The Washington Football Team would be wise to look at San Francisco’s off-season as a road map for future moves, and no, this isn’t about trading up for a rookie quarterback.
On Wednesday the 49ers announced a five-year, $95 million contract extension with $40.5 million guaranteed for 25-year-old linebacker Fred Warner, considered by many to be the best or among the best young defenders in the NFL.
Paying young players top dollar is nothing new, but it’s the timing and structure of the deal that show the Niners are making shrewd moves with a long-term focus.
San Francisco GM John Lynch got this deal done with Warner before his fourth season began. That’s crucial for a number of reasons, but perhaps chief among them is it's entirely possible that once the 2021 season begins in September, Warner’s camp would no longer be interested in an extension. At that point, Warner would be only 17 games away from unrestricted free agency.
A third-round pick in 2018, Warner agreed to the standard four-year rookie contract when he entered the league. Unfortunately for Warner, a third-round rookie deal pays roughly $1 million a year. Good money for most people on the planet, but not much by NFL standards.
So when the Niners offer a major contract extension, and they did, Warner has the motivation to sign now because he’s not already sitting on a pile of cash. Plus, by agreeing to a contract extension, the Niners get the added benefit of still paying only the fourth-year of Warner’s rookie deal for the 2021 season. That drives down the total average annual salary over the life of the extension.
There are two keys in getting this done: a motivated player and an appropriate offer.
Warner wasn’t going to sign a five-year extension for peanuts. The notion of a “hometown discount” largely doesn’t exist, at least not for young players.
The Niners had to identify an accurate value for an All-Pro player, and they did. But with a fair to generous offer on the table, it made sense for Warner to sign.
According to reports, the Colts are looking to get a similar deal done with their stud young linebacker Darrius Leonard. He’s in the same position, approaching his fourth-year in the NFL and inching closer to unrestricted free agency.
The Colts and Niners have bright general managers, though this idea is not particularly novel. Locking up good young players is a pillar of good organizations across the league.
Forgetting the mistakes of previous Washington Football executives that relied far too much on the franchise tag, it’s time for Ron Rivera’s organization to take a hard look at players they want to identify for contract extensions now or in the near future.
The paradigm with first-round picks is different, however, as they get paid on rookie deals and first-round contracts offer a fifth-year team option that offers more guaranteed money. In turn, first-rounders likely aren’t as motivated for contract extensions. Plus, Washington hasn’t been particularly swift making offers or generous when they do.
The situation with Brandon Scherff is already over. He will be a free agent next season, that’s almost a certainty.
The situation with Jonathan Allen is perilous. The clock is ticking towards free agency for him in 2022 also unless a deal emerges in the next month. Why would Allen sign an extension once the season begins, knowing the 2022 salary cap should jump about 20 percent and teams will be flush with cash.
The situation with Daron Payne bears watching, but keep in mind since he was a first-round pick in 2018 the team still has the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. Thus, Payne is under contract for the next two seasons, though it would be wise to perhaps begin negotiations late this season to work on a 2022 extension.
Payne won’t have the same motivation for an extension as Warner though. Why? Because Payne has $14 million in the bank from his rookie deal and will make another $8.5 million in 2022.
Terry McLaurin should be at the top of the list for a contract extension, and fortunately for Washington, the team still has a year before things will get dicey.
A third-round pick in 2019, McLaurin has outperformed his draft position significantly. He’s accounted for more than 2,000 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in two seasons in Washington, and has been the team’s best offensive weapon by a mile despite subpar quarterback play.
As a third-round pick, McLaurin is making about $1 million a year. Good for regular people, but not at all good for 1,000-yard NFL receivers. His contract runs through the next two seasons, but much like San Francisco did with Warner, Washington would be wise to lock up McLaurin long before he gets on the field in the last year of his contract.
It’s hard to know what that deal needs to look like, but it will certainly be cheaper for Washington to get it done in 2022 when McLaurin has one-year left on his rookie deal than it will be in 2023 when he’s looking at free agency.