Mayo's in a 2016 salary cap environment averages approximately $12.5 million per year with close to $35 million in guarantees. A deal should be able to be struck between the two data points.
Smith is a complete safety. He is equally adept at playing in the box or back in coverage. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman acknowledged early in the offseason that a new deal for Smith would be on the team's radar screen. One contract that has surely caught Smith's eye is Devin McCourty's. He became the NFL's second highest-paid safety by re-signing with the Patriots after rejecting bigger offers from other teams. His five-year, $47.5 million contract has $28.5 million in guarantees, which is the most ever in guarantees for a veteran safety deal.
A new contract by Eric Berry, who was designated as a franchise player by the Kansas City Chiefs, could complicate matters. He could replace Thomas as the NFL's highest-paid safety with a deal averaging over $10 million per year.
Short stands to be the beneficiary of the Panthers rescinding the $13.952 million franchise tag that was placed on cornerback Josh Norman. The move frees up cash to sign Short, whose 11 sacks in 2015 tied him for the NFL lead among interior defensive linemen. With $18 million of cap room before granting Norman unrestricted free agency, the Panthers were already well positioned to give Short a new deal.
Norman landed on his feet nicely. The Washington Redskins made Norman the NFL's highest-paid cornerback on an extremely front-loaded five-year, $75 million deal containing $50 million in guarantees. Although Norman and Short play different positions, expect Short's agent, Joel Segal, to try to use Norman's deal to his advantage. Segal, who got Justin Houston a six-year, $101 million contract from the Kansas City Chiefs last summer as a franchise player, will likely make the case that Short should get more than Norman since the Panthers place more of a value on highly productive interior defensive lineman than highly productive cornerbacks.
Baldwin became Seattle's first player to crack the 1,000-yard receiving mark since Bobby Engram in 2007. During the second half of the season, Baldwin was one of the NFL's most productive pass catchers with 47 receptions (10th in the NFL), 724 receiving yards (sixth in the NFL) and an NFL best 12 receiving touchdowns.
Baldwin would be justified in seeking a deal exceeding the one Seattle gave Percy Harvin in 2013 ($11,166,667 per year/$25.5 million in guarantees). Seattle may think that Baldwin doesn't need to be paid like a good No. 1 wide receiver because the foundation of the team has been a strong running game and dominant defense. A franchise tag in 2017 seems unlikely because the wide receiver number should be approximately $15.75 million provided the cap's recent growth rate continues.
Gilmore is skipping Buffalo's 10 days of voluntary offseason organized team activities, which began on Monday, while seeking a new contract. It remains to be seen whether Gilmore is willing to subject himself to a $76,580 fine for missing the three-day mandatory minicamp that starts June 14 if a new deal isn't in place by then.
Head coach Rex Ryan suggested that Gilmore could be a shutdown man-to-man cornerback similar to what Darrelle Revis was for him with the New York Jets when hired in January 2015. Gilmore, who is five years younger than Revis, had his best NFL season in 2015 but isn't quite at that level. That won't stop Gilmore, who is making $11.082 million in the option year of his rookie contract this season, from trying to get Revis money. Revis is the NFL's second highest-paid cornerback on a five-year deal with the Jets averaging $14,024,212 per year and containing $39 million fully guaranteed at signing where $48 million is in the first three contract years.
Slay has been angling for new deal since the latter stages of last season. He hired a new agent, Drew Rosenhaus, earlier in the offseason. Appearing anxious or impatient about a new contract can work to the team's advantage in negotiations. Regardless, Slay's salary floor should be Janoris Jenkins' 5-year, $62.5 million contract ($12.5 million per year) which contains $28.8 million fully guaranteed.