For the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers, this season is a key pivot point. After 2022, it only gets tougher and more expensive.
The Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals have long been notoriously cheap. That must change after this season, or things will get ugly for both.
After wandering in the NFL wilderness for 30 years, Cincinnati emerged last year and reached the Super Bowl. The metamorphosis was due in large part to quarterback Joe Burrow, who threw for 4,611 yards and 34 touchdowns in his second season. After 2022, he’s eligible for an extension.
In Los Angeles, the Chargers haven’t enjoyed the same team success as the Bengals with their star signal-caller in Justin Herbert, but nobody would blame him. Herbert has been spectacular in his first two campaigns, amassing 9,350 yards and 69 touchdowns. He, like Burrow, is also one season away from extension eligibility.
For the Bengals and Chargers, the decision appears obvious. If Burrow and Herbert have good campaigns, the money is coming.
And yet talking to multiple league sources, don’t expect a smooth ride to the finish line.
Following an offseason of wild quarterback movement, future contract negotiations could be quite difficult. This wasn’t helped by the biggest fully-guaranteed contract in NFL history going to Deshaun Watson, with $230 million going to a quarterback currently facing 24 civil suits for alleged sexual harassment and/or assault.
Last week, FanSided asked three prominent agents what they would ask for if they represented Burrow or Herbert. Each said they would demand $55 million per year, with one stating he might request $57.5 million.
One agent replied saying he would be looking for a fully-guaranteed deal of five years and $275 million, citing his expectation of a somewhat stagnant salary cap in 2023 followed by a “significant bump” in ’24.
What’s even more important is each agent brought up a problem both Los Angeles and Cincinnati will face in these contract talks: escrow.
Dating back to the 1980s, the NFL and NFLPA have agreed any guaranteed money in a contract is immediately put into escrow at time of signing. For the Bengals and Chargers, both teams are historically low on capital in comparison to other franchises, this is a real hurdle.
To this end, one of the agents believes both deals will eventually get done, but predicted a “blood bath” before pen hits paper. Another felt that should the contracts be fully guaranteed, the teams might require loans with a meager interest fee to help ease the financial burden.
For the management perspective on pacts for Burrow and Herbert, FanSided also reached out to a pair of former general managers.
When asked if Watson’s fully-guaranteed precedent forces either the Bengals or Chargers to follow suit, one GM texted that while total money isn’t a problem, the guarantees are, once more noting neither ownership group has such cash.
“You can hardly ever live up to that deal and it handcuffs (your) organization. How you approach with both players and agents is that we selected you to help us win a championship and you can’t do it alone. Money will be there but you still have to bring in big-time free agents every offseason and we need that money.”
The other general manager pointed out Aaron Rodgers’ deal as well, which gives him $151 million over the upcoming three seasons. He went on to say both franchises are inheritances from family members, making the Bengals and Chargers more “cash conscious” than other clubs.
However, have we seen a new side of both franchises in recent years?
The Bengals had never spent big in free agency, but over the past two offseasons they’ve signed edge rusher Trey Hendrickson, corners Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and Trae Waynes, safety Vonn Bell, right tackle La’el Collins, guard Alex Kappa, center/guard Ted Karras, and nose tackle D.J. Reader to sizable deals, totaling $250.75 million, yet only $73.75 million guaranteed.
So while Cincinnati is spending more, Burrow’s contract could conceivably force owner Mike Brown to put $250+ million into escrow, more than three times what he’s had to deposit based on the last two free agency periods.
Meanwhile, the Chargers have also spent lavishly on center Corey Linsley, corner J.C. Jackson, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, edge rusher Khalil Mack (trade), guard Matt Feiler, tight end Gerald Everett, defensive tackle Sebastian Austin-Day and the re-signing of receiver Mike Williams. Those pacts come to $325.9 million, with $134.5 million guaranteed.
But while the Chargers have been spending somewhat freely, they’re mired in both a legal dispute involving multiple members of the Spanos family — with the four children owning the team — and serious debt, exacerbated by a $650 million relocation fee after leaving San Diego following the 2016 season.
Ultimately, it’s very likely the Chargers and Bengals sign their respective homegrown, franchise quarterbacks.
But there’s a real chance it gets ugly based on histories, finances and the exploding positional market.
Top 10 Comeback Player of the Year candidates
1. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers – Played seven games in 2021
2. Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints – Season ended in Oct. with torn ACL
3. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Baltimore Ravens – Missed all of 2021 with torn ACL
4. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans – Limited to 10 games with foot injury
5. Khalil Mack, EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers – Played seven games in 2021
6. Danielle Hunter, EDGE, Minnesota Vikings – Played seven games in 2021
7. Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns – Poor numbers playing with shoulder injury
8. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints – Missed all of 2021 with ankle injury
9. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Kansas City Chiefs – Missed 12 games with shoulder injury
10. Travis Etienne, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars – Missed entire rookie season
"“I could have just stayed in LA and just rode off into the sunset and just rushed with Aaron Donald and piled up sacks but I wasn’t content. I wasn’t content with where I was at. I still wanted more. … I just want to be part of something special. This is a special team. They’re right on the edge, and I just wanted to be that last drop to overflow these guys.”"
– Buffalo Bills edge rusher Von Miller on why he chose Buffalo this offseason
Miller signed a six-year, $120 million deal with the Bills, stunning the NFL world at NFL free agency’s outset in March. Playing for his third team in two years, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer is trying for a ring in a new location, and this one would be special.
While winning with the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Rams was certainly meaningful, both of those franchises have enjoyed long-standing success. The Bills have never won the Super Bowl, and if Miller is the final piece, he’ll be of legendary status in western New York.
Only the Cleveland Browns (1989), Detroit Lions (1991), Washington Commanders (1991) and Miami Dolphins (1992) have longer droughts since their most-recent conference championship game appearances than the Dallas Cowboys (1995).
Info learned this week
1. Deshaun Watson’s suspension could be soon, and lengthy
The reports are vague, but many believe Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson could be sitting out the 2022 season.
With two more women filing civil suits to make the total cases an even two-dozen in the wake of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel episode covering Watson’s alleged misconduct, the story is gaining steam, not losing it. For the NFL, that’s enough reason to distance itself until all the civil cases — and it sounds likely to soon be 26 — are adjudicated.
For NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Watson is radioactive. Regardless of his legal standing, and he’s not currently facing any criminal complaints or charges, the Pro Bowl quarterback is facing a deluge of serious allegations. The league, business before sport, will always consider the public relations hit along with the headlines coming out from its decision.
To those points, a guess on how this ends: the NFL will suspend Watson indefinitely on July 1, allowing Goodell flexibility for when he reinstates. Meanwhile, Watson is away from the field, and most-importantly microphones and telecasts for a second straight year. It buys the NFL time. And in essence, the league can’t be criticized for coming down light on Watson, even without truly making a definitive call.
Why July 1? It’s a Friday before a holiday weekend. The NFL is king at burying suspensions and other bad news, and that’s the ideal moment.
2. Lamar Jackson speaks on contract … sort of
After missing voluntary OTAs, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson arrived for mandatory minicamp.
At camp, Jackson spoke to reporters about his contractual situation, but offered little outside of saying he expects to remain in Baltimore, and that he and the team are having conversations. Perhaps most importantly, Jackson stated he plans to play, putting to rest any notion of withholding services with only this season remaining on his rookie deal.
While much of that is welcome news to Ravens fans, it’s also somewhat vague. For Baltimore, it needs to get cost certainty on a deal with Jackson. Without it, general manager Eric DeCosta must plan two budgets for next year, including one with Jackson signed long-term and on a smaller cap number, or Jackson on the franchise tag, which will be near $40 million against the cap. Obviously, who can be kept around will be much different under those scenarios.
Additionally, Jackson needs to get a deal done to protect himself. While every NFL player is one hit away from a career-altering injury, Jackson’s style and build make his situation more dangerous. He stands to lose a fortune if he were to go down with a significant ailment.
It makes ample sense for Jackson, and for the Ravens, to push hard for a deal before camp. Let’s see if they can get it done.
3. Steelers pay Fitzpatrick a record-setting sum to stick around
The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t always pay big money to players they didn’t draft, and they rarely make blockbuster trades. For Minkah Fitzpatrick, they did both.
Last week, Pittsburgh gave the All-Pro safety a new contract over four years worth $73.6 million, including $36 million guaranteed. On an average annual value, Fitzpatrick is now the highest-paid safety in NFL history. It’s also the highest figures in terms of guaranteed money and overall value since Landon Collins signed his six-year, $86 million deal ($44.5 million guaranteed) with Washington back in the 2019 offseason.
For the Steelers to give away two first-round picks and then pay out almost $75 million tells you what they see in Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh is an old-school franchise that believes in building through the draft with the occasional outside talent sprinkled in. In terms of assets, Fitzpatrick is one of the most expensive Steelers ever, and still well worth the money as a two-time First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowler over his first four seasons.
Looking at the details of the deal, Fitzpatrick is essentially tied to Pittsburgh for the next three seasons before the Steelers have what amounts to a pair of team options. Come 2025, Pittsburgh could cut ties and eat $7 million and $3.5 respectively over the final two years of the contract, saving $29.6 million over that span. However, Fitzpatrick will only be 29 and 30 years old in those seasons, making this the real big-money deal that might reach completion.
4. Saints rolling with black helmets, something they tried long ago
The New Orleans Saints will have an alternate helmet. It was once almost the regular one.
On Thursday, the Saints unveiled their alternate helmet which will be primarily black, with the familiar Fleur-de-lis in gold emblazoned on the side. In a cool touch, the stripe down the middle will be adorned by mini fleur-de-lis’, giving the shell a very local flavor.
With the NFL relaxing rules on helmet usage this season, many teams are bringing back their throwbacks, likely including such classics as Bucco Bruce and Pat Patriot. For the Saints, the only difference in their helmet since coming into the league as an expansion team in 1967 is the size of the fleur-de-lis, making a throwback somewhat wasteful. Instead, they went with a new look.
However, this could be considered something of a pseudo-throwback. In 1969, the Saints planned on switching to black helmets and wore them once in the preseason. However, the league had already released its merchandising for the year and with New Orleans failing to ask for approval of the change, it was denied.
Now, 53 years later, black helmets in New Orleans.
5. What OTA fines, violations for Cowboys, Commanders may mean
The Dallas Cowboys and Washington Commanders each went too far with their OTAs, which are strictly outlined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. As a punishment, Washington head coach Ron Rivera was fined $100,000 and the Commanders lose two OTAs next year, while Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy was docked the same amount with the Cowboys losing one OTA.
Frankly, other than two veteran coaches paying a significant fine, it’s small potatoes. Nobody really cares about OTAs save for teams with new regimes and/or new schemes.
Which brings us to the next point: will OTAs exist in a decade?
For most of the NFL’s existence, training camps were brutal. Two-a-days, restricted water, all of it. Heck, from 1970-77, teams played six preseason games and used their starters for the majority of them.
Now, training camps are limited to one practice per day and many teams have minimal contact. The preseason is three games and myriad coaches don’t play their stars for one snap. The non-essential work is going away because the players are paid more than ever. They are an investment. You don’t screw with investments for a meager return, which is what OTAs represent.
The guess here? OTAs will somewhat soon be part of the NFL’s history.
The New York Jets might resemble the 2019 Dolphins. Stick with me.
In ’19, Miami started off 0-7 against a slew of tough opponents before winning five of its final nine games, including an impressive Week 17 victory over the New England Patriots in Foxboro. The following year, the Dolphins won 10 games and proved postseason worthy, even if they fell short due to a brutal AFC.
This season, the Jets face a treacherous schedule to start. New York starts at home with Baltimore — ironically, so did the ’19 Dolphins — before facing the Browns (away), Bengals, Steelers (away), Dolphins, Packers (away), Broncos (away), Patriots and Bills before their Week 10 bye. After that, three road trips in four weeks, including tilts with the Patriots, Vikings and Bills.
The Jets won’t be a favorite in any of those games, with the possible exception of Miami at home.
However, with the Lions, Jaguars, Seahawks (away) and Dolphins (away) to finish the year, New York could finish strong with momentum for ’23.
The Jets are getting some sleeper love this offseason, but it might be a year premature.
Inside the league
Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts have drawn ample attention as a quarterback facing make-or-break seasons, but they’re far from alone.
Looking around, Daniel Jones (New York Giants) and Davis Mills (Houston Texans) both need to have terrific years or face the reality of moving on.
With Jones, his fifth-year option was declined by new general manager Joe Schoen, who obviously has no ties to Jones. If first-year head coach Brian Daboll can’t get the best from Jones, it seems clear New York will look to upgrade next offseason.
In Houston, Mills showed real promise despite a horrid supporting cast as a third-round rookie out of Stanford. Still, if Mills stagnates and the Texans are bad, they have a pair of first-round picks in a draft class expected to be loaded under center.
Many around the league believe there could be a half-dozen quarterbacks who are high-level prospects entering the ’23 Draft. If Jones and Mills falter, their teams are likely to be involved in the race to land one.
Few teams don’t win a playoff game and yet linger on in NFL lore. The 1975-’77 Baltimore Colts are such a squad.
In ’75, the Colts were the ultimate Cinderella, going from last-place prognostications and a 1-4 start, to winning nine straight and earning the AFC East title before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs. The following year, Baltimore went 11-3 and quarterback Bert Jones won MVP, with the Colts repeating in the division. However, once again, Pittsburgh clobbered Baltimore in the Divisional round.
In ’77, the Colts three-peated in the AFC East with a 10-4 mark and hosted the AFC Divisional, this time against the defending-champion Oakland Raiders. In an all-time classic, Baltimore fell 37-31 in double overtime in what’s remembered as The Ghost To The Post.
So what’s memorable about this Colts team? For starters, it’s where Bill Belichick got his first NFL job. It’s also the last competitive era of Baltimore football before the Colts famously snuck out of town in the Mayflower come 1984.
As importantly, though, it’s what didn’t happen. Jones appeared to be the next great quarterback, but myriad injuries ruined his career, out of football by 1982. How talented was he? Belichick called him the best passer he’s ever seen.
Those Colts teams captured the imagination of a city and hold an important spot in league history, even without postseason success.
Everyone worrying about the Green Bay Packers is forgetting about their defense.
For much of Aaron Rodgers’ career, the defense was cause for concern. Now, it might be the team’s strength despite a two-time MVP at quarterback.
Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst has built a stout unit and did so through a variety of avenues. The Packers used a litany of first-round picks in recent years on corners Jaire Alexander and Eric Stokes, safety Darnell Savage, edge rusher Rashan Gary, linebacker Quay Walker and defensive tackles Kenny Clark and Devonte Wyatt.
However, they’ve also added corner Rasul Douglas and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell on meager free-agent deals before re-signing each to bigger pacts. Then there’s safety Adrian Amos and edge rusher Preston Smith, both of whom were signed to large deals with each paying off.
All told, the Packers have one of the league’s best defenses, and it could carry them all year long.