It was my responsibility to conduct practically all of the contract research and negotiation preparation while on the agent side for clients of the sports management firm where I worked, regardless of whether I was the primary negotiator. Adjusting contracts into the existing salary cap climate is something I started doing to determine an asking price for Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle when he was a transition player in 1998. It occurred to me that the top defensive player contracts didn't reflect the growth in the salary cap from $41.454 million in 1997 to $52.388 million, which was a direct result of new TV contracts.

Bruce Smith was the NFL's highest paid defensive player with the five-year extension averaging $5.2 million per year he signed with the Bills in 1997. I adjusted his contract to reflect the 26.4 percent salary cap growth from 1997 to 1998. His adjusted deal of almost $6.575 million became the guide for setting Randle's target price. Randle replaced Smith as the league's monetary benchmark for defensive players on a five-year, $32.5 million contract containing $20 million in guarantees to remain with the Vikings as salaries exploded, thanks to the new TV money.

It's become a fairly common practice for agents to adjust contracts into the existing salary cap environment when preparing for negotiations on behalf of clients. How persuasive this approach is with NFL teams varies. When I was representing players, I found that some teams were dismissive while others were somewhat receptive to this kind of approach.

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I've applied the methodology to assess existing NFL contracts at the different positions in the chart below. The defensive front seven is broken into edge rushers, interior defensive linemen and linebackers. Edge rushers are primarily limited to 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers. This means linebackers are players who aren't considered as pass rushers (i.e.: off-ball linebackers).

Randle's contract illustrates the methodology. A deal equivalent to the $6.5 million per year Randle received with a $52.388 million salary cap in 1998 is $24,591,510 per year under the current $198.2 million salary cap. 

Below the chart is a look at players who have the best chance of topping or coming closest to exceeding the benchmarks at the various positions.

PositionTeamYear signedGrowth factorSalary capNew $ avg.Adjusted new $ avg.Contract length

Aaron Rodgers








4-year extension

Khalil Mack








6-year extension

Aaron Donald








6-year extension

Julio Jones








3-year extension

Patrick Peterson








5-year extension

Lane Johnson








4-year extension

Bobby Wagner








3-year extension

Christian McCaffrey








4-year extension

Zack Martin








6-year extension

Kevin Byard








5-year extension

Brandon Linder








5-year extension

Travis Kelce








5-year extension

Justin Tucker








4-year extension



The Chiefs are reportedly going to focus on 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes' contract extension after the upcoming NFL Draft. Mahomes should become the league's first $40 million per year player when he signs a new contract. 

Running back

Christian McCaffrey's $16 million per year comes in ahead of Ezekiel Elliott's $15,797,024 adjusted average yearly salary in the six-year, $90 million contract extension he received from the Cowboys last September to end his holdout. 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley is the best bet to raise the salary bar for running backs. He becomes eligible for an extension at the conclusion of the 2020 regular season. Barkley had a league best 2,028 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards) as a rookie in 2018 but was slowed by a high ankle sprain last season. Barkley still had 1,003 rushing yards last season despite missing three games. The Giants won't have to contend with paying Barkley while a high priced quarterback is already on the books. 2019 sixth overall pick Daniel Jones will be entering the third year of his cost effective rookie contract in 2021. 

Wide receiver

Julio Jones re-setting the wide receiver market was expected. A three-year extension averaging $22 million per year containing $64 million fully guaranteed when Jones had two years left on his contract wasn't. Part of Texans head coach Bill O'Brien's justification for trading DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals was he wanted his contract addressed. Adding two new years so Hopkins is under contract through the 2024 season where his cash over the five years mirrors Jones' five year total of just over $87 million would essentially be a two-year extension averaging $23.5 million per year.

Tight end

The tight end market hasn't moved much since Jimmy Graham first hit the $10 million per year mark in 2014 with the Saints. Signing George Kittle to an extension is an offseason priority for the 49ers. A Kittle deal should dramatically re-set the tight end market since he is San Francisco's primary weapon in the passing game 

Offensive tackle

The Texans have opened negotiations with 2019 Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil. A tactical error was made in neglecting to secure a new deal in conjunction with Tunsil's trade from the Dolphins right before the start of the 2019 regular season. The Texans might as well as give Tunsil a blank contract and have him fill out it in given the leverage handed to him through the lack of a new contract and the trade compensation, which was essentially two first round picks and a second round pick.

Offensive guard

Contract discussions have reportedly gone well after the Redskins designated Brandon Scherff as a franchise player. Scherff's $14.781 million franchise tag should give him ammunition to become the NFL's first $15 million per year offensive guard since a second franchise tag in 2021 at a Collective Bargaining Agreement mandated 20 percent increase would be $17,737,200. A long term deal must be attractive enough for Scherff to forego the possibility of hitting the open market next year since a second franchise tag might be too cost prohibitive for the Redskins.


Ryan Kelly is scheduled to play under a $10.35 million fifth year option. The 2016 first round pick has developed into a Pro Bowl caliber center. Raiders center Rodney Hudson is the actual current standard for average yearly salary at $11.25 million per year. 


Edge rusher

Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa becoming the NFL's first $25 million per year non-quarterback isn't out of the realm of possibility. The 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year bounced back in 2019 from an injury plagued 2018 season where a bone bruise in his left foot sidelined him for the first nine games. Bosa had his third double-digit sack season in four years. He tied for ninth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks. Bosa holds the NFL record for the most sacks in the first 20 games of a career with 19.

Interior defensive lineman

DeForest Buckner set what should be a salary floor for Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones. Buckner received a four-year, $84 million extension averaging $21 million per year from the Colts in connection with his recent trade from the 49ers for a 2020 first round pick (13th overall). Jones playing under his $16.126 million franchise tag in 2020 with third straight season in which he consistently pressures opposing quarterbacks would make it much more likely that he'll replace Aaron Donald as the NFL's highest paid interior defensive lineman. The six-year extension Donald signed with the Rams in 2018 averages $22.5 million per year and contains $86.892 million of guarantees ($50 million fully guaranteed at signing). Jones' 24.5 sacks since the start of the 2018 season are the second most for interior defensive linemen behind Donald's 33.


The obvious choice to overtake Bobby Wagner was former Panthers inside linebacker Luke Kuechly until he abruptly retired after the 2019 season at 28. Colts outside linebacker Darius Leonard took 2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after posting a league leading 163 tackles. He also had seven sacks, which is an impressive total for an off the ball linebacker, in 2018. Leonard led NFL linebackers with five interceptions in 2019 despite missing three early season games because of a concussion. The 2018 second round pick becomes eligible for a new deal once the 2020 regular season ends.


Jamal Adams has made it clear he wants a new deal from the Jets this offseason. He will be under contract through the 2021 season once the Jets exercise an option for a fifth year. His 2021 option year salary will be $11.441 million. Adams should become the NFL's first $15 million per year safety if either of the two that were franchised this year, Anthony Harris (Vikings) or Justin Simmons (Broncos), don't beat him to it. 


A stagnant cornerback market finally had some significant movement with the five-year, $82.5 million contract Byron Jones received from the Dolphins in free agency. More importantly, Jones has cornerback records of $54.375 million in guarantees and $46 million fully guaranteed at signing. His reign as highest paid cornerback was short lived. The three year extension Darius Slay signed with the Eagles when he was acquired from the Lions via trade averages $16,683,333 per year. Jalen Ramsey reportedly promised the Rams he wouldn't holdout in 2020 when the Jaguars dealt him during the middle of last season for a 2020 first round pick (20th overall), a 2021 first round pick and a 2021 fourth round pick. Ramsey could become the NFL's first $20 million per cornerback where he sets new cornerback marks for contract guarantees. 

Special teams

Finding someone with enough consistency to realistically surpass Justin Tucker's $5 million per year within the next couple of years is difficult. It's conceivable that Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo could on an extension in 2022 with continued accuracy. During Lambo's three seasons with the Jaguars, he has made 94.7 percent of his field goal attempts (71 of 75). Lambo led the NFL with 97.1 conversion rate of field goals (33 of 34 attempts) last season.