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Agent’s Take: Target prices for Chris Jones, other intriguing defensive players with expiring contracts

Target prices for 10 offensive players with expiring contracts were covered in an article earlier in the week. The focus now turns to defense. 

Things will really get going on March 11 when the exclusive negotiating rights NFL teams have had with their impending free agents ends. The agents of prospective unrestricted free agents are allowed to negotiate with teams beginning at 12 p.m. ET on March 11 until 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. 

As a reminder, 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, amount fully guaranteed at signing and first three years compensation (when applicable) for 10 intriguing defensive players who will be unrestricted free agents or were designated as a franchise player.

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 a 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: $132.5 million/4 years ($33.125 million per year)
  • Overall guarantees: $90 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $72.5 million

Rarely does arguably the best player at a position get to test free agency. A case can be made that Jones has overtaken three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald as the league’s best interior defensive lineman. Jones leads NFL interior defensive linemen with 35 sacks over the last three seasons (2021 through 2023). Donald and Javon Hargrave are tied for second. They are 9.5 sacks behind Jones with 25.5 sacks. Donald hasn’t had a double-digit sack season since 2021 when he had 12.5 sacks.

Not only does Jones lead NFL interior defensive linemen over the last three seasons in quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, his 217 are the NFL’s fifth most during this span. The four players ahead of Jones (Maxx Crosby-Las Vegas Raiders; Nick Bosa- San Francisco 49ers; Micah Parsons-Dallas Cowboys and Myles Garrett-Cleveland Browns) are edge rushers. Donald trails Jones by seven with 210 quarterback pressures. No other interior defensive linemen are within 45 quarterback pressures of Jones’ 217. 

The best at a position typically signs a contract extension well in advance of free agency or is designated as a franchise player. Jones and the Kansas City Chiefs couldn’t get on the same page during negotiations for a new deal last year. He engaged in the contract dispute that extended into the regular season. Modifications were made to Jones’ remaining 2023 contract year to end his 51-day holdout without a long-term deal before preparations for Kansas City’s second regular-season game against the Jacksonville Jaguars began.

The Chiefs apparently felt comfortable enough after meeting with Jones’ representatives at the NFL Scouting Combine last week that he wasn’t given a franchise tag. It would have cost $32,169,912, which would have easily been the largest for a non-quarterback in league history, because of how the 120% of prior year’s salary provisions work with the designation. 

Donald sets the pay scale for interior defensive linemen with the three-year, $95 million contract, averaging $31,666,667 per year, he received from the Los Angeles Rams in 2022. Bosa replaced Donald as the league’s highest-paid non-quarterback a couple of days before the regular season started when he signed a five year, $170 million contract extension, averaging $34 million per year, to end his own holdout. The midpoint of Bosa’s and Donald’s contracts, which are for $265 million collectively over eight years, is $33.125 million per year.

Jones has repeatedly said he wants to spend his entire career with the Chiefs. Some sort of sizeable hometown discount to accomplish this goal would be a major shock. Jones had so much conviction about his market value during negotiations last year that he racked up $2.25 million of mandatory fines ($50,000 per day) for missing training camp, lost one week’s regular-season salary worth $1,083,333 and forfeited a $500,000 workout bonus because he didn’t participate in the offseason conditioning program. He should ultimately join Bosa and Donald as the only defensive players in the $30 million-per-year club whether with a new team in free agency or by staying in Kansas City.

  • Contract package: $150 million/5 years ($30 million per year)
  • Overall guarantees: $105 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $82.5 million
  • First three years: $95 million  

The Carolina Panthers getting a long-term deal done with Burns has been a difficult proposition. Burns was always going to have a hard time reconciling the Panthers turning down two first-round picks and a second-round pick from the Rams for him during the middle of 2022 season with offers in the same range as the $23.5 million per year Maxx Crosby received in 2022 from the Raiders on a four-year contract extension. 

The five-year extension, averaging $34 million per year, Nick Bosa received from the San Francisco 49ers right before the regular season started only complicated matters. Bosa’s deal set non-quarterback records with $122.5 million in guarantees and $88 million fully guaranteed at signing. Burns surely took note of the 21.4% gap between Bosa and the four-year, $112.011 million extension, averaging $28,002,750 per year with $80 million fully guaranteed, T.J. Watt received from the Pittsburgh Steelers as the start of the 2021 regular season was approaching to reset the edge rusher market.

Burns wasn’t as productive in 2023 as he was in 2022. He went from a career-high 12.5 sacks in 2022 to eight sacks last season. That’s partially because his number of pass-rushing snaps dropped from 525 in 2022 to 379, according to PFF, since the Panthers were constantly playing from behind last season. Per PFF, Burns’ 13.2% pass-rush win rate was the highest in his five-year NFL career. It was 11.4% in 2022.

There is speculation that the Panthers will attempt to trade Burns. The return won’t be as great as it would have been in 2022. The last two edge rushers given franchise tags who signed long-term deals in connection with a trade were Frank Clark and Dee Ford. Clark was acquired by the Chiefs from the Seattle Seahawks for a 2019 first-round pick and a 2020 second-round pick shortly before the 2019 NFL Draft was held at the end of that April. There was also a swap of 2019 third-round picks. The 49ers dealt a 2020 second-round pick to the Chiefs for Ford when the 2019 league year started that March.

  • Contract package: $80 million/4 years ($20 million per year)
  • Overall guarantees: $42.5 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $42.5 million

If Winfield wasn’t the NFL’s best safety in 2023, it was Jessie Bates III, who signed a four-year, $64.02 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons as an unrestricted free agent last March to become the NFL’s fourth-highest-paid safety at $16.005 million per year. The deal had $36 million fully guaranteed at signing.

Winfield did a little bit of everything statistically last season en route to earning First Team All-Pro honors. He had three interceptions, six forced fumbles (tied for league’s most), four fumble recoveries and led NFL safeties with six sacks.

After the season Winfield had, he should be looking to reset the safety market. That distinction belongs to Derwin James at $19 million per year. James received a four-year, $76 million extension with $42 million in guarantees, where $38,584,471 was fully guaranteed at signing, from the Los Angeles Chargers in 2022.

  • Contract package: $110 million/4 years ($27.5 million per year)
  • Overall guarantees: $80 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $60 million

Allen was forced to play under a $10.892 million fifth-year option last season because the Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t make an effort to extend his contract. He responded with a career-high 17.5 sacks, which tied for second in the NFL. Allen’s 90 quarterback pressures were the league’s fifth most. The most recent edge rusher data point is the four-year, $98 million extension, averaging $24 million per year, Montez Sweat signed with the Bears in November. This deal has $72,865,360 in guarantees, of which $41,965,360 was fully guaranteed at signing. Putting Sweat’s deal in a 2024 salary cap environment is slightly more than $27.25 million per year. Sweat had 12.5 sacks and 64 quarterback pressures last season.

  • Contract package: $106 million/4 years ($26.5 million per year)
  • Overall guarantees: $70 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $55 million

Wilkins played the 2023 season on a $10.753 million fifth-year option after negotiations with the Miami Dolphins couldn’t produce a new deal. The market was well-defined after three of Wilkins’ fellow 2019 first-round pick interior defensive linemen (Dexter Lawrence-New York Giants, Jeffery Simmons-Tennessee Titans and Quinnen Williams-New York Jets) signed four-year extensions between $22.5 million and $24 million per year. The overall guarantees ranged from $59 million to $66 million with the amount fully guaranteed at signing between $46.5 million and $47.835 million. The $23,333,333 average yearly salary of these three deals adjusted for the 13.61% increase in the salary cap from 2023 is $26.5 million per year. 

  • Contract package: $87 million/4 years ($21.75 million per year)
  • Overall guarantees: $57.5 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $46.5 million

Sneed clamped down on several opposing No. 1 wide receivers in 2023, including Davante Adams, A.J. Brown, Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Opposing quarterbacks completed 51.9% of passes (42 of 81 attempts) for a 55.9 passer rating, according to PFF, when targeting Sneed last season. Based on PFF data, Sneed didn’t allow a touchdown in 600 regular-season coverage snaps. 

The Chiefs placed a franchise tag on Sneed reportedly with the intent of trading him. Jaylon Johnson, the other cornerback who was designated as a franchise player, just agreed to a four-year deal with the Chicago Bears reportedly worth $76 million. There are supposedly $54 million of guarantees in the deal, which includes $43.8 million fully guaranteed at signing. 

The $19 million average yearly salary doesn’t make Johnson one of the league’s five-highest-paid cornerbacks. He would have needed to sign for more than $19.4 million per year for solo fifth place.

The $19.802 million franchise tag should have given Johnson enough ammunition to replace Jaire Alexander as the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback. The four-year extension Alexander signed with the Green Bay Packers in 2022 averages $21 million per year.

A second franchise tag for Sneed in 2025 at a NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement-mandated 20% increase over his 2024 number would be $23,762,400. The average of franchising Sneed twice in a row will be a little more than $21.75 million per year. 

  • Contract package: $76 million/4 years ($19 million per year)
  • Overall guarantees: $52.5 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $43.5 million

The Baltimore Ravens declined to pick up a fully guaranteed $12.722 million fifth-year option with Queen for 2024 last spring. That type of financial investment in Queen didn’t make the most economic sense for the Ravens after making Roquan Smith the NFL’s first and only $20 million-per-year off-ball linebacker in January 2023 right before the start of the 2022 season playoffs with a five-year, $100 million deal, with $60 million in guarantees, of which $45 million was fully guaranteed at signing. Smith and Queen have formed arguably the NFL’s best off-ball linebacker tandem ever since the former was acquired from the Bears during the middle of the 2022 season at the trade deadline.  

Queen proceeded to have his best season as a pro in 2023. He earned Pro Bowl honors and was named a Second Team All-Pro by the Associated Press, both for the first time last season. Tremaine Edmunds was the only off-ball linebacker to get a huge payday in free agency last year. He received a four-year, $72 million contract, averaging $18 million per year with $50 million in guarantees, where $41.8 million was fully guaranteed at signing, from the Bears.

  • Contract package: $100 million/4 years ($25 million per year)
  • Overall guarantees: $67.5 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $52.5 million

Madubuike had a breakout 2023 season. His sack production took a dramatic jump last season. The 2020 third-round pick had 8.5 combined sacks in his three previous NFL seasons prior to 2023. Madubuike led NFL interior defensive linemen with 13 sacks. He tied a league record with at least a half-sack in 11 straight games during a Week 15 contest against the Jaguars. 

  • Contract package: $45 million/3 years ($15 million per year)
  • Overall guarantees: $31.5 million
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $31.5 million

McKinney is the top safety available in free agency after the Buccaneers and New England Patriots restricted Antoine Winfield Jr. and Kyle Dugger, respectively, with a franchise and transition tag. He was an iron man in 2023 playing all 1,128 of the Giants’ defensive snaps.

High-priced safeties have been dropping like flies recently with Jamal Adams ($17.5 million per year), Quandre Diggs ($13 million per year), Eddie Jackson ($14,604,250 per year) and Justin Simmons ($15.25 million per year) each getting their walking papers. It’s suddenly a more crowded safety market. 

There’s an age gap between McKinney and these guys. McKinney is 24.With the exception of Adams, who turns 29 during the 2024 season, each one is at least 30 years old. 

McKinney has indicated he wants top-five safety money. His agent is David Mulugheta, who has had his finger on the pulse of the safety market through his representation of Budda Baker, Bates, Kevin Byard and Diggs.

Top-five money is different than it was a couple of days ago. Simmons rounded out the top five at $15.25 million per year. Marcus Williams is now the NFL’s fifth-highest-paid safety on the five-year, $70 million contract, averaging $14 million per year with $37 million in guarantees ($32 million fully guaranteed at signing), he received from the Ravens in 2022 free agency. The $16.005 million-per-year contract Bates signed with the Falcons last year in free agency will factor into the equation since Mulugheta did the deal.

  • Contract package: $10 million/1 year (worth up to $11.5 million with incentives)
  • Overall guarantees: $10 million ($7.5 million as signing bonus with up to four voiding/dummy years for salary cap purposes)

Last season was a year for White to forget. White asked for a trade early last offseason because of the lack of a contract extension. He reportedly wanted top off-ball linebacker money. Since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held their ground on White’s trade request and a new deal, he played the 2023 season under an $11.706 million fifth-year option. 

White’s goal for the 2023 season was to become a complete overall linebacker rather than just a blitzing linebacker who made splash plays. It didn’t happen. 

White, who missed three games with a foot injury, was on the field for 79.38% of Tampa Bay’s defensive snaps during the regular season. His playtime took a drastic drop in the playoffs to 30.3% because of confidence in K.J. Britt

Only two off-ball linebackers have signed for more than $10 million per year as free agents over the last two years. Edmunds got $18 million per year from the Bears last year. Foye Oluokun received a three-year, $45 million contract (worth up to $46.5 million with incentives), averaging $15 million per year, from the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2022. The best bet to get a big payday in free agency this year is Patrick Queen.

White runs a serious risk of pricing himself out of the market if his contract expectations haven’t changed. However, it only takes one team to be seduced by the talent that made White the fifth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft for him to break the bank.

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