On Friday afternoon, Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard grabbed the (illusory) title of the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL with a five-year, $75.3 million contract extension, prompting many football fans to ask the same question: Who the heck is Xavien Howard?
No offense to Howard, the second-round pick out of Baylor in 2016 who earned his first Pro Bowl nomination last year. He certainly deserved a raise after establishing himself as Miami’s best defensive player last year (though his deal is a lot more team-friendly than it seems on the surface). In terms of the broader league picture, however, Howard’s new deal itself isn’t nearly as interesting as what it means for the future of a different Florida cornerback: Jacksonville’s Jalen Ramsey. The 24-year-old Jaguar has the potential to become the highest-paid cornerback in football and perhaps reset the cornerback market altogether, but only if he can return to playing as well as he talks trash.
At $15.05 million per year in annual value, Howard’s deal technically passes Josh Norman’s deal with Washington in 2016, but by the more representative metric of money guaranteed at signing, Howard’s $27.2 million falls short of the $36.5 million guaranteed that Norman received. Norman’s contract is still by far the best for any cornerback in football, and it’s been that way since the year he signed it, when the NFL salary cap was $155 million. This year the salary cap is $188 million, a 21 percent increase and a reflection of the NFL’s march toward Roger Goodell’s goal of $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027. In other words, teams have a lot more money to spend on player salaries than they did a few years ago, but cornerbacks aren’t topping each other’s salaries like we’ve seen with pass rushers.
Ramsey will likely change that, though it might not be with the Jaguars. The first true freshman to start at cornerback for Florida State since Deion Sanders, Ramsey was drafted fifth overall by the Jaguars in 2016 and has been one of the league’s top cornerbacks since, including becoming a first-team All-Pro in 2017. He will have a $7.4 million cap hit in 2019, and will play on a $13.7 million fifth-year option in 2020, the final year of his rookie contract. The Jaguars could also use the franchise tag on Ramsey in 2021, when the tender for cornerbacks will likely be just under $17 million. That figure will likely be the starting point for an average annual salary in negotiations, putting Ramsey in line for something in the ballpark of a five-year deal for $85 million, $40 million of which would be guaranteed at signing.
The Jaguars have been one of the most cap-strapped teams for a couple of years, the result of building the most expensive defensive line in NFL history and then shelling out for Nick Foles and guard Andrew Norwell in free agency the past two seasons. But NFL contracts are big, fat lies, so any team can create the space it desires. Jacksonville is a mortal lock to decline its club option on defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and save $20 million of cap space next offseason. Linebackers Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue are both free agents in 2020, and the team would have to let at least one leave to pay Ramsey. Considering the construction of the Jacksonville roster, Jack is the more likely candidate to go.
Unfortunately for Ramsey, Jacksonville doesn’t have a ton of incentive to pay him now. Including the team’s ability to use the franchise tag on him, he is still under team control for three years, and the Jaguars may want to see more consistency before cutting a big check. In 2017, Ramsey was a first-team All-Pro and tied for the second-highest grade among cornerbacks from Pro Football Focus. He was also the league’s swashbuckling king shit-talker, the face of a rambunctious Jaguars team that got to the doorstep of Super Bowl LII. As Ramsey told GQ, the team raised Jacksonville’s bar for success, and the challenge was keeping it there.
“How well we gonna be able to stay on the top?” Ramsey asked. “We’ve gotten there—well, to a certain aspect. We got another level to get as a team, but me, individually, how am I going to continue to show people that I’m still at the top? That’s the battle I’m going against, internally.”
Ramsey and the Jaguars lost that battle in 2018. The Jaguars went from 10-6 and first in the AFC South in 2017 to 5-11 and last place. Ramsey missed the All-Pro team altogether and went from tied for the second-highest-graded cornerback in 2017 by PFF to 41st in 2018. Ramsey’s words came back to bite him big time when four of the quarterbacks he trash-talked in that GQ article—Andrew Luck, Dak Prescott, Ben Roethlisberger, and Josh Allen—combined to go 4-0 against the Jaguars. He’s still one of the best young cornerbacks in football by any measure, and while he fell out of the elite in 2018, a bounceback year would put him on the right track for a major extension either in 2020 or 2021.
But even if he turns in another All-Pro campaign in 2019, there still may be some friction with the team. Ramsey was one of two players who did not show for voluntary workouts last month, marking the second season in a row that the cornerback skipped voluntary team activities. (The other player who didn’t show was linebacker Telvin Smith, who announced on Instagram last week that he is taking the 2019 season off.)
Jaguars executive vice president Tom Coughlin didn’t hide his displeasure with Ramsey’s absence: “We’re very close to 100 percent attendance and, quite frankly, our players should be here building the concept of team, working hard side-by-side, constructing our bond of togetherness, formulating our collective priorities and goals,” Coughlin said in April. The remark, which may violate provisions in the CBA preventing teams from punishing players who skip the voluntary practices, drew the ire of Ramsey’s agent, David Mulugheta, and the league, which sent Coughlin a warning that he could be fined.
While Coughlin is technically not allowed to say that players should be at OTAs, Ramsey’s absence undeniably left an impression. Coughlin once fined his Giants players for being two minutes early to a meeting because “meetings start five minutes early.” He has famously softened his hardline attitude since then, but not enough to forgive not showing up altogether. Fair or not, Ramsey’s absence could certainly sow doubt on whether Coughlin wants to make Ramsey the team’s highest-paid defender. Add in a few more ingredients—another sub-.500 season and all of the locker room ills that come with it, plus another subpar year from Ramsey—and the front office may decide to trade Ramsey rather than re-sign him to a record-setting contract extension.
The potential for such a trade has been brewing for six months. On November 12, one day after the Jaguars came out of their bye week and lost to the division rival Colts to fall to 3-6 on the season, Ramsey sent a cryptic tweet.
When I’m gone from here, y’all gone miss me. I ain’t even trippin lol— Jalen Ramsey (@jalenramsey) November 12, 2018
Less than a week later, on November 18, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Ramsey was “likely to be one of the many players whose names will unexpectedly emerge in trade talks this offseason.”
One line from Schefter’s report now reads as particularly ominous in retrospect:
“As unthinkable as trading away a player of Ramsey’s caliber would be, bear in mind that the Giants considered trading Odell Beckham Jr. last offseason before deciding to sign the star receiver to a long-term contract.”
The Jaguars said in response to the report that they had “zero intention” of trading Ramsey, but Ramsey didn’t buy the denial. He told ESPN’s Michael DiRocco that he would judge how sincere Jacksonville is about keeping him by the team’s approach to contract negotiations, not the statements it put out, and he said if the Jaguars weren’t serious about contract talks perhaps he would end up elsewhere. Since then, Jaguars GM David Caldwell has insisted the team is keeping Ramsey.
“We’re not going to trade Jalen,” Caldwell told ProFootballTalk at the combine in February. “When you have a player that’s one of the top at his position, it’s hard to replace that player.”
But two months later came Coughlin’s terseness about Ramsey’s absence, which Ramsey responded to after seeing a tweet from new Washington safety Landon Collins (another Mulugheta client) in which Collins “recruited” him to Washington and referenced the 1995 Source Awards.
All of this served as the leadup to the announcement of Howard’s new contract last Friday. At a position where reputation is everything, it might be hard for Ramsey not to dig in and demand the biggest cornerback deal in the league by a long shot. For the Jaguars, there’s little reason to pay Ramsey until he proves he can return to his peak form. If Ramsey can return to the mountaintop in 2019, he’ll likely come down the highest-paid cornerback in the league—and no football fans will have to ask “who is Jalen Ramsey?”