Three of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft led their teams to the divisional playoffs this season.
Two—Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns—lost last weekend and are now technically entering the final year of their rookie contracts. The other—Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills—remains in the Super Bowl hunt as Buffalo prepares to play the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
So while there's no chatter right now about Allen's contract for obvious reasons, the focus in Baltimore and Cleveland has already begun to shift to what the Ravens and Browns might do with Jackson and Mayfield, respectively.
"I'm very confident that [general manager] Eric [DeCosta] and those guys will do a great job of looking at that," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh told reporters at his end-of-season press conference. "Of course, absolutely, we want Lamar to sign a long-term deal and be with us. I'm totally certain that that's going to happen. When it happens, that's the details and that's what we've got to figure out."
"There will be plenty of time for those discussions with all the 2021 decisions," Browns GM Andrew Berry told reporters at his end-of-season presser. "I think it's probably just easier to say that I'm really pleased with Baker's performance, really pleased with what he's done this year. We wouldn't be here without his contributions."
Because Jackson was the league MVP as a sophomore in 2019, and because Allen has a chance to be MVP runner-up this year, those two would appear to have a serious edge over Mayfield, who made strides under new head coach Kevin Stefanski in 2020 but was inconsistent in his first two pro seasons and has yet to come close to a Pro Bowl, let alone MVP consideration.
Starting with that duo, let's look at what the future might hold financially for the sport's most promising and accomplished quarterbacks who have yet to sign long-term extensions.
What Should Jackson and Allen Expect?
Jackson and Allen (and Mayfield, but more on him in a moment) are exactly one year behind 2017 first-round quarterback success stories Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs and Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans, both of whom signed jaw-dropping long-term deals pretty much as soon as they were eligible to do so last offseason.
Mahomes' 10-year, $450 million deal with Kansas City is the most valuable overall contract and the most lucrative pact in terms of average annual salary in NFL history, but the length of the deal has drawn criticism along with the fact that the Chiefs can get out of the contract practically free of charge with significant notice at almost any point beyond the 2021 season.
Writing for CBS Sports, former NFL agent Joel Corry suggested that type of deal will continue to be an anomaly, which makes sense because most players prefer shorter contracts with more cash flow.
With that in mind, the more appropriate benchmark for Jackson, Allen and others might be Watson's four-year, $156 million extension with the Texans. That's an average annual salary of $39 million, with a $1 million incentive available between 2022 and 2025 if the Texans win the Super Bowl in the previous season.
Watson has stronger career passing numbers than Jackson and Allen, but the best season on his resume when he signed that deal wasn't close to as formidable as Jackson's unbelievable MVP campaign or Allen's 2020 season that featured a 37-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio for a 13-3 Bills team.
Ordinarily, it'd be a given to take inflation into account here. However, after the salary cap increased by approximately 5-10 percent every year for about a decade, there's a sense that it could plummet in 2021 as a result of losses related to COVID-19. The cap was $198.2 million this season, but ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio reported this week that it could drop to the $180 million range this year.
That could complicate matters to a degree, but the reality is blockbuster extensions signed with rookie contracts still in place aren't often financial burdens right away. Watson's cap hit was just $9.8 million in 2020, while Mahomes' was a mere $5.3 million, according to Spotrac.
Veterans deemed worthy of only short-term deals will likely bear most of the brunt related to revenue losses stemming from the pandemic.
Meanwhile, we're one year closer to the league striking new television deals with networks, which could result in a monumental rise in the salary cap beyond 2021. ESPN's deal expires next offseason, while NBC, CBS and Fox have two years remaining on their current contracts with the league.
"Rates on Sunday afternoon games may double," reported CNBC's Alex Sherman last year, "jumping from $1 billion annually to $2 billion annually. ESPN pays $2 billion annually for Monday Night Football and may need to pay $3 billion to keep the package."
You might read and hear that teams will be incentivized to get long-term deals hammered out before anticipated salary-cap spikes in and/or beyond 2022, but suggesting that players and agents won't negotiate with that inevitability on the table is naive. The reality is Mahomes and Watson reset the market by such large margins that it's fair to assume that trajectory was considered.
One year later, with the NFL still dominating the competition on television despite 2020 declines that were likely at least partly attributed to the presidential election, there's little reason to believe superstar players like Jackson and Allen will have less leverage than the arguably less accomplished Watson.
That doesn't guarantee anything will get done immediately. Watson didn't strike a deal with Houston until less than a week before the start of his fourth season. If required, the Ravens and Bills will inevitably exercise fifth-year options for their respective quarterbacks by the May 3 deadline, and they have franchise tags for 2023, 2024 and possibly even 2025 at their disposal if need be.
In other words, they technically have the flexibility to go year to year for another half-decade. But the potential drawbacks associated with those tactics are daunting. That's generally viewed as a worst-case-scenario route, which is often littered with threats and holdouts and often leads to a toxic, if not scorched, relationship between star player and team.
The best way for the Ravens and Bills to avoid a situation like the one the Washington Football Team encountered with Kirk Cousins or the one the Dallas Cowboys are enduring with Dak Prescott is to get something done between now and the start of the 2021 season.
Let's operate under the assumption they do exactly that. What is each worth?
Jackson is an MVP with rate-based passing stats in Watson's range but far superior rushing numbers. In fact, only five running backs have rushed for more yards than Jackson the last two seasons. He's also about a year younger than Watson was when he signed his deal. And although he appeared to regress a bit early in 2020, a late-season hot streak silenced any notion that his 2019 MVP campaign was an aberration.
Contract prediction for Jackson: Five years, $210 million with $125 million guaranteed.
Allen's not quite as accomplished or as dynamic as Jackson, although he's done more for us lately than Jackson has and there's still room for him to increase his value with a strong performance in the AFC title game and/or Super Bowl LV. If he delivers in both of those games, he might challenge Mahomes for $45 million a year, but the odds don't favor that happening.
For now, let's be a little more conservative. Still, coming off his best season gives him an edge over Jackson, and it could be argued he's a safer investment because he runs less than Jackson. And yet his legs are still a tremendous weapon.
These guys are likely to wind up in the same range.
Contract prediction for Allen: Four years, $160 million with $120 million guaranteed.
Mayfield Isn't on the Same Level...Yet
The Browns, on the other hand, might want to roll the dice on Mayfield's fourth season. They might want to exercise his fifth-year option (which will be fully guaranteed under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement) and see if he continues to improve in 2021.
If he does, his extension will likely be a lot more costly next offseason than it would be now. But he'll cost just $10.6 million in 2021, and there should be plenty of room to fit his salary in once the new TV deals are in place.
If he doesn't take off, you probably consider treating 2022 as a make-or-break year with or without competition on the roster.
That said, I wouldn't fault the Browns for extending Mayfield now. They haven't had a star quarterback in decades, they could use the newfound contractual flexibility to free up extra cap space in a 2021 season that is expected to be a tough financial ride for everyone, and the 25-year-old's 15-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his last 11 regular-season and playoff games is extremely encouraging.
Still, he hasn't done enough to merit money within reaching distance of Mahomes and Watson, so it wouldn't be surprising if he were to bet on himself changing that in 2021. In other words, both parties might prefer to wait.
Contract prediction: No deal this offseason. Otherwise? Four years, $130 million with $100 million guaranteed.
Dak Prescott is a Wild Card
This was a messy situation even before Prescott suffered a severely broken ankle that required surgery and ended his fifth NFL season in October. At the time, he was the league's most prolific passer on paper and had solid numbers across the board despite a poor start from the Cowboys.
But Prescott was also playing under the franchise tag. Another tag in 2021 would cost Dallas $37.7 million, which could cripple a team that Spotrac projects to possess just $17 million in salary-cap space without accounting for key impending free agents Aldon Smith, Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, Jourdan Lewis and Tyrone Crawford.
Prescott is a two-time Pro Bowler with the ability to serve as a franchise quarterback, but with those dynamics in mind, Dallas might either have to make a long-term deal happen now or find a replacement on the trade market or in the draft. It might be able to save money by acquiring Matthew Stafford from the Detroit Lions or Derek Carr from the Las Vegas Raiders, or it could use its No. 10 overall pick on a blue-chip signal-caller like Trey Lance or Zach Wilson.
So logic points to Prescott finally landing a long-term deal, either in Dallas or elsewhere. It also points to Prescott making less than he would have earned if he didn't get hurt and continued to produce at that level. That's an unfortunate reality in this league.
The team insists it is committed to signing Prescott, but the organization obviously drew the line during last year's negotiations and the open market could make it even more difficult to find a happy medium if it opts against using the tag.
A glass-half-full speculative take: The Cowboys and others might now be more inclined to go with a shorter-term deal considering his injury, which is reportedly Prescott's preference.
Contract prediction: Four years, $146 million with $100 million guaranteed.
Kyler Murray Is at Least a Year Away
The 2019 Arizona Cardinals No. 1 overall pick and Offensive Rookie of the Year appeared to make strides despite still lacking consistency as a sophomore, and he isn't eligible for a long-term extension until after the 2021 campaign.
Still, Murray generated a combined 37 passing/rushing touchdowns in a Pro Bowl season that saw him improve his career touchdown-to-interception ratio to 46-to-24. He's as close to Jackson as you'll get on the ground, and his ceiling remains remarkably high considering he's just 23 years old and was only a one-year starter in college.
If he delivers in 2021, he could be up for an extension at the ideal time as the league bounces back from the pandemic-disrupted 2020 season and new TV deals begin to fall into place.
At that point, you'd have to expect Murray to command Jackson-level money.
Contract prediction for next offseason: Five years, $200 million with $120 million guaranteed.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.