Justin Simmons, who was designated as a franchise player by the Broncos for a second straight year, became the NFL's highest-paid safety with a four-year, $61 million contract signed shortly after the 2021 league year stated on March 17. The deal has $35 million in guarantees, of which $32.1 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Simmons isn't the only player to reset a positional market this year. New standards have been set at the various offensive line positions (center, left tackle, offensive guard and right tackle). Most recently, Ryan Ramczyk became the benchmark for right tackles in most key contract metrics. The Saints signed Ramczyk to a five-year, $96 million contract extension averaging $19.2 million per year with $60,214,824 of guarantees where $43,014,824 was fully guaranteed at the end of June. The deal is worth as much as $102 million through salary escalators and incentives.
Some other positional markets could be reset at some point this year, if not before the first set of regular-season games on Sept. 12. The chart below outlines the benchmarks in key contract metrics with veteran players at the different offensive and defensive positions. 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 pass rushers (i.e., off-ball linebackers).
Following the chart is a look at players who have the best chance of becoming the highest-paid player by average yearly salary at the various positions.
|Position||Average Yearly Salary||Overall Guarantees||Fully Guaranteed At Signing|
$45 Million (Patrick Mahomes)
$95 Million (Dak Prescott)
$16,015,853 (Christian McCaffrey)
$50,052,137 (Ezekiel Elliott)
$27.25 Million (DeAndre Hopkins)
$65 Million (Odell Beckham Jr.)
$64 Million (Julio Jones)
$15 Million (George Kittle)
$40 Million (Kittle)
$31.25 Million (Jonnu Smith)
$23.01 Million (Trent Williams)
$65,568,235 (Ronnie Stanley)
$19.2 Million (Ryan Ramczyk)
$16 Million (Joe Thuney)
$46.89 Million (Thuney)
$32 Million (Zack Martin)
$13.5 Million (Frank Ragnow)
$42 Million (Ragnow)
$27 Million (Joey Bosa)
$102 Million (Bosa)
$78 Million (Bosa)
$22.5 Million (Aaron Donald)
$86.892 Million (Donald)
$50 Million (Donald)
$18 Million (Bobby Wagner)
$51 Million (C.J. Mosley)
$43 Million (Mosley)
$20 Million (Jalen Ramsey)
$71.2 Million (Ramsey)
$43.7 Million (Ramsey)
$15.25 Million (Justin Simmons)
$44.5 Million (Landon Collins)
$37 Million (Collins)
The Chiefs gave Patrick Mahomes the most lucrative contract in American team sports history last July. The 2018 NFL MVP signed a 10-year, $450 million extension averaging $45 million per year. Incentives make the contract worth as much as $475 million. His deal is viewed as an anomaly because of the length. Signing for four new contract years has become the norm at the top of the quarterback market. These factors should keep Mahomes as NFL's highest-paid player this year unless the Packers trade a disgruntled Aaron Rodgers and he gets a new contract in the process.
2018 first-round picks Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are potential extension candidates with the Bills and Ravens this year. Their respective deals could top the $40 million per year Dak Prescott received from the Cowboys in March when he signed for $160 million over four years. It's conceivable that Allen could become the first player to ever hit $100 million fully guaranteed at signing with an extension this year.
Allen could exceed Mahomes' $45 million per year in 2022 by playing a fourth year under his rookie contract and having another MVP-caliber season like he did in 2020. Matthew Stafford has a chance to top Mahomes next year by thriving with his change of scenery because of his trade from the Lions to the Rams. 2022 is Stafford's contract year. When Stafford signed his last deal in 2017, he became the NFL's highest-paid player.
Christian McCaffrey could remain the league's highest-paid running back for the foreseeable future, although Browns 2018 second-round pick Nick Chubb is in a contract year. Saquon Barkley was the best bet to raise the salary bar for running backs before tearing his right ACL early last season. The 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year became eligible for an extension at the conclusion of the 2020 regular season. The Giants aren't in a rush to sign Barkley to a new deal because of the injury.
Davante Adams, who is in a contract year, can make a good case that he should be the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver because of his consistency over the last three seasons. Since 2018, he ranks third in the NFL with 309 receptions, fourth in receiving yards (3,757) and his 36 touchdown catches are the most in the league. Adams has said the rift between quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers could affect his situation in Green Bay.
George Kittle dramatically reset a stagnant tight end market last August. His reign as the tight end salary king likely would have ended this offseason if Travis Kelce hadn't a signed a four-year, $57.25 million extension averaging $14,312,500 per year with an extremely team-friendly structure almost immediately afterwards. Kelce had the finest season ever for a tight end in 2020. He set the single-season receiving yards record for a tight end with 1,416 yards. Kelce's 105 receptions are the fourth-most a tight end has had in a season. There don't appear to be any tight ends in a position to beat Kittle's $15 million-per-year mark.
The Saints need to decide if they are comfortable setting the market at both tackle positions. Left tackle Terron Armstead is in a contract year. There's a possibility he could hit the open market next year because cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who is playing under a fifth-year option, is also a potential 2022 franchise tag candidate. Armstead is three years younger than 49er Trent Williams, who turns 33 this month. On the open market in 2022 with a rising salary cap, it wouldn't be surprising for Armstead to become first ever $25 million-per-year offensive lineman.
The Saints didn't do the Colts any favors with the Ramczyk deal. Extending Braden Smith is on Indianapolis' to-do list. It's unlikely Smith will surpass Ramczyk, but the deal raised the bar. Jack Conklin has a chance in 2022 though. He'll be in the final year of the three-year, $42 million contract he signed with the Browns in 2020 free agency. At 28, Conklin, who earned first-team All-Pro honors last season, will still be in his prime next year.
An eleventh-hour deal before the July 15 deadline for franchise players to sign multi-year contracts would undoubtedly make Brandon Scherff the league's highest-paid offensive guard. A third franchise tag by the Washington Football Team in 2022 is out of the question because it would be either cost $25,971,840 at the NFL's collective bargaining agreement-mandated 44% raise over his current $18.036 million designation or the 2022 non-exclusive quarterback number, whichever is greater.
Based on recent history, Scherff will become the new salary benchmark if he is on the open market next year. A Pro Bowl-caliber guard in his prime has been consistently resetting the market in free agency (Andrew Norwell, Kelechi Osemele, Joe Thuney, Kevin Zeitler). Scherff wouldn't be the highest paid for long. Any deal he signs would likely become the starting point for 2018 first-round pick Quenton Nelson's negotiations with the Colts, which should take place next year.
The most immediate threat to Frank Ragnow could be Erik McCoy. As a 2019 second-round pick, he doesn't become eligible to sign an extension until the 2021 regular season ends on Jan. 9, 2022. The Saints letting Armstead walk next year could be beneficial to McCoy financially. McCoy's negotiating leverage might increase if another high-priced offensive lineman is no longer factoring into the Saints' salary equation.
The Steelers are expected to sign T.J. Watt to an extension before the regular season starts. Watt's average yearly salary could be closer to the $30 million-per-year mark than Joey Bosa's $27 million per year. Bosa's salary guarantee marks are safe because Pittsburgh veteran contracts have a vanilla structure. With the exception of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the only guaranteed money is a signing bonus. Roethlisberger's guarantees have been for injury only. Pittsburgh sticking to its typical structure may make it necessary to give Watt a record signing bonus for a non-quarterback, which is currently $40 million by Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald. Nick Bosa becoming the NFL's first $30 million-per-year non-quarterback isn't out of the realm of possibility in 2022 provided he displays the form that made him the 2019 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in his return from the torn left ACL he suffered in the 49ers' second game last season.
Interior defensive lineman
There isn't an obvious candidate to replace Donald, who signed his deal right before the start of the 2018 regular season, as the highest-paid player in this spot. 2022 is a contract year for Fletcher Cox and Grady Jarrett with the Eagles and Falcons, respectively. Cox would be signing an extension at 31. Age would be less of a concern with Jarrett. He'll be 29 next year.
It's just a matter of time before Bobby Wagner's mark falls. 2018 draftees Darius Leonard and Fred Warner are in contract years with the Colts and 49ers, respectively. Both have had discussions about new deals with their respective teams. Eclipsing C.J. Mosley's guaranteed money benchmarks in his Jets deal may be a more difficult proposition. Whichever player signs last, Leonard or Warner, stands a good chance of being the highest-paid linebacker.
The Browns are rumored to be interested in extending 2018 No. 4 overall pick Denzel Ward's contract. It may take more than $20 million per year with Ward because the salary cap is set to explode in the coming years thanks to new media rights deals reportedly worth $113 billion over 11 years and the expected influx of gambling revenue. If Ward doesn't break the $20 million-per-year mark, Lattimore could be next in line. His arrest in March for possession of a handgun suspected of being stolen may have changed the timing on extension talks with the Saints. The 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year is in a contract year. He would be a hot commodity as a 2022 free agent. By the time the 2022 regular season starts, Packers 2018 first-round pick Jaire Alexander could set the market. He is establishing himself as a shutdown cornerback.
Simmons is going to have a short reign as the highest-paid safety. Tyrann Mathieu recently expressed optimism about signing an extension. The $14 million-per-year contract he signed in 2019 free agency to join the Chiefs put him at the top of market. Since he has earned All-Pro honors in both of his seasons with the Chiefs, a new deal should do the same. Jamal Adams is looking to be paid like a top defensive player rather than a safety. Regardless of whether Adams can defy positional pay constraints, he is practically assured of the Seahawks making him highest-paid safety after giving up multiple draft choices, including two first-round picks, to acquire him from the Jets last preseason.