Agent's Take: Five players who could reset the market value for non-quarterbacks
Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald and Odell Beckham top list, with $20M per year non-QB on the horizon
The top of the non-quarterback market has largely remained stagnant since defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh signed a six-year, $114.375 million contract with the Dolphins in 2015 as an unrestricted free agent. Suh's deal contained a then-record $59.955 million fully guaranteed at signing -- still the second most in an NFL contract.
A little over a year later, Broncos linebacker Von Miller narrowly eclipsed Suh's deal with the six-year, $114.5 million contract he received as a franchise player. Miller became the NFL's highest paid non-quarterback at $19,083,333 per year. The Super Bowl 50 MVP's $70 million in overall guarantees also established a new standard for non-quarterbacks. With $42 million fully guaranteed at signing, Miller ranked third among non-quarterbacks in this metric.
The 2017 non-quarterback market was somewhat disappointing. Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones, who was given a franchise tag, set the tone by reaching an agreement at the start of free agency last March. Typical timing is when the annual July 15 deadline for franchise players to sign multi-year contracts is approaching. He signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal with $53 million in overall guarantees; $31 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Jones, despite being more consistent, didn't quite fare as well as Olivier Vernon did in 2016 as an unrestricted free agent. Vernon received a five-year, $85 million contract containing $52.5 million in guarantees from the Giants. $40 million of Vernon's money was fully guaranteed at signing; $54 million is guaranteed over the first three years. Chargers defensive end Melvin Ingram, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short, who were also designated as franchise players in 2017, weren't able to reach Vernon's financial level either after Jones defined their market with his deal.
Things are on the verge of changing. A $20 million per year non-quarterback is on the horizon. Here's a look at the players in the best position to surpass Miller and Suh in some, if not all, important established contract metrics before the 2018 regular season begins. The group is dominated by 2014 first-round picks whose respective teams exercised options for a fifth year.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie's timetable for a Mack extension has been the 2018 offseason ever since locking up quarterback Derek Carr long-term last summer. There would have to be a complete breakdown in contract talks for Mack to play under his $13.846 million option.
Mack's play in 2017 wasn't quite at the ridiculously high level of his previous two seasons, although he earned a third-consecutive Pro Bowl berth. The 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year was the first player in NFL history to earn first-team All-Pro honors at two different positions during the same season (defensive end and outside linebacker) in 2015.
The slight drop off won't matter in negotiations. A new deal will likely make Mack a charter member of $20 million per year non-quarterback club. Contract security could be more of a sticking point than the overall dollars if the Raiders view Carr's $70.2 million in overall guarantees and $40 million fully guaranteed at signing as a ceiling for Mack. Typically, the starting quarterback is a team's standard bearer in most contract metrics when he has a lucrative deal in place.
The Raiders are facing a unique situation. It is rare for teams to have a high-priced quarterback while a non-quarterback is also commanding top dollar. The Raiders are likely to become the first team in league history with a $20 million per year non-quarterback and a $25 million per year quarterback.
The Rams won the battle in a contest of wills last preseason when Donald ended his lengthy holdout without getting a new contract. Rams general manager Les Snead now calls a new deal for Donald, who is scheduled to make $6.892 million in 2018 on his fifth-year option, a major priority but hasn't set a timetable. Donald may ultimately win the war because it usually costs more to sign a great player the longer a team waits.
The 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year had the best season of his impressive four-year NFL career without the benefit of training camp. Donald solidified his standing as the league's most disruptive force from the interior of a defensive line. He was named 2017 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. According to Pro Football Focus, Donald led the NFL with 91 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) despite sitting out the season opener since his holdout had just ended and the season finale as a precautionary measure with the playoffs looming. His 82 quarterback pressures in 2016 were the third most in the league and led NFL interior defensive linemen.
Donald's agents would be justified in raising the demands, which likely mean a landmark deal, that the Rams weren't willing to meet a few months ago by at least 10 percent because of the season Donald had and the expected growth in the salary cap. Preliminary projections put the 2018 salary cap between $174.2 million and $178.1 million.
Both Donald and Mack should be the league's highest paid non-quarterback with their new contracts. Whichever one signs first will probably have his contract leveraged by the other one into a more lucrative deal.
Beckham demonstrated that he didn't understand the NFL pay scale last summer when suggesting he should be the highest-paid player in the league. A wide receiver has never been the NFL's highest-paid player during the salary-cap era, which began in 1994. Quarterbacks have traditionally been atop the league's salary hierarchy. This isn't going to change in the foreseeable future.
A broken ankle in a Week 5 loss to the Chargers ended Beckham's 2017 season prematurely. Beckham arguably had the best first three seasons for a wide receiver in league history. He had 288 receptions (tied for first), 4,112 receiving yards (second) and 35 touchdown catches (tied of fifth) in 43 games. Jerry Rice and Randy Moss are the only wide receivers with comparable production. Beckham is still in the top 10 though four seasons in these categories despite missing 17 out of 64 games.
Giants co-owner John Mara has indicated that Beckham's contract will be addressed at an appropriate time. Presumably, this means Beckham doesn't have to worry about playing on his $8.459 million option in 2018.
Beckham declared on the eve of Super Bowl LII that he wants a new deal sooner rather later. His impatience potentially could cost him money. Since Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown's $17 million per year and Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins' $49 million in overall guarantees and $36.5 million fully guaranteed at signing are the financial benchmarks for pass catchers, it may be smart for Beckham to let Donald and/or Mack raise the bar for a non-quarterback before signing.
Beckham becoming the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback wouldn't be unprecedented. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson have both held the distinction in recent years. The closest a wide receiver has come to being the league's highest-paid player since the end of the lockout in 2011 is Fitzgerald. His seven-year, $113 million extension containing $45 million in guarantees with the Cardinals made him fourth by average yearly salary at just under $16.143 million per year. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning's $18 million per year deals were the NFL standard in 2011.
The injuries that defined Clowney's first two NFL seasons are behind him. With good health, Clowney started living up to the potential that made him the first-overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. He has been named to consecutive Pro Bowls and earned some first-team All-Pro/All-NFL honors in 2016.
Clowney is a notch below Donald and Mack. He posted a career high 9.5 sacks and 64 quarterback pressures in 2017. Donald and Mack routinely better these marks. Mack produced 10.5 sacks and 79 quarterback pressures in a "down" 2017 season.
New general manager Brian Gaine acknowledged last month at his introductory press conference that Clowney's contract was on the offseason to-do list. Clowney, who is due a $13.846 million fifth-year option salary, can make a case that he should get more than Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson after adjusting his deal to a 2018 salary cap environment. Wilkerson signed a five-year, $86 million deal in July 2016 right before the deadline for franchise players to sign long term. His contract contains $53.5 million in overall guarantees, of which $36.75 million was fully guaranteed at signing. At $17.2 million per year, Wilkerson became the NFL's third highest paid non-quarterback. With the 2018 salary cap expected to be in the $180 million neighborhood, a deal equivalent to Wilkerson's would average slightly under $20 million per year.
Lawrence has perfect timing. Having a career year with an expiring contract has prompted Dallas to announce Lawrence will be given a franchise tag absent a long-term deal before the March 6 designation deadline because of the immense importance of players who can pressure opposing quarterbacks. Lawrence's strong start to the 2017 season (6.5 sacks in the first three games) resulted in him being named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September. He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time while tying for second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks.
Lawrence shouldn't have a lot of incentive to sign or reach an agreement quickly. Waiting until the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign long-term draws near could work to Lawrence's benefit. Donald and/or Mack getting a deal done before then may provide more ammunition for using the multiple franchise-tag approach. The defensive-end number should be $17.414 million if the salary cap exceeds projections and is set at $180 million. A second franchise tag in 2019 at a 20-percent increase would be almost $20.9 million. Potentially being franchised in consecutive years could be used as justification for a long-term deal averaging approximately $19.15 million.
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