This season will be pivotal for NFL players entering a contract year or facing a crossroads (typically because of age, salary cap concerns, injury or off-the-field issues). Here are 30 players to keep an eye on during the 2014 season who fit into one of these categories.
Eli Manning, QB, Giants: Manning led the NFL with 27 interceptions, a career high, in 2013. If new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo doesn't resurrect the two-time Super Bowl MVP and fix the Giants' offense, a quarterback could be taken early in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Lions: Suh has leverage in discussions with Detroit about a new deal thanks to a $22,412,500 cap number, which makes it virtually impossible to use a franchise tag on him in 2015 at $26.87 million (based on 120 percent of his 2014 cap number).
A contract extension for Suh should be the richest veteran deal in NFL history for an interior defensive lineman because he probably isn't going to accept a decrease from his rookie contract (worth a maximum of $68 million over five years with $40 million guaranteed) after earning All- NFL honors in each of his four NFL seasons.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots: Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL when healthy but has missed 14 regular-season games over the last two years because of back, forearm and knee injuries. The Patriots have until the last day of the 2015 league year to pay him a $10 million option bonus to pick up his 2016 through 2019 contract years. A decision on Gronkowski's future with the Patriots may come much sooner if he can't stay on the field in 2014.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks: Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell toying with the idea of a running back by committee approach indicates that the Seahawks believe they are prepared for life after Beast Mode.
Darrelle Revis, CB, Patriots: If wide receivers are getting stranded on Revis Island, the Patriots or someone else will likely sign him to a long-term deal at the top of the cornerback market ($13.5 million to $14 million per year with $40 million to $45 million in guarantees.)
Aldon Smith, LB, 49ers: Smith's long-term future in San Francisco remains in doubt because of multiple off-the-field incidents despite the 49ers exercising their 2015 option year with him for $9.754 million. If the 49ers aren't comfortable that Smith has learned from his mistakes, they could decide he is more trouble than he's worth before the option year becomes fully guaranteed at the start of the 2015 league year.
Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys: The 2010 first-round pick is in a select group of wide receivers (A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas) whose rookie deals expire at the end of the 2014 or 2015 season that should top the five-year, $60 million contract (includes $30 million in guarantees) Mike Wallace received from the Dolphins last year as a free agent.
Bryant, who had 93 receptions for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013, is the only wide receiver in Cowboys history with consecutive seasons of at least 90 catches and 1,200 receiving yards.
Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos: John Elway would like Thomas signed to a long-term deal before training camp starts. In 2013, Thomas joined Larry Fitzgerald, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice as the only wide receivers in NFL history with consecutive seasons of at least 90 catches, 1,400 receiving yards and 10 touchdown receptions.
Sam Bradford, QB, Rams: Although Bradford received a vote of confidence when the Rams didn't select Johnny Manziel with their second first-round pick (13th overall), 2014 may be his last chance in St. Louis to live up to the potential that made him the first overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft.
Von Miller, LB, Broncos: His 2013 season was derailed by a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy and a late-season ACL tear. If Miller's troubles are behind him and he regains his pre-injury form, surpassing Clay Matthews as the NFL's highest paid linebacker ($13.2 million average per year in a five-year extension) is a possibility.
Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals: Cincinnati wouldn't be reluctant to meet Dalton's contract demands if he could consistently perform like he did when he was named AFC Player of the Month for October last season. Dalton completed 67.9 percent of his passes (89 of 131) for 1,246 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions while posting a 116.8 passer rating to earn the honor.
Ray Rice, RB, Ravens: A bounce-back season from a disappointing 2013 campaign (660 rushing yards with 3.1 yards per carry) is needed with a personal conduct policy suspension looming for an offseason domestic violence incident.
Alex Smith, QB, Chiefs: Smith needs to be careful about overplaying his hand in contract negotiations. He's reportedly seeking a Jay Cutler type deal ($18.1 million average per year/$54 million guaranteed). Smith didn't generate much interest from teams as an unrestricted free agent in 2012. It's unlikely that he has dramatically altered his perception around the NFL since then.
Frank Gore, RB, 49ers: 2014 will likely be a farewell season in San Francisco for the 31-year-old with an expiring contract.
Justin Houston, OLB, Chiefs: Don't expect a lengthy preseason holdout from Houston if a new contract isn't forthcoming. He won't get a year service toward free agency without reporting to the Chiefs at least 30 days prior to their first regular season game. Missing the deadline and playing out his rookie deal will make Houston a restricted free agent in 2015.
Mike Wallace, WR, Dolphins: Wallace was the subject of pre-draft trade rumors after he didn't live up to the expectations of his five-year, $60 million contract in his first year with Miami.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants: A big payday will be awaiting Pierre-Paul in 2015 if he starts to resemble the player who notched 16.5 sacks in 2011.
Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers: Nelson was a victim of bad contract timing with the three-year contract extension averaging $4.2 million per year he signed early in the 2011 season because he finished the year with 68 catches for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns. He set career highs of 85 receptions and 1,314 receiving yards in 2013. Nelson's top priority with his next contract should be maximizing its value because the Packers are getting a tremendous bargain on his current deal.
Randall Cobb, WR, Packers: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers believes Cobb could have 100-catch seasons in Green Bay's offense. If the Packers are hesitant about having two high-priced wide receivers, a decision must be made on whether re-signing the 2011 second round pick or Nelson is the higher priority.
DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys: Even if Murray has a career year by rushing for more than 1,128 rushing yards, he'll likely have a hard time getting a deal in Dallas comparable to the six-year, $45 million contract Marion Barber signed with the team in 2008 because of the devaluing of running backs.
Mike Iupati, G, 49ers: Iupati might price himself out of San Francisco by looking to become one of the NFL's highest paid guards ($8 million per year/$16 million to $20 million in guarantees).
Dwayne Bowe, WR, Chiefs: Bowe is being paid like an elite wide receiver ($56 million/5 years) but hasn't been producing as one (116 receptions, 1,474 receiving yards and eight touchdown receptions in 2012 and 2013).
Hakeem Nicks, WR, Colts: Nicks took a one-year, $4 million deal (worth a maximum of $5.5 million through incentives) because of a soft free-agent market after two straight disappointing seasons with the Giants.
Jordan Cameron, TE, Browns: The Browns would like to sign Cameron, who had a breakout 2013 season with 80 catches and 917 receiving yards, to a contract extension. His price tag, which is probably already north of the maximum value of Jared Cook's deal ($38.1 million for five years with $19 million guaranteed), will only go up if Cameron assumes a bigger role in the passing game because of Josh Gordon's indefinite suspension.
Nick Fairley, DT, Lions: Fairley could make the Lions regret their decision to pass on a fifth-year option with him for 2015 at $5.477 million if his reported 25 to 30 pounds weight loss translates into a career year.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, Eagles: Maclin could largely fill the void left by DeSean Jackson's release if he has recovered from a preseason ACL tear that cost him the 2013 season. Based on Jackson's 2012 contract, the Eagles have established a value of $9.7 million per year for a No. 1 wide receiver.
Others to watch: Patriots WR Danny Amendola; Seahawks DE Cliff Avril; Rams WR Kenny Britt; 49ers WR Michael Crabtree; Titans DT Jurrell Casey; Bills DT Marcell Dareus; Texans RB Arian Foster; Panthers DE Greg Hardy; Falcons RB Steven Jackson; Vikings WR Greg Jennings; Raiders RB Maurice Jones-Drew; Cowboys DT Henry Melton; Chargers RB Ryan Matthews; Raiders RB Darren McFadden; Jaguars TE Marcedes Lewis; Bills RB C.J. Spiller; Packers DT B.J. Raji; Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart; Broncos TE Julius Thomas; Seahawks LB K.J. Wright.
Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Before 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
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