As player salaries rightfully continue to trend in the same direction of the salary cap, which has grown from $120.4 million in 2011 to $198.2 million in 2020, new contract precedents are being set around the NFL with regularity.
We dropped the 2020 All-Paid Team earlier this month, which showed us which players currently set the market at their respective positions. Who are the next players primed to take their roster spots in 2021? Here we'll project the next wave of players to secure the bag.
Below, I've named the player I expect to receive the next big-money contract at each position, along with the expected range for the average annual value (AAV) of the contract. I'm not projecting every player listed here to definitely reset the market at his position, as the final outcome depends on where in the projected range each player's AAV lands; in fact, at some positions, I'm NOT expecting the market to be reset. The expectation is that the following will fight for a roster spot on next year's All-Paid Team. I have also listed several other players to watch at each position.
NOTE: The positional contract benchmarks located below each position do not include rookie contracts or players who were designated franchise players.
Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs ($40M-plus)
|Mahomes' current AAV:||$4.1 million|
|Mahomes can be a free agent in:||2022|
|Current highest AAV:||Russell Wilson, Seahawks ($35 million)|
|Most guarantees:||Jared Goff, Rams ($110.0 million)|
|Most guarantees at signing:||Matt Ryan, Falcons ($94.5 million)|
Death, taxes and Patrick Mahomes becoming the highest-paid player in NFL history. These are things that I can say will happen with absolute certainty. No quarterback has ever entered the NFL with the type of success Mahomes has enjoyed over two seasons as a starter -- Dan Marino truthers, feel free to @me.
In his first season as a starter (2018), Mahomes joined Peyton Manning as the only players to record at least 5,000 pass yards and 50 pass touchdowns in the same season. The former is the only player to average more than 300-plus passing yards per game in a career, and he has the highest-rated passer in NFL history (108.6, minimum 1,000 attempts).
The youngest player ever to boast a regular-season MVP and Super Bowl MVP, Mahomes has logged a career's worth of accomplishments in the span of 36 games as a starting quarterback. Tom Brady may be the greatest to ever play the position, but Mahomes is the best quarterback to play our beloved game. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported the morning of Super Bowl LIV that Mahomes' contract could reach or exceed $40 million annually, which isn't the least bit surprising. Mahomes could take his time and let the dust settle on Dak Prescott's and Deshaun Watson's contracts, but all of the records -- statistical and monetary -- will be Mahomes' in the near future.
ON THE RADAR:
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys: After earning $4.9 million in his first four seasons, Prescott is scheduled to earn $31.4 million in 2020 if he plays under the franchise tag. Long-term extension or not, it will be a lucrative season for the Cowboys' signal-caller. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Prescott become the NFL's highest-paid quarterback for a brief moment before either Watson, Mahomes or both usurp him on the throne.
Deshaun Watson Houston Texans: Selected two picks after Mahomes in the 2017 NFL Draft, Watson is already one of the NFL's best active quarterbacks. Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson are the only players in NFL history with a higher passer rating than Watson (min. 1,000 attempts). He is as valuable to the Texans as any player is to any team in the NFL. When his time comes, Watson will fall in right around Mahomes' pay grade.
Notable players not eligible for extension: Lamar Jackson, Ravens.
Running back: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints ($15M-plus)
|Kamara's current AAV:||$964,443 (will earn $2.133 million on the Proven Performance Escalator in 2020)|
|Kamara can be a free agent in:||2021|
|Current highest AAV:||Christian McCaffrey, Panthers ($16.0 million)|
|Most guarantees:||Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys ($50.1 million)|
|Most guarantees at signing:||McCaffrey ($30.1 million)|
Outside of Christian McCaffrey, there may not be a more diverse skill set in an NFL backfield than Kamara's. He's one of four players with 2,000-plus rushing and receiving yards through three NFL seasons -- a list that also includes Run CMC. Kamara ranks second in receptions (243) and receiving yards (2,068) among running backs since 2017, trailing only McCaffrey.
Kamara settles in the top five in scrimmage yards (4,476) and scrimmage touchdowns (38) since entering the NFL in 2017, and he's one of two players with 1,300-plus scrimmage yards in each of the last three seasons. The other? The NFL's highest-paid skill player, receiver Julio Jones ($22 million AAV). Kamara has also made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.
With most of the recent lucrative running back contracts becoming immediate liabilities to the team that signed them (SEE: David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell), it is surprising to see the market continue to experience such growth. Kamara is the best candidate to continue that trend, barring the Titans going all in on Derrick Henry this offseason.
ON THE RADAR:
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans: The NFL's reigning rushing champion received the franchise tag after carrying the Titans to the AFC Championship Game last season. His absence in the pass game suppresses his value some for me, but Tennessee will likely build its offense around Henry for the near future.
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings: Cook had more touches, scrimmage yards and scrimmage touchdowns last season than he had in his first two seasons combined. Injuries will remain a concern in negotiations for Pro Bowler.
Notable players not eligible for extension: Saquon Barkley, Giants; Nick Chubb, Browns.
Wide receiver: Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($19M-plus)
|Godwin's current AAV:||$821,041 (will earn $2.133 million on the Proven Performance Escalator in 2020)|
|Godwin can be a free agent in:||2021|
|Current highest AAV:||Julio Jones, Falcons ($22 million)|
|Most guarantees:||Odell Beckham Jr., Browns ($65 million)|
|Most guarantees at signing:||Jones ($64 million)|
Bruce Arians knows the passing game. When he arrived in Tampa Bay, he looked at Chris Godwin and saw 100 receptions. The receiver finished with 86 catches in 2019 after missing the final two games with a hamstring injury. Now, With Tom Brady sailing to town, Godwin should be a beneficiary of the national spotlight.
Michael Thomas, a 2020 All-Paid Team selection, caught more passes (149) than any player in NFL history last season. Not only was he the lone player to earn a higher receiving grade from Pro Football Focus than Godwin, but he was also the only player to average more receiving yards per game. In fact, Godwin was lined up between Thomas and Julio Jones in that category.
Do I buy Godwin topping Jones' $22 million per season? Nah, I don't. However, he is in line to receive the next large wide receiver extension. Godwin has enjoyed the luxury of playing across from Mike Evans his entire career, and he still has to show he can duplicate his 2019 success. If he continues his trend toward the top of the wide receiver power rankings, his paycheck will soon parallel his rise at the position.
ON THE RADAR:
Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions: The team's clear No. 1 wideout, Golladay has developed into a big-play problem for defenses. His 18.3 yards per reception average and 22 receptions of 20-plus yards each ranked top three in the NFL last season. Golladay led the NFL with 11 receiving touchdowns in 2019, five of which came from 30-plus yards (tied-most in NFL) and six of which came in the red zone (tied for seventh).
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers: Losing Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2 undoubtedly hindered Smith-Schuster's 2019 season. However, his regression in his first season as the primary target should concern the Steelers' front office. The youngest player to reach 200 receptions in NFL history fell from seventh in receiving yards per game in 2018 all the way to 70th in last season.
Others to consider: Allen Robinson, Bears; Keenan Allen, Chargers; Cooper Kupp, Rams.
Notable players not eligible for extension: D.J. Moore, Panthers; Courtland Sutton, Broncos; A.J. Brown, Titans.
Tight end: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers ($16M-plus)
|Kittle's current AAV:||$674,572 (will earn $2.133 million on Proven Performance Escalator in 2020)|
|Kittle can be a free agent in:||2021|
|Current highest AAV:||Austin Hooper, Browns ($10.5 million)|
|Most guarantees:||Hopper ($23.0 million)|
|Most guarantees at signing:||Hooper ($18.5 million)|
He was the tight end on last year's All-Paid Team of Tomorrow. Absent an extension, that didn't change this year. Kittle has accumulated more receiving yards (2,945) in his first three seasons than any tight end in NFL history. He also does his best work after the catch -- his 1,472 receiving yards after the catch trail only All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey. Put it all together and his 2.9 yards per route run is the most in the league since 2018 (min. 20 targets).
Kittle's value to head coach Kyle Shanahan extends far beyond his ability to catch and run with the football. The Iowa tight end serves almost as an extra offensive lineman for Shanahan's second-ranked run game. He was PFF's highest-graded offensive player in 2019, while also receiving the entity's highest receiving grade among all players.
Back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and Pro Bowl selections, along with a first-team All-Pro nod in 2019, have put Kittle firmly in the best-tight-end-on-the-planet debate -- a conversation that really ends after Kittle and Travis Kelce. The former is about to do a big solid for tight ends signing contracts after him.
In terms of value, there is a large gap between Kittle and Austin Hooper. Kelce's 2016 contract ($9.4 million APY) has a $12.1 million adjusted APY for the 2020 salary cap. The position should see at least a 50 percent increase to its current top APY (Hooper, $10.5 million) when Kittle signs his new contract, along with position-shattering guarantees.
ON THE RADAR:
Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs: The first tight end to record four straight seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards won't be a free agent until 2022 at the age of 32. The Chiefs did a masterful job of extending their talented pass catcher early at a below-market price, but they could decide to do right by the leading receiver on the team's first Super Bowl championship team in 50 years.
Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers: Injury concerns are the lone factor obstructing these negotiations, making Henry an ideal candidate to play out 2020 on the franchise tag. A healthy, productive season will translate into lucrative, long-term security for Henry next offseason.
Notable players not eligible for extension: Mark Andrews, Ravens; Dallas Goedert, Eagles.
Offensive tackle: Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore Ravens ($22M-plus)
|Stanley's current AAV:||$5.1 million (making $12.9 million on fifth-year option in 2020)|
|Stanley can be a free agent in:||2021|
|Current highest AAV:||Laremy Tunsil, Texans ($22 million)|
|Most guarantees:||Lane Johnson, Eagles (54.6 million)|
|Most guarantees at signing:||Tunsil ($40 million)|
With Laremy Tunsil doing exactly what was expected this offseason -- resetting the offensive line market -- his 2016 draftmate, Ronnie Stanley, should be the next offensive tackle to get his bag. Stanley was the best player on an offensive line that anchored the NFL's top-ranked scoring and rushing attack last season. Stanley is far from a mere run blocker. He received PFF's highest pass-blocking grade (93.3) among all players with at least 100 snaps last season, while ranking as its third-highest graded offensive tackle overall.
With Stanley currently set to play 2020 on his fifth-year option, the Ravens would be wise to get ahead of negotiations with their franchise left tackle. The last Baltimore offensive tackle to earn a first-team All-Pro selection was Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden. Stanley, selected sixth overall in 2016, will follow Tunsil into the $20 million club.
ON THE RADAR:
David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers: The 2018 first-team All-Pro has protected Aaron Rodgers' blind side since he was drafted in the fourth round in 2013. He signed a four-year, $48 million extension in 2016 that expires after this season. He turns 29 in September and should be in line for another lucrative extension in the near future.
Ryan Ramczyk, New Orleans Saints: Ramczyk was a first-team All-Pro in 2019 and made out as PFF's highest-graded offensive tackle (min. 100 snaps). The Saints have many mouths to feed on their offensive line, with Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat each making more than $10 million per season, but Ramczyk should challenge Lane Johnson at the top of the right tackle market at some point.
Trent Williams, San Francisco 49ers: Williams' debut season in San Francisco is a contract year. After missing 2019, he can get another short-term, top-of-market deal if he can prove he's the same player who made seven straight Pro Bowls from 2012-2018.
Notable players not eligible for extension: Orlando Brown, Ravens.
Interior offensive line: Brandon Scherff, Washington Redskins ($15M-plus)
|Scherff's current AAV:||$15.03 million (non-exclusive franchise tag)|
|Scherff can be a free agent in:||2021|
|Current highest AAV:||Brandon Brooks, Eagles ($14.1 million)|
|Most guarantees:||Zack Martin, Cowboys ($40 million)|
|Most guarantees at signing:||Martin ($32 million)|
After seeing how far Laremy Tunsil pushed the offensive tackle market this offseason, I believe I underestimated where Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney could land on new extensions as guards. I am not making huge adjustments, but they should each settle on top of the interior offensive line market.
I originally had Scherff coming in at $0.5 million less per season than Thuney, although with more guaranteed money. With the happenings along the Washington offensive line -- specifically, finally trading the other Pro Bowler on it (tackle Trent Williams) and not drafting an offensive lineman until the fourth round in April's draft -- the Redskins may have found themselves in a situation where they may need Scherff more the Scherff needs them. The former No. 5 overall pick could see $15-plus million annually on a new deal in Washington.
ON THE RADAR:
Joe Thuney, New England Patriots: Whether the Patriots decide to have Thuney play out the season and let him walk for a compensatory pick or sign him to a long-term deal, PFF's fifth-highest-graded guard in 2019 will fall right into the top of the market whenever he signs his long-term deal.
Trai Turner, Los Angeles Chargers: During six seasons in Carolina, Turner made five Pro Bowls. Now with the Chargers after an offseason swap for tackle Russell Okung, Turner will still be 29 when his deal expires after 2021.
Ryan Kelly, Indianapolis Colts: Efficient in pass and run protection, Kelly made his first Pro Bowl last season. He's at the center of arguably the NFL's best offensive line and will clear Rodney Hudson's $11.25 million per season, the current high among centers, on his next deal.
David DeCastro, Pittsburgh Steelers: DeCastro has two seasons left on a deal that expires when he's 32 years old. Age is a concern, but he's made each of the last five Pro Bowls (and two All-Pro teams) since 2015.
Notable players not eligible for extension: Quenton Nelson, Colts; Erik McCoy, Saints.
Interior defensive line: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs ($20M-plus)
|Jones' current AAV:||$16.126 million (non-exclusive franchise tag)|
|Jones can be a free agent in:||2021|
|Current highest AAV:||Aaron Donald, Rams ($22.5 million)|
|Most guarantees:||Donald ($86.9 million)|
|Most guarantees at signing:||Donald ($50 million)|
Top-of-the-market interior defenders provide a prominent pass rush presence. The top three sack leaders at defensive tackle over the last two seasons are Aaron Donald (33.0), Chris Jones (24.5) and DeForest Buckner (19.5). Donald and Buckner ($21.0 million APY) are also the highest-paid interior defensive linemen in the NFL. The Chiefs will get a bargain on Jones in 2020 after applying the non-exclusive franchise tag to him in March.
According to PFF, Donald is the only player with a higher pass rush grade among interior defensive linemen than Jones since 2018. Jones probably doesn't remove Donald from the top of the pay scale for interior defensive linemen, but he will fall right in with Donald and Buckner if he decides to maximize his compensation in negotiations. I projected Jones to sign a five-year, $101.25 million deal earlier this offseason.
ON THE RADAR:
Kenny Clark, Packers: Another upper-echelon interior playmaker, Clark made his first Pro Bowl last season. Donald and Jones were the only interior defensive linemen with higher 2019 pass-rush grades from PFF. Clark is the most important player on the Packers' defense.
Notable players not eligible for extension: Vita Vea, Bucs; Daron Payne, Redskins.
Edge rusher: Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns ($25M-plus)
|Garrett's current AAV:||$7.6 million|
|Garrett can be a free agent in:||2022|
|Current highest AAV:||Khalil Mack, Bears ($23.5 million)|
|Most guarantees:||Mack ($90 million)|
|Most guarantees at signing:||Mack ($60 million)|
Myles Garrett's 2019 season came to a disappointing end, with an indefinite suspension for his scuffle with Steelers QB Mason Rudolph. (Garrett was reinstated in February.) However, he's an elite, young pass rusher who was tied for the NFL lead with 10 sacks through the first eight weeks of the season.
Garrett shines regardless of the stat provider. The 24-year-old has had the highest quarterback pressure rate (14.0%, min. 400 pass rushes) in the NFL over the last two seasons, according to Next Gen Stats. He also had PFF's highest pass-rush grade over the same span (91.6). And according to conventional statistics, the only players with more sacks per game in their careers than Garrett (0.82) are J.J. Watt (0.86), Reggie White (0.85) and Mark Gastineau (0.83).
When he's been on the field, Garrett's production and play have aligned with his pedigree. No. 1 overall draft selections who live up to the expectations reset the market when they sign their first veteran contracts. That's just how that whole thing works. The Browns exercised his fifth-year option, but even with the extra season, $25 million per year seems reasonable for Garrett's first extension.
ON THE RADAR:
Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers: Sandwiched between three-time All-Pros Khalil Mack and Von Miller among PFF's highest-graded pass rushers since 2016 is Bosa, who will certainly challenge Mack's reign as the NFL's highest-paid defensive player. Bosa's younger brother, Nick, is well on his way to having a turn at the top of those rankings, as well.
T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers: The youngest Watt bro was PFF's highest-graded pass rusher and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2019. Watt's older brother, J.J., was the NFL's highest-paid defensive player when he signed his $100 million deal in 2014.
Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars: This deal coming any time soon -- or with the Jaguars, for that matter -- seems highly unlikely. However, Ngakoue plays a position that every NFL team covets. The only players with as many or more quarterback pressures since 2016 also have the three largest contracts among defensive players: Aaron Donald ($135 million), Von Miller ($114.1 million), and Khalil Mack ($141 million).
Notable players not eligible for extension: Nick Bosa, 49ers; Bradley Chubb, Broncos.
Traditional linebacker: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($17M-plus)
|David's current AAV:||$10.1 million|
|David can be a free agent in:||2021|
|Current highest AAV:||Bobby Wagner, Seahawks ($18 million)|
|Most guarantees:||C.J. Mosley, Jets ($51 million)|
|Most guarantees at signing:||Mosley ($43 million)|
Lavonte David might be the most underrated player in the NFL. The conversation of the best traditional linebackers in the game in the last five seasons has typically revolved around Bobby Wagner and recently retired Luke Kuechly. David is their lesser-talked-about peer who has always deserved a place in the discussion.
David does every line of the job description well: He is the only NFL player since 2000 to record 20-plus sacks, 20-plus forced fumbles and 10-plus interceptions in his first eight seasons. His 116 tackles for loss since 2012 trail only J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald -- two of the best front-line players the league has ever seen. He also happened to be the highest-graded coverage linebacker by PFF last season (and has been since 2017). At 30 years old, age begins to matter to teams, but there has been no decline in David's play since he entered the league as a second-round pick in 2012.
The fact that Davis has made one Pro Bowl and one All-Pro team in his career is lightweight disrespectful. With Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, David will finally have the national spotlight. His accolades and bank account will benefit from the exposure.
Notable players not eligible for extension: Darius Leonard, Colts; Leighton Vander Esch, Cowboys; Tremaine Edmunds, Bills; Roquan Smith, Bears; Devin White, Buccaneers; Devin Bush, Steelers.
Cornerback: Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams ($18M-plus)
|Ramsey's current AAV:||$5.8 million (making $13.7 million on fifth-year option in 2020)|
|Ramsey can be a free agent in:||2021|
|Current highest AV:||Darius Slay, Eagles ($16.7 million)|
|Most guarantees:||Byron Jones, Dolphins ($54.4 million)|
|Most guarantees at signing:||Jones ($46 million)|
The Rams invested two first-round picks (2020, 2021) and a fourth-round pick (2021) to acquire Jalen Ramsey from the Jaguars. The team did so without agreeing to a long-term extension with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Playing on his fifth-year option this season, Ramsey agreed not to hold out if he doesn't have a long-term contract in 2020.
Ramsey has 10 interceptions in four NFL seasons and ranks sixth among corners with 243 tackles since 2016. He's one of two cornerbacks to make each of the last three Pro Bowls, with the other being Eagles corner Darius Slay, who is currently the NFL's highest-paid cornerback.
With all the talk about Ramsey's down season, there is one fact that doesn't change: He's a special talent. He possesses one of the rarest abilities in the NFL because he can be assigned a jersey number on any play. Ramsey backs down from no challenge. He will not only go mano a mano with a team's No. 1 wide receiver for 60 minutes, but he'll be the one calling for the matchup. Confidence means so much at cornerback; Ramsey lacks none.
ON THE RADAR:
Tre'Davious White, Buffalo Bills: Tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions in 2019, White earned the first Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors of his career. These accolades finally resulted in the recognition of White's place among the elite players at the position.
Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens: Humphrey also etched the first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections onto his resume in 2019. He is one of the most physical cornerbacks in the league, and the number on his uniform (44) certainly is on brand for the Ravens star. Humphrey had six takeaways (three INTs, three forced fumbles) and scored two defensive touchdowns last season.
Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints: Lattimore allowed zero touchdowns in coverage and recorded five interceptions during his 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign. Although he made his second Pro Bowl after the 2019 season, Lattimore has allowed five touchdowns in coverage and has just three picks over his last two seasons. His talent should overshadow this during contract negotiations.
Desmond King II, Los Angeles Chargers: King is a nickel corner who can cover, blitz and hold up in the run game. He is PFF's highest-graded overall and coverage slot cornerback over the last three seasons -- only trailing teammate Casey Hayward Jr. and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore in those categories among all players at the position.
Notable players not eligible for extension: Denzel Ward, Browns; Jaire Alexander, Packers.
Safety: Jamal Adams, New York Jets ($16M-plus)
|Adams' current AAV:||$5.6 million|
|Adams can be a free agent in:||2022|
|Current highest AAV:||Eddie Jackson, Bears ($14.6 million)|
|Most guarantees:||Landon Collins, Redskins ($44.5 million)|
|Most guarantees at signing:||Earl Thomas, Ravens ($32 million)|
Justin Simmons could sign a deal that puts him at the top of the safety market for the time being. However, the player eligible for an extension who definitely will push the market is Jamal Adams. Some players bring a presence to a team that doesn't always resonate in the stat sheet. Adams not only brings a different attitude to the Jets' defense, but he also shows up in the box score.
Adams is the only defensive back with 10-plus sacks or 20-plus quarterback hits or 25-plus tackles for loss over the last three seasons, let alone being the only DB to do all three. Next Gen Stats credits Adams with 33 quarterback pressures since 2018, and PFF ranks him top four in pass rush, coverage and overall among corners and safeties over that same span (min. 200 snaps).
Over the past two decades, only Adams and J.J. Watt have had at least 10 sacks and 25 passes defensed in their first three seasons. After missing the Pro Bowl following his rookie season in 2017, Adams vowed not to miss another one. So far, so good. Adams has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons -- and earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2019.
Adams has two seasons remaining on his rookie contract (Jets exercised his fifth-year option for 2021), and he said the two sides have had "small discussions" about a new contract. Adams has also been involved in trade rumors over the last year or so. Regardless, when his time comes, Adams will reset each significant benchmark for safety contracts in the NFL.
ON THE RADAR:
Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos: PFF's highest-graded safety in 2019, Simmons has played 2,024 consecutive defensive snaps, the second-longest active streak in the NFL, per NGS. Designated as the Broncos' franchise-tagged player in 2020, Simmons could reset an already-robust safety market soon.
Notable players not eligible for extension: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers; Derwin James, Chargers; Justin Reid, Texans.
Follow Anthony Holzman-Escareno on Twitter @FrontOfficeNFL.