With only two weeks left in the season, a number of NFL players' careers will be altered after 120 more minutes of action. Some players will move on to other teams by mutual decision, some will do so out of necessity, and some will never play in the NFL again. It's about to get messy for a number of players and teams, and only the latter is guaranteed to play again next year.
That said, the next few weeks or months won't be easy for those players whose lives and careers will be in purgatory until they can figure out where they're going next (and for how much money). Here are the top 10 players whose fate will be decided soon.
10. Aqib Talib, Patriots CB: After leaving the Buccaneers squad, Talib was mostly known as a talented, yet troubled defensive back who left his team wondering if he would make a great play on the field or get arrested off it. But he's completely resurrected his reputation under Bill Belichick, and after signing a one-year contract last offseason in which he had to prove himself, Talib is in line for a big payday. CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora wrote in October that Talib likely would test the free agent market, and considering he's had a solid season, he'll probably make himself some money somewhere other than New England. If he continues to succeed on and off the field away from Belichick, well, that remains to be seen.
9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: For some reason, it seems like we should be having major discussions every week about what will happen with Allen after the season. Instead, he's a player whose future hasn't been discussed much in the national forum. He's a guy who has 126 career sacks, and though he'll turn 32 before next season, he's still effective as a pass rusher (he's got nine sacks this season and a real nice chance to collect double digits for the seventh-straight season). And he's almost certainly done in Minnesota after his contract runs out after 2013. He'll probably be looking for at least $10 million per season in his next contract, and there's almost no chance he'll get that with the Vikings.
8. Hakeem Nicks, Giants WR: The way Nicks' season is going kind of reminds me of what happened to Mike Wallace in Pittsburgh last year. Basically, both receivers have underperformed during their contract seasons; except, somehow, Nicks' contract season has been even worse. Wallace, at least, caught eight touchdown passes. Nicks has caught zero. In fact, this is the second-straight underwhelming season for Nicks. Unlike Wallace, Nicks almost certainly will not be finding a $60 million contract this offseason.
7. Troy Polamalu, Steelers S: We included Polamalu on this list last season, and we wondered when the Steelers would turn to their younger players on defense. They have in a few cases, allowing James Harrison to leave for Cincinnati, but with players like Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel and Polamalu -- all of whom are at least 32 years old --you'd think Pittsburgh will be saying goodbye to some more in the offseason. Will that include Polamalu, who is playing solidly but not nearly at the level he once was? It would not be a surprise to see the team let go of Polamalu and the $8.25 million he's scheduled to earn in 2014.
6. Jonathan Martin, Dolphins tackle: By now you know the story about Martin's allegations that guard Richie Incognito bullied and harassed him before Martin left the team and returned home to California. What we don't know is how this will affect the rest of Martin's career. He's about to be 24 years old and he's got NFL-starter talent, so you'd think somebody will take a chance on him. It seems unlikely that he'd return to the Dolphins -- he's probably torpedoed that bridge through no fault of his own -- and it's fair to wonder if a team in need of a tackle would skip Martin because it wouldn't like the distraction he could bring (again, through no fault of his own). At this point, it's fair to say that Martin's NFL career is in jeopardy.
5. Kenny Britt, Titans WR: The former first-round pick has nearly become invisible this season, catching just 11 passes for 96 yards and zero touchdowns. Stunningly, he caught three passes in Week 14 after going the previous five weeks without a single reception, but don't expect the trend to continue. Britt won't be back in Tennessee when his contract ends after this season -- a theory made clear when he tweeted the following in September:
Except it's been anything but a great year, and at this point, Britt's future is very much unclear. He probably will get another chance in the league because of his talent, but he likely won't get much benefit of the doubt.
4. Kirk Cousins, Redskins QB: So much of the attention -- and deservedly so -- has been focused on the soap opera starting quarterback Robert Griffin III, coach Mike Shanahan, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and owner Daniel Snyder. Two of those four might not return to Washington next season, but Griffin obviously isn't included in that party. Yet Cousins, who's proven he's a solid backup and a mighty good spot starter, might be on to some place better. He's signed through 2015, but he also could be valuable trade bait -- which is part of the reason he's starting the final three games of the season. If the Redskins can get a first- or second-round offer for Cousins, he most likely will be competing for a starting job somewhere other than Washington next season.
3. Alterraun Verner, Titans CB: What a time for a career year from Verner, who's in the final year of his contract and happens to be tied for fourth in the league with five interceptions. Verner just turned 25 years old, and he's due for a big deal this offseason. In August of 2012, Tennessee gave Jason McCourty a $43 million extension. Can the Titans do the same for their other top cornerback?
2. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Just in case you've forgotten, New Orleans is paying one of the top-two tight ends in the league only $1.323 million this season. This offseason, he'll be a free agent. Well, he probably won't get to that process, because the Saints almost surely will ink him to a huge free agent deal, probably even more than the $55.2 million deal Rob Gronkowski received with the Patriots in June of 2012. The Saints tried locking him up before the season, but Graham decided to wait until after this campaign (in which, by the way, he's caught 76 passes for 1,076 yards and 14 touchdowns) is complete. Worst comes to worst, and the Saints will franchise tag him, but Graham will be coming into a ton of money very soon.
1. Jay Cutler, Bears QB: At the beginning of the season, we learned that Cutler was taking the Joe Flacco route in that he had one last season to convince Chicago how much he was worth to sign (of if he was worth it at all). Now, after the impressive run made by backup Josh McCown, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Bears move on from Cutler. Particularly since Cutler could want as much as $20 million per season. The team very well could decide to go with a less expensive option, like McCown for instance, and hope coach Marc Trestman's work with a new quarterback would lead to the kind of results put up by McCown this season. Cutler certainly would have suitors in the free agent market, but he probably wouldn't get the kind of money he'd want.
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