Thursday, April 18, 2024
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Agent’s Take: Breaking down target prices for 10 intriguing offensive players with expiring contracts

A closed mouth doesn’t get fed. An agent can’t get something for a client if he or she doesn’t ask for it. Asking is the easy part. The hard part can be getting an asking or target price, especially when a player doesn’t have a lot of suitors.

Agents and NFL teams may have already gotten a sense of the 2024 free agent market. Meetings between agents of impending free agents and teams routinely occur at the NFL Combine, which ended on March 4. These types of discussions technically aren’t permitted by NFL rules. Teams are rarely penalized for tampering with players from other teams when those players are scheduled to become free agents.

The exclusive negotiating rights teams have had with their impending free agents end on March 11. That’s when NFL teams are allowed to negotiate with the agents of prospective unrestricted free agents during a two-day period, beginning March 11 at noon ET and ending at 3:59:59 p.m. ET on March 13. Prospective UFAs who don’t have an agent can also negotiate with front-office executives of teams. Players can’t sign deals with new clubs until the 2024 league year and free agency officially begin at 4 p.m. ET. A player’s ability to re-sign with his current club is allowed during the period.

NFL teams and players recently got some unexpected good news. The 2024 salary cap has been set at $255.4 million. Initial projections in December put the 2024 salary cap in the $240 million-to-$245 million range. The $30.6 million increase from 2023’s $224.8 million salary cap is unprecedented.

It’s become a fairly common practice for agents to adjust existing contracts for salary cap inflation from signing when preparing for negotiations on behalf of clients, particularly if there is a fairly significant jump in the salary cap like with this year’s 13.61% increase. How persuasive this approach is with NFL teams varies. When I was representing players, I found that some teams were dismissive while others were somewhat receptive to this kind of approach.

It was my responsibility while working on the agent side to create target or asking prices for the firm’s clients headed toward free agency regardless of whether I was the lead agent. In that spirit, I have set target prices with total contract value, overall guarantees and amount fully guaranteed at signing for 10 intriguing offensive players who will be unrestricted free agents or were designated as franchise players.

Players don’t necessarily sign for their target prices because free agency is a fluid process where adaptations must be made to changing market conditions. Some players are disappointed in free agency’s outcome because their market never develops for a variety of reasons (age, unrealistic contract demands, supply and demand at playing position, etc.).

Remember the target or asking prices for these players may be on the high side and aren’t necessarily what their actual deals will be.

Contract package: $125 million/three years ($41,666,667 per year, worth up to $131 million with incentives)

Overall guarantees: $85 million

Fully guaranteed at signing: $85 million

Adjusting Cousins’ soon-to-be-expiring one-year contract extension worth $35 million he signed with the Minnesota Vikings in 2022 for salary cap inflation would put him just below $43 million per year. Asking for slightly under this mark accounts for the season-ending torn right Achilles injury Cousins suffered in a Week 8 contest against the Green Bay Packers when he was arguably playing the best football of his 12-year NFL career.

This 2022 extension included voiding 2024 and 2025 contract years for cap purposes. A 2023 contract restructure tacked on voiding 2026 and 2027 contract years to create $16 million of 2023 cap space. All four years void when the 2023 league year ends on March 13.

The Vikings will have a $28.5 million cap charge without a new deal in place by March, 13 thanks to these four dummy years. The $28.5 million becomes a sunk cost for the Vikings once voiding occurs even if Cousins is subsequently re-signed.

Contract package: $160 million/four years ($40 million per year)

Overall guarantees: $122.5 million

Fully guaranteed at signing: $85 million

Mayfield had the best contract year of anyone in 2023. He took a modest one-year, $4 million “prove it” deal worth up to $8.5 million through incentives from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to compete with Kyle Trask to replace Tom Brady as starting quarterback. Mayfield never looked back after winning a training camp battle with Trask.

The Buccaneers won a third consecutive NFC South title with a 9-8 record while Mayfield resurrected his career. He had season bests of 4,044 passing yards (ninth in the NFL), 28 touchdowns passes (seventh in the NFL) and a 64.3% completion percentage. The Buccaneers advanced to the divisional playoffs for just the third time in 21 years with a wild-card round win over the Philadelphia Eagles before losing to the Detroit Lions in the divisional round.

In the two playoff games, Mayfield threw for 686 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 48 of 77 pass attempts (62.3%) for a 106.3 passer rating. He is the only Buccaneers quarterback to ever throw for 300-plus yards and at least three touchdowns in a playoff game, which 2018’s first overall pick did in both postseason contests.

Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles said Mayfield had earned the right to return in 2024 after being eliminated from the playoffs. Mayfield lobbied for Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans to return when he expressed a desire to remain with the Buccaneers. Evans just signed a two-year, $41 million deal (worth up to $52 million through incentives and salary escalator) with $35 million in guarantees where $29 million is fully guaranteed at signing.

The contract Daniel Jones received from the New York Giants last March — a four-year, $160 million contract with $104 million in guarantees, of which $81 million was fully guaranteed at signing — surely has Mayfield’s attention. Jones’ contract is worth up to $195 million, thanks to somewhat realistically achievable incentives and salary escalators for a $48.75 million per year maximum value.

It wouldn’t be surprising for Mayfield to actually sign a deal in the Geno Smith neighborhood although the average salary for starting quarterbacks in 2023, excluding those on rookie contracts, was $37,651,853 per year, according to NFLPA data. The Seattle Seahawks signed Smith to a three-year, $75 million contract averaging $25 million per year with $40 million in guarantees where $27.5 million was fully guaranteed at signing last March. The deal is worth as much as $105 million through salary escalators for a maximum average of $35 million per year.

The structure of Mayfield’s $40 million-per-year target price is based on quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s expiring contract with the Tennessee Titans. Tannehill signed a four-year, $118 million deal with $91 million of guarantees where $62 million was fully guaranteed at signing in 2020.

Contract package: $33 million/three years ($11 million per year)

Overall guarantees: $23 million

Fully guaranteed at signing: $20 million

The economic conditions aren’t favorable for running backs heading into free agency. Supply appears to be greater than the expected demand with Austin Ekeler, Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard and D’Andre Swift also going on the open market.

NFL teams exercised fiscal restraint with running backs in free agency last year. The top deal on the open market went to Miles Sanders. He got a four-year, $25.64 million contract from the Carolina Panthers with $13 million fully guaranteed after a 2022 season with the Eagles in which he had career highs of 1,269 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, which were fifth and eight in the NFL respectively.

Barkley played the 2023 season on a $10.091 million franchise tag last season in which $909,000 worth of incentives were added for a maximum of $11 million after he and the Giants and couldn’t get a deal done before the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign multi-year contract years despite initially starting negotiations during the middle of the 2022 season. He reportedly rejected a three-year offer in the $11 million-per-year neighborhood with $22 million to $23 million in guarantees at this deadline. These sides were apparently within $2 million of what Barkley was looking for to consummate a deal.

Barkley getting what he rejected last July would be a major victory for him given the running back climate. His worst-case scenario should be slightly above Sanders’ $6.35 million per deal with the Panthers.

Contract package: $20 million/two years ($10 million per year)

Overall guarantees: $14 million

Fully guaranteed at signing: $11 million

Henry has two big potential strikes against him in what could be a depressed running back market. He turned 30 in January, and crossed the 2,000-career carry mark during the 2023 season. Henry’s 2,030 rushing attempts rank 42nd in NFL history.

Henry still has some gas left in the tank despite his age and mileage. He was second in the NFL with 1,167 rushing yards on a league-leading 280 carries last season.

Advanced metrics suggest Father Time won’t catch up to Henry in 2024. Henry consistently tops Pro Football Focus’ yards after contact metric, which is expected given his heavy workload. His 930 yards were 2023’s best. More importantly, Henry’s 3.32 yards after contact per rushing attempt (minimum of 100 carries) ranked eighth in the league last year. It’s been fairly constant over the last three seasons with 3.6 in 2022 (fourth in the NFL) and 3.32 in 2021 (ninth in the NFL).

The average yearly salary of 2023’s 15 highest-paid running backs on veteran contracts was a little more than $9.975 million per year with the average contract length being 2.73 new years. It was used as a guide for Henry’s target price.

The optimal situation for Henry is probably a team that views him as an offensive missing piece to a championship puzzle. Two teams that could fall in this category are the Baltimore Ravens and the Dallas Cowboys.

Contract package: $73.5 million/three years ($24.5 million per year)

Overall guarantees: $31.5 million (all signing bonus)

Fully guaranteed at signing: $31.5 million (all signing bonus)

Injuries limiting Higgins to 12 games in 2023 prevented him from having a third straight 1,000 receiving yard season. Higgins would have been in high demand on the open market if he hadn’t been designated as a franchise player. He is the No. 2 receiving option with the Cincinnati Bengals behind Ja’Marr Chase, but a No. 1 wide receiver on multiple other teams.

The NFL’s two highest-paid wide receivers who aren’t primary receiving options with their teams are Chris Godwin and Mike Williams. Godwin and Williams signed nearly identical three-year, $60 million deals averaging $20 million per year respectively in 2022 with the Buccaneers and Los Angeles Chargers. Each deal had $40 million fully guaranteed at signing. Adjusting for salary cap inflation, these contracts are worth $24.5 million per year.

The Bengals have been in the dark ages when it comes to structuring contracts for veteran players. The only guaranteed money in Cincinnati veteran contracts is a signing bonus and/or a roster bonus payable within a few days of signing. The bigger deals contain an unsecured third or fifth day of the league year roster bonus in the second and third years. The roster bonuses are supposed to be substitutes for additional contract guarantees. The overall guarantees in Bengals contracts are less than comparable deals on other teams. The lone exception is quarterback Joe Burrow’s extension last September that made him the NFL’s highest-paid player at $55 million per year.

Signing bonus will be crucial to Higgins if he signs a long-term deal. DK Metcalf’s $30 million signing bonus from the three-year, $72 million extension averaging $24 million per year the Seahawks signed him to in 2022 is the biggest ever for a wide receiver.

Offers the Bengals made to extend Higgins’ contract before the 2023 season were considered as “low.” Higgins wasn’t interested in continuing to negotiate once the season started. I suspect Higgins will wind up playing the 2024 season on his franchise tag before departing next year in free agency because it will be too cost prohibitive for Cincinnati to have two high-priced wide receivers long term. Chase has already made it clear that he intends to wait for Justin Jefferson to reset the wide receiver market before signing a new deal.

Contract package: $27 million/two years ($13.5 million per year worth up to $15 million per year with incentives)

Overall guarantees: $20 million

Fully guaranteed at signing: $15 million

Smith is still one of the NFL’s better left tackles when healthy. The 33-year-old has been continually bitten by the injury bug in recent years. Smith earned second team All-Pro honors by the Associated Press in 2023 while taking 71.54% of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps. It was the most Smith had played since 2019 when his offensive playtime was 78.68%.

Smith took a pay cut from $13.6 million to a fully guaranteed $6 million with the opportunity to earn as much as $17 million total through incentives in 2023 because of his lack of durability. Earning $5 million of the incentives increased his pay to $11 million.

Smith should expect any deal he signs to include significant per game roster bonuses because of his injury history, much like the five year, $75 million contract (worth up to $87.5 million through incentives) left tackle Terron Armstead signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2022 as a free agent. The $15 million-per-year deal contains $1 million in annual per game roster bonuses where Armstead gets $58,823.53 for each time he’s on Miami’s game day active roster.

Contract package: $96 million/four years ($24 million per year)

Overall guarantees: $60 million

Fully guaranteed at signing: $50 million

Pittman called failing to reach a contract extension before the 2023 season started a blessing in disguise. He had a career year with 109 receptions, 1,152 receiving yards and four touchdown catches in 16 games last season. A franchise tag isn’t a surprise because the Indianapolis Colts really couldn’t run the risk of their best receiving threat getting away with 2023 fourth overall pick Anthony Richardson, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 5, as the quarterback of the future.

A second franchise tag for Pittman in 2025 at an NFL collective bargaining agreement-mandated 20% increase over his 2024 number will be $26,179,200. Pittman would make just under $48 million from two straight franchise tags. The average of franchising Pittman twice in a row will be a little less than $24 million per year.

Contract package: $75 million/four years ($18.75 million per year)

Overall guarantees: $50 million

Fully guaranteed at signing: $40 million

Onwenu had settled in at right guard with the New England Patriots after spending time at left guard and right tackle earlier in his NFL career. That was the case until last season. Onwenu took most of his snaps at right tackle in 2023. His position flexibility is reminiscent of Elgton Jenkins, who signed a four-year extension averaging $17 million per year with the Packers late in the 2022 season. Onwenu’s best deal may come elsewhere as the Patriots have a history of letting offensive lineman leave in free agency instead of playing them big money (i.e. Trent Brown, Nate Solder, Joe Thuney).

Contract package: $30 million/three years ($10 million per year)

Overall guarantees: $20 million

Fully guaranteed at signing: $20 million

Dalton Schultz set the free agent tight end market by just agreeing to a three-year, $36 million contract averaging $12 million per year to return to the Houston Texans. The deal has $23.5 million fully guaranteed at signing. Fant arguably becomes the best tight end available in free agency with Schultz off the market.

Prior to the Schultz deal, the last data point in the tight end market was Tyler Higbee’s two-year, $17 million extension averaging $8.5 million per year with the Los Angeles Rams in late September. There are $16,075,980 of guarantees in the deal. It would be surprising for the actual contract that Fant signed to be somewhere between these two deals.

Contract package: $66 million/four years ($16.5 million per year)

Overall guarantees: $37.5 million

Fully guaranteed at signing: $35 million

Dotson was acquired in a preseason trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers to provide the Rams offensive line depth. He flourished at right guard with the change of scenery after being inserted in the starting lineup four games into the season. Pass protection had typically been Dotson’s strength. Dotson’s improved run blocking was a big part of a potent Rams rushing attack. He played at a Pro Bowl level.

Dotson was a penalty waiting to happen in 2022. Dotson was flagged 12 times with 11 of the infractions being accepted. He was only penalized twice in 2023.

The top offensive guard deal in 2023 free agency went to Ben Powers. The Broncos signed him to a four-year, $52 million contract averaging $13 million per year with $28.5 million in guarantees, of which $27 million was fully guaranteed at signing.

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