The day the Seattle Seahawks traded two first-round picks to the New York Jets for Jamal Adams, it became a foregone conclusion that the star safety would eventually become the highest-paid safety in the NFL. It was simply a matter of when — and by how much — he would top the market.
With that understanding, a handful of teams across the NFL perhaps had a window of opportunity where they could lock in really good players under the old market construct, at least to some extent.
For New Orleans and star safety Marcus Williams, a franchise-tag decision was required before the 2021 offseason began on March 9. The two sides had until July 15 to agree to a multi-year deal after using the tag, but the discount presented by the tag's very cheap $10.612 price tag may have been too good to pass up.
The problem is that time is quickly running out. Per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, the Bengals and Bates have not made progress on a new deal, and nothing is expected before Week 1.
PFF's Arjun Menon recently explored the question of whether NFL safeties are underpaid as a collective, with the position market lagging behind others like linebacker and even running back. Jamal Adams’ $17.5 million per year average places him atop Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey to push safety compensation past running back at the very top, but Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons — the league's second-highest-paid safety — still trails McCaffrey’s $16 million per year average.
Off-ball linebackers continued to increase the gap over safeties this offseason, with San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner signing for $19.045 million per year and Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard signing for $19.7 million per year shortly thereafter. This trend looks like it may continue with players such as Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith potentially playing his way into becoming the NFL’s first $20 million per year off-ball linebacker after a strong 2021 campaign.
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Looking beyond the safety market in isolation, the NFL set a maximum of $208.2 million for the 2022 salary cap, based on revenue expectations for the 2021 season. This would mark a 14% increase over 2021’s salary cap of $182.5 million, comfortably the largest year-over-year increase this decade. Even if the true number ends up closer to $200 million, an almost 10% increase will feel like a windfall.
NFL players, many of whom have already voiced their concerns publicly about a 17th regular-season game, will actually experience the extra wear and tear on their bodies for the first time. Finally, new TV deals and increased sports gambling revenues will become real instead of theoretical heading into the 2023 campaign.
Although all of these hypotheticals and future realities were as true this offseason as they will be next offseason, the league will most likely have a far more bullish outlook with a 2021 season featuring fans in the stands and more regular season and playoff games.
If Bates and/or Williams repeat their 2020 performance in 2021, they will likely seek — and receive — deals in line with Jamal Adams’ four-year, $70 million extension.
When Houston Texans tackle Laremy Tunsil signed a record-setting deal for $22 million per year last April, that number didn’t even hold up until the playoffs, with Green Bay Packers tackle David Bakhtiari surpassing it with a November extension good for $23 million per year.
Similarly, Chicago Bears edge defender Khalil Mack’s $23.5 million per year average was blown past by Los Angeles Chargers edge defender Joey Bosa at $27 million per year. These numbers, even though outliers when signed, do not maintain outlier status for much time at all.
Bates was the best safety in the league last season. His 90.0-plus overall and coverage grades put him in extremely rare air, and his 15 combined interceptions and pass breakups comfortably led the position.
If the Bengals knew they were getting that level of performance every season, they would likely have no problem meeting the contract Bates will be looking for, even with the debate surrounding how valuable a safety is in today’s NFL.
The issue is that safety production — and coverage play generally — is very volatile year to year. It is extremely difficult for players to maintain an elite level of play across multiple seasons.
As good as Bates was last season, his PFF grade represents a 10-point jump over the best year he had before that and a near 30-point jump over the year he had immediately before that. His dominant season came in Year 3, which fits the profile for a typical breakout, but it was still such a big jump that it's somewhat sensible to expect some regression.
The Bengals have to have some reservations about whether 2020 is a fair reflection of Bates going forward or just a high watermark for what he can do in his best year. Delaying any new contract and seeing his performance for at least a portion of the 2021 season allows the Bengals to get a handle on that question.
If Bates comes back down to earth on the field, they will likely choose to avoid that big extension or have better leverage to lower the price. The downside to that is if he does back up his incredible play from last year, it only gets more difficult to sign him — the asking price only goes up, and the prospect that he could leave in free agency gets closer.
The franchise tag at safety is projected to be in the range of $13-$13.5 million for 2022, at least a 20% increase over 2021’s discounted tag value of $10.612 million. A second consecutive tag would be 120% of the 2022 value, bringing the two-year total to around $30 million. Jamal Adams’ deal pays him $36 million in new money over the 2022-2023 seasons, meaning two franchise tags would fall just short of that figure. And then Cincinnati would still have to shell out a huge extension if they wanted to keep Bates in the fold.
At the end of the day, it’s harder to see the argument that Cincinnati was calculated and risk-averse even given the potential that Bates regresses. The Bengals signed 2018 third-round edge defender Sam Hubbard to a four-year, $40 million extension after three seasons grading in the high 60s. A solid player with a high floor but a much lower ceiling than Jessie Bates III. Will the Bengals look back on this offseason and regret that these decisions weren’t flipped?
Cincinnati has gambled that more information when it comes to Bates is a good thing, but if they lose that bet, they will end up paying more than they could have if they had just gotten the deal over the line when they first had the chance.