Examining Extensions For 2011 First-Rounders

2011’s first-round picks became eligible for contract extensions for the first time after the 2013 season, but with the new CBA allowing teams to pick up fifth-year options on players’ four-year rookie contracts, there wasn’t much urgency for most teams to get anything long-term worked out with their former first-rounders. Still, a handful of clubs moved quickly to get players locked up, with Patrick Peterson (Cardinals), Tyron Smith (Cowboys), J.J. Watt (Texans), and Robert Quinn (Rams) all inking new deals.

All four of those players are considered among the best at their respective positions, so it makes sense that their teams wouldn’t want negotiations to drag out. In Smith’s case, the Cowboys also got a fairly team-friendly deal, agreeing to an eight-year extension that keeps the standout left tackle under team control for 10 seasons in total, and didn’t feature a ton of guaranteed money up front.

While it’s still too early to say definitively if those extensions were good or bad moves for the four clubs, the early returns haven’t been positive in every instance. Peterson acknowledged to Bob Baum of The Associated Press that he’s not happy with his play so far in the 2014 season. After drawing some constructive criticism from his head coach and GM, the cornerback vowed that he absolutely intends to step up his game going forward.

“It comes with the territory by being the highest-paid cornerback and being recognized as one of the top cornerbacks in the league,” Peterson said of the criticism. “Is that something that I might shy away from? Not at all. Is it something I’m scared of? Am I worried about the concerns or criticisms I’m getting thus far in the season? Not at all, because we have 11 games to go. I have a lot of games to improve.”

With an assist from Pro Football Focus, here’s a breakdown of how each of the four 2011 first-rounders who signed extensions have come out of the gates so far in 2014:

  • Peterson: PFF’s data supports the notion that Peterson has struggled so far, as his -4.1 grade puts him in a tie for 77th among 103 qualified cornerbacks. Quarterbacks have recorded a staggering 132.4 rating throwing into Peterson’s coverage, with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
  • Quinn: A year after leading the NFC with 19 sacks, Quinn hasn’t gotten to the quarterback once in the Rams’ first five games this season. As a team, the Rams have just one sack so far, an historically low total. Quinn is still putting some pressure on opposing signal-callers, with 12 QB pressures, but he has struggled against the run and with penalties, and ranks well below average among 4-3 defensive ends so far, per PFF.
  • Smith: The Week 6 winner of the NFC Offensive Player of the Week award, Smith actually recorded his worst PFF grade of the year against the Seahawks on Sunday, with a -3.5 mark. Still, he’d been his usual dominant self before that, and assuming an ankle issue doesn’t slow him down too much, we can expect him to continue anchoring the Cowboys’ impressive offensive line.
  • Watt: Watt recorded one of the most outstanding defensive games since PFF’s inception in Week 4 against the Bills, logging nine quarterback hits, six QB hurries, and an insane +15.0 grade for just 70 snaps. The star defensive lineman appears well on his way to another MVP-caliber season, and if anything, his six-year, $100MM contract looks like a bargain at this point.

Those four players and teams have made the decision to continue their working relationships for the foreseeable future, but many other extension candidates from the first round of the 2011 draft continue to play out their rookie deals, and will be eligible for free agency after their 2015 option year. Here’s a look at a few key names from that group, and how they’ve fared during the season’s first month and a half, per PFF:

  • Cam Newton (Panthers): Despite battling some health issues and working with a revamped receiving corps, Newton’s combination of a +11.8 passing grade and a +2.2 rushing grade has him ranked first among quarterbacks so far, making it increasingly unlikely that he’ll come at a discount for the Panthers.
  • Von Miller (Broncos): Miller is on pace to match or exceed his 2012 mark of 18.5 sacks, and he certainly hasn’t been a one-dimensional player — he ranks first among 4-3 outside linebackers as both a pass rusher and a run stopper, according to PFF’s data. If he stays healthy and continues to have a huge year, Miller could push for a multiyear pact in the range of Tamba Hali‘s five-year deal ($11.5MM annually).
  • A.J. Green (Bengals) / Julio Jones (Falcons): Despite playing just 166 offensive snaps so far, Green ranks 12th among wideouts with a +3.7 grade, and Jones is right behind him at +3.4. Both receivers are considered top-five players at the position, and they’ll likely be keeping a close eye on Dez Bryant, who is scheduled to hit free agency this coming spring.
  • Ryan Kerrigan (Redskins): Fellow Washington outside linebacker Brian Orakpo made more headlines this offseason when he was franchised by the team and couldn’t work out a long-term deal, but it’s Kerrigan who’s wreaking havoc in opposing backfields so far this season. According to PFF, no 3-4 outside linebacker has more overall QB pressures than Kerrigan, who has 31 combined sacks, hits, and hurries. With rookie Trent Murphy now in the mix as well, it’s unlikely that Washington will commit long-term to both Orakpo and Kerrigan, and Kerrigan is certainly making the case that he’s the one worth locking up.
  • Jimmy Smith (Ravens): Quarterbacks are averaging just 7.5 yards per completion against Smith, and posting a dismal 50.5 rating when throwing into his coverage. Considering how uncertain and shaky the production has been at the Ravens’ other corner and nickel spots, Smith’s performance has been huge. It’ll be interesting to see how contract talks go with Smith, who is steadily establishing himself an invaluable piece of the Baltimore secondary.
  • Muhammad Wilkerson (Jets): No other 3-4 defensive end is in the same vicinity as Watt, per PFF’s grades, but Wilkerson is the clear runner-up so far, ranking in the top three as both a pass rusher (+9.0) and run defender (+8.8). An annual salary around $11-12MM seems well within reach for the Jets lineman.
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