Marcus Maye’s contract extension deadline is fast approaching. How large of a deal does the NY Jets safety deserve?
If that day passes and no deal has been reached, Maye will play the 2021 season on the $10.6 million franchise tag. That number would tie Maye with fellow franchise-tagged safety Marcus Williams for the sixth-largest cap hit among safeties in 2021.
How large of a contract does Maye deserve? Let’s dig into his career production and some comparable safety contracts to get an idea of what Maye’s new contract could look like.
Maye struggled a bit throughout his 2017 rookie season, as most rookies do. Since then, he has developed into a consistently strong performer.
To get an idea of where Maye stacks up among the league’s safeties, we will compare his production from 2018-20 to other qualifiers at the position.
Maye ranks 23rd among safeties with 2,619 defensive snaps since 2018. We’ll put him up against the 75 safeties who played at least 1,000 snaps over that span.
Starting out with Maye’s performance in coverage, here is how he ranks when it comes to the percentage of targets in his direction in which he recorded either an interception or pass breakup. He has proven himself to be one of the league’s best on-ball playmakers in the backend.
Note: Pass breakup stats are based on Pro Football Focus’ tracking and will differ from standard box score stats as PFF has different criteria for crediting pass breakups.
With four interceptions and 14 pass breakups over 60 throws in his direction, Maye made a play on the ball 30.0% of the time when he was challenged, the eighth-best rate out of 76 qualified safeties over the past three years. The 2020 positional average in the stat was 14.5%, which Maye more than doubled.
Here is a look at where Maye stacks up in Pro Football Focus’ coverage grade, a stat that evaluates the overall quality of a player’s performance in coverage:
Maye’s cumulative PFF coverage grade of 80.1 from 2018-20 ranks fifth-best among safeties, including third-best among safeties with at least 2,000 total snaps. He has improved in this category each year, posting coverages grades of 53.7, 71.2, 77.4, and 85.8 from 2017 to 2020.
Let’s move on to the run game.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare Maye’s run-stop totals to the rest of the league’s safeties due to the fact that his free safety role gives him fewer chances to make tackles in the run game than other safeties who tend to play closer to the line.
For that reason, we’ll use PFF’s run defense grade to see where Maye ranks as a run defender. PFF grades are an efficiency-based metric, so all players at a position can be compared regardless of their role. Maye’s run defense grade gives us an idea of how well he fills gaps and finishes tackles against the run.
The following is where Maye ranks among safeties in PFF’s run defense grade since 2018.
It makes more sense to evaluate Maye using his run defense grade rather than his run-stop totals since his role as a free safety gives him very few chances to. Here is where Maye ranks in PFF’s run defense grade over the past three seasons.
Maye is not quite as elite against the run as he is in coverage, but he is still very good. With a run defense grade of 71.2 over the past three seasons, Maye ranks 22nd out of the 75 qualifiers, putting him at the 72nd percentile.
One of the most important aspects of the safety position is tackling, as its importance is felt against both the run and pass.
Here is how Maye stacks up when it comes to his ratio of tackles finished to tackles missed:
Missed tackles have been a problem for Maye, as he ranked 50th out of 75 safeties with a 6.8-to-1 ratio of tackles to missed tackles from 2018-20.
In all four of his career seasons, Maye had a tackle-to-missed tackle ratio worse than the 2020 positional average for safeties (7.5-to-1). He hasn’t been brutal, ranking at the 34th percentile in the category over the past three seasons, but this is the primary hole in his game.
Finally, here is a look at where Maye stacks up at his position over the past three seasons in PFF’s overall grade – an estimation of a player’s complete impact across every facet of the game:
Maye is a bona fide elite safety, earning the 10th-best overall PFF grade over the past three seasons. He ranks directly above and below some of the most highly-regarded players in the league at the position.
In 2020, Maye had a career-high grade of 82.9, which ranked fourth-best behind only John Johnson (85.6), Adrian Amos (89.4), and Jessie Bates (90.1).
Now that we have an idea of where Maye ranks at his position, let’s take a look at some contracts signed by similarly talented safeties in recent years. Comparing Maye’s production ranks to those of the league’s most handsomely paid safeties should give us a good feel for what Maye and his agent are likely using in their negotiations with the Jets (and vice versa from the Jets’ perspective).
Shown for each safety below are their 2018-20 rankings in three of the major stats above (coverage grade, run defense grade, and overall grade) and contract data. I included a wide range of players – better, worse, younger, older – to provide a strong look at how things have been going at the top of the safety market.
These numbers present an interesting array of possibilities.
Maye ranks higher in PFF’s overall grade over the past three seasons than each of the league’s five richest safeties: Landon Collins, Kevin Byard, Justin Simmons, Budda Baker, and Eddie Jackson. He has been significantly better than Collins and Jackson, while Byard and Simmons have been similarly productive.
At the same time, Maye has been less productive than Adrian Amos and John Johnson, who both signed relatively modest deals (currently ranked eighth and 10th among safeties in total value) despite inking their new contracts when aged more than two years younger than Maye currently is.
Johnson signed a three-year, $33.8 million with the Browns this offseason after ranking as PFF’s third-best safety in 2020 with the Rams. That was hardly a fluke, as in 2018 (his previous healthy season; he missed 10 games in 2019), he placed No. 6 at the position.
Amos signed his current deal with the Packers in 2019, so his stats above were mostly accrued post-signing, but he was elite even before signing that deal. As a member of the Bears, Amos was PFF’s No. 8 safety in 2018 and PFF’s No. 3 safety in 2017.
What gives? Maye is better than the league’s most affluent safeties, but he isn’t as good as lesser-paid safeties who signed at a younger age.
None of the above contracts is a perfect match for Maye’s situation; but if I had to choose one that serves as the best model for what Maye could earn, it would probably have to be Justin Simmons.
A few days after the opening of the legal tampering period earlier this year, Simmons re-upped with the Broncos on a four-year, $61 million contract that included $35 million guaranteed. The deal places him first among safeties in average annual value, second in total guarantees, and third in total value.
Simmons has a few similarities to Maye. The first one that pops out is his age. Just as Maye would be doing, Simmons signed his deal on the older side. He will turn 28 this November, while Maye turned 28 back in March.
Simmons’ positional value is also similar to Maye’s. Both players are primarily free safeties but offer the versatility to effectively handle a variety of roles in the box and on the line of scrimmage. In 2020, Simmons played 56.9% of his defensive snaps at free safety. Maye was in the same ballpark with a 51.1% rate. In addition, the two safeties handled a very similar diet of slot reps, with Simmons lining up in the slot on 13.2% of his snaps and Maye doing so on 14.7% of his snaps.
The two safeties are also neck-and-neck in terms of their overall impact. Maye and Simmons are among the few safeties in the league who thrive both in coverage and against the run, each ranking in the top-70% among safeties in both PFF’s coverage grade and PFF’s run defense grade over the past three seasons. Maye has the 10th-best overall grade among safeties over that span while Simmons is just behind him at 15th.
Simmons is probably the best model if we had to choose just one, but if the Jets were willing to pay Maye a Simmons-esque deal, they probably would have done it already. Denver’s agreement with Simmons was announced on March 19, just four days after the start of the legal tampering period, which suggests that the two sides were likely making progress on the deal long before then.
A contract negotiation is a two-sided affair. The volatile list of comparable deals shown above paints a good picture of why Maye and the Jets have been so far apart.
If you are Maye’s agent, why shouldn’t you aim to get him a record-setting deal at the position? His production is similar to or better than the league’s top-5 safeties on the contract leaderboard.
If you are the Jets, why should you give Maye a deal worth over $14-15 million per year when Adrian Amos and John Johnson are both earning under $12 million per year?
Plus, the Jets have the team-friendly option at the franchise tag at their disposal and might not feel the need to rush on an extension. They haven’t seen Maye play in their new defensive scheme yet and could want to see for sure whether he is a fit before they commit to him.
New York can also tag Maye again next year, which would currently be projected to cost them $13.5 million, per Over The Cap’s current estimate. The Jets have flexibility here.
The counterargument for the franchise tag would be that it goes against some of the public statements the Jets have made regarding how they want to treat their players. Robert Saleh stated in his opening press conference that he wants to “help [players] make enough plays on Sunday to get them paid as much as possible.”
Giving Maye a new contract – rewarding him for his performance and positive locker-room reputation – would help them back up that claim, continuing their construction of a healthy culture. Playing hardball with him would be failing to live up to that statement, potentially damaging the camaraderie between the players and management. One would think that Maye and his team certainly must be using this factor throughout the negotiation process to gain some leverage over the Jets, which could increase Maye’s odds of getting the Jets to creep closer to his demands.
Another interesting factor regarding the safety market is the large gap between the league’s top tier and second tier.
Six safeties currently have a deal promising them at least $14 million per year: Simmons ($15.3M), Baker ($14.8M), Jackson ($14.6M), Byard ($14.1M), Collins ($14.0M), and Tyrann Mathieu ($14.0M). After that, there is a huge gap between the sixth and seventh spots. Devin McCourty currently ranks seventh in average annual value at $11.5 million per year.
Perhaps Maye and the Jets could find a middle ground between that first and second-tier? Could a three-year, $39 million deal ($13.0 million per year) with $30 million guaranteed (would rank 6th at the position) do the trick?
Only one thing is certain: with so little correlation between production, cost, and age on the safety market, it is extremely difficult to project where Maye will land.