Concerns about the salary cap and league revenue emerged early in the 2020 offseason as COVID-19 altered the landscape of sports. However, NFL teams went about their business, signing and extending the league’s best players. Let’s recap how a summer defined by a pandemic became an incredibly profitable season for NFL players.
These contracts look at base salary and mostly avoid incentives that could raise a deal’s value. When I discuss the size of contracts, I’m referring to the average annual salary players make, not the deal’s total value. All contract information comes from Spotrac.
While two stud quarterbacks reset the market, a quarterback who didn’t get paid generated the most headlines. Patrick Mahomes signed a mega-deal spanning ten-years and offering up $45 million annually. It’s the largest total sports contract in North American history. With the pieces they have in place, the Kansas City Chiefs could continue competing for Super Bowls over the next three to five years.
Deshaun Watson also cashed in during the offseason. The former college football National Champion signed a four-year extension worth $156 million. Making $39 million per season, Watson is the second-highest-paid player in the NFL, only trailing Mahomes. Russell Wilson held the old record at $35 million.
However, the Dallas Cowboys franchise tagging Dak Prescott instead of signing him outright drew the most attention. After a busy offseason, Prescott’s value is even higher than it was in the spring. The Cowboys cost themselves money in the long run.
Who says running backs are irrelevant and replaceable in today’s game? Christian McCaffrey is on a mission to revive the position. The Stanford product signed a four-year, $64.0635 million contract this offseason, making him the NFL’s highest-paid running back. McCaffrey is the only back making over $16 million per year.
During the summer, the running back market took off thanks to members of the loaded 2017 draft class demanding extensions. Alvin Kamara tied Ezekiel Elliott for the position’s second highest-paying contract with a five-year, $75 million deal ($15 million annually). The New Orleans Saints announced his contract shortly after the Minnesota Vikings gave Dalvin Cook a five-year, $62.5 million deal.
Derrick Henry and Joe Mixon signed less-lucrative contracts this offseason, but they’re still making the seventh and eighth most money annually at their position. Seven of the league’s ten highest-paid backs agreed to their contracts within the last seven months.
After years of stagnation, the tight end market began moving this offseason. While the position’s superstars didn’t get contracts on par with the NFL’s elite wide receivers, it’s a start.
Austin Hooper opened the offseason by signing a four-year, $42 million deal with the Cleveland Browns. At the time, Hooper’s new contract made him the highest-paid tight end in the NFL. However, Travis Kelce and George Kittle eventually signed deals that dwarfed Hooper’s.
Kelce signed a four-year, $57.25 million ($14.3125 million annually) extension shortly after the San Francisco 49ers gave Kittle a five-year, $75 million deal. The tiering of these contracts makes sense. Kittle is a better blocker and a more complete player than Kelce. He’s also several years younger. Kittle’s $15 million annual salary would make him the NFL’s 15th highest-paid wide receiver.
While free agent receivers didn’t make a splash, several perennial Pro Bowlers signed extensions. It began with Dallas’ Amari Cooper, who signed a five-year $100 million deal. At the time, Cooper became one of the league’s top-three highest-paid receivers. That title didn’t last long.
Later in the offseason, Keenan Allen signed a four-year, $80.1 million extension with the Los Angeles Chargers. He’s currently the third highest-paid receiver in terms of annual income. However, DeAndre Hopkins’ new contract was the big one. The former Texan signed a two-year, $54.5 million extension, which runs through 2024.
Under his new deal, Hopkins is the highest-paid non-quarterback in NFL history. Bosa held the title briefly, but Hopkins’ $27.25 million per year puts him on top. In Arizona’s Week 1 upset of the 49ers, Hopkins caught 14 balls for 151 yards. Money well spent.
It wasn’t a huge offseason for offensive linemen, but two new players emerged from quarantine as the highest-paid players at their positions. Indianapolis has several pending free agents next offseason, but Ryan Kelly isn’t one of them. The center signed a four-year, $50 million ($12.5 million annually) extension with the Colts.
The other major offensive line signing caught some fans by surprise. The Houston Texans signed Laremy Tunsil to a three-year, $66 million extension. Everyone knew the Texans had to pay Tunsil, but $22 million per year is even more than the most generous predictions anticipated. For comparison, Anthony Castonzo is the second-highest-paid left tackle in the league, and he makes $16.5 million annually.
The market for defensive ends continues trending toward an all-time high, and interior linemen also cashed in this summer. Myles Garrett became the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player, signing a five-year, $125 million extension with the Cleveland Browns. A few days later, Joey Bosa set a new mark with a five-year, $135 million deal. Bosa and Garrett are the only two defensive players making more than $24 million annually.
DeForest Buckner and Chris Jones reached deals that made them the second and third highest-paid defensive tackles in the league. Buckner makes $21 million annually, while Jones makes $20 million. A plethora of other interior defensive linemen signed lucrative deals as well. Javon Hargrave and D.J. Reader cashed in as free agents. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers gave Cameron Heyward a four-year, $65.6 million extension.
The Green Bay Packers gave Kenny Clark a four-year, $70 million extension, making him the NFL’s highest-paid nose tackle.
The cornerback market thrived this offseason. Multiple players held the crown for highest-paid cornerback in the league, and six of the NFL’s highest-paid cornerbacks signed deals in the past several months. Byron Jones opened the offseason by signing a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Miami Dolphins. The deal’s $16.5 million in annual salary became the largest total for a cornerback in the league, until Darius Slay set a new mark days later.
Slay joined the Philadelphia Eagles after forcing his way out of Detroit. The former All-Pro reached a three-year deal worth $50.05 million ($16.683 million annually) with his new team. That mark didn’t stand long either, as Tre’Davious White received a four-year, $69 million extension from Buffalo.
The offseason cornerback market closed when Los Angeles gave Jalen Ramsey a five-year, $100 million deal. It’s the first contract signed by a defensive back worth nine figures. The cornerback market expanded from roughly $15 million to $20 million as the top mark for annual salary.
Safety Budda Baker also cashed in during a profitable summer for defensive backs. He makes $14.75 million annually on a new contract, which broke Eddie Jackson’s previous mark.
Overall, NFL teams committed hundreds of millions of dollars to superstar players in new deals this offseason. These contracts reflect well on the league’s financial health, despite COVID-19 and a decrease in TV numbers. Teams aren’t afraid to open their wallets, and they aren’t afraid about the long-term financial impact of this season.
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