Extension Candidate

Extension Candidate: Matt Judon

Matt Judon is set to enter the final season of the four-year, $56MM contract he signed with the Patriots back in 2021. The four-time Pro Bowler has undoubtedly lived up to his contract in New England (at least through the first two seasons), but there have been conflicting reports surrounding the progress of extension talks. That’s led some pundits to wonder if 2024 could end up being Judon’s final season with the organization.

Judon himself provided a discouraging update last week. The veteran posted on X that he doesn’t think an extension is “about to happen” (per Dakota Randall of ProFootballNetwork.com). Further, Boston Sports Journal’s Greg Bedard said that “there are a couple of big contract issues” that may stem from the front office’s decision to hand Christian Barmore a new $92MM deal, with Bedard seemingly pointing the finger at Judon (via Randall).

On the flip side, Mike Jurecki of Arizona Football Daily recently hinted that Judon could sign the league’s “next big contract.” The four-time Pro Bowler has also continued to express interest in continuing his career in New England, and the 31-year-old has been an active free agent recruiter on social media.

In other words, it doesn’t seem like anyone has any idea how this will play out. At the very least, Judon doesn’t intend to make his contract status a distraction. Last year, the player staged a hold-in before coming to a temporary resolution with the Patriots, but the player has since admitted that his negotiation tactic was “trash.” With the impending free agent hinting that he won’t follow a similar path this year, the Patriots could simply let Judon play out his contract before revisiting a long-term deal next offseason.

Of course, this could be the perfect time for the organization to pounce. After compiling 28 sacks through his first two seasons with the Patriots, Judon was limited to four sacks in four games before suffering a season-ending bicep injury in 2023. With the 2024 campaign representing Judon’s age-32 season, the Patriots could cite the player’s age and recent injury as a reason for a discounted extension. Plus, while Judon is only set to earn $7.5MM in 2024, he’s connected to a $14.6MM cap charge, so any extension could help the organization reduce that number for the upcoming season.

Beyond the simple decision to extend Judon, the two sides would obviously have to settle on a value. Judon would probably be hard pressed to garner a $22MM average annual value, a mark that would push him into the top-10 among pass rushers. Von Miller got a $20MM AAV from the Bills ahead of his age-33 season, but Judon is still unlikely to generate that type of money and term (six years). DeMarcus Lawrence‘s three-year, $40MM deal with the Cowboys or Cameron Jordan‘s two-year, $27.5MM deal with the Saints may be better benchmarks. Considering the Patriots are armed with plenty of future cap space, this shouldn’t be a prohibitive move for the front office.

There would probably be plenty of teams willing to give Judon at least $13MM per year, and those hypothetical suitors would probably give the player a better chance at winning. The projected franchise tag for Judon is likely untenable (between $24MM and $25MM, per OverTheCap.com), so the Patriots could risk the player walking for nothing if they can’t agree to an extension now.

As the team’s defensive and emotional leader, the Patriots can’t afford to move on from Judon in 2024. It remains to be seen if the organization is willing to pay up to keep him on the roster for 2025 and beyond.

Extension Candidate: A.J. Terrell

A.J. Terrell has established himself as one of the league’s top young cornerbacks. The former first-round pick is set to enter the final year of his rookie contract in 2024, meaning he’s eyeing a lucrative pay day within the next 12 months. There’s no question that the Falcons want to re-sign their star cornerback to a long-term pact, with Josh Kendall of The Athletic expecting the organization to sign their star defensive back to an extension “before the negotiations get tense.”

There is a question of how much an impending extension will cost. Terrell has undeniably set himself up for a sizable contract. The former 16th-overall pick has started all 61 of his appearances through four NFL seasons, including a sophomore campaign where he earned All-Pro honors. He finished that season ranked as Pro Football Focus’ second-best cornerback, with the Clemson product compiling 81 tackles, 16 passes defended, and three interceptions.

Since that 2021 campaign, Terrell has failed to pull in an interception, and he finished the 2022 season ranked only 62nd at his position. He rebounded this past year (24th among 127 qualifiers), but he still finished the season without a pick while collecting a career-low 45 tackles.

In other words, Terrell can justify being one of the league’s highest-paid cornerbacks, but probably not the highest-paid cornerback. From an average-annual-salary perspective, that honor currently belongs to Jaire Alexander, who is making $21MM per year. Kendall suggests the Falcons should push for a $17MM AAV, which would put Terrell ninth at his position (but well above No. 10, Carlton Davis, at $14.8MM).

Even a sub-$20MM AAV would be a win for the organization. Fellow 2020 draft picks Trevon Diggs, L’Jarius Sneed, and Jaylon Johnson have all come in between $19MM and $20MM with their respective extensions, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Terrell is pushing for that range. The 2025 cornerback franchise tag is currently projected at $19.4MM (per OverTheCap.com), so that number could be a fair compromise between the two sides.

Terrell would headline the CB class if he somehow got to 2025 free agency. The non-first-round 2021 cornerbacks will also be hitting the market, a grouping that includes Tyson Campbell, Asante Samuel Jr., and Paulson Adebo. In the unlikely event that Terrell banks on a standout 2024 campaign (and succeeds), he could push for the Alexander/Denzel Ward/Jalen Ramsey tier at the position.

More likely, Terrell misses that mark but still signs a pricey extension with the Falcons. It sounds like the front office isn’t intending to drag out negotiations, which probably bodes well for Terrell’s chances of cracking the top-10 at his position. At the moment, the cornerback is attached to his $12.3MM fifth-year option, but he’ll likely add to that total before the 2024 campaign begins.

Extension Candidate: D.J. Moore

D.J. Moore was a key part of the package the Panthers sent the Bears to acquire the No. 1 pick in 2023. He is attached to a contract which came before the position’s market surged, though, which could put him in line to command a raise in the relatively near future.

Moore, 27, topped 1,100 yards three times during his five-year tenure in Carolina. The Panthers were not looking to move on from him shortly after he inked his current contract, but the fact he was no longer on his rookie deal factored into the Bears’ insistence he was part of the blockbuster swap. Arriving in Chicago as the team’s No. 1 wideout, Moore enjoyed a career year last season.

The former first-rounder set a new personal best in catches (96), yards (1,364) and touchdowns (eight) in 2023 despite the Bears’ QB situation being less than ideal. That has been the case for much of Moore’s career, although Caleb Williams could change that. This year’s top pick enters the league with major expectations, but the presence of a well-regarded skill group may limit what he needs to do as a rookie for the Bears to be successful.

Chicago traded for Keenan Allen before following up the Williams pick with the selection of Rome Odunze. The former has one year on his current deal while the latter will be cost-controlled through at least 2027. Moore, meanwhile, has two years remaining on his $61.88MM extension. While there is no need for urgency this summer, Kevin Fishbain of The Athletic notes the Maryland product is a strong candidate for an extension based on his play along with his high standing in the organization (subscription required).

Moore is due just over $16MM in 2024 and ’25, but only $1.11MM of his base salaries in that span are guaranteed. In terms of annual average value, he now sits 17th in the league with respect to receiver compensation (a ranking which will drop further once the likes of CeeDee Lamb, Ja’Marr Chase and Brandon Aiyuk sign their own second contracts). A deal keeping him place through the remainder of his prime and tying him to Chicago while Williams is on his rookie pact would be sensible for team and player based on Moore’s first year in the Windy City.

On the other hand, the presence of Allen (who is interested in a market-level Bears deal) and Odunze could lessen Moore’s role on offense. General manager Ryan Poles may prefer to wait out the 2024 season and see how the team’s new offensive playmakers fit before committing to a Moore deal. In the event that were to take place, though, another productive year could up his asking price in the wake of continued increases in the receiver market.

Two agents Fishbain spoke with (but who do not represent Moore) used Calvin Ridley‘s Titans deal (four years, $92MM) as a comparable deal. Moore – who is two years younger and has a nearly identical yards per game average for his career – could certainly command a raise if a short-term deal were to be worked out by tacking on a few years to the remainder of his current pact. The agents suggested a two-year, $60MM top-up could be an appropriate figure in this case.

With considerable cap space now and in the near future, the Bears can certainly afford a big-ticket Moore investment. It will be interesting to see if Poles and the Bears pursue an agreement over the course of the summer or take a more patient approach with him.

Extension Candidate: Browns LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

Thanks in part to injuries, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah didn’t necessarily live up to his second-round billing through his first two seasons in the NFL. However, the linebacker stepped up in a big way during the 2023 campaign, and that performance could earn him an extension with the Browns in the coming months.

As Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com notes, “JOK” has emerged as an extension candidate for the organization. The reporter believes the Browns front office would prefer to lock up Owusu-Koramoah as soon as possible, either before the regular season or part way through the campaign. That way, the organization can assure the impending free agent is clear of any distractions in the follow-up to his breakout season.

After being selected with the 52nd pick in the 2021 draft, Owusu-Koramoah proceeded to earn All-Rookie team honors after finishing with 76 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a pair of forced fumbles. He missed a chunk of that season with an ankle injury, but Pro Football Focus still graded him as a top-10 player at his position. The linebacker took a slight step back during his sophomore campaign. He missed six more games thanks to a foot injury, and he finished the year ranked only 38th at his position.

Fortunately for the player and the organization, Owusu-Koramoah took a significant leap this past season. The 24-year-old finished the campaign with 101 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and two interceptions, earning him his first career Pro Bowl nod. Pro Football Focus ranked him 18th among 82 qualifying linebackers, including the second-best pass-rushing score at his position.

There’s a chance Owusu-Koramoah could solidify himself as a definitive top-10 linebacker with a strong performance in 2024. That would come at the perfect time for the fourth-year player, as he’s set to hit free agency following the season. JOK doesn’t have the track record to match the $18MM average annual value mark that’s been surpassed by Roquan Smith, Fred Warner, and Tremaine Edmunds, but he could still be in line for a lucrative pay day.

Patrick Queen leaped into the top-five AAV at the position this offseason following a strong year in Baltimore. The former first-round pick got a three-year, $41MM deal from the Steelers, good for a $13.6MM AAV. The LB franchise tag for 2025 is projected to be north of $25MM, so Owusu-Koramoah does have some leverage if the Browns truly intend to keep him long-term. The linebacker is set to earn around $2MM on the final year of his rookie contract in 2024.

The Browns also haven’t done a whole lot to add depth at the weakside linebacker spot, with former UDFAs Mohamoud Diabate and Charlie Thomas serving as JOK’s primary backups. Anthony Walker and Sione Takitaki both departed this offseason, meaning the Browns will be even more reliant on Owusu-Koramoah’s experience in the linebackers room next year.

For what it’s worth, Owusu-Koramoah said he’s not overly focused on his contract status, noting that “there’s a time and place for everything” (per Zac Jackson of The Athletic). More notably, the linebacker declared that he’s “all about ball,” which is surely the type of mentality the front office is seeking from the hopeful defensive stalwart.

Extension Candidate: Evan McPherson

The Bengals front office has been busy and will likely continue to be busy throughout the calendar year. Wide receiver Tee Higgins has now signed his franchise tender and an extension by the deadline of July 15 is not looking likely. While not ideal, this does allow for the front office to turn their attentions towards other matters.

In addition to Higgins, seven other starters are entering contract-years: defensive tackle B.J. Hill, cornerback Mike Hilton, offensive tackle Trent Brown, tight end Mike Gesicki, safety Vonn Bell, long snapper Cal Adomitis, and kicker Evan McPherson. The team also has the extension of star wideout Ja’Marr Chase to concern themselves with. While Chase and some of the others may be a higher priority, McPherson may be the likeliest Bengal to receive the next new deal, according to Jay Morrison of Pro Football Network.

The reason McPherson is the likeliest candidate to next receive an extension is the precedents already in place. Morrison calls it “a textbook case of ‘when, not if.'” For one, the desire for an extension is mutual between McPherson and the team. Contracts for kickers are also extremely straightforward leading to the likelihood that any negotiations should be pretty cut-and-dry.

Long-term contracts for kickers range from three to five years. Only three players at the position, Harrison Butker (Chiefs), Jason Sanders (Dolphins), and Younghoe Koo (Falcons), are on five-year deals, and of the top 14 contracts in the league for kickers, only Graham Gano (Giants), Ka’imi Fairbairn (Texans), Chase McLaughlin (Buccaneers), and Dustin Hopkins (Browns) are inked for only three years. The other seven top contracts are all four-year contracts.

Those contracts also have a narrow range of value with the lowest annual average being $3MM (Hopkins) and the highest being $6MM, shared by Justin Tucker (Ravens) and Jake Elliott (Eagles). That leaves a pretty small range of options for the Bengals to find a deal for McPherson ranging from three to five years with an average annual value of $3MM to $6MM, unless the team is looking to make McPherson the highest-paid kicker in the NFL.

While McPherson has been impressive under his rookie deal in Cincinnati, the Florida-product is only the franchise’s third-most accurate kicker. The former Gator has an NFL field goal percentage of 83.9, converting 78 of his 93 attempts. He has missed six of 132 extra point attempts but showed improvement in that field last year, going 40 for 40 in 2023.

In his first two seasons, McPherson also showed an impressive accuracy from deep, making 14 of 16 attempts from 50+ yards. That accuracy did not quite translate from inside the 40-yard line, though, as he missed seven of 20 attempts from 40-49 yards and even a 20-29 yarder over those first two years. He showed improvement on the latter front in 2023, going a perfect 19 for 19 on any field goals under 50 yards, but his long-distance accuracy suffered as he missed five of 12 attempts from over 50 yards last year.

Despite his inconsistencies, McPherson has still been one of the league’s better kickers over his three years in the NFL. If the Bengals intend to reward his early success by making him the highest-paid kicker in the league, McPherson should expect a four-year deal worth around $25MM or $26MM.

Alternatively, if Cincinnati decides that he may not be due the same money as Tucker or Elliott, the team may opt to instead reward McPherson with longevity, giving him less per year over a five-year deal. A five-year, $25MM offer would be the biggest contract for a kicker in total value and would give McPherson the eighth-highest annual average. The team could meet somewhere in the middle with a five-year, $27.5MM deal that would make McPherson the highest-paid kicker in the league with the fourth-highest annual average.

The biggest area for incentivizing a signing will be in the guarantees. Tucker leads the way in that category with $14MM of is four-year, $24MM deal being guaranteed at signing. The Bengals could give McPherson less money while still rewarding him with a high guaranteed amount, if that’s the route they choose.

However they go about keeping McPherson around, there won’t be too much room for negotiations. The three- to five-year deal averaging somewhere from $5MM to $7MM per year is expected to come sooner rather than later. The team has set the regular season as a de facto deadline for getting extensions done, per Morrison, and there is an expectation that, should McPherson reach a deal before that deadline, it would come shortly after the deadline to extend Higgins a month from today.

Extension Candidate: Quinn Meinerz

Broncos GM George Paton has gone from a respected hire, succeeding John Elway in 2021, to the exec that greenlit three of this decade’s most criticized moves. But prior to the Nathaniel Hackett hire and the Russell Wilson trade and extension calls that set the franchise back, the Paton-fronted 2021 draft gave the Broncos an array of talent that remains in key roles on Sean Payton‘s second Denver roster.

The Broncos received steady criticism for passing on Justin Fields to start that draft, but their Patrick Surtain move has aged well. The All-Pro cornerback will be on track for a mega-extension, and after trade rumors during this year’s draft proved unfounded, extension talks are expected to begin soon. Denver also added starting running back Javonte Williams in Round 2; this will be a big year for the hard-charging RB, as he struggled for much of last season upon returning from ACL and LCL tears. Third-rounder Baron Browning and seventh-rounder Jonathon Cooper have started regularly at outside linebacker, and the team may turn to fifth-rounder Caden Sterns — a Week 1 starter last season before suffering an injury — as a first-stringer post-Justin Simmons.

While that Surtain-fronted haul will be heard from in Denver this season, the group also housed a Division III prospect who has turned into one of the NFL’s better players at his position. The Broncos chose Quinn Meinerz near the end of Round 3 (No. 98) out of Wisconsin-Whitewater. That pick has proven critical for the team, as offensive success stories have been hard to find for the Broncos in recent years.

Meinerz, 25, initially captured attention for mid-’80s Rocky Balboa-style workouts, following a COVID-19-nixed senior season at the D-III level, and practice jerseys exposing his midriff area. But the small-school prospect quickly showed he was capable of quality NFL play. Since taking over for an injured Graham Glasgow midway through the 2021 season, Meinerz has been the Broncos’ most consistent O-lineman. The now-extension-eligible blocker has settled in at right guard over the past two seasons.

As the Broncos cratered to last place in scoring offense during the ill-fated Hackett-Wilson season, Meinerz played well in 13 starts. Pro Football Focus graded Meinerz as a top-five guard in 2022. Last year, PFF slotted Meinerz third among guards. Known more for his run-blocking power, Meinerz has set himself up for a big contract year — should the Broncos not come to an extension agreement before that point.

Denver does not have considerable recent experience with extensions for interior O-linemen. The team has opted to fill its guard needs in free agency for many years, signing the likes of Louis Vasquez (2013), Ronald Leary (2017), Glasgow (2020) and Ben Powers (2023) to big-ticket deals. This span also included a training camp Evan Mathis addition (2015). While the team has seen some decent play from draftees at center and guard in this span (Matt Paradis, Connor McGovern, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry), extensions have not emerged. Paradis, Risner, Cushenberry, McGovern and Billy Turner each departed after solid contract years.

With Meinerz joining Surtain as the team’s top extension candidates from Paton’s first draft, it will be interesting to see how the Broncos proceed. Meinerz’s rookie contract has been valuable to the team in recent years, particularly in 2023. As Payton brought in Powers (four years, $52MM) and right tackle Mike McGlinchey (five years, $87.5MM) to pair with the Elway-era Garett Bolles extension (four years, $68MM), the rookie deals for Cushenberry and Meinerz became important.

Payton has been no stranger to O-line extensions. The Saints fortified these spots for years, most recently extending the likes of Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk on the Super Bowl-winning HC’s watch. They also re-signed Pro Bowl guard Andrus Peat. While Bo Nix‘s development has obviously become the central Broncos storyline in 2024, how the team handles its O-line contracts will be worth monitoring as well.

Bolles’ deal expires after this season, and the seven-year left tackle has expressed interest in a third contract. The 2017 first-rounder, however, will turn 32 later this month. Seeing about a younger LT upgrade and allocating money to keep Meinerz in the fold would be a viable path. Wilson’s astonishing dead money figure has settled in at $84MM when the QB’s Steelers offset is factored in, though the team is absorbing the lion’s share of the hit in 2024.

That contract will be on the Broncos’ books through 2025. The team may not want four veteran O-line deals — even around Nix’s rookie contract — on the payroll, creating a potential Bolles-or-Meinerz call. A longer-term Meinerz extension would, however, stand to align with Nix’s deal.

Guard salaries have ballooned past $20MM per year over the past two offseasons. Four guards are in the $20MM-AAV club. Meinerz not having a Pro Bowl or All-Pro nod on his resume may exclude him from that price range, but six more guards are tied to deals north of $15MM per year. Cushenberry also used a contract-year surge to command the second-highest guarantee at signing ($26MM) among centers. Meinerz staying on course will position him as one of next year’s top free agents, as guard franchise tags — since O-linemen are grouped together under the tag formula — are rare.

With Browning and Cooper also due for free agency in 2025, the Broncos ($38MM in 2025 cap space, as of mid-May) will have some decisions to make over the next 10 months. Meinerz’s earnings floor stands to be higher by comparison, and the team’s issues developing offensive talent in recent years would seemingly point to an extension being considered. The Broncos hold exclusive negotiating rights with their 2021 draftees — though, Surtain is signed through 2025 via the fifth-year option — until March of next year.

Extension Candidate: Justin Herbert

Now that the league’s most controversial quarterback extension discussion has come to an end, it’s time to move on to what may be the second-most controversial. Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert has shown some impressive regular season success in Los Angeles, but without results in the postseason, does he deserve to earn what some of his colleagues are making?

The 2020 quarterback class recently became eligible to sign their second NFL contracts. Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, in a slightly different situation with no fifth-year option due to being drafted in the second round, broke the mold before heading into the final year of his rookie contract, signing an extension that gave him the highest annual average contract value in the NFL, a record that would be broken weeks later by Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.

The Packers decided to get ahead of the pack, as well, signing inexperienced quarterback Jordan Love to an extension of his four-year rookie deal that will keep him under contract through this season and the next. Aside from that, the remaining first-round quarterbacks from the 2020 NFL Draft are playing it patient. The Bengals and quarterback Joe Burrow seem to be in a bit of a holding pattern, watching Herbert and the Chargers. The Dolphins also seem to be sitting pat on a new deal for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Injury issues, namely frequent concussions, have Miami playing it slow, as Tagovailoa’s future appears uncertain to say the least.

That brings us to Herbert. The 2020 class’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, Herbert has been a statistical phenom in Los Angeles. Through his first three seasons, Herbert has passed for 14,089 yards, more than any other player in NFL history through their first three years. He followed up his ORoY campaign with a Pro Bowl sophomore season. He averages just over 31 passing touchdowns per year to just over 11 interceptions. Despite throwing for the fewest touchdowns of his career last season, he finally saw his team’s success result in a postseason appearance. That paradox serves as a microcosm of the biggest issue currently surrounding his legacy: what good are statistics if they don’t lead to team success?

With Herbert behind center, the Chargers are 25-24. They have floated just above .500 since he took his place atop the depth chart. In his lone postseason contest, the Chargers’ defense consistently put Herbert and the offense in positions to succeed, leading to a 27-0 lead over Jacksonville to begin the game. As the Jaguars mounted their comeback, though, Herbert and the offense struggled generate much scoring as the team only managed three second-half points. That loss ultimately puts his record as a starter at 25-25, including the postseason.

The blame doesn’t fall solely on Herbert’s shoulders, of course. A middling-to-subpar defense in the past three years has made Herbert’s job that much harder. Injuries to leading offensive players like running back Austin Ekeler and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams have put him in tough situations from time to time, as well. Still, quarterbacks like Jackson and Hurts have made winning without stats look easy, while Hurts and Burrow have found enough postseason success to each have a Super Bowl loss on their records. Herbert’s statistical success should well reward him and set him on track for a top contract, but his lack of winning success could lessen his price tag a bit.

Veteran general manager Tom Telesco has been here before with Philip Rivers. As a student of Bill Polian with the 2000’s Colts, Telesco had a front row seat to how Indianapolis paid Peyton Manning while still fielding a strong team around him. Seeing the success that that resulted in, Telesco will likely be aiming for a more team-friendly deal when trying to extend Herbert.

At least in our situation, I don’t think I need to have that talk with our quarterback. I think he’s fully aware, has really good self-awareness on how much money he is going to make, how it affects the team,” Telesco said. “But like most agents will tell you, like, it’s my job to figure out how to make sure that the player gets the value that he deserves and we build a team around him.”

With that in mind, what might a deal for Herbert look like? This is a tough one. As the price tag for quarterbacks continues to climb, Herbert is expected to make over $50MM per year. The statistical success backs that assertion, and the development of the deals of Hurts and Jackson make that harder to deny. Yes, Mahomes and Allen aimed for longer deals (slightly for Allen, extremely for Mahomes), that take a bit of burden off the team, but those deals came in 2020 for Mahomes and 2021 for Allen. It’s hard to imagine that both of those deals would still be under $50MM per year in 2023.

If Herbert and Telesco are on the same page about a team-friendly deal, it’s going to be based off of length. Herbert may end up looking at a six- to eight-year deal. With the added years to the contract, he may agree to take a bit less than the five-year deals Hurts and Jackson signed. I could see an eight-year, $400MM deal with a $50MM AAV or maybe a six-year, $306MM deal with a $51MM AAV. If the team waits longer to make the deal, they not only risk further inflation to contract prices, they also risk Herbert driving up the price tag with some postseason success.

Telesco has his work cut out for him. The team clearly wants to commit to Herbert long-term. With seven players all set to make over $10MM next year, the team’s payroll is getting top-heavy. He’ll have to work some Colts-Manning magic in order to give Herbert the long-term deal he deserves while not totally handicapping the team’s ability to stack top-end talent around him.

Extension Candidate: Kyle Dugger

The Patriots haven’t signed a first- or second-round pick to a rookie contract extension since Dont’a Hightower, who was a member of the 2012 draft class. Things may change in 2023, as the Patriots have a 2020 second-round pick who is worthy of a new deal. Kyle Dugger is currently eligible for an extension, and the safety can make a strong case for a new contract in New England.

The defensive back was a surprise pick out of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, with the Patriots selecting him 37th-overall in 2020. Following an inconsistent rookie campaign that saw him in and out of the starting lineup, Dugger took it to another level over the past two seasons. Between 2021 and 2022, the safety has compiled 120 tackles, seven interceptions, and three defensive touchdowns. The 26-year-old earned his best Pro Football Focus grade in 2022, finishing 11th among 88 qualifying safeties.

The Patriots secondary will be lacking some leadership in 2023 following the retirement of Devin McCourty, and Bill Belichick and co. will surely want to maintain some continuity in their safeties room. Jabrill Peppers and Adrian Phillips provide some solid depth at the position, and the team has reportedly given cornerback Jalen Mills some reps at safety. The organization also used a third-round pick on Sacramento State defensive back Marte Mapu, perhaps some insurance in case the organization loses their starter next offseason.

However, none of those options offer as much upside as Dugger, and while the team doesn’t have a long track record of extending first- or second-round picks, the safety has easily outperformed most of the other players on that list. Of course, this is the Patriots, and we shouldn’t expect the front office to start negotiating against themselves.

Despite his impressive numbers over the past two seasons, Dugger hasn’t established himself among the top tier of safeties. A top-10 contract at the position would put him in line for an average annual value of $14MM. More likely, New England will be looking to get Dugger under contract for a discounted amount; considering his production and the current contracts at the position, a deal starting around $12MM per year could make some sense.

Fortunately for New England, Dugger’s contract status won’t be a distraction for the fourth-year player.

“That’s not on my mind,” Dugger said of his impending free agency (via Chad Graff of The Athletic). “That’s the business part. I’m on the field and trying to handle business on the field and let that be that. But I definitely enjoy playing with this organization.”

Dugger might not even be the only member of the Patriots 2020 draft class to earn an extension. Fellow second-round pick Josh Uche had a breakout season in 2022, finishing with 11.5 sacks and a top-20 edge rusher grade from PFF. The Patriots probably won’t overpay for one good season, and Uche is mostly a part-time player in their system. However, another 10-plus-sack season would put Uche in line for a massive payday next offseason. If the organization believes his 2022 season was for real, it may be in their best interest to extend the linebacker now.

Offensive lineman Michael Onwenu could be another interesting contender for an extension. The 2020 sixth-round pick earned PFWA All-Rookie Team honors as a rookie, struggled during his second season, and then earned a top-four PFF mark among all guards in 2022. The lineman’s inconsistency makes him a risky extension candidate, but New England could look to hedge their bets and sign him to an affordable deal while they have the chance. As Evan Lazar of the team’s website points out, the organization does have a recent history of trying to retain interior linemen, including Shaq Mason‘s extension and Joe Thuney‘s franchise tag.

Part of the reason for the team’s lack of success in a post-Tom Brady era (besides the quarterback’s obvious defection) was the team’s lack of draft hits. The fact that the Patriots have three worthy extension candidates from their 2020 draft class shows that the organization is starting to rebound in their prospect evaluations.

Extension Candidate: Kristian Fulton

Kristian Fulton has emerged as a key member of the Titans’ secondary, a unit which the team has made considerable investments in over the course of recent years. He is now approaching the final season of his rookie contract.

Fulton, a 2020 second-round pick, is “hoping for a new deal,” writes Joe Rexrode of The Athletic (subscription required). A long-term commitment from Tennessee would come as little surprise considering the level of play he has delivered when on the field during the past two seasons in particular, though the frequency with which that is not the case could be a concern.

As a rookie, Fulton logged a 49% snap share but his campaign was limited to just six games due to a knee injury. His availability was better the following season when he served as a full-time starter for all 13 of his appearances. During that span, he recorded a pair of interceptions and 14 pass deflections. His coverage statistics (51% completion percentage and 71.3 passer rating allowed) also pointed to a promising future and raised expectations for him heading into 2022.

In the build-up to that year, Tennessee had a number of options to choose from in terms of the starting CB spot opposite Fulton. The LSU product was once again counted on as an anchor of the secondary, though, starting all 11 games he played in. Fulton was again sidelined by injury, however, which contributed to a step back in his ball production (one interception, five pass breakups). In all, he has missed 20 games over the course of his career, a figure which will no doubt hurt his value on a new deal, particularly one signed before the onset of the coming season.

The Titans have a number of young corners on the books, including Fulton but also 2021 first-rounder Caleb Farley (who has only played 12 games to date), 2021 third-rounder Elijah Molden (who missed all but two contests last season) and 2022 second-round selection Roger McCreary. The latter enjoyed a highly productive rookie campaign in which he was a full-time starter and stayed on the field for all 17 games. Tennessee also brought in another first-team option during free agency by signing Sean Murphy-Bunting on a one-year deal.

Nevertheless, Fulton will be counted on as a key performer for at least one more season. A return to health in his case – and that of the Titans’ secondary as a whole – would go a long way in determining the team’s success on defense, a unit which will likely need to perform at a high level given the question marks surrounding their offense. A strong showing from Fulton would also boost his value heading into free agency next March, or Titans extension negotiations conducted before that point.

Tennessee is limited with respect to available funds at the moment, and much of their remaining cap space would be used up by any hypothetical deal for DeAndre Hopkins. Fulton’s 2023 cap hit is just under $1.7MM, so a new deal would not clear up any significant money for the remainder of the summer. However, the Titans are currently projected to have the fourth-most spending power in 2024, so they would certainly be able to absorb a significant raise for Fulton on a new contract if his desire for one were to be reciprocated.

Extension Candidate: Evan Engram

The least discussed of the four negotiations involving franchise-tagged players, Evan Engram‘s Jaguars situation still offers intrigue. The Jags have until July 17 to strike a deal with their starting tight end, or he will play a second straight season on a one-year contract — this one worth $11.35MM.

Jacksonville initially signed the former first-round pick on a higher-end “prove it” pact, giving the ex-Giant a one-year deal worth $9MM. After a rocky New York tenure, Engram showed value in Jacksonville by setting a Jags single-season tight end record with 766 receiving yards. Considering how difficult it has been for this franchise to find tight end production in recent years, Engram has a case to command a deal near the top tier at his position.

On the whole, the tight end position is undervalued. Travis Kelce has been the constant receiving presence during the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes era, and the future Hall of Famer helped power the team to another Super Bowl despite the trade of Tyreek Hill. George Kittle may be the league’s most complete tight end, and he has been vital to the Kyle Shanahan-era 49ers’ offensive success both aerially and on the ground. Neither star earns more than $15MM per year. Darren Waller‘s $17MM-per-year contract tops the tight end market, further complicating matters due to the new Giant’s recent injury trouble. Sixteen wideouts earn more than every tight end, contrasting one pass-catching position’s booming market and another’s stagnancy.

The tight end market being out of step with the position’s value may affect current and future negotiations, as Engram is coming off a better year compared to Waller. The Ole Miss alum teamed with fellow Jaguar newcomers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones to form a productive arsenal around the ascending Trevor Lawrence. In addition to his regular-season numbers, Engram totaled 12 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs.

The Jags chose an Engram tag over cuffing right tackle Jawaan Taylor, who made his way to the Chiefs on a $20MM-per-year accord. Engram’s tag cost the Jags barely $11MM. That amount becomes fully guaranteed once Engram signs his franchise tender; he joins Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs in not yet doing so.

Both Dawson Knox and David Njoku signed for at least $13MM last year. Given Engram’s first-year production in Jacksonville, it should be expected he is targeting a deal north of those authorized by the Bills and Browns. Considering Dallas Goedert and Mark Andrews are signed to $14.25MM- and $14MM-AAV contracts, it would seem Engram and the Jags could find common ground. A 2024 Engram tag would be worth $13.62MM, but neither Knox nor Njoku secured $20MM guaranteed. The second tag price is assuredly a major factor for Engram; only three veteran tight ends (Andrews, Kittle, Hunter Henry) commanded guarantees of at least $25MM.

Njoku benefited by signing a long-term deal weeks after being tagged, while fellow tag recipients Dalton Schultz and Mike Gesicki endured down seasons. This led to disappointing 2023 paydays. Engram will need to consider this as well, though he has both made more cash than the ex-Cowboys and Dolphins tight ends — due to his first-round contract and 2022 Jaguars deal — and holds a clear role in Doug Pederson‘s offense. Lawrence’s climb also stands to benefit his top tight end.

Engram has said he wants to stay in Jacksonville, while GM Trent Baalke expressed optimism for a long-term agreement as well. But the sides were not believed to be especially close on terms weeks after the tag emerged. Engram being set for his age-29 season also complicates contract talks, but a three- or four-year deal should still cover prime years for the veteran. The Jags whiffed on a big-ticket Julius Thomas signing in 2015 and were unable to generate much from their tight end spot between then and the Engram contract. The Jags did, however, let left tackle Cam Robinson play on the tag in 2021. And Engram’s age and inconsistent past are likely factors the team is considering while determining if an extension or a second rental year will transpire.

Last year provided a notable uptick for the 6-foot-3 pass catcher, who saw injuries and inconsistency plague him in New York. After a 722-yard rookie season, Engram picked up a Pro Bowl nod with a 654-yard 2020 slate. Engram was not particularly reliable during the other three years of his rookie deal. After a 2021 season in which the Giants bottomed out following a Daniel Jones neck injury, Big Blue’s new regime let the Jerry Reese-era draftee walk.

Lawrence will be tied to a rookie contract in 2023, but the former No. 1 overall pick becomes extension-eligible in January. The Jags also added Calvin Ridley‘s fifth-year option salary ($11.12MM) to their payroll. Extending Engram would give the team more 2023 cap room, but with neither he nor Ridley signed beyond 2023, big-picture decisions loom. Kirk’s $18MM-per-year deal runs through 2025; Jones’ $8MM-AAV accord goes through 2024. With this being the rare pass-catching corps without a rookie contract in the starting mix, how the Jaguars proceed with this position group will be worth following.

Potential complications here pale in comparison to what is happening leaguewide at running back. While that issue clouds the talks with the three tagged backs — Barkley, Jacobs, Tony Pollard — Engram should have a clearer path to securing an extension by next month’s deadline.