Payne wants what he's 'earned.' Will Commanders pay him that? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
After missing out on the playoffs for a second straight year, the Washington Commanders enter the 2023 offseason with a significant amount of questions and uncertainty.
Near the top of the offseason priority list is the future of defensive tackle Daron Payne. Washington elected to let Payne play the 2022 season, the final year on his rookie deal, without a long-term contract in place. Eleven and a half sacks later and his best campaign to date, Payne is set to become an unrestricted free agent when the new league year begins in March.
Payne -- who wore an all-green jumpsuit while cleaning out his locker this week, symbolic of the lucrative contract he's due for this offseason -- did not hint, one way or another, whether he'd be back in Washington in 2023.
"Who knows?" Payne said. "We'll see."
Earlier in the scrum, Payne was asked if there was anything specific he wanted with his next contract. The defensive tackle responded bluntly.
"You know what I want, man. It's self-explanatory," Payne said, later adding, "I just want what I earned."
Payne certainly picked a great time to turn in his best season to date. The 25-year-old set a career-high in sacks with 11.5, the third-most of any defensive tackle in the NFL. Additionally, Payne's 18 tackles for loss led the league at his position.
During their end-of-season press conference on Tuesday, Commanders head coach Ron Rivera and Martin Mayhew were asked about the possibility of retaining Payne. Both members of Washington's brass spoke highly about the defensive tackle, expressing their desire to keep Payne with the franchise moving forward.
"We think he's a piece. He fits the formula of what we wanna do and how we wanna play and he's got the skillset that you would like to have," Rivera said. "We think his presence on the football field was outstanding this season and he did a lot of good things for us."
"Daron is an important part of what we're doing," Mayhew added. "Great year this year. 11.5 sacks, the guy played outstanding football this year."
The Commanders have, effectively, two options to keep Payne for the 2023 season, at the minimum. The first option is to sign Payne to a long-term deal, the route the defensive tackle definitely prefers.
Washington currently has $7.2 million in cap space, per OverTheCap, but can gain an additional $26.2 million by releasing quarterback Carson Wentz. Once Wentz is released, the club will have more than enough space to sign Payne, should they choose.
However, it's not that simple. The Commanders already invested significant money into the defensive tackle position when they signed Jonathan Allen to a four-year, $72 million extension last year. Like Payne, Allen has been exceptional the past two seasons, earning a pair of Pro Bowl nods.
To keep Payne long-term, a contract proposal similar to Allen's is likely necessary. And, should Washington do such, the franchise will have invested a significant portion of its salary in one position.
Speaking on the Sports Junkies on Tuesday, Allen admitted he wants Payne -- who he's shared a defensive line with since they were teammates at Alabama -- to return, but understands the business side of the NFL as well.
"I told him 'I would love for you to come back, bro. But at the end of the day, you have to do what's best for you and your family,'" Allen said. "And I don't think that's wrong of him to move forward with that mindset."
Allen later said "I would bet that he would come back," but admitted that was partially his wishful thinking as much as anything else.
The Commanders also have multiple other young defensive players that will soon command long-term deals as well, such as Kam Curl, Montez Sweat and, eventually, Chase Young. The reality is that Washington can't pay them all.
If the Commanders don't sign Payne to a long-term deal, the club can elect to franchise tag him. In that case, Payne would return on a one-year deal and be paid the average salary of the top five earners at his position. OverTheCap projects the franchise tag salary for defensive tackles to be $18.96 million in 2023.
Washington has franchise-tagged two players in recent years: quarterback Kirk Cousins and guard Brandon Scherff. Both players were tagged for two straight seasons by the club before eventually hitting the free-agent market. Cousins and Scherff both scored lucrative contracts from other teams on the open market; each of their respective teams are currently in the playoffs.
On Tuesday, the Commanders were directly asked if they were going to consider franchise tagging Payne. Rivera responded by saying "I'm not going to get into the negotiations part," while Mayhew offered a little more with his answer.
"We're working through that process now," Mayhew said. "It'd be difficult to move forward without him, obviously. We have a plan and we definitely want to get him back
So, what will ultimately go into Washington's decision whether to keep Payne or not?
"You [have to] look at the impact he's gonna have on your football team, whether he is here or he is not here, and then decide from that," Rivera said.