It’s really difficult for teams and players to predict the future of the NFL market. While the salary cap has increased by $10 million in 2014 and 2015, free agency has remained unpredictable.
Players commonly opt for extensions rather than playing out their contracts, and becoming free agents. Signing an extension minimizes the future risk of injury at the expense of giving up the opportunity to sign with the highest bidder in free agency. It’s hard to knock a player for giving up such leverage, given the high risk of injury of playing professional football. However, some players will later find themselves undervalued at their position. In some occasions, players sign long-term deals as an unrestricted free agent and outplay their contracts.
Sometimes, a player may also give up money on the open market, and give his team a “hometown discount.” This usually occurs when such player is on a competitive team, and his main priority is to win a Super Bowl. Here are some NFL veterans who may be underpaid compared to other players at their position. This excludes players on rookie contracts.
Jordy Nelson. Wide Receiver, Green Bay Packers – $9.762 million per year
After signing a 3-year contract extension in 2011, Jordy Nelson became the Green Bay Packers’ most productive receiver, and Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target. By 2014, the Packers were paying Nelson at a bargain, given his production and talent. Nelson was only slated to earn a maximum of $3.5 million, and his cap hit was just $4.375 million. With only one-year remaining on his contract, and no remaining guaranteed salary, Nelson was committed to signing a new contract that better reflected his value.
While the Packers had plenty of leverage in negotiating a new contract with Nelson, they were determined to resolve his contract situation because Randall Cobb’s deal was coming to a conclusion as well. In July 2014, the Packers and Nelson agreed to a 4-year, $39.05 million extension. In the 2014 season, Nelson posted career highs in receptions, and yards, while making his first Pro Bowl.
Had Nelson been a free agent this off-season, he would have been the best available wide receiver. He probably would have received a contract greater than Jeremy Maclin, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs for 5-years, $55 million. Nelson is even being paid less than his teammate Randall Cobb, who is the team’s number two wide out.
Nelson’s contract is one of the biggest bargains in the NFL. Seven wide receivers are higher paid, and Julio Jones and AJ Green will inevitably sign greater contracts as well. Nelson however, wisely took a discount to gain long-term security, remain on a perennial contender, and continue catching passes from the 2014 MVP.
Evan Mathis. Offensive Guard, Philadelphia Eagles – $5.13 million per year
Evan Mathis is currently on the trade block right now, and has been unhappy with his contract for a long time. A 2-time Pro Bowler and former 1st Team All-Pro, Mathis is under contract for just $5.5 million this season. The Eagles haven’t expressed interest in renegotiating his contract, and have him under contract through 2016.
Right now, 14 offensive guards average a higher salary per year than Mathis. Prior to signing with the Eagles as an unrestricted free agent in 2011, Mathis was a bit of a journeyman. Mathis won the starting job as left guard for the Eagles in 2011, and resigned with the team in the following off-season. Pro Football Focus rated Mathis as the NFL’s best guard in 2011-2013, and the 2nd best in 2014 after missing 7 games due to injury.
Mathis’ biggest issue right now is his age. By the time he is a free agent in 2017, Mathis will be 35 years old. This is why Mathis and his representatives are pushing hard for a new contract now. The Eagles hold all the leverage however, having him under contract for two more seasons at a steal. Mathis’ best bet for a new contract is to be traded, and sign an extension with his new team. While the Eagles are the NFL’s most unpredictable team, it’s unlikely they release such a valuable member of their offensive line.
Chris Harris. Cornerback, Denver Broncos – $8.28 million per year
Chris Harris enjoyed a breakout season last year for the Denver Broncos. Harris was the highest ranked CB on Pro Football Focus, and helped solidify the Broncos as a top 10-pass defense last season. In December last season; the Broncos rewarded Harris with a 5-year extension, with $41.4 million in new salary. Harris’s contract is guaranteed for $24 million, but only his $10 million signing bonus is fully guaranteed.
Harris signed his extension two days prior to Week 15 of the regular season. Had he played out the final three weeks of the regular season and the playoffs without an extension, Harris could have been the second best free agent CB on the market, behind Darrelle Revis. Harris would have held significantly more leverage in negotiating a contract with the Broncos, since he would have had plenty of other bidders. After seeing Byron Maxwell sign a 6-year, $63 million contract as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles, Harris may regret signing an extension in December.
Even if Harris waited until the off-season to resign with the Broncos, he would have had more of an upper hand in negotiations. Kareem Jackson and Brandon Flowers each surpassed Harris’s extension by resigning with their teams prior to the start of free agency. Their teams didn’t want to lose them on the open market, and the clock was ticking. Jackson signed a 4-year, $34 million contract, and $16 million fully guaranteed. Flowers signed for 4-years, $36.4 million, with $18 million fully guaranteed.