Five NFL stars next in line for massive payday

Aaron Donald is one of the NFL stars next in line for a huge payday
Jesse Reed
Written by Jesse Reed

News broke Wednesday that Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders are close to finalizing a new deal that will pay him around $25 million per year.

While Schefter is hearing the deal is close to being done, Carr made it clear nothing’s done quite yet. But it’s only a matter of time.

It’s a deal that’s been in the works all offseason, and Carr absolutely deserves that type of payday based on his potential, and based on what he’s already accomplished early in his career. And while he might end up becoming the NFL’s highest-paid player on this new deal, that distinction won’t last for long.

So who’s next in line for a huge payday? Which quarterback will soon make Carr’s potential record-breaking deal a thing of the past? Which defensive tackle could soon be the highest-paid defender in football? Which receiver is going to break the bank?

These players will soon be raking in the cash.

Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams

The Rams know they have to pay this man. General manager Les Snead has already made that crystal clear, and there’s been some talk that Donald might just become the highest-paid defender in the NFL on a new deal.

There really is no way to argue against Donald demanding that type of haul. He was the No. 1-ranked player by Pro Football Focus heading into 2017, and you don’t need to be an expert at watching game film to understand he’s a dominant player.

Since entering the NFL as a first-round rookie out of Pitt in 2014, all Donald has done is rack up 163 total tackles, 28 sacks, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. It’s not just the raw numbers that are so impressive, either. Donald is constantly in the backfield on both running and passing plays and rarely takes a breather.

While it’s hard to compare any defensive lineman to J.J. Watt, Donald is a guy we can confidently put next to the Houston Texans star as a true peer.

Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington Redskins

Kirk Cousins is one of many NFL Free Agents who could make a big splash in 2017

If you believe newly promoted Washington executive Doug Williams, the Redskins want to give Cousins a long-term extension “in the worst way.” Though, if that dream does become reality, the franchise will have to lay out a compelling financial case for Cousins to sign on the dotted line.

It’s not like these two sides haven’t been banging their heads together for a long time. They have. But consistently, Washington has offered Cousins deals he knows are lower than what he’d see on the open market. So, rather than take a lesser deal, he’s been content to settle for one-year, fully guaranteed franchise tenders, the latest of which will pay him $24 million in 2017.

However, the franchise has until July 17 to figure out a way to keep Cousins for the long term, rather than one one-year rentals. If the Redskins cannot figure it out, then they’ll be forced to either pay upwards of $35 million on another franchise tag next year or let Cousins hit free agency. Either way, he’s in the driver’s seat for a humongous payday.

We already know Cousins will be a hot item on the open market if Washington lets him test the waters of free agency. The team everyone’s talking about as a natural fit is the San Francisco 49ers, who’ll be looking for a top quarterback next year, either in the draft or in free agency. Cousins would reportedly love to re-join his old offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, who’s now the head coach of the Bay Area team.

If Washington is smart, it will end the games with Cousins and simply pay him what he’s worth. While we won’t go so far as to say Cousins is a top-five quarterback, he’s certainly a top-10 guy, and as such he’s due for a significant long-term deal.

Le’Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers

In general, running backs aren’t hauling in massive deals these days, not compared to other top positions, anyway. But Bell is certainly the exception to the rule.

It’s worth pointing out the Steelers didn’t bat an eyelash using the exclusive franchise tender to lock him up — a fully-guaranteed $12.1 million deal.

It’s also worth pointing out that Bell averaged 157 yards from scrimmage per game last season. And that the Steelers — despite their exceedingly deep receiving corps — appear destined to lean more heavily on Bell to carry the offense as Ben Roethlisberger’s career winds down.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told reporters earlier this year before the draft that the team would focus on extending a long-term deal to Bell closer to training camp.

Even considering Bell’s injury history and past suspension, now’s the time to get a deal done. Because barring further issues there’s a solid chance Bell’s value will only skyrocket if he enters next offseason without a deal in hand.

Matthew Stafford, quarterback, Detroit Lions

Matthew Stafford

The Lions already know what comes next. Now that Carr’s deal is reportedly almost in the books, it’s going to be Stafford’s turn to set a record.

The team knows Stafford is going to be the NFL’s highest-paid man, and, according to team president Rob Wood the Lions are comfortable with doling out that kind of cash. Quite honestly, they should be.

One of the quarterbacks who has lived up to the hype of being the No. 1 overall guy taken in his draft class, Stafford has been ripping apart NFL defenses with his strong right arm since his rookie campaign. In particular, he’s excelled since the Lions promoted Jim Bob Cooter to the position of offensive coordinator. The past two years, Stafford has passed for 8,589 yards with 56 touchdowns and just 23 interceptions.

Still just 29 years of age, Stafford is just now entering the prime of his career. If he stays healthy long enough, he has the potential to break all kinds of NFL passing records. He’s one of the top passers in the league, and he’ll soon be paid like it.

Khalil Mack, EDGE, Oakland Raiders

Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie did a fantastic job drafting both Derek Carr and Khalil Mack, two of the best young players in the league. Now he has to pay both of them.

Mack must absolutely be salivating after seeing what the Los Angeles Chargers paid Melvin Igram (details here). Now, Ingram is a fine player, but Mack is arguably the most dangerous edge defender in the NFL right now.

While he only logged four sacks in his rookie campaign, he was getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks regularly. That all came together in 2015, and he upped his game to another level this past season. In total, Mack has tallied 225 total tackles, 30 sacks and eight forced fumbles through his first three NFL seasons.

The scariest thing for opposing offensive tackles is that this young man is still getting better. If he stays healthy, Mack has the potential to become one of the all-time greats based on what we’ve seen so far.

About the author

Jesse Reed

Jesse Reed

Managing Editor here at Sportsnaut. Featured on Yardbarker, and, and formerly was a breaking news writer/NFL analyst for Bleacher Report.