The football world may be at a relative standstill, but teams are operating at a record pace when it comes to avoiding the looming financial commitments they’ll have to make to at least one of their star players. Only three first-round rookie contracts have been signed as of this piece’s publication (Carolina’s Derrick Brown, and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa and Austin Jackson). Meanwhile a boatload of significant contracts lay unaddressed, or, at the least, in a major holding pattern until the country opens its doors back up.
Here are 10 looming deals of consequence we are particularly interested in, both for the financial ramifications and for what the deals might mean for the league beyond 2020.
1. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Back in September, I was fairly confident that the Cowboys and Dak Prescott would reach a deal by the end of the month. At the time, Stephen Jones told me they were over $100 million in guarantees, which, without seeing any other particulars, would place Prescott above Matt Ryan ($94.5 million in guarantees) as the most financially secure quarterback in the NFL. (Second parenthetical: This is assuming Jones actually meant guarantees, which, despite the specific definition of the word, seems to fluctuate when it comes to NFL contracts.) Another reason I was confident? Jerry Jones likes to make a big deal out of big deals. He is uniquely Trumpian in that way. He sold memorabilia for Troy Aikman’s contract. He sold T-shirts for the Ezekiel Elliott deal. And, on Sept. 22 of last year, the Cowboys were 3-0. Jones had the stage set.
Alas, a deal was not struck and what has followed has been classic Jonesian negotiating. With their sprawling platform, the Cowboys are able to inject the public with the idea that this guy is turning down SO. MUCH. MONEY. When, in reality, Prescott deserves the right to reset the market just like every other top-tier quarterback who is due for an extension. In 2019, Prescott led Football Outsiders’ fantastic DYAR (defensive-adjusted yards above replacement) metric, meaning that he had more total value than any other quarterback in the NFL last season. He was sixth in QB DVOA, meaning that only five quarterbacks had more singular value per play than Prescott last year.
Of late, QB contracts seem to be one-upping each other in sums of roughly $500,000-$2 million per year, with the exception of the Jared Goff/Kirk Cousins/Carson Wentz deals which did not reset the APY market, though all three deals ranged between 82-100% in total guarantees. I think Prescott deserves a traditional leapfrog of the current “top” QB deal, which would be Russell Wilson’s four-year, $140 million deal ($35 million APY) with 76% fully guaranteed. Will it happen that way? It doesn’t seem like it. If the Cowboys believed Prescott was in line for that typical progression, wouldn’t they have done it already?
2. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Another reason why I think the Prescott deal should get done sooner rather than later: Patrick Mahomes is going to break the way we think of NFL contracts and will likely lift all boats in the process. ESPN is reporting that the reigning Super Bowl MVP’s deal will be in excess of $200 million (Matt Ryan currently holds the top “total money” slot at $150 million). Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio has wisely been banging the drum for years for a quarterback contract that is anchored to the total percentage of a rising salary cap. Now that Kirk Cousins has crossed the barrier for nontraditional contracts (in his case, by fully guaranteeing the whole amount), the runway has been paved for other alternative solutions, even if nothing quite as bold has been suggested since. Mahomes is a generational talent who, startlingly, hasn’t come close to peaking and has the best offensive mind in football as his head coach. I’m sure if his contract stipulations were “I’m going to submit a blank check to you the day before the season starts every year” there would be 31 other teams willing to sign on for that. As a 2017 first-round pick, he was not eligible for a new deal until this offseason. So now the Chiefs will have to take care of him.
3. Leonard Williams, DE, New York Jets
Leonard Williams is on this list more because his future in New York will be a direct indictment of Giants GM Dave Gettleman’s managerial skills. Gettleman traded a third- and fifth-round pick simply for the chance to rent Williams on the back half of a lost season. Gettleman couldn’t work out a contract for Williams and was forced to place a franchise tag on him that may or may not have been higher than what Williams would have earned on the open market anyway (this is actually a pretty interesting question, looking at Robert Quinn’s $14 million APY and Dante Fowler’s $15 million APY alongside someone like DeForest Buckner, who netted $21 million APY from the Colts. Williams’s number is probably not unreasonable and within a few million of what the open market price would have been). Still, here is a player whose best seasons came on a defensive line alongside an in-prime Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison (plus a still-impactful Mohammed Wilkerson), with Todd Bowles coordinating the defense. At his peak, Williams logged seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss and 25 quarterback hits. Compare that to the two players closest to Williams in his immediate financial bracket, Arik Armstead and J.J. Watt, and decide for yourself.
4. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Free Agent
It will be largely anticlimactic if Clowney shrugs his way back to Seattle on a high-end one-year deal. What I like about his current situation is the idea that his market could suddenly regenerate the closer we get to the start of the season. Clowney will be a flytrap for desperate teams who finally get a look at their rosters and decide whomever they drafted or signed is not adequate enough to carry the load. After compiling each team’s biggest weak spot for SI.com last week (AFC, NFC), I could think of a dozen clubs off the top of my head who should be thinking about shuffling some cap space to make it work. Why?
I keep going back to this metric from Football Outsiders called “Stop Rate.” Football outsiders defines a “stop” as “the total number of plays by a defensive player that prevent a successful play by the offense, defined as 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% of needed yards on second down, and 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down. In general, "plays" refers to tackles, passes defensed, fumbles forced, or interceptions.”
In 2019, Clowney was seventh in the league in stop rate at 88%. Eighty-eight percent of running plays he was involved in were prevented from becoming successful because of Clowney. Open your pockets, people!
5. George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers
Kittle over the last two seasons: 173 receptions, 2,430 yards, 10 touchdowns, 71.2% catch rate. Possibly of equal importance, given Kyle Shanahan’s wide zone, Kittle is one of the best run blockers at his position in the league.
Why is his next contract interesting? Because I think it has the chance to finally close the gap with the far superior wide receiver market. Tight ends have long been a market inefficiency, before the Ravens made it painfully obvious to the rest of the football world in 2019 with their creative deployment and utilization of cheap tight end talent. But with Kittle, like Rob Gronkowski before him, like Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz alongside him, is far more valuable than a lot of the receivers in football and should be compensated as such.
The highest-paying long-term tight end contract right now is Austin Hooper’s four-year deal with the Browns ($10.5 million APY). Amari Cooper, who, over the last two seasons netted 154 catches for 2,194 yards and 15 touchdowns while not being as integrally involved in the blocking scheme, just earned a $20 million APY.
At some point, there will be a tight end so critical to his team’s success that they’ll have no choice but to submit to a hybrid tight end/wide receiver deal, much like the Rams had to do with Todd Gurley once upon a time and the Panthers recently did with Christian McCaffrey. I would guess that Kittle has the best chance of any player to do it soon.
6. Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Chris Godwin was one of the best receivers in football last year, despite playing in an offense with one of the more erratic quarterbacking seasons in NFL history. Now, he gains Tom Brady as a quarterback and Rob Gronkowski to draw defenders. Then, he comes up for his own deal at a time when wide receiver salaries are spiking. This bears watching to me simply because the Buccaneers are all-in on this two-season window with Brady. Surely, Godwin’s impending deal is part of that calculus, but at the moment they are squeezed under the 2020 cap by about $4 million. In 2021, Mike Evans’s cap number and base salary are lower, which should help matters. That said, if the Buccaneers realize that, over the course of their first season with Brady, something else is missing (or that the franchise tagged Shaq Barrett is essential and needs to be signed to a long-term deal) will they have to choose between Godwin and another big-ticket item?
7. Joey Bosa, EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers
We’re hearing reports of a Myles Garrett deal getting done early, possibly because Joey Bosa is up for a second contract and will undoubtedly reset the market. Next offseason is going to be a wild west for the EDGE defender/pass rusher/defensive interior-with-pass-rushing-capabilities market. A ton of veteran talent and some talented players breaking away from their rookie deals are on tap. A taste? Maybe Von Miller, Bosa and Chris Jones (more on him below). Tagged players who may play 2020 on a one-year deal: Yannick Ngakoue, Shaq Barrett, Bud Dupree, Matt Judon, Melvin Ingram, maybe Clowney, Justin Houston, Olivier Vernon, Takk McKinley and so on and so on. It will be a good year to get after the quarterback in 2020, because chances are Bosa is going to help up your price tag.
8. Richard Sherman, CB, San Francisco 49ers
Sherman is on this list because I’m genuinely interested to see him negotiate another deal should he be interested in playing another year or two. He bet on himself on his last deal (negotiating a contract with just $3 million guaranteed, and doing so without an agent) and it paid off, as his Pro Bowl nod triggered various incentives. As a few of us wrote during Super Bowl week, he is a burgeoning voice of a generation of players that is set to do some important things across the NFL (and the country at large). Negotiating a contract is small potatoes compared to societal change, but empowering the next generation of players not to accept being hamstrung by team owners is not insignificant and has ripple effects everywhere.
9. Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs
Fifty quarterback hits, 27 tackles for loss and 24.5 sacks over the last two years should make Chris Jones a wealthy man once the franchise tag no longer becomes a realistic option. While the franchise tag is a serious annoyance for someone like Jones, who has consistently outplayed his rookie deal since being drafted in the second round in 2016, it will be a launching pad for a $100 million-plus deal the following spring, should he stay healthy (and should the Chiefs balk at signing him now).
10. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Los Angeles Rams
A really solid free agent cornerback class comes up in 2021, albeit a veteran-heavy one. Will the Rams allow Ramsey to make it to free agency after dealing two first-round picks for him and gutting the star-studded defense that took the field for Super Bowl LIII? Or will they try to squeeze themselves tightly under the cap for another title push? The Dolphins currently have two of the three highest-paid cornerbacks in football with the APY sitting just above $16.5 million. Chances are Ramsey can destroy that should he post a 2020 more in line with his devious 2018 numbers, where he held opposing receivers to a completion percentage of 54 and opposing quarterback rating of 76.4.
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