Predicting the Next Wave of NFL Mega Contracts
After mandatory minicamp in June, several NFL teams will lock star players into long-term megadeals.
While some general managers and head coaches have made public comments about negotiations in the works, other teams prefer not to discuss in-house bookkeeping matters with the media.
Players cannot sign extensions until after their third season, so several young veterans from the 2018 draft class will become eligible to ink new contracts that could reset the market.
We profiled eight players who will soon make the leap from grossly underpaid to the highest-paid in the league with a projection on the average annual value (AAV) and guaranteed money for their potential deals.
S Jamal Adams, Seattle Seahawks
Last July, the Seattle Seahawks acquired Jamal Adams and a 2022 fourth-round pick from the New York Jets in exchange for two first-rounders (2021 and 2022), a 2021 third-rounder and safety Bradley McDougald.
The Seahawks invested premium draft capital in Adams, and he put his name in the record books with the most sacks in a single season (9.5) for a defensive back in NFL history. They're not going to let him walk after a contract year.
Over the past few months, we've heard very little about the progress of negotiations between the Seahawks and Adams. On the Brock and Salk Podcast (h/t Brent Stecker of 710 ESPN Seattle), Brock Huard said he believes the All-Pro safety wants Seattle to up the ante on an initial offer.
"For some reason, Jamal Adams and his team and others that are involved in this think the Seahawks are going to up their offer," he said. "They must believe that they’re going to use time as leverage and the Seahawks are going to change the terms of the deal, and the Seahawks are not going to do that."
Huard referenced previous contract situations with quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner as his reasons for why the Seahawks will stand by their initial offer if they've put one on the table.
Although Adams isn't a reliable deep-cover defender, his impact on the pass rush gives him enough leverage to reset the safety market, so he'll top Justin Simmons' four-year, $61 million contract.
Projected Extension: Four years, $66 million ($36 million guaranteed)
QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
In a crucial third year, Josh Allen made the jump from a young inconsistent quarterback to a Pro Bowl player who helped lead the Buffalo Bills to the AFC Championship Game. He threw for 37 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and finished with the third-highest QBR (81.7).
Coming off a Pro Bowl campaign, Allen has a case for a spot among the league's top 10 quarterbacks. In addition to a 4,500-plus-yard passing season, he's rushed for 1,562 yards and 25 touchdowns in his career.
When asked about Allen's potential extension, Bills general manager Brandon Beane didn't provide a timeline for which the team plans to strike a deal (h/t NFL Network's James Palmer):
"No, there's really nothing to give you on that," Beane said. "If something were to happen this summer, we’ll definitely let you know and hopefully it’s coming from us and not being broke somewhere else. Other than that, there nothing I can give you."
Beane didn't dismiss the anticipation of an extension, so we could hear something from the team this summer.
Back in January, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport said the Bills would approach Allen's camp with a massive offer that would make him one of the highest-paid players.
Allen's representatives could use Dak Prescott's four-year, $160 million contract as a benchmark in negotiations. The former has a standout campaign that tops all five of the latter's season performances.
Projected Extension: Four years, $164 million ($128 million guaranteed)
DE Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings have a complicated situation with Danielle Hunter. On one hand, he deserves a new deal. The two-time Pro Bowler recorded 29 sacks between the 2018 and 2019 terms and reached 50 sacks at a younger age than any player in NFL history.
However, the Vikings may not rush to extend a contract for a player who missed the entire 2020 season because of a herniated disk that required surgery. Furthermore, Hunter has three years left on his current deal that he signed in 2018.
We cannot underestimate Hunter's value to the Vikings defense though. In 2018 and 2019, the unit ranked within the top five in sacks. Without him in 2020, Minnesota ranked 28th in sacks (23). Quarterbacks had ample time to pick apart the pass defense, which listed 25th in yards allowed.
Back in March, The Athletic's Chad Graff reported that Hunter had "grown more discontent" with his contract situation. So, his decision to skip organized team activities makes sense. He could force the Vikings' hand in a push for a new deal.
Head coach Mike Zimmer showed patience when asked about Hunter's absence.
"We'll just see when minicamp shows up," Zimmer said.
If Hunter continues to stay away from the team, Minnesota would run the risk of fielding another bottom-tier defense without its top pass-rusher.
Hunter has more sacks (54.5) in his first five seasons than Joey Bosa (47.5) with nearly the same number of tackles for loss. Don't be surprised if the Vikings match Bosa's AAV at $27 million in an extension for their best defensive playmaker.
Projected Extension: Three years, $81 million ($55 million guaranteed)
QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Technically, team wins aren't a quarterback statistic. However, we must acknowledge the Baltimore Ravens' 30-7 record with Lamar Jackson under center.
In his rookie year, Jackson took over for Joe Flacco and led the Ravens to the playoffs after the team's 4-5 start. He earned league MVP for the 2019 campaign and then won his first playoff game last season.
Through certain analytical lenses, Jackson's passing numbers don't jump off the screen. He's yet to throw for 3,200 yards in a season and only eclipsed 249 yards once in 2020.
However, Jackson plays a big role in the Ravens' dominant ground attack, which has accumulated the most yards over the last two years. He holds the quarterback rushing record in a season (1,206) and lists as the only signal-caller to eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground in two campaigns.
While we can criticize Jackson's passing performances, he's a major reason why the Ravens have gone to the postseason over the past few terms. General manager Eric DeCosta made candid comments about the intention to extend his star quarterback's contract.
"I'm a guy that sort of likes to work with deadlines," DeCosta said (h/t ESPN's Jamison Hensley). "The draft is almost over, so we'll kind of move on to the next big thing. We've got other things now on our plate, and Lamar Jackson is one of those things."
Both Jackson and Allen will likely sign megadeals that top Dak Prescott's $40 million AAV. Yet the Ravens' signal-caller has an MVP trophy that he can use as leverage to boost the asking amount on his extension.
Projected Extension: Four years, $168 million ($130 million guaranteed)
LB Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
At 25 years old, Darius Leonard has accomplished some extraordinary feats through three terms.
In 2018, Leonard had an All-Pro campaign and won Defensive Rookie of the Year, logging a league-leading 163 tackles, 12 for loss, seven sacks, four forced fumbles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions.
Leonard has earned Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors in each of his seasons, and he's the only player in NFL history to record at least 15 sacks, seven interceptions through three campaigns (h/t NFL Research).
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Indianapolis Colts have opened a dialogue with Leonard's camp about an extension that may surpass linebacker Bobby Wagner's $18 million AAV.
Once the Colts agree to terms with Leonard, he'll likely become the highest-paid off-ball linebacker.
Projected Extension: Four years, $78 million ($42 million guaranteed)
OG Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts hit big with their 2018 draft class. Linebacker Darius Leonard isn't the only player on the roster who could reset the market at his respective position.
Even though Quenton Nelson doesn't play a position that puts him in headlines, he's already one of the most established offensive linemen in history and joined elite company as one of five players to earn All-Pro honors for each of his first three seasons (h/t The Associated Press).
Nelson has helped instilled a physical identity in the trenches of the Colts offense; the club's ground attack ranked seventh and 11th for the 2019 and 2020 terms, respectively. Last season, he played 1,082 offensive snaps and only gave up one sack, per Pro Football Focus.
Colts owner Jim Irsay highlighted one of the team's offseason priorities, which suggests Nelson could sign an extension in the near future.
"I think one thing we're really up against is realizing we want to get some extensions done," Irsay said to reporters.
Expect Nelson to easily top guard Joe Thuney, who signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs in March. The latter doesn't have a Pro Bowl or All-Pro season on his resume.
Projected Extension: Five years, $94 million ($50 million guaranteed)
OLB Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
Fred Warner isn't a household name, but his production speaks volumes.
If you watch any San Francisco 49ers game, you'll see Warner all over the field. According to Pro Football Focus, he tied for first among rookie linebackers in run stops with 35 in 2018. The third-year pro has recorded 367 tackles (253 solo) for his career.
More importantly, Warner has developed into a complete every-down defender who's provided quality pass coverage in the middle of the field. In 2020, he earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods, logging 125 tackles, five for loss, six pass breakups, two interceptions and a sack.
Despite the wear and tear on Warner's body as a presence on most plays, he's yet to miss a game with 48 consecutive starts.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan seems eager to lock his star linebacker into a long-term deal.
"I want to get it done personally," Shanahan said to reporters. "I kind of feel like I'd say the same about him as I did about [TE George] Kittle when we were talking about it [last year]. I just see that kind of as a matter of time."
If Warner signs his extension after Darius Leonard, he could push to reset the market. Regardless, the 49ers linebacker should rank within the top three in AAV at the position.
Projected Extension: Four years, $75 million ($40.5 million guaranteed)
Edge T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
With three Pro Bowl and two All-Pro nods on his resume, T.J. Watt has become one of the most accomplished edge-rushers in the league. He's recorded 49.5 career sacks and led the Pittsburgh Steelers in that category in each of the last three campaigns.
In 2020, after logging a league-leading 15 sacks, Watt nearly won Defensive Player of the Year. He had seven fewer votes than defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who claimed the honor for the third time.
However, we don't need a prestigious award to highlight Watt's career production. He's already led the league in forced fumbles, sacks and tackles for loss.
According to Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, we should expect the Steelers to engage with Watt's camp about an extension this summer with Week 1 as a customary deadline:
"Talks between Watt and the Steelers will heat up this summer. The team has a policy of not negotiating once the regular season begins. ... It's always possible that the Steelers will allow Watt to play out his contract in 2021 and then put their franchise tag on him for 2022. That would assure that he'll be with the team for two more seasons. But that tag isn't what Watt or the Steelers want. Both sides want a long-term deal."
Because of his eye-catching pass-rushing numbers, Watt will likely sign a contract that makes him the NFL's richest defensive player. In part because of availability, he has more sacks than Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett, the league's two highest-paid defenders in terms of AAV.
Projected Extension: Five years, $145 million ($105 million guaranteed)
Player salaries courtesy of Over The Cap.