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Projecting early extension candidates on defense from the 2020 NFL Draft: Trevon Diggs, Alex Highsmith and more

Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) takes the field before the game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

• Trevon Diggs will cash in on his playmaking ability: We project him for a four-year extension worth $81 million ($20.25 million per year) with $57.5 million total guaranteed.

• From seventh-round pick to second contract: Commanders safety Kamren Curl is in line to receive a deserved extension after far outplaying his draft slot.

• Steelers have a decision to make with Alex Highsmith: A hypothetical extension for him should reflect his underlying pass-rush metrics more than his gaudy sack totals.

Estimated Reading Time: 12 mins

We already examined potential extensions on the offensive side of the ball for the 2020 NFL Draft class, and now we look at a talented crop of young defenders who could be in line for new deals before the 2023 season gets underway.

As we mentioned in the article about the offensive players, we’re staying away from projecting extensions for first-rounders because of the rarity of a non-quarterback signing an extension after their third season with the fifth-year option in place. It happens from time to time, but we want to focus on players entering pivotal contract years where there is more pressure on both parties to get a long-term deal done.

CB Trevon Diggs, Dallas Cowboys

Diggs’ aggressive and opportunistic style of play has led to a wide range of opinions on his value, but there remains no question about whether he is one of the more talented young cornerbacks in football.

While there is a clear distinction between cornerbacks who primarily play a lot of man coverage, as opposed to zone, this graphic helps illustrate why Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander is currently the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. 

Interceptions do carry an inherent randomness, but just like quarterback pressures in Year N can better predict sacks in Year N+1 than sacks can themselves, a coverage player can also put themselves in position to be more likely to force turnovers, and that’s exactly what Diggs does. Since 2020, Diggs’ 37 forced incompletions rank sixth among cornerbacks. He is consistently making plays on the football even when he’s not picking it off and taking it the other way. While he very likely won’t replicate his 11-interception season from 2021 ever again — Diggs was the first player in 40 years with 11 picks in a season — odds are he’s going to continue nabbing a few takeaways each year.

The flip side of the turnovers is, of course, the explosive plays allowed, which shows up with Diggs’ 2.9% explosive play allowed rate, the 13th-highest mark among cornerbacks over the past two seasons. Dallas will take the good with the bad, but it’s relevant nonetheless. Everything matters when you’re paying top-of-market money at any position. Diggs reducing his missed tackle rate dramatically down to 3.4% after his first two seasons were above 10% is also worth mentioning. 

A 2024 franchise tag at cornerback figures to be in the neighborhood of $20 million, meaning a second franchise tag would come in at around $24 million. Diggs certainly could push to become the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, given his ball production. But with massive extensions looming for CeeDee Lamb, Micah Parsons and Dak Prescott, we think Dallas would perhaps balk at that asking price. Playing behind one of the NFL’s best defensive lines certainly helps Diggs, with Dallas’ 35.8% pressure rate without blitzing since 2021 the top mark in the NFL. 

Furthermore, Diggs should also benefit from the presence and tutelage of newly acquired veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore, even if just for 2023. With all of that said, because of the volatility in Diggs’ play, despite very high highs that could have him asking to reset a market that frankly hasn’t grown since Jalen Ramsey’s 2020 extension, we have him landing in the area of $20 million per year but not above Jaire Alexander at the very top. Diggs would be smart to push for a four-year deal in this case, instead of the five-year pact Ramsey and several of the other top cornerbacks agreed to, so he can ideally hit the market again before turning 30. 

Contract Projection: Four years, $81 million ($20.25 million per year), $57.5 million total guaranteed


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