Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins might have a future as an NFL contract analyst. He was musing on the mind-boggling numbers involved in NBA free agency over the holiday weekend when he tweeted the following:
We gotta get paid more I'm pretty sure 2014 class will change the market— King Me (@sammywatkins) July 2, 2017
Obviously, as the No. 4 overall pick in that 2014 draft and a player without a contract for 2018, Watkins has a stake in this. But objectively, he could be onto something. The 2014 draft class was remarkably deep and star-studded. And as they come up for second contracts, the best players in it could be in position to make some history.
We've already seen some of it. Over the past couple of weeks, the Oakland Raiders gave top-of-market deals to quarterback Derek Carr, who was their second-round pick from 2014, and guard Gabe Jackson, their third-rounder from 2014. Carr's new $25 million average annual salary is tops in the league, and Jackson's reported $11.2 million average would put him third in the league among guards. A couple of other guards from the 2014 class -- Cleveland's Joel Bitonio and Kansas City's Laurent Duvernay-Tardif -- signed extensions earlier this offseason.
But Watkins' point is well taken because the 2014 class could end up setting the market at as many as 10 positions. Here's how.
This wide receiver class also includes Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, Jacksonville's Allen Robinson, Miami's Jarvis Landry, Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin, Green Bay's Davante Adams and, of course, Watkins in Buffalo. It was a big year for wide receivers. Beckham is the most accomplished of the lot and would do well to see where the deals for Landry, Evans, Adams, Robinson and 2013 Texans first-rounder DeAndre Hopkins come in before doing his deal.
Along with Hopkins -- who is currently scheduled to play out the 2017 season on his one-year, $7.915 million team option -- Landry, Adams, Robinson and Watkins are the 2014 receivers most likely to get big deals soon. That's because Landry, Adams and Robinson all were drafted after the first round and therefore aren't subject to the fifth-year option, and Watkins had his declined by the Bills. If one or more of those guys gets to the open market next March, and if Evans cashes in, Beckham could become a $20 million-per-year wide receiver once it's time for him to get his second contract.
One thing to watch here, though, is the Beckham/Evans dynamic. Because fifth-year option prices for top-10 picks are calculated differently than they are for picks 11 through 32, Evans (the No. 7 overall selection in 2014) has an option salary of $13.258 million, significantly more than the $8.459 million Beckham (No. 12 overall pick) is due in 2018. That could create more urgency for Tampa to do Evans' deal sooner than the Giants have to do Beckham's, and it helps Evans because he's starting from a higher level in his negotiations than Beckham.
Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
With their 2014 second-rounder (Carr) and third-rounder (Jackson) locked up, it makes sense for the Raiders to get their 2014 first-rounder under contract, right? Mack has a 2018 option worth $13.846 million, which is a nice enough number to allow him to play a little hardball. He'll probably be looking to surpass Justin Houston's six-year, $101 million deal, but if he were to hit the open market (no earlier than 2019, of course) while still playing at his current level, he could try to top Von Miller's six-year, $114.5 million deal.
Other defensive ends worth watching for big deals are Houston's Jadeveon Clowney, who has the same 2018 option salary as Mack, and Pittsburgh's Stephon Tuitt, a second-round pick who's a candidate for the Steelers' franchise tag next year.
There has been plenty of talk about this deal already, and from the outside it appears as if Donald might want it done this summer. That would help the Rams' leverage, of course, because they have Donald for $1.8 million this year, $6.892 million on the 2018 option and then the franchise tag in 2019 if they want.
Donald is playing his position unlike anyone else. Only nine players have more sacks than Donald's 28 since 2014, and all nine are edge rushers; Donald does his damage from the interior. If he were to hit the open market, he'd have a case to beat Ndamukong Suh's historic unrestricted free-agent deal that included nearly $60 million in full guarantees at signing. As it stands, Donald will at least look to top the $16.1 million a year Kawann Short just got from Carolina.
The Titans have money to spend, and they have a couple of years before they need to do anything with quarterback Marcus Mariota's deal. They're clearly prioritizing their young offensive line, and as a result, Lewan could be in position to get a top-of-market tackle deal in the neighborhood of Trent Williams' $13.2 million per year. One look at what tackles got in free agency this year should scare the Titans into locking up Lewan sooner rather than later. And because he missed the top 10 by one pick in 2014, his 2018 option price offers a reasonable starting point of $9.341 million for negotiations. Jake Matthews, picked No. 6 overall by the Falcons in 2014, is scheduled to make $12.496 million on his fifth-year option in 2018.
Bears left tackle Charles Leno, a seventh-round pick who has become a starter, is looking for a contract extension, as well. He's not likely to break any records at the top of the market, but Leno could end up getting a deal that helps set the expectation floor for guys at the top -- similar to how Blake Bortles could for quarterbacks.
Guard seems to be the one position where this class has already been scoring deals, but Martin's performance and profile should help him set the pace. He shares an agent with Kevin Zeitler, who just signed a $12 million-per-year unrestricted free-agent deal with Cleveland, and probably will target that number. His option price is $9.341 million for 2018 -- the same as Lewan's, because that formula doesn't differentiate among offensive line positions. So that helps.
The Colts' Jack Mewhort, who doesn't have a fifth-year option because he was a second-round pick, is among the other candidates for extensions at the guard position soon, as is Carolina third-rounder Trai Turner.
Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell will set the new standard atop the running back market, either on his $12.12 million franchise tag or with a new deal in excess of $10 million per year by July 17. While Freeman won't match Bell's contract, he very well could come in ahead of Buffalo's LeSean McCoy, currently the second-highest-paid back behind Bell, at $8.01 million per year.
Cincinnati's Jeremy Hill, San Francisco's Carlos Hyde and Cleveland's undrafted Isaiah Crowell are among the other running backs who would be on the free-agent market next March along with Freeman and Bell.
Weston Richburg, New York Giants
A bit underappreciated after three years as a starting offensive lineman and two as Eli Manning's center, Richburg is in line for an extension. He was a second-round pick, so he does not have a 2018 option. The Giants also have yet to extend 2013 first-rounder Justin Pugh, their starting left guard, and it's possible one of these negotiations impacts the other. Regardless, Richburg should expect a nice raise from the $1.085 million he's making in 2017, the final year of his rookie contract.
The 21st pick in 2014, Clinton-Dix is making $1.557 million this year and $5.957 million on his 2018 option, far less than the top safeties in the league. Doing an extension now or next year probably would keep him from targeting Eric Berry's $13 million per year average, but it's possible that he could land in the $11 million to $12 million-per-year range with another big season in Green Bay.
The 2014 class wasn't a great draft for cornerbacks, but the undrafted Butler could be in a position to cash in with the deal the Patriots didn't want to give him this offseason. He's stuck playing on a $3.91 million restricted free-agent tender, which makes him the 36th-highest-paid corner in the league in 2017.
Avery Williamson, Tennessee Titans
Cleveland signed 2014 third-rounder Christian Kirksey to a four-year, $38 million extension this offseason, and Williamson, a fifth-rounder, could be in line for a similar or larger deal as he gets closer to the market. Williamson will be a steal at $1.797 million this year, and while he's not likely to make Luke Kuechly/Jamie Collins money (about $12.5 million per season), getting an eight-figure average at inside linebacker is possible.