With each passing year in the NFL, a player landing on a list of “most team-friendly” contracts will likely play on that contract for less and less time. Case in point, our No. 1 player from last year’s top 32 contracts list — Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs — signed a well-deserved extension that pays $10 million more per year than his prior deal.
Of the 32 players named on last year’s list, seven signed new deals for significantly more money on an annual basis. A few flipped from having some of the most team-friendly deals to having the most player-friendly deals in the league, which is bound to happen. The best example is Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith’s four-year, $64 million extension signed before the 2021 season, one of the best deals for a player in the past several years.
With this understanding, the number of years remaining on surplus-value contracts is all the more important a consideration. While there have been a few examples of players agreeing to big-money extensions with three or more years remaining on their current deals, it’s generally very difficult to re-up when signed for that long.
Teams that are consistently proactive with early extensions — the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles, to name a few — tend to find themselves on lists like these, and this year is no different.
1. T Jordan Mailata, Philadelphia Eagles: Four years, $64 million ($40.85 million total guaranteed)
The Eagles drafted Mailata in the seventh round in 2018 after a promising rugby career, and the 6-foot-8, 346-pound mountain of a man immediately went to work with Philadelphia offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland on refining his craft. Meanwhile, Jason Peters was still playing at a high level in his late 30s, and the Eagles traded up in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft for left tackle Andre Dillard.
Mailata improved each year, and he finally got on the field in 2020 for 733 snaps. That, plus years of practice reps, was all Philadelphia needed to see before extending him on a four-year contract. Given the small sample size of actual gameplay, his $16 million per year extension raised some eyebrows, and understandably so.
One year later, the deal is a bargain of the highest order. Mailata earned an 87.4 overall grade with an 83.3 pass-blocking grade and 87.8 run-blocking grade, a true dancing bear with tremendous footwork for his size and lack of experience. Mailata already generated the second-most Wins Above Replacement among all tackles in 2021, behind only San Francisco 49ers tackle Trent Williams, and there’s still more room for him to grow.
A very similar situation played out this offseason with Los Angeles Rams tackle Joseph Noteboom, who also found himself on the depth chart behind a future Hall of Fame left tackle playing in his late 30s in Andrew Whitworth. Noteboom will take over on quarterback Matthew Stafford’s blindside and will be a player to keep an eye on for the 2023 list.
2. WR Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Five years, $82.5 million (two years, $28.5 million in cash remaining)
Evans is entering Year 9 of his NFL career and has still yet to record fewer than 1,000 receiving yards in a season. He’ll play the entire 2022 campaign at just 29 years old, younger than recently extended Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp despite entering the league three years earlier. Since 2014, Evans has generated 3.33 Wins Above Replacement, trailing only Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown among wide receivers.
Evans is no longer even the highest-paid wide receiver on his own team, with Chris Godwin signing a three-year, $60 million extension this offseason — one of 16 wide receivers who now earns more annually. While Evans has made it clear he cares more about winning, going so far as to explore ways to create room for others to get their deals, he more than deserves a new contract.
3. TE Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders: Four Years, $29,800,004 (two years, $14 million in cash remaining)
Over the past three seasons, Waller trails only Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews in Wins Above Replacement among tight ends. He has the ability to take over games like few players at the position can, with more 10-plus reception games than any tight end since 2019. He joins Kelce as the only tight ends with 3,000 receiving yards over the span.
The Raiders already doled out big-money extensions to edge defender Maxx Crosby and quarterback Derek Carr and spent a ton of resources to acquire wide receiver Davante Adams, but Waller undoubtedly still deserves new money.
The top of the position market has failed to grow beyond George Kittle’s $15 million per year average, but a second tier continues to flourish, with the most recent addition being Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku on a four-year, $54.75 million extension. Waller has more receiving yards over his past 27 regular-season games than Njoku has in 65 career contests, but the Raider now earns about half as much annually. That should change in the near future.
4. WR Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos: Four years, $60 million (four years, $54 million in cash remaining)
New Denver Broncos general manager George Paton got right to work inking his club’s most important contributors to long-term deals in 2021, none more aptly timed than wide receiver Sutton’s four-year, $60 million extension in November 2021. Twelve wide receivers have signed multi-year extensions for more than $15 million per year since, and several more could do so before Week 1 of the 2022 season kicks off.
Sutton was coming off a breakout sophomore season in 2019 in which his 80.5 receiving grade ranked 13th among wide receivers and his 28 explosive receptions of 15-plus yards ranked 10th. A torn ACL suffered in Week 2 of the 2020 season derailed a promising ascension, but Sutton regained his form right away in 2021 with a nine-reception, 159-yard outing in Week 2. He ultimately dropped just one of 95 targets on the year, and his downfield contested catch ability should marry beautifully with new quarterback Russell Wilson.
5. T Rob Havenstein, Los Angeles Rams: Four years, $32.5 million (one year, $7.25 million in cash remaining)
Havenstein has recorded back-to-back season grades above 80.0, culminating in a Super Bowl run in which he earned a 77.0 postseason pass-blocking grade going up against loaded defensive lines in the Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals. His extension in 2018 just before the right tackle market took off turned into a huge bargain, with the highest-paid right tackles now earning over $10 million more per year than Havenstein.
The Rams have consistently demonstrated a willingness to negotiate with players despite several years remaining on their contracts, and Havenstein would make sense as the next man up for a new deal. Left tackle Joseph Noteboom, set to replace Andrew Whitworth in 2022, signed a three-year, $40 million extension deal earlier this offseason with 1,373 career snaps to his name. Havenstein played 1,236 snaps in 2021 alone at a very high level, and while he plays on the right side, his new deal should be closer to Noteboom’s annual value.
6. QB Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs: 10 years, $450 million ($141 million total guaranteed at signing, rolling guarantee structure)
Mahomes will find himself on this list for a while as he plays under this contract, which still has 10 years remaining. Odds are he won’t play until the deal’s end, but the benefits will be felt throughout. Mahomes will earn roughly $63 million over three seasons from 2020 through 2022; by comparison, Aaron Rodgers is set to earn $101.5 million over the next two seasons alone.
In Mahomes’ four seasons as a starter since 2018, during which he’s reached the AFC championship game each time, his 15.39 Wins Above Replacement trails only Tom Brady. Over the four-year span, Mahomes has a 99.7 grade on passes targeted 10-plus yards downfield.
At the end of the day, it’s up to Mahomes to illustrate that he’s worth every penny of this deal, regardless of who he throws the ball to. And with Tyreek Hill now a member of the Miami Dolphins, if Mahomes continues to produce at the level he has to this point in his career, he may find himself in the top spot on next year’s list.
7. EDGE Trey Hendrickson, Cincinnati Bengals: Four years, $60 million (three years, $40 million in cash remaining)
Hendrickson is on a remarkable run over the past two seasons, first in his contract year with the New Orleans Saints and last season in leading the Cincinnati Bengals' defense to a Super Bowl appearance. Hendrickson’s 124 total quarterback pressures over that span rank seventh, his 27.5 sacks rank third and his 16.3% pressure percentage ranks second. He has evolved into one of the NFL’s most consistently elite pass rushers, breaking the Bengals single-season sack record in his first year with the team and recording at least a half-sack in 11 straight contests.
Hendrickson’s deal was more than fair when signed, but he’s an example of a player who has quickly outplayed his contract. For the time being, he’s providing one heck of a bargain on this Cincinnati defensive front.
8. QB Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: One year, $25 million (one year, $15 million in cash remaining)
Brady un-retired this offseason after just over a month, returning to a loaded Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster and under a contract that is still a massive bargain for a soon-to-be 45-year-old. Brady led the NFL with 5.12 Wins Above Replacement generated in 2021, and his 90.8 passing grade trailed only Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.
Brady’s 5,316 passing yards also led the NFL, as did his 41 big-time throws. His 1.9% turnover-worthy play rate was the second-lowest across the league. Even in his mid-40s, Brady remains one of the league’s best quarterbacks week in and week out — no matter which statistic you choose to observe.
9. LT Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys: Eight years, $97.6 million (two years, $28.1 million in cash remaining)
Smith has at times battled injuries over the past few years, unfortunately including at the end of the 2021 season when he earned his lowest grade of the season against the San Francisco 49ers in the wild-card round. However, whenever he steps on the field at close to 100% health, he stonewalls opposing pass rushers with ease, and his dominance in all facets of the game is apparent.
Smith earned a 91.4 overall grade for the 2021 regular season, accompanied by a 90.5 run-blocking grade that ranked second among left tackles, trailing only Trent Williams, and an 88.0 pass-blocking grade that ranked second among left tackles, trailing only Andrew Whitworth. Now entering the final two years of his near decade-long pact, Smith has earned a season-long grade below 75.0 just once in eight years since 2014.
This level of consistency and dominance at a known and fixed price point at one of the league’s premium positions has tremendous benefits for the rest of the Cowboys' roster.
10. LT Terron Armstead, Miami Dolphins: Five years, $75 million ($43.37 million total guaranteed)
Armstead’s inclusion here is particularly notable because he just signed a new contract as a free agent this offseason after nine stellar years with the New Orleans Saints. He has earned pass-blocking grades of 80.0 or better in every season since 2015 and is a huge improvement on the left side of the Dolphins’ line, which has been a revolving door over the past few years.
Armstead has also graded out well as an outside-zone run blocker, earning an 82.8 grade on such plays over his career, making him a good fit in new head coach Mike McDaniel’s offense. We’ve seen tackles play at an elite level well into their 30s, and if Armstead can maintain his health, this new deal could look like a huge bargain in hindsight.