Tom Dahlin/Viking Update

Recent contract signings redefining NFL salary structure

The deals signed within the last week by Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith and Philadelphia defensive lineman Fletcher Cox have redefined the new ceiling for contract amounts, as the pay for top players is on the rise at an alarming level.

Every so often, a player signs a contract that throws a big rock into a still pond and the ripples waft away in concentric circles that force other water to move and roll.

Within the last week, two contracts were signed that made such a ripple effect.

When it was announced that Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith signed a five-year, $51 million contract, it became clear that the price for elite NFL safeties had just gone up.

Even more impressive was the deal signed by Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox – a six-year, $103 million deal with $63 million of that total guaranteed. It gave pause to every elite defensive lineman in the league that the bar on defensive salaries has been raised significantly.

This isn’t unusual for players to set the new standard for contract numbers. It happens every year and shouldn’t come as any surprise. Smith won’t be the highest paid safety for long. That’s typically part of the process – a guy sets the new gold standard for a position only to be replaced on top of the heap by the next elite player at his position with a contract that is expiring.

What has made this year’s offseason different is that the NFL has reached the point of money-making ability and salary-cap space that those players who have contracts coming up now feel obligated to get the big money.

Quarterback has always been the premier money position of the NFL. Guys like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have become the benchmarks of what an elite quarterback should be paid. But the definition of what makes for an elite quarterback has been blurred this offseason. When Sam Bradford became an $18 million-a-year quarterback and Kirk Cousins became a franchise player at $19 million, it threw the pay structure out of whack for those who will follow. It’s no coincidence that the Jets Ryan Fitzpatrick has been resistant to signing a $14 million-a-year deal because that suddenly is an insulting salary.

More concerning for those with blue chip defensive linemen has been the amounts that guys like Cox and Olivier Vernon are receiving. Not only has it given hope to players like Von Miller and Muhammad Wilkerson – both of whom have declined to sign franchise tenders because the salary structure at the position has spiked incredibly higher – but even players who are under contract who signed deals just a couple of years ago are grousing about the money they’re being paid.

Nothing is unusual about the mega-deal contracts signed by free agents this offseason. Even though the numbers can seem mind-boggling, they typically get eclipsed by someone the next time an elite athlete at that position comes up for a new contract. But it would appear that the rate at which the top players are being compensated is spiraling upward quickly, especially when guys like Bradford, Cousins and Vernon lead the way into redefining what a Tier 2 star player gets compensated.

In the case of Harrison Smith, he’s likely set for life with his deal and can enjoy the title of being the highest paid safety in the NFL for the time being. It won’t last long – the next big safety signing will likely use Smith’s contract as the template to begin negotiations. The only difference this time around is that the top-end salaries are getting to the point where there appears to be no ceiling as to how much a star player can get paid.

It’s good news for the NFL Players Association that salaries continue to climb, and it is good news for Vikings like Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, whose contract expire in 2017, if they establish themselves in the top half of players at their position. If players have the talent and demonstrated ability, they will get paid. But, at the same time, there seems to be a growing animosity among those newly established pay levels and what the ripple effect is going to be throughout the league. The new gold standard for paying players keeps going up. and what is considered a good contract is being redefined by the week.


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