The Los Angeles Rams have done it right this offseason, once again stiff-arming traditional thinking to take care of those who helped them win the franchise's first championship in 22 years.
Since defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, Los Angeles has given contract extensions to a number of veterans, including massive deals for quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Cooper Kupp and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who now ranks as the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.
The Rams have sent the message that performance at the highest level will be rewarded, even if you have years remaining on your contract. Bring home the silver and you will be rewarded in gold.
It sounds so logical, but across the league, there are hardline management types who believe you don't pay a player unless -- and until -- you have to. They place a greater focus on building for tomorrow than winning today. On a certain level, this makes sense -- if you subscribe to the traditional, conservative business model that treats the salary cap as an inflexible object. Teams have won championships with that mindset. But that philosophy can also create a wall between the locker room and the front office, as we have seen again this offseason with players seeking trades or withholding services from workouts because of dissatisfaction with their contract situations.
So, props to the Rams for doing what they did not have to do, working around the salary cap to honor performance. Their willingness to open the checkbook got me to wondering ...
Which other veterans, across the league, deserve a pay raise?
Constrained by space restrictions for this column, I created two parameters:
- The player must have at least three full seasons on his NFL résumé. This actually isn't my parameter, but rather a rule laid out in the current collective bargaining agreement: Contracts for draft picks cannot be renegotiated until the conclusion of the player's third season. Much to my disappointment, this eliminates third-year Indianapolis Colts RB Jonathan Taylor, the league's reigning rushing champion.
- No quarterbacks. Because everyone knows they're going to be paid at some point, regardless of whether their performance warrants it. So, sorry, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray.
So, with that as the backdrop, let's get to the seven-man squad. There are others who deserve a pay increase, but unfortunately, we don't have as much space for copy as the Rams have dollars for high-achieving Super Bowl winners.
NOTE: All contract figures were gathered from Spotrac.
It might sound crazy to say someone who banked nearly $28.5 million over his first three seasons is underpaid, but such is the case with Bosa, a certified game-wrecker who is scheduled to earn just $5.2 million in 2022. Coming off a 2020 campaign cut short by a torn ACL, the former No. 2 overall pick managed 15.5 sacks and an NFL-high 21 tackles for loss last season. Impressive stuff, especially considering San Francisco lacks a true complementary edge-rushing threat on the opposite side. Bosa's my early choice for 2022 Defensive Player of the Year. It won't be long before he's one of the game's highest-paid defensive players, if not the highest.
Smith has a common surname and an uncommon game. Over his first four NFL campaigns, the Georgia product started 59 games, averaged 131 tackles per season and earned second-team All-Pro honors in each of the last two years. It speaks volumes that teammate Robert Quinn could rank second in the league with 18.5 sacks last season, yet Smith is still viewed as the leader -- the heart and soul -- of the defense. He is scheduled to play on the fifth-year option at $9.735 million this year, which is a bargain for a player of his ability, particularly if his game blossoms as expected under new coach Matt Eberflus. As the Colts' defensive coordinator, Eberflus helped linebacker Darius Leonard earn an extension worth nearly $100 million.
There might be another player who can do the things that Deebo does, it's just that we have not seen him in action. Samuel not only is a threat as a receiver -- ranking fifth in yards (1,405), second in yards after catch (803, per Next Gen Stats) and first in yards per reception (18.2), as well as posting four of the top 22 single-game yardage performances last year -- but he scored eight rushing touchdowns and ranked third in combined rushing/receiving yards (1,770). His physicality is like an electrical outlet that teammates plug into when needing a jolt. He has made just $6.15 million through three seasons and is scheduled to earn less than $4 million this year, which is significantly beneath the going rate for top wideouts.
In a sport where the spotlight typically lands on edge players, it's not often we tune in to watch an interior lineman. Nelson is the anomaly. In four NFL seasons, the physically dominant performer has been voted first-team All-Pro three times and second-team All-Pro once. His presence is a significant reason Jonathan Taylor ran away with the rushing title and Indianapolis had four games in which it ran for more than 225 yards. He is scheduled to make $13.754 million this season on the fifth-year option, which is a bargain for a player of his ability.
McLaurin doesn't get as much love as he should because the Commanders have not had a winning season since he arrived in 2019 (they did win the NFC East in 2020 with a 7-9 mark, however) and the organization has been steeped in dysfunction and controversy for much of that time. But McLaurin is a talent. Posting 1,000-yard seasons in each of the past two years despite having limited talent around him, including at quarterback, speaks to his ability. He is an elite route-runner and proven playmaker. It's wild that he has earned barely $3 million to this point in his career and has a base salary of $2.79 million this year. In related news, McLaurin is holding out of mandatory minicamp this week. Pay the man, Commanders!
There is nothing Derwin can't do. He can play high or low, rush the passer or cover a tight end (if not a wideout). He wears the captain's "C" as well as the green dot as the defensive play-caller. Size, speed, leadership -- he has it all, except a contract that reflects his value. James has made just under $12.4 million through four seasons and is scheduled to play on the fifth-year option at $9.05 million.
I had to get at least one running back on this list because, generally speaking, RBs are underpaid and undervalued. Harris gets the nod here after tying for second in the NFL last season with 15 rushing touchdowns. That alone should earn him a raise from the $965,000 he's scheduled to make in 2022.