Each year after the NFL draft, teams start focusing more attention to signing players in contract years to extensions. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan became the NFL's first $30 million-per-year player with the five-year contract extension he signed in early May. Most recently, Zack Martin reset the offensive-guard market with the six-year, $84 million extension he received from the Cowboys containing $40 million in overall guarantees.
Signings during the summer change the composition of the following year's free agency. Several players who would have been highly sought after in free agency or franchise-tag candidates were taken off the market last year, including Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Panthers offensive guard Trai Turner, Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant and Raiders offensive guard Gabe Jackson. High-caliber players who hit the open market have increased leverage because some of the potential competition has been eliminated through the extensions.
Here are a dozen prime candidates who could sign contract extensions prior to the start of the regular season. Falcons mandatory minicamp holdout Julio Jones isn't included. It would be a mild surprise if the Falcons extended the five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver's contract since he has three years remaining. It's more likely for the Falcons to make a minor adjustment to Jones' contract by adding incentives or increasing his 2018 compensation by taking money from his 2019 base salary. Other teams have done these things when elite players who felt underpaid were at similar stages of their contracts.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
The expectation was the Packers and Rodgers would quickly reach an agreement on a new contract after Ryan signed a five-year, $150 million extension with NFL records of $100 million in overall guarantees and $94.5 million fully guaranteed at signing. Ryan's deal set a salary floor for Rodgers, whose contract with the Packers runs through the 2019 season. A new contract for Rodgers doesn't appear imminent several weeks after Ryan's signing.
The likely culprit for the delay is Rodgers reportedly seeking a clause allowing him to opt out of the deal at some point. Clauses giving the players the latitude to void remaining contract years at their discretion are a rarity in the NFL. Contract years automatically voiding on a specific date, which are usually put in to allow a team to prorate a signing bonus over a longer period of time for salary-cap purposes, is an accepted NFL practice.
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Green Bay has little incentive to give Rodgers the opt-out clause. Realistically, the Packers can control his rights over the next four seasons by paying him slightly more than $107 million where he plays out his contract and is designated as a franchise player twice. Rodgers wouldn't get his first chance to potentially hit the open market until 2022 as a 38 year old with Green Bay going this route.
Rodgers playing the 2018 season under his existing contract is the likely outcome if he is adamant about being able to opt of a new deal. A conventional deal would probably be in the $32 million-per-year neighborhood. Whether Rodgers would eclipse Ryan's guarantees marks would be debatable considering Packers contracts typically have a vanilla structure where guarantees are usually less than comparable deals on other teams. Nonetheless, the Packers routinely make an exception for Rodgers. His current deal had the fourth-largest amount of guaranteed money ever received in an NFL contract and the second-most fully guaranteed at signing when he signed in 2013.
Aaron Donald, DL, Rams
The 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year had the best season of his impressive four-year NFL career in 2017 without the benefit of training camp. The Rams won the battle in a contest of wills when Donald ended his lengthy holdout at the end of the preseason without getting a new contract. Despite this, 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) although he sat out the season opener since his holdout had just ended and also 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 lineman.
Rams general manager Les Snead has called a new deal for Donald, who is scheduled to make $6.892 million in 2018 on his fifth-year option, a major priority. Since Donald hasn't gotten a new deal yet, he didn't participate in any of the Rams' offseason activities. Expect him to miss training camp again if he still hasn't gotten his new contract.
It's been a foregone conclusion that Donald would eventually become a charter member of the $20 million-per-year non-quarterback club. The substantial growth in quarterback salaries over the last year with the non-quarterback market remaining stagnant is complicating matters. It is my understanding that restoring the traditional financial relationship between the highest-paid quarterback and non-quarterback which has existed under the current CBA is the objective. This means a marginal increase over the current non-quarterback standard -- which is Broncos linebacker Von Miller at $19,083,333 per year and $70 million in overall guarantees -- won't be sufficient. A deal averaging over $23 million per year with $85 million in guarantees, where $65 million to $70 million is fully guaranteed at signing, would recreate the balance. The Rams' reluctance to dramatically reset the non-quarterback market isn't surprising.
Khalil Mack, DE, Raiders
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. Mack, whose fifth-year option for 2018 is $13.846 million, has also been absent from offseason activities. The Raiders having sticker stock as the Rams are with Donald is the likely impediment to reaching an agreement.
Mack was the first player in league history to earn first team All-Pro honors at two different positions (defensive end and outside linebacker) during the same season in 2015. Mack followed up this outstanding campaign by being named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2016. Mack's play in 2017 wasn't quite at the ridiculously-high level of the previous two seasons although he earned a third consecutive Pro Bowl berth. His 36.5 sacks are second most in the NFL over the last three seasons and two more than that of perennial All-Pro Von Miller, who is third.
A new deal is expected to make Mack the NFL's first $20 million-per-year non-quarterback. That is if Donald doesn't beat him to it. If Donald gets a new deal first, his contract will serve as the salary floor for Mack.
Contract security could be just as much of a sticking point as the overall dollars in Mack's negotiations because of Carr's $70.2 million in overall guarantees and $40 million fully guaranteed at signing. Typically, the starting quarterback is a team's standard bearer in most contract metrics when he has a lucrative deal in place.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
The Patriots finally addressed Gronkowski's perpetual unhappiness with the six-year, $54 million extension he signed in 2012 to become the NFL's highest-paid tight end by average yearly salary with a stop-gap measure last year. There were $5.5 million of incentives added to Gronkowski's 2017 contract year. He earned the entire amount when he was named first team All-Pro by the Associated Press.
Gronkowski surprisingly revealed after Super Bowl LII that he was contemplating retirement. There was plenty of speculation that the retirement talk was just a negotiating ploy. Gronkowski forfeited a $250,000 bonus by not participating in the offseason workout program. He did attend New England's mandatory minicamp in early June. According to the MMQB's Albert Breer, Gronkowski was shopped to a select group of teams New England trusts prior to the disgruntled tight end confirming to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick a few days before this year's NFL draft he was committed to playing this season.
The Patriots reportedly are willing to rework Gronkowski's contract but nothing is imminent. It's unclear whether that's another "Band-Aid' approach like last year or a new deal. He is under contract through the 2019 season.
Gronkowski is clearly the best tight end in football. In the last three seasons when healthy (2014, 2015 and 2017), he was named first team All-Pro.
As the ultimate mismatch in the passing game, Gronkowski can make a legitimate case that he has transcended his position and should be compared to game's best pass catchers instead of just tight ends. A deal compensating Gronkowski in this manner is out of the question. Antonio Brown sets the wide-receiver market with the $17 million-per-year extension he signed with the Steelers in 2017. Jimmy Graham remains the NFL's only $10 million-per-year tight end with the contract he received in free agency from the Packers despite a sizable statistical regression in 2017. He got similar money at 31 years old after a major knee injury three seasons ago, as he did at 27 when the Saints made him the NFL's first $10 million-per-year tight end in 2014. The top of the second tier of wide receiver deals is now in the $13 million-per-year range with between $25 million and $30 million of guarantees.
Odell Beckham, Jr., WR, Giants
Beckham has been a model citizen ever since Giants President and CEO John Mara publicly vented his frustration with the mercurial wide receiver's behavior while attending the annual NFL owners' meeting in late March. Beckham had near perfect attendance at New York's offseason workouts. He has also indicated that he won't hold out of training camp despite a long-held desire for a new contract. The broken ankle that cost Beckham the final 11 games of 2017 season isn't expected to limit him during training camp.
Beckham, who is scheduled to play 2018 on his $8.459 million option-year salary, 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.
Beckham reportedly wants $20 million per year, which isn't unreasonable in light of the three-year, $48 million contract with $30 million fully guaranteed the Chiefs gave Sammy Watkins in free agency. Watkins is being paid like an elite wide receiver without ever having matching production.
A $20 million-per-year deal would make Beckham the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback (at least temporarily). It wouldn't be unprecedented for a wide receiver. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson have both held that distinction in recent years.
Earl Thomas, S, Seahawks
Thomas announced via Twitter a couple of days before last week's mandatory minicamp he wouldn't participate in any of Seattle's team activities until his contract situation was resolved. He also expressed his desire to stay with the Seahawks for the remainder of his NFL career in the same tweet.
Thomas is in the final year of a four-year contract extension signed in 2014 averaging $10 million per year, which made him the NFL's highest-paid safety at the time. He is scheduled to make $8.5 million this year. His salary-cap number is $10.4 million.
Thomas feels that his performance over his eight years in the NFL warrants a new contract. He has been selected to six Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams five times during his career. Thomas earned a Pro Bowl berth and second-team All-Pro honors in 2017.
General manager John Schneider met with Thomas' representation at the NFL combine in early March. There hasn't been any meaningful dialogue about a contract since then.
The Seahawks established a baseline for Thomas by giving strong safety Kam Chancellor a three-year, $36 million contract extension (with $25 million in guarantees) when training camp opened last year. The deal was a curious decision even before Chancellor's career-threatening neck injury because it seemed as if his eventual replacement had been found in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft with Delano Hill.
Thomas, who will be 30 next year, probably has his sights set on reclaiming his place at the top of the safety pay scale. Eric Berry is the current standard with the six-year, $78 million contract containing $40 million in guarantees he received from the Chiefs in 2017.
Seattle's recent history in contract disputes suggests that a holdout isn't the best tactic to get a new contract. Chancellor held out 54 days in 2015 before returning without any changes to his contract.
The Seahawks haven't been opposed to trading Thomas for the right price. According to the Fort Worth Star Telegram's Clarence Hill, the Seahawks wanted first- and third-round picks for Thomas leading up to and during late April's NFL draft. Teams reportedly weren't willing to part with more than a third-round pick.
It may be time for to Seattle to aggressively pursue a trade, presumably to Dallas, where Kris Richard, who was Seattle's defensive coordinator the last three seasons, is the Cowboys' secondary coach. Seattle would need to lower its asking price to below a first-round pick. Any team seriously interested in Thomas would likely want permission to discuss a new contract with his representatives, if not reach an agreement in principle, before acquiring him.
David Johnson, RB, Cardinals
Johnson skipping last week's mandatory minicamp was surprising considering there has reportedly been constructive dialogue about a new deal and Johnson's status in 2017, a lost season after breaking his left wrist in the season opener. Johnson is making $1.907 million this season, the final year of his four-year rookie contract.
Johnson arguably became the NFL's best dual-threat running back during a breakout 2016 campaign in which he led the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage while earning first-team All-Pro honors. Johnson's value to Arizona's offense was apparent during his absence last season. The rushing attack was anemic. The Cardinals had the NFL's third-worst running offense, generating only 86.6 rushing yards per game and ranking next to last with 3.4 yards per carry.
Unfortunately for Johnson, elite running back money isn't what it used to be. Running back salaries reached a peak in 2012. The average of the top-five running back contracts was approximately $10.85 million per year, contained almost $26 million in guarantees where the average length was five years. The Falcons' Devonta Freeman is the current benchmark for long-term deals at $8.25 million per year.
Johnson's camp should take the position that the contract offer Le'Veon Bell rejected last year as the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign multi-year deals approached is more indicative of their client's marketplace than Freeman's deal. Multiple reports initially put the offer in the $60 million neighborhood for five years. Bell reportedly wants the same $17 million-per-year wide receiver Antonio Brown got from the Steelers in an extension last year.
Bell signing a long-term deal seems highly unlikely unless he softens his financial demands. Nonetheless, Johnson shouldn't reach an agreement before Bell's July 16 deadline just in case he gets a new contract. An actual Bell contract could be a game changer for Johnson.
Any training-camp holdout by Johnson should be relatively brief. A year of service towards free agency (i.e.; an accrued season) isn't earned when a player doesn't report to his team at least 30 days prior to NFL's first regular-season game. The reporting deadline this year is Aug. 7.
Missing the Aug. 7 deadline and Johnson playing out his rookie deal after a failed holdout would make him a restricted free agent in 2019. Under this scenario, the Cardinals would likely give Johnson a restricted free-agent tender next year (between $4.356 million and $4.564 million) where they would get a first-round pick from a team signing him to an offer sheet that isn't matched. Getting the year of service isn't a concern for holdouts with four or more years of service since these players already have enough service time to qualify for unrestricted free agency.
Johnson will be a prime candidate for a franchise tag in 2019 if he doesn't get a new deal. The declining running back market of the last few years is going to have an impact on the 2019 running back franchise tag. Assuming the 2019 salary cap is set in the $190 million neighborhood, Johnson's franchise tag projects to $11.3 million. This is approximately $800,000 less than Bell's first franchise tag in 2017.
Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Texans
General manager Brian Gaine acknowledged during his introductory press conference in January that Clowney's contract was on the offseason to-do list. Those plans may be changing, according to the Houston's Chronicle's John McClain, because of Clowney's slower-than-expected recovery from minor knee surgery early in the offseason, which is a reminder of the injuries that defined his first two NFL seasons.
With good health, Clowney started living up to the potential that made him the first-overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Clowney has been named to consecutive Pro Bowls and earned some first-team All-Pro/All-NFL honors in 2016. He posted a career-high 9.5 sacks and 64 quarterback pressures in 2017.
Clowney, who is due a $12.306 million fifth-year-option salary, can make a case that he should get more than Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon after adjusting his deal to a 2018 salary-cap environment. Vernon signed a five-year, $85 million deal as an unrestricted free agent in 2016. His contract contains $52.5 million in overall guarantees, of which $40 million was fully guaranteed at signing. With the 2018 salary cap at $177.2 million, a deal equivalent to Vernon's would average slightly under $19.5 million per year.
Gaine is adhering to Houston's longstanding policy against in-season contract negotiations. If deal isn't done before the regular season starts in early September, Clowney seems destined for a non-exclusive linebacker franchise tag in 2019. The linebacker number is expected to be in the $16.325 million neighborhood next year, assuming the 2019 salary cap is in the $190 million range. Waiting until next year will surely be more costly if Clowney has a 2018 similar to his prior two seasons, particularly with Mack re-defining the market for edge rushers.
Taylor Lewan, OT, Titans
The Titans probably should have prioritized signing Lewan to an extension over defensive lineman Jurrell Casey last year, when both players had two years remaining on their contracts. The market for Casey wasn't going to appreciably change by waiting until this offseason to sign him. It's likely that Casey would have gotten a deal similar to the four-year, $60.4 million extension with $40 million in guarantees he signed at the start of training camp last year.
The same can't be said for Lewan because Nate Solder has taken the tackle market to unprecedented heights this offseason. The Giants gave Solder a four-year, $62 million contract with $34.8 million fully guaranteed in free agency. He easily eclipsed the previous benchmark Russell Okung set during free agency in 2017 ($53 million over four years with $25 million guaranteed from the Chargers).
It's likely going to require the Titans resetting the tackle market to sign Lewan long-term. He is scheduled to make $9.341 million this season on his fifth-year option. If the Titans aren't willing to do so, playing the franchise tag game seems to make sense for Lewan. The 2019 offensive lineman franchise tag projects to $14.7 million with a salary cap of approximately $190 million next year. A second franchise tag in 2020 at a Collective Bargaining Agreement mandated 20 percent increase would be slightly over $17.5 million.
The best way for Lewan, who has earned Pro Bowl berths the last two seasons, to maximize his income may be to borrow a page from Solder's book. Solder signed a two-year, $20.062 million extension (with a maximum value of $21.562 million) during his option year in 2015, prohibiting the Patriots from designating him as a franchise or transition player when his contract expired after the 2017 season. Lewan would be in a position to break to bank as unrestricted free agent in 2021, considering how mediocre and slightly-above-average left tackles Okung and Solder have become valuable commodities on the open market.
Geno Atkins, DT, Bengals
Besides Donald, nobody is more disruptive to the opposition's passing game from the interior of the defensive line than Atkins. Atkins has the second-most sacks for an interior defensive lineman since the start of the 2015 season with 29. His 233 quarterback pressures according to PFF during this same span also trail only Donald among interior defensive lineman.
The market for defensive tackles has changed dramatically since Atkins signed his five-year, $53.327 million extension in 2013. The top run stuffers are signing deals in the $12 million-per-year range while the best pass rushers are getting upwards to $17 million per year. It would behoove Cincinnati to extend Atkins' contract before Donald resets the market for interior defensive linemen.
Brandon Graham, DE, Eagles
Extending Graham's contract, which is set to expire after the 2018 season, has reportedly been on Philadelphia's radar screen for quite some time. Recognizing that the four-year, $26 million contract Graham was playing under left him dramatically underpaid, $1.5 million of performance bonuses were added to the deal last preseason.
Graham has been thriving in the attacking 4-3 scheme Jim Schwartz installed once he was named defensive coordinator two seasons ago. His 83 quarterback pressures in 2016 were the third most in the NFL according to PFF. Graham had a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2017. His late-game strip sack of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady helped seal Philadelphia's Super Bowl LII victory.
Graham, who is 30, recently indicated that he is comfortable playing out his contract if necessary. It's hard to envision Graham accepting less than the four-year, $58 million extension with $34 million in guarantees Everson Griffen, who is a few months older, received from the Vikings last July.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Vikings
The Vikings have a track record of signing key players to extensions during contract years. Inside linebacker Eric Kendricks was the first domino to fall. He signed a five-year, $50 million extension in April. In addition to Diggs, the Vikings have interest in signing outside linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive end Danielle Hunter to new deals.
The Vikings were already going to have a challenging negotiation with Diggs because of Adam Thielen's All-Pro season in 2017. It came after he signed a four-year, $19.246 million year deal during the preceding offseason as a restricted free agent where he gave up three unrestricted free agency years for $16.5 million, which can be worth as much as $25.8 million thanks to base salary escalators and incentives. Although Diggs wasn't the primary receiving target in 2017, he is a fixture on rankings of .
The explosion of wide receiver salaries during free agency only complicates matters. Lesser-regarded pass catchers, such as Albert Wilson and Paul Richardson, received $8 million-per-year deals from the Dolphins and Redskins, respectively. Donte Moncrief signed a fully-guaranteed one-year, $9.6 million contract with the Jaguars despite catching only 56 passes for 698 yards and nine touchdowns as a member of the Colts in 2016 and 2017 combined. He can earn up to another $2 million through incentives.
Hunter is likely to get Minnesota's franchise tag over Diggs if both are unsigned before the designation period ends early next March because young pass rushers are more valuable commodities. Diggs shouldn't seriously consider signing a new deal for anything less than the four-year, $58.5 million extension the Packers gave Davante Adams at the end of the 2017 regular season because of this dynamic. Adams finally emerged as Green Bay's top receiving threat last year while Aaron Rodgers was out several games with a broken collarbone and his favorite target Jordy Nelson was having a disappointing season. He has yet to have a 1,000 yard receiving season with the Packers. Diggs might find testing the open market attractive even if he wants to ultimately stay in Minnesota because of the money wide receivers got in free agency this year.
Other Candidates: Anthony Barr, OLB, Vikings; Landon Collins, S, Giants; Brandin Cooks, WR, Rams; Carlos Dunlap, DE, Bengals; Danielle Hunter, DE, Vikings; Grady Jarrett, DT, Falcons; Jake Matthews, OT, Falcons; C.J. Mosley, ILB, Ravens; Golden Tate, WR, Lions; Daryl Williams, OT, Panthers