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Looking ahead to Grady Jarrett’s new contract, by the numbers

The gifted defensive tackle is going to be paid like one of the league’s elites at his position.

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

This offseason, Atlanta’s #1 priority is to get a new contract for Grady Jarrett. It won’t be cheap and it likely won’t be easy, but Jarrett has been very good since he arrived in Atlanta and capped off a career-best season that will ensure he gets paid. He’ll only be 26 years old in 2019 and the Falcons are dependent on him as they re-build a largely disappointing defensive line, so there’s no way they can afford to let him get away.

The problem for the Falcons and Jarrett is how to agree on his value. Jarrett is going to be looking for a deal that makes him one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in football, and the Falcons are going to have to find a way to make him happy and retain some sort of long-term flexibility. How deserving of a big contract is Jarrett, and what might his deal look like?

Where he stacks up

There’s a habit in the NFL of stacking good or even great players up against the absolute platinum standard at their position, as he has happened with Grady Jarrett and Aaron Donald. Jarrett is not and never will be Donald, a once-in-a-generation defensive tackle who utterly dominates everyone and is probably underpaid.

Jarrett is not Donald, but a year ago, he was one of the best defensive tackles in football. He tied for 12th in sacks from a defensive tackle with six despite playing only 14 games, finished tied for 8th in quarterback hits, tied for 2nd in forced fumbles, and tied for eighth in tackles overall, which is a testament to how active he is at the line of scrimmage. He enjoyed one of the best run stop percentages from a defensive lineman in the entire NFL, and was top three for defensive tackles. By any credible measure and at his age, he was one of the ten best defensive tackles in football last year.

Per Pro Football Focus, here were the top five defensive interior linemen in 2018:

1. Aaron Donald

2. Fletcher Cox

3. DeForest Buckner

4. Damon Harrison

5. Grady Jarrett

Given that, the Falcons don’t appear to have an enormous amount of leverage over Jarrett. He’s young, coming off a year that would lead to him drawing huge interest on the open market, doesn’t have any significant health concerns to point to, and is a high-character player and one of the most consistently accountable men in the locker room. About the only opportunity they have to push back is by stacking his raw production as a pass rusher against Donald, Cox, and Buckner, because there’s not much else working against him.

Jarrett and his representation can and will argue for youth—he’s two years younger than both Donald and Cox—but obviously his production has yet to match those two. He fares much better against Geno Atkins, PFF’s third-highest 4-3 DT by salary and the #20 DT last year and a man headed for his age 31 season in 2019, Kawann Short (#4 in contract, 30 years old and #19), Marcell Dareus (#5 in contract, 29 years old, #27), Gerald McCoy (#6 in contract, nearly 31, and #29, about to be cut), and finally Jurrell Casey (#7 in contract, 29, and #17). He has a credible case to be the second-or-third highest-paid player at his position in the NFL, depending on how far his youth compared to Cox takes him, and at the end of the day the on-paper annual average is likely to reflect that.

Where will his contract end up?

The Falcons will do their level best to balance Jarrett’s deserved pay hike after four years on a rookie fifth-rounder contract with the long-term needs of a team about to hand out significant extensions to other key players. That will mean getting creative with structure, as the Falcons often try to do, to ensure they’re not taking massive cap hits every year of Jarrett’s new deal.

The annual average for this deal is going to wind up being $16-18 million, if I had to wager, and could go higher if the Falcons are comfortable with it. That will be enough to put Jarrett somewhere between the second-highest and fifth-highest paid defensive tackle in the NFL, which is a more than fair spot for him even if the numbers make you wince. The Falcons will likely carefully weigh their free agent needs this offseason before deciding whether they want their cap hits to be fairly balanced or if they want to heavily front load this deal to try to lessen the impact and guaranteed money as Jarrett marches toward his 30s. It’s fair to expect a 4-5 year deal that will, one hopes, allow both parties to walk away from the negotiating table happy, though ideally the Falcons would be able to lock up Jarrett for six years and hopefully see him play out the entire contract.

All told, then, I think the template here is a little north of Cox’s deal, which gave the gifted defensive tackle $102 million over six seasons, with an annual average of $17.1 million when he signed it back in 2016. Jarrett’s youth and the expanding cap should allow him to get closer to $17.5 or $18 million per year, and the Falcons will probably want to avoid structuring the deal like Cox’s given that the dead money doesn’t dip below $13 million until 2022, when Cox will be 31 years old. But if they can hammer out something that makes Jarrett the second-highest paid defensive tackle in the NFL and allows them to continue to lock up key guys like Deion Jones and Keanu Neal in the years ahead, the signing and this offseason will both feel like a success.

What do you think Jarrett’s contract will look like?