Predicting the Next Wave of NFL Mega-Contracts

Chris Trapasso@ChrisTrapassoAnalyst IMay 7, 2013

Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco and Tony Romo were among the wave of players who broke the bank in a serious way recently. 

But quarterbacks haven't been the only players to strike it super rich of late. The contract wideout Calvin Johnson inked in March of 2012 included $60 million guaranteed, and Mario Williams' deal had $50 million built in. 

With money on the mind, which players will be a part of the next wave of mega-contracts in the NFL?

Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals

Geno Atkins is the best defensive tackle in football—no disrespect to Vince Wilfork, Haloti Ngata or any other tackle who consistently succeeds on the interior of his team's defensive front.

The Cincinnati Bengals' 2010 fourth-round pick amassed 12.5 sacks and 54 total tackles in 2012, after 7.5 sacks and 40 tackles in 2011. 

ProFootballFocus (subscription required) ranked Atkins as the most effective defensive tackle in football a season ago by a wide margin. His plus-52.1 pass-rush rating significantly dwarfed the No. 2 pass-rusher Ndamukong Suh's score of plus-29.6. 

What's more, Atkins was the most potent run-defending defensive tackle according to PFF with a plus-24.7 rating, well ahead of Jurrell Casey's plus-18.1.

Digging even deeper, this chart compares Atkins' production to some of the league's premier edge-rushers. 

Name Pass-Rush Snaps Total Pressures* Sacks
Cameron Wake 531 86 15
Jared Allen 638 59 12
Chris Clemons 546 70 11.5
J.J. Watt 574 76 21
Geno Atkins 494 78 12.5

*Total pressures are combined number of sacks, hits and hurries on a quarterback

(Pass-rush snaps and total pressures courtesy of PFF)

Basically, the "undersized" 6'1'', 300-pound Atkins is one of the most efficient pass-rushers in the NFL today, and he's earned that distinction from the clogged middle of the line of scrimmage. 

Not to mention he missed only two tackles on 263 run snaps last season. 

So, what do these gaudy statistics mean for Atkins?

For starters, this disruptive monster is only 25 years old, and he's started 31 of 32 possible games over the last two years. Youth and health are undoubtedly on his side.

In September of 2011, Ngata signed a five-year, $61 million contract with $37.1 million guaranteed. In all likelihood, Atkins and his agent will be using that mega-deal as a starting point when negotiations begin with the Bengals. 

The league's preeminent defensive tackle will make a base salary of—ready?—$1.423 million in 2013, and he's a free agent at the end of the season. 

Expect a contract in the neighborhood of six years and upwards of $70 million with $40 million guaranteed, a deal that would make him in the highest-paid defensive tackle in the NFL. 

Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

Aaron Rodgers was inked to a record-breaking seven-year, $130.75 million contract with $54 million guaranteed during NFL draft weekend. 

Deservedly, he became the most handsomely paid player in league history. 

Matt Ryan isn't on Rodgers' level, but he's close. The six-year, $120.6 million deal with $52 million guaranteed Joe Flacco signed on March 1 wouldn't be a bad place to start for the Falcons quarterback. 

Nearly all of Ryan's statistics have been on the upward swing since 2009—passing yards, touchdowns, quarterback rating—and he led Atlanta to its first playoff win since 2004 last season. He'll be 28 before the 2013 season kicks off, so theoretically, he has plenty of solid years of football remaining in his professional career. 

Although Flacco's Super Bowl MVP was the ultimate bargaining chip, Ryan trumps the Ravens quarterback in some important statistical categories. 

Name Accuracy % Accuracy % Under Pressure QB Rating TD %
Matt Ryan 76% 63% 99.1 5.2
Joe Flacco 68%  57.6% 87.7 4.1

Obviously, differences in personnel and in overall offensive philosophy probably played roles in Ryan's superior aerial numbers, but he and his agent would be foolish not to use Flacco's deal as a jumping-off point.

Coming off a fine 13-3 season and a trip to the conference title game, Ryan could receive a five- or six-year deal in the vicinity of $122 million and $50-plus million in guaranteed dollars.

Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints

Jimmy Graham wasn't as prolific of a pass-catcher in 2012 as he was in 2011—after all, repeating a 99-catch, 1,310-yard, 11-touchdown campaign isn't easy—but he remains one of the most dangerous matchup-nightmare tight ends in the NFL. 

And he's only 26. 

At this stage of Drew Brees' career, it'd be counterproductive to remove such a viable weapon from his arsenal. 

Graham is 6'7'' and 265 pounds with 4.56 speed, and he's becoming more refined as a route-runner. Remember, he was pretty raw entering the league as a former University of Miami basketball player. 

Jared Cook, an athletic tight end who's certainly not as established as Graham, was signed by the St. Louis Rams to a five-year, $35.11 million deal with $19 million guaranteed during this year's free-agency period. 

Graham could use his contract as leverage when negotiations begin with the Saints front office. After making a base salary of only $1.323 million in 2013, the intimidating pass-catcher's contract will expire. 

If he plays to 2011 form this season, expect Graham to garner a five-year deal worth around $36 million with $20 million guaranteed. 

Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos

Von Miller isn't a free agent until after the 2014 campaign, but that doesn't mean the Broncos will wait that long to sign him to a lucrative extension. 

Many believed Miller was miscast as a traditional outside linebacker in Denver's 4-3 alignment; however, all the Texas A&M product has done is accumulate 30 sacks and 133 total tackles in two professional seasons. 

Because most 4-3 outside linebackers aren't pass-rushing specialists like Miller, it's more logical to compare him to the 2012 production of defensive ends and 3-4 outside 'backers. 

Name Pass-Rush Snaps
Total Pressures Sacks
Aldon Smith 503 70 19.5
Chris Long 543 76  11.5
DeMarcus Ware 482 58 11.5
Von Miller   436 86 18.5

(Pass-rush snaps and total pressures courtesy of PFF)

That chart clearly illustrates Miller's edge-rushing prowess, even in relation to the game's most devastating sack artists. 

Also, ProFootballFocus counted one missed tackle on 339 run snaps last season. 

To put it succinctly, this former No. 2 overall pick is in line to get his pockets lined with Lamborghini-buying money.

In the middle of April, soon-to-be 27-year-old Clay Matthews agreed to a six-year, $69.73 million contract with $20.5 million guaranteed with the Green Bay Packers. Though Miller's spent fewer years in the league than Matthews, he's been more efficient at creating havoc in the backfield and is nearly three full years younger. 

Expect a record-breaking deal that should be in the range of $70-75 million for six years with $23-25 million guaranteed. 


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