Players drafted in 2018 became eligible to sign contract extensions when the 2020 regular season ended on Jan. 3. Raiders offensive tackle Kolton Miller and Lions center Frank Ragnow are the only 2018 first-round picks to sign new deals so far.
A small number of first-round picks getting new deals after playing just three seasons hasn’t been unusual under the rookie wage scale implemented by the 2011 NFL collective bargaining agreement. Excluding this year, 3.14 first-round picks on average have signed extensions at this juncture of their careers since 2011 first-round picks initially became eligible for new contracts in 2014.
Last year was an anomaly. Six 2017 first-round picks didn’t play a fourth season under their rookie contracts because extensions were signed.
Miller and Ragnow could soon have company. Three quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft (Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield) are extension candidates. Each had their fifth-year options for 2022, which are fully guaranteed, picked up. Allen and Jackson’s fifth-year options are for $23.016 million. Mayfield’s is worth $18.858 million.
None of the three are expected to follow in Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ footsteps by signing an extremely long deal. Four-year extensions have become the norm at the top of the quarterback market. Mahomes landed the most lucrative contract in American team sports history last July. The 2018 NFL MVP signed a 10-year, $450 million extension averaging $45 million per year. Incentives make the contract worth as much as $475 million.
Mahomes got the deal when he was at the same stage in his career as the trio, after his third NFL season. Kansas City’s signal-caller isn’t in danger of being replaced as the NFL highest-paid player by any of these young quarterbacks.
Here’s a look at each of their situations.
Josh Allen – Bills (No. 7 overall pick)
Allen raised his game to a different level last season in leading the Bills to a 13-3 record and the AFC East title. He set Bills franchise records with 4,544 passing yards, 37 touchdown passes, a 69.2 completion percentage and a 107.2 passer rating. Allen ranked in the top five in the NFL in each of these categories. He was the MVP runner up in 2020.
Bills general manager Brandon Beane expressed a desire to sign Allen to an extension sooner than later in March. There doesn’t appear to be a sense of urgency by either the Bills or Allen to get a deal done.
Ideally, Allen’s new deal would come before July 29, when his $2,618,595 third day of training camp roster bonus is due. In doing so, this money could become part of the signing bonus Allen would receive in an extension and be prorated over the life of the contract up to a maximum of five years, which would help limit the increase of his 2021 salary cap number. The Bills currently have $10,102,378 of salary cap room, according to NFLPA data.
The four-year, $160 million contract Dak Prescott received from the Cowboys in March that made him the NFL’s second-highest paid player at $40 million per year certainly got Allen’s attention.
Prescott’s deal has $126 million in guarantees where $95 million was fully guaranteed at signing, which is an NFL record.
Allen should replace Prescott in the NFL salary hierarchy with his deal. It’s also conceivable that he will be the first to ever hit $100 million fully guaranteed at signing.
The Bills will probably use a signing/option bonus structure in an Allen extension signed this year, like they did with offensive tackle Dion Dawkins and cornerback Tre’Davious White in 2020. An option bonus is essentially an additional signing bonus that’s usually paid in the second or third year of a contract to exercise a later year — or years — in the deal. Since an option bonus is given the same treatment on the salary cap as signing bonus, it is also prorated or evenly spread out over the life of a contract for a maximum of five years.
The Bills typically have an inflated fully guaranteed second-year base salary to ensure the option is exercised and the payment is made. This base salary is reduced by the amount of option bonus — which is prorated on the salary cap — when the option year is picked up.
The Bills giving White, who signed an extension after his third year, an extremely favorable cash flow could factor into Allen’s negotiations. White’s cash flow is superior to the most recent deals signed by quarterbacks after playing just three seasons (Jared Goff, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz). The chart below illustrates this point by comparing the percentage of new money White earns after each contract year with the quarterbacks. All of the deals were four-year extensions.
Quarterback contracts customarily have better cash flow than deals at other positions. Since Allen seems open to being flexible about his contract’s structure, an appropriate trade off might be a higher average yearly salary for cash flow percentages inferior to White’s.
Should Allen play out his rookie contract, the Bills would likely use an exclusive franchise tag on him in 2023. This quarterback number currently projects to $43,091,176 and is subject change with contract restructures for cap purposes and extensions over the next 22 months. Nonetheless, it could be used a guide with Allen’s average yearly salary for him being accommodating with cash flow.
Lamar Jackson – Ravens (No. 32 overall pick)
Discussions with Jackson about a new contract have been ongoing. A Jackson extension seems inevitable. Although his signing may not be imminent, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh called an extension a “done deal” last week.
Jackson is the greatest dual-threat quarterback in NFL history. He established a new single-season quarterback rushing record with 1,206 yards on the ground and led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes in 2019 when he was league MVP. Jackson was also the first player to have at least 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season.
His 2020 campaign was not quite at the same level. Jackson is still developing as a pocket passer. Nonetheless, the Ravens earned a third straight postseason trip with Jackson and won their first playoff game since he became the starting quarterback midway through his rookie season.
There is an interesting dynamic in Jackson’s situation. He doesn’t have an agent. The lack of agent wasn’t an impediment to Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Texans offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and Seahawks inside linebacker Bobby Wagner setting the market at their respective positions. Each had competent advisors to help with the process.
The Ravens have proven to be shrewd negotiators when dealing with established agents. It was surprising that offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley’s extension was under $20 million per year given Tunsil had previously signed for $22 million per year. However, the deal contained record-setting guarantees for an offensive lineman contract.
Any shortcomings Jackson may have as a pocket passer shouldn’t preclude him from getting paid near the top of the quarterback market. The Falcons made Michael Vick, who was the first quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, the league’s second-highest paid player in 2004 even though he wasn’t a polished passer.
The safest thing for Jackson to do under the circumstances would be to let Allen sign first and use that deal as a roadmap for his own extension. Regardless, Jackson’s worst-case scenario should be a deal comparable to Watson’s. The Texans quarterback signed a four-year, $156 million extension ($39 million per year) worth a maximum of $160 million through incentives with $110,717,124 million of guarantees right before the 2020 regular season started. $73,717,124 was fully guaranteed at signing.
Jackson doing a deal without an agent or experienced advisor might have a bigger impact on the contract’s structure than the compensation. The Ravens signed Stanley for five new contract years while Tunsil only gave the Texans three new contract years. It wouldn’t be surprising for the Ravens to insist on a fifth new contract year although the trend with quarterbacks is signing for four new contract years. The contract guarantees could potentially be more favorable to the Ravens than ordinarily contained in the top quarterback deals.
Baker Mayfield – Browns (No. 1 overall pick)
Just over a week ago, Mayfield indicated he wasn’t in a rush to sign a new contract. He said his focus is on trying to win games. Jack Mills, Mayfield’s agent, said earlier this week he expects something will be done this summer. He believes the quarterback market is pretty well-defined and is anticipating the salary cap to rebound.
Along those lines, the NFL and NFLPA recently agreed to a salary cap ceiling of $208.2 million for 2022. Reaching the ceiling in 2022 would be a 14.1% increase over the current $182.5 million salary cap.
Mayfield hasn’t had the same individual success as Allen and Jackson with their MVP-caliber seasons. He rebounded from a sophomore slump in 2019 to arguably play the best football of his NFL career during the second half of last season, which helped the Browns earn a playoff berth for the first time since 2002.
Mayfield is the beneficiary of a strong running game and stellar offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, the Browns have best rushing attack and offensive line heading into the 2021 season.
Because of these factors, the Browns would be justified in being reluctant to make a financial commitment to Mayfield in the same stratosphere as Allen and Jackson are expected to be in with their respective deals from the Bills and Ravens. In order to get in the $40 million-per-year neighborhood, Mayfield may need to have patience with an extension and demonstrate that his performance over the last half of the 2020 season wasn’t an anomaly.
A bridge deal that’s either a two- or three-year extension where Mayfield gets back to the market sooner than Allen and Jackson might be worth exploring. The Browns would be protected by a shorter-term deal in case Mayfield regresses like Goff and Wentz did after signing their four-year extensions in 2019 near the top of the quarterback market. Mayfield wouldn’t have to keep proving himself to get a lucrative payday.
Presumably, Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski would prefer Mayfield over Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Stefanksi was Cousins’ offensive coordinator in Minnesota during the 2019 season. Since Cousins signed a two-year extension with the Vikings in 2020 averaging $33 million per year, it would probably be Mayfield’s salary floor going this route.