Davante Adams is grossly underpaid.
That’s been the case for at least a few years with the newly minted All-Pro wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers.
Less than a year from now, he likely won’t be.
The bill will soon come due on the 28-year-old product out of Fresno State, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2021 season. Adams’ expiring contract, which effectively began in 2018, was for up to $58 million with $24 million guaranteed at signing.
Since his new deal kicked in, Adams ranks third in the NFL in receptions (309), fourth in receiving yards (3,757) and first in receiving touchdowns (36). Adams has produced at that rate despite missing seven games in the last three seasons.
In 2020, Adams’ 18 touchdowns were the most since Randy Moss set the single-season record in 2007 with 23. An astounding total in a 16-game season, especially considering Adams was inactive for two games and exited early in another.
Clearly Adams has outplayed his current contract. Despite those astounding totals, which landed Adams the aforementioned All-Pro nod, he enters 2021 with the 18th-highest average annual salary value in the NFL among receivers. His 2021 cap hit (over $16 million) is far more appropriate, at fourth-highest.
There isn’t 17 receivers better than Adams. There isn’t three. Heck, there ain’t one.
While there are worse things than worrying about how to pay one of the best players in football, the Packers — once again — will find themselves in a salary cap bind next summer, even as Adams’ previous deal comes off the books. The NFL expects to increase the salary cap to $208.2 million for 2022, almost $30 million more than the ceiling for 2021.
While $208 million seems great at first glance, it loses a little shine considering that with current salaries the Packers will still be $24 million above the salary cap.
Green Bay showed its cap wizardry to get under the cap for 2021, and they’ll surely have to do so again next year. The Packers could lean on a series of contract restructures, just like they did this spring, or could take the plunge by cutting several of their most expensive players.
Cutting or trading Aaron Rodgers after the 2021 season would bring Green Bay close to the 2022 cap almost by itself. Or the Packers could settle for death by a thousand knives and choose to part ways with ancillary players like Preston Smith, Billy Turner and others.
However, that’s after considering whether or not the Packers can retain Adams and how much it would cost to do so. And it doesn’t help that there are still so many balls in the air, including Rodgers’ status with the team. Adams admitted on a recent appearance on FOX Sports Radio that he’d have to do “extra thinking” about returning to Green Bay sans Rodgers.
Let’s set the personal relationships aside, though. Let’s say Adams’ primary goal, whether it be in Green Bay or elsewhere, is to become the highest-paid wide receiver in football. He’s well within his right to ask for that, but what would such a contract look like?
Dallas’ Amari Cooper currently owns the largest contract for a wide receiver in the NFL at five years, $100 million. Cooper’s deal included $40 million guaranteed. Then there’s the Saints’ Michael Thomas who similarly has a five-year deal, for over $96 million ($35.65 guaranteed).
While both contracts only just kicked in for 2020, both are a bit outdated. But that provides at least a starting point that, unless he’s willing to take a major discount, Adams will check in for at least $20 million per year.
There’s no reason he can’t command more, though. And if you factor in the escalating nature of NFL contracts, Adams will likely warrant much more.
When Thomas signed his five-year extension the Saints in July 2019, the salary cap for that upcoming season was $188.2 million. While this is an oversimplication and there are endless salary gymnastics involved, the Saints essentially offered Thomas 10% of their salary cap for the duration of his deal.
Ten percent of the expected 2022 salary cap of $208 million is about $21 million. So again, that’s a reasonable starting point for Adams.
Working in Adams’ favor is knowledge that the NFL’s revenues are about to explode thanks to its new television deals, which will earn the league $105 billion from 2023 to 2033. That $208 million salary cap will seem like pocket change in the coming years, and if maximizing his income is the main priority, Adams can use the upcoming financial boom to his benefit. Would it be outlandish to ask for $24 million per year to become the highest-paid non-quarterback on the Packers? How about $26 million per year? Or $28 million per?
Paying Adams such a contract would probably require the Packers to step outside their comfort zone and backload the deal, making the certain bet that the cap will rise dramatically in future years. An extension in the immediate future would also allow Green Bay to fit some of Adams’ new salary into 2021 (not that there’s a ton of room for that). But would Adams be amicable to tying himself to Green Bay with such uncertainty regarding his quarterback? Only he knows the answer.
The Packers also have the option of a franchise tag, which could exceed $19 million according to projections from overthecap.com.
There are some details working to Adams’ detriment. He’ll be 29 when he hits free agency, and his next contract will be his third. Those aforementioned contracts for Cooper and Thomas were agreed upon when each were in their mid-20s.
There’s simply not much precedent for lavish contracts awarded to players of Adams’ age. Julio Jones’ current contract that he signed in 2019 at 30 years old (three years, $64 million guaranteed, $22 million AAV) is one of the few appropriate comparables.
It’s an odd thing to say for a franchise that used to develop wide receivers like a Henry Ford assembly line, but the Packers need Adams more than Adams needs the Packers.
Why? Whatever Adams’ salary demands, he’ll get what he wants. Plenty of teams will be willing to shell out $25 million per year to a receiver of his caliber, even if there’s some risk of decline.
The Packers, if they’re willing, can too. And they should.
(Salary cap figures gathered from spotrac.com unless otherwise noted.)