Chandler Jones had just put the finishing touches on a five-sack performance Sunday afternoon when Steve Keim walked over to congratulate him.
As the Arizona Cardinals’ general manager got close, Jones smiled mischievously and reached for Keim’s pockets, resulting in a bout of laughter from those in the vicinity.
The message? Pay me.
The 31-year-old outside linebacker has long been one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL, and proved against the Titans he is not on the decline. Jones is in the final year of a five-year, $82.5 million contract and wanted more money this offseason, but an extension was not reached.
A motivated Jones unleashed his pent-up frustration on the Titans, which Pro Football Focus salary cap analyst Brad Spielberger believes could be the impetus to get the sides back to the negotiating table.
“As crazy as it sounds, I really do,” Spielberger told Compare.bet. “You try never to base anything off that small of a sample size, but there could be a component of… we think you’re the same guy, and we like you as a person and as a player, but prove to us that you’re still Chandler Jones. And he went out and did that, right?”
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) September 15, 2021
Jones had one sack in five games last season before suffering a season-ending biceps injury. He will be 32 next year, which is an age that makes general managers antsy about a possible drop-off.
But his track record is phenomenal. Jones finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2019 when he had 19 sacks and eight forced fumbles. He has 66 sacks and 19 forced fumbles in 70 career games with the Cardinals.
Spielberger points out that many edge-rushers continue to play well into their 30s, which should give Jones some negotiating leverage. Spielberger said the three-year, $52.5 million deal Cameron Jordan signed with the Saints in 2019 is an apt comparison.
“If you’re Chandler Jones’ people, you come in and point to this contract and say, ‘Look, this is what we want, something in this range,” Spielberger said. “Three years, $45 million is a floor. Three years, $55 million or something like that, would be ideal for them. And I think the Cardinals have to have that conversation.”
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) September 14, 2021
Quarterback Kyler Murray can be extended after this season, and Spielberger believes he is in line to get around $45 million per year if he can replicate the Week 1 performance.
While that would seriously bite into the Cardinals’ cap down the road, Spielberger does not think it affects the Jones situation.
“It’s not really a cap issue,” Spielberger said. “They don’t have a ton of guys they need to pay. They don’t have a ton of pending free agents looking for big money. I just think it’s more of a cap question: Do you want to have three extremely highly-paid players?
“(DeAndre) Hopkins will be 30 soon, and Jones is already in his thirties. So I think it’s more of a cash question, and then, hey look, we may have a window here with Kyler Murray. Is that best capitalized in giving a ton of money to one player, an older edge rusher, or should we add corners in free agency, continue to bolster that offensive line? It’s a question of opportunity cost there.”
The decline questions will persist for the rest of Jones’ career, but he is in phenomenal shape and had a game for the ages on Sunday. Former Pro Bowl pass-rusher Kyle Vanden Bosch saw a man on a mission when watching Jones during training camp.
“He seems really determined,” Vanden Bosch told Compare.bet before the season. “He seems to be a player that’s not necessarily motivated by the contract — which can be dangerous — or motivated by the next pay day, but it’s more about respect. Particularly disrespect.”
In-season extensions can be rare, but Jones has proven the injury is behind him. Spielberger doesn’t think a franchise tag threat would hold much weight, which means Jones has the leverage to push for an extension or threaten to walk at the end of the year.
“My prediction would be (Jones’ camp) goes in and says, ‘Look, I want to retire a Cardinal; I’ve had a great career here; I like where the team is going,’” Spielberger said. “The team is invested in that, so I think a two-year, $35 million extension with really strong guarantees. That value is a little lower than we discussed, but the guarantees would make it so it’s a really strong two-year deal. It locks him in for the next three seasons where he is 100% a Cardinal and he would get a strong cash flow. I think that is a very realistic possibility.”