With free agency set tentatively to begin in mid-March, it's high time we start taking a deep dive into the Jaguars' impending unrestricted free agents. The salary cap has yet to be set, so we don't know how much spending money the Jaguars will have. The lowest reported potential number for the salary cap is $175M, and even if it drops that low, the Jaguars will be in position to spend about $50 million in free agency this year.
First up on our journey through the Jaguars' group of unrestricted free agents is nickel cornerback DJ Hayden.
Hayden signed a three-year deal worth $19 million with the Jaguars prior to the 2018 season. During his first two seasons with the team, Hayden played a vital role, covering slot receivers and tight ends, blitzing, and laying it all on the line in run defense. Quite simply, he was one of the best slot defenders in football. But age and injuries appeared to catch up with Hayden in 2020. In his year 30 season, Hayden played in just five games and wasn't all that effective for the Jaguars. His performance may have suffered due to injuries more than age, but it's impossible to know the exact cause of his poor play.
According to Spotrac, Hayden's market value is $6 million per year over a three-year deal — almost exactly what he earned on the free-agent market last time around. But Hayden will be 31 before the start of the 2021 season and is coming off a down year. With the salary cap slated to be significantly lower next season — potentially as little as $175M — unrestricted free agents might not earn the same type of lucrative deals they have in recent years. I honestly doubt that an oft-injured 31-year-old slot cornerback coming off a disappointing campaign is going to garner $6 million per year.
Should the Jaguars attempt to retain Hayden?
At $6 million per season, I'd be out on DJ Hayden. There are younger, ascending players set to hit the market that would make more sense to pursue (Tre Herndon?). And with nickel cornerback Josiah Scott, who was drafted in the fourth round out of Michigan State last season, already on the roster, Hayden shouldn't be a top priority. There are also a number of promising nickel cornerback prospects in the draft. It's possible that Hayden bounces back next year and has one of his best seasons as a pro, but I wouldn't bet on it for $6 million per year over three years. If Hayden would be willing to take a lesser deal, say $3-4 million per year, I'd consider retaining him. But with his skill set and age, he'd probably rather test the market and try to sign with a contender.
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