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Why Jamal Adams May Have to Wait for His Contract Extension

The Jets All-Pro safety has earned an extension, but recent history shows he may have to wait at least another year

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Editor’s note, June 18, 2020: On Thursday, ESPN’s Rich Cimini reported that the situation between the Jets and Jamal Adams had worsened, and that the safety has requested a trade.

With Tom Brady gone from New England, the AFC East is wide open for the first time in two decades, and the Patriots’ rivals are planning a coup. In March, the Buffalo Bills traded for Minnesota star receiver Stefon Diggs in hopes of improving on last year’s 10-6 record and taking their first division title in 25 years. In April, the Miami Dolphins used three first-round draft picks, headlined by Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, to kick off their extensive rebuild. But while the Bills and Dolphins are plotting to overthrow hegemony, the Jets are stuck in a contract quagmire with their best player.

Jets All-Pro safety Jamal Adams wants a new contract. He is skipping the Jets’ voluntary activities—which in the past meant not showing up to voluntary practices, but during the pandemic means not logging in for voluntary Zoom calls. It’s the latest chapter in the developing Adams saga after Dallas reportedly offered a first-round pick for him at last year’s trade deadline. Those trade talks seem to have been tabled—for now. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Jets are focused on making sure the season starts on time before figuring out Adams’s long-term extension, and he also reported that Adams’s contract isn’t an impasse so much as the two sides “haven’t really gotten anywhere yet.” A trade is unlikely, according to Rapoport, at least until the Cowboys work out a deal with Dak Prescott by the July 15 franchise tag deadline. But if Adams, a Jets team captain, goes from skipping voluntary virtual practices to holding out of real-life training camp, things could change fast. An Adams holdout would throw the Jets defense off-kilter for a season in which stellar defense may be the team’s best hope for a division title.

While quarterback Sam Darnold is the most important player to New York’s present and future, Adams is the team’s best defender. He is one of the most respected players in the locker room, one of the most beloved players by Jets fans, and one of the most charismatic players in the entire NFL. He was named a first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press last year, while Pro Football Focus graded him as the league’s fourth-best safety. He ranked second on the team in sacks last year with 6.5, tied the team lead in quarterback hits, ranked second in tackles, and tied the team lead with two forced fumbles. He led all NFL safeties in sacks and his 25 quarterback pressures were more than double what all but two safeties had in 2019. Adams also graded as PFF’s seventh-best safety in pass coverage last year. Adams has the speed to cover receivers on the outside, agility to cover them in the slot, size to cover tight ends, strength to stop the run, and wits to rush the passer. Not only does he do all of those things, but he does them at a high level. He also brings a competitive attitude and devotion to winning that is key to turning around a wayward franchise.

“He has been the heart and soul of our defense,” head coach Adam Gase said at the end of last season.

The heart and soul of the Jets defense wants some more love.

Adams has been unhappy with the Jets front office since at least October, when reports swirled that he might get traded at the deadline. Adams tweeted that Jets general manager Joe Douglas “went behind my back and shopped me around to teams, even after I asked him to keep me here!” The fact that Adams has not deleted this tweet is a testament to either Adams’s confidence or cockiness, depending on your point of view.

Douglas clarified that the Jets received phone calls from teams interested in an All-Pro safety, not actively calling other teams, but Adams didn’t seem to care about the distinction.

“It definitely hurt,” Adams told reporters at the time. “I hold myself at a high level. The Rams, they don’t take calls on Aaron Donald. The Patriots don’t take calls on Tom Brady.”

The Athletic reported that the Cowboys and Ravens were most interested in Adams, and that Dallas offered a first-round pick but the Jets wanted two additional second-rounders. Adams reportedly warmed up to the idea of playing for Dallas, but ultimately he was not traded. Once the deadline came and went, the relationship seemed to be on better ground, as discussions have turned to a contract extension, which Adams is now eligible for after three years of NFL service time. At the NFL combine in February, GM Joe Douglas said that he wanted Adams to be a “Jet for life.” But three months later, there is little evidence that any progress has been made on a contract extension, casting another cloud over a Jets team that already excels at raining on their own parade.

There is no question that Adams is underpaid. He is one of the league’s best safeties, but the nonnegotiable contract he signed as a rookie will make him the 25th-highest paid player at his position this year. The current highest-paid safety is Chicago’s Eddie Jackson at $14.6 million annually. Assuming Adams wants to be the highest paid player at his position, he’ll likely seek a deal in the range of $15 million annually. Based on his play, there is no doubt Adams will get a new deal—eventually. But getting one this year is going to be tough.

All NFL negotiations revolve around precedent, and few first-round picks sign a contract extension after three years. As ESPN’s Rich Cimini reported, just 16 of the 223 players drafted in the first round since 2011 (7 percent) signed an extension after their third season. Four of those 16 players (Houston’s J.J. Watt, St. Louis’s Robert Quinn, Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly) played defense. Pass rusher Khalil Mack won Defensive Player of the Year in his third season and still couldn’t get a contract extension until the end of his fourth year—and that only came after the Raiders traded him to Chicago. Denver pass rusher Von Miller waited five years for a contract extension, which came after he won Super Bowl MVP to cap that fifth season. Aaron Donald—whom Adams compared himself to in October when Donald was the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year—didn’t get an extension with the Rams until 2018, when he was about to enter his fifth NFL season. If that recent history wasn’t enough to hurt Adams’s case, Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey told reporters this week he will not hold out this year and will report to training camp without a contract extension. Ramsey is in line for a larger contract than Adams, has been in the league a year longer, and is one of the few defensive backs who may be more talented than Adams. If Ramsey is going to enter his fifth season without holding out for a new contract, surely the Jets will cite him as an example for why Adams is not getting a deal after his third season. Even when Adams compares himself to the best of the best, he doesn’t have much of a case.

These stars wait for contract extensions not because they want to, but because they must. Since NFL teams control players selected in the first round for up to six years after the draft (a four-year contract, a fifth-year option, and the franchise tag in Year 6), players who want an extension after three seasons don’t have much leverage. Players have even less leverage amid the pandemic, as fans are probably less likely to side with a player holding out for a raise when a quarter of American workers have filed for unemployment since March. While Adams deserves a new contract, everything in recent NFL history suggests he’ll have to wait until next season to get it. But Adams has a particularly intricate understanding of how quickly a promising NFL career can be cut short, and he may be more willing to win a staredown contest than most.

Holding tough in negotiations runs in the Adams family. Adams’s father, George, was a running back drafted with the 19th pick by the New York Giants in 1985 (he went three picks after Jerry Rice). Of the Giants’ 13 draft picks that year, Adams was the last one to sign his contract. The New York Times reported at the time that Adams was offered an average of $316,000 over five years, but he and his agent held firm until he signed for $375,000 per season over four years. Adams had 887 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie for the Giants, and entering his second season, head coach Bill Parcells told him, “I’m going to give you the ball 30 times a game.” But a few days later, Adams suffered a freak hip injury when he was tripped during a noncontact practice and his femur popped out of his socket. His career never recovered. Adams missed the entire 1986 season while Giants running back Joe Morris was named a first-team All-Pro and led the Giants to a Super Bowl win. Adams eventually sued the Giants for damages related to his injury. George’s left leg is three inches shorter than his right leg due to the injury and he walks with a limp, but he told ESPN’s Rich Cimini he has no bitterness toward the game and has enjoyed seeing Jamal play on—especially since Adams has worn his father’s no. 33 jersey at every level of football. But Jamal also told Cimini his father’s injury is a reminder that a career can be changed on one play. As Jamal goes through negotiations 34 years after his dad’s injury, his love for football is pitted against their family history of how quickly the game can be taken away.

“This is business, and it’s hard going through it,” George told Newsday in November after Jamal got upset about the trade reports. “[Jamal] loves the game. He loves football and he’ll give anything to play football.”

The situation is reminiscent of the Jets’ prolonged contract negotiation with star cornerback Darrelle Revis, who had advice from his uncle Sean Gilbert, a former defensive lineman for Washington who sat out the entire 1997 season in a contract dispute. Revis held out for 35 days in 2010 until he signed a contract extension on September 5. The Jets went 11-5 that season, their best record of the 21st century, and made the AFC championship game (they have not been to the playoffs since). While Adams is not as good as Revis, he’s adamant about the impact he wants to have on the team.

“I want to bring a Super Bowl to this organization,” Jamal Adams told Newsday in November. “That’s why I feel like I was placed in New York, to pick up where my dad left off. His career was cut short. I feel that’s my calling.”