Which players are in line to earn big-money contracts in the near future? Anthony Holzman-Escareno takes a look into his crystal ball to project the All-Paid Team of Tomorrow, listing the top candidate to become the next player to push for the rank of highest paid at each position, along with other players who are on the big-money radar (note that contract information is sourced from Over The Cap and/or Spotrac):
PROJECTED APY: $45M-plus
The Super Bowl XLVIII Champion has won 98 games since entering the NFL in 2012, more than any player has managed in their first nine seasons in league history -- the three names right below Wilson are Peyton Manning (92), Tom Brady (87) and Ben Roethlisberger (87). Wilson has won at least 10 games in every year but one (he went 9-7 in 2017). Manning is the only player with more passing touchdowns (275) through Year 9 than Wilson (267). The player right below Wilson on that list? Dan Marino (266). Over the last five seasons, Wilson leads the NFL in total passing touchdowns (161), deep passing touchdowns (56 of 20-plus air yards) and fourth-quarter passing touchdowns (56).
Wilson had an up-and-down 2020. He was on pace for an NFL-record 56 passing touchdowns through the first eight games, but then threw just 12 over the second half of the season, ultimately finishing with a career-high 40 touchdowns through the air. Wilson has only missed the playoffs once in his career, despite being sacked 40-plus times in eight straight seasons, which is the longest streak in the Super Bowl era.
In last year's file, Patrick Mahomes sat in this position, with Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson in the "on the radar" section. A year later, this trio sits atop the quarterback pay scale, with Mahomes pulling down $45 million per year -- a figure that once seemed like an absurdity. Wilson is 32 years old and has three years left on his current contract. Whether the deal is in Seattle or not, Wilson should easily be able to leverage himself into another record-setting contract in the near future.
ON THE RADAR:
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens: Jackson is probably the best playmaker in the NFL with the ball in his hands. In 2019, his first full season as a starter, he became the first player in league history to top 2,500 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season -- a feat he repeated in 2020. He also became the first quarterback with multiple seasons of 1,000-plus rushing yards. Anyone still laboring under the misconception that a great runner cannot also be a great passer will struggle to put a proper dollar sign on Jackson's value, but the fact is, the 24-year-old Jackson has proven he can be both. In 2019, he threw a league-high 36 touchdowns with a passer rating of 113.3 en route to becoming the unanimous MVP. Both numbers came down some in 2020, but don't be confused by that; Jackson has shown amazing efficiency, considering the Ravens threw the ball less than any team in the NFL in each of the past two seasons. His .811 quarterback winning percentage (30-7) is the second highest since the 1970 merger, sandwiched between Patrick Mahomes (.826) and Tom Brady (.769). Jackson can be retained for two more seasons on his rookie contract, with Baltimore exercising his fifth-year option, but he is an elite quarterback, and the Ravens would be wise to learn from the Cowboys (who waited until the last minute to extend Dak Prescott beyond his rookie deal) and not let negotiations with their franchise quarterback drag out
Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills: A 2020 season that saw Allen rewrite the Bills' record books helped put Allen in line to receive a top-of-the-market deal in the near future. Whether it was because of the addition of receiver Stefon Diggs last offseason or merely a third-year maturation, Allen, who is turning 25 in May, was a completely different quarterback in 2020 than he had been in Years 1 and 2, easily besting his previous numbers:
|Before Diggs (2018-19)
|After Diggs (2020)
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: Amid all the drama surrounding Rodgers and the Packers, the team has offered Rodgers a "significant long-term offer," which one would assume puts him at least over the $40 million mark annually. In his age-37 season, Rodgers led the NFL in passing touchdowns (48) and won the MVP award, while his passer rating (121.5) fell one point short of his own NFL-record passer rating (122.5), set in 2011. Rodgers' current deal goes through 2023 but includes no guaranteed money after this season. The issues in Green Bay seem to stem far beyond money, but it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see a reconciliation end with a contract extension.
Also consider: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns.
Notable players not eligible for extension: Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals.
PROJECTED APY: $15M-17M
Health has been Barkley's lone weakness in the NFL since he was drafted second overall in 2018. That year, he played 16 games, led the NFL with 2,028 scrimmage yards and won Offensive Rookie of the Year. Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson (2,212 in 1983) and Edgerrin James (2,139 in 1999) are the only other players in NFL history to finish with 2,000-plus scrimmage yards as a rookie. Barkley also recorded 91 receptions in '18, the most all-time by a rookie running back. Since then, though, Barkley has played just 15 games, and he missed the final 14 games last season. Even so, in those 15 games, he produced 1,535 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns. He's still been highly productive, but the Giants are surely interested to see how the 24-year-old's body holds up this upcoming season.
The Saints' Alvin Kamara took a swing at Christian McCaffrey's spot on the 2021 All-Paid squad with the extension he signed last year, but Kamara fell a little over $1 million short. A stagnant salary landscape plagued running backs for years, but since 2019, McCaffrey, Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Joe Mixon and Aaron Jones have signed deals worth at least $12 million per season. Barkley is likely the position's next hope to raise the salary floor for the league's top backs. The Giants exercised Barkley's fifth-year option this offseason, which locks him into his current deal through 2022.
ON THE RADAR:
Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns: Chubb is one of the best pure runners in the NFL. The only players to average more rushing yards per game than Chubb (91.5) over the last two seasons are Dalvin Cook (96.1) and Derrick Henry (115.1). The 2018 second-round pick has averaged 5.25 yards per carry over the course of his career, the third-highest by any running back with 500-plus carries since 1950. The other players in the top four? Bo Jackson, Jamaal Charles and Jim Brown. Chubb's limits as a pass catcher will put a ceiling on his leverage in negotiations. The 25-year-old will be a free agent after the 2021 season, so he surely has a franchise tag waiting for him next offseason if a deal can't be made before then.
PROJECTED APY: $25M-plus
Adams is, arguably, the best wide receiver in the NFL. He scored 18 receiving touchdowns in 2020, a total only Hall of Famers Randy Moss (23 in 2007) and Jerry Rice (22 in a 12-game 1987 season) have ever exceeded, and he led the NFL in receptions (8.2) and receiving yards per game (98.1). His 3.1 yards per route run also paced the league, according to Next Gen Stats. Only Saints running back Alvin Kamara finished with more yards after the catch than Adams (597).
Adams' value extends far beyond a fabulous 2020, though. Since the 2018 season, the 28-year-old Adams ranks second in receiving yards per game (91.6), behind Julio Jones (96.1). His 58 receiving touchdowns since 2016 are 11 more than the next closest player (Tyreek Hill, 47). Adams is almost impossible to touch off the line of scrimmage. The basketball inspiration in his game is so evident in his release and route running.
The Packers played the long game and won by locking Adams into a four-year deal worth $14.5 million per season in 2017, when he was in the midst of his first Pro Bowl season. Adams has already said he'd have to put some thought into his future in Green Bay, should the team lose Aaron Rodgers. Extensions for the team's best two players seem to be in order.
ON THE RADAR:
Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills: Diggs' current annual pay -- $14.4 million per season on a five-year contract signed in 2018, when he was with the Vikings -- ranks him 19th among current wide receivers. In his first season in Buffalo (2020), Diggs led the NFL with 127 receptions and 1,535 receiving yards, becoming the first veteran player in the Super Bowl era to lead the league in receiving yards in his first season with a team. But his biggest impact was saving the Bills' franchise quarterback (see above splits in the Josh Allen section). The 27-year-old Diggs' deal runs through 2023, but it's hard to imagine the 2020 All-Pro will be happy with a paycheck that ranks 19th among receivers for much longer.
Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs: Hill might influence a defense's game plan more than any non-quarterback in the NFL. Though he was drafted just five years ago, Hill has the most touchdowns of 40-plus yards (26) in the NFL over the last 10 seasons. Last season, Hill's 15 receiving touchdowns trailed only Davante Adams (18). With two years remaining on a deal that pays him $18 million per year and no signs of slowing down, the 27-year-old Hill is a prime candidate to join the 2022 All-Paid Team after reupping next offseason.
Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears: Robinson has been the sole driving force behind the Bears' passing attack over the last two seasons. Despite the troubles under center in Chicago, Robinson has 2,397 receiving yards over that span -- more than any receiver in the NFL not named Stefon Diggs or DeAndre Hopkins. Last season, Robinson, Hopkins and Davante Adams were the only players with 100-plus receptions and one or fewer drops. Robinson did that despite leading the NFL in contested targets (49) and tying for the league lead in contested catches (21) in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus. The 27-year-old Robinson, set to play this season on the franchise tag, seems like a good candidate to land right around Keenan Allen ($20.03 million APY) and Amari Cooper ($20 million APY) on his next long-term deal.
Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons: The 26-year-old Ridley had a breakout campaign in 2020, recording a career-high 1,374 receiving yards; his 91.6 receiving yards per game ranked fourth in the NFL behind Adams, Diggs and Travis Kelce. One factor to consider here: the rumors that Julio Jones could be on the move. If the Falcons were to part ways with Jones, Ridley would assume the No. 1 role in the offense -- and then require a paycheck to match. Atlanta picked up Ridley's fifth-year option for 2022.
PROJECTED APY: $14M-plus
A Ravens offense devoid of wide-receiver threats has leaned heavily on its tight ends in the passing game. Lamar Jackson's favorite target through the air, Andrews leads Baltimore in targets (186), receptions (122), receiving yards (1,553) and receiving touchdowns (17) over the last two seasons. That receiving touchdown total also puts him first among tight ends and eighth among all players since 2019. The only tight ends with more receiving yards than Andrews over that span are Travis Kelce (2,645), Darren Waller (2,341), and George Kittle (1,687) -- and that group includes the two-highest paid players at the position (Kittle and Kelce). The 25-year-old Andrews enters the final season of his rookie contract in 2021. Though Baltimore added more pass-catching options (veteran Sammy Watkins and first-round pick Rashod Bateman), Andrews' value to the team is clear.
PROJECTED APY: $23M
Each of the last two left tackles to reset the offensive line market -- Green Bay's David Bakhtiari and San Francisco's Trent Williams -- were veterans on their third contracts. The next such player who could be line to reset the market is Armstead, who has started 83 games since 2014, earned Pro Bowl nods in each of the past three seasons and is currently playing on his second NFL contract, an extension signed in 2016.
Armstead's overall PFF grade trails only Bakhtiari's (and ranks right ahead of Williams') among all left tackles since 2018; Bakhtiari ($23.0 million APY) and Williams ($23.01 million APY) are the top two highest-paid offensive linemen in the NFL. In terms of pass protection, only Bakhtiari and Baltimore's Ronnie Stanley have had higher pass blocking grades than Armstead at the position over the past three seasons. Stanley is currently the fourth-highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL. Armstead will be 30 years old and a free agent in March 2022.
ON THE RADAR:
Orlando Brown, Kansas City Chiefs: Brown will get his wish -- and his father's wish for him -- this season when he suits up as a full-time left tackle in the NFL. After Stanley suffered an injury in 2020, Brown, who had played right tackle since being drafted by Baltimore in 2018, started 10 games at left tackle and made the Pro Bowl. (He also earned that honor on the right side in 2019.) The Chiefs knew when they acquired the 25-year-old Brown from the Ravens this offseason that he'd be in need of a new contract (or the franchise tag) prior to the 2022 offseason. The team also recently made Joe Thuney the highest-paid guard in the NFL.
NOTE: Philadelphia's Lane Johnson is the NFL's highest-paid right tackle ($18.0 million APY).
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE
PROJECTED APY: $18M-plus
Nelson has been the NFL's most physically dominant interior offensive lineman since he was selected sixth overall in 2018. Blocks like this, this and this -- the latter of which won an NFL Way to Play award in 2019 -- have been common occurrences during his short tenure in Indianapolis.
Nelson, Aaron Donald and Bobby Wagner are the only players selected to both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro team in each of the last three seasons. Cowboys right guard Zack Martin, who has made six Pro Bowls in seven NFL seasons, is the only interior offensive lineman with a higher PFF grade than Nelson since 2018. The 25-year-old is eligible for an extension, and the Colts would be wise to get this market-setting deal done sooner rather than later. The Colts picked up Nelson's fifth-year option this offseason. He's signed through the 2022 season.
ON THE RADAR:
Brandon Scherff, Washington Football Team: Scherff, 29, is scheduled to play on his second consecutive franchise tag in 2021, which would bring his two-year total to $33.1 million. The $18.036 million franchise tag would make him the fifth-highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL by APY. Injuries have cost Scherff multiple games in each of the last four seasons, but Washington surely doesn't want to lose another Pro Bowl offensive lineman after saying goodbye to Trent Williams prior to last season.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
No one is listed here because no one really stands to reset this position's market at the moment. There just isn't a defensive presence along the interior line anything quite like current leader Aaron Donald. Since Donald signed an extension in 2018, three other players have signed deals worth $20 million-plus annually at this position (Chris Jones, DeForest Buckner and Leonard Williams), but none has exceeded Donald's in terms of total value ($135 million), guarantees ($86.9 million), or annual average ($22.5 million).
It's within the realm of possibility that the next interior defensive lineman to surpass Donald's average annual value will be, well, Aaron Donald. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year should hold his spot on the All-Paid Team for the foreseeable future; Donald's 85.5 career sacks lead the NFL since 2014. The 2019 draft class, which included six first-round interior defensive lineman, also has some promise to push Donald for this distinction, with those players becoming eligible for an extension following the 2021 season.
ON THE RADAR:
Vita Vea, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The 26-year-old Vea played just five games during the 2020 regular season, but he still turned in PFF's third-highest grade at the position, behind Donald and Jones. Vea returned for the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, contributing five quarterback pressures on 49 pass-rush snaps. Vea will get paid because he weighs 347 pounds and possesses the ability to affect the quarterback rather than just stop the run.
PROJECTED APY: $27M-plus
The 26-year-old Watt has been the league's premier edge rusher over the last two seasons, pacing the NFL in sacks (29.5), quarterback hits (77) and tackles for loss (37). He's also tied with Marlon Humphrey with 10 forced fumbles over that span. In 2020, Watt was arguably a Defensive Player of the Year snub, given that he led the NFL in each of these categories, was PFF's highest-graded pass rusher and was selected to his second straight All-Pro team. In terms of total QB pressures, Watt tied for first with 2020 DPOY Aaron Donald (71), according to Next Gen Stats, though he bested Donald -- and all other players with 250-plus pass-rush snaps -- in pressure percentage (16.3%).
The edge-rusher market saw both Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett sign deals worth $25 million-plus per season in 2020. Watt's older brother, J.J. Watt, had his time as the NFL's highest-paid defensive player in 2014 when he signed a six-year, $100 million extension with the Texans in 2014. (J.J., 32, was released by Houston and signed with Arizona this offseason.) Little brother will be cashing bigger checks soon.
PROJECTED APY: $18M-plus
Leonard's game can be described quite simply with this phrase: find and fly to the football. He utilizes his height (6-foot-2), length (34 3/8-inch arms) and speed to disrupt offenses, track sideline to sideline and fill up the stat sheet. Though timed at 4.70 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2018, Leonard plays much faster. When the whistle blows, you can bet that No. 53 is somewhere near the football.
The 25-year-old's 416 career tackles rank fourth in the NFL since 2018 -- in that span, the two-time All-Pro is the only player with 200-plus tackles against the run and the pass and the only player with 10.0-plus sacks and 10-plus takeaways. To further distinguish himself from his peers, Leonard's the only player in NFL history with 15.0-plus sacks and seven-plus interceptions over his first three NFL seasons (individual sacks have been recorded since 1982).
Leonard progressed from criticized second-round pick to 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year and first-team All-Pro (and Pro Bowl snub) in a span of eight months. Now, he's simply one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He'll be a free agent after the upcoming season and will either get an extension or the franchise tag before the 2022 league year opens next March.
ON THE RADAR:
Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers: Warner could easily be the one to take Leonard's spot on this list. He's one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL, and although statistics can tell Warner's story as well, this quote from 2020 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers speaking to Warner postgame says all that needs to be said: "Unfortunately, name recognition means too much. Ain't nobody better. There really isn't. You're the best, and everybody knows it. The film don't lie. You should be All-Pro."
PROJECTED APY: $20M-plus
Alexander's reputation has finally caught up to his performance. Though he had his rough patches during his first two seasons, the 2018 first-round pick also flashed elite traits and the potential to be the best player at his position. The first-time Pro Bowler put together the most consistent and dominant campaign by a cornerback in 2020. This sums up his season: Alexander (24) allowed the fewest receiving yards (335), the lowest completion percentage (48.0, tied), and the lowest passer rating in coverage (52.9) among 66 corners with at least 60 targets in coverage, including the playoffs (according to PFF). He was also PFF's highest-graded player at the position. He shadowed both Calvin Ridley and Mike Evans on 75 percent-plus of their routes in their respective contests and allowed no receptions. Alexander is under contract through 2022, as the Packers picked up his fifth-year option this offseason.
ON THE RADAR:
Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints: Lattimore, 24, is scheduled to play this season on the fifth-year option. The 2017 first-round pick has made three Pro Bowls in four career seasons. Only Kyle Fuller (63) and Darius Slay (62) have more passes defensed than Lattimore (55) since he entered the NFL. His yearly intra-division battles with Julio Jones and Mike Evans are almost always must-watch TV.
Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns: Ward has been plagued by absence, missing at least three games in each of his first three seasons. However, Ward's 40 passes defensed are tied for eighth in the NFL since 2018. Ward, 24, is an elite talent that needs to stay on the field to cement his value at the position. The Browns exercised Ward's fifth-year option this offseason.
PROJECTED APY: $17M
Adams and Minkah Fitzpatrick should each have their time as the NFL's highest-paid safety, with the player to hold that distinction first likely creating the floor for the other in negotiations. Adams, 25, enters 2021 on the final season (fifth-year option) of his rookie contract, while Fitzpatrick still has 2021 and 2022 left on his deal.
Adams has an interesting and legitimate argument in upcoming negotiations: he's probably the team's best pass rusher, having finished 2020 with 9.5 sacks in 12 games, the highest sack total by a defensive back in NFL history (individual sacks recorded since 1982). The 2017 sixth overall pick has increased his sack and QB hit totals in each of his four seasons, although he only has two career interceptions. His impact on the Seahawks' defense was quite tangible, seeing as how the team allowed almost a touchdown more without Adams (28.3 PPG allowed) than with him (21.5 PPG allowed).
Seattle traded a package that included two first-round picks for Adams last July. Adams may have agreed to play 2020 on his current deal, but it's no secret Adams rightfully wants long-term security. Locking up the three-time Pro Bowler will be a priority for the team.
ON THE RADAR:
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers: Drafted 11th overall by Miami in 2018, Fitzpatrick, 24, came to Pittsburgh via trade and transformed an already great defense. The 2019 and 2020 All-Pro has forced an incompletion on 29.3 percent of his targets in coverage since 2019, the highest rate among 95 safeties with at least 25 targets in coverage (per PFF). His nine interceptions over that span are tied with the NFL's highest-paid safety, Justin Simmons, and rank second among safeties (only Tyrann Mathieu has more, with 10). Pittsburgh has allowed the fewest points per game (18.5) since acquiring Fitzpatrick prior to Week 3 of the 2019 season. The Steelers exercised Fitzpatrick's fifth-year option for the 2022 season.
Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers: The 24-year-old James has had such misfortune with injuries in his young career. In 2018, James barely came off the field for the Chargers and finished with 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors as a rookie -- but he's missed 27 games over the last two seasons, including the entire 2020 season. When James is heathy, he can do anything a defensive coordinator could ask from a single player: cover the pass, play the run, rush the passer. The Chargers picked up James' fifth-year option this offseason, which keeps him under contract through the 2022 season.