Signings during the summer and leading up to the start of the regular season change the complexion of the following year’s free agency. Players that would have been highly sought after in free agency or franchise-tag candidates are taken off the market. Last year, these players included then-Giants (now Browns) wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald, Cardinals running back David Johnson, Titans offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack. High-caliber players that hit the open market have increased leverage because some of the potential competition gets eliminated through the extensions.
Here are 10 prime candidates that could sign contract extensions prior to the start of the 2019 regular season. Texans edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney and Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett weren’t considered because they were designated as franchise players. Extensions weren’t worked out before their contracts expired at the end of the 2018 season.
Brady and the Patriots typically haven’t had much trouble reaching an agreement on a new deal when he is in his contract year. Things shouldn’t be any different this time around, especially since Patriots owner Robert Kraft indicated in the days leading up to Super Bowl LIII that he envisioned Brady, who turns 42 in August, as New England’s quarterback for quite a while. Brady has leverage because the Patriots don’t have any kind of succession plan in place at quarterback and it would be $32.4 million to designate him as franchise player in 2020 with the Collective Bargaining Agreement mandated 20% increase over his current $27 million salary cap number. Don’t expect Brady to use his leverage. He started consistently giving the Patriots hometown discounts in 2013 when he first renegotiated the 2010 extension which made the NFL‘s highest-paid player instead of driving the market. Brady’s existing contract, a two-year extension signed in 2016, averages $20.5 million per year. A comparable deal adjusted for salary cap inflation would be approximately $25 million per year.
ESPN’s Dianna Russini reported this week that the Falcons are confident of a Jones extension before the start of Falcons training camp on July 22. Jones is scheduled to make $21.026 million in the remaining two years of his contract running through the 2020 season. The five-time All-Pro said he didn’t care about becoming the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver a couple of months ago, although Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff acknowledged around the same time Jones was one of a handful of elite wideouts that have the ability to set the market. The top of the wide receiver market is Antonio Brown at $19.8 million per year, if the NFLPA and agent community’s view of the enhancement to the four-year, $68 million extension he signed in 2017 is accepted. Brown received an $11.2 million raise over the remainder of the 2017 extension without adding any new years as a part of his March trade from the Steelers to the Raiders. He now has $79.2 million of new money over his four new contract years since the 2017 signing. Under this interpretation of Brown’s deal at $19.8 million per year, Jones becoming the NFL’s first $20-million-per-year pass catcher shouldn’t be surprising.
All has been quiet on Seattle’s negotiations with Wagner, who is acting as his own agent. Wagner was pretty adamant that any new deal he signs must pay him more than C.J. Mosley’s $17 million per year, when he was asked about his contract last month during Seattle’s offseason workouts. Mosley dramatically re-set what had been a stagnant inside linebacker market with the five-year, $85 million deal he received from the Jets in free agency. The deal contains $51 million in guarantees, of which $43 million was fully guaranteed at signing. Wagner would be justified in insisting that he top Mosley’s $17 million per year by a considerable margin. He is a much better player. Wagner is legitimately in the NFL’s best defensive player discussion. He is one of two players, along with Donald, the two-time reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, to be selected first team All-Pro by the Associated Press in each of the last three seasons (2016 through 2018). Pete Prisco named Wagner the NFL’s ninth-best player for 2019.
The Cowboys are far apart on a new contract for Prescott, according to NFL Media’s Mike Garafolo. It isn’t a surprise, considering reports that Todd France, Prescott’s agent, is seeking $34 million per year and Cowboys chief operating officer and executive vice president Stephen Jones has been trying to publicly sell his triplets (Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Amari Cooper) on leaving some money on the table to make it easier to keep the core of the team together for a sustained championship run. The four-year, $128 million extension averaging $32 million per year Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz signed a couple of weeks ago may be the limit for a Prescott deal. The Cowboys probably missed any window they may have had to get Prescott for under $30 million per year with Wentz signing first. Letting Prescott play out his rookie contract, which will pay him $2.025 million this season, and using a franchise tag in 2020 will be much more costly if Prescott’s increased effectiveness over the second half of the 2018 season after Dallas traded for Cooper is a sign of things to come. Prescott ranked in the top 10 over the second half of the season in most conventional statistical categories as the Cowboys tied the Colts at 7-1 for the NFL’s best record in that stretch.
The Saints are reportedly comfortable making Thomas the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver by the time training camp opens in late July, according to Russini. The Times-Picayune’s Jeff Duncan subsequently confirmed that both sides are motivated to get a deal done, but nothing is imminent.
Thomas holds the NFL record for most catches (321) during the first three seasons of an NFL career. Thomas’ 321 receptions are also the most in the NFL since he made his debut. His 3,787 receiving yards are fifth in the NFL during this span. Thomas led league with 125 receptions in 2018, which is the fifth-best single-season catch total in NFL history.
To the Saints, the $18 million extension Beckham signed with the Giants last preseason is probably the appropriate financial benchmark at wide receiver, rather than Brown’s enhanced deal at $19.8 million per year. Beckham’s five-year, $90 million extension is worth as much as $95 million through salary escalators based on him performing like he did in his first three NFL seasons, where he averaged 96 catches for 1,374 yards and nearly 12 receiving touchdowns. The $65 million in overall guarantees is the most ever in wide receiver contract, and $40.959 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Chargers owner Dean Spanos expressed confidence a month ago that Rivers, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, would be re-signed. Rivers, who turns 38 in December, doesn’t seem concerned about his contract situation. He’s willing to play out his contract if necessary. The Chargers would never let Rivers hit the open market in that scenario. Rivers would be given a franchise tag. Presumably, Rivers would receive the exclusive version, which currently projects to $32.221 million in 2020. The Chargers couldn’t have been thrilled with the Steelers giving Ben Roethlisberger, to whom Rivers is inextricably linked because of their status as highly successful 2004 first-round picks, a two-year, $68 million extension toward the end of the April.
Jones skipped last week’s mandatory minicamp because he hasn’t gotten a new contract. He is subject to an $88,650 fine for his absence. Negotiations, which began in March, have been progressing slowly. Jones surely took note of the Chiefs signing defensive end Frank Clark, who had been franchised, to a five-year, $104 million contract with $62.305 million in guarantees ($43.805 million fully guaranteed at signing) in connection with his trade from the Seahawks shortly before the NFL draft was held in late April.
Jones got the NFL’s attention with his pass rushing prowess last season. He was third in the league with 15.5 sacks. Jones set an NFL record by recording a sack in 11 straight games. Since a premium is paid to players who can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks, whether a defensive end, 3-4 outside linebacker or interior defensive lineman, Jones wanting to top Clark’s deal would be understandable.
Any training camp holdout by Jones 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. 6.
Missing this Aug. 6 deadline and Jones playing out his rookie deal after a failed holdout would make him a restricted free agent in 2020, rather than unrestricted. Under this scenario, the Chiefs would have the ability to give Jones a restricted free agent tender, which will be between $4.627 million and $4.848 million, where they would get a first-round pick next year 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 accrued seasons to qualify for unrestricted free agency.
The Cowboys reportedly haven’t made a lot of progress in negotiations with Cooper’s agent, Joel Segal. Patience could be Segal and Cooper’s best friend. Segal has no incentive to get anything done with Dallas until Jones and Thomas sign new contracts, which could be before training camps open in the latter part of July, since the deals should positively impact the wide receiver market.
The Cowboys didn’t give up their 2019 first round pick (27th overall) to the Raiders for Cooper to have a short stint in Dallas.
Prescott’s improved play during the second of the 2018 season coincided with Cooper’s arrival as the legitimate receiving threat that had been sorely missing.
Segal, who made Mack the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player last September, is probably using the contract the Cowboys gave Dez Bryant, Cooper’s predecessor as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver, against them in negotiations. Bryant signed a five-year, $70 million deal with $45 million in guarantees where $32 million was fully guaranteed at signing in 2015 as a franchise player. The salary cap has increased by 31.35 percent since Bryant signed. An equivalent deal under the current $188.2 million salary cap would average nearly $18.5 million per year. It would have just under $60 million in guarantees and approximately $42 million fully guaranteed at signing. That’s probably the least Segal would be willing to accept on a long-term deal.
The wide receiver franchise tag is going to be close to $18 million next year, provided the 2020 salary cap is in the $200 million range. A second franchise tag for Cooper in 2021 at a CBA mandated 20% raise could be more than $21.5 million. Segal will probably use this information about the franchise tags to his advantage in negotiations.
The Bengals have a history of signing core players to extensions rather than letting them hit the open market. Last year, defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap received new deals in their contract year as the start of the regular season was approaching. Green, who turns 31 at the end of next month, was limited to nine games in 2018 because of a toe injury requiring surgery. He had career lows of 46 receptions and 694 receiving yards. His current deal signed in 2015, which expires after the season, averages $15 million per year. Green recently expressed a desire to remain in Cincinnati for as long as possible. Sometimes when a veteran player wants to stay put, maximizing his contract isn’t the top priority. Only time will tell with Green. Regardless, any Green extension will not have comparable security to the top wide receiver deals because Cincinnati veteran contracts are historically light on guarantees.
Ngakoue was a no-show at Jacksonville’s mandatory minicamp, as he was with most of the offseason workouts. He has developed into a pass-rushing force without much fanfare. His 134 quarterback pressures over the last two seasons are more than the edge rushers receiving 2019 franchise designations (Clark, Clowney and Dee Ford) had during this span, except for DeMarcus Lawrence, who has 142 pressures since the start of the 2017 season.
The Jaguars will be hard pressed to get done deal with Ngakoue that doesn’t put him in the $20 million per year non-quarterback club, which currently has four members (Mack at $23.5 million per year, Donald at $22.5 million per year, Lawrence at $21 million per year; and Clark at $20 million per year) since he is represented by Ari Nissim of Roc Nation Sports. Nissim is a former longtime executive with the Jets who was responsible for negotiating player contracts and managing the salary cap before switching to player representation in 2014. He dramatically changed a running back market that had been in steady decline by negotiating a four-year, $57.5 million extension (worth a maximum of $60 million through realistically achievable salary escalators) for Todd Gurley with the Rams last summer.
Ngakoue has the same problem as Jones with a lengthy holdout on a rookie contract expiring after the season. He would also be a restricted free agent in 2020 instead of having a chance to hit the open market unencumbered.