Contract year performances can have significant economic consequences. Fortunes can be made and lost when a player is on an expiring contract.
The jury was still out on Jameis Winston heading into 2019 while playing on a $20.922 million fifth year option with the Buccaneers last season. Winston made the wrong kind of NFL history in 2019. Winston became the first player to throw at least 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in the same season. He also had a league high of 111 giveaways (88 interceptions and 23 lost fumbles) from the time he entered the NFL in 2015 through 2019.
Winston was in a rude awakening as a free agent although he became the eighth player to ever throw for more than 5,000 yards during a season in 2019. The Buccaneers gave Tom Brady a fully guaranteed two-year, $50 million deal worth a maximum of $59 million with incentives to replace him. Winston is currently a backup quarterback with the Saints on a one-year, $1.1 million contract with an additional $3.6 million in incentives.
2021 free agency could be particularly challenging for players coming off subpar contract years because of the coronavirus pandemic's financial impact. The NFL and NFLPA have set a $175 million salary cap floor for 2021 with league revenues declining due to COVID-19. The expectation is it will be a buyer's market during the offseason where a significant number of players could be released because of a significant drop in the salary cap from the current $198.2 million figure.
Here are five players with expiring contracts that haven't helped themselves this season. 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: Projected quarterback franchise tag ($24.072 million)
A lack of interest after Newton's release by the Panthers in March led him to sign a one-year deal with a base value of $1.75 million worth up to $7.5 million through incentives. Newton isn't passing the test with flying colors of resurrecting his career after being plagued by foot and shoulder injuries over the last two seasons. He got off to a hot start this season before testing positive for COVID-19. Newton performed so poorly initially upon returning to action from the coronavirus that he admitted he could be benched with continued subpar performances.
Playing at a higher level over the second half of the season could result in the Patriots designating Newton as a franchise player. The 2021 non-exclusive quarterback franchise tag could be in the $25 million neighborhood with a steep drop in the salary cap. Fortunately for Newton, the Patriots are in great shape with the salary cap for next year and the 2021 free agent quarterback class is underwhelming.
Financial Benchmark: Dante Fowler, Jr. ($15 million avg./$29 million in guarantees/3 Years worth up to $48 million through salary escalators)
Clowney couldn't find any takers in free agency at his original asking price, which was reportedly over $20 million per year, because of a lack of sacks and a core muscle injury that required surgery. He signed a one-year deal for $13 million (worth up to $15 million through incentives) with the Titans to reunite with Mike Vrabel. The Titans head coach was Clowney's defensive coordinator with the Texans in 2017 and linebackers coach for the three seasons before. Clowney is sackless this season and suffered a left knee injury that could need surgery to repair a meniscus. The three-time Pro Bowler is probably going to have to drastically adjust his financial expectations to attract significant interest in free agency during the offseason.
Financial Benchmark: Cooper Kupp ($15.75 million avg./$35.133 million in guarantees/3 Years worth up to $49.125 million with salary escalators)
Green playing on a $17.971 million franchise tag this season made the most sense for the Bengals given his injury history. He didn't play at all last season because of an ankle injury suffered in training camp that required surgery. Green, who is 32, also missed six games in 2016 because of a hamstring tear and was limited to nine games in 2018 due to a toe injury also requiring surgery.
A rapport between Green and 2020 number one overall pick Joe Burrow has been slow to develop. At the halfway mark of the season, Green is on pace for the worst season of his 10-year career. He has 31 catches for 316 yards with zero touchdowns. Green has started flashing the form that's made him a seven-time Pro Bowler more recently. Doing so consistently for the remainder of the season could put Green in line for one last big payday with another team as a free agent.
Financial Benchmark: Marcus Mariota ($8.8 million avg./$7.5 million in guarantees/2 Years with a maximum value of $47.5 million through salary escalators and incentives)
Nick Foles was acquired from the Jaguars in an offseason trade because the Bears weren't sold on Trubisky, 2017's second overall pick. The Bears declined to pick up their fifth year option in 2021 with Trubisky for $24.837 million, which equals this year's quarterback transition tag. Trubisky, who surprisingly beat out Foles as starting quarterback, was benched for ineffectiveness despite Chicago's 3-0 record. The Bears have dropped to 5-4 with the offense struggling under Foles. This has prompted speculation that Trubisky could get another chance once he recovers from a minor right shoulder injury. Unless Trubisky starts living up to the potential that made him a high draft pick if he gets his job back, he is destined to be a backup in 2021.
Financial Benchmark: DeSean Jackson ($9 million avg./$15 million in guarantees/3 Years)
Hilton isn't bouncing back from an injury plagued 2019 season as anticipated. His last 100 yard receiving game was Week 16 in 2018, when Andrew Luck was still the Colts quarterback. Hilton has 22 catches for 251 yards with zero touchdowns in seven games this year. He is currently dealing with a groin injury. An aging Philip Rivers' declining arm strength isn't an ideal match for Hilton's deep threat capabilities.