Agent's Take: 12 NFL players to watch entering contract years

By Joel Corry | Former Sports Agent

A player in the final year of his contract, which is commonly referred to as a contract year, shouldn't need much motivation. The reward for playing well or exceeding expectations can be a lucrative new contract once his current deal expires.

Some NFL teams, such as the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers, are proactive with player contracts. They extend the contracts of key players before they start the final year of their deals. Several players, including Kam Chancellor, Clay Matthews, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo and Matt Ryan received contract extensions prior to training camp this summer.

When I was an agent, I would usually recommend that a client sign a contract extension before the season if the deal contained at least 90 percent of his market value with a favorable contract structure. The player gained financial security without incurring the risk of injury or poor performance that could depress his value in the open market.

The season-ending injuries for contract-year players that have occurred since camps opened are a harsh reminder of how quickly the financial outlook for players can change. Before Dennis Pitta's hip injury, the Baltimore Ravens were expecting him to have an increased role in their passing game to help offset the loss of Anquan Boldin. Even though there is a slight chance Pitta will return toward the end of the season, his big payday is in jeopardy. Pitta is probably looking at signing a one-year deal between $2.25 million and $4.25 million in 2014, when he must prove to teams that his injury hasn't affected his play.

In addition to injury concerns, there are a variety of other reasons why contracts are played out. Teams can be hesitant about giving lucrative contracts to players who have only performed at a high level for one season. They may want to see a more proven track record before making a significant financial commitment. When a new general manager or head coach is hired, teams often take a wait-and-see approach with the inherited players. There can be uncertainty on how these players fit into long-range plans without a period of evaluation. Teams are also reluctant to extend the contracts of older players and character risks.

Some players prefer to play out their deals. The most common reasons are unhappiness with the team and lack of leverage because of subpar performance the prior season. Once the season starts, some players won't entertain contract extension discussions when approached by their team because they don't want negotiations to be a distraction.

Here are 12 players to keep an eye on during their contract year. Several players in contract years (Jay Cutler, Brian Cushing, Josh Freeman, Hakeem Nicks, Maurice Jones-Drew, etc.) were not included because they were featured in my earlier article about players facing a crossroads this year.

Jimmy Graham is the NFL's most productive TE over two seasons. (USATSI)
Jimmy Graham is the NFL's most productive TE over two seasons. (USATSI)

Saints TE Jimmy Graham: Graham had one of the most prolific tight end seasons in NFL history in 2011 with 99 receptions, 1,310 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Although wrist and ankle problems led to a statistical decline in 2012, which included a league-leading 14 dropped passes, Graham still posted a team-high 85 receptions, 982 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. The former Miami Hurricanes power forward has been the league's most productive tight end over the past two seasons. He leads tight ends with 2,292 receiving yards, and ranks second with 184 receptions and 20 touchdowns. Graham, scheduled to make $1.323 million in 2013, probably had the leverage to get a new contract through a holdout. He could supplant Rob Gronkowski as the NFL's highest-paid tight end on his new deal but with better contract structure. Gronkowski signed a six-year, $54 million contract extension (including $18.17 million in guarantees) with the Patriots in 2012. Graham may eventually regret that he didn't force the issue with his contract if the Saints drag their feet with his new deal where his negotiations become as contentious as Drew Brees' negotiations were last year.

Geno Atkins' 12.5 sacks in '12 were the most by a DT since 2000. (USATSI)
Geno Atkins' 12.5 sacks in '12 were the most by a DT since 2000. (USATSI)

Bengals DT Geno Atkins: Defensive tackles who can consistently put pressure on quarterbacks are rare. Atkins led all defensive tackles with 12.5 sacks in 2012 and earned All-Pro honors for the second straight season. His 12.5 sacks were the most by a defensive tackle since Warren Sapp and La'Roi Glover notched 16.5 and 17 sacks in 2000. Armed with $17.09 million of salary cap room, the Bengals have recently initiated discussions for a new contract. Haloti Ngata's deal ($12.2 million average per year, $35 million guaranteed, $44 million in the first three years) could be an important data point for Atkins. Expect Cincinnati to use the threat of designating Atkins as a franchise player in 2014 as a negotiating tactic to temper his salary expectations. The franchise number for defensive tackles is currently $8.45 million.

No receiver got more out of a QB change than Eric Decker in 2012. (USATSI)
No receiver got more out of a QB change than Eric Decker in 2012. (USATSI)

Broncos WR Eric Decker: No player benefitted more from a quarterback change in 2012 than Decker. After struggling to get on the same page with Tim Tebow in 2011, Decker, who has a $1.323 million salary this season, became the league's most productive No. 2 wide receiver (85 receptions, 1,064 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns) with Peyton Manning at quarterback. He could have a difficult time duplicating his 2012 numbers because Wes Welker has joined the Broncos. Decker's situation is complicated by Demaryius Thomas' emergence as Denver's No. 1 wide receiver. Thomas, under contract through the 2014 season, could become one of the NFL's highest-paid receivers with his next deal. Mike Williams set the market for secondary wide receivers with the five-year, $39.62 million contract extension (including $15 million guaranteed) he recently received from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Broncos must decide whether they want to invest heavily in two wide receivers. The Seattle Seahawks are the only NFL team that has two wide receivers with deals averaging more than $8 million per year. Franchising Decker at more than $10.5 million in 2014 could be a possibility, since the Broncos run the risk of another team paying him like a No. 1 wide receiver in free agency.

Greg Hardy's goal of 50 sacks in a season is ... ambitious. (USATSI)
Greg Hardy's goal of 50 sacks in a season is ... ambitious. (USATSI)

Panthers DE Greg Hardy: Hardy's goal of 50 sacks this season is outlandish considering Michael Strahan holds the single-season record with 22.5 sacks. Hardy, who had 11 sacks in 2012, and fellow Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson barely topped Strahan's record with 23.5 combined sacks in 2012. Last season was the first time the Panthers had two players with double-digit sacks in the same season since 2002. Drew Rosenhaus, Hardy's agent, approached Carolina about a contract extension in March but cleaning up the salary cap was more of a priority for the club. Rosenhaus recently negotiated a five-year contract extension averaging $7,763,640 per year (including an additional $4.5 million in base salary escalators) for Carlos Dunlap with the Cincinnati Bengals. Dunlap's deal should serve as the salary floor for Hardy. If Hardy outperforms Johnson this season, he could look for a contract similar to the six-year, $76 million deal (including $32 million in guarantees) Johnson received in 2011 to re-sign with the Panthers.

If he stays healty, linebacker Sean Lee is a force for the Cowboys. (USATSI)
If he stays healty, linebacker Sean Lee is a force for the Cowboys. (USATSI)

Cowboys ILB Sean Lee: Lee should thrive in Monte Kiffin's Tampa-2 defense, provided he can stay healthy. He was arguably Dallas' best defensive player last season before a right toe injury sidelined him for the final 10 games. Lee also was playing at a Pro Bowl level in 2011 until he was slowed by a dislocated wrist. The five-year, $41.5 million contract extension ($23.62 million guaranteed) James Laurinaitis signed with the St. Louis Rams in 2012 could be a benchmark for Lee if his injury problems are behind him. Lee is making $630,000, his league minimum salary, this season.

Fred Davis shows no ill effects of the Achilles' injury that shortened last season. (USATSI)
Fred Davis shows no ill effects of the Achilles' injury that shortened last season. (USATSI)

Redskins TE Fred Davis: Davis hasn't shown any lingering effects from tearing his left Achilles tendon in the Redskins' seventh game of last season. Since Davis had limited interest in free agency because of the injury, he returned to the Redskins on a one-year, $3 million deal (with an additional $750,000 in incentives). The Redskins used their franchise tag on Davis in 2012 after he caught 59 passes for 796 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games during a 2011 campaign cut short by a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. With a return to his 2011 form, Davis could hit the $7 million per year mark on his next deal. Jared Cook signed a five-year, $35.1 million contract (including $19 million in guarantees and an additional $3.5 million in incentives) with the St. Louis Rams this year when free agency started.

Emmanuel Sanders (88) figures to easily surpass his 2012 totals with Mike Wallace gone. (USATSI)
Emmanuel Sanders (88) figures to easily surpass his 2012 totals with Mike Wallace gone. (USATSI)

Steelers WR Emmanuel Sanders: Sanders is expected to fill the void created by Mike Wallace's departure to the Dolphins in free agency. Sanders should easily top his career highs of 44 receptions, 626 receiving yards and two touchdowns this season. The Patriots signed Sanders to a one-year, $2.5 million offer sheet during the restricted free agent signing period, which Pittsburgh matched despite salary cap problems. The Patriots could make another run at signing Sanders when free agency starts in 2014, though wide receiver historically hasn't been one of their financial priorities. Since outside wide receivers typically are higher paid than slot wide receivers, New England likely would offer Sanders more than Danny Amendola's five-year, $28.5 million deal (with $10 million in guarantees and worth up to a maximum of $31 million through incentives).

As long as Aqib Talib isn't answering questions about off-field issues, he figures to cash in. (USATSI)
As long as Aqib Talib isn't answering questions about off-field issues, he figures to cash in. (USATSI)

Patriots CB Aqib Talib: The Patriots acquired Talib and a 2013 seventh-round pick from the Buccaneers right before last season's trading deadline for a 2013 fourth round pick. Talib had worn out his welcome with Tampa Bay because of numerous off-the-field incidents -- his four-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs the final straw. Talib re-signed with the Patriots on a one-year deal worth $5 million when the free-agent cornerback market was softer than expected. He is the most talented cornerback the Patriots have had since Asante Samuel. The Patriots were wary of giving the 2008 first-round pick a long-term deal because of his checkered past. Talib has been a model citizen since the trade. As along as Talib stays out of trouble, the Patriots might be willing to give him a deal similar to five-year, $37.5 million contract Eric Wright signed with Tampa Bay in 2012 (but with an extremely team friendly structure) despite Aaron Hernandez's murder charge triggering heavy criticism for taking chances on too many character risks.

Alex Mack may need a Pro Bowl season to be among the NFL's highest-paid centers. (USATSI)
Alex Mack may need a Pro Bowl season to be among the NFL's highest-paid centers. (USATSI)

Browns C Alex Mack: Mack has indicated that his preference is to remain in Cleveland. Joe Banner, in his first year as Cleveland's CEO, was aggressive in retaining key players when he ran the Eagles. He is expected to employ the same approach with the Browns. Using a franchise tag on Mack in 2014 may be out of the question because it gives centers a financial windfall. The franchise tag doesn't account for the salary differences at the three main offensive line positions. The offensive lineman franchise number is $9.828 million this year while only two centers, Ryan Kalil and Nick Mangold, have contracts averaging over $7.5 million per year. There's a substantial difference between Kalil and Mangold's deals and the next salary tier for centers. All-Pro Max Unger is among the centers in the second salary tier. He signed a four-year, $24.935 million contract extension (including an additional $3.6 million in base salary escalators) with the Seahawks before the start of the 2012 season. It may take a Pro Bowl season by Mack in order for him to bridge the gap between the two salary tiers.

The Jags' plans for Luke Joeckel figure to impact what happens with Eugene Monroe's future. (USATSI)
The Jags' plans for Luke Joeckel figure to impact what happens with Eugene Monroe's future. (USATSI)

Jaguars OT Eugene Monroe: The Jaguars' selection of Luke Joeckel, a natural left tackle, with the second overall draft pick has led to speculation that Monroe's future with Jacksonville is in jeopardy. Joeckel is starting his NFL career at right tackle. The Jaguars could keep the tackle duo together, but haven't approached Monroe for a new deal despite having more than $22 million of salary cap room. Monroe shouldn't have a problem finding a team willing to pay him in line with this year's free-agent left tackles (Sam Baker, William Beatty, Jermon Bushrod and Jake Long) if he hits the open market in 2014. The average of those deals is approximately $7.5 million per year with $18.5 million in guarantees.

Jairus Byrd has 18 interceptions in four seasons with Buffalo. . (USATSI)
Jairus Byrd has 18 interceptions in four seasons with Buffalo. (USATSI)

Buffalo Bills S Jairus Byrd : Byrd didn't report when the Bills opened training camp on July 27 because of a contract dispute. He is the only one of the eight players designated as a franchise player this year who is unsigned. Byrd can only sign a one-year deal with the Bills, presumably at his $6.916 million franchise tender, because franchise players are prohibited from signing multi-year deals after July 15. The two-time All-Pro could be seeking a clause that would prevent the Bills from using a franchise or transition designation on him in 2014. A franchise player hasn't missed regular season games because of a contract dispute since the 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement implemented the July multi-year deal deadline. In the open market, Byrd might be able to command a deal comparable to the five-year, $41.25 million contract ($22 million guaranteed and $26 million in the first three years) Dashon Goldson signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March as a free agent.

Now with Denver, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie joins his third team in four seasons.  (USATSI)
Now with Denver, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie joins his third team in four seasons. (USATSI)

Denver Broncos CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie : Rodgers-Cromartie opted for a fully guaranteed one-year deal for $5 million because the top of the free agent cornerback market was slightly under $6 million per year for multi-year deals. He was viewed as a potential shutdown cornerback after earning a Pro Bowl berth with the Arizona Cardinals in 2009, his second NFL season. Rodgers-Cromartie underachieved after he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011. If Rodgers-Cromartie can regain the form he displayed early in his career with Arizona, the Broncos may able to make a smooth transition at cornerback when 35-year-old Champ Bailey retires. Denver is willing to pay cornerbacks who produce. Bailey, who is the NFL's second highest paid cornerback (by average yearly salary), is making $10.75 million this year in his 15th NFL season.

Others To Watch: Chiefs OT Branden Albert, Seahawks DE Michael Bennett, Titans WR Kenny Britt, Packers TE Jermichael Finley, Dolphins CB Brent Grimes, Bengals DE Michael Johnson, Packers WR James Jones, Raiders FB Marcel Reece, Cowboys DE Anthony Spencer, Patriots ILB Brandon Spikes, Seahawks WR Golden Tate, Bears CB Charles Tillman and Browns S T.J. Ward.


Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Prior to his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott.

You can follow him on Twitter: @corryjoel

You can email him at jccorry@gmail.com

 
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