Next in Line: NFL Players Who Could Get Record-Breaking Contracts in 2022

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistApril 21, 2021

Next in Line: NFL Players Who Could Get Record-Breaking Contracts in 2022

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    There's a bit of a next-man-up mentality when it comes to NFL contract negotiations. It's not a universal practice, of course, but the game's elite players—or, their representatives, anyway—often approach the bargaining table looking to be the highest-paid at their positions.

    It's this concept that has players, typically those signing their second deals, regularly agreeing to record-breaking contracts. With the salary cap expected to be back on the rise in 2022, we could see quite a few more records broken by next offseason.

    Which players might get those record-setting contracts? That's what we're here to examine, using factors like age, proven production, contract eligibility and roster value as guidelines.

    Players are listed in alphabetical order by last name.     

S Jamal Adams

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Seattle Seahawks safety Jamal Adams will be eligible for free agency next offseason. However, he could receive an extension from the Seahawks before then. And it could even be this offseason.

    According to former NFL quarterback Jake Heaps, it's common for the franchise to wait until after the draft to extend players.

    "Is Jamal Adams a priority for the Seahawks this offseason? Without a doubt," Heaps told ESPN 710 Seattle this month. "Was it going to get done early on in the process? No!"

    However, if Adams is looking to be the league's highest-paid safety, he may be better off waiting until next offseason to re-sign or trying his luck in free agency. Seattle only has $6.1 million in cap space.

    If Adams does wait, he could top the four-year, $61 million deal that Justin Simmons signed this offseason. Simmons is the league's highest-paid safety in terms of annual value, making $15.3 million per year.

    While Adams isn't a back-end safety in the mold of Simmons, he's a valuable and versatile chesspiece. More of a hybrid linebacker/pass-rusher and box safety, Adams can still be the centerpiece of a defense like Seattle's. Last season alone, he amassed 83 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 26 quarterback pressures. He's only 25 years old and already a three-time Pro Bowler.      

QB Josh Allen

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the NFL's highest-paid quarterback both in terms of contract dollars and annual salary. Buffalo Bills signal-caller Josh Allen might not match Mahomes' 10-year extension, but he could surpass his $45 million annual salary.

    For Allen, it'll likely be about timing. The 24-year-old is eligible for an extension now, but he could benefit greatly from another year of high-level production.

    He had a phenomenal campaign in 2020, making his first Pro Bowl and passing for 4,544 yards with 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also rushed for 421 yards and eight more scores. However, Mahomes was already an NFL MVP and a Super Bowl MVP when he signed his record-setting deal.

    Being the next man up will only carry so much weight in the negotiating room. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was up this offseason, and his four-year extension made him the league's second-highest-paid quarterback at $40 million annually.

    If Allen hopes to surpass Mahomes, he'll have to be great again in 2021. If he can take another positive step, though, he absolutely could pass Mahomes in average annual salary, especially if he can lead Buffalo to a Super Bowl.

QB Lamar Jackson

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is in a situation similar to Allen's. He's already eligible for an extension and could surpass Mahomes in terms of annual value.

    Like Mahomes, Jackson has already been named the regular-season MVP once. He's also a one-time first-team All-Pro who has recorded 7,085 career passing yards with 68 touchdowns to just 18 interceptions, along with 2,906 rushing yards and 19 more scores.

    Like Allen, though, Jackson could benefit from waiting a year. While he was the unanimous MVP in 2019, he regressed statistically in 2020. He rushed for 1,000-plus yards for the second consecutive season but threw 10 fewer touchdowns, saw his passer rating drop more than 10 points and did not make the Pro Bowl.

    The Ravens could be eager to get an extension done before Jackson has the opportunity to bounce back.

    "Lamar and I have had a discussion about that [an extension]," general manager Eric DeCosta told reporters (starts at 18:03 mark). "I think it's important to us, and it's important to him."

    Should Jackson return to form in 2021, proving that he can sustain an MVP-level of play, or take Baltimore to the Super Bowl, the Ravens may find it difficult not to make him the highest-paid quarterback in the league.

    Between Allen and Jackson, the real record-setter may be the player who signs last.    

LB Darius Leonard

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard was taken in the 2018 draft like Allen and Jackson. As a second-round pick, however, he's set to hit free agency in 2022. Whether he signs an extension before then or actually hits the open market, Leonard is in line to become the highest-paid off-ball linebacker.

    Seattle's Bobby Wagner leads the league among non-pass-rushing linebackers at $18 million annually. Leonard is similarly productive and roughly five years younger than Wagner. In his three pro seasons, the 25-year-old already has two Pro Bowl appearances, two first-team All-Pro nods and a slew of impressive statistics.

    Though he has missed six games in his career, Leonard has already racked up 416 tackles, 15 sacks, nine forced fumbles, 22 passes defended and seven interceptions.

    While Colts general manager Chris Ballard doesn't regularly toss out cash in free agency—Indianapolis currently has the fifth-most cap space in the league—he will reward players already on the roster. After trading for DeForest Buckner, Ballard made him the league's second-highest-paid defensive tackle behind only Aaron Donald.

    Assuming Leonard stays healthy and in Pro Bowl form, he should be the highest-paid off-ball linebacker by 2022.         

G Quenton Nelson

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Guard Quenton Nelson is another Colt who could soon be the highest-paid player at his position. That honor, at least among guards on long-term deals, currently belongs to Kansas City Chiefs guard Joe Thuney. The 2021 offseason addition leads all guards but one with an annual salary of $16 million.

    Washington Football Team guard Brandon Scherff will earn $18 million in 2021 while playing on the franchise tag. He could also earn more than Thuney on a long-term deal.

    According to ESPN's John Keim, Scherff has already turned down an offer to be the highest-paid guard in the NFL.

    However, if Scherff signs a big deal next year, Nelson could surpass him if Scherff is the first to agree to a contract. Nelson is already eligible for an extension but has a $13.8 million fifth-year option for 2022 that the Colts can exercise before May 3. Indianapolis has a window to work that fifth-year option into an extension.

    And Nelson is arguably a better guard than Scherff. The latter has four Pro Bowl appearances and one first-team All-Pro nod, but he is 29 years old and has missed 18 games over the last four seasons.

    Nelson is only 25 years old, is a three-time Pro Bowler, a three-time first-team All-Pro and has never missed a game. In fact, Nelson has never played fewer than 97 percent of the Colts' offensive snaps in a season.

    Barring an unforeseen injury or decline, Nelson should set a new standard for interior offensive linemen in the not-too-distant future.      

Edge T.J. Watt

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Like Nelson, Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rusher T.J. Watt appears to be in the early stages of a Hall of Fame career. The 26-year-old has already had 49.5 sacks, three Pro Bowl appearances and two first-team All-Pro selections in four years.

    Watt has also produced 120 quarterback pressures over the last two years alone.

    Also like, Nelson, though, Watt may have to wait until next offseason to get paid. Pittsburgh has just $11.3 million in cap space and doesn't appear to be eager to use it to lock up Watt.

    "T.J. has another year on his contract. We look at him as a key player in our future. I can assure you we're going to do everything we can to keep him on the roster," team president Art Rooney II said last month, per ESPN's Brooke Pryor.

    As long as Watt continues on his trajectory, he could be the league's highest-paid pass-rusher by next season, surpassing Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers in terms of annual value.

    While Bosa is a year younger than the 26-year-old Watt, he's been in the league a year longer and has two fewer career sacks. Bosa makes $27 million annually. Watt could make even more, especially if he actually reaches free agency.


    *Contract and cap information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.