NFL free agency is spotlighted, but don’t forget about the three most important contracts of the offseason in Dak Prescott, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson.
Quarterbacks always generate the headlines.
This offseason, the order in which the three of them appears matters.
Dak Prescott, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are all up for massive extensions before training camp. Whoever gets paid first has a tremendous chance of being the second highest-paid player in football — by guaranteed money, annual value and overall salary — behind the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. However, whoever signs last will likely finish the offseason in said position, while the initial signee drops to fourth in the pecking order.
For Prescott, he played last year on the tag for the Dallas Cowboys before a gruesome ankle injury ended his campaign. While he’s technically about to hit free agency, nobody expects that to happen. He’ll likely be tagged at $37 million and then another round of high-stakes negotiating begins. If Dallas can’t extend him, it should seek a trade partner to get maximum return.
Allen’s deal should be simple. The 24-year-old earned Second-Team All-Pro honors and took the Buffalo Bills to the AFC title game for the first time since 1993, throwing for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns. Now eligible for an extension, look for Bills general manager Brandon Beane to engage with Allen on a deal likely worth north of $40 million per year.
Finally, the most complicated of the group. While Allen and Prescott are going to get their money (Prescott will get it, Dallas or not), Lamar Jackson remains somewhat a mystery. Despite being a unanimous MVP in 2019, Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens have flamed out in the postseason each of his first three seasons.
Furthermore, Jackson is averaging less than 3,000 passing yards per season over the last two campaigns, and while his legs are electric, are they a good long-term stock option? After Baltimore lost to the Buffalo in the AFC playoffs, I wrote extensively about the situation facing the Ravens in regards to Jackson. While I encourage you to revisit the piece, here’s an important chunk:
"Speaking to a long-time agent, the belief was conveyed that Jackson will come in slightly below Mahomes. While Jackson is a year younger and also a former MVP, Mahomes has produced more total touchdowns and won the Super Bowl. Additionally, the Chiefs’ signal-caller is 5-1 in the postseason while Jackson is 1-3.This year, Jackson started 15 games and threw for 2,757 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also ran for 1,005 yards, becoming the first quarterback ever to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season twice. In his MVP campaign of 2019, Jackson scampered for 1,206 yards while adding 3,127 yards and 36 scores through the air.Unfortunately, the playoffs have been a disaster. Jackson has a 55.9 percent completion rate with three touchdowns and five interceptions. While he won his first postseason game this year, it’s hard to say he’s moved past the doubts which dogged him all year.Finally, another source believes the Ravens should decline Jackson’s fifth-year option, letting him play out his contract before Baltimore drafts his replacement. The reasons being the offense masking his inability to win often with his arm, coupled with his underwhelming performance in big moments.This is an unlikely scenario, but it raises an interesting point. If the Ravens believe Jackson has peaked as a passer, can they pay top-dollar? Furthermore, if Baltimore is willing to pay, does it believe offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme is the right one to move forward with?"
While some may say Baltimore and Buffalo can wait on their respective quarterbacks, doing so would be an affront to both.
In recent years, decent-and-better starting quarterbacks on rookie deals have gotten extensions almost without exception. Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson and Mahomes are a few of the most-recent examples. All four were first-round picks who had varying degrees of success in their first three NFL tours, and earned massive paydays.
Allen and Jackson have certainly enjoyed the requisite success both from an individual and team standpoint to warrant such rewards. Furthermore, the teams would be smart to pay now as new TV deals and the removal of COVID-19 as an issue will have the salary cap skyrocketing in upcoming years. If there’s a time to pay Allen and Jackson — provided they’re believed in — now is it.
Of course, circling back to quarterbacks being paid, the one exception has been Prescott. After tagging him once and likely doing it again within the next few days, the Cowboys have to finally make a choice. Either get committed, or divorce.
Prescott, 27, has won a division title and a playoff game. He’s thrown for 4,900 yards and 30 touchdowns in a season. He’s a hard-worker by all accounts and hits the modern mold of a quarterback with both arm talent and mobility. Yet Dallas hasn’t signed him.
If the Cowboys trade Prescott, it could set off a chain reaction around the league. With so many teams seemingly discontented with their quarterbacks — or vice versa — pulling one rock from the mountain could cause a proverbial avalanche.
Ultimately, smart money is always on quarterbacks being paid. It would be surprising if Buffalo doesn’t lock up Allen. The same to a lesser degree is true of Jackson and Baltimore. Prescott and the Cowboys have nervously eyed the altar for more than a year, but Dallas is better off taking the plunge.
Still, assuming the deals happen, the order in which they are consummated matters. Whoever signs first sets the price for the other two, perhaps pushing the market somewhere one front office isn’t willing to go. It’s not only about ego but dollars and cents, and millions of them at that.
For all the hype of free agency and the draft, teams rise and fall on the shoulders of their quarterbacks.
It’ll be fascinating to see who takes care of theirs, and when, in the coming months.
Top 10 salary cap hits for 2021 (via Spotrac)
1. Matt Ryan – QB – Atlanta Falcons – $40.9M
2. Aaron Rodgers – QB – Green Bay Packers – $37.6M
3. Russell Wilson – QB – Seattle Seahawks – $32M
4. Kirk Cousins – QB – Minnesota Vikings – $31M
5. Ryan Tannehill – QB – Tennessee Titans – $29.5M
6. Tom Brady – QB – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – $28.4M
7. Aaron Donald – DT – Los Angeles Rams – $27.9M
8. Jared Goff – QB – Detroit Lions – $27.8M
9. Khalil Mack – EDGE – Chicago Bears – $26.6M
10. Jimmy Garoppolo – QB – San Francisco 49ers – $26.4M
"“We felt like when we got there in ’17, the organization obviously wasn’t where we’d want it to be, and I thought the last couple years we were able to turn the thing around. I would’ve had a big empty pit in my stomach if I were to have ended up anywhere else, because this team is headed in the right direction.”"
– Bills safety Micah Hyde on signing his two-year extension
Yes, another bit about the Bills, who made an impactful move this past week. Hyde, 30, is one of the most underrated players in football. He’s been a versatile defensive back since his days with the Packers, rotating flawlessly between playing center field, down in the box or even at corner.
While most teams are cutting and pushing bad money down the line to create cap space, Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane locked up a key contributor while lowering his ’21 cap hit. Well done.
In 1969, San Diego Chargers running back Dickie Post led the American Football League with 879 rushing yards. In two games against the eventual-champion Kansas City Chiefs, Post totaled three yards on the ground.
Info learned this week
1. Alex Smith released, Jaguars make most sense as destination
Football is a business. A cold, heartless business. Thus is life.
On Friday, the Washington Football Team released veteran quarterback Alex Smith to save $14.9 million against the cap in 2021. Smith, who turns 37 years old in May, is the reigning NFL Comeback Player of the Year after returning from a harrowing broken leg which required 17 surgeries.
However, after throwing six touchdowns and eight interceptions in as many games, Washington is moving on.
While some will clamor for a reunion in Kansas City with Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, the best fit is with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jacksonville is almost certain to select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick, and Smith would be the perfect mentor as he was for Mahomes. Furthermore, Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer was Smith’s coach at the University of Utah.
Lastly, signing Smith would give Jacksonville the flexibility to deal third-year quarterback Gardner Minshew, who would have nice value as a trade chip. Minshew wouldn’t bring back a first-round choice, but could certainly net a Day 2 pick.
2. J.J. Watt cashes in with the Cardinals, surprising NFL world
J.J. Watt signed with the Arizona Cardinals. Source? Watt himself.
The 32-year-old was rumored to the Pittsburgh Steelers where he could play with his brothers, or his hometown Green Bay Packers. Instead, Watt headed to the desert for a team which has a young, star quarterback in Kyler Murray but collapsed down the stretch last year after starting 5-2.
At two years and $28 million, Watt got a phenomenal deal. A future first-ballot Hall of Famer, yes, but Watt has struggled in recent campaigns. Over his last five seasons with the Houston Texans, the defensive end reached a single Pro Bowl during his All-Pro 2018 season, but otherwise was constantly besieged by injuries. Last year, Watt played 16 games but only notched five sacks.
For the Cardinals, signing Watt is about bolstering a leaky defense but also acquiring a status symbol. Arizona landing someone of his caliber gives the appearance of being a real player in the league, especially after limping to an 8-8 finish a few months ago.
Will the Cards get a good return on their investment? If Watt can stay on the field, it’s a solid bet. But that’s a big, big if.
3. Saints, Eagles continue working towards cap compliancy
The new league year begins March 17. The New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles are feverishly working to be compliant by then.
New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis spent a good portion of last week shaving salary, restructuring the contracts of defensive end Cam Jordan and linebacker Demario Davis to save $13 million. There will be more similar moves in the coming week, likely including contract alterations for receiver Michael Thomas and guard Andrus Peat. A few extensions may also be handed out, headlined by cornerback Marshon Lattimore and right tackle Ryan Ramcyzk.
Meanwhile, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has also been diligently chipping away at his financial quandary. Philadelphia signed center Jason Kelce to a new one-year deal worth $12 million (but added voidable years to spread out money) while also restructuring corner Darius Slay’s deal, saving $9 million. Still, Philadelphia sits $34 million over the projected cap.
Much like the Saints, the Eagles will eventually get under by shoving questionable money into the future. At some point, an ugly rebuild is coming in both cities. The money always catches up.
4. Raiders cutting cost of OL, presumably to fix defense
The Las Vegas Raiders can score. Unfortunately, they seldom stop the opponent from doing so.
Recently, general manager Mike Mayock released veteran guards Gabe Jackson and Richie Incognito, freeing up a vital $15 million in cap space. While Incognito may return at a lower rate, Jackson will hit free agency looking for his next opportunity.
Both moves, along with the release of receiver Tyrell Williams, should give Las Vegas enough room to maneuver the market for defensive upgrades. Last offseason, Mayock signed linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, but the impact was minimal. They combined one sack, one interception and seven tackles for loss.
With their available funds, the Raiders have to take another swing. If they’re going to outlast the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West soon, it’ll be with an increased pass rush, better corners and playmakers at all three levels. Since Mahomes became the starter for Kansas City in 2018, the Chiefs are 5-1 against the Raiders, scoring 40, 35, 40, 28, 32 and 35 points in the matchups.
For Las Vegas, the offense is fine, but it’s essentially useless without an improved counterpart.
5. Bengals new uniforms apparently leaked
Confession time: I’m a huge uniform geek. Love comparing and contrasting old and new looks, ranking them, you name it. It’s a great time.
On Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals new jerseys appeared to leak. On first glance? Not bad. Cincinnati has long been living with poor football and a hideous look to boot with that odd “B” logo on the chest and way too much striping on the sides.
The new version is much cleaner, even if a bit plain by today’s standards:
All told, though, not bad. Cincinnati should have either gone back to the Boomer Esiason era or the “BENGALS” motif from the ’60s and ’70s, but there’s nothing wrong with going back to basics. Just ask the Cleveland Browns after their “BROWNS on the pants stripe” fiasco.
Cincinnati’s team is a work in progress. The uniform? Already a solid offseason.
The Miami Dolphins shouldn’t be worried, but the recent comments aren’t ideal.
DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, two star receivers entering the NFL Draft out of Alabama, were both asked in recent days whether they prefer quarterback Tua Tagovailoa or Mac Jones. Of course, the Dolphins selected Tagovailoa with the fifth-overall pick in 2020, while Jones is a projected first-round choice come April.
In both cases, the answer was immediate. Jones.
Why would both choose Jones, who is universally regarded as the inferior prospect to Tagovailoa at this juncture of their draft journeys?
Perhaps the answer lies in statistics. Smith caught 68 passes for 1,256 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2019 with Tagovailoa as his primary quarterback. This past season, Smith registered 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 scores. Waddle was limited to six games in 2020 compared to 13 the year prior, and still had more yardage (591-560) and only five fewer receptions.
Also, Jones is trying to be selected this year. Tagovailoa is already in the league. Yes, both players could have skirted the question, but if you’re going to pick one, help the kid in need of rising stock, not the one already with millions, right?
Sure, the Dolphins should have raised eyebrows. Tagovailoa wasn’t good as a rookie, being benched twice for Ryan Fitzpatrick. In a must-win Week 17 game against the Bills, Tagovailoa was atrocious, throwing three interceptions in a 56-26 loss. Still, he only started nine games and hasn’t yet turned 24 years old.
Early returns on Tagovailoa has been undeniably underwhelming, but Miami could still have its future already in place.
Inside the league
We’re getting close to having a firm salary cap for the 2021 season. Maybe.
Last week, we starting seeing teams cut and restructure players. This indicates teams believe they know where the cap is roughly going to fall. In fact, one general manager texted me stating he sees the cap between $180-183 million.
If this ends up correct, ample teams still have loads of work ahead. It would also mean second-tier free agents are going to take a proverbial bath in the coming days. Only seven teams are projected to have more than $30 million in cap space at $180M, while a whopping nine are over the threshold.
As one agent told me in February, stars always get paid, and he’s right. Players like Allen Robinson and Shaq Barrett, should they reach the market, will be taken care of. However, for the second wave, it could be a long, costly wait to be signed.
Just a few things to consider as we’re one week from the legal tampering period.
NFL lore is full of fun quirks. The New York Giants own a great duo from the 1970s.
In 1973, the Giants played home games at Yankee Stadium and the Yale Bowl. In ’75, New York welcomed opponents into Shea Stadium while Giants Stadium, which opened in ’76, was under construction. All told, Big Blue had four home venues, in three states, over four years.
Also, the Giants had three different helmets in as many seasons during this stretch. In ’74, the interlocking “ny” was on the lid before the “disco ny” went one-and-done in ’75 before slapping “GIANTS” on the helmet in ’76.
Talk about a lack of identity.
If the Houston Texans don’t trade Deshaun Watson by April 26, settle in.
Houston essentially has seven weeks to deal Watson if it reverses course and engages in trade talks. Watson, 25, has reportedly wanted out all offseason and is willing to trade his no-trade clause for a few destinations including the Denver Broncos, New York Jets, 49ers and Dolphins.
However, there’s an unspoken deadline — the week of the NFL Draft.
If Watson isn’t dealt by draft week (the first round is April 29) there’s no incentive for Houston to send him elsewhere. At that point, general manager Nick Caserio and all-powerful czar Jack Easterby can play an expensive game of chicken. If Watson doesn’t show up to training camp, he’ll be fined heavily. If he misses games, he’ll lose paychecks of almost $1 million per week.
For the Texans, they would simply wait until the following offseason and see where things stand.