Which NFL Players Are Headed for Mega Paydays in 2021?
This offseason, NFL teams will need to maneuver around a lower-than-expected salary cap with the loss of ticket revenue because of COVID-19 restrictions at stadiums. Still, general managers must find a way to pay their top playmakers.
Generally, quarterbacks, pass-rushers and offensive tackles command the most lucrative salaries.
Last offseason, quarterback Patrick Mahomes signed the largest deal in sports history, inking a 10-year extension worth up to $503 million with the Kansas City Chiefs. Edge-rushers Myles Garrett and Joey Bosa signed with the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers, respectively, for deals that will net them $25-plus million annually. During the 2020 campaign, the Green Bay Packers made tackle David Bakhtiari the league's highest-paid offensive lineman with a four-year, $92 million contract.
We won't see anyone top Mahomes' salary this offseason, though a few quarterbacks could sign deals worth $40 million annually. An older tackle in his early-30s could have the biggest payday among free-agent offensive linemen. The Seattle Seahawks have a complex and potentially costly situation to sort out with a new acquisition as well.
With a mix of unrestricted free agents and rising stars who could sign early extensions, we've highlighted eight players set to break the bank in the coming months.
QB Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Even though Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle in Week 5, team owner Jerry Jones said he has leverage going into contract negotiations this offseason.
Prescott has a strong body of work, having won the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year award, two Pro Bowl nods and throwing for 106 touchdowns and only 40 interceptions. Before he went down with that injury, the 27-year-old had been on pace for a career high in passing yards and QBR (78.4).
Last offseason, Prescott and the Cowboys couldn't agree upon the length of an extension, per Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio. He wanted a four-year deal, while the team pushed for a five-year pact. Dallas' proposal averaged approximately $34.5 million, per ESPN's Todd Archer. In 2020, Prescott played under the $31.4 million franchise tag.
After the Houston Texans signed quarterback Deshaun Watson to a four-year, $156 million deal, Prescott's asking price probably went up a bit. His agent, Todd France, will likely push for a similar contract, which averages about $40 million annually. The two signal-callers have similar passing numbers and identical 1-2 records in the playoffs.
According to CBS Sports' Joel Corry, the Cowboys would pay an estimated $37.7 million if they place another franchise tag on Prescott in 2021.
Fellow quarterback Andy Dalton will weigh his free-agent options on the open market after he started nine games this season, so the Cowboys may not have a reliable backup in 2021. Instead of kicking the can down the road with Prescott, the Cowboys should sign him to a long-term deal in the same ballpark as Watson.
Projected Contract: Four years, $160 million
QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
Josh Allen made an impressive leap between his second and third seasons. Once criticized for his subpar accuracy and inconsistent ball placement, he completed a career-high 69.2 percent of his pass attempts while throwing for 4,544 yards, 37 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions this year.
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Bills will approach Allen's representatives about a "massive extension" in the spring or summer.
If the Bills wait until the summer to hash out a deal with Allen, they'd likely use the Dallas Cowboys' contract parameters with Dak Prescott as the floor or a ballpark figure. If that deal doesn't materialize, Buffalo can look at Deshaun Watson's four-year, $156 million pact as the starting point for an Allen extension.
Along with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Allen has generated MVP buzz throughout the 2020 season, so his agent should strike while he's performing at an exceptionally high level.
Buffalo's early-extension strategy mirrors what the Houston Texans did for Watson, who signed a new contract before his fourth season.
Projected Contract: Four years, $164 million
WR Allen Robinson II, Chicago Bears
Allen Robinson II has eclipsed 1,146 receiving yards in three seasons with two different teams, but he's capable of even more impressive numbers.
Robinson had his most productive years with Blake Bortles, Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles under center, all of whom are low-end starters. He could become an All-Pro with an upgrade at quarterback.
Regardless of where Robinson signs in the offseason, he's due for a big payday because of his productivity within an aerial attack ranked 22nd or worse over the last two seasons.
Coming off a 1,250-yard, six-touchdown campaign, Robinson will hit the open market as arguably the top wideout. He's at least one of the big three alongside Chris Godwin and Kenny Golladay.
The 27-year-old Robinson has a more extensive resume than Godwin and Golladay, who's a few months younger. Expect a team to lock him into a long-term deal close to Atlanta Falcons wideout Julio Jones' $22 million annual salary.
Projected Contract: Four years, $82 million
OT Trent Williams, San Francisco 49ers
Although he's 32 years old, Trent Williams could still break the bank.
Williams pushed for a new deal with Washington during the 2020 offseason, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo and Ian Rapoport. Instead, the Football Team traded him to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2021 third-rounder.
Williams played through the final year of his contract, allowing four sacks in 957 offensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He gave up some pressures early in the season but finished strong down the stretch.
According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, the 49ers had "extensive discussions" about an extension with Williams in recent weeks. They also restructured his deal and agreed not to franchise-tag him this offseason as a result.
If San Francisco retains him, the eight-time Pro Bowler would sign a multiyear contract.
Per ESPN's John Keim (h/t ESPN's Rich Cimini), Williams wanted an extension worth $20 million annually. Assuming that number sticks, he would easily become the highest-paid offensive lineman among the 2021 free-agent class over standout guards Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney.
Williams' new deal will likely top Baltimore Ravens tackle Ronnie Stanley's contract, which averages $19.75 million annually.
Projected Contract: Three years, $60 million
Edge T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost in the Wild Card Round, but T.J. Watt will go into the offseason as a winner.
Based on Watt's production, he's a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The three-time Pro Bowler led the league in both sacks (15) and tackles for loss (23) this season.
Watt still has two seasons left on his current deal, but the Steelers should extend him ASAP since the price for top-notch edge-rushers rises every year. The new money for Watt's deal can kick in next year once quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's $41.3 million cap hit comes off the books.
To maintain financial flexibility in 2022, the Steelers can allow running back James Conner, wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and edge-rusher Bud Dupree, who played through this season on the franchise tag, to walk in free agency.
Pittsburgh has depth at running back and wide receiver. Unless the front office drafts a tailback, Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. can split touches out of the backfield. Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool ranked first and second, respectively, in receiving yards for the club this season.
The Athletic's Mark Kaboly also expects Pittsburgh to extend Watt at some point in the coming months.
Watt's representatives should take a look at the contracts for Joey Bosa ($27 million annually) and Myles Garrett ($25 million annually) as the benchmarks for their client. He technically plays a different position in an odd-man front than Bosa and Garrett, but pass-rushers are typically paid large sums on new deals regardless of scheme.
If Watt wins Defensive Player of the Year, his extension could come close to or hit $30 million annually.
Projected Contract: Four years, $112 million
Edge Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Among the pass-rushers set to hit the open market, Shaquil Barrett will probably rake in the most money after he played under the franchise tag in 2020.
Barrett had a breakout 2019 campaign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, logging a league-high 19.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a starter after mostly playing in a backup role for the Denver Broncos from 2014 through 2018.
Barrett's 2020 numbers don't look as impressive (eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss) on paper. Yet he's still a key component of a defense that tied for fourth in sacks (48) and was second in quarterback pressures (187).
Along with Barrett, the Buccaneers have two other big-name players set to become free agents in wideout Chris Godwin and linebacker Lavonte David. Tampa Bay will likely need to let one of them go, unless all three accept slightly below-market deals to stay with the team.
Among that trio, Barrett is the hardest to replace. Tampa Bay has wideout Mike Evans on the books through the 2023 campaign, while Devin White is the team's future at inside linebacker.
Whether Barrett re-signs with the Buccaneers or lands a lucrative contract elsewhere, he's worth about $18 million annually because of his ability to rush the passer and set the edge against the run. The 28-year-old has blossomed into a top-notch playmaker who should sign one of the biggest deals of the offseason.
Projected Contract: Four years, $72 million
S Jamal Adams, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks list Jamal Adams as a safety, but he doesn't fit in a neat box based on his skill set, which should allow him to sign a megadeal.
Adams avoided calling himself a safety during a recent interview with FS1's Colin Cowherd (h/t 710 ESPN Seattle's Brandon Gustafson).
"Well, I just classify myself as a playmaker, you know what I mean?" Adams said. "I can play anything you need me to do, any position really, and I don’t really classify myself as a safety. I classify myself as a defensive weapon."
Jake Heaps of 710 ESPN Seattle noted that Adams' rhetoric sets the table for a separation from a depressed safety market. He believes Seattle's versatile playmaker will become a top earner at the position, and not just by a couple of millions.
"Jamal Adams is going to be looking for a big payday," Heaps said. "And if you think you're going to get Jamal Adams to sign for $14 million or $15 million (a year), just above Budda Baker, you are kidding yourself."
The Seahawks are in a tough spot with Adams since they sent their 2021 first-round and third-round picks along with a 2022 first-rounder and safety Bradley McDougald to the New York Jets for him and a 2022 fourth-round pick. Seattle won't only rent Adams for few years after giving up that type of draft capital.
In only 12 games this season, Adams recorded 9.5 sacks, which is an NFL record for a defensive back. Although he's a safety, he provides a consistent pass-rushing impact. Because of that productivity, the Seahawks will have to shell out more cash to compensate Adams for what he brings to the defense.
Assuming the Seahawks work out a deal with Adams in the coming months, the front office will pay him for his unique skill set as a safety and pass-rusher.
Projected Contract: Four years, $68 million
S Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons has vastly outperformed his draft status. The 2016 third-round pick has recorded 16 interceptions and 37 pass breakups through five seasons, and he earned his first Pro Bowl nod this year.
Simmons played through the 2020 campaign on the $11.4 million franchise tag for safeties. The Broncos could use the one-year tender on him again this offseason, which would cost approximately $13.7 million, per Mike Klis of 9News in Denver.
The Broncos have a starting quarterback in Drew Lock who's on a rookie deal. They're projected to head into the offseason with $17.3 million in cap space. Denver can cut ties with cornerback A.J. Bouye, who's serving a six-game suspension for a performance-enhancing drug violation and will miss the first two games of the 2021 campaign, to free up an additional $13.4 million.
In other words, the Broncos aren't strapped for cash. New general manager George Paton has the financial flexibility to re-sign a key defensive playmaker at market price. Simmons' agent should look at Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker's four-year, $59 million contract as the floor for his client's new deal.
Simmons has lined up in center field, closer to the line of scrimmage and in the slot. The Broncos would be hard-pressed to find someone who can replicate his versatility and consistency in forcing turnovers. He'll likely reset the safety market this offseason.
Projected Contract: Four years, $61 million
Player contract details courtesy of Spotrac.