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USATSI

One of my responsibilities with the sports management firm I worked for was conducting practically all of the contract research and negotiation preparation for the company's clients 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.

Hall of Fame defensive end 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 in this manner 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.

I've applied this methodology to contracts signed since the salary cap was implemented in 1994 with the following parameters.

1. The following year's salary cap is used to determine the adjustment for deals signed shortly before the end of a regular season.

2. $123 million is used for the 2009 salary cap. This is in accordance with the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement's (CBA) calculations of franchise and transition tags. An adjustment was made to the 2009 salary cap to raise it from $123 million to $127.997 million because spending on players in 2008 fell below 59.5 percent of the NFL's total revenue.

3. $121,687,500 is used for the uncapped year in 2010. That was the number used in the CBA's franchise and transition tag calculations. $121,687,500 is the average of the 2009 salary cap ($123 million) and the 2011 salary cap ($120.375 million).

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.

Contract guarantees aren't tracked. An emphasis on guaranteed money didn't exist in the early years of salary cap. Guaranteed money primarily consisted of signing bonus in the initial years of the salary cap. It took agents and teams awhile to figure out the most advantageous contract structures for their respective sides.

Here's a look at the highest paid players during the salary cap era at each position. 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 players listed as linebackers are those who aren't considered as pass rushers (i.e., off-ball linebackers).

Quarterback

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Steve Young 49ers 1997 378.12% $41.454M $8,100,000 $38,727,746 5 Year Ext.
Troy Aikman Cowboys 1993 472.7% $34.608M $6,708,333 $38,418,620 6 Year Ext.
Brett Favre Packers 1997 378.12% $41.454M $7,870,000 $37,628,070 5 Year Ext.
Aaron Rodgers Packers 2018 11.85% $177.2M $33,500,000 $37,470,090 4 Year Ext.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes should top the list once he signs his new contract. The expectation is Mahomes will become the NFL's first $40 million per year player. Technically, Aikman's deal was signed towards the end of December with two games left in the 1993 season before the salary cap was implemented.

Running back

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Barry Sanders Lions 1997 378.12% $41.454M $6,540,000 $31,269,069 5 Year Ext.
Terrell Davis Broncos 1998 278.33% $52.388M $7,800,000 $29,509,811 6 Year Ext.
Emmitt Smith Cowboys 1996 386.34% $40.753M $5,714,857 $27,793,896 7 Year Ext.

Running backs aren't viewed the same way financially as in the past. Generally, top running backs made more than the highest-paid defensive players in the late 1990s. The four-year contract extension Christian McCaffrey signed with the Panthers averaging $16,015,053 per year in April to become the NFL's highest-paid running back is little more than 50 percent of Barry Sanders' adjusted average yearly salary.

The nine-year, $89.75 million contract Stephen Davis received from the Redskins in 2000 was intentionally omitted. Davis had a snowball's chance in hell of playing the last four years of the deal worth $57.5 million when he signed.

Wide receiver

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Jerry Rice 49ers 1996 386.34% $40.753M $5,800,000 $28,207,985 5 Year Ext.
Randy Moss Vikings 2001 194.04% $67.405M $9,300,000 $27,346,043 7 Year Ext.
Calvin Johnson Lions 2012 64.34% $120.6M $16,207,143 $26,635,620 7 Year Ext.
Larry Fitzgerald Cardinals 2011 64.65% $120.375M $16,142,857 $26,579,558 7 Year Ext.

It's fitting that Jerry Rice and Randy Moss are heading adjusted wide receiver compensation. Julio Jones, who signed a three-year extension with the Falcons last year averaging $22 million per year, doesn't make the cut. His adjusted deal averages $23,168,969 per year.

Tight end

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Jimmy Graham Saints 2014 49.02% $133M $10,000,000 $14,902,256 4 Years
Rob Gronkowski Patriots 2012 64.34% $120.6M $9,000,000 $14,791,045 6 Year Ext.

Tight ends have been hurt by salary stagnation. The league's highest-paid tight end on a multi-year contract is Austin Hooper at $10.5 million per year, which came on the four-year deal he signed with the Browns in free agency this year. That's a $500,000 per year increase from Jimmy Graham's 2014 deal with the Saints although the salary cap has increased 49.02 percent since his signing. 49ers tight end George Kittle should dramatically reset the market but may have a tough time getting paid like a wide receiver as he desires, despite being San Francisco's primary weapon in the passing game.

Offensive tackle

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Jonathan Ogden Ravens 2000 218.79% $62.172M $7,450,000 $23,750,080 6 Year Ext.
Tony Boselli Jaguars 1999 245.97% $57.288M $6,500,000 $22,488,130 4 Year Ext.
Laremy Tunsil Texans 2020 0% $198.2M $22,000,000 $22,000,000 3 Year Ext.

The three-year, $66 million extension Laremy Tunsil negotiated without an agent in April easily made him the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman in today's game. Tunsil's deal looks even better when put into a historical context. 

Interior offensive lineman

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Dermontti Dawson Steelers 1997 378.12% $41.454M $4,000,000 $19,124,813 4 Year Ext.
Zack Martin Cowboys 2018 11.85% $177.2M $14,000,000 $15,659,143 6 Year Ext.
Carl Nicks Buccaneers 2012 64.34% $120.6M $9,500,000 $15,612,769 5 Years

Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson's adjusted contract outpaces the top guard deals of Zack Martin and Carl Nicks by a considerable margin. Redskins guard Brandon Scherff was designated as a franchise player this year for $15.03 million. Ensuring that Scherff remains in Washington for many years to come prior to the July 15 deadline for franchise players to sign long term will likely require a contract averaging more than $16 million per year, because a second franchise tag in 2021 at a CBA-mandated 20 percent increase would be $18.036 million.

Edge rusher

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Michael Strahan Giants 1999 245.97% $57.288M $9,766,667 $33,789,858 3 Year Ext.
Mario Williams Bills 2012 64.34% $120.6M $16,000,000 $26,295,191 6 Years
Khalil Mack Bears 2018 11.85% $177.2M $23,500,000 $26,284,989 6 Year Ext.

Michael Strahan's three-year, $29.3 million contract extension was an anomaly, as he was essentially paid like a quarterback. It wasn't until Dwight Freeney signed a six-year, $72 million contract with the Colts in 2007 that Strahan's average yearly salary was surpassed in an edge rusher contract.

Interior defensive lineman

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Warren Sapp Buccaneers 1998 278.33% $52.388M $7,091,500 $26,829,337 5 Year Ext.
Ndamukong Suh Dolphins 2015 38.33% $143.28M $19,062,500 $26,369,259 6 Years
Aaron Donald  Rams 2018 11.85% $177.2M $22,500,000 $25,166,479 6 Year Ext.

Donald became the NFL's first $20 million per year non-quarterback but comes in behind Ndamukong's Suh groundbreaking free agent contract. Suh's $59.955 million fully guaranteed was the most ever in an NFL contract until quarterback Matthew Stafford, his former Lions teammate, got $60.5 million fully guaranteed at signing in his 2017 extension, which made him the league's highest-paid player.

Linebacker

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Junior Seau Chargers 2000 218.79% $62.172M $7,346,000 $23,418,536 3 Year Ext.
Ray Lewis Ravens 2002 218.79% $71.101M $7,800,000 $21,743,154 5 Year Ext.
Derrick Brooks Buccaneers 2001 194.04% $67.405M $7,240,000 $21,288,747 4 Year Ext.

Three Hall of Famers lead the way with adjusted linebacker contracts. Seau and the Chargers reworked his deal every couple of years to keep him near the top of the linebacker market. His days at the top of linebacker market stopped with his 2003 trade to the Dolphins, as he took a pretty substantial pay cut after joining the Dolphins.

Safety

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Troy Polamalu Steelers 2011 64.65% $120.375M $9,866,667 $16,245,677 3 Year Ext.
Tyrann Mathieu Cardinals 2016 27.65% $155.27M $12,500,081 $15,956,180 5 Year Ext.
Lawyer Milloy Patriots 2000 218.79% $62.172M $5,000,000 $15,939,651 7 Year Ext.
Carnell Lake Jaguars 1999 245.97% $57.288M $4,500,000 $15,568,705 4 Years

Carnell Lake would have an extremely difficult time getting a deal at the top of the safety market in today's climate as a soon-to-be 32-year-old. The Jaguars made some curious decisions in free agency when they were considered as Super Bowl contenders during the late 1990s. There hasn't been a $15 million per year safety yet, but Jamal Adams is the best bet among current safeties eligible for new deals to crack this list. The 2017 first-round pick has been pushing the Jets for a contract extension. The Jets don't seem to be operating on Adams' timetable.

Cornerback

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Deion Sanders Cowboys 1995 434.23% $37.1M $5,040,571 $26,928,333 7 Years
Ty Law Patriots 1999 245.97% $57.288M $7,335,000 $25,378,990 6 Year Ext.
Nnamdi Asomugha Raiders 2009 61.14% $123M $14,296,000 $23,036,319 2 Year Ext.

Sanders' 1995 contract had to be reworked. Having a large signing bonus and minimum base salaries for the first couple of years was considered by the NFL as circumventing the salary cap. This structure led to a CBA provision known as "The Deion Rule," where a portion of signing bonus proration from later contract years can be reallocated to the early contract years depending upon the yearly salaries in the deal.

The seven-year, $56.125 million contract Sanders signed in 2000 with the Redskins was disregarded because he retired before the 2001 season. Sanders made $8.5 million during his one season in Washington. The same goes with the five-year, $91 million extension Darrelle Revis signed in 2013 when he was traded to the Buccaneers. The Revis deal is excluded because he was cut after one season with Tampa Bay thanks to his contract having no security, which was highly unusual for a top-of-the-market contract at that time. It ended up being a one-year deal for $16 million.

Kicker/punter

NameTeamYearGrowthSal. CapNew $ AvgAdj. N$ALength
Sebastian Janikowski Raiders 2010 62.88% $121.6875M $4,000,000 $6,515,049 4 Years
Shane Lechler Raiders 2009 61.14% $123M $4,000,000 $6,445,528 4 Years

The Raiders took the philosophy that special teams are one-third of the game in setting the kicker and punter markets with Janikowski and Lechler's deals at the end of the Al Davis Era. Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, doesn't come close to making the cut. His 2016 deal, as a franchise player, averaging $4.2 million per year equates to a $5,361,242 average yearly salary under the current $198.2 million salary cap.