Jalen Hurts stands alone – for now.
With the five-year, $255 million contract extension he struck with the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday, the quarterback and NFL MVP runner-up took his place as the league’s highest-paid player based on average annual salary. That makes for a remarkable accomplishment for a passer who began his professional career as a second-round draft pick with no certain path to a starting role as he sat behind Carson Wentz. Even when Hurts did earn the top job, his standing was repeatedly questioned by many fans until he led the Eagles to Super Bowl 57 last season.
But while Hurts now enjoys a singular financial place among his peers, he’s bound to have company in the near future.
Spring and summer in the NFL provide an opportunity for stars to reach big-money extensions, and the league’s annually expanding salary cap typically helps the latest crop of standouts fetch more lucrative paydays than those of their predecessors. That means the title of the league’s highest-paid player is a transient one, and the markets for individual positions are constantly being reset.
In light of Hurts’ deal, here are 10 NFL standout players who could be next in line for high-priced extensions:
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Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow
If there’s a front-runner to hold the title of the NFL’s highest-paid player at the start of next season, it’s Burrow. In transforming a franchise that won one game a year before his arrival to a Super Bowl contender, the No. 1 pick in 2020 has already surpassed all reasonable expectations for the early part of his career.
Now, a franchise once known for its stinginess – and one that has typically refused to budge in giving sizable guaranteed money – is left to ponder just how much it will have to pony up for its star signal-caller.
“The negotiations will happen primarily through his agent,” Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn said at the NFL annual league meeting, according to The Athletic. “But Joe, obviously, at the end of the day, it’s what Joe wants. And so I think Joe’s got to be happy, and we’ve got to be happy. And hopefully, we can be happy together.”
There’s little doubt that Burrow should top Hurts in average annual value whenever he signs his deal, but the area to watch will be guaranteed money. A Deshaun Watson-style fully guaranteed deal almost certainly will be a non-starter for the Bengals given the precedent they have set in past negotiations. Still, Burrow should eclipse Hurts’ runner-up total of $179.3 guaranteed even if he can’t touch Watson’s league-best of $230 million.
And with Cincinnati needing to figure out the biggest and most important piece of its financial future before addressing potential extensions with wide receiver Tee Higgins and linebacker Logan Wilson, who each are entering the final year of their deals, Burrow is in a strong position.
It’s only fitting that a quarterback known for evading the spotlight would generate minimal initial buzz with his extension negotiations. Asked Monday about the status of the team’s discussions with Herbert, coach Brandon Staley said the talks would remain private.
Herbert hasn’t enjoyed the postseason success that Hurts and Burrow can claim, with his lone postseason appearance in three seasons coming this past January in the Chargers’ wild-card collapse against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Still, a passer who has established himself among the league’s elite seems likely to end up in the same park as his 2020 draft mates.
“Yeah, I know the numbers are going to be big,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco told SiriusXM NFL Radio on March 31. “(Herbert’s) earned it, but we think we can win a Super Bowl with him. That’s a good problem to have. We’ll get it done at some point, and then we’ll go from there.”
Telesco acknowledged needing to “build the team a little bit differently” in the coming years to accommodate such a deal. That could mean rebalancing what has been a top-heavy roster.
Many of these negotiations are in their infancy, with both sides openly radiating optimism. Not so for the talks between Jackson and the Ravens, which have featured the 2019 NFL MVP making his trade request public amid a prolonged standoff.
That discord has left the signal-caller and franchise in a rather tenuous place, even as other teams have yet to pursue the franchise-tagged quarterback with an offer sheet. It’s unclear where exactly talks stand between the two sides, as negotiations that have been much discussed by outsiders have seldom been addressed with any meaningful insight by the parties involved.
One thing is certain, however: Neither Jackson nor the Ravens have the benefit of the extended timeline that the other players and teams on this list enjoy. The two must reach a long-term deal by July 17, at which point the only option for Jackson to play in 2022 would be on the franchise tag if no agreement has materialized.
Despite setting the record for most receiving yards by any player in his first three seasons (4,825), Jefferson hasn’t been preoccupied with the recent opening of his window for an extension. The Vikings, however, have left no doubt that a deal ranks high on the organization’s to-do list.
“I don’t want to be the Vikings’ GM without that guy on our team,” Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah told reporters at the NFL scouting combine. “So it’s a high priority. We’ve got to make sure we do it in the order that we can do it in, obviously, given all of our other decisions we have to make.”
Minnesota ranks last of all teams in available cap space for 2023 with just under $1.3 million, according to OverTheCap.com. Meanwhile, some of those “other decisions” Adofo-Mensah mentioned are pressing, including a potential split with Pro Bowl running back Dalvin Cook as well as a resolution for pass rusher Danielle Hunter and his distaste for his current deal. But whenever the Vikings get to hammering out something with Jefferson, it’s a good bet they’ll have to break the $30 million-per-year mark that Tyreek Hill set to top the wide receiver market.
The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year is a strong candidate to take over the title of the league’s highest-paid non-quarterback. That distinction currently belongs to Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who reached a three-year, $95 million agreement as part of a reworked deal last June. Yet Bosa, 25, looks primed to surpass him, with an immaculate track record that includes a league-high 18 ½ sacks in 2022.
Still, Bosa isn’t sweating where his eventual payout lands relative to his peers. When asked by reporters after the season whether he was looking to be the top-paid non-quarterback, Bosa said, “Not necessarily. We’ll just see where it goes.”
Whatever the final numbers are, Bosa seems like a lock to become the highest-paid edge rusher after T.J. Watt topped the market with his four-year, $112 million pact in September 2021. And Bosa should get family bragging rights by exceeding brother Joey Bosa’s $102 million in guarantees, which remains the highest figure for any non-quarterback.
When Carolina decided to deal a franchise centerpiece last fall in running back Christian McCaffrey, GM Scott Fitterer resisted moving Burns both before the trade deadline and in the package the team gave up to obtain the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.
The decision to turn down the Los Angeles Rams’ offer last fall of two first-round picks and a second-rounder, according to ESPN, speaks volumes regarding the Panthers’ commitment to the two-time Pro Bowler. Pass rushers who deliver the kind of production Burns has – 38 sacks, including a career-best 12 ½ last year – typically aren’t found outside of the top 10-15 picks in the draft, so any attempt at replacing him would require a significant investment.
“There’s a reason why we didn’t move him,” Fitterer said at the NFL scouting combine. “We met with his agent. We didn’t get into details or really talk about him. We’ll address that when we get there. But Brian Burns, he is one of the most dominant pass rushers. He’s young, one of the most athletic guys. And he still has a ton of upside when it comes to adding more strength, playing with more technique. That’s all there. The sky is in front of him. He’s a huge impact player.”
Fitterer has said the team would examine an extension after the draft. Expect any deal to put Burns in the top tier of edge rushers, with the top five all making at least $23.5 million per year.
The market for defensive tackles has exploded this offseason, with the 49ers’ Javon Hargrave (four years, $84 million), Washington Commanders’ Daron Payne (four years, $90 million) and Tennessee Titans’ Jeffery Simmons (four years, $94 million) already having cashed in. All those deals could be meaningful benchmarks for Williams and his accomplished peers on the interior.
Having already flashed his pass-rush potential the previous two seasons, Williams mounted an All-Pro campaign in 2022 when he recorded 12 sacks, which ranked second among all defensive tackles. Set to earn just $9.6 million this season after his fifth-year option was exercised by the team, the 6-3, 303-pounder is now sitting out the start of the voluntary offseason program after making it clear he believed he was due a hefty pay bump.
“I did everything right on and off the field,” Williams said after the season. “I want to be compensated for what I am.”
There should be sufficient motivation on the team side to get a deal done. Robert Saleh’s defensive scheme relies on creating pressure with the front four, and no one does that better for the Jets than Williams. And while the 2019 No. 3 overall pick was selected by Mike Maccagnan before his ouster, general manager Joe Douglas should want to keep one of his defensive cornerstones happy and mark a new era – especially with Aaron Rodgers still expected to be incoming – after the franchise did not re-sign any of its first-round draft picks from 2012-18.
Most defensive tackles who are comparable in size to the 6-4, 342-pound Lawrence are merely space eaters. But while the Clemson product is among the NFL’s elite run stuffers in the middle, he’s also shown uncommon pass rush prowess for a player of his build, recording a career-high 7 ½ sacks in his Pro Bowl 2022 season.
Lawrence has joined franchise-tagged running back Saquon Barkley in sitting out the start of voluntary workouts, but coach Brian Daboll has shrugged off their absences. Fortunately for both sides, a settling point should be apparent: An agreement that puts Lawrence somewhere in the arena of Hargrave, Payne and Simmons seems reasonable.
Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins
Unlike the other defensive tackles on this list, Wilkins hasn’t netted notable sack totals, compiling just 3 ½ last year and 11 ½ for his career. His impact, however, isn’t lost on coach Mike McDaniel, who said at the NFL annual league meeting that the team was in “constant conversations” with Wilkins.
The 6-4, 310-pounder’s role will be even more vital for the Dolphins this season with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who asks a lot of his defensive linemen so that he can play with light boxes and two-high shells. That should help the case for Wilkins to join other defensive tackles in the $20 million-per-year club.
Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones
Jones is the lone player on this list not coming off his rookie contract after reaching a four-year, $80 million deal to stay with the Chiefs in 2020. But there’s no questioning his credentials. The four-time Pro Bowl selection tied his career high last season with 15 ½ sacks, the best total for any defensive tackle.
“We’ll certainly have conversations with Chris and his agents,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said at the NFL scouting combine. “Doing something with Chris would make sense for us, and I think Chris will want to stay here and retire a Chief.”
Jones’ negotiations might not be as straightforward as the ones for the other defensive tackles on this list. According to The Athletic, the All-Pro selection is looking to be at least the second-highest paid defensive tackle behind Donald, which might take him out of the $23-25 million range of annual pay and closer to $30 million. Given that he is vital to the Chiefs’ contending chances and will only turn 29 in July, Jones has a strong case that he belongs in Donald’s company.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL contract extension candidates: Joe Burrow next big-money star?
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