Multiple NFL teams were proactive in signing players to contract extensions between the opening of training camps and the start of the regular season. The effect is twofold. Players who would have been highly sought after in free agency or franchise-tag candidates were taken off the market. The early extensions allowed teams to lock up very-good-to-great players for a number of years at more affordable rates than if their contracts had expired.
Most notably, interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald and 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 extension with $86.892 million in guarantees. Less than 48 hours later, Mack signed a six-year, $141 million extension containing $90 million in guarantees where a non-quarterback record $60 million was fully guaranteed in conjunction with his trade from the Raiders to the Bears.
David Johnson helped solidify the dramatic reset of the running back market that Todd Gurley started with the four-year, $57.5 million extension (worth a maximum of $60 million through realistically achievable salary escalators) he received from the Rams in July. Hours before the Cardinals' regular-season opener against the Redskins, Johnson signed a three-year, $39 million extension with $31,882,500 of guarantees. The deal is worth a maximum of $45 million through incentives.
When I was an agent, I would usually recommend that a client accept a contract extension before the season if a deal contained at least 95% of what I perceived his market value to be and had a favorable structure. The player gained financial security without incurring the risk of injury or poor performance that could depress his value in the open market.
So, who can cash in with a big 2018 season? Here's a look at one player from each division to keep an eye on during their contract year.
Bell angered several of his teammates, particularly on the offensive line, when he didn't sign his $14.544 million franchise tender in time to play in the season opener against the Browns. He is foregoing $855,529 for each week he remains unsigned.
Bell and his agent, Adisa Bakari, are concerned that a heavy usage season will impact his ability for a huge payday in 2019, presumably as an unrestricted free agent. Bell led the NFL with 321 rushing attempts and 406 touches (combined receptions and rushing attempts) in 2017 despite sitting out the season finale for precautionary measures with the playoffs looming. James Conner's Week 1 league best of 135 rushing yards and 192 yards from scrimmage while replacing Bell should help alleviate some of the concerns about his workload if and when he returns to the Steelers.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Bell will sign his tender at some point before 4 p.m. ET on Nov. 13, which is the Tuesday after Week 10's games. This is the signing deadline for draft picks, unrestricted free agents getting a May tender and players with restricted free agent, franchise or transition tenders. If these types of players remain unsigned after this date, they are prohibited from playing during the 2018 season. A franchise player hasn't sat out a full season since Chiefs defensive end Dan Williams did so in 1998.
Playing this season will ensure that Bell won't get franchised for a third and final time in 2019. The procedures outlined in the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement dictate that Bell's third tag will be the greater of 144 percent of his second franchise designation (his current tender) or the largest number at any position, which is almost always quarterback. Assuming the 2019 salary cap is in the $190 million neighborhood, the quarterback number should be approximately $25 million.
Bell will be looking to replace Gurley, whose deal averages $14.375 million per year, as the NFL's highest-paid running back next offseason. Gurley has a running-back record $45 million in guarantees. The way Gurley's contract is structured, he is assured of making the $40 million in the first three years running through the 2020 season, if not the $49 million over the first four years. Contract security will be very important to Bell. A lack of guaranteed money led to Bell rejecting a five-year deal reportedly in the $14 million to $15 million per year range containing a $10 million signing bonus prior to the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign multi-year contracts.
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The Texans put a Clowney extension on hold because of his slower-than-expected recovery from minor knee surgery performed early in the offseason, which was a reminder of the injuries that defined his first two NFL seasons. The 2014 first-overall pick missed all of Houston's offseason activities because of the surgery.
Clowney, who has a $12.306 million fifth-year-option salary, seems destined for a non-exclusive linebacker franchise tag in 2019 with good health, since Houston has longstanding policy against in season contract negotiations. 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.
Clowney said the blockbuster contracts of Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack, fellow 2014 first-round picks, are giving him additional motivation. He posted a career-high 9.5 sacks and 64 quarterback pressures in 2017. Clowney should be able to join Donald and Mack in the $20 million-per-year non-quarterback club in 2019 with a career year.
Thomas ended his holdout, which began before the June minicamp, because his "pay me or trade me" ultimatum to the Seahawks fell on deaf ears. Instead, the Seahawks gave contract-year extensions to two players, left tackle Duane Brown and wide receiver Tyler Lockett, who didn't withhold their services.
Thomas indicated that he was still receptive to remaining in Seattle after ending his holdout. The Seahawks aren't inclined to move Thomas before the Oct. 30 trading deadline. A first-round pick for Thomas would probably be too good for Seattle to turn down.
The four-year extension Thomas signed in 2014 averaging $10 million per year made him the NFL's highest-paid safety at the time. The five-time All-Pro probably has his sights set on reclaiming his place at the top of the safety pay scale. Eric Berry is the current benchmark with the six-year, $78 million contract containing $40 million in guarantees he received from the Chiefs in 2017.
Thomas is a potential franchise-tag candidate. It will be $12.48 million for Seattle to use the designation on him, which is 120 percent of his current $10.4 million salary cap number.
Others: Deone Bucannon, LB/S, Cardinals; Frank Clark, DE, Seahawks; Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals; Markus Golden, DE/OLB, Cardinals; Lamarcus Joyner, S, Rams; Ndamukong Suh, DT, Rams; K.J. Wright, OLB, Seahawks
Lawrence has a great attitude about being franchised this year. He views the tag as an opportunity to break the bank in 2019, since a long-term deal couldn't be reached. He is taking the same attitude toward a second franchise tag as Chiefs safety Eric Berry did after playing on one in 2016. Lawrence is adamant about not doing it two years in a row, although a second designation in 2019 will be $20,571,600 because of the CBA-mandated 20 percent increase from his current $17.143 million figure.
Lawrence is coming off a breakout 2017 season in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time while tying for second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks. Proving that 2017 wasn't a fluke should put Lawrence in a position to get more than Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon after adjusting his deal to a 2019 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.
Assuming the 2019 salary cap is in the $190 million neighborhood, a deal equivalent to Vernon's would average slightly more than $20.75 million per year. This type of interpretation of Vernon's contract will be particularly relevant because Vernon and Lawrence have the same agent.
Barr appears to be the odd man out with the Vikings when it comes to contract extensions. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs, defensive end Danielle Hunter and inside linebacker Eric Kendricks all received offseason extensions.
Using a franchise tag on Barr, who is playing under a $12.306 million fifth-year option, in 2019 doesn't seem likely. It would be windfall for him because the number is primarily composed of 3-4 outside linebackers who function as pass rushers. The 2019 linebacker franchise tag projects to approximately $16.325 million, assuming a $190 million salary cap next year
Barr may be looking to raise the bar for outside linebackers who aren't considered pass rushers whereas the Vikings could view Kendricks' deal as his salary ceiling. Browns 4-3 outside linebacker Jamie Collins is the standard with the four-year, $50 million contract containing $26.4 million fully guaranteed he signed in January 2017. Kendricks' five-year extension averages $10 per year and has slightly under $23 million in guarantees.
Others: Adrian Amos, S, Bears; Ziggy Ansah, DE, Lions; Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Packers; Randall Cobb, WR, Packers; Clay Matthews, LB, Packers; Sheldon Richardson, DT, Vikings; Golden Tate, WR, Lions; Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, Packers
The Falcons tabled contract discussions with Jarrett's agent, Todd France, as the start of the regular season approached after a busy offseason in which quarterback Matt Ryan, left tackle Jake Matthews and safety Ricardo Allen received new deals. Jarrett cemented his status as one of the NFL's premier run-stuffing interior defensive linemen in 2017. The top of the market for these types of players is the $12.5 million per year Linval Joseph received from the Vikings in a four-year extension he signed in 2017 with $31.5 million of guarantees.
Jarrett has displayed more ability to put pressure on quarterbacks, particularly with his three-sack performance in Super Bowl LI against the Patriots, than most of the other interior defensive lineman who are a force against the run. He had a career-high 39 pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) in 2017. France may be looking at the six-year extension he got Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox averaging $17.1 million per year with $63.299 million of guarantees in 2016 as a benchmark for Jarrett.
The Falcons aren't opposed to doing extensions during the season. Cornerback Robert Alford and right tackle Ryan Schraeder signed new deals during the latter part of the 2016 season. Jarrett probably needs to take his pass rushing to another level in the first half of this season for the Falcons to feel more comfortable putting him in the same salary stratosphere as Cox. The top interior pass rushers routinely exceed 50 quarterback pressures in a season. Cox was coming off a 2015 season where he had 77 quarterback pressures when he signed his deal.
Benjamin curiously blamed Panthers quarterback Cam Newton last month for not being as productive as Odell Beckham, Jr., Brandin Cooks and Mike Evans, who were also taken in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, during his three and half seasons in Carolina. The 28th overall pick in 2014 didn't exactly set the world on fire after being traded to the Bills in the middle of last season. He caught 16 passes for 217 yards with one touchdown in six games.
Benjamin posted career highs of 73 receptions, 1,008 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches as a rookie in 2014 with Newton throwing to him. Matching or exceeding these marks this season will be quite an accomplishment with 2017 fifth-round pick Nathan Peterman, who has looked lost in his NFL starts, and 2018 seventh-overall pick Josh Allen, who is a work progress, under center for Buffalo. Doing so could allow Benjamin to top the five-year, $72 million extension (worth up to $81 million through salary escalators) with $40.007 million in guarantees Stefon Diggs recently received from the Vikings, given the explosion of wide receiver salaries in free agency this year.
Brian McLaughlin, Paradis' agent, confirmed to Mike Klis of Denver's 9News in early August that discussions about a new deal had taken place. It is unknown how much progress has been made.
The 2014 sixth-round pick really came into his own in 2016. Paradis, who was given a $2.914 million second-round free agent tender in the offseason, had followed up his 2016 campaign with a 2017 season in which he didn't allow a sack. He hasn't missed an offensive snap over the last three seasons despite nagging hip injuries that have required surgery.
Paradis could strike gold in 2019 on the open market with another good performance this season. Offensive linemen have been the biggest beneficiaries of the free agency spending spree during the last two years. The Buccaneers made Ryan Jensen the NFL's highest-paid center on a deal averaging $10.5 million per year containing $22 million in guarantees after his first NFL season as full-time starter in 2017 with the Ravens. Paradis has at least been the equal of Jaguars center Brandon Linder and Seahawks center Justin Britt, who signed extensions averaging $10.34 million and $9 million per year, respectively, during the 2017 preseason.