Each week, The Washington Post’s Mark Maske provides in-depth Monday morning NFL analysis with “First and 10,” a dissection of the league’s most important developments.
First and 10: July 5
It is the quietest time of the year for the NFL, that stretch between the conclusion of offseason practices and the opening of training camps league-wide when practically everyone in the sport is savoring some rare relaxation.
But for front office executives with some teams and a few agents, there is important work to be done over the next 10 days. That’s because teams with franchise-tagged players face a July 15 deadline to sign those players to long-term contracts.
The intrigue feels particularly intense when it comes to three players who were tagged earlier this offseason: Denver Broncos pass rusher Von Miller, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins and New York Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson.
The stakes are high in those negotiations, and much could change between now and the deadline. But here is the current outlook in each case, based on conversations with people around the league:
Von Miller and the Broncos
These negotiations have been contentious, with Miller at one point going so far as to crop out Broncos executive John Elway — intentionally, according to reports — of a picture he posted on Instagram from the team’s trip to Washington for its White House visit. There have been conflicting reports about Miller’s willingness to sit out the season or any portion of it if he does not get a long-term contract to replace his one-year franchise-player deal.
Let’s get this out of the way first: There is very little chance of Miller sitting out a season. He is the reigning Super Bowl MVP and a marquee pass rusher in the prime of his career. Playing on a franchise deal would result in him having a salary of more than $14 million for this season. If the choice is to show up and play for the Broncos for more than $14 million or stay at home and get nothing to play for no one, Miller almost certainly will show up to play.
Elway continues to deserve the benefit of the doubt here. He has been a superb roster architect with a history of completing deals before the mid-July deadline with franchise-tagged players. He won’t allow the acrimony of these talks to get in the way. The Broncos offered a six-year deal worth about $114.5 million before talks fell apart over the structure of the contract and guaranteed money. Many within the league say they expect Elway to find a way to make this work.
Chances of a deal: 60 percent
Kirk Cousins and the Redskins
For the first time since the Redskins drafted both Robert Griffin III and Cousins in 2012, the starting job in Washington entering a season clearly belongs to Cousins. Griffin is in Cleveland, attempting to reassemble his broken NFL career. Cousins is coming off a season in which he established himself as a productive starter and got the Redskins to the playoffs.
The Redskins clearly would like to do a reasonably priced long-term deal with Cousins. The tricky part is establishing his fair market value after only one successful season as the starter. Can he build on last season’s exploits and continue to move up in the NFL quarterback ranks? Or is there any chance that he reverts to throwing far too many interceptions and finding ways to lose games instead of win them?
The Redskins will put an ever-improving group around Cousins on offense, with reliable receiving options and a respectable offensive line. It’s easy to believe that things will go smoothly from here and the Redskins will have their quarterback situation resolved for the next half-dozen years or more. But it once was practically unthinkable that Griffin wouldn’t be the quarterback in D.C. for a decade or more. So sometimes a cautious approach is prudent.
Cousins will make about $20 million on the franchise-player deal this season. He seems content with that. This is a situation in which another season of evidence as to just how good Cousins will be could make it far easier for the two sides to strike a deal.
Chances of a deal: 30 percent
Muhammad Wilkerson and the Jets
These negotiations, like Miller’s with the Broncos, have turned contentious, with Wilkerson making his displeasure public last month. There has been speculation that Wilkerson would not report to training camp on time without a new deal.
But these are the Jets. They haven’t even re-signed starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick despite it being clear to practically everyone in the league that a reunion would be in the best interest of both sides. Nothing ever seems to be easy with this team.
Chances of a deal: 15 percent
Andrew Luck became the NFL’s highest-paid player when the Indianapolis Colts signed their fifth-year quarterback last week to a six-year, $140 million contract.
Luck didn’t perform last season like a player worthy of a $140 million deal. But he had played like that in his first three NFL seasons, and Colts owner Jim Irsay made it clear that he intended to sign Luck to a record-setting deal this offseason. It wasn’t NBA mega-star money. And it disappointed some who thought Luck might be well positioned to secure the NFL’s first fully guaranteed huge contract. But Luck clearly did well by NFL parameters, given the constraint that no franchise quarterback wants to be accused of leaving his team with too little salary cap flexibility to build a winner around him.
Luck became the league’s highest-paid player because his deal was the latest up for negotiation. If this were a true meritocracy, who would the league’s 10 highest-paid players be? Here’s one list:
1. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
No, contracts should not be lifetime achievement awards. And yes, the end of Brady’s career might be coming into view. But those Super Bowl victories should count for something, and he remains the one player you’d want the most if your goal is to win a title this season.
2. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
The reigning MVP did it all last season, at least until the Super Bowl. He became a very good pocket passer. He got the tough yards running with the football. He was a superb leader. All that’s left is for him to get the one triumph that matters the most.
3. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
He remains capable of elevating a team to contender status as long as he’s given a reasonably competent supporting cast.
4. Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks
He wins, and he has become a highly reliable pocket passer to complement his still-masterful improvisational skills.
5. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans
The game is about passers and pass rushers, and Watt clearly is the NFL’s top non-quarterback.
6. Von Miller, LB, Broncos
He picked the right time to be on the market, given his postseason exploits.
7. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
He has absorbed many hits in the pocket over the years and he is not a young player any longer. But he remains as tough and as productive as just about any quarterback in the league.
8. Andrew Luck, QB, Colts
No, he wasn’t a $140 million quarterback last season. But it is reasonable to believe at this point that was an aberration almost entirely attributable to injuries.
9. Khalil Mack, LB, Raiders
He is the NFL’s next dominant defender, worthy of being mentioned along with Watt and Miller.
10. Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals
Palmer makes the list because he is indispensable to the Cardinals. They are a top NFC contender with him, and nothing close to that without him.