Ask and you shall receive. The phrase is music to an agent’s ears when free agency works in this manner. It must also be balanced by the risk of pricing a client out of the market.
Agents and NFL teams have already gotten a sense of the 2022 free agent market. Meetings between agents of impending free agents and teams routinely occur at the NFL Scouting Combine, which ended March 7, although these types of discussions are prohibited 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 ends March 14. That’s when NFL teams are allowed to negotiate with the agents of prospective unrestricted free agents during a two-day period beginning March 14 at 12 p.m. ET and ending at 3:59:59 p.m. ET on March 16. 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 2022 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.
The salary cap has bounced back in a big way after dropping from $198.2 million in 2020 to $182.5 million in 2021 with league revenues declining due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been set at $208.2 million for this year. The 14.08% cap increase should result in a robust market during the first wave of free agency, which typically is over after the initial days of the signing period. The Chargers have already gotten the ball rolling by keeping wide receiver Mike Williams off the open market with a three-year contract reportedly worth $60 million.
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 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 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.
($20.12 million franchise tag)
Contract package: $142.5 million, five years ($28.5 million per year)
Overall guarantees: $50 million (all signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $50 million (all signing bonus)
First three years: $93 million
The Packers and Adams weren’t close to reaching an agreement during negotiations last offseason. Adams wanted to replace DeAndre Hopkins as the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver. The Packers weren’t willing to acknowledge the $27.25 million per year new money average for the two-year contract extension Hopkins received from the Cardinals in 2020 because he had three years remaining when he signed. The Hopkins deal is an outlier in the wide receiver market. Titans wide receiver Julio Jones is second at the position on the three-year extension he signed with the Falcons in 2019 averaging $22 million per year.
Shortly after the Packers were eliminated in the divisional playoffs by the 49ers, reports of Adams wanting $30 million per year on a new contract, which is extremely ambitious, surfaced. Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt, 2021’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is the NFL’s highest paid non-quarterback at $28,002,750 per year.
I’d probably have my sights set a little lower but would still insist upon Adams becoming the league’s highest paid non-quarterback, like Hopkins did. Extensions signed by wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson with the Cardinals and Lions in 2011 and 2012, respectively, put them at the top of non-quarterback salary hierarchy. It’s justifiable because Adams is the NFL’s most productive wide receiver since signing his expiring four-year extension at the end of the 2017 season. He leads the NFL in receptions (432), receiving yards (5,310) and touchdown catches (47) during this span. Adams set the Packers single-season record for receiving yardage with 1,553 yards in 2021. He also had 123 catches to break his own team record along with 11 receiving touchdowns.
Shattering Rams perennial All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s record $40 million signing bonus for a non-quarterback and a favorable cash flow would be necessities because of how Green Bay structures veteran contracts. The only guaranteed money in Green Bay deals is a signing bonus. The lone exception is Rodgers, whose deals have conventional contract guarantees. The bigger deals contain third or fifth day of the league year roster bonuses in the second and third years. The roster bonuses are supposed to be substitutes for additional contract guarantees. The overall guarantees in Green Bay contracts are usually less than comparable deals on other teams.
Length of contract wouldn’t be a concern. Adams’ window for top non-quarterback money in the future would likely be shut with a three-year deal because he turns 30 in December. A five-year deal would put Adams under contract for the same length as Rodgers with his reported extension.
Contract package: $125 million, five years ($25 million per year)
Overall guarantees: $76.5 million
Fully guaranteed at signing: $60 million
First three years: $76.5 million
Elite pass protectors rarely hit the open market especially when there should be plenty of good football left in a career. The Saints were precluded from making Terron Armstead a franchise player because his 2022 through 2024 contract years don’t void until last day of the 2021 league year on March 16, which is after the designation window has closed.
Armstead is three years younger than 33-year-old Trent Williams, who became the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman at $23.01 million per year when he re-signed with the 49ers in free agency last year. This number is a little misleading because the deal is structured with the 49ers having to exercise an option for the final three years (2024 through 2026) worth $77.31 million by April 1, 2023. Declining the option would mean Williams has a three-year deal for $60.75 million, which still makes him the third player in the $20 million per year offensive lineman club with Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari ($23 million per year) and Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil ($22 million per year).
Some teams might have reservations about putting Armstead near the top of the offensive lineman pay scale because of a lack of durability. Armstead has played 97 of a possible 145 regular season games in nine NFL seasons. He only played eight games in 2021 and had knee surgery in January.
($19,179,600 million franchise tag)
Contract package: $69 million, three years ($23 million per year)
Overall guarantees: $43 million
Fully guaranteed at signing: $35 million
Conventional wisdom suggested Chris Godwin would hit the open market when he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee late in the 2021 regular season, but the Buccaneers franchised Godwin for a second straight year at a 20% raise over his $15.983 million 2021 franchise tag. If representing Godwin, the Buccaneers would have to blow me away financially to give up a shot a free agency in 2023. A third franchise tag at the quarterback number, which should be in the $32 million neighborhood next year, wouldn’t be a consideration for the Buccaneers. Some slight structural accommodations could be made like Allen Robinson did when he signed a three-year, $42 million contract in 2018 after missing nearly all of the 2017 season with a torn left ACL.
It’s conceivable that Godwin won’t miss any 2022 regular season games and pick up where he left off when healthy. Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp had reconstructive knee surgery in 2018 because of an injury occurring around the same point in the regular season as Godwin’s. He posted then-career highs of 94 receptions, 1,161 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019 while playing every game. Both players were 25 when injured.
Catching passes from a new quarterback because of Tom Brady’s departure wouldn’t be too concerning. Godwin earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2019 when he had 86 catches for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games with Jameis Winston at quarterback.
Contract package: $90 million, five years ($18 million per year)
Overall guarantees: $52.5 million
Fully guaranteed at signing: $36 million
First three years: $55.5 million
Brandon Scherff was assured of hitting the open market after playing the 2020 and 2021 seasons with the Commanders for $33.066 million on two franchise tags ($16.533 million per year) because a third designation would have been at the $29.703 million quarterback number. He is coming off a 2021 Pro Bowl season, his fifth selection over a six-year span.
Based on recent history, Scherff should become the new salary benchmark for offensive guards. A Pro Bowl-caliber guard in his prime has been resetting the market in free agency (Andrew Norwell, Kelechi Osemele, Joe Thuney, Kevin Zeitler). Thuney became the new standard when he signed a five-year, $80 million contract containing $46.89 million of guarantees with the Chiefs in free agency last year. Scherff missing 22 games over the last four seasons because of
injury could be a cause for concern.
Contract package: $90 million, four years ($22.5 million per year)
Overall guarantees: $50 million
Fully guaranteed at signing: $40 million
Robinson’s contract year left a lot to be desired. 2021 was Robinson’s worst NFL season (other than 2017 when he tore his left ACL in the Jaguars season opener). Robinson had 36 catches for 410 yards with one touchdown in 12 games, which can be attributed to an injury-plagued season where he never established chemistry with rookie quarterback Justin Fields.
Robinson should be the beneficiary of Williams re-signing with the Chargers for a reported $20 million per year and Godwin getting a second franchise tag from the Buccaneers. The disappointing season isn’t going to change what the salary expectations should have been prior to playing 2021 for $17.88 million as a franchise player because Robinson had the NFL’s fourth-most receptions (200) and receiving yards (2,397) over the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
A lackluster contract year didn’t prevent wide receiver Kenny Golladay from his big payday in free agency last year, although his market was slow to develop. Nonetheless, the Giants signed Golladay to a four-year, $72 million contract (worth up to $76 million through incentives) with $40 million of guarantees.
($16.662 million franchise tag)
Contract package: $70.5 million, three years ($23.5 million per year)
Overall guarantees: $57.5 million
Fully guaranteed at signing: $50 million
A franchise tag seemed inevitable when the Chiefs didn’t sign Orlando Brown to a contract extension after he forced a trade from the Ravens because he wanted to be a left tackle. Brown demonstrated he can play left tackle at a high level in his first full season at the position. He earned Pro Bowl honors in 2021. Brown shouldn’t want a longer-term deal because he doesn’t turn 26 until May and there should be significant salary cap growth in the coming years thanks to the new NFL media rights deals.
($10.931 million franchise tag)
Contract package: $43.5 million, three years ($14.5 million per year)
Overall guarantees: $37 million
Fully guaranteed at signing: $30.5 million
Schultz followed up his 2020 breakout campaign of 63 receptions for 615 yards and four touchdowns, which was thanks to Blake Jarwin’s right ACL tear in the season opener, with a career year in 2021. He had 78 catches, 808 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Since the start of the 2020 regular season, Schultz is one of four players to rank among the top 10 in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. He is fourth, seventh and tied for sixth these respective categories. The other three tight ends are Mark Andrews (Ravens), Travis Kelce (Chiefs) and Darren Waller (Raiders).
Schultz should be the beneficiary of the dramatic jump in the tight end market since 2020 free agency began. There weren’t any tight ends making over $10 million per year when the 2019 season ended. Now there are seven. Among the seven are Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, who received $12.5 million per year deals from the Patriots in 2021 free agency. Schultz was more productive in 2021 than Smith has been over the last two seasons combined in the 31 games he has played. Smith has 69 receptions for 742 yards with nine touchdowns. Schultz has nine more receptions, 66 more receiving yards and is one behind Smith in touchdown catches.
Contract package: $60 million, four years ($15 million per year)
Overall guarantees: $31.5 million
Fully guaranteed at signing: $31.5 million
Jensen is completing a four-year, $42 million contract he signed with the Buccaneers in 2018 free agency to become the NFL’s highest paid center at $10.5 million per year. The deal contained $22 million fully guaranteed. Jensen was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his nine-year NFL career last season. In order for Jensen to reclaim his spot as the league’s highest-paid center, he’ll have to top the four-year extension Frank Ragnow signed with the Lions last offseason, which averaged $13.5 million per year.
Contract package: $30 million, three years ($10 million per year)
Overall guarantees: $17 million
Fully guaranteed at signing: $12 million
Fournette helped the Buccaneers “keep the band together” to try to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2021 by leaving money on the table so he could remain with Tampa Bay. A one-year, $3.25 million deal with an additional $750,000 in incentives was signed. He seems to be looking for greener pastures this time around in free agency.
Fournette quickly separated himself from Ronald Jones in what was supposed to be a time share at running back. 2017’s fourth-overall pick emerged as a true dual-threat running back in 2021. Fournette was leading NFL running backs with 69 receptions before a Week 15 hamstring injury sidelined him for the rest of the regular season. The injury cost Fournette a shot at his third 1,000 rushing yard season in his five-year NFL career. He had 812 rushing yards in 2021.
Contract package: $12 million, one year (worth up to $15 million with incentives)
Overall guarantees: $12 million ($10.5 million as signing bonus with up to four voiding/dummy years for salary cap purposes)
Winston returned to the Saints for a second season in 2021 on a one-year, $5.5 million deal worth up to $12 million through incentives to compete with Taysom Hill to replace a retiring Drew Brees. He beat out Hill in the preseason for the Saints quarterback job. Winston had significantly cut down on the turnovers that plagued him during his five years with the Buccaneers (2015 through 2019) before suffering a season-ending knee injury during a Week 8 victory over them. Winston only had three interceptions in the seven games he played last season.
$10 million per year was the going rate for a bridge quarterback in 2021. Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick signed one-year, $10 million contracts to be stopgap or short-term quarterback solutions for the Bears and Commanders. Incentives made Fitzpatrick and Dalton’s deals worth as much as $12 million and $13 million, respectively.