Extension Candidate

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.

Extension Candidate: Tyler Boyd

When it comes to extension talk in Cincinnati, much of the focus is understandably on wide receiver A.J. Green. However, the player who follows Green on the depth chart is also eligible for a sizable raise.

Former second-round receiver Tyler Boyd is set to hit free agency following the 2019 season, and Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic wrote last month that the Bengals want to extend the 24-year-old. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, as the wideout broke onto the scene last year.

Following a pair of underwhelming seasons to begin his career, Boyd had a breakout campaign in 2018, hauling in 76 receptions for 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games. Part of his production could be attributed to the fact that Green missed seven games, placing Boyd atop the depth chart. On the flip side, the receiver also established a career-high catch percentage and yards-per-target.

Furthermore, Boyd adds a bit of toughness and personality to the Bengals, indicated by his decision to attend voluntary OTAs. As Dehner wrote, many extension-eligible players bypass these workouts in fear of an avoidable injury that could vicariously cost them millions. Boyd showed up anyway, stating that a pseudo-holdout would be an unnecessary distraction.

“I’m just trying to do what’s right,” Boyd said. “I’m going to be a team player and go out there and work my tail off. I’m not going to try to skip out on reps or miss a day. That’s the best approach to it. Typically, a guy trying to come out to a season saying, ‘you have to pay me,’ it shows where the care is going. He is a ‘me’ guy. Or, you are still working and going to be a team guy. I am not trying to strategize and make it seem like I’m just trying to do what’s right (to get a deal done), that’s just the way I am.”

So Boyd seems to be saying and doing all the right things, and he’s shown plenty of improvements on the field. So what kind of money will Boyd be eyeing on his next contract? The business-savvy receiver actually pointed to receiver Sterling Shepard‘s contract with the Giants, which was a four-year deal worth $41MM ($21.3MM guaranteed). Dehner suggested that Boyd could also focus on the deal that Tyrell Williams signed with the Raiders (four years, $44MM ($22MM guaranteed)).

As our own Dallas Robinson previously pointed out, Boyd topped Shepard in every offensive category this past season, and he finished higher than the Giants wideout in both Pro Football Focus‘ positional grades and Football Outsiders’ receiving metrics. Boyd’s 2019 season was comparable to Williams’ 2016 campaign, although Williams was older and coming off a pair of subpar seasons when he signed his recent deal with Oakland.

In other words, don’t be shocked if Boyd pushes for a contract that exceeds $11MM annually. Considering the receiver’s apparent affinity for Cincy, the guess here would be a four-year contract worth around $46MM (with a bit more than half guaranteed).

Of course, Boyd’s extension may be partly dependent on how the Bengals handle Green’s next deal. Regardless, expect Boyd’s superstar teammate to receive the first extension, at which time the front office will surely turn their focus to their fourth-year receiver.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extension Candidate: Bobby Wagner

Bobby Wagner has one year left on his current contract with the Seahawks, and the two sides have begun extension talks. It’s unclear how much progress has been made, but with Wagner (understandably) aiming to break the $17MM/year payout that C.J. Mosley landed from the Jets this offseason, there may be some bumps in the road.

For what it’s worth, Robert Mays of The Ringer believes that the two sides will come to terms before the season begins. After all, the Seahawks are projected to have more than $75MM in cap space in 2020, and though they will be paying a ton of money to Russell Wilson for the foreseeable future and also want to extend Jarran Reed, they will be able to fit Wagner, one of the game’s best defensive players, on their books. As Mays notes, head coach Pete Carroll said back in March that, “Bobby’s going to be a Seahawk.”

Wagner attended this month’s minicamp but did not participate in team drills, and he has stated that he will continue to remain on the sidelines until he gets a new deal. And assuming he does get his wish this year, that deal could hit nine figures. Although the general consensus is that the Jets overpaid for Mosley, his five-year, $85MM pact has set the floor for Wagner, and Wagner is much more accomplished. He is a five-time Pro Bowler, four-time First Team All-Pro, and is a bonafide tackling machine, having averaged 140 tackles per year since he entered the league in 2012. The advanced metrics love him just as much as the raw numbers, as Pro Football Focus graded Wagner as the best off-ball linebacker in the league last season.

Wagner has always excelled against the run, and his coverage abilities now rival his run-stopping talents. And while some teams have devalued the inside linebacker role over the past few years, the league’s best quarterbacks exploit the middle of the field to great effect, which makes players like Wagner all the more valuable.

Indeed, Mays suggests that Wagner, who is representing himself, should shoot for a contract that pays him like one of the league’s best 4-3 defensive ends, because he has a similar impact on opposing offenses despite not being a pass rusher. That would mean a $100MM+ deal with an AAV of over $20MM and close to $50MM guaranteed at signing. And considering Wagner’s importance to the team, his place in franchise history, and his relative youth — the birthday boy turned 29 today — that sounds like a pretty reasonable guess.

The Seahawks, who surely don’t want to go to $20MM per year on Wagner’s next contract, could hold firm at whatever price they’ve set and try to put the franchise tag on Wagner next year (which is projected to carry a $16.8MM value). But going that route could lead to an ugly, Earl Thomas-esque battle, and it may be worth a couple million dollars to avoid that.

The guess here is that Wagner gets his contract at some point this summer and that he comes in just shy of the $100MM mark with a five-year, $95MM pact that includes roughly $45MM in fully-guaranteed money.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.