Alongside discovering a freak foot injury (which definitely didn’t cause me to panic), Quenton Nelson spent last offseason watching fellow 2018 draftees Darius Leonard and Braden Smith get the paydays they deserved. I’m sure Nelson was delighted to see his colleagues be rewarded for their efforts. But Big Q could also have afforded to rub his hands together at the thought of the payday that was surely to come to him.
As a first-round pick in 2018, Nelson was eligible for a fifth-year option, an option the Colts naturally exercised. That means Nelson is due his long-term contract this offseason, whilst Leonard and Smith got theirs last year. There aren’t many rookies who have had a better first few years in the NFL than Darius Leonard (DROY and multiple Pro Bowls and three First-Team All-Pro nods), but Quenton Nelson is one of them. Nelson joined the likes of Barry Sanders and Lawrence Taylor in earning three first-team All-Pro selections in his first three seasons. It says a lot that Big Q’s injury hit, down year in 2021 still earned him a Second-Team All-Pro selection.
Darius Leonard became the highest-paid Linebacker in the league last offseason (I consider edge rushers to be a separate position, regardless of whether they are a DE or OLB). I expect Nelson to become the highest-paid guard this summer. But how much will Jim Irsay likely fork out to secure Big Q’s long-term services? And will Nelson be worth it?
Let’s look at the current market for guards and offensive linemen overall, which we know left tackles are at the top. Joel Bitonio and Joe Thuney are currently the highest-paid left guards at $16m a year. However, they earn slightly less than Brandon Scherff, who, at $16.5m, is the highest paid right guard. Nelson is better and younger than any of those three players and other elite guards like Wyatt Teller and Zack Martin. Nelson should have few problems getting paid more than any of those players and should reset the guard market. But should he be threatening the left tackle market?
Three left tackles earn more than $20 million a year, the three highest-paid offensive linemen in the NFL. It will come as no surprise that those three are Trent Williams ($23.01m), David Bakhtiari ($23m), and Laremy Tunsil ($22m). Ronnie Stanley is fourth ($19.75m) before Ryan Ramczyk is the highest paid right tackle ($19.2m). Braden Smith isn’t too far down the list, earning $17.5m a year.
I don’t expect Nelson to match or eclipse those three left tackles earning over $20m a year, but I foresee him being paid more than any other offensive lineman. I think a contract of $20/21 million a year is most likely. That would see Nelson paid more than any other guard or any center or right tackle. However, it isn’t that much more than the $13.75m Nelson is getting paid this season, thanks to his fifth-year option.
Chris Ballard doesn’t like to give out contracts longer than three years, but he’s willing to make exceptions for the best players like DeForest Buckner. Nelson certainly fits that mold, so I expect him to sign a four-year contract.
Is Nelson worth $20-21 million a year? On balance, I think so, but it’s a question likely to divide the Colts fanbase this offseason. Nelson was still arguably the second-best offensive lineman in the league last year behind Trent Williams and has probably been the best offensive lineman in the league over the past four years. He’s only given up three sacks so far in his entire career, despite lining up against Aaron Donald last season.
Unlike Trent Williams, Nelson is in the prime of his career and should have at least another five years at the top of his game. He’s also incredibly durable, missing the first game of his career last year against Miami before missing later games due to Covid-19. Nelson’s age and durability are incredibly valuable for a team because it allows them to plan their future around Nelson (and other key players like Leonard at the same or similar ages), knowing he’ll be an elite player for years to come.
A lot of the questions about whether Nelson is worth $20m a year come down to interpretations of positional value. This includes beliefs about the value of left guards compared to left tackles and the value of offensive lineman compared to positions like edge rushers.
The conventional wisdom is that you don’t pay a left guard like a left tackle. Left tackles are generally more valuable because they protect the QB’s blind side, and it is more difficult to find a great or even passable LT than it is an LG. Last year, Andrew Whitworth and Duane Brown were starting left tackles, and the 49ers gave then 32-year-old Trent Williams a six-year contract last March shows you NFL teams are in no hurry to try and find new LTs.
However, Chris Ballard isn’t having to choose between paying Quenton Nelson or a left tackle. Matt Pryor is the presumed starter and is getting $5.5m for his one-year deal. With the greatest respect to Pryor, it’s hard to imagine him having such a good season he demands the kind of payday that would be unaffordable if Nelson gets a new contract.
There’s a real chance third-round draft pick Bernhard Raimann could be the Colts’ long-term left tackle. If that’s the case, he won’t get his own big payday for another four years. Giving Big Q a big new deal could stop Indianapolis from being able to sign a big-name free agent left tackle, but there are few big name LTs around and even fewer who look like they could be free agents anytime soon.
If Indianapolis is concerned about their long-term left tackle, the best thing they can do is extend Nelson. It’s hard to put into words just how valuable a left guard like Nelson is to an inexperienced left tackle. Nelson is able to command more attention from pass rushers, mop up mistakes made by an LT and shunt half a defensive line down the field on running plays.
For a rookie like Raimann or a utility lineman like Pryor, playing next to Nelson will be such an advantage and a real boost to their development. Of course, that doesn’t mean either is guaranteed to be successful, but it gives them the best possible chance.
Indianapolis has also reduced the money they’re spending on their offensive line by letting Glowinski walk in free agency. The Colts will still have one of the most expensive offensive lines in the league with Nelson, Smith, and Kelly, but it shouldn’t be prohibitive.
Indianapolis has one of the better cap situations in the league, and after Nelson likely gets paid, there shouldn’t be any huge paydays on the horizon. Buckner and Ngakoue will be due for extensions soon, but I don’t anticipate them getting huge pay rises. Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. will also be due for their paydays. But I’m not convinced running backs will be paid big money by the time Taylor gets his second contract, and I don’t expect Pittman to be paid AJ Brown kind of money. I, therefore, don’t think extending Nelson would prevent Indianapolis from keeping other key players.
I also think we should reassess how closely we follow the doctrine of positional value when it comes to NFL contracts. Obviously, quarterbacks will usually be the highest-paid players, given their importance to a team’s success. However, elite pass rushers are the second highest paid players as the players tasked with getting to the QB.
However, we’ve seen huge paydays given to wide receivers this offseason, matching and eclipsing the best-paid edge rushers. Whilst a $20-21m a year contract for Nelson would put him on par with the highest paid cornerbacks, another position that is traditionally seen as being considerably less valuable than edge rusher and left tackle.
If teams are going against the grain of positional value to pay Cornerbacks $20m when they’re one of the best players in the league like Jalen Ramsay, why shouldn’t the Colts do it for one of the best players in the league in Quenton Nelson?
It’s also not the worst time to be paying a guard a big contract. The salary cap should be steadily increasing, and I suspect that the likes of Wirfs, Sewell, and Slater will reset the offensive line market in the next few years. So locking down Nelson before that is no bad thing.
If Nelson does get the extension we expect this offseason, no-one should be surprised. Chris Ballard has made it clear that part of his philosophy is paying the elite players he drafts and he’s put that philosophy into action when it comes to Leonard and Smith.
In many ways, it’s a smart strategy. Players know that if they do become great players for the Colts, they’ll get rewarded with good contracts and have the chance to build long-term success with the team. That motivates young players better than letting them know they’ll eventually have to go elsewhere to get paid and chase rings. It’s also hard to keep drafting elite players to replace the great ones you let go.
It is possible Nelson could be traded if the Colts received the kind of draft haul the Packers received for Adams or the Chiefs for Hill. Or if Indianapolis got a superstar player in return. I don’t think either was ever likely this offseason, but both are even less likely now the draft has been and gone.
Ultimately, Nelson is one of the Colts’ best players and one of the best in the league, full stop. The continued success of Taylor and the fortunes of Ryan and rookies like Pierce depend to a significant extent on Big Q continuing to make the Lucas Oil Stadium his home.
Don’t expect Chris Ballard or the Colts to overcomplicate this. Instead, expect Nelson to be earning significantly more the next time Indianapolis plays a competitive game and expect Nelson to be playing for the Colts for years to come.