Jonathan Allen was the first of four consecutive defensive line first-round selections made by Washington between 2017 and 2020. The team exercised Allen's 5th year option, paying him $10m for one season in 2021. Many fans are now anxious to see the team leader rewarded with a well-earned contract extension, and it seems a natural time, before training camp begins, to complete a contract extension with the defensive stalwart who has been bringing Alabama work ethic and toughness to his NFL job for the past four seasons.
But Washington doesn't have a strong history of re-signing its key players, even when the coaches and front office really like them. It's not necessary to look any further than right guard Brandon Scherff, who is in his 7th season with the franchise, but who has never voluntarily signed a long-term deal. Scherff played on his rookie contract and 5th-year option before being franchise-tagged a year ago. This offseason, Ron Rivera took personal responsibility for the decision to use a second franchise tag at a cost of $18m for the season to keep the All-Pro guard in DC for one more year.
Of course, every Washington fan became salary cap experts during the Bruce Allen era as he and his front office were seen to have bumbled their way through failed negotiations and two franchise tags with Kirk Cousins before he eventually took his propensity for 9-7 seasons to the Minnesota Vikings.
Four of the top 5 draft picks selected in the 2014 draft -- one year prior to Scherff -- were not extended by Washington; Trent Murphy, Spencer Long, Bashaud Breeland and Ryan Grant all left in free agency at the end of their rookie deals.
Two key draft picks from Scherff's 2015 class, Preston Smith and Jamison Crowder, did the same.
In truth, the 2016 draft was largely a bust. The only two players from that draft that were worth keeping are both still on the team (Kendall Fuller and Matt Ioannidis), but they seem like the exceptions rather than the norm for this franchise.
Now, Jonathan Allen of the 2017 draft class is the next man up. To their credit, the front office managed to extend Chase Roullier, who was drafted in the same year as Allen, earlier this year. He signed a 4-year deal worth $40.5m before the 2020 season had even come to an end.
Extending Allen will be a much more expensive proposition than that. A look at the top contracts for interior defensive linemen shows that the 26-year-old Allen should be able to command a contract in the $17m to $21m per year range. While many fans and media analysts seem to be focused on the lower end of that range, with the dramatic increases in revenue expected to impact the salary cap in 2023 and beyond, Jonathan Allen's agent should be pushing for a deal closer to the ones given to DeForest Buckner a year ago, or Leonard Williams just four months ago. If Washington isn't willing to at least match those contract amounts, then Allen may want to play out his current option year and return to the negotiating table next season.
For Washington, I'm not sure it makes great financial sense to pony up this kind of money for Jonathan Allen. For as much as Washington fans have grown to dislike the use of the franchise tag, it could make financial sense for the team to follow the Cousins/Scherff model.
The franchise tag for a defensive tackle is $13.89m this season. Let's assume for a moment that it rises to $14.5m next year. The cost of a second tag would be around $17.4m. By using the franchise tag on Allen in 2022 and 2023, the Football Team could secure his services through his age-28 season at an average cost of around $15.65m per season, which looks pretty thrifty when you compare it to the list of contract above. Of course, it leaves the franchise with no good options after the second tag has expired, as a third franchise tag would jump to more than $25m for the 2024 season, not to mention that the team can use the tag on only one player per year.
With Daron Payne, Montez Sweat and Chase Young all lined up behind Allen for contracts, the 2-tag strategy would have the effect of holding the defensive line together for three more seasons if Washington were able to extend Daron Payne beyond his fifth-year option. The team could, in fact, focus its efforts on extending Daron Payne, who is two years younger than Allen, before being forced into their next defensive line contract decision, which would be for Montez Sweat in 2024.
The fact is, Washington will only be able to hold its current DL together for a limited amount of time. The limitations of the salary cap aren't likely to allow any NFL team to pay full-value veteran contract amounts to four consecutive first round picks in the same position group.
Importantly, Washington will need to pay big money to Terry McLaurin in 2023 or lose him in free agency. Also, at some point it will probably be necessary to pay big money to a quarterback.
Strategically, the best strategy for optimizing the Washington roster talent within the constraints of the salary cap may well be to use the franchise tag to keep Jonathan Allen around for as long as possible, and rely on good drafting, judicious free agent signings and player development to maintain the roster strength in 2024 and beyond, while keeping the big dollars in reserve for stars like Terry McLaurin, Chase Young, and a quarterback to be named later.
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