Extension Candidate

Extension Candidate: Rams CB Jalen Ramsey

Just before last year’s trade deadline, the Rams swung a blockbuster deal to land Jalen Ramsey. Now, they have some more negotiating to do as Ramsey enters the final year of his contract.

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Ramsey, 26 in October, is set to earn $13.7MM in 2020, a figure dictated by his fifth-year option. The expected market will dictate his rate on this go ’round, which means that he’s probably due for a raise. Before Ramsey arrived in Los Angeles, he had his sights set on a deal that would reset the market. Despite an iffy year, Ramsey still figures to play in that ballpark.

Between his three games with the Jaguars and nine games with the Rams, Ramsey recorded just 50 tackles and one interception. The former No. 5 overall pick did not play up to his usual standards, but the fact remains that Ramsey is one of the league’s most talented cornerbacks and any team would be happy to back up a Brinks truck for him.

Currently, Darius Slay stands as the league’s highest-paid cornerback on a per-year basis with an average annual salary of $16.7MM. Meanwhile, Byron Jones of the Dolphins leads corners in full guarantees ($46MM) and effective guarantees ($54.4MM). It’s safe to say that Ramsey’s reps will have all of those numbers handy when it comes time to talk.

The Rams, meanwhile, would be willing to toss figures around in that ballpark, though their lack of cap room makes it a bit tricky. It would be tough for the Rams to tamp down Ramsey’s 2020 hit while also giving him $17MM/year to top Slay. Meanwhile, there isn’t a lot of fat left to trim. They could carve out another $3.6MM for Ramsey by releasing Troy Hill, but that would also leave ~$900K in dead money and little room for extra improvements. A restructuring of Aaron Donald‘s deal could give them more dollars to work with – similar to what Jared Goff did recently – but that would also create a snowball effect on future cap years.

Ramsey promised the team that he wouldn’t hold out in 2020 if he didn’t have a new deal in place, though he won’t necessarily cooperate with the Rams if he’s franchise tagged for 2021. Without that safety net in place, the Rams will have to find middle ground with their star cornerback sooner rather than later.

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Extension Candidate: Keanu Neal

Falcons safety Keanu Neal has had a horrible run of injury luck. In 2018, he suffered a torn ACL in the regular season opener, and in 2019, he sustained a torn Achilles during the third game of the season. Both of those injuries were season-enders, so he has played just four games over the past two seasons.

Prior to that, however, he was establishing himself as one of the better young safeties in the game. He was selected by Atlanta with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2016 draft, and he racked up 106 tackles in 14 starts in his rookie campaign, which culminated in a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to New England.

He built on that performance in 2017, starting all 16 games and piling up 116 tackles en route to a Pro Bowl nod. He moves with fluidity and has a nose for the football, as evidenced by his high tackle totals and the eight fumbles that he forced over his first two seasons in the league. That ability also helps him in coverage on the back end, though he has just one career interception to date.

The Falcons exercised the fifth-year option of his rookie contract last April, which suggested that they weren’t too concerned about the 2018 ACL tear. Of course, they didn’t bank on the 2019 Achilles tear, and Neal is presently slated to count for about $6.5MM against the 2020 cap thanks to the fifth-year option (the option was guaranteed for injury only at the time it was exercised but became fully-guaranteed when the 2020 league year opened earlier this month).

Though $6.5MM would ordinarily look like a relative bargain for someone with Neal’s abilities, the fact that he has been unable to stay on the field complicates matters a bit. That is especially true since the Falcons have limited salary cap space at the moment.

So on the one hand, it would make sense for Atlanta to let Neal simply play out his contract and revisit the situation prior to the opening of free agency next offseason (after all, although the team’s pass defense was one of the worst in the league from 2018-19, per DVOA, that unit didn’t grade out much higher even when Neal was in the lineup in 2016-17). But the top of the safety market now includes contracts with average annual values of over $14MM, and if Neal has a healthy, bounceback campaign, other clubs may pony up that type of cash to steal him away from the Falcons.

As such, the Falcons could explore an extension with Neal. Such a move would be risky given the health concerns — Neal also dealt with a knee injury not long before his rookie season — but it also has a couple of obvious benefits. One, it would help the Falcons’ immediate cap situation, and two, it could keep a talented young player under contract for several more seasons at a potentially discount rate.

From Neal’s perspective, an extension may represent an undersell if he does play up to his 2017 levels in 2020, but it would also provide him extra security in the event that he cannot recapture his prior form. As of yet, there have been no reports of negotiations between the two sides, but it would not be a surprise to hear of exploratory talks in the coming months.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extension Candidate: Shelby Harris

The Broncos have established some continuity on their defensive line over the past two seasons. Super Bowl-era holdover Derek Wolfe has anchored the unit for years, and Adam Gotsis enters his fourth season. Both Shelby Harris and Zach Kerr are back for third Denver slates. With the exception of Kerr, each enters a contract year.

Although Wolfe is this group’s biggest name, Harris presents the most interesting extension candidacy. The Broncos’ projected starting nose tackle has gone from Raiders afterthought to being out of football in 2016 to ending 2018 as one of the most effective defensive tackles in the game (on a per-play basis). Pro Football Focus graded Harris as its No. 9 interior defender last season, and the Broncos responded by applying a second-round tender ($3.095MM).

Set for his age-28 season, Harris is set to become a primary first-stringer for the first time in his career. The Broncos did not re-sign two-year nose starter Domata Peko. Harris registered 5.5 sacks in 2017 as well and will be in position to approach that total as a starter. His breakthrough 2018, which included a game-winning interception of Ben Roethlisberger, did come on only 391 snaps in 16 games. That total was the lowest of Denver’s five-man defensive line rotation last season, and the team may want to see how Harris performs with a bigger workload before making a long-term commitment. Another quality campaign will make Harris an intriguing commodity on the 2020 market, should he reach free agency.

The former 2014 seventh-round pick has expressed a desire for a Broncos extension, and it seems likely the team opts to retain at least one of its starting linemen beyond 2019. Only Kerr, defensive end Dre’Mont Jones and roster-bubble cog DeMarcus Walker are signed beyond this season, among the team’s notable D-linemen.

It might not cost the Broncos too much to retain Harris, with only one 3-4 defensive tackle (Chicago’s Eddie Goldman) making more than $5MM annually. However, 4-3 noses like Damon Harrison, Dontari Poe and Star Lotulelei earn between $9-$10MM annually, creating a more defined price range. While Harris sees time at defensive end as well, his primary role is inside. Of course, the one team that did recently see value in paying a 3-4 nose employed Vic Fangio as its defensive coordinator.

The new Broncos HC may hold this role in higher regard than many teams, and the franchise’s post-2019 defense does not have much in the way of front-seven salary obligations. Von Miller, whose cap number spikes to $25.6MM next year thanks to a past restructure, is the only front-seven player on the Broncos’ 2020 cap sheet at north of $7.5MM.

Playing in Fangio’s system, Harris could work his way toward Goldman’s $10.5MM-AAV number. Although the Broncos have been stingy at this position in the recent past, letting Terrance Knighton walk after his $2MM-per-year deal expired and declining Sylvester Williams‘ 2017 option, they will have some decisions to make about how they distribute their D-line money soon. These circumstances put Harris in a favorable spot entering his walk year.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extension Candidate: Bears G Cody Whitehair

The Bears are one of only a few NFL teams projected to bring back their entire starting offensive line in 2019, and with good reason: the unit was extremely effective at pass-blocking last season. Chicago’s front five gave up just 33 sacks (tied for eighth in the league), and ranked seventh in the NFL in adjusted sack rate.

Cody Whitehair has been a key factor in the Bear’s offensive line success over the past three seasons, but despite earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2018, he’ll be asked to change positions next year. Chicago plans to insert 2018 second-round pick James Daniels at center, meaning Whitehair will need to shift to left guard.

Whitehair has experience moving between positions. At Kansas State, the now-26-year-old spent his first two seasons at guard before moving to tackle for his junior and senior campaigns. In the NFL, Whitehair has mostly stuck at center, although he did line up at both guard positions for a bit in 2018. The results have mostly been spectacular, as Whitehair graded as a top-10 center last season while ranking top-six in pressures allowed (min. 50% playtime), per Pro Football Focus.

Now entering the final year of his rookie contract, Whitehair and his representation are now likely looking for an extension. Chicago’s front office, historically, has been more than willing to pay up for offensive line talent. Right guard Kyle Long inked a four-year, $40MM extension in 2016, left tackle Charles Leno received a four-year, $38MM deal in 2017, and right tackle Bobby Massie re-signed on a four-year, $32MM pact earlier this year.

But how will the Bears approach negotiations? Will they view (and pay) Whitehair as a center or a left guard? It’s a critical question, because there a pretty wide gap in top salaries between the two positions. The top of the left guard market reached $13.3MM per year when Andrew Norwell signed a massive contract with the Jaguars in 2017. The center market, however, only hit $11.125MM annually this past offseason thanks to Mitch Morse‘s deal with the Bills.

Whitehair could potentially bet on himself, hoping that he posts another stellar season before cashing in as a left guard — potentially at $14MM or more per year — in 2020. Chicago isn’t likely to use its franchise tag on a guard, especially given that franchise tenders for offensive linemen don’t differentiate between guard and tackle. Therefore, Whitehair really only has to worry about the prospect of an injury tanking his value.

Alternatively, Whitehair and the Bears could split the difference between guard and center salaries and agree to a deal in the $12MM/year range. He’d be making more than any center, but come out just shy of Norwell’s pact with Jacksonville. At present, it’s unclear if Whitehair is willing to trade some of his contractual upside for financial security, but it could be a deal that would satisfy both he and the Bears.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extension Candidate: Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue

Earlier this summer, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue skipped minicamp in an effort to push for a new contract. Jaguars football czar Tom Coughlin might not be wild about the tactic, but Ngakoue’s stand could very well pay off. 

Ngakoue is entering the final year of his rookie contract and there’s no denying that he is criminally underpaid, given his performance. For now, he’s slated to earn just $2.025MM in 2019 after racking up 29.5 sacks across three seasons.

In essence, both sides want the same thing. Ngakoue wants financial security and the Jaguars would, presumably, love to lock down the 24-year-old for years to come. However, the continued explosion of the edge rushing market makes this an extremely costly proposition for Jacksonville.

This offseason, Frank Clark inked a five-year, $105MM deal with the Chiefs after coming over from the Seahawks. And, just prior to that, Demarcus Lawrence signed a similar deal to stay with the Cowboys. Clark is 26, Lawrence is 27, and Ngakoue just turned 24 in March.

Much is made of the general lack of guarantees in NFL contracts, but top edge rushers continue to rake in guarantees that exceed other key defensive positions. Lawrence got a total guarantee of $65MM and Clark came close with $62.3MM, so there’s no real scenario in which Ngakoue would settle for less than the ~$60MM mark. Meanwhile, he’s likely looking at upwards of $21MM per season in terms of average annual value.

Still, with one year to go on his deal, Ngakoue doesn’t have much leverage. If he does not report to the Jags by August 5, he’ll lose one year of accrued service and push his potential entry into free agency back by one season.

If offered a deal that falls just shy of Clark or Lawrence’s, Ngakoue may very well “settle” and sign. If not, he’ll have to play out the final year of his rookie deal and aim for another gaudy sack total. It’s a risky proposition, but if Ngakoue can terrorize quarterbacks over another 16 game slate, he could be in position to become the highest-paid defensive player in the league.

 

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extension Candidate: Titans S Kevin Byard

Kevin Byard wasn’t supposed to be this good. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, one of the best talent evaluators in football, gave Byard a sixth- to seventh-round grade when he entered the 2016 draft out of Middle Tennessee State. Here’s how one NFC scouting director assessed Byard, per Zierlein.

“Ankle tackler so that’s a concern and I just don’t trust him in coverage. I know he has all the interceptions but I don’t see a player who can match up in space against NFL-­caliber receivers. I know some scouts love him because of his football IQ, but that’s not enough for me.”

The Titans weren’t dissuaded, and used the first pick of the third round (No. 64 overall) on Byard. The 5’11”, 211-pounder became a starter for Tennessee midway through his rookie campaign, and has since proved himself to be one of the best values of that 2016 draft.

Per Pro Football Reference’s approximate value metric, which attempts to encapsulate a player’s production in a single number, Byard has been the 11th-most valuable member of the 2016 draft class. He’s produced 23 points of career AV, tied for second among defenders with 49ers defensive end DeForest Buckner and Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack (Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey is first among defensive players).

Byard is now arguably the best player on the Titans’ defense (although perhaps Jurrell Casey would like a word), and of the top-graded safeties in the NFL. He led the league in interceptions (eight) in 2017, and leads the NFL in picks over the past two combined seasons. Pro Football Focus, meanwhile, has graded Byard as a top-eight safety in each of the past two years, noting both his pass coverage and run defense acumen.

Set to turn 26 years old in August, Byard will hit unrestricted free agency next March. So what would an extension between he and the Titans look like? The first factor to examine is the 2020 safety market, which is, in a word, barren. Devin McCourty is scheduled to become a free agent next spring, but the longtime Patriot will be 32 years old at that point. Other free agent safeties, such as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Rodney McLeod, D.J. Swearinger, Damarious Randall, and Karl Joseph could struggle to garner significant contracts, based both on their production and the recent history of safety deals.

Byard will likely be the most attractive free agent safety available, but Tennessee does hold some leverage in the form of the franchise tag. Unless Marcus Mariota posts a breakout campaign in 2019, the Titans don’t have any other realistic candidates for the franchise tender. Under the tag, Byard would receive roughly $11.5MM in 2020; if the Titans franchised him again in 2021, he’d pick up another $13.8MM or so. That’s $25MM+ guaranteed over the next two seasons, which should create an absolute floor in negotiations.

Byard and his camp will almost certainly point to Landon Collins‘ six-year, $84MM pact with the Redskins — signed this past March — as a contract comparable, and he’d be right to do so. However, it’s possible that the rest of the NFL will view the Collins deal as an outlier (“that crazy Washington front office!”). Even when adjusting for inflation of the salary cap, Collins’ contract is the sixth-most valuable safety deal of all-time, which doesn’t exactly match his production.

Still, it shouldn’t be a surprise if Byard is able to top $14MM/year, the mark hit by both Collins and Tyrann Mathieu this offseason. He just may not surpass the record $44.5MM in full guarantees that Byard collected from the Redskins. Instead, beating Mathieu’s $26.8MM guarantee and aiming for something in the $30-32MM range seems more feasible for Byard.

Extension Candidate: Falcons LB Deion Jones

With so much attention being paid to a potential extension for Falcons receiver Julio Jones, it’s easy to forget about the Falcons’ other player by the same surname who is pushing for a new deal. Linebacker Deion Jones has been discussing an extension as he enters his walk year, but we haven’t heard much news regarding his situation in recent weeks. 

As a former second-round pick, Jones is slated to earn less than $1.1MM in 2019, with no club option for a fifth season. In theory, the lack of an option is a good thing for players like Jones who have outperformed their draft slot, but the Falcons still have leverage thanks to his laughably low salary for the coming year. Jones isn’t necessarily the priority either – the Falcons are likely putting a greater focus on Grady Jarrett‘s contract and the aforementioned contract of J. Jones.

Jones, who won’t celebrate his 25th birthday until November, has proven to have a nose for the ball. In three seasons, he has eight interceptions to his credit, including three pick-six plays for touchdowns. He was also a tackling machine in his first two seasons, though a broken foot suffered in Week 1 of the 2018 season kept him to a total of six games last year.

The injury undoubtedly hurt his negotiating position, though a broken foot is not as devastating as a ligament tear to the knee. Jones still has serious potential at the linebacker position with plenty of room to grow before entering his prime years.

The Falcons would obviously love to keep Jones in the fold for years to come, but the skyrocketing rate for inside linebackers may prove to be a barrier. In March, C.J. Mosley passed Luke Kuechly on a rocket ship with a five-year, $85MM deal that includes $43MM fully guaranteed. Granted, this was a free agent deal, and Mosley is more accomplished than Jones, but Jones’ camp undoubtedly has those specs in mind. Meanwhile, Seahawks star Bobby Wagner is also in the hunt for a new deal, and the market could balloon even further if he puts pen to paper before Jones.

Ultimately, we expect the Falcons to get something done with their young linebacker, but he might have to wait until the other stars are addressed.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Extension Candidates Series

Here at PFR, we’ve been previewing some of the league’s top candidates for big money contract extensions. Here’s the full rundown of our Extension Candidates entries, with plenty more to come throughout the summer: 

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Extension Candidate: Texans OLB Jadeveon Clowney

Jadeveon Clowney is no stranger to PFR’s Extension Candidates series. Last year, Clowney seemed poised for the big bucks, but the Texans elected to have him play out the 2018 on his $12.3MM fifth-year option. This year, they employed the $15.967MM franchise tag to cuff him, but Clowney has yet to sign his tender. 

The two sides have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal. If Clowney is not signed to an extension by that date, Clowney will be on course for free agency after the season. While he has been kept in limbo and away from free agency riches, he is not completely without options. Last year, Le’Veon Bell elected to stay at home rather than signing his one-year tender with the Steelers and signed with the Jets as an unrestricted free agent in March.

Clowney’s situation is complicated by a number of factors. Unhappy with the club’s lack of action, he abstained from the team’s mandatory minicamp. And, unless he signs his tender or gets the extension he wants, it’s unlikely that he’ll be involved in the team’s full training camp. Meanwhile, the Texans are without a GM following their surprising dismissal of Brian Gaine and failure to land Patriots exec Nick Caserio.

Will the Texans’ front office revamp breath new life into the longstanding standoff between the club and one of its top defenders? So far, that doesn’t appear to be the case – we’ve yet to hear any recent developments on a deal and the team, presumably, is still wary of a long-term commitment that would make him one of the NFL’s highest-paid edge rushers.

Depending on who you ask, the Texans may have shown a willingness to trade Clowney earlier this offseason. At this point, the Texans may have to commit, or get off the pot. Or, in other words, their only options may be to fork over a massive contract to the former No. 1 overall pick or trade him to a team that will.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extension Candidate: Cowboys WR Amari Cooper

Amari Cooper says he wants to be a member of the Cowboys for a “long time.” Meanwhile, the Cowboys are pretty keen on him after he gave new life to their offense in the second half of the 2018 season. An extension, logically, should be right around the corner as Cooper enters his contract year, but that’s not quite the case. 

“Not now,” Cooper said when asked if he should be the league’s highest-paid receiver, which is his camp’s presumed goal in talks. “Definitely looking forward to earning that respect and definitely looking forward to coming into this year and just putting up those numbers for my team and really showing what I can do in a full season as a Dallas Cowboy. I know that I have the skillset to be one of the highest-paid receivers. I’m just all about going out there and proving it.”

Cooper, a former first-round pick of the Raiders, had an up-and-down tenure in Oakland. Cooper opened his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard+ seasons, but he sagged in 2017 as the Raiders limped to a 6-10 finish. He appeared to be on the same course – and perhaps lacking motivation – through the first six games of the ’18 campaign. Cooper caught 22 balls for 280 yards and one score before he was shipped to Dallas, where things finally clicked, for one reason or another.

In nine games with Dallas, Cooper exploded for 53 catches, 725 receiving yards, and six scores. Extrapolated for a 16 game season (while rounding up a bit), that’s a 96/1296/10 stat line over the course of a full 16-game season, which would represent all new career highs for Cooper.

The Cowboys could be taking a risk by giving Cooper a top-of-the-market deal now, but waiting would also be a gamble. The Cowboys are expected to lean a bit more on their passing game this year than in years past –particularly if Ezekiel Elliott gets hit with another suspension – and Cooper says he’s aiming for 2,000 yards receiving.

If the Cowboys allow Cooper to play out the 2019 season and franchise tag him in 2020, they’ll be paying him upwards of $31MM guaranteed over the course of the next two years. That’s a reasonable starting point for both sides in talks, though Cooper shouldn’t necessarily be in a rush to sign. With Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and A.J. Green all vying for new deals, it may behoove Cooper to stay patient, wait out the market, and try to top all of them to become the highest-paid receiver in the league.

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Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.