Agent’s Take: 15 Players in contract years helping and hurting themselves
These players will hit the free-agent market, but what can they expect to get paid?
Significant money can be made and lost based on performance in a contract year. A.J. Bouye and Michael Floyd are prime examples.
Bouye came out of nowhere in 2016 to develop into one of the NFL's better cornerbacks during his final season with the Texans. He turned his contract year success into a five-year, $65 million contract containing $26 million fully guaranteed with the Jaguars in free agency.
Floyd is the other side of the contract year coin. He was having the worst season of his five-year NFL career when the Cardinals released him last December after a DUI arrest where his blood alcohol level was close to three times the legal limit. Although the Patriots claimed Floyd off waivers and he became a Super Bowl champion with them, he could only muster a one-year, $1.41 million deal with additional $4.6 million in incentives from the Vikings a couple of weeks after the NFL Draft. Floyd was later suspended under the NFL's Substance Abuse Policy for the first four games of this season because of the DUI, which makes earning any of the incentives virtually impossible.
Age is no longer an insurmountable obstacle to riches after a strong contract-year performance. The three-year, $33.75 million deal (worth a maximum of $36 million through incentives) 35-year-old Andrew Whitworth signed with the Rams is the most lucrative contract of his career. The signing has paid immediate dividends as Whitworth has helped solidify the Rams' offensive line in a surprising 6-2 start.
An injury in a contract year may not necessarily be a deterrent to a big deal particularly for a player at a premium position. Left tackle Matt Kalil received a five-year, $55.5 million contract from the Panthers, which contained $25 million of guarantees, despite missing most of the 2016 season with a hip problem requiring surgery.
With the NFL season reaching the halfway mark, here are 15 players that are helping themselves, hurting their stock and holding steady in a contract year. Performance during the second half of the season can help change a player's circumstances. Improved play over the course of the 2016 season overshadowed cornerback Stephon Gilmore's rough start which was plagued by uncharacteristic lapses in coverage. Gilmore's inconsistency in 2016 with the Bills didn't deter Patriots head coach Bill Belichick from making a rare splash in free agency. He gave Gilmore a five-year, $65 million contract containing $40 million in guarantees. A key contract benchmark and the probability of hitting this financial target ranging from one dollar sign to four dollars signs are listed for each player.
Financial Benchmark: Matthew Stafford ($27 million-avg/$92 million in guarantees)
Cousins is performing like he did during the 2015 and 2016 seasons when he was one of the NFL's most productive quarterbacks statistically. This season is more impressive because of a higher degree of difficulty. The Redskins' offensive line has been decimated by injury. Cousins' rapport with the wide receivers isn't nearly as good with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon departing to the Buccaneers and 49ers via free agency. Additionally, he has had to adjust to a new play caller with Sean McVay becoming a head coach of the year candidate for his quick turnaround of the Rams. Nonetheless, Cousins is on track for his third straight season with at least 4,000 passing yards, a touchdown to interception ratio greater than two-to-one and a completion percentage of 67 percent or above. If Cousins maintains his 102 passer rating, it will be a career high.
Cousins, who was designated as a franchise player for a second straight year, is playing the 2017 season for a fully guaranteed $23,943,600. Under franchise tag rules, the Redskins are prohibited from signing Cousins to a multi-year contract until the end of the 2017 regular season on December 31. Redskins president Bruce Allen has indicated that designating Cousins as a franchise player in 2018 for a third and final time at almost $34.5 million is a possibility despite the steep cost. Receiving another franchise tag will make continuing to go year-to-year before hitting free agency in 2019 extremely attractive unless the Redskins are willing to make him the NFL's highest paid player over Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Another option is using a transition tag for $28,732,320, which would only give the Redskins a right to match another team's offer sheet.
Cousins could be a litmus for quarterback salaries should he become an unrestricted free agent. Quality passers in their prime almost never hit the open market. It's conceivable that Cousins could command $30 million per year with $100 million in guarantees on the open market because there are more NFL teams than competent quarterbacks. Some of the quarterback needy teams, such as the Browns and Jets, will have an abundance of cap space next offseason.
Financial Benchmark: Chandler Jones ($16.5 million-avg/$53 million in guarantees)
Lawrence has impeccable timing. He is having a career year. Lawrence's 6.5 sacks in the first three games of the season helped him garner NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for September. He is leading the NFC with 10.5 sacks and trails league leader Calais Campbell by just a half-sack. Lawrence is a prime candidate for a franchise tag because of the immense importance of players who can pressure opposing quarterbacks and his 2017 play is an outlier. The defensive end franchise number is expected to be above $17.25 million in 2018. The Cowboys would be justified in having concerns about giving Lawrence a massive contract because his 10.5 sacks in eight games are one-and-a-half more than he had in the other 32 games of his NFL career over the previous three seasons.
Financial Benchmark: Christian Kirksey ($9.5 million-avg/$20 million in guarantees)
Brown couldn't capitalize on a breakout 2016 season in which he played in the Pro Bowl and was second in the NFL with 149 tackles as a free agent. He languished on the open market for about a month before going the "prove it" deal route. He took a one year, $2.3 million deal from the Redskins that can be worth as much as $4.6 million through incentives. The speedy tackling machine has picked up where he left off last season. Brown leads the NFL with 86 tackles. He should be cognizant of the recent payment history of non-pass rushing linebackers. The big deals have come staying put rather than going elsewhere on the open market. Christian Kirksey (Browns), Alec Ogletree (Rams), Vontaze Burfict (Bengals) and Telvin Smith (Jaguars) have gotten contract extensions from their respective teams averaging between $9.5 million and $11.1 million per year during the last few months.
Financial Benchmark: Robert Griffin III ($7.5 million-avg/$6.75 million in guarantees)-2016 Deal
Keenum is exceeding the modest expectations the Vikings had for him when he was given a one-year, $2 million contract with $250,000 in incentives to back up Sam Bradford. He has helped put the Vikings atop the NFC North with a 6-2 record while Bradford is out indefinitely because of an ailing left knee. Five of Minnesota's victories have come with Keenum under center. As long as the Vikings keep winning with Keenum, he will likely remain the quarterback although Teddy Bridgewater is returning from the gruesome knee injury he suffered shortly before the start of the 2016 season, which prompted the trade with the Eagles for Bradford. Even if Keenum eventually gives way to Bridgewater, he's probably done enough to be considered as a stop-gap starter, particularly for a team that selects a quarterback early in the 2018 draft, or be given a chance to compete to start. These deals have been topping out at $7 million to $7.5 million per year with incentives and salary escalators that could make a two or three year deal as much $12 million per year recently. Keenum winning in the playoffs could convince a team to give the type of money Mike Glennon received from the Bears this offseason with less of a track record. Glennon signed a three-year, $45 million deal, which is destined to become $18.5 million for a single season in Chicago because it only took him four games to lose his starting job to 2017 second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky.
Financial Benchmark: Robert Alford ($9.5 million-avg/$21 million in guarantees)
Melvin bounced around the NFL for three years before landing in Indianapolis last season. His previous stints were brief ones with the Buccaneers, Dolphins, Patriots and Ravens. 2017 second-round pick Quincy Wilson's preseason struggles opened the door for Melvin to crack the starting lineup. Melvin has been the Colts' best and most consistent cornerback this season. He's tied for the NFL lead with 12 passes defended and has two interceptions. At 6-2 and 196 pounds, Melvin possesses the type of size NFL teams covet at cornerback.
Financial Benchmark: Adrian Peterson ($14,213,333-avg/$36 million in guarantees)-2011 Deal
Bell rejected a contract offer the NFLPA reportedly found appropriate as the July 17 deadline for franchise players to sign multi-year deals neared. Multiple reports put the offer in the $60 million neighborhood for five years. The reports differed on other details of the offer. There was $39 million to $42 million over the first three years. Pittsburgh's offer was substantially more than the current $8.25 million per year benchmark held by the Falcons' Devonta Freeman in what has been a declining running back market. Bell was looking for at least $15 million per year to build upon the contract Adrian Peterson had been playing under since 2011 averaging approximately $14 million per year before the Vikings released him in the offseason.
Instead, Bell waited until a few days before the season opener to sign his $12.12 million franchise tender. He has a legitimate shot to win his first rushing title despite a sluggish start to the season due to him waiting so long to get under contract. Bell is on pace for an astonishing 388 rushing attempts, which would tie him for the 12th most carries in an NFL season. His projected 458 touches would be the second most ever in a single season.
Pittsburgh is probably going to place another franchise tag on Bell in 2018 for $14.544 million, which 120 percent of his current salary because he is solidifying his place as the best dual threat running back in the game. Sustaining the workload may not lead to much improvement in the offer he rejected. If signability becomes a major concern, it could prompt the Steelers to consider repeating the heavy usage next season while grooming a successor, possibly 2017 third-round pick James Connor, to become the primary ball carrier in 2019 so Bell can try to get his payday in free agency from another team as he starts to become a high mileage running back.
Financial Benchmark: Julio Jones ($14.25 million-avg/$47 million in guarantees)
The Dolphins were reportedly open to moving Landry before the October 31 trading deadline although he is the league's most productive slot wide receiver. Nobody was willing to pay Miami's steep price for what could amount to Landry only playing just a handful of games in return. Landry has already set the record for the most receptions during the first four seasons of an NFL career (344) with a half a season left to add to that total. Wide receivers that primarily thrive in the slot typically have been paid less than those that excel on the outside or can take the top off opposing defenses. This dynamic could limit Landry to second tier wide receiver money, which would put him in the $11 million to $13 million per year range with $25 million to $30 million in guarantees on his next contract. Whether the Dolphins use a franchise tag on Landry in 2018 could hinge on 2015 first-round pick Devante Parker's progress. Parker was expected to have a breakout year before missing three games with an ankle sprain. The wide receiver franchise number should be in the $16.25 million neighborhood in 2018.
Financial Benchmark: Desmond Trufant ($13.75 million-avg/$34.256 million in guarantees)
Butler has rebounded from a slow start to the season, which could be attributed to a tumultuous offseason. The Patriots essentially gave cornerback Stephon Gilmore the money Butler wanted from them ($65 million over five years with $40 million in guarantees) in free agency. The Saints showed some interest in Butler, a restricted free agent, but weren't willing to sign the 2014 undrafted free agent to an offer sheet because the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft was too big of a price to pay. Trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers leaves Butler as New England's best candidate to get franchised. The cornerback tag number should be slightly over $15 million in 2018. The more likely scenario is Butler leaving New England in the offseason since head coach Bill Belichick investing heavily in two cornerbacks would be out of character.
Financial Benchmark: Trai Turner ($11.25 million-avg/$20.5 million in guarantees)
The explosion in offensive guard salaries could be responsible for one of the NFL's best guard tandems breaking up. It will likely take a contract similar to Turner's four-year, $45 million offseason extension for Carolina to keep Norwell in the fold. Retaining Turner was a bigger priority for Carolina but Norwell has been at least his equal on the field over the last two seasons. The Panthers would join the Browns and Raiders as the only teams with a pair a guards having contracts averaging at least $10 million per year. Designating Norwell as a franchise player is unrealistic. He would receive a one-year financial windfall because the franchise tag doesn't account for the salary differences at the three main offensive line positions (center, guard and tackle). The 2018 offensive line number should be around $14.5 million. An unrestricted free agent has set the guard market in each of the last two years. Norwell eclipsing the five-year, $60 million deal containing $31.5 million in guarantees Kevin Zeitler received from the Browns won't be a surprise if he tests the open market.
Financial Benchmark: Riley Reiff ($11.75 million-avg/$26.3 million in guarantees)
Solder is in an enviable position although he's part of the reason why Tom Brady was sacked almost as many times during New England's first five games this season as in the 12 he played last regular season. The two-year, $20.062 million extension (with a maximum value of $21.562 million) Solder signed at the start of the 2015 regular season has a clause prohibiting the Patriots from designating him as a franchise or transition player when his contract expires after the season. Mediocre left tackles have become valuable commodities in free agency. The Chargers made Russell Okung the NFL's highest paid offensive lineman (by average yearly salary) with a four year, $53 million deal that has $25 million fully guaranteed in free agency this year even though he isn't anybody's idea of a great pass protector. Matt Kalil's five-year, $55.5 million contract with the Panthers containing $25 million in guarantees is another example. There's been some speculation that Solder could retire instead of cashing in during free agency because of the serious health issues of his young son.
Financial Benchmark: Carson Palmer ($21 million-avg/$27.15 million in guarantees)
BradfordWednesday because of issues with his left knee. He just underwent a minor arthroscopic procedure on the knee, which didn't reveal any structure damage. Two ACL tears in the knee kept Bradford out of action 25 games during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Bradford has only played one half of football since an outstanding performance in the season opener against the Saints in which he completed 84.4 percent of passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns to earn NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. A contract similar to Derek Carr's ($25 million per year with $70 million in overall guarantees) as a free agent would have been a possibility provided Bradford could have maintained or improved upon his 2016 performance since the demand for quality starting quarterbacks exceeds the supply. In 2016, Bradford set an NFL single season record with a 71.6 completion percentage and threw for a career- high 3,877 yards while getting comfortable with Minnesota's offense on the fly after a surprising trade from the Eagles in the days leading up to the regular season opener.
Bradford is a risky proposition for a long-term deal because the durability concerns he had been erasing by staying relatively healthy in 2015 and 2016 have returned. Even with a clean bill of health by the time free agency starts in March, teams may be reluctant to commit more to him than his current two-year, $35 million contract (worth up to $40.5 million through salary escalators and incentives) containing $26 million in guarantees.
Financial Benchmark: Everson Griffen ($14.5 million-avg/$34 million in guarantees)
Ansah demonstrated he can be one of the NFL's better pass rushers in 2015 when he was third in the NFL with 14.5 sacks. A nagging ankle injury derailed a 2016 season in which he only had two sacks. Ansah showed a glimpse of his 2015 form by collecting three sacks in Week 2's contest against the Giants. He's been relatively quiet since then. The premium placed on pass rushers could benefit Ansah with a better second half of the season. The Lions designating him a franchise player for over $17 million wouldn't be out of the question with improved play.
Financial Benchmark: Kenny Britt ($8.125 million-avg/$17 Million in guarantees)
Pryor was brought in to help offset the loss of wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson in free agency. The converted quarterback is losing the bet he made on himself by taking a one-year, $6 million deal worth up to $8 million with incentives. Pryor was largely a non-factor during Washington's first five games before seeing a precipitous drop in playing time.
Financial Benchmark: Jermaine Gresham ($7 million-avg/$16.5 million in guarantees)
Eifert's shot at a long term deal like his 2013 draft contemporaries (Zach Ertz, Travis Kelce and Jordan Reed) went out the window with the season-ending back surgery he had in October. The trio is on long-term extensions averaging between $8.5 million and $9.35 million per year. Eifert has only played 39 games during his five NFL seasons because of assorted injuries (ankle back, elbow, etc.). When healthy, which is a rarity, Eifert is one of the NFL's best red zone threats. He led NFL tight ends in 2015 with 13 touchdown receptions while earning a Pro Bowl berth. Eifert's days in Cincinnati may be numbered because Tyler Kroft has done a good job in his absence. A one year prove it deal may make the most sense for Eifert. Erasing concerns about durability may be Eifert's only path to compensation like his 2013 draft contemporaries.
Financial Benchmark: Latavius Murray ($5 million-avg/$8.5 million in guarantees)
Lacy was well on his way to rebounding from a disappointing 2015 campaign, in which weight issues contributed to a loss of playing time, when a left ankle injury requiring surgery ended his 2016 season after five games. The injury cost Lacy a shot at the lucrative second contract that sometimes eludes. He took a one-year deal from the Seahawks during free agency for $4.25 million that can be worth as much as $5.55 million through incentives.
Chris Carson, a 2017 seventh round pick, unexpectedly emerged as the lead running back in a crowded Seattle backfield during the preseason. Lacy was a healthy scratch for a game where he was on the inactive list and in uniform for another without seeing any action before Carson was sidelined indefinitely with a lower left leg injury. A groin injury against the Redskins in Week 9 derailed Seattle's plans to make Lacy their primary ball carrier. Thomas Rawls, who led NFL running backs with 5.6 yards per carry as a rookie in 2015, is assuming that role. Lacy is averaging a meager 2.7 yards on his 48 rushing attempts this season.
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