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The 2014 NFL Draft class was one of the best ever -- and now teams are paying for it

Taylor Lewan’s massive extension is just more proof of how stacked ‘14 was.

Tennessee Titans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

On Friday, news broke that Titans tackle Taylor Lewan reset the market for offensive linemen with a massive five-year, $80 million contract extension. Less than an hour later, the FalconsJake Matthews struck a $75 million deal of his own. The deal gives Tennessee and Atlanta foundational blindside protectors well into the next decade — and provides further evidence the 2014 NFL Draft may be the best ever ...unless you’re the Browns.

Through just four years, the 2014’s first round — where Lewan and Matthews were selected among the first 11 picks — has produced 13 Pro Bowlers and three first-team All-Pros. All but one player in the first 21 picks developed into a full-time starter for the team that drafted them. Defensive players of the year Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack both broke into the league with the Class of ‘14. Game-changing wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans joined them. While the talent at the top is staggering, just about every player from that first round managed to meet or exceed expectations.

Lewan’s monster deal is another example of how NFL teams are willing to pay for 2014’s absurd talent. 2018 has been dotted with these deals; $150m+ for Lewan and Matthews, Five years and $82.5 million for Evans. Sammy Watkins may be on the third team of his career, but he still managed to sign a deal averaging $16 million annually with the Chiefs. Even the embattled Blake Bortles signed a three-year, $54 million extension with Jacksonville months after leading the Jaguars to the AFC title game.

Major 2018 signings/extensions for 2014 NFL draftees

Player Pick No. Contract/Extension Value Annual value
Player Pick No. Contract/Extension Value Annual value
Zack Martin 16 $84m $14m
Mike Evans 7 $82.5m $16.5m
Brandin Cooks 20 $81m $16.2m
Taylor Lewan 11 $80m $16m
Jake Matthews 6 $75m $15m
Kyle Fuller 14 $56m $14m
Blake Bortles 3 $54m $18m
Sammy Watkins 4 $48m $16m

But while those players have been locked into big money contracts, several other members of their standout class remain waiting for theirs.

Some of 2014’s best players are still waiting for the massive extensions

While hundreds of millions of dollars already handed out to the class of ‘14, the group’s biggest paydays are yet to come. No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney will reportedly have to wait a bit longer, but players like Donald, Mack, and Beckham continue to inch toward Lewan-esque market-resetting contract extensions. After outplaying the value of their rookie contracts, this trio is going to force some tough salary cap decisions on their teams.

Donald and Mack, the 2017 and 2016 NFL DPOYs, respectively, will closely be watching the other’s situation. They’ve entered parallel holdouts as training camp begins while they search for long-term guarantees during the final year of their rookie contracts. While Donald is more of a pocket destroyer from the interior of the line and Mack is a linebacker/defensive end hybrid, the two will likely end up with similar contracts. Whomever signs first will be looking to eclipse the six years and $114 million Von Miller got. Whomever signs second will be looking to eclipse the first guy.

The Rams have been going hard to fill out their cap space while another underpaid draft pick, Jared Goff, runs through his rookie deal. They followed up Cooks’ enormous WR1 deal with a four-year, $57.5 million extension for Todd Gurley, who had two years remaining on his first contract. Any kind of further delay on a Donald deal would send a message about his importance to the team — and could spark another extended holdout.

Mack’s Raiders are similarly pressed up against the salary cap, and his negotiations with Oakland brass have reportedly gotten “tense.” He’s had to shoulder the load of a subpar defense throughout his career, and it’s difficult to see the Raiders moving on from their biggest star with a move to a new city on the horizon. Donald’s deal may be the catalyst that unclogs talks between the two sides.

Clowney is a tougher puzzle to figure out. He’s put the health problems that decimated his first two seasons in the league behind him to evolve into a perennial Pro Bowl defender. While he’s still an athletic specimen who served as the glue for an injury-ravaged Texans team last fall, his relative lack of production — at least compared to Mack and Donald — will leave him staring down a leaner contract. There’s a chance Houston, set to spend more than $47.6 million (over a quarter of its cap space) on its top five defenders in 2019 even without Clowney, could let him play out the year without making a serious effort to re-signing him.

Then there’s Beckham, who will be looking for a monster contract after watching his counterparts strike gold this offseason. One agent suggests no deal will be struck that doesn’t give the game-changing wideout both the highest annual average salary in league history and the most money ever guaranteed to a receiver; that would be something in the market of five years and $92 million, with $40 million in guarantees.

But Donald, Mack, and Beckham aren’t the only ones primed for lucrative second contracts

There’s more star power beyond these headliners, too. C.J. Mosley is the latest great linebacker in the Ravens’ lineage. Anthony Barr is an integral part of a Vikings defense that fell one game short of the Super Bowl last winter. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, for the past two seasons, has been the thread holding the Packers’ secondary together. Jason Verrett, when healthy, is a Pro Bowl cornerback for the Chargers — though another injury looks like it will derail his 2018 as well.

Those players, and several more from that year’s draft cohort, are due for raises this year. They just won’t be market-setting, 24-point font headline-needing deals.

That brings us to the saddest part of 2014’s class. Ryan Shazier looked every bit the leader the Steelers hoped for when they drafted him with the No. 15 pick that year, developing into a two-time Pro Bowler while adding value in every phase of the game as a versatile linebacker. Then a spinal injury ended his 2017 season early and threw his career into jeopardy. While he’ll make $8.7 million on Pittsburgh’s PUP list in the final year of his rookie contract, he’s missed out on what would have been a lucrative long-term extension due to injury.

Three teams whiffed on their first-round picks. Two played in Super Bowl 52. The other is the Browns

Several teams got franchise-building talent in 2014. A handful of others found reliable starters. Three got little-to-no value from one of the most loaded first rounds in NFL history.

For the Patriots and Eagles, that didn’t matter. New England made a surprising selection by picking Florida’s Dominique Easley at No. 29 despite suffering two torn ACLs in college. His potential never paid off for the Pats — he’d end his first two seasons with the team on injured reserve and was released before getting a third. They’d eventually get a taste of that 2014 success by bringing in Cooks via trade in 2017, then summarily ship him back west in another deal a year later.

Philadelphia bet on Marcus Smith’s ridiculous senior-year production at Louisville with the 26th pick, but the athletic defensive end never developed into a starter for either Chip Kelly or Doug Pederson and was released last summer. Fortunately for the Eagles, landing Carson Wentz at No. 2 in 2016 and some savvy free agent signings helped overcome the loss of production created by Smith’s career arc.

The Browns, on the other hand, pushed their chips to the middle of the table with a pair of high-profile picks, then saw the table ignite. Cleveland traded up twice in the draft in order to select players who actively made its team worse. No. 8 pick Justin Gilbert played just two years with the team before his stock dropped so low the club traded him to arch-rival Pittsburgh for the low cost of a sixth-round pick. No. 22 pick Johnny Manziel went 2-6 as an NFL starter and most recently got traded the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.

Jeff Fisher’s Rams would have joined them on this list after selecting Greg Robinson with the No. 2 pick gifted to them by Washington in the Robert Griffin III trade. Robinson started throughout his three seasons in St. Louis/Los Angeles, but has never been better than average and has since been traded (for a sixth-round pick) and waived. He’s currently the Browns’ latest chance at claiming some of the glory of 2014.

Fisher hit the lottery with his team’s own pick, however. Donald provided the value of a No. 2 pick from No. 13, and successful drafts over the following three years — which brought players like Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, and Cooper Kupp to LA — helped the team overcome a high-profile offensive line miss in a draft where two tackles selected after Robinson performed well enough to sign mega-deals.

The NFL Draft class of 2014 has reshaped the league, even if 2017’s two top teams didn’t get much out of their picks. These players have sparked rebuilds, built contenders, and willed unlikely teams to divisional titles. Now it’s time for them to get paid — and if the extensions already inked this offseason are any indication, it’s going to be a great summer to be a 2014 draftee.