Offensive lineman Cody Whitehair has quickly become a stalwart on Chicago’s offensive line. In three years with the Bears, he has been a high-quality center who missed only 26 total offensive snaps, and he was rewarded with his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2018.
Now that he has three seasons under his belt, Whitehair is eligible for a contract extension, and friend of Da Blog Adam Jahns reported earlier this offseason that this is expected to happen before the 2019 season begins. So today I want to take a look at contracts signed by comparable players over the last few years to see roughly what Whitehair’s contract should be expected to look like.
This is a bit more complicated than usual because of Whitehair’s position change this offseason; after three years as the starting center, he is shifting to left guard. This is actually a good move for Whitehair, because guards actually make a little bit more money than centers do. So I imagine in negotiations the Bears will try to pay Whitehair as a center, which is what he played to earn this contract, while Whitehair’s camp will push for him to be paid as a top guard, which is what the Bears expect him to be going forward. Thus we’ll look at contract comparisons for both positions to see how much they differ.
The table below shows recent contract extensions signed by centers after 3 years in the NFL. I am not looking at free agent deals, because those are usually higher. Signing after three years – with one year left on the rookie deal – is usually the best time for a team to get terms that are slightly more friendly. All numbers used in this piece will be from Spotrac.
Some factors to consider:
- All of these players signed at a younger age than Cody Whitehair, who will be 27 in the 2019 NFL season. That shouldn’t be a huge deal, but is probably a consideration when thinking about length. I’d guess Whitehair’s contract falls in the 4-5 year range.
- The closest comparison to Whitehair in terms of player quality here is probably Travis Frederick, as he’s the only one of this bunch with a Pro Bowl to his name.
- Looking at when a deal was signed is important because the salary cap keeps going up. It was $155 million in 2016, $167 million in 2017, and will be $188 million for 2019. Thus expect contracts to be inflated appropriately.
Let’s use Frederick’s deal as a baseline, shorten the length to account for age, and adjust for inflation appropriately. That would give Whitehair a contract in the neighborhood of 4 years, $44 million ($11 million/year), with $15 million guaranteed.
Now let’s look at how those numbers change when we compare Whitehair to other top guards. Here are recent early extensions signed by guards after 3 years in the NFL (or after 4 years for 1st round picks, which are 5 year contracts. This applies to David DeCastro and Zach Martin).
A few thoughts:
- The lengths of these deals are generally longer than the center ones above. Mostly 5-6 years, though again players are mostly a little younger than Whitehair. I still think a 4 year contract for Whitehair is most likely.
- We see a much wider range of salaries here, which means the deal will depend on how exactly the negotiators think Whitehair compares to these various players. It’s hard to measure offensive line quality, but using Pro Bowl and All Pro can help. Players with at least one Pro Bowl at the time of signing were Zach Martin (4x), Trai Turner (3x), and David DeCastro (2x). Martin and DeCastro both also had multiple All Pro awards when signing, so I think it’s safe to say they were viewed more highly than Whitehair.
- In terms of quality, then, it seems like Trai Turner might be the closest comparison, though it’s worth noting he had more Pro Bowls and was significantly younger when signing. Whitehair’s camp will probably point to that contract, accounting for salary cap inflation, as what they want.
- Ali Marpet might be the next most comparable player, and he signed this year, so there’s no inflation to think about. He’s never made a Pro Bowl, so he’s probably viewed a little worse than Whitehair, but I would guess that contract is a baseline that the Bears try to use if they negotiate with Whitehair as a guard. Incidentally, this wouldn’t look all that different from the center contract above, which I think we can consider a floor for Whitehair’s new deal.
If we take Trai Turner’s contract and account for inflation, Whitehair would be looking at a deal for 4 years, $50M ($12.5M/year), with $23 million guaranteed. That’s probably a realistic ceiling for his next deal.
So there you have it. Whitehair’s extension, when it is signed, is probably going to be for 4-5 years added on to 2019, which he is still under contract for. It should pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $11-$12.5 million per year.
I will be particularly interested to see how the Bears arrange it for cap purposes. They can structure the contract to spread out cap hits pretty much however they want. They have some space to put a bit of money in this year, with about $17M in cap room remaining, and that can easily be accomplished through a roster or signing bonus. The issue comes starting in 2020, where the Bears already have $214 million worth of contracts signed, not including players scheduled to be free agents like Whitehair, HaHa Clinton-Dix, Danny Trevathan, and Roy Robertson-Harris. And next year will be the first time that players like Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson are eligible for extensions, like Whitehair is now.
The Bears have reached the point where their roster is getting expensive, which means they’re going to have to pick and choose who the core players are that they will prioritize. By all indications, Whitehair is one of those players, but signing him to the contract he deserves is probably going to cost somebody else a roster spot in 2020.