Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson avoided the drama that comes when a player heads into a contract year when he inked a record-setting four-year, $140 million extension back in mid-April—thanks in part to the negotiation deadline he set for the team. But few players hold that kind of leverage, and a throng of talented, high-profile playmakers are heading into next season on the final year of their contracts and looking to cash in with big-money extensions.
Some will end up getting extensions before training camp kicks off; a few will re-sign sometime during the season; and others still will be forced to play the year out while looking forward to unrestricted free agency or the franchise tag next spring. Excluding players set to play on the franchise tag (like Jadeveon Clowney and Grady Jarrett) or guys on one-year “prove-it” deals (like Devin Funchess, Ezekiel Ansah, and Dante Fowler), here are the contract-year All-Stars for the 2019 season.
LB Bobby Wagner, Seahawks
The Seahawks made Wilson the foundation of their offense, and now they need to decide whether Wagner will continue to be the same for their defense. After trading defensive end Frank Clark to the Chiefs and letting safety Earl Thomas walk in free agency, Seattle should have the long-term cap flexibility to make the eighth-year veteran the highest-paid middle linebacker in the league. And that’s likely what it’s going to take to keep him: Wagner is going to be looking to beat the deal that C.J. Mosley got from the Jets, which was a market-setting five-year, $85 million pact that contains $51 million overall in guarantees.
Wagner is a five-time All-Pro and the heartbeat of Seattle’s new-look, post-Legion of Boom defense: He has sideline-to-sideline speed, is dominant against the run, can cover, and is an excellent blitzer. If there’s a middle linebacker in the NFL who’s worth north of $17 million per year in average annual value, it’s Wagner―and the Seahawks are going to have to pony up some big bucks to keep their star defender.
WR Michael Thomas, Saints
With Thomas heading into the final year of his rookie deal, the Saints need to start planning how—or if—they’re going to pay to keep the 26-year-old All-Pro. Thomas, who racked up an NFL-best 125 catches for 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns last year (and has reeled in an NFL-top 321 receptions since he came into the league), will likely have Odell Beckham Jr.-type money in mind (a contract somewhere in the vicinity of the five-year deal Beckham signed last August that’s worth $90 million and averages $18 million in annual value).
Thomas is the complete package as a pass catcher and has size, speed, hands, and the ability to line up all over the field—so it may seem like a no-brainer for the Saints to dole out a well-earned new contract. But New Orleans is a bit of a wild card as a franchise—it’s a team that’s previously traded star playmakers like Jimmy Graham and Brandin Cooks in order to free up money at other positions—and now may be reticent to give Thomas the type of top-of-market money he’s seeking. If that’s the case, the franchise tag looms.
DE Yannick Ngakoue, Jaguars
There’s little question that Ngakoue is due for a massive payday. He’s a young, disruptive edge-rushing menace who has already racked up 29.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles in three seasons in the league. But it remains to be seen how the Jaguars will approach his situation: The team could give the 24-year-old a big new deal prior to the season and reward the former third-rounder for far outplaying his draft stock. Or, it may opt to let him play out his rookie deal, reap the benefits of his paltry $2.2 million cap hit, and then use the franchise tag next spring as leverage for an extension (or, as we saw with both Dee Ford and Frank Clark this year, to facilitate a trade). Things could change, but Ngakoue has already pledged to play the season out whether he gets a long-term deal or not.
CB Chris Harris Jr., Broncos
Harris has long been one of the most underpaid cornerbacks in the NFL, and he knows it. The versatile playmaker recently requested a new contract or a trade as the final year of his deal approaches. But so far, the cap-strapped Broncos have balked at a long-term extension.
Whether it comes prior to this year or after 2019, the 29-year-old veteran likely has his sights set on matching or beating two particular deals: The five-year, $72.5 million contract Trumaine Johnson (also 29) signed with the Jets last March; and the five-year, $75 million contract a then-28-year-old Josh Norman signed with the Redskins in 2016. The length of the deal may be negotiable, but I doubt the three-time All-Pro will be looking to settle for anything less than an average annual value of $15 million. After racking up 80 passes defensed and 19 picks during the past eight seasons, he’s earned it.
WR A.J. Green, Bengals
Green has quietly dominated throughout his eight-year career, and now he’s heading into the final season of a four-year, $60 million deal. That puts the Bengals at a crossroads: Will the team make the seven-time Pro Bowler—who’s racked up 63 touchdowns since he came into the league in 2011—one of the highest-paid pass catchers in the NFL? Or, will they look to use that cap space elsewhere on what could be the beginning stages of a mini-rebuild under new head coach Zac Taylor? Green, who turns 31 at the end of July and will be looking for a deal that pays him north of $16 million per year, is an elite playmaker who can help whomever the team ends up with at quarterback over the next few years. He could also be a powerful trade chip for a team that has holes to patch at multiple spots.
QB Dak Prescott and WR Amari Cooper, Cowboys
The Cowboys inked pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence to a five-year, $105 million extension in April. Now they have a couple of more big decisions to make on the respective futures of two more of their potential foundational players: Dallas seems determined to lock up both Prescott and Cooper long term, but neither player represents a cut-and-dry, no-brainer course of action. Prescott has produced up-and-down performances in the two years following his breakout rookie campaign. Cooper helped jump-start an anemic Cowboys offense after being acquired from the Raiders midway through last year, but he’s been anything but the model of consistency in his four years in the league.
The money needed to keep either player will be significant. Prescott won’t command Russell Wilson money, but in a quarterback-centric league, he might fetch a deal that averages $30 million per year. As for Cooper, the former first-rounder is set to make $13.9 million playing on a fifth-year option in 2019—and has reportedly initiated negotiations with “shockingly high” demands. That conjures images of Beckham Jr. money. Of course, Cooper is probably just starting high, as that’s how negotiations work. But there’s little doubt he’ll look to eclipse the $16 million in average annual value that Sammy Watkins is pulling in on a three-year deal in Kansas City.
DE Chris Jones, Chiefs
After trading for Frank Clark and handing him a five-year, $104 million contract, the Chiefs must now turn to retaining Jones, their ascending 24-year-old defensive lineman. The 6-foot-6, 311-pound defender led the team with 15.5 sacks last season and has racked up 24.0 sacks in his three years in the league, but is set to make just $1.2 million in 2019 on the final year of his rookie contract. The disruptive former second-rounder has elected to stay away from Kansas City’s OTAs as he reportedly looks to secure a long-term extension.
After sinking so much money into Clark’s market-setting deal, though, Kansas City must decide whether it makes sense to dedicate so much of its cap to the defensive line. The team may elect to let Jones play out his final year before using the franchise tag on him next spring.
DE Leonard Williams, Jets
With Adam Gase emerging victorious in the team’s front-office power struggle, change is in the air in New York—which leaves Williams’s future with the team in doubt. The former sixth overall pick is set to make a guaranteed $14.2 million this year playing on his fifth-year option, but as the Jets make the switch to Gregg Williams’s defensive scheme and build the line around new arrival Quinnen Williams, the team may not have Leonard in their long-term plans. The 6-foot-5, 302-pound defender has notched 17.0 sacks in four seasons and is just 24. A strong season in New York could help propel Williams toward the head of the list of the NFL’s top free agents heading into 2020.
LB Deion Jones, Falcons
Jones seemed to be on his way to superstardom following the 2017 season, but a foot injury limited the dynamic linebacker to just six games in 2018 and slowed that trajectory. Still, the 24-year-old has the skill set to quickly return to his crucial role in the middle of Atlanta’s defense this season, which gives the Falcons reason to consider an early extension for their playmaking linebacker. Jones’s full-season stats from two years ago illustrate his impact: He racked up 138 tackles, 10 passes defensed, three picks, and a sack. Another season with those kinds of numbers and Jones could push for top-of-market money. If Atlanta gave him the right offer now, it could get a discount.
RB Melvin Gordon, Chargers
Gordon got off to a slow start as a rookie but has been one of the most consistently productive backs in the NFL in the past three years. Since the start of 2016, Gordon is second only to Todd Gurley in total touchdowns (38). The former Badger has been one of the foundational pieces of the Chargers offense in that stretch; he ranks fourth among running backs in rushing yards (2,987), is tied for second in rushing touchdowns (28), ranks eighth in receptions (149), and is tied for fourth in receiving scores (10). It’s always risky to give big-money contracts to running backs (just think about how the Rams are feeling about Gurley and his knee right now), but it’s going to be very interesting to see how L.A. approaches Gordon’s long-term status with the team as he plays on his fifth-year option in 2019.
LT Joe Staley, 49ers
At 34, Staley’s the elder statesman on this list, but the six-time Pro Bowler should have enough left in the tank to land at least one final big-money deal before he rides off into the sunset. San Francisco general manager John Lynch has already said he wants to keep Staley in the Bay Area long term. The dependable left tackle should command something around $11.5 million per year in average annual value, and contracts recently signed by Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth (a three-year deal worth $33.7 million) and Seahawks left tackle Duane Brown (a three-year extension worth $34.5 million) act as precedent. The 49ers would be smart to protect Jimmy Garoppolo’s blind side for the foreseeable future, and locking Staley in past 2019 is the most logical option.
QBs Jameis Winston, Buccaneers and Marcus Mariota, Titans
Winston and Mariota aren’t exactly “All-Stars,” per se, but you’re going to be hearing an awful lot about this duo all season as the top two picks of the 2015 draft play out their respective fifth-year options. Both face make-or-break seasons with the teams that drafted them.
Winston will get his shot at a long-term deal with the Buccaneers under new head coach Bruce Arians, whose aggressive vertical passing scheme could be the perfect fit for the strong-armed quarterback. Ultimately, though, Winston must take the next step as a decision-maker and prove that he can distribute the football while avoiding the back-breaking turnovers that have plagued him throughout his career.
Mariota, meanwhile, must prove first that he can stay healthy. The fifth-year pro has missed games in every year of his career, and his performance has really suffered as he’s fought through various ailments during the past two seasons. Mariota is set to play under Arthur Smith in Tennessee this year (his fifth offensive coordinator in as many seasons). But after the team added yet another highly drafted playmaker, second-round receiver A.J. Brown, Mariota has a chance to resuscitate his flatlining career.