Jaire Alexander’s 4-year, $84 million extension will make him the highest paid cornerback in the history of the NFL in terms of APY. Even so, I do not believe he got what he should have given the current landscape of the cornerback market.
Earlier this offseason, Denzel Ward signed a $100.5 million contract, topping Jalen Ramsey as the highest paid cornerback in the league. Ward and Alexander are the only two cornerbacks in the league who are under contracts for $20 million or more APY.
Comparatively, 10 wide receivers are currently under contract for $20 million or more APY. This is a drastic difference between the two position groups who work against each other each and every snap. Tyreek Hill’s extension comes out to $30 million APY. While this number is inflated due to some “funny money” that he will likely never see included in the final year of the deal, his more realistic $25 million APY is 20% more than the $21 million APY deal that Alexander just signed.
Historically, receivers’ and cornerbacks’ salaries aligned with one another. Looking at the franchise tag values (i.e., the average of the top 5 cap hits at that position over the previous 5 years) of the two positions over the years, they were nearly equal from 2012-2016. In 2017 however, receivers saw a dramatic pay increase. From 2016 to 2017, the wide receiver franchise tag figure increased by more than $1 million. On the other hand, the figure for cornerbacks increased by less than $250,000. Since then, the $1 million gap has stayed fairly consistent.
Not only are corners being paid less than wide receivers lately, but defensive tackles are even making the same amount as cornerbacks nowadays. Again, looking at historical franchise tag values since 2012, defensive tackles were making 29.2% less than cornerbacks in 2012. This year, the DTs finally overtook CBs and are making $109,000 more.
While some teams around the league believe that cornerbacks are more important than the defensive line, I have never subscribed to that opinion. I have always believed that building a defensive front is what is most important to the success of a defense.
Still, I find it peculiar that defensive tackles are now getting paid more than cornerbacks. There are four DTs who’s APY exceeds $20 million: Aaron Donald, DeForest Buckner, Leonard Williams, and Chris Jones. These players all fit the mold of a defensive lineman who can apply pressure on the quarterback and deserve to be compensated as such.
However, it is much easier to find defensive tackles who can make a substantial impact on a defense for $10-13 million APY than it is at the cornerback position. Javon Hargrave, Dalvin Tomlinson, and D.J. Jones all fall within that range and were among the top 35 interior defensive linemen last season as ranked by PFF.
Having a true lock down #1 cornerback is one of the greatest tools that a defense can have. By acquiring a cornerback like Jaire Alexander, Denzel Ward, or Jalen Ramsey you can completely take away one side of the field or one of the offense’s top receiving targets. Any NFL defensive coordinator would love to have one of these top cornerbacks on their team. The 4 of the top 5 defenses last year against the pass had Pro-Bowl caliber cornerbacks in Tre’Davious White, J.C. Jackson, Stephon Gilmore, and Denzel Ward.
So why aren’t cornerbacks making it a point to negotiate contracts commensurate with their receiving counterparts or interior defensive linemen?
We’ve seen this happen in the past with the tight end position. From 2016-2019, the tight end market was stagnant, and the franchise tag figure increased just $1.269 million over four years – the smallest increase over the time period other than specialists.
During the 2020 offseason, George Kittle made a power play to reset the market. Kittle and his agent refused to negotiate until he received an offer that would set the table for future tight ends across the league. In 2019, the highest tight end contract in terms of APY was just $10 million. Kittle’s deal, which was agreed to in August 2020, carried with it a $15 million APY. Just days later, Travis Kelce signed an extension worth $14.312 million APY. Two years later, there are 8 players under contract for the 2022 season who’s APY exceeds $10 million.
Sometimes all it takes is one guy to step up and take a hard stand to ensure that the next crop of talent at that position is compensated appropriately. Alexander could have been that guy but chose to take a deal commensurate with the current market for corners.
Time will tell who can stand strong and reset the cornerback market. Should his play match that of his first two years in the league, A.J. Terrell would be a likely candidate when he becomes eligible for an extension at the end of the 2022 season.