Colin Kaepernick, Dez Bryant, others who could get contract extensions in coming weeks
If you thought the start of NFL free agency was insane this year, just imagine the 2015 window opening with Richard Sherman, Jimmy Graham, Colin Kaepernick, Ndamukong Suh, Dez Bryant and other current or future All-Pros wandering onto the market.
Most of those high-profile names will not be up for grabs, mainly because of the work teams are undertaking now to keep their contracts from expiring. With the commotion of the 2014 free-agency period waning, a plethora of top talent has started discussing contract extensions.
Here are a few of the high-profile players who could be inking long-term deals in the coming weeks:
Obviously, that's a massive chasm. It is also something 49ers GM Trent Baalke has expressed interest in remedying before the season starts -- and before Kaepernick's rookie deal expires after the '14 season.
"We’re going to work extremely hard, very diligently in trying to get something done prior to training camp," Baalke told CSNBayArea at this week's league meetings. "That’s the objective right now, as it stands."
At an annual average of $18 million, Kaepernick would slot in with Jay Cutler ($18.1 million per year) and Tony Romo ($18 million per year) among the top-10 paid QBs. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, at a $22 million average, is currently the top-paid quarterback on a year-by-year basis.
• Alex Smith, QB, Chiefs: The Chiefs' gamble on Smith worked out about as well as they could have hoped, with Smith throwing for career-highs in yards and TDs as Kansas City made the playoffs. Like Kaepernick, Smith's contract is on track to run out following 2014, though he'll earn $7.5 million in base salary (and about $9.2 million overall) this coming season without a new deal.
That's significantly more than Kaepernick's cheap, rookie-deal salary but still lower than what Smith will get if the Chiefs extend him. GM John Dorsey said on a recent conference call that talks are ongoing between Smith and the Chiefs. Rolling Smith's contract through 2016 or '17 probably will be the play.
• Ndamukong Suh, DT, Lions: Call it at least a minor surprise that this extension has not happened yet, as Suh holds a $22.4 million cap hit for the Lions in 2014 after restructuring his rookie deal two years ago. Technically, Suh's contract runs through 2015, but he can -- and almost certainly would -- void the final season on that deal to hit free agency.
"We’ve got a long runway to get this done," Lions president Tom Lewand told the team's website. "There’s no pressure. We don’t have any deep discussions planned."
Perhaps complicating matters (or upping the importance of getting Suh locked up) is that the Lions have decided not to pick up Nick Fairley's option for 2015. The plan, for now, is to keep both Suh and Fairley around for the long-haul. They certainly will not let both leave.
• Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys: The 25-year-old Bryant has solidified his place as one of the game's top wide receivers following back-to-back strong seasons -- he's averaged 92.5 receptions, 12.5 touchdowns and more than 1,300 yards over 2012-13. Bryant also has played all 32 games in those years, despite some back issues.
The Cowboys have gone out of their way to keep Bryant from off-field trouble, a vigilant approach that appears to have benefited both parties. How will those past issues affect any contract negotiations?
Bryant is scheduled to count only a little more than $3 million toward the 2014 salary cap, a clear bargain and a beneficial situation for the Cowboys, who have the worst cap situation in the NFL right now. His next contract probably will not get into Calvin Johnson/Larry Fitzgerald range (each averages approximately $16 million per season); challenging the $11-$12 million range inhabited by Mike Wallace, Brandon Marshall and others is more realistic.
• Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals: For most of the players on this list, the extension discussion appears to be a mere formality -- eventually, they'll get their contracts settled. That's not quite the case with Dalton, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal.
"Do you have a high-priced quarterback and less elsewhere or do you try to have as many guys as you can have and maybe a quarterback that is young and not so highly paid?" Bengals owner Mike Brown wondered aloud to Cincinnati.com. "Seattle [is an] example of that. In fact, you look at the statistics, it is rather surprising how few quarterbacks that are old in recent years -- saying over 30 -- have won the Super Bowl. They've gotten there but they haven't won it.
"I don't know, is that a better formula, to go with a younger guy and spread the money around? That's a dilemma for us. ... It's slow going. I can't predict when we are going to get that matter resolved."
Hardly a glowing endorsement for upping Dalton's money. Head coach Marvin Lewis did say this week at the league meetings that the franchise wants to keep Dalton in the fold. Odds are, something will get done before the season begins. It just may be a shorter-term, easy-out contract from the Bengals.
• Earl Thomas, S; Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks: Throw Russell Wilson into the mix here, too, though he cannot lock down an extension until next offseason. The timeline is much more pressing for Thomas and Sherman, both of whom could become unrestricted free agents after 2014.
Something would have to change drastically for that to happen, as the Seahawks reportedly have begun pursuing extensions for both players already. Should those talks fall through, a franchise tag likely would be in the cards for one member of the duo.
How much money Thomas and Sherman will command together is the real question. They're on track to earn about $6 million combined this coming season ($4.6 million for Thomas, a comically low $1.3 million for Sherman). Either could have a case to be the highest-paid player at his respective position -- Jairus Byrd reset the safety market this offseason with a six-year, $54 million deal; Darrelle Revis, at $12 million for one season, raised the bar slightly at cornerback.
• Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints: The Saints' use of the non-exclusive franchise tag on Graham left the door open for another team to steal him, at the cost of two first-round picks. That ship may have sailed for other teams, but Graham has not signed his tender -- he has until April 22 to file a grievance arguing that he should be paid as a receiver under the franchise-tag system, as opposed to as a tight end.
New Orleans could avoid further drama by talking Graham into a long-term deal.
"He's a hell of a good player, but he's also a good person," team owner Tom Benson told the Times-Picayune. "I'm confident we'll work out something. We just have a little bit of time to do it. That's all."
• Alex Mack, C, Browns: Mack remains in transition-tag purgatory. He can at any time sign the one-year, $10.039 million deal that comes with the tag, then attempt to renegotiate that contract -- tagged players have until July 15 to sign extensions with their teams.
However, Mack has left the door open for another club to try to swoop in and steal him (or at least force the Browns to match) with a better offer. If Mack does not have a multi-year contract in place by that July 15 deadline, he will again become a free agent at the end of the 2014 season.
• Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, WRs, Packers: Both players are integral pieces in the Packers offense ... and both are headed into the final year of their contract. Nelson will earn $2.55 million in base salary for 2014, with Cobb checking in shy of $900K.
It will cost Green Bay a pretty penny to retain the receivers' services beyond this coming season, but the franchise has been planning ahead for this situation. Nelson could push close to that aforementioned range for Bryant's new deal -- $10 million and up. Cobb ought to be a slight bargain by comparison.
• John Fox, coach, Broncos: Curveball on the list. Fox, off a run to the Super Bowl, is headed into the final season of the four-year deal he received back in 2011. GM and team executive VP John Elway told ESPN.com that an extension for Fox is "next on the agenda."
"I wouldn’t see any potential problems, bumps or anything like that," Elway said. "Both sides want to get something done. In the end it always comes down to the thing it always comes down to, but we’ll get to work on that pretty soon."
The Ravens would like to keep their No. 1 wide receiver around, so expect something to happen here relatively soon. Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome has a strong track record of retaining the players that the franchise values, making it hard to imagine Smith even inching close to free agency after the 2014 season.
• Eli Manning, QB, Giants: File this one on the backburner for a bit, because Manning still has two seasons left on his current contract and is coming off a disastrous 2013. A repeat of his 27-interception showing in 2014 could set in motion the Giants' Plan B before Manning, 33, approaches free agency.
• Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Redskins: Washington may choose to go the simple route here, picking up an option on Kerrigan's contract for 2015. Such a move would drop Kerrigan's '15 salary into the neighborhood of $3.5 million -- cheap, given his production. The franchise has until May 3 to make that call. If it declines the option, Kerrigan would be set up for a run at free agency after 2014, perhaps sparking talks of a lengthier arrangement.
• Brandon Marshall, WR, Bears: The 30-year-old Marshall has one year and $9.1 million left on his current contract, off a season that saw him score 12 touchdowns and catch 100 passes.
So, why aren't the Bears in more of a hurry to get something done here? Perhaps because Alshon Jeffery's contract runs out after 2015, which puts the emerging superstar in line for a massive pay raise of his own. Chicago may take the upcoming season to determine if it can afford both Marshall and Jeffery long term. If not, Marshall could find himself as the odd man out.
• Julio Jones and Roddy White, WRs, Falcons: There may be more tough decisions ahead here, depending on how receptive White is to a relatively cap-friendly deal. Both Jones and White are on track to hit free agency after the 2014 season. There is little to no chance that the Falcons allow Jones to get there, barring another injury or massive drop in production over the coming months.