Durability concerns were a primary reason why edge rusher Bradley Chubb began this season playing on a fifth-year option. Slowed by ankle injuries, Chubb had a forgettable 2021 season. He was sackless in the seven games he played.
The fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft had been a force when healthy. Chubb led rookies with 12 sacks in 2018. He didn't show any ill effects from the torn left ACL that limited him to four games in 2019 by earning Pro Bowl honors in 2020.
Chubb quickly displaying his Pro Bowl form early this season led to the Broncos having contract-extension talks with his representatives before receiving a trade offer from the Dolphins that couldn't be refused. The Broncos dealt Chubb and a 2025 fifth-round pick to Miami for a 2023 first-round pick, 2024 fourth-round pick and running back Chase Edmonds right before the Nov. 1 trade deadline.
Shortly thereafter, the Dolphins signed Chubb to a five-year, $110 million extension, averaging $22 million per year. The deal has $63,212,444 in guarantees with $33,462,444 fully guaranteed at signing.
As Chubb can attest, fortunes can be made because of performance in a contract year. With the NFL season heading into the homestretch, here are three other leading candidates for "best use of a contract year" in my annual contract awards assessing the league from a financial perspective.
A key contract benchmark and the probability of hitting this financial target ranging from one dollar sign to four dollar signs are listed for each player.
Geno Smith, QB, Seahawks
Financial benchmark: Kirk Cousins ($35M average/$70M in guarantees/2 years worth up to $79M with incentives)
The Seahawks were expected to be in a rebuilding mode after trading quarterback Russell Wilson and a 2022 fourth-round pick to the Broncos for 2022 and 2023 first-round picks, 2022 and 2023 second-round picks, a 2022 fifth-round pick and multiple players (tight end Noah Fant, defensive lineman Shelby Harris and quarterback Drew Lock) in March. Being in position to select the quarterback of the future early in the 2023 NFL Draft seemed like a realistic possibility with Lock and Geno Smith in a training camp competition to succeed Wilson.
The Seahawks are in contention for a playoff berth with Smith having a Pro Bowl-caliber season. He was named October's NFC Offensive Player of the Month after guiding the Seahawks to four wins in five games. Smith has thrown for 3,169 yards with 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions in 12 games this season. He is connecting on a league-leading 72.7% of his passes, and has the NFL's second best passer rating at 108.7.
Smith, who is playing on a one-year, $3.5 million contract worth up to $7 million though incentives, has changed his career trajectory this season. He's no longer viewed as strictly a quality backup.
Seattle reportedly wants Smith back for 2023, and contract talks are expected to take place after the season. There might be sticker shock during discussions for a new deal. According to NFLPA data, the average salary for starting quarterbacks, excluding those on rookie contracts, is $32,036,681 per year.
Seattle has an interesting dilemma with Smith. Having some concern about regression is warranted since it's unknown whether this season is a true breakout performance for the 32-year-old or an anomaly. Seattle could still be in position to select a quarterback early because Wilson is playing poorly. Denver's 2023 first-round pick, which Seattle owns, would be third overall if the season ended today.
Using a non-exclusive franchise designation or transition tag on Smith shouldn't be dismissed. The non-exclusive quarterback franchise designation should be $32.445 million with a $225 million 2023 salary cap. This represents 14.42% of the salary cap. Seattle would be entitled to two first-round picks from the signing team on an unmatched offer sheet. The transition tag, which would only give the Seahawks a right to match another team's offer sheet, is expected to be $29.53 million with a $225 million salary cap.
Josh Jacobs, RB, Raiders
Financial benchmark: Nick Chubb ($12.2M average/$20M in guarantees/3 years)
The Raiders surely regret declining a fifth-year option in 2023 with Jacobs for a fully guaranteed $8.034 million given the type of season he is having. Jacobs has become an NFL Offensive Player of the Year candidate. He is leading the NFL with 1,303 rushing yards and 1,634 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards). His 10 rushing touchdowns are tied for third in the NFL.
Fortunately for the Raiders, running backs typically don't capitalize on free agency like players at most other positions. There are eight running backs in the NFL with contracts averaging $12 million per year or more. All of the deals were for the players to remain with their own teams. If Jacobs wasn't a running back, he would have a legitimate chance at resetting his positional market.
Replacing Christian McCaffrey as the league's highest-paid running back is a virtually impossibility. McCaffrey signed a four-year extension, averaging $16,015,853 per year with $39,162,500 of guarantees, in 2020. He has a running back best $30,062,500 fully guaranteed at signing.
The Raiders putting a franchise tag on Jacobs is a possibility. The running back tag is expected to be 4.489% of the 2023 salary cap. The projected cost to designate Jacobs as a franchise player should be $10.1 million with a $225 million salary cap.
Daron Payne, DT, Commanders
Financial benchmark: Leonard Williams ($21M average/$45M in guarantees/3 years)
Payne's calling card had been stopping the run until this season. He has elevated his game as a pass rusher. Payne, who is playing under an $8.529 million fifth-year option, is third in the NFL among interior defensive linemen with a career-high 8.5 sacks. His 15 tackles for loss are tied for second-most in the league.
The Commanders should be prepared to exceed the contract given to Jonathan Allen to keep arguably the best interior defensive line tandem together long term. Allen signed a four-year, $72 million extension, averaging $18 million per year, in 2021.
Payne should be one of the beneficiaries of Aaron Donald dramatically resetting the market of interior defensive lineman. Donald signed a three-year, $95 million deal, averaging $31,666,667 per year, in June. There is a huge gap between Donald and the next highest-paid interior defensive lineman (DeForest Buckner/Leonard Williams) at $21 million per year. Donald's deal averages nearly 51% more. Expect this gap to be closed during the upcoming offseason.
A franchise tag could be in order for Payne. The 2023 defensive tackle number projects to $18.954 million if next year's salary cap is set at $225 million.