Contract extensions for upper-tier quarterbacks are typically inevitable. Lamar Jackson is currently proving to be the exception to the rule, but teams are generally ready to do whatever it takes to keep their signal-callers in place. Justin Herbert doesn’t figure to become another exception, as the Los Angeles Chargers are ready to give him a new contract as he heads into his fourth NFL campaign.
“I think we’re at the beginning of all of that,” Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said this week. “But we all know how we feel about him, and I think navigating this process, we have a very good relationship with his team, and I’m confident that Justin Herbert is going to be our quarterback for a long time and that we’ll make sure that we get a great deal done.”
But what exactly will that new pact look like? Let’s run through the options on the table as Herbert and the Chargers begin negotiations.
Projecting Justin Herbert’s Extension With the Chargers
There isn’t necessarily a clock on Herbert’s talks with the Chargers. His rookie contract will take him through the 2023 season, and Los Angeles will exercise his fifth-year option for 2024 at a price tag of around $30 million.
After that, the Chargers could theoretically hold Herbert in place with franchise tags, but we’ve seen the acrimony that strategy has wrought on Jackson’s negotiations with the Baltimore Ravens. Only four quarterbacks — Drew Brees, Matt Cassel, Kirk Cousins, and Jackson — have been assigned the franchise tender over the past 20 years. L.A. likely doesn’t want to add Herbert to that list.
The Chargers probably do feel a sense of urgency to get something done with Herbert relatively quickly because they want to beat the Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles in the quarterback extension race.
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Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts, the Super Bowl losers from the past two seasons, are also eligible for new deals this offseason. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that “the process is underway” between Burrow and the Bengals, while Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said this week that extending Hurts remains a “priority.”
Herbert may not have the hardware or playoff success to compete with Burrow or Hurts financially, but their deals will shift the QB market upward, so the Chargers likely want to act quickly.
A fully guaranteed, long-term contract à la Deshaun Watson’s extension with the Cleveland Browns doesn’t seem realistic for Herbert. The rest of the NFL seems to have decided that Watson’s pact was an anomaly, and most of the league has bowed out of the Jackson sweepstakes amid reports that he’s seeking more guaranteed money than Watson.
Instead, there are likely three contract structures that Herbert and the Chargers could consider.
The Patrick Mahomes Structure
Patrick Mahomes is the best player in the sport, but he’s only the fifth-highest-paid quarterback in the league. However, his 10-year, $450 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs comes with a lot of security — both for Mahomes and for the team.
Mahomes has massive roster bonuses due each offseason, which started in 2022. Over the life of the contract, those roster bonuses will typically become fully guaranteed one year before they’re paid out. For example, Mahomes’ 2026 roster bonus will guarantee on the third day of the 2025 league year.
Mahomes is essentially un-cuttable, which isn’t a problem because it’s hard to envision a scenario where Kansas City would want to part ways with the reigning MVP. But the Chiefs do get the benefit of cost certainty, even if Mahomes will likely want to rework his contract in a few years. Plus, Kansas City has the eternal option of converting Mahomes’ roster bonuses into signing bonuses to create immediate cap space, something it did this offseason.
Mahomes is one of only six players in NFL history to receive a 10-year contract, and he’s the first since Michael Vick in 2004. This length of a deal is a rarity. While this type of structure has its benefits, I don’t know that Herbert would want to tie himself to the Chargers for a decade.
Short-Term, Significant Guarantees
Instead of a contract that runs for a decade, how about we go the other way? In 2018, Cousins signed a fully guaranteed three-year deal worth $84 million with the Minnesota Vikings. Cousins was coming off back-to-back franchise tags with Washington, and as a free agent, he held significantly more leverage than Herbert currently does.
Could a short-term, fully guaranteed pact make sense for Herbert and the Chargers? A reduced length would typically require a higher annual average value, so Herbert might be looking for something like $165 million over three years.
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That type of deal would make Herbert a free agent right around his 30th birthday. Herbert could also push for a no-franchise tag provision to ensure he reaches the open market.
While this structure might appeal to Herbert and his camp, the Chargers would likely want more years of control. Plus, a short-term deal would give Los Angeles less leeway to massage Herbert’s yearly cap charges, even if the club could bake in the existing year and fifth-year option remaining on his contract.
Meeting in the Middle
Instead of a contract that sits on either end of the extremes, the most likely outcome between the Chargers and Herbert is something in the middle.
Historically, Los Angeles hasn’t been afraid to reset the top of positional markets. Derwin James is the NFL’s highest-paid safety, while Joey Bosa was No. 1 among edge rushers until T.J. Watt squeaked by him.
Quarterback contracts are in a different stratosphere, but the bar has been set around $50 million, and there’s no reason Herbert, Burrow, and Hurts shouldn’t be targeting that number. Russell Wilson received $49 million per year from the Denver Broncos, while Aaron Rodgers is at $50.27 million.
Herbert is almost a decade younger than both of those players. He’d be entirely within reason to ask the Chargers for $300 million over six years, with 50% of that total fully guaranteed at signing.
Rodgers, Wilson, and Kyler Murray each got more than $147 million in cash over the first three years of their deal, so Herbert could seek at least $160 million in three-year cash flow. Meanwhile, the Chargers could follow the Chiefs’ lead and insert significant incentives in Herbert’s deal for playoff and MVP wins (Mahomes has up to $25 million in incentives available in his deal).
Herbert is coming off a relatively down season in 2022, but he could be primed for his best campaign under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. If Herbert puts up an MVP-type season in 2023, or Burrow or Hurts sign gargantuan extensions with their respective teams, the Chargers will likely regret not having worked out an extension. Six years, $300 million, with $150 million fully guaranteed, could get the job done.