Agent’s Take: How a safety became the NFL’s highest-paid DB for the first time in the salary cap era

By Joel Corry

In the NFL salary hierarchy, cornerbacks traditionally rank ahead of safeties. That isn’t the case anymore, at least temporarily with the top of these respective markets. A safety is the NFL’s highest-paid defensive back for the first time during the salary cap era, which began in 1994.

The NFL’s highest-paid defensive back is Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. The Buccaneers signed Winfield, who was designated as a franchise player for $17.123 million, to a four-year, $84.1 million contract averaging $21.025 million per year in May. Winfield replaced cornerback Jaire Alexander, who received a four-year, $84 million contract extension averaging $21 million per year from the Green Bay Packers in 2022, at the top of the defensive back salary totem pole.

Cornerback market stagnation and steady growth in the safety market are responsible for this unprecedented development. The top of the cornerback market has only increased by 5% since Jalen Ramsey became the NFL’s first $20 million-per-year defensive back right before the 2020 regular season started. Ramsey signed a five-year, $100 million extension worth up to $105 million through salary escalators with the Los Angeles Rams.

The $15 million-per-year safety didn’t exist at that time. Since the 2020 regular season ended, the top of the safety market has increased by 42.54%.

There is still a discrepancy in the guarantees with high-end cornerback and safeties contracts. Ramsey set records for cornerbacks with $43.703 million fully guaranteed at signing and $71.203 million in total guarantees. Denzel Ward was the first cornerback to eclipse both of Ramsey’s marks in 2022. He signed a five-year, $100.5 million extension averaging $20.1 million per year containing $71.25 million in guarantees, of which $44.5 million was fully guaranteed at signing, with the Cleveland Browns. Winfield’s $45 million in guarantees and fully guaranteed at signing are the most ever for a safety. Alexander and Ward both slightly moved the needle for cornerbacks two years ago. Ward’s $20.1 million per year was a 0.5% increase over Ramsey’s deal. Alexander bettered Ward by 4.48%.

The ball started getting dropped with cornerbacks last year. Trevon Diggs was thought to be a candidate to reset the cornerback market. He earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2021 when he led the NFL with 11 interceptions. Diggs was the first player in 40 years to pick off that many passes. His interception total dropped to three in 2022, but the number of big plays he gave up decreased as well. Improved consistency resulted in a second straight Pro Bowl berth in 2022.

The five-year, $97 million extension with $42.304 million of guarantees where $33.304 million was fully guaranteed at signing Diggs received from the Dallas Cowboys in 2023 was underwhelming. Diggs’ $19.4 million per year put him on par with Marshon Lattimore’s five-year extension from the New Orleans Saints in 2021 shortly before the regular season began. The difference is Lattimore got $68,346,588 in guarantees, of which $44,346,588 was fully guaranteed at signing.