When Josh Allen was drafted in 2018, he was viewed as a relatively raw prospect with question marks -- and now it's easy to see him quarterbacking the Buffalo Bills for the rest of his career.
Allen isn't the only young star in line to potentially sign an extension this offseason marking him as a franchise pillar going forward. Below, you'll find a list of 12 players on rookie contracts who have proven so key to their respective team's success that they should never be allowed to hit free agency. To make my list, I focused on players who are eligible for extensions, meaning they've played at least three seasons in the NFL, which is why you won't see some promising-but-less-experienced names like Kyler Murray, Justin Herbert and Justin Jefferson included.
Note that this is slightly different from a ranking of how urgently these players should be extended -- some of these players might not sign extensions this offseason, given that the fifth-year option will buy their teams some time, with the salary cap set to rise in 2022. All, however, should be kept in the same uniform for the long-term, regardless of when negotiations on new deals take place or conclude.
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 7 overall) in 2018. Under contract through: 2022. Age: 25.
Allen was perhaps the NFL's most improved player in 2020, making huge leaps across the board, including in completion percentage (from 58.8 in 2019 to 69.2), passing yards (from 3,089 to 4,544), passing TDs (from 20 to 37) and yards per attempt (from 6.7 to 7.9), while pushing Buffalo to the AFC title game. The Bills reportedly restructured receiver Stefon Diggs' contract, clearing roughly $8 million in cap space, and while it might be tempting to use those funds to acquire, say, Eagles tight end Zach Ertz or add depth by signing someone like cornerback Steven Nelson, locking Allen up now, before he reels off yet another spectacular season, would not be a bad idea.
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 30) in 2017. Under contract through: 2021. Age: 26.
Move over, Ben Roethlisberger; T.J. Watt is about to become the highest-paid player in Steelers history, and deservedly so. Watt led the NFL in sacks last season (15) and ranks third in that category since he entered the NFL in 2017, with 49.5, behind only Aaron Donald (57.5) and Chandler Jones (50). Extending Watt this offseason could allow the Steelers to lower Watt's cap number in 2021 (currently $10.1 million) and push money into the future, when there will be more room as veterans like Roethlisberger, Joe Haden and David DeCastro (both entering contract years) potentially come off the payroll. Watt will be crucial to keeping the team competitive whenever it transitions out of the Roethlisberger era. (Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who can be retained through 2022 on his rookie deal, is another extension-eligible defender to keep an eye on.)
Drafted: Round 2 (No. 35) in 2018. Under contract through: 2021. Age: 25.
Nick Chubb said this week he wants to be in Cleveland -- and because the shelf lives of running backs are so brief, his representatives should be pressing the Browns to get a deal done as soon as possible. His worth to the team is clear, even taking into account the presence of backfield-mate Kareem Hunt; Chubb's 12 rushing touchdowns in 2020 were the most by a Cleveland player since Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly's 16 in 1968. Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 5.2 yards per carry while outperforming all three of the backs drafted before him (Saquon Barkley, No. 2 overall, Rashaad Penny, No. 27 and Sony Michel, No. 31).
Why list Chubb here over his 2018 classmates Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward? First, as the non-first-rounder of the trio, Chubb is the more urgent threat to leave, while Mayfield and Ward's fifth-year options for 2022 have already been exercised. Second, Chubb is a proven driver of the team's success, a centerpiece of Cleveland's offensive resurgence. I'm splitting hairs here, because Ward is crucial to the defense, and Mayfield is ready to take another step forward in his development at the game's most important position -- really, extending all three players should be a priority. But it's difficult to picture the Browns winning at a high level in their current competitive window without Chubb.
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 32) in 2018. Under contract through: 2022. Age: 24.
That a season in which Lamar Jackson threw 26 TD passes and ran for seven more can even be counted as a down year shows how special he can be. Maybe he didn't quite hit the heights in 2020 that he did in his MVP-winning 2019 campaign, but Jackson still pulled off the rare feat of topping 1,000 yards on the ground and in the air, and he still provided plenty of jaw-dropping highlights. There aren't too many players in the NFL who can swing a game singlehandedly like Jackson can. Think of how lost Baltimore looked during Jackson's brief absence against Cleveland in Week 14. Then think of how Jackson basically won the game by himself after his return, starting with a 44-yard touchdown throw on fourth down with 2 minutes left to play. Jackson's emergence as a singular offensive force kicked off the Ravens' latest run as an AFC powerhouse. They need to do whatever they can to keep him in purple for the long term.
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 26) in 2018. Under contract through: 2022. Age: 26.
Trading away Julio Jones obviously did not make Atlanta better in terms of on-field talent in 2021 -- but at least the team can rest easy knowing it still has a bona fide No. 1 receiver on the roster. Calvin Ridley posted career highs in catches (90) and receiving yards (1,374) last season despite working without a viable complement for much of the year, given that Jones appeared in just nine games and no other Falcons player approached Ridley's 143 targets. The problem is, the Falcons' tight cap situation this offseason might preclude the team from signing him to an extension until next offseason. That doesn't change his value to this team as it moves forward without Jones.
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 18) in 2018. Under contract through: 2022. Age: 24.
There is only one cornerback in the NFL currently averaging $20 million-plus per season: Rams star Jalen Ramsey. But Alexander should top that figure in 2022, when, with the salary cap rising again, the Packers are likely to sign him to an extension. According to Pro Football Focus, Alexander surrendered a completion rate of just 50 percent and 9.4 yards per catch on 68 targets last season, allowing a passer rating of 67.0. Offenses had much greater success against players like Kevin King (68.6 percent completion rating, 14.0 yards per catch, 105.8 passer rating), which explains Green Bay's selection of cornerback Eric Stokes in Round 1 of this year's draft. Whatever happens with Aaron Rodgers, at least the Packers can be secure in the knowledge they have a stud in the secondary.
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 6) in 2017 (by Jets). Under contract through: 2021. Age: 25.
It's true that one team already has let Jamal Adams go -- but he's still on his rookie contract, and so he still qualifies here. The dilemma facing Seattle is whether to pay Adams as a top defensive player overall or as a top safety, with the gap being almost $12 million per year (from Joey Bosa's $27 million average to Justin Simmons' $15.25). Adams can make a strong argument for the former option. He easily has more sacks (21.5) since he joined the NFL in 2017 than any other safety in that span, and last season, he recorded more sacks by a defensive back (9.5) than anyone else at the position since the NFL first began officially tracking that stat in 1982. The Seahawks already invested two first-round picks in acquiring Adams last offseason, and it would make sense to secure the three-time Pro Bowler -- who will not be at minicamp -- as a centerpiece of their defense for years to come. If he and the team can't agree on an extension, he will surely be franchise-tagged in 2022.
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 11) in 2017. Under contract through: 2021. Age: 25.
Provided there are no major ramifications from his offseason arrest, Marshon Lattimore is headed for a monster payday in the Big Easy. He hasn't slowed down since winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2017, earning Pro Bowl honors in three of his four seasons. The only issue would be how tight the cap situation is; consider that New Orleans had to restructure the fifth year of Lattimore's rookie contract just to make enough room to sign the 2021 draft class. As soon as general manager Mickey Loomis can work his magic with the numbers, I'd expect New Orleans to secure a long-term agreement with Lattimore. I also like Lattimore's fellow 2017 draftee, right tackle Ryan Ramczyk -- but if I had to prioritize signing one to an extension, I'd go with Lattimore, because it is more difficult to find a quality cornerback than it is to find a quality right tackle.
Drafted: Round 3 (No. 70) in 2018. Under contract through: 2021. Age: 24.
There is a strong argument to be made that Fred Warner was the biggest steal of the 2018 draft. In 2020, Warner led San Francisco in tackles (125), marking the third straight season he'd had at least 118, and earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. He's said he wants to be a 49er for life, and the team has shown plenty of love for him, with GM John Lynch recently calling him a "a special leader, a special player and a big part of the fabric of this team." In head coach Kyle Shanahan's own words, it's just "a matter of time" before Warner signs an extension. I expect that deal will pay him in the neighborhood of $15 million to $16 million per year.
Drafted: Round 2 (No. 54) in 2018. Under contract through: 2021. Age: 24.
The Bengals have had problems in recent years, but Jessie Bates hasn't been one of them. The Fort Wayne, Indiana, product is one of the best safeties in the league, possessing excellent range and tackling ability. With roughly $18 million in cap space (per Over The Cap), Cincinnati has the means to sign one of the top young players on the roster to an extension that would send a strong message to the rest of the locker room about the franchise's commitment to winning.
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 6) in 2018. Under contract through: 2022. Age: 25.
Drafted: Round 2 (No. 36) in 2018. Under contract through: 2021. Age: 25.
It might seem like a bit of a cheat to include two Colts after limiting myself to one Brown and one Saint, but it's really just impossible to separate these two headliners of Indianapolis' banner 2018 draft class. It wouldn't be a stretch to say Darius Leonard and Quenton Nelson are the best players in the NFL at linebacker and guard, respectively, which is quite a feather in GM Chris Ballard's cap. Of course, after hitting the jackpot on prospects, the next challenge is signing them to second contracts. The puzzle facing Ballard is finding a way to get Leonard, Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith (a 2018 second-rounder) extended on new deals, all of which will likely reset the bar at the players' respective positions, or at least come awfully close to doing so.