Each year, signings during the summer and leading up to the start of the regular season change the complexion of the following year’s free agency. Some of the more notable signings of players heading into a contract year since the start of training camp include Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf, Chargers safety Derwin James, Colts offensive guard Quenton Nelson and 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
Nelson reset guard market on a four-year, $80 million contract extension with $60 million of guarantees, where $41 million was fully guaranteed at signing. The deal makes Nelson the league’s fourth-highest-paid offensive lineman at $20 million per year.
James did the same for the safety market. His four-year extension averages $19 million per year. There are $42 million in guarantees. Slightly over $38.58 million was fully guaranteed.
Metcalf and Samuel were two of the latest beneficiaries of an exploding wide receiver market. The Seahawks gave Metcalf a three-year, $72 million extension. The $24 million-per-year deal has $58.22 million in guarantees, which includes the biggest signing bonus ever for a wide receiver at $30 million.
The Metcalf contract provided a blueprint for the 49ers to reach an agreement Samuel. He signed a three-year, $71.55 million extension averaging $23.85 million per year with $58.167 million in guarantees where $41 million was fully guaranteed at signing. The maximum value of the deal is $73.5 million because of incentives.
Here are 15 players to keep an eye on during their contract year:
Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens
The Ravens and Jackson ended contracts talks right before the regular season started in accordance with his self-imposed deadline for a new deal. Jackson, who represents himself, reportedly turned down a five-year offer worth $250 million with $133 million fully guaranteed. The offer had the second-highest average yearly salary and money fully guaranteed ever in an NFL contract.
Jackson chose to play on his $23.016 million fifth-year option because he was adamant about getting a fully guaranteed contract. The Browns gave Watson a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract in connection with his trade from the Browns to the Texans in March. The Watson deal is an anomaly as subsequent quarterback deals, particularly Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson’s $46.1 million and $49 million respective five-year extensions with the Cardinals and Broncos aren’t fully guaranteed.
Negotiations are expected to resume next January after the regular season ends. Jackson is destined to start playing the franchise tag game if both parties remain firmly entrenched in their positions on a fully guaranteed contract. The exclusive franchise designation will be most likely. Four of the last five times quarterbacks have been designated as franchise players the exclusive tag has been used. Jackson would be prohibited from soliciting an offer sheet from other teams with the exclusive version.
The 2023 exclusive quarterback franchise number will be the average of the top five 2023 quarterback salaries (salary cap numbers with some minor adjustments) at the end of next year’s restricted free agent signing period on April 21. It currently projects to $45.248 million. This number is subject to change depending on new quarterback deals, contract restructures, pay cuts and/or releases between now and then.
Tom Brady, QB, Buccaneers
Brady briefly retired after the Buccaneers’ lost to the Rams in the divisional playoff round. His retirement was short-lived, as he changed his mind days before free agency started in mid-March. It was hard to imagine Brady walking away after one of the best seasons of his NFL career in 2021. The 45-year-old threw for a league-leading (and a career high) 5,316 yards and 43 touchdown passes last season. His 67.5 completion percentage was the second-best mark in his career.
It will be tempting for Brady to keep playing beyond this season if he continues to defy Father Time. There could be tremendous costs to his personal life, however, as his wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, isn’t happy that he didn’t stay retired.
Brady already has a post-career transition in place. He will become Fox Sports’ lead analyst on NFL games and work as an “ambassador” for the network with a focus on “client and promotional initiatives” once he decides to permanently hang up his cleats. Brady’s deal is reportedly worth $375 million over 10 years. It is the most lucrative contract in sports broadcasting history. The value of Brady’s contract with Fox Sports is more than he has made from his NFL player contracts. None of Brady’s NFL player contracts have averaged $37.5 million per year like his broadcasting deal.
Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants
Barkley looked like a superstar in the making during a stellar debut season in which he led the NFL with 2,028 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards) and earned 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. That hasn’t come to fruition because of injury and ineffectiveness. Barkley had a lackluster 2021 in his return from a 2020 season where he was limited to two games because of a torn right ACL. Barkley had 593 rushing yards with 3.7 yards per carry in 13 games last season.
2018’s second-overall pick has gotten off to strong start this season. Barkley was named Week 1 NFC Offensive Player of the Week after rushing for 164 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries as well as catching six passes for 30 yards in a 21-20 victory over the Titans. He is currently leading the league in rushing with 236 yards on 39 rushing attempts. Barkley could play himself into a franchise tag in the offseason provided he can sustain his strong start. The 2023 running back franchise tag should be in the $10.1 million neighborhood.
J.J. Watt, DL, Cardinals
Watt’s days as the NFL’s most dominant defensive player when he didn’t miss a game during his first five professional seasons are long gone. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is still an impact player when healthy, which hasn’t been much since then. He has played just 56 of the last 99 regular season games because of a variety of injuries. Watt missed the last 10 regular season games of 2021 with a shoulder injury requiring surgery that had a six-month rehab prognosis. He returned for the Cardinals’ wild card playoff loss to the Rams. The 33-year-old is in the final year of a two-year, $28 million contract (worth up to $30 million through incentives and salary escalators) he signed with the Cardinals in 2021 after the Texans granted his request to be released.
A relatively healthy 2022 season could position Watt for another payday at or for more than his current contract considering how Von Miller and Chandler Jones did in free agency this year. Miller, who is 33, signed for $120 million over six years with the Bills. The deal contains $51.435 million in guarantees where $45 million was fully guaranteed at signing. Realistically, it’s a four-year deal for $70 million since the last two years are worth $50 million, with $30 million in 2027. The 32-year-old Jones received a three-year, $51 million contract with $32 million fully guaranteed from the Raiders.
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, 49ers
San Francisco’s plan to trade Garoppolo early in the offseason went out the window because an injury to his throwing shoulder during last season’s playoffs required surgery in March. The trade market never materialized thanks to Garoppolo’s right shoulder injury.
Garoppolo surprisingly agreed to a massive pay cut from the $25 million he was scheduled to make this season to $7 million with an additional $8.45 million in incentives right before the final roster cutdown to stay with the 49ers as 2020 third-overall pick Trey Lance’s backup. Lance’s season-ending broken right ankle early in Week 2’s contest versus the Seahawks has put Garoppolo back in the lineup. Garoppolo has a season-long audition for quarterback-needy teams since his renegotiated contract prevents the 49ers from designating him as a franchise or transition player in 2023.
Baker Mayfield, QB, Panthers
Mayfield became expendable after the Browns unexpectedly gave up 2022, 2023 and 2024 first-round picks, a 2022 fourth-round pick, a 2023 third-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick to the Texans for Deshaun Watson and a 2024 sixth-round pick in March. The Browns held on to Mayfield until the middle of July before dealing him to the Panthers for a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick, which becomes a fourth-round pick with him taking at least 70% of Carolina’s offensive snaps this season. Mayfield took a slight pay cut from his fully guaranteed $18.858 million fifth-year option to $15.358 million with $3.5 million of incentives being added to facilitate the trade.
The 2018 first-overall pick beat out Sam Darnold, 2018’s third-overall pick, for the starting quarterback job while learning Carolina’s offense on the fly. By demonstrating that a disappointing 2021 was attributed to playing most of the season with a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder, Mayfield should be a starting quarterback in 2023 whether with the Panthers or somewhere else.
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Orlando Brown, OT, Chiefs
Brown rejected a reported six-year, $139 million deal with a $30.25 million signing bonus at the July 15 deadline for franchise players to sign long term. Instead, Brown is playing under a $16.662 million franchise tag. That’s because the deal was backloaded and too long for a 26-year-old Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle to accept. Cosmetically, Brown would have become the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman at $23,166,667 per year because of a highly inflated last year of the contract. The deal was really $95 million for five years since there was a $44 million salary in 2027 that Brown would never see. Brown can count on a second franchise tag for an NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement-mandated 20% raise in 2023 at $19,994,440 unless he has performs poorly this season.
Roquan Smith, LB, Bears
The Bears and Smith, who doesn’t have an agent, had such an acrimonious negotiation that a trade was eventually requested during training camp. Presumably, Smith was looking to become the league’s highest-paid off-ball linebacker, which the Bears weren’t willing to do. That distinction currently belongs to Shaquille Leonard. He received a five-year, $98.5 million extension averaging $19.7 million with $52.5 million of guarantees from the Colts during the 2021 preseason.
Smith, who earned first-team All-Pro honors from the Sporting News and second team All-Pro honors from the Associated Press the last two seasons, is probably looking for a change of scenery after the season. Although an off-ball linebacker hasn’t been designated as a franchise player since David Harris by the Jets in 2011, it isn’t out the question for Smith. The Bears should have upwards to $100 million in salary cap space next year. The 2023 linebacker franchise tag is expected to be around $20.5 million.
Dalton Schultz, TE, Cowboys
Schultz quickly signed his $10.931 million tender after the Cowboys made him a franchise player in March. He had a career year in 2021 with 78 catches, 808 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Schultz and the Cowboys were never close to a deal before the multi-year contract deadline for franchise players. The Browns signing David Njoku, who was also franchised, to a four-year deal averaging $13,687,500 per year in June instantly became Schultz’s salary floor. Schultz has been much more productive than Njoku over the past two seasons. Darren Waller resetting the tight end market with his new three-year extension at $17 million per year probably complicates matters because others playing the position usually benefit from the bar being raised financially. Schultz is currently dealing with a PCL issue in his right knee that isn’t expected to keep him out of action for a significant period of time.
Bates didn’t sign his $12.911 million franchise tender until the latter part of August after negotiations failed to produce a long-term agreement. If history is any indication, Bates is headed for the open market after the season. There isn’t a track record of the Bengals using a franchise tag on the same player in consecutive years. Cincinnati also seemingly has a contingency plan in place for an eventual Bates departure. Safety Daxton Hill was selected 31st overall in this year’s NFL Draft.
Marcus Peters, CB, Ravens
Peters missed last year because he tore an ACL in the days leading up to the 2021 regular season opener. He made his 2022 season debut in Week 2 against the Dolphins. Peters has a league-most 31 interceptions since entering the NFL in 2015. Returning to being one of the NFL’s premier ballhawks could be critical to Peters’ financial future. Peters is in the final year of a three-year extension averaging $14 million per year he signed at the end of the 2019 regular season.
Elgton Jenkins, OL, Packers
Jenkins is a rarity because he can play every offensive line position at a high level. 2021 was cut short by an ACL tear in his left knee 11 games into the season. Jenkins earned Pro Bowl honors in 2020 primarily playing left guard. Regaining his previous form as a right tackle this season should make Jenkins a hot commodity on the open market next March because of his unmatched versatility. It may make sense for the Packers to put a franchise tag on Jenkins to keep him in the fold. The 2023 offensive lineman franchise tag should be in the $18.25 million neighborhood.
Mike Gesicki, TE, Dolphins
The Dolphins and Gesicki were content for him to play this season under his $10.931 million franchise tag. Gesicki hasn’t made a smooth transition to a traditional tight end role where more blocking is required than how he had been previously utilized as essentially a jumbo-sized wide receiver. Surprisingly, Gesicki’s has seen a significant decrease in playing time so far in 2022 compared to last season. He’s been on the field for 69 of Miami’s 131 offensive snaps (52.7% playtime) after having a 71.7% playtime last season. It will be interesting to see whether this development continues.
Bradley Chubb, Edge, Broncos
Chubb is currently playing under a $13.926 million fifth-year option after a forgettable 2021 season. Slowed by ankle injuries, 2018’s fifth-overall pick was sackless in the seven games he played. Chubb has been a force when healthy. He led rookies with 12 sacks in 2018. Chubb didn’t show any ill effects from the torn left ACL that limited him to four games in 2019 by earning Pro Bowl honors in 2020. With a return to his 2018 or 2020 form, Chubb will be worth a lot more than his option-year salary. Two sacks in the season opener against the Seahawks is a step in the right direction.
Daniel Jones, QB, Giants
The new regime of head coach Brian Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen declined to pick up Jones’ fully guaranteed $22.384 million fifth-year option for 2023. Daboll developed Josh Allen as Bills offensive coordinator. The Giants are off to a surprising 2-0 start but aren’t winning because of Jones’ arm. If Daboll can’t get Jones to start living up to the potential that made him 2019’s sixth-overall pick, he won’t be the Giants’ starting quarterback in 2023.
- James Bradberry, CB, Eagles
- Jadeveon Clowney, Edge, Browns
- Jack Conklin, OT, Browns
- Lavonte David, LB, Buccaneers
- Marcus Davenport, Edge, Saints
- Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Bills
- Evan Engram, TE, Jaguars
- Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, DB, Eagles
- Javon Hargrave, DT, Eagles
- Jarvis Landry, WR, Saints
- Yannick Ngakoue, Edge, Colts
- Daron Payne, DT, Commanders
- Tony Pollard, RB, Cowboys
- Jordan Poyer, S, Bills
- JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Chiefs