Agent's Take: Get used to the $20M-per-year pass rusher; here's who could be next
Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack should soon have some company
The top of the pass rusher market underwent a major reset as the start of the 2018 regular season was approaching. Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald and Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack became charter members of the $20 million per year non-quarterback club.
Donald was the first to break the barrier when the Rams gave him a six-year, $135 million contract extension with $86.892 million in guarantees, which averages $22.5 million per year, at the beginning of last September. The deal was 18 percent more than Broncos edge rusher Von Miller's, who had been the NFL's highest paid non-quarterback on the six-year contract he signed in 2016 averaging $19,083,333 per year. Donald's $86.892 million of overall guarantees includes a $40 million signing bonus. It is almost 25 percent more than the Miller's $70 million, which was the previous non-quarterback standard. The $40 million ties quarterback Joe Flacco for the fourth-biggest signing bonus currently in an NFL contract.
Less than 48 hours later, Mack received a six-year, $141 million extension containing $90 million of guarantees from the Bears in conjunction with his trade from the Raiders. Mack's $60 million fully guaranteed at signing established a new record for non-quarterbacks as well as one for average yearly salary at $23.5 million. His $90 million is the fourth-most overall guarantees ever in an NFL contract.
Mack and Donald should soon have company in the $20 million-per-year non-quarterback club. Over the next couple of years, $20 million per year pass rushers will start becoming a regularity in the NFL. The process with pass rushers probably won't operate like the top of the quarterback market has been recently. Multiple quarterbacks have taken turns as the NFL's highest-paid player. Each new high-end deal for a passer seemingly tops the last one. The high-end pass rusher market will likely become further defined between Mack's deal and Miller's outdated contract.
The most productive young pass rushers with expiring contracts (Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark, Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford and Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence) seem destined for franchise tags. The defensive end number projects to approximately $17.3 million with a 2019 salary cap in the $190 million range. The linebacker figure should be right around $15.6 million.
Let's take look at some pass rushers and their financial futures.
The next domino to fall could be Lawrence. He viewed playing under a $17.143 million franchise tag last season as an opportunity to break the bank in 2019, which should occur after demonstrating he is the "war daddy" pass rusher Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been looking for since releasing future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware in 2014. Lawrence followed up his breakout 2017 season with a second-straight Pro Bowl selection in 2018.
The Cowboys are optimistic a long-term deal can be reached with Lawrence. Chief operating officer and executive vice president Stephen Jones indicated earlier this week that a contract offer has been made to David Canter, Lawrence's agent. A meeting with Canter reportedly will take place at the NFL combine currently being held in Indianapolis. The Cowboys would prefer to sign Lawrence before the franchise designation period ends on March 5. Lawrence has been adamant about not playing under a franchise tag two years in a row, although a second designation will be $20,571,600 with the CBA's required 20 percent increase from his 2018 number.
The five-year, $85 million contract with $52.5 million in guarantees the Giants gave Olivier Vernon during 2016 free agency after factoring in salary cap inflation could have significance in negotiations because Canter negotiated the deal. It wouldn't be surprising if Canter insisted that this type of adjustment to Vernon's contract should be the starting point for serious discussions. Lawrence has been more consistent than Vernon was when he signed. Vernon's phenomenal last half of the 2015 season was unlike anything else in his career to that point. A comparable deal to Vernon's would average a little more than $20.75 million per year with the 2019 salary cap expected to be in the $190 million neighborhood. Exceeding Miller's $70 million of overall guarantees and approaching Donald's $50 million fully guaranteed might also be a necessity with Lawrence.
A Lawrence deal at this level would give the other likely franchise tag recipients ammunition to follow suit. Without a quick Lawrence resolution, there might not be much progress contractually until the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign long term deals is approaching. Should any of these guys the open market, there would be plenty of interest in their services. As highly productive pass rusher in their primes, joining the $20 million per year non-quarterback club wouldn't be an issue.
Clowney, who was named to the Pro Bowl for a third consecutive year in 2018, rejected an offer for a multi-year contract last preseason, according to his former Texans teammate Cecil Shorts. He didn't give any financial details about this offer so it's unknown whether Houston's efforts with Clowney reflected Donald and Mack's deals being in the marketplace.
Clowney is expected to file a grievance to be classified as a defensive end if considered a linebacker because the difference between the designations is expected to be about $1.7 million. For tag purposes, a player's position is determined by where he participated in the most plays during the prior season.
Erik Burkhardt, Clark's agent, recognizes the value of pass rushers. He indicated during the 2018 season that he would be comfortable with Clark playing on franchise tag if he and Seahawks can't get on the same page financially.
Making left tackle Duane Brown and wide receiver Tyler Lockett contract extension priorities over Clark last year is going to cost Seattle more money to retain him for an extended period of time. Clark's career high 13 sacks in 2018 were tied for eighth in the NFL. His 32 sacks since the start of the 2016 season are the NFL's ninth most although he didn't become a starter until Cliff Avril's neck injury in 2017 that ultimately ended his career.
Ford picked the right time to start living up to the potential that made him the 23rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. He had a breakout season with an expiring contract, which followed an injury plagued 2017. He is similar to Lawrence in this regard.
Ford's six sacks and four forced fumbles in five October games helped him garner AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors. His 78 quarterback pressures according to Pro Football Focus were third in the NFL and first among edge rushers. He also tied for eighth in the NFL with a career high 13 sacks.
Ford's leverage will increase if the Chiefs part ways with edge rusher Justin Houston. The Chiefs are reportedly open to trading Houston, whose $21.1 million 2019 salary cap number is the NFL's third highest among defensive players. The Chiefs may be reluctant to hand Ford a lucrative multi-year contract given that his play last season can be considered an outlier, which is how the Cowboys treated Lawrence last year when he was a first-time franchise tag recipient.
The Chiefs are facing the prospect of having two high priced pass rushers for the foreseeable future. Contract extensions for wide receiver Tyreek Hill and interior defensive lineman Chris Jones are reportedly offseason priorities for the Chiefs. Jones getting new deal before Ford probably wouldn't sit too well with him. Ford entered the NFL two years before Jones in 2014.
Jones got the NFL's attention with his pass rushing prowess last season. He was third in the NFL with 15.5 sacks. Jones set an NFL record by recording a sack in 11 straight games.
A premium is paid to players who can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks whether a defensive end, 3-4 outside linebacker or interior defensive lineman. The Eagles signed All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox to a six-year, $102.6 million extension containing $63.299 million of guarantees in 2016 which made him the NFL's second highest paid non-quarterback at $17.1 million per year until Miller re-signed with the Broncos. The Cox deal averages just under $21 million per year if adjusted to the 2019 salary cap environment.
Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, has no incentive to sign an extension until there's more clarity with the pass rusher market, which may not occur until the franchise player long term deal deadline in July. Ngakoue has 134 quarterback pressures over the last two seasons. The only one of the likely 2019 franchise tag recipients with more during this span is Lawrence, who has 142.
Ngakoue is represented by Ari Nissim of Roc Nation Sports. Nissim, a former long-time executive with the Jets responsible for negotiating player contracts and managing the salary cap before switching to player representation in 2014, dramatically changed a running back market that had been in steady decline by negotiating a four-year, $57.5 million extension (worth a maximum of $60 million through realistically achievable salary escalators) for Todd Gurley with the Rams last July.
Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa could be a candidate to reset the pass rusher market in 2020 if he rebounds from an injury plagued 2018 season where a bone bruise in his left foot sidelined him for the first nine games. The 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year holds the NFL record for the most sacks in the first 20 games of a career with 19.
The injury may have averted a contract standoff this offseason. Bosa is eligible for a new deal since he's played three NFL seasons. As the third overall pick in the 2016 draft, Bosa had the longest contract dispute for an incoming NFL player since the rookie wage scale was implemented by 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. Bosa missed 31 days of training camp before he signed his rookie contract. Bosa has the same representation as Donald, CAA Sports' Todd France. Donald engaged in two lengthy holdouts in 2017 and 2018 before signing his blockbuster deal.
One thing that will be abundantly clear over the next couple of years is how much Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter sold himself short by signing a five-year, $72 million extension with $40.007 million of guarantees last offseason. Hunter would have been in the same boat as his contemporaries in facing a franchise tag right now by merely duplicating his 2017 performance, which he easily exceeded in 2018. He tied for fourth in the NFL with 14.5 sacks. With a career year while playing out his rookie contract, Hunter would have been in a position to join the $20 million per year non-quarterback club. Hunter's deal contains $1 million in annual base salary escalators for sacks. His 2019 base salary increased by $500,000 once he got to 13 sacks. Consistently earning the escalators isn't going to be enough for Hunter to keep pace with the changing market conditions. To add insult to injury, his contract runs through the 2023 season.
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