6 min read

2023 NFL Free Agency: Who's Next In Line For Big-Money Extensions?

One of the crucial things personnel departments do that fans usually don't realize is budget for future contracts and strategically work them into what a future salary cap might look like. For example, the Bengals have budgeted responsibly during the past several years, preparing for what a Joe Burrow extension might cost them.

Teams know where the market is, where it's going and what they need to pay to keep their core players. They have to make tough decisions in the present to preserve the ability to do something in the future. So when a player gets cut, or they let a player walk in free agency, there is usually more than one layer to it. Often it can be with the intent of extending another player. We don't always realize it immediately, but it's all part of what goes on in front offices. 

Here are some of the big-name players who aren't yet unrestricted free agents but are in a position to sign big contract extensions this offseason.

QBs: Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts

All three were selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, and all three have proven to be franchise quarterbacks. Deshaun Watson's $230 million fully-guaranteed contract is still the best in the sport, but it seems like that contract structure will end up becoming an outlier. Expect all three quarterbacks to aim for $50 million-plus average annual value (AAV) and a guarantee structure similar to what Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson received last offseason. Philadelphia has more urgency to do a deal as Hurts will be entering the final year of his contract because he was a second-round pick and has no fifth-year team option.

Wild Card: Tua Tagovailoa was in the same draft class as the three quarterbacks above, but Miami could end up being hesitant to do a long-term deal considering all of his injuries from this past season. Having a fifth-year option is a benefit for the team in this situation.

Top-5 Quarterback Contracts by AAV

Player   Year Contract Was Signed Contract Length  AAV
Aaron Rodgers 2022 3 Years $50,271,667
Russell Wilson 2022 5 Years $48,517,647
Kyler Murray 2022 5 Years $46,100,000
Deshaun Watson 2022 5 Years $46,000,000
Patrick Mahomes 2020 10 Years $45,000,000

Interior DL: Quinnen Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Jeffery Simmons, Christian Wilkins

The interior defensive line market can potentially be this off-season's version of what happened to the wide receiver market last off-season. Aaron Donald is on top at $31.6 million AAV, but there's a $10.6 million gap between him and the second-highest-paid players at the position (Leonard Williams and DeForest Buckner at $21 million). Now, it's important to note Donald is a generational talent, and the Rams had to load up a Brink's truck to prevent him from making good on his threats to retire last offseason.

The chances of any of these players topping his AAV are unlikely. But expect all of them to try to push closer to Donald than Buckner/Williams. There might be some cat-and-mouse games between the players involved to see who does a deal first, and then the next one tries to top it. The names to keep an eye on here are Daron Payne and Javon Hargrave, who are slated to be free agents in March. Their contracts could end up dictating where the wind blows.

Top-5 Interior DL Contracts by AAV

Player   Year Contract Was Signed Contract Length  AAV
Aaron Donald 2022 3 Years $31,666,667
DeForest Buckner 2020 4 Years $21,000,000
Leonard Williams 2021 3 Years $21,000,000
Chris Jones 2020 4 Years $20,000,000
Jonathan Allen 2021 4 Years $18,000,000

Resetting the WR Market: Justin Jefferson

As mentioned above, the wide receiver market flew to new heights after the 2021 season with Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, A.J. Brown and several others receiving monster contracts. Jefferson, who is eligible for a contract extension, will likely try and take the market to another level.

Hill's deal with the Dolphins was described as $30 million per year, but in reality, it's $25 million per year when taking out the dummy year on the back, which is there to make the average higher (Hill is unlikely to see that year of his contract.) Expect Jefferson to aim for a true $30 million-plus AAV deal in negotiations with Minnesota.

Top-5 Wide Receiver Contracts by AAV

Player   Year Contract Was Signed Contract Length  AAV
Tyreek Hill 2022 4 Years $30,000,000
Davante Adams 2022 5 Years $28,000,000
DeAndre Hopkins 2020 2 Years $27,250,000
Cooper Kupp 2022 3 Years $26,700,000
A.J. Brown 2022 4 Years $25,000,000

Highest-Paid Defensive Player in History: Nick Bosa

The 49ers have been budgeting for this extension during the past couple of years, knowing it will be quite expensive. The former No. 2 overall pick had a league-leading 18.5 sacks this season, adding 49 quarterback hits, 19 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. He's also the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year.

It's safe to assume Bosa will aim to become the second defensive player to enter the $30 million per year club on a new deal, joining Donald.

Top-5 Defensive Player Contracts by AAV

Player   Year Contract Was Signed Contract Length  AAV
Aaron Donald 2022 3 Years $31,666,667
T.J. Watt 2021 4 Years $28,002,750
Joey Bosa 2020 5 Years $27,000,000
Myles Garrett 2020 5 Years $25,000,000
Khalil Mack* 2018 6 Years $23,500,000

*Mack's AAV is tied with Raiders pass rusher Maxx Crosby.

Traded, Almost-Traded Players

T.J. Hockenson

Minnesota acquired Hockenson from Detroit before the trade deadline, sending a package that included a second-round pick to its divisional rival. Hockenson almost immediately became the Vikings' No. 2 receiving option, catching 70 passes for 648 yards in 11 games (10 regular, one postseason).

Considering what Minnesota gave up to get him and the impact he made in Kevin O'Connell's offense, Hockenson could make a push to become the highest-paid tight end in the league. The market for the position has not moved the way other positions have in recent years. Hockenson could try to change that.

Top-5 Tight End Contracts by AAV

Player   Year Contract Was Signed Contract Length  AAV
Darren Waller 2022 3 Years $17,000,000
George Kittle 2020 5 Years $15,000,000
Travis Kelce 2020 4 Years $14,312,500
Dallas Goedert 2021 4 Years $14,250,000
Mark Andrews 2021 4 Years $14,000,000

Brian Burns

The Panthers held off on trading Burns this season, despite heavy interest from teams, particularly the Los Angeles Rams, who offered multiple first-round picks. The Panthers view him as a young, ascending player, who will be a cornerstone for the franchise.

The former first-round pick put up big numbers this season, totaling 12.5 sacks, 63 total tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 22 quarterback hits in 16 games – all career highs. Expect Burns to aim for $20 million-plus per season on a new contract.

Top-5 Edge Rusher Contracts by AAV

Player   Year Contract Was Signed Contract Length  AAV
T.J. Watt 2021 4 Years $28,002,750
Joey Bosa 2020 5 Years $27,000,000
Myles Garrett 2020 5 Years $25,000,000
Khalil Mack 2018 6 Years $23,500,000
Maxx Crosby 2022 4 Years $23,500,000

Other Names to Keep an Eye On

WATCH: Crosby's Four Championship Game Wreckers