Agent’s Take: Davante Adams, Tyrann Mathieu, Chandler Jones headline 2021 contract-year players to watch

Written by on September 23, 2021

Contract-extension season typically runs from the beginning of July until the early part of September when the regular season begins. A flurry of veteran signings took place during this period. Multiple players, who would have been highly sought after in free agency or franchise tag candidates, were taken off the market.

The most notable signing was edge rusher T.J. Watt becoming the NFL‘s highest-paid non-quarterback with a four-year, $112.011 million extension averaging $28,002,750 per year. More surprisingly, the Steelers abandoned a long-established contract precedent where signing bonus is the only guaranteed money, giving Watt the most money fully guaranteed at signing for a non-quarterback with $80 million.

Darius Leonard and Fred Warner took off-ball linebacker compensation to new heights. Warner was the first to hit the $19 million mark with the five-year extension he received from the 49ers just before the start of training camp in the latter part of July. Leonard subsequently eclipsed Warner on the five-year, $98.5 million extension he signed with the Colts in early August. His $52.5 million of guarantees are the most ever for an off-ball linebacker.

The salary cap dropping by $15.7 million from $198.2 million in 2020 to $182.5 million this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic causing a loss of revenue, limited the number of teams willing to make a splash in free agency. Things should be different next offseason since stadiums are back to full capacity. The NFL and NFLPA have agreed to a salary cap ceiling of $208.2 million for 2022. Reaching the ceiling in 2022 would be a 14.1% increase over the current $182.5 million salary cap.

Here are 20 players to keep an eye on during their contract year.

The Packers have refused to make Adams the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver ahead of DeAndre Hopkins, who signed a two-year extension last preseason averaging $27.25 million per year. Adams can make a good case he should be the highest paid because of his consistency over the last three seasons (2018-20). He ranks third in the NFL with 309 receptions, fourth in receiving yards (3,757) and his 36 touchdown catches are the most in the league during this span. The Packers don’t have a great history in giving wide receivers a third contract.

Adams is a prime candidate for a franchise tag next offseason absent a new deal despite a challenging salary cap situation for 2022. His nonexclusive franchise tag will be $20.12 million because it will be based off a 120% increase of his 2021 salary, which is essentially his cap number for these purposes. Green Bay’s $243.535 million in 2022 cap commitments are second-most in the NFL, according to NFLPA data. Thirty-nine players are under contract while the top 51 salaries (i.e.; cap numbers) matter with offseason salary cap accounting rules.

Miller, who missed the 2020 season because of an ankle injury requiring surgery, has gotten off to a fast start with three sacks in the first two games. The Super Bowl 50 MVP had a down 2019 by his standards. His eight sacks were his lowest total in playing a full season. Miller, who is 32, balked when the Broncos asked him take a pay cut in advance of the decision to pick up the option on his 2021 contract year worth $18 million. Since it will cost $26.45 million for the Broncos to designate the seven-time All-Pro as a franchise player in 2022, he seems destined to hit the open market for the first time his 10-year NFL career.

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Mathieu made his presence felt in his 2021 season debut versus the Ravens with two interceptions, including one for a touchdown, after missing the first game because of COVID-19. Chiefs general manager Brett Veach has said the team would do everything to keep Mathieu, who has expressed a desire to stay in Kansas City. He has cited a $15 million salary cap reduction from where the financial landscape would have been without the pandemic revenue losses as a factor for delaying a new deal.

Jamal Adams dramatically resetting the safety market last month with a four-year, $70 million extension worth up to $72 million through incentives and salary escalators complicates matters. Mathieu’s current three-year deal averaging $14 million per year, which brought him to Kansas City in free agency, put him at the top of the safety market. It wouldn’t be surprising if Mathieu, who is 29, wants to return to that place in the safety salary hierarchy. The Chiefs will have a difficult time using Mathieu’s age against him as a justification for holding the line fiscally after the Vikings‘ treatment of 32-year-old Harrison Smith. The Vikings gave Smith a four-year extension averaging $16 million per year, which makes him the league’s second-highest-paid safety, less than two weeks after the Adams deal.

Designating Mathieu as a franchise player in 2022 doesn’t make sense economically given the safety market. His franchise number will be $23.63 million with the way the 120% salary-increase provisions work with designations.

Jones seemingly took his frustrations about a lack of new contract out on left tackle Taylor Lewan and quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the season opener against the Titans. He earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his five sacks, four tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in the game. The Cardinals have only made Jones, who missed the final 11 games last season with a torn biceps, a one-year offer including a $14 million 2022 base salary and $1.5 million of incentives for 15 sacks, according to CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told an Arizona radio station after the season opener, “We’re not in the business of moving on and getting rid of good football players.” A Jones franchise tag next offseason will be costly. His franchise number projects to $25 million.

Winston beat out Taysom Hill in a preseason competition to replace retired Drew Brees after spending the 2020 season with the Saints as a backup. He looked great in the season opener against the Packers by throwing five touchdown passes without any interceptions. In Week 2, Winston resembled the turnover machine he was in his five seasons with the Buccaneers when he had a league-high 111 giveaways — 88 interceptions and 23 lost fumbles. Becoming the first player to throw at least 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in the same season in 2019, punched Winston’s ticket out of Tampa. Winston significantly cutting down on turnovers could keep him in New Orleans for the foreseeable future. If not, he could be replaced by Hill at some point this season.

The Buccaneers placed a franchise tag on Godwin for $15.983 million instead of keeping edge rusher Shaquil Barrett off the open market for a second straight year with the designation. As a part of the NFL’s best wide receiver trio with Antonio Brown and Mike Evans, Godwin won’t come close to duplicating the production of his breakout 2019 season in which he caught 86 passes for 1,333 receiving yards with nine touchdowns despite missing the final two games because of a hamstring injury. Nonetheless, Godwin’s salary floor should be the four-year, $72 million contract worth a maximum of $76 million with incentives the Giants gave Kenny Golladay in free agency. Golladay’s deal has $40 million of guarantees where $28 million is fully guaranteed. Preventing Godwin from becoming an unrestricted free agent again with another franchise tag will cost the Buccaneers $19,179,600.

Nobody expected Ertz to declare that he wants to finish his career in Philadelphia near the end of the preseason considering he was given permission to seek a trade when the 2020 season ended. Last year was a lost season for Ertz because of quarterback Carson Wentz’s startling regression and an ankle injury that sidelined him for five games.

By most accounts, the three-time Pro Bowler has returned to his old form after spending most of the offseason rehabbing from ankle surgery. This may not translate into production because Ertz isn’t the favorite target of quarterback Jalen Hurts like he was with Wentz, who was traded to the Colts in March, and he’s splitting time with Dallas Goedert at tight end more than he has ever in their four seasons of playing together. Ertz may be giving a league-wide audition for his next destination because it’s hard to imagine the Eagles retaining both he and Goedert in 2022.

Clowney was sackless in the eight games he played in 2020 with the Titans before season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. He still managed to get a one-year, $8 million contract year worth a maximum of $10 million with incentives from the Browns. Double teams will be few and far between for the three-time Pro Bowler playing opposite All-Pro Myles Garrett on Cleveland’s defensive line. If Clowney can’t thrive under these circumstances, the big payday he has been seeking since playing under a fifth-year option in 2018 may permanently elude him

Robinson wasn’t pleased when the Bears made him a franchise player for $17.88 million. Nonetheless, Robinson smartly signed his franchise tender when the Bears started pursuing Golladay in free agency since that made his money fully guaranteed.

Robinson has thrived in Chicago despite shaky quarterback play. He has the NFL’s fourth most receptions (200) and receiving yards (2,397) over the last two seasons (2019 and 2020).

The Bears and Robinson reportedly haven’t had serious contract discussion since talks broke down early last season. Robinson surely took note of the four-year extension wide receiver Keenan Allen received from the Chargers last preseason, averaging $20.25 million per year with $50 million of guarantees, before his own negotiations with the Bears stopped. Shortly after Allen signed, Hopkins replaced Julio Jones, whose three-year extension from the Falcons in 2019 averaged $22 million per year, as the league’s highest-paid wide receiver on his two-year, $54.5 million extension ($27.25 million per year) with the Cardinals. Catching a career-high 102 passes in 2020 only confirmed to Robinson he should be in the top salary tier for wide receivers. A second franchise tag in 2022 will be $21.456 million.

The Saints need to decide if they are comfortable setting the market at both tackle positions. Ryan Ramczyk became the benchmark for right tackles in most key contract metrics at the end of June. He signed a five-year, $96 million contract extension averaging $19.2 million per year with $60,214,824 of guarantees where $43,014,824 was fully guaranteed. The deal is worth as much as $102 million through salary escalators and incentives. On the open market in 2022 with a rising salary cap, Armstead becoming the first $25 million-per-year offensive lineman isn’t out of the question. He is three years younger than 33-year-old Trent Williams, who became the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman at $23.01 million per year when he re-signed with the 49ers in free agency.

Scherff’s Pro Bowl selection in 2020 was his fourth over a five-year span. During the offseason, he was named as franchise player for a second straight year at $18.036 million, which was a 20% raise of his initial $15.03 million designation. A third franchise tag by the Washington Football Team in 2022 is out of the question because it would be either $25,971,840 at the NFL collective bargaining agreement mandated 44% raise over his current $18.036 million salary or the 2022 nonexclusive quarterback number, whichever is greater.

Based on recent history, Scherff will become the new salary benchmark if on the open market next year. A Pro Bowl-caliber guard in his prime has been resetting the market in free agency (Andrew Norwell, Kelechi Osemele, Joe Thuney, Kevin Zeitler). Scherff likely wouldn’t be the highest paid for very long. Any deal he signs would instantly become the starting point for 2018 first-round pick Quenton Nelson’s negotiations with the Colts, which should take place next year. 

Bridgewater has been everything Broncos head coach Vic Fangio expected him to be when the veteran was acquired from the Panthers for a 2021 sixth-round pick so he could compete with 2019 second-round pick Drew Lock to be Denver’s starting quarterback. His steady play is a big factor in Denver’s 2-0 start. Continued consistency from Bridgewater to complement an already strong defense could result in the Broncos making the playoffs for the first time since winning Super Bowl 50 during the 2015 season and ensure he’s a starter in 2022. It could be somewhere else because reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers has had his sights set on playing in Denver.

Brown forced a trade from the Ravens because he wants to be a left tackle, which wasn’t possible in Baltimore because of All-Pro Ronnie Stanley. The Chiefs gave up their 2021 first-round pick (31st overall), a 2021 third-round pick (94th overall), a 2021 fourth pick (136th overall) and a 2022 fifth-round selection to the Ravens for Brown, a 2021 second-round pick (58th overall) and a 2022 sixth-round pick.

Brown showing he can be an upgrade over two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Eric Fisher in Kansas City’s pass-happy offense could make the Chiefs regret letting him continue to play under his rookie contract. Typically, the acquiring team pays a premium financially when a long-term deal for a player who has remaining time on his contract isn’t done in connection with a trade involving significant draft capital.

It’s conceivable that Brown could reset the pay scale for offensive linemen with a successful transition to his new surroundings. 49ers and Packers left tackles Trent Williams and David Bakhtiari lead the way at $23.01 million and $23 million per year, respectively. Brown’s consolation would be he’s already a known commodity at right tackle, which has seen a market shift this offseason. The going rate for high-caliber right tackles is currently in the $19 million-per-year neighborhood.

Dallas Goedert, TE, Eagles

Just before the start of the regular season, Goedert said he thought he would have already gotten a new deal by now. He also confirmed that negotiations have ceased. Goedert may be questioning whether he wants to be in Philadelphia with fellow members of his Eagles 2018 draft class offensive tackle Jordan Mailata and defensive end Josh Sweat getting extensions since his comments. Regardless, Philadelphia is going to have to pay Goedert more than the $12.5 million per year the Patriots gave Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith in free agency especially after the Ravens signed Mark Andrews to a four-year, $56 million extension with just over $37.5 million in guarantees a couple of weeks ago.

The 2018 second-round pick flies under the radar nationally because he plays in Cincinnati. Bates expressed frustration about his contract negotiations during a training camp interview with the local Cincinnati media. Prior to venting publicly, Bates indicated he wanted to be in Cincinnati long-term. The Bengals are likely going to regret not signing Bates to a new deal before Adams reset the safety market.

Jackson assumes No. 1 cornerback duties in New England while 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, who is also in a contract year, misses the first few weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list. The 2018 undrafted free agent’s nine interceptions were second in the NFL last season. In fact, Jackson has the NFL’s most interceptions since the start of the 2019 season with 16, which includes two this year.

Jackson understands that the “money is going to come” if he continues to do his part on the football field. It should be noted that Byron Jones briefly became the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback in 2020 free agency when he signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract averaging $16.5 million per year with the Dolphins. The deal contains $54.375 million of guarantees where $40 million was fully guaranteed at signing.

Jackson has a better chance of staying in New England beyond this season than the 31-year-old Gilmore because he is nearly six years younger. The cornerback franchise number projects to nearly $17.5 million at the $208.2 million salary cap ceiling for 2022.

A franchise tag for $10.612 million was placed on Maye. Negotiations with Maye were acrimonious. The initial Jets offer was reportedly less than half of Adams’ $17.5 million per year. The Jets have a poor track record in keeping talented homegrown players. The trend will likely continue unless the Jets take a different approach in any future negotiations with Maye.

Teller earned second team All-Pro honors from the Associated Press last season when he was arguably the NFL’s best run-blocking guard. The Browns are proactive in signing core players to extensions well in advance of free agency. There might be a disconnect between the parties on Teller’s value. Proving 2020 wasn’t a fluke should make Teller a hot commodity in next offseason’s free agency since placing a franchise tag on him in the $16.5 million neighborhood seems unlikely.

Sutton isn’t showing any ill effects from the torn ACL in his left knee that limited him to one game last season. He had a career-high nine catches for 159 yards in Week 2 against the Jaguars. Sutton seems poised to best his career-high marks of 72 receptions and 1,112 receiving yards from 2019.

Riches in free agency didn’t await Reddick despite tying for fourth in the NFL with 12.5 sacks last season. Consequently, Reddick took a one-year, $6 million deal worth up to $8 million through incentives from Carolina. He has reunited with Matt Rhule, his college head coach at Temple. A similar performance as in 2020 should produce a different outcome financially for him. Reddick has three sacks in the first two games this season.

Others: Carlton Davis, CB, Buccaneers; Evan Engram, TE, Giants; Michael Gallup, WR, Cowboys; Stephon Gilmore, CB, Patriots; Anthony Harris, S, Eagles; Jason Pierre-Paul, EDGE, Buccaneers; JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Steelers; Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Cowboys; Marcus Williams, S, Saints; Mike Williams, WR, Chargers

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