Who will earn the big-money contracts of tomorrow? Anthony Holzman-Escareno takes a look:
As player salaries rightfully continue to trend in the same direction of the exploding salary cap, which has grown from $120.4 million in 2011 to $188.2 million for the 2019 season, new precedents are being set around the NFL with regularity.
We dropped the 2019 All-Paid Team shortly after the start of free agency, which showed us which players are currently setting the market at each position. What about the future? Here, we'll project the next players to secure the bag.
The current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire after the 2020 season, and the upcoming negotiations around the next CBA will impact when deals are struck and how they are structured. One interesting fact about next offseason: Teams will have both the franchise and transition tag available, because we will be heading into the final season of the current CBA. This will give teams some control over two free agents next offseason.
Below, I've named the player who I expect to receive the next big-money contract at each position, along with the expected range for the average annual value (AAV) of their next contracts.I'm not projecting every player listed here to definitely re-set 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 re-set. I've also listed several other players to watch.
NOTE: The positional contract benchmarks below each position do not include rookie contracts or players who were designated franchise players.
Quarterback: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks ($34M-plus)
UPDATE: Wilson signed a four-year, $140 million contract extension that includes $107 million guaranteed. Wilson's average annual value is now $35 million.
Wilson should be ending Rodgers' reign as the NFL's highest-paid player soon. Wilson's 75 career wins are the most in a player's first seven seasons in NFL history. Since he entered the NFL in 2012, only Tom Brady has more regular-season and playoff wins than Wilson, whose 100.3 career passer rating is also the second-highest in NFL history, behind Rodgers' mark of 103.1.
Entering negotiations in 2015, when he signed his current four-year extension, Wilson had been, to that point in his career, propped up by a strong run game and the NFL's best defense. Fast-forward to 2019, and there may not be a player more valuable to his team's success than Wilson. He's carried a team devoid of a strong offensive line or an elite defense for some time. Remember that Wilson was the Seahawks' leading rusher in 2017. Consider also that Seattle's defense, which ranked in the top five in each of Wilson's first five seasons, finished 11th in 2017 and 16th last season.
ON THE RADAR:
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs: In his first season as a starter, Mahomes threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns. Just two years into his rookie contract, he's not eligible to renegotiate until next offseason, but whenever he signs his next deal, there's only one question: How high will Mahomes set the AAV bar? $40 million? $45 million?
Running back: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys ($14M-$16M)
Elliott has led the NFL in rushing yards per game in each of his first three seasons. Only four players since 1950 had more such seasons in their entire careers: Jim Brown (eight), Eric Dickerson (five), Barry Sanders (four) and Adrian Peterson (four). As of now, Elliott (101.2) and Brown (104.3) are the only players in NFL history to average 100-plus rushing yards per game over a career.
Elliott is unquestionably the most important player on the Dallas Cowboys' offense. During his six-game suspension in 2017, the team was noticeably inefficient. With him in the lineup that year, Dallas went 6-4 and gained 354.7 total offensive yards per game; without him, Dallas went 3-3 and averaged 294 offensive yards. The 2016 No. 4 overall pick has expanded his role in the passing game, setting career highs in every major receiving category in 2018 (77 catches for 567 yards and three touchdowns) and has recorded the most scrimmage yards in the NFL since 2016 (5,247). He also has the most touches (1,003), which will be a topic of discussion in his impending negotiations with the Cowboys.
ON THE RADAR:
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants: Barkley put his versatility on display, setting an NFL record for rookie running backs with 91 receptions in 2018. He was also the third rookie to eclipse 2,000 scrimmage yards in NFL history (following Edgerrin James and Eric Dickerson). When it's his time to sign an extension, he'll surely take his turn atop the running back market.
Wide receiver: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons ($18M-$20M)
Arguably the best receiver of his generation, Jones requested a new contract prior to last season. The Falcons did not budge, but the team did promise to revisit the deal this offseason. In 2015, Jones signed a five-year, $71.25 million extension. Given how the wide receiver market has grown, he's provided exceptional returns on the Falcons' investment.
He's also played at a different level since signing that contract. In the four seasons before he signed (2011-14), he posted 278 receptions (5.7 per game), 4,330 receiving yards (88.4 per game) and 26 receiving touchdowns. In the four seasons since signing (2015-18), he recorded 420 receptions (6.8 per game), 6,401 receiving yards (103.2 per game) and 25 touchdown catches.
Jones has rattled off five straight seasons with 1,400-plus receiving yards, the longest such streak in NFL history -- and he trails only Jerry Rice (six) for the most such seasons in a career. Jones is a long, long way from reaching Rice in career receiving yards, but the former does average the most receiving yards per game in NFL history (96.7).
ON THE RADAR:
Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints: Not only are his 321 receptions since 2016 the most in the NFL in that span, but they are also the most in a player's first three seasons in NFL history. As a second-round pick, Thomas will avoid the fifth-year option, meaning he'll be eligible to hit free agency after 2019. He'll come in near or at the top of the market when he signs a new contract.
Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs: The game's most explosive wide receiver, Hill ranks fourth in receiving yards and touchdowns over the last two seasons combined, despite still growing as a route runner and receiver. He also provides unmatched value on fourth down as a punt returner. Note that there is an ongoing law enforcement investigation into alleged battery of a juvenile in which Hill may be involved, which could obviously impact his future in the NFL.
Tight end: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers ($12M-$15M)
In just his second season, George Kittle set the NFL single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end (1,337), thanks mostly to his ability after the catch. Only four tight ends in NFL history have recorded 75-plus receptions and 1,300-plus receiving yards in a season: Kittle, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce.
The Chiefs and Eagles played their hands well signing Kelce and Zach Ertz to extensions in 2016 before either truly emerged as the game-changing pass catchers they've become. The next elite tight to sign a deal should shatter the AAV that currently paces the position (Graham's $10 million). Kittle will have to continue to build on his recent success, but he's likely to be that tight end, despite not being eligible to renegotiate until the 2020 offseason.
ON THE RADAR:
O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Howard missed six games in 2018, but only Kittle, Kelce and Ertz averaged more receiving yards per game. Few players in the NFL have Howard's blend of size (6-foot-6, 251 pounds) and athleticism.
Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers: When he's on the field, Henry is arguably one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL. However, he needs to show he can stay healthy, as he's only played 29 games in three seasons.
Offensive lineman: David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers ($17M-$18M)
The offensive line is one place where greatness can go somewhat unnoticed. In a short time, Bakhtiari has become one of, if not the, best pass protectors in the NFL, earning his first All-Pro selection in 2018.
Bakhtiari got the nod at left tackle as a rookie after teammate Bryan Bulaga tore his ACL prior to the 2013 season. Bulaga has played right tackle ever since. Bakhtiari, meanwhile, signed a four-year, $48 million deal in 2016, and he'll be a free agent after 2020. He's in line for a market-setting contract, given his age (27) and recent development. The Packers locked up Aaron Rodgers in 2018 and should do the same with his left tackle in the near future.
ON THE RADAR:
Interior defensive line: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs ($18M-$22M)
Improving significantly in each of his three seasons, Jones ascended into the elite ranks of interior pass rushers in 2018, joining the likes of Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox. Jones was one of just three players to post more than 14.0 sacks and 25 QB hits last season, along with Donald and Von Miller. He was one of the few bright spots on the Chiefs' 31st-ranked defense.
The former second-round pick will have to string together a similar season in 2019 and possibly another in 2020 if the Chiefs decide to franchise-tag him. It might be awhile before someone surpasses Donald in the interior, but Jones has as good a chance as any to do it.
ON THE RADAR:
Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons: Jarrett has increased his sack and QB hit totals in each of his four NFL seasons and was franchise-tagged by the Falcons this offseason. Jarrett is one healthy, productive season away from a huge payday in 2020, unless he lands a long-term extension from Atlanta this year.
Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers: Clark has quickly become a complete interior defender for Green Bay. He demands multiple bodies in the run game and has really begun to develop as a pass rusher.
Edge rusher: Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans ($20M-$24M)
If Clowney ever found his way to the open market, he would be the NFL's highest-paid defensive player. Since he can negotiate exclusively with the Texans between now and the deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign an extension, the chances of that happening are slightly lower.
Still, Clowney is one of three players with five-plus sacks, 15-plus QB hits and 15-plus tackles for loss in each of the last three seasons (along with Aaron Donald and Cameron Jordan). He has elite physical traits that are arguably unmatched for a player his size. He's also proven to be a Swiss Army Knife for his defense over four healthy NFL seasons. He's one of the NFL's most talented players at its second-most important position.
ON THE RADAR:
Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns: After recording 7.0 sacks in 11 games as a rookie in 2017, Garrett turned in a dominant sophomore campaign, posting 13.5 sacks and 29 QB hits. Like Clowney, the 2017 No. 1 overall pick's next contract will reflect his combination of draft position and production.
Linebacker: Nobody soon
Here's why nobody was chosen: Mosley's contract seems to be an anomaly rather than a benchmark for future contracts. It might be some time before an off-ball linebacker sees that type of money again. For the sake of off-ball linebackers, I hope I'm wrong, and that Mosley has actually set a new market at the position.
Below are some traditional linebackers who are in for a huge payday soon:
Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks: Wagner is the best linebacker in the NFL and has been named first-team All-Pro four times in seven seasons. He missed one tackle (yes, one) in 138 attempts last season, the lowest missed tackle percentage (0.7 percent) of any player with at least 75 attempts in a season since Pro Football Focus began tracking in 2006.
Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons: Coverage is becoming the most desirable trait for an off-ball linebacker. Jones excels there; he's one of three players with a 91.0-plus coverage grade by Pro Football Focus over the last two seasons (joining Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly) and had the highest such grade in 2017 -- his last healthy campaign.
Projected player valuation for Wagner and Jones: $14M-$17M.
Cornerback: Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars ($16M-$19M)
Entering his fourth season, Jalen Ramsey is arguably the game's best corner. It's easy to see why he was selected fifth overall in 2016. His size (6-1, 208 pounds), length and athleticism give receivers fits at the line of scrimmage and throughout their route.
Ramsey has allowed a 51.1 completion percentage and a 69.4 passer rating when targeted in his career, according to Pro Football Focus, while his 44 career passes defensed rank fourth in the NFL over the last three seasons.
ON THE RADAR:
Byron Jones, Dallas Cowboys: In his first NFL season as a cornerback, Jones turned in one of the position's best seasons of 2018. A lack of ball production (two career interceptions) could hurt his value, but if he can avoid a tag, the open market will be kind to the versatile defensive back.
Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints: A sophomore slump struck the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, he's the type of player the football finds; no other player over the last two seasons has five-plus interceptions, five-plus forced fumbles and 30-plus passes defensed.
Desmond King, Los Angeles Chargers (nickel CB): King will undoubtedly reset the market for nickel cornerbacks (currently $10 million AAV). In coverage and as a blitzer, he's likely the most complete nickel corner in the NFL. King is the only cornerback with 4.0 interceptions and four-plus sacks since 2017.
Safety: Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears ($14M-$16M)
A broken leg during his final season at Alabama might have pushed Jackson down draft boards, but the 2017 fourth-round pick has put the NFL on notice in his first two seasons. He could be the best cover safety in the NFL and adds more value with his play in the slot. Jackson became the only player to record eight-plus picks and five-plus defensive touchdowns in his first two seasons over the past 30 years. In 2018, he led all safeties with 15 passes defensed and finished second at the position with six interceptions.
ON THE RADAR:
Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans: Another great cover safety, Byard became a full-time starter in 2017 and proceeded to record 12 interceptions and 24 passes defensed over the next two seasons.