The NFL annual owners meeting, which is March 27-30 in Palm Beach, Florida, typically signifies the end of free agency for all practical purposes. Teams will devote most of their attention to the upcoming NFL Draft held April 28-30 after the meeting wraps up. There are still several big name players still available, including wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, safety Tyrann Mathieu and linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Here are a 10 contract-related thoughts and observations relating to free agency and the early part of the offseason.
1. Groundbreaking quarterback deals
The NFL’s financial landscape was changed with landmark contracts by Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson. Once Rodgers, who was entering a contract year, decided he wanted to remain with the Packers rather than try to force a trade, he became the NFL’s first $50 million-per-year player. His new contract is widely considered to be $150.815 million over three years although there are two additional below-market years in the deal. Should Rodgers decide to keep playing football in 2025 when he is 41, a new contract will surely be negotiated to replace the artificially low $20.9 million and $15.05 million compensation of the 2025 and 2026 contract years, which are considered placeholder salaries. Rodgers established new standards for guaranteed money in football contracts with $150.665 million in total guarantees and $101.515 million fully guaranteed. That is until the Texans traded Watson to the Browns.
Nobody expected Watson to get a fully guaranteed, five-year, $230 million contract in connection with his trade, especially considering the sexual assault and misconduct allegations he’s still facing. Watson had four years worth $136 million remaining on the four-year contract extension averaging $39 million per year he signed in September 2020. He has the type of guaranteed money typically reserved for the most lucrative NBA contracts. For example, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 2019 and 2020 NBA MVP, signed a five-year extension in December 2020 that took effect this season worth a fully guaranteed $228,200,420. It remains to be seen whether Watson’s contract will be the catalyst for fully guaranteed contracts becoming the norm in the NFL, like in MLB and the NBA.
2. The trading frenzy
The NFL trade market got off to slow start but picked up steam quickly with several notable players getting moved. The ball got rolling when the Broncos acquired quarterback Russell Wilson and a 2022 fourth-round pick from the Seahawks for multiple players (tight end Noah Fant, defensive lineman Shelby Harris and quarterback Drew Lock), 2022 and 2023 first-round picks, 2022 and 2023 second-round picks and a 2022 fifth-round pick. The Colts were next by dealing beleaguered quarterback Carson Wentz to the Commanders for essentially 2022 and 2023 third-round picks. The 2023 selection becomes a second-round pick with Wentz taking at least 70% of Washington’s offensive snaps in 2022.
The Bears sent edge rusher Khalil Mack to the Chargers for a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 sixth-round pick. The Browns gave the Cowboys a 2022 fifth-rounder for wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was going to be released before his $20 million 2022 base salary became fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year (March 20). A swap of sixth-round picks was also involved. The Raiders dealt edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue to the Colts for cornerback Rock Ya-Sin , which paved the way for edge rusher Chandler Jones to come to Las Vegas on a three-year, $50 million contract with $31.5 million of guarantees.
The next big move was the Raiders acquiring wide receiver Davante Adams, who was designated as a franchise player, from the Packers for 2022 first- and second-round picks. Adams signed a five-year, $140 million contract with the Raiders.
The Texans dealt Watson and a 2024 sixth-round pick to the Browns for 2022, 2023 and 2024 first-round picks, a 2022 fourth-round pick, a 2023 third-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick. Watson’s trade to the Browns has the potential to be the most significant NFL transaction during the salary cap era, which began in 1994, because of the fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract he received in the process.
Quarterback Matt Ryan became collateral damage in the Falcons’ failed pursuit of Watson. After 14 years in Atlanta, he decided a change of scenery was best. Ryan was dealt to the Colts for a 2022 third-round pick. The Falcons are left with an NFL-record $40.525 million in dead money — a salary cap charge for a player no longer on a team’s roster — for Ryan because of multiple restructures of his contract where salary was converted into signing bonus and prorated.
Signability became an issue for the Chiefs with wide receiver Tyreek Hill after the Adams deal. He was dealt to the Dolphins for five draft picks: 2022 first-, second- and fourth-round picks as well as 2023 fourth- and sixth-round picks. Hill was given a four-year, $120 million contract extension with $72.2 million in guarantees by Miami
Wide receiver Robert Woods going from the Rams to the Titans for a 2023 sixth-round pick has been seemingly lost in the shuffle. The move was essentially a salary dump after the Rams signed wide receiver Allen Robinson to a three-year, $46.5 million contract with $30.75 million fully guaranteed. Robinson can void out of the third year in 2024 by reaching 2,201 combined receiving yards in 2022 and 2023.
There still could be more high-profile trades to come involving quarterbacks. Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t expected to remain with the 49ers. General manager John Lynch is reportedly telling interested teams he has an offer of two second-round picks on the table for Garoppolo. Meanwhile, 2018 first overall pick Baker Mayfield’s days in Cleveland are numbered because of Watson. He is scheduled to play the 2022 season under a fully guaranteed $18.858 million fifth-year option.
The Buccaneers faced the prospect of losing multiple key players in free agency with Tom Brady announcing his retirement shortly after a divisional playoff game loss to the Super Bowl LVI champion Rams. Things changed when the greatest quarterback of all time unretired a couple of days before free agency started. Center Ryan Jensen was the first to return by signing a three-year, $39 million contract with $26.5 million of guarantees. Mike McCartney, Jensen’s agent, felt confident he could get $15 million per year on the open market from another team. Cornerback Carlton Davis stayed put with a three-year, $44.5 million deal containing $30 million of guarantees.
Brady successfully recruited former Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage. He joins the Buccaneers on a three-year, $30 million deal with $20 million of guarantees. Wide receiver Chris Godwin, who tore his right ACL and MCL late last season, signed a three-year, $60 million deal ($40 million guaranteed) rather than play a second straight season on a franchise tag. Running back Leonard Fournette made a Tampa farewell post on Instagram before Brady unretired. He’s back with a three-year, $21 million contract worth up to $25.5 million with incentives.
The Buccaneers swung a trade with the Patriots to reunite Brady with offensive guard Shaq Mason. His addition helps offset the loss of both starting offensive guards. Alex Cappa signed with the Bengals in free agency and Ali Marpet unexpectedly retired. Former Patriots defensive back Logan Ryan came aboard almost immediately after the Giants released him. It’s probably just a matter of time before tight end Rob Gronkowski returns to Tampa Bay for a third season. With Brady back and a mass exodus out of Tampa averted, the Buccaneers remain Super Bowl contenders.
4. Help for Herbert
A high-caliber quarterback on a rookie contract, like 2020 sixth overall pick Justin Herbert, is the most valuable commodity in the NFL because of the roster flexibility that can be provided. The Chargers are trying to take advantage of Herbert still being cheap for a starting quarterback, with an upgrade of talent after barely missing the playoffs last season.
Wide receiver Mike Williams was retained with a three-year, $60 million contract that has $40 million fully guaranteed. Mack was acquired from the Bears to give the Chargers another pass-rushing force to pair with Joey Bosa. Cornerback J.C. Jackson was signed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract with $40 million in guarantees to shore up the secondary. Interior defensive linemen Austin Johnson and Sebastian Joseph-Day were signed for $7 million and $8 million per year, respectively, because the Chargers had one of the NFL’s worst run defenses last season.
Herbert isn’t eligible for a new deal until the 2022 regular season ends next January. It’s conceivable that Herbert will join Rodgers in the $50 million-per-year quarterback club. The salary cap numbers in at least the first two years of an extension will be cap friendly.
5. AFC West arms race
The AFC West has become the NFL’s most competitive division because of an influx of talent. Besides the Chargers’ moves, which are discussed above, the Broncos solved the quarterback woes that have existed since Peyton Manning retired after a Super Bowl 50 win during the 2015 season with Wilson. Edge rusher Randy Gregory is Denver’s marquee free agent acquisition. He signed a five-year, $70 million contract with $28 million fully guaranteed.
The Raiders possess arguably the NFL’s most dangerous passing attack with the addition of Adams. He joins Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller and slot wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who caught 103 passes for 1,038 yards with nine touchdowns last season. The Raiders took care of edge rusher Maxx Crosby, a 2021 second-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection, with a four-year, $94 million extension ($53.03 million of guarantees) before signing Jones.
The Chiefs’ six-year reign as AFC West champions could be coming to an end because of key losses, other than Hill being dealt to the Dolphins. The secondary will have a different look in 2022. Cornerback Charvarius Ward signed a three-year, $40.5 million contract containing $26.2 million in guarantees with the 49ers. Mathieu won’t be back. Justin Reid received a three-year, $31.5 million deal with $20.485 million fully guaranteed as his replacement.
Wide receiver will likely be a priority for Kansas City in the upcoming NFL Draft. Marquez Valdez-Scantling was signed to a three-year deal reportedly for $30 million to help offset Hill’s departure. JuJu Smith-Schuster previously signed a one-year, $3.25 million, incentive-laden contract worth up to $10.75 million.
6. Jaguars’ spending spree
The Jaguars seem intent on not having the first pick in the NFL Draft for a third straight year. This led to Jacksonville spending money like a drunken sailor when free agency started. Seven players were signed to contracts totaling $259.5 million with $155.25 million in guarantees.
Getting help for quarterback Trevor Lawrence, 2021’s first overall pick, was prioritized. Wide receiver Christian Kirk signed a four-year, $72 million contract (worth up to $84 million through incentives) with $37 million in guarantees. The deal easily exceeded all reasonable projections of Kirk’s contract. Kirk is expected to consistently be a 1,000-yard receiver because of the contract. Kirk hasn’t had 1,000 receiving yards in any of his four NFL seasons,
Giving Zay Jones a three-year, $24 million deal (worth a maximum of $27 million with incentives) containing $14 million fully guaranteed, was more of a head-scratcher. Jones had 47 receptions, 756 receiving yards and one touchdown last season for the Raiders. Evan Engram received a one-year, $9 million deal with an additional $800,000 in incentives after a disappointing 2021 contract year.
Brandon Scherff was made the NFL’s highest-paid offensive guard with a three-year, $49.5 million contract averaging $16.5 million per year, with $30 million fully guaranteed. The deal is worth up to $52.5 million with incentives.
A splash was made on defense by giving linebacker Foyesade Oluokun the second biggest contract for an off-ball linebacker ever in free agency (by average yearly salary). His three-year, $45 million deal ($15 million per year) has $28 million fully guaranteed and is worth up to $46.5 million with incentives. Defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi and cornerback Darious Williams signed three-year, $30 million deals with $20 million and $18 million fully guaranteed, respectively.
7. Burrow’s bodyguards
The one area the AFC Champion Bengals needed to address this offseason is the offensive line after 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow was sacked 70 times last season, including the playoffs. Offensive line has been the top priority in free agency. The interior was addressed with Cappa and Ted Karras. Cappa signed a four-year contract averaging $8.75 million per year. Karras received a three-year, $18 million deal. Right tackle La’el Collins signed a three-year contract with a base value of $21 million after the Cowboys released him.
8. Free agency flips
Deals could be agreed to during the two-day negotiation period prior to the start of free agency. Contracts couldn’t be signed until free agency officially began at 4 p.m. ET on March 16. Signing is supposed to be just a mere formality after an agreement has been reached. That hasn’t been the case in a couple of instances this year.
Gregory was set to remain with the Cowboys on a five-year, $70 million deal. The deal fell apart because fines were included in the guarantee voiding language, which is negotiable. Salary guarantees in NFL contracts void for a laundry list of reasons, including a refusal to perform services and suspensions. The fine language is standard in Dallas contracts but isn’t the norm around the NFL. Quarterback Dak Prescott’s contract is the only exception with the Cowboys. Fines don’t void Prescott’s guarantees. Gregory and his agent balked at the fine provisions and took the same deal from the Broncos because their voiding language was less restrictive.
Running J.D. McKissic was set to join the Bills on a two-year, $7 million deal. The Commanders put a full-court press on McKissic after an agreement with Buffalo was reached. McKissic stayed in Washington for the same money.
Edge rusher Za’Darius Smith reneged on a four-year, $35 million contract to return to the Ravens, who took him in 2015’s fourth round, after Miller and Jones signed for deals averaging significantly more. He’s joined the Vikings on a back-loaded, three-year, $42 million deal worth up to $47 million with incentives — $20 million of the $42 million in 2024 is in the third and final year of the contract.
9. Fake deals
It’s form over substance with a few of the higher-profile signings. Contracts are being signed with inflated salaries in the latter years strictly for bragging rights. Adams’ five-year, $140 million deal with the Raiders is really $67.5 million over three years because there’s $72.5 million in the last two years. Adams isn’t going to play 2025 and 2026 for $36.25 million each when he’s 32 and 33 years old.
Hill has the distinction of being the NFL’s first $30 million-per-year non-quarterback with the four-year, $120 million extension he signed after being traded to the Dolphins. Realistically, it’s a three-year extension for $75 million because of $45 million in 2026, the final contract year.
The Bills signed 33-year-old Von Miller to a six-year, $120 million contract with $51.435 million of guarantees. Technically, Miller has gotten a bigger contract than when he was franchised by the Broncos after the 2015 season. He signed a six-year, $114.5 million deal containing $70 million in guarantees to become the NFL’s highest-paid non-quarterback in 2016. Miller won’t be completing this contract like he did his last one, which just expired. The last two years are worth $50 million, with $30 million in 2027.
10. The changing wide receiver market
Twenty million per year is quickly becoming the salary floor for highly productive wide receivers. There were four $20 million-per-year wideouts when the offseason began. The number has doubled to eight despite the Titans releasing Julio Jones. The Chargers have two of the eight in Keenan Allen and Williams. The number is only going to continue increasing with 2019 draft picks A.J. Brown (Titans), Terry McLaurin (Commanders), D.K. Metcalf (Seahawks) and Deebo Samuel (49ers) entering contract years. The Bills and Rams may want to address Stefon Diggs and Cooper Kupp’s situations sooner rather than later since they’ve outperformed their deals. Diggs signed a five-year, $72 million extension (worth up to $81 million through salary escalators) with the Vikings in 2018. Kupp signed a three-year extension in 2020, averaging $15.75 million per year. Both players are under contract through the 2023 season.