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Projecting Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard and two others’ contract extensions

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

In recent weeks, we’ve heard from many that the Colts are saving their cap space this season so that they can have more than enough money to retain the services of some of their megastars on the team.

A few weeks ago, I projected that the Colts would need to carry over about 20M in cap space this season in order to carry over a good amount for the extensions next offseason. They’ll use the money on players like Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, Braden Smith and Nyheim Hines. Those are the four biggest free agents next summer and the ones I’ll be focusing on for this article.

I will be using a salary cap figure of 220M, which is what I and many expect the salary cap will be in 2022. One thing of note is that I am projecting the first year of his contract to be in the 2022-2023 season.

Quenton Nelson

Nelson is arguably the top pro guard and one of the very best offensive linemen in the NFL. He has made the All-Pro team in each of his first 3 seasons in the NFL and is undoubtedly on track for a Hall of Fame career. The Colts will (and should) do anything to keep him in Indy blue.

An important thing to note is that Colts can pick up Quenton Nelson’s 5th year option for approximately 14.4M in 2022. While this could buy them time, it could also lead to two things:

  • Nelson’s extension in 2023 (instead of 2022) would be around 5-8% more expensive.
  • Nelson’s 2022 cap hit could also be lower with a new extension rather than with the 5th year option.

It’s for those two reasons why I believe the Colts should sign his extension NOW instead of letting him play under the option and signing the extension for 2023 and beyond.

Comparable Contracts

Joe Thuney - 5 years, 80M (16M per year) with 46.89M (58.6%) guaranteed - Signed in 2021

Brandon Brooks - 4 years, 56.2M (14.05M) with 32.71M (58.2%) guaranteed - Signed in 2019

Zack Martin - 6 years, 84M (14M per year) with 40M (47.6%) guaranteed - Signed in 2018

If you take the average of those three contracts, adjusting for expected inflation in 2022, then you get a deal of 5 years, 85.6M (17.12M per year) with 46.9M guaranteed.

I personally believe that Nelson’s durability and importance will allow him to get more guaranteed money and completely set a new bar for the market and have him be paid more like a left tackle.

His approximate value, according to Pro Football Reference, was 15 in 2020. I believe players should be paid around 1.2M per AV (based on the current research which I will be unveiling in a future article), so that puts his number at around 18M. He has consistently been in the mid-teens in terms of approximate value and is still young. I could see Nelson getting a deal that’s 10% higher than the average we saw and more in line with 18-19M per year. It’s for those reasons I project his contract to be:

5 Years, $94,200,000 ($18.84M per year) with $54,600,000 Guaranteed

Darius Leonard

Darius Leonard has essentially been the Quenton Nelson of the defense. They both came into the league in the same draft class, their play has been invaluable and both have turned into forces on both sides of the ball. It’s a fair argument to say that Nelson is the best offensive linemen in football and Leonard is the best linebacker. With that being said, is Leonard going to make top dollar?


Comparable Contracts

Bobby Wagner - 3 years, 54M (18M per year) with 24.5M (45.4%) guaranteed - Signed in 2019

CJ Mosley - 5 years, 85M (17M per year) with 43M (50.5%) guaranteed - Signed in 2019

Zach Cunningham - 4 years, 58M (14.5M per year) with 23.574M (40.6%) guaranteed - Signed in 2020

If you take the average of those three contracts, adjusting for expected inflation in 2022, then you get a deal of 4 years, 77.32M (19.33M per year) with 35.2M guaranteed.

If we use the AV method use above, Leonard had an AV of 14 in 2020, but it would’ve been 17 had he played in 17 games. He has a figure of 44 AV in 42 career games, so saying he’s a 17 AV a season type of player is fair. Based on those numbers, he would be worth 20.4M per season. In the average of 19.33M in the comparison contracts above and the 20.4M figure listed based on his AV, we can safely assume he’s worth around 19.5M per year and that his contract would be:

4 Years, $78,000,000 ($19.5M per year) with $35,400,000 guaranteed

Braden Smith

So while the contracts of Leonard and Nelson will reset their markets, Smith’s won’t.

Braden Smith is a very good player and has done a nice job at right tackle. He’s young and still has room to grow and the Colts will need him up front for many more years.

Comparable Contracts

La’El Collins - 5 years, 50M (10M per year) with 35M (70%) guaranteed - Signed in 2019

Halapoulivaati Vaitai - 5 years, 45M (9M per year) with 20M (44.44%) guaranteed - Signed in 2020

George Fant - 3 years, 27.3M (9.1M per year) with 13.3M (48.7%) guaranteed - Signed in 2020

If you take the average of those three contracts, adjusting for expected inflation in 2022, then you get a deal of 4 years, 43M (10.75M per year) with 23.4M guaranteed.

Smith’s AV the last 3 seasons has been 21 (in 43 games as a starter) with last season being his best as he achieved 7 in 14 games. If we assume a 3% improvement season over season, then it only really gives him 1 additional AV by the end of his 4th season under the contract. It’s for those reasons we we should use 8 (7 in 14 games is 8 or 9 in 17 games), which gives us a number of 9.6M per season. If the average contracts are worth 10.75M per year and his AV figure stands at 9.6M, then he’s worth somewhere in the middle.

4 Years, $41,000,000 ($10.25M per year) with $22,310,000 guaranteed

Nyheim Hines

Hines has arguably been the most explosive player on the Colts’ offense over the past 2 seasons. He can do it all and has been an important player on the Colts’ offense. On top of that, he has been an exceptional punt returner and special teamer, which helps his value. He should be someone the Colts make a priority to keep.

Comparable Contracts

Austin Ekeler - 4 years, 24.5M (6.125M per year) with 15M (61.2%) guaranteed - Signed in 2020

Kareem Hunt - 2 years, 12M (6M per year) with 6.81M (56.75%) guaranteed - Signed in 2020

Tarik Cohen - 3 years, 17.25M (5.75M per year) with 12M (69.6%) guaranteed - Signed in 2020

If you take the average of those three contracts, adjusting for expected inflation in 2022, then you get a deal of 3 years, 20.1M (6.70 per year) with 12.56M guaranteed.

Hines’ AV has been 6 in each of his first three seasons (and he has not missed a game). I can’t imagine that with the emergence of Jonathan Taylor, that he will be anything more than what he currently is, with perhaps a bit more playing time in the passing game. It’s for that reason why the 6 AV is a good figure to work on for the future and puts his value at 7.2M. He is somewhere in between 7.2M (AV figure) and the 6.7M (average from the comparable contracts).

3 Years, $20,850,000 ($6.95M per year) with $13,025,000 guaranteed

Here’s where things get interesting. The average yearly values on the four contracts are:

  • Quenton Nelson - 18.84M
  • Darius Leonard - 19.5M
  • Braden Smith - 10.25M
  • Nyheim Hines - 6.95M

Ballard showed with the Buckner deal that he is wiling to front load a contract. If Ballard wanted to front load the contracts by 10% (having smaller cap hits in future years), then the 2022 cap hit of those 4 players would be: 61.1M.

If he wanted to back-load the contracts by 10% (having bigger cap hits in future years), then the 2022 cap hit of those 4 players would be: 50.5M.

If he wanted to do it the more orthodox way and have it be progressively, but normally bigger in each season, then the cap hit of those 4 players would be: 55.54M.

Those are the cap hits of only those 4 players, and it doesn’t include the money tied in to the 2021 and 2022 draft classes, key 2022 free agents such as Mark Glowinski, Xavier Rhodes, Zach Pascal, TY Hilton and some others.

As of right now, according to Over the Cap, the Colts have 99.1M in cap liabilities for the 2022 season. If the salary cap does rise to 220M, that leaves the Colts with around 120.9M in cap space. As you saw before, if they decide to front load the contracts, that’s 61.1M, which is half of that. If you account for the many things mentioned before on top of those 4 players, that 120.9M gets dry pretty quick.

As of right now, the Colts have 27.25M in cap space. If they decide to sign no free agents and just sign their draft class and leave money for in-season transactions, they’ll have around 17-19M of carryover for next season, which would raise the amount of cap space from 120.9M to 138.9M or so.

There has been a large amount of outcry from Colts fans and analysts about the limited amount of spending from Chris Ballard, but with a lot of money being dished out next offseason, it’s justified. The simple notion that the salary cap increase will make up for it isn’t enough as those 4 players who were broken down are on cheap rookie contracts.

If we use 55.54M as the cap hit number for 2022, that would be a 37.89M increase from their 2021 cap hits, which is essentially the projected increase (37.5M) of the salary cap. It’s good to have wiggle room and space to play with, which is why carrying over a good amount is financially responsible. Teams that win free agency don’t win Super Bowls. I’ve heard people use the example of the Buccaneers last offseason, but they made two major free agency signings, including Tom Brady; Tom Brady’s aren’t available in free agency, and even then, the Bucs didn’t go crazy spending tens of millions of dollars on other players, they focused on Brady and Gronk and that’s it. Other than that, you can look through history and see that signing multiple elite free agents in the same offseason rarely work out in the long run.

Chris Ballard likes to take care of his own and he’s saving money so he can do exactly that next offseason. Doing so can help prolong a championship window.