Which NFL Players Are Headed for Mega-Paydays in 2022?

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2022

Which NFL Players Are Headed for Mega-Paydays in 2022?

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    During Sunday's divisional round, fans got a glimpse of exactly why the Kansas City Chiefs gave quarterback Patrick Mahomes a 10-year, $450 million extension in 2020.

    The Chiefs took possession with just 13 seconds remaining in regulation and a three-point deficit staring them down against the Buffalo Bills' No. 1-ranked defense. Mahomes orchestrated a game-tying field-goal drive and then delivered a game-winning touchdown strike in overtime.

    He is a difference-maker, and the Chiefs were willing to pay for that.

    While we might not see more 10-year deals or contracts approaching a half-billion dollars, other teams will follow suit this offseason and lock up marquee players. Many of those deals will be incredibly lucrative, especially with the salary cap back on the rise—to $208.2 million, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero.

    Here, we'll examine eight players in line for blockbuster deals in 2022. These are either impending free agents or players eligible for an extension who have shown enough to justify megadeals. Factors such as proven production, positional value, upside, age and cap space will be considered where applicable. Players are listed in alphabetical order.

Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers

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    Green Bay Packers wideout Davante Adams might be the best receiver in football. The five-time Pro Bowler is at least in the conversation, and he should be in line for a lucrative deal following a 1,553-yard, 11-touchdown All-Pro campaign.

    However, Adams might not get his next contract from the Packers. Green Pay is projected to be $38.4 million over the salary cap. The team's lack of cap space is also why star cornerback Jaire Alexander didn't make this list, though he's eligible for and deserving of an extension.

    Regardless, Adams is the top-ranked impending free agent by Pro Football Focus and will get a massive deal on the open market. With a projected value of $25.8 million annually, the 29-year-old should top the $100 million mark on a four-year pact.

    Prospective employers include teams with cap room and receiver needs, such as the Cleveland Browns, Washington Football Team and Indianapolis Colts.

    Projected Contract: four years, $102 million

Terron Armstead, OT, New Orleans Saints

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    As is the case for Adams, New Orleans Saints left tackle Terron Armstead might see his best shot at a long-term deal coming from a new team. The Saints are projected to be $71.2 million over the cap, and Armstead will command a sizable chunk of change.

    Though the 30-year-old was limited to eight games in 2021 and will undergo offseason knee surgery, his drive is unquestionable.

    "He's going to need surgery after the season. He chose to put it off with the hopes of helping the team down the stretch instead of getting it now and preparing for free agency," Nick Underhill of NewOrleans.Football tweeted.

    Armstead's recovery will be a concern, but he's a three-time Pro Bowler who plays the premium offensive-line position. Tackle-needy teams with cap space to spare—such as the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks should be on him early.

    With a projected market value of $23.9 million annually, Armstead is another player who could earn a deal in the $100 million range in free agency.

    Projected Contract: four years, $98 million

Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is set to play on the fifth-year option in 2021, is eligible for an extension. Like fellow standout T.J. Watt did in 2021, Fitzpatrick is likely to receive one from the Steelers. Also like his teammate, Fitzpatrick probably won't get it early in the offseason—Watt signed his deal in September.

    The two-time first-team All-Pro safety doesn't appear likely to threaten a holdout over the timing of his extension, though.

    "I would love to get it done to guarantee the future and have it all done, but that's up to the people upstairs when they want to get that done," Fitzpatrick said, per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Fitzpatrick will get paid, and handsomely. The 25-year-old is one of the best young safeties in the NFL, and the Steelers have no reason not to lock him up. They're projected to have $34 million in cap space, which should leave room to address other needs—possibly including a veteran replacement for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

    Expect Fitzpatrick's new deal to surpass the four-year, $70 million extension Jamal Adams received from the Seattle Seahawks in August.

    Projected Contract: five years, $89.5 million

Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin carries some uncertainty heading into the offseason. He missed four games in 2020 because of a finger injury and a concussion. He suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 15 of this past season.

    Godwin's recovery from knee surgery will be the one thing that gives teams pause. Before the injury, the 2019 Pro Bowler tallied 98 receptions for 1,103 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games. Godwin has No. 1 receiver potential, and he's only 25 years old.

    Expect a receiver-needy team with cap space—like the Browns, Colts or Jacksonville Jaguars—to take a chance on Godwin despite the injury. It's not likely to be a cheap one either.

    Godwin played this season on the franchise tag. He earned $15.9 million on that deal and will likely earn a raise in 2022. He has a projected market value of $18.1 million annually.

    The Buccaneers could be in play to retain Godwin, but with $14.9 million in projected cap space, it will take work to keep him. For Tampa, a lot may hinge on the future of Tom Brady and whether the Bucs believe they can contend again in 2022 and beyond. 

    Either way, expect Godwin to land a sizable deal this offseason.

    Projected Contract: five years, $90.6 million

J.C. Jackson, CB, New England Patriots

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    New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson might not be a household name, but he's arguably the best defender scheduled to reach free agency. He's been fantastic over the past two years and moved into the No. 1 cornerback role in 2021 when Stephon Gilmore sat for New England and was eventually traded to Carolina.

    Jackson started all 17 games and notched a league-high 23 passes defended this season. He logged eight interceptions and allowed an opposing quarterback rating of only 46.8. He earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2021, and he's only 26 years old.

    This combination of elite production, reliability and youth should put Jackson near the top of many free-agent boards. It's also going to land him a lucrative contract if he can avoid the franchise tag in New England—the Patriots gave him a second-round tender as a restricted free agent last offseason.

    Jackson has a projected market value of $20.9 million annually. That would make him the league's highest-paid cornerback in terms of annual salary, and he deserves the high price tag. Expect cap-rich, cornerback-needy teams such as the Jets, Jaguars, Seahawks and Bengals to make a strong push for Jackson in March.

    Projected Contract: five years, $103.5 million

Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

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    To be fair, there's a real chance that quarterback Lamar Jackson doesn't receive an extension during the offseason. He's entering the final year of his rookie deal, but he has yet to reach an agreement and wasn't in contract talks as of the late regular season.

    "No, we haven't talked about it yet, but I've got to worry about getting back right, right now, and getting ready for this offseason," Jackson said, per Kevin Eck of the team's site.

    Complicating matters is the fact that Jackson was just OK in 2021—though somehow still a Pro Bowler—and missed the final four games with an ankle injury. He also missed Week 11 with an unspecified illness and finished with a passer rating of only 87.0.

    Baltimore might wait until Jackson is healthy and back to All-Pro form before granting his long-term deal. Still, it's hard to see the Ravens letting the 25-year-old finish his rookie contract without one. He was the unanimous MVP in 2019 and has taken Baltimore to the postseason in three of his four campaigns.

    The Ravens know what they have in Jackson, and that's a franchise quarterback with a career 37-12 record in the regular season. Expect him to get a deal similar to the six-year, $258 million extension Bills quarterback and fellow 2018 first-round pick Josh Allen signed in August.

    Projected Contract: six years, $250 million

Haason Reddick, Edge, Carolina Panthers

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    Carolina Panthers standout Haason Reddick isn't the most notable pass-rusher headed to the market. Unlike the 32-year-old Von Miller and the 31-year-old Chandler Jones, however, Reddick is just entering his prime.

    The 27-year-old has only been a dedicated edge-defender for two seasons. He has amassed 23.5 sacks in those seasons and produced an impressive 67 quarterback pressures in that span. Given his age, upside and recent production, Reddick's projected market value of $15.3 million annually might be short of the mark.

    Consider that Bud Dupree, who was coming off a torn ACL at the time, received a five-year, $82.5 million deal in free agency last offseason. Dupree never had a two-year stretch like Reddick's despite playing opposing star sack artist T.J. Watt.

    Teams might view Reddick as the best long-term pass-rusher on the market, which could be a problem for the Panthers. Carolina is projected to have $20.4 million in free agency. If a team rich in cap space such as the Jaguars or the Jets is willing to front-load a contract offer, the Panthers will struggle to match.

    Miller and Jones might make more annually than Reddick when free agency is done, but Reddick is better suited for a lengthy deal.

    Projected Contract: Five years, $90 million

Cam Robinson, OT, Carolina Panthers

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    As is the case with Reddick's projection, Cam Robinson's market value of $16.8 million feels a little low. The Jaguars' left tackle has never been a Pro Bowler like Armstead has, but he's only 26 years old and coming off a tremendous season.

    According to Pro Football Focus, he was only responsible for five penalties and one sack allowed in 2021.

    Given his age and upside, Robinson could be viewed as a franchise left tackle who's just hitting his stride—either by Jacksonville or another cap-rich team. The Jaguars have the third-most projected cap space in the NFL at $61.3 million. They should also be eager to protect young signal-caller Trevor Lawrence.

    Robinson earned $13.75 million on the franchise tag this past season. A second franchise tag would cost Jacksonville at least $16.5 million, and a long-term deal could cost substantially more. If teams such as Seattle and Cincinnati enter the mix, Robinson's price point could approach top-five tackle money—Brian O'Neill ranks fifth with an annual salary of $18.5 million.

    Spread over a five- or six-year contract, that would leave Robinson with quite a bit of money, a megadeal, if you will.

    Projected Contract: five years, $90 million


    *Contract projections and cap information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.