Garret Bolles was a disappointment in his first three NFL seasons. The 2017 first-round pick's claim to fame was leading the NFL in holding penalties in each of those seasons.
Bolles' struggles led to the Broncos declining a fifth-year option for him in 2021 worth $11.064 million resulting in 2020 becoming his contract year. Denver's plan was for Elijah Wilkinson to compete with Bolles at left tackle until right tackle Ja'Wuan James opted out of this season because of concerns about COVID-19. This meant Bolles would remain as Denver's starting left tackle.
Bolles has been one of the 2020 season's biggest surprises. He's elevated his play to a Pro Bowl level. In turn, the Broncos recently signed Bolles to a four-year, $68 million contract extension with $40 million in guarantees making him the NFL's fifth highest-paid offensive lineman at $17 million per year.
As Bolles' can attest, fortunes can be made because of performance in a contract year. With the NFL season heading into the home stretch, here are seven other players that are helping themselves in their contract year.
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.
Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys
Financial Benchmark: Deshaun Watson ($39 Million-avg/$110,717,124 in guarantees/four years worth up to $160 Million with incentives)
Rarely does a player increase his contract leverage with a season-ending injury. Prescott has. He was having the best year of his career when he sustained an open or compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle against the Giants five games into the season. Through the quarter mark, Prescott was on pace to shatter Peyton Manning's NFL single-season passing yards record (5,477). Prescott was projecting to 6,760 passing yards for the season. He also completed a career-high 68 percent of his passes in the five games he played.
Dallas has struggled on offense without Prescott. In the four complete games Prescott played, he was throwing for 422.5 yards per game and the Cowboys were scoring 31.5 points per game. In the other nine games this season, Dallas has averaged 219.9 passing yards per game. Points are down to 18.8 per game.
Prescott is playing this season on a $31.409 million franchise tag because of the Cowboys' inability to reach a long term agreement with him. A second franchise tag in 2021 for $37,690,800 at the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement mandated 20 percent raise was an absolute certainty before Prescott got hurt. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has indicated that Prescott's injury doesn't change Dallas' plans for him. Prescott is reportedly on track to meet the four to six-month recovery timetable for the injury.
Things would get really interesting if Prescott played the 2021 season on another franchise tag. Prescott would become an unrestricted free agent in 2022 or receive a third franchise tag at a 44 percent increase over the 2021 figure for $54,274,752.
Leonard Williams, DT, Giants
Financial Benchmark: Chris Jones ($20 Million-avg/$60 Million in guarantees/four years)
Williams is validating Giants general manager Dave Gettleman's decision to give the Jets a 2020 third-round pick and a 2021 fifth-round pick to get him as last season's trading deadline was approaching, and subsequently placing a $16.126 million defensive tackle franchise tag on him. He is living up to the potential that made him 2015's sixth overall pick by having his best season as a pro.
Williams has a career-high 8.5 sacks, which is tied for eighth in the NFL. He was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week because of his 2.5 sacks and seven quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) on Russell Wilson in the Giants 17-12 upset of the Seahawks in Week 13.
A second franchise tag at $19,351,200 is a possibility as long as Gettleman remains Giants general manager. Regardless of the tag decision, Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett ($17 million per year) or Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark ($17.5 million per year) should be Williams' salary floor because of his improved play.
Williams could be setting his sights higher though. The Colts gave defensive tackle DeForest Buckner a four year, $84 million extension averaging $21 million per year with $56.378 million in guarantees after acquiring him from the 49ers in March.
Taylor Moton, OT, Panthers
Financial Benchmark: Garett Bolles ($17 Million-avg/$40 Million in guarantees/four years)
Moton can make a good case for being the NFL's best right tackle this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Moton has allowed 13 quarterback pressures, which are the fewest for right tackles that have taken at least 50 percent of their respective teams' offensive snaps. Moton's main competition is Jack Conklin, who has allowed 14 pressures. Conklin is the most recent data point for right tackles. He signed a three-year, $42 million contract containing $30 million fully guaranteed with the Browns in free agency this year. Lane Johnson (Eagles) is the league's highest-paid right tackle at $18 million per year.
Moton is Carolina's best candidate for a franchise tag. At the $175 million salary cap floor set by the NFL and NFLPA for 2021 because of league revenues declining due to COVID-19, designating Moton as franchise player projects to $13.188 million.
Trey Hendrickson, DE, Saints
Financial Benchmark: Dante Fowler, Jr. ($15 Million-avg/$29 Million in guarantees/three years worth up to $48 Million through salary escalators)
A Saints defender ranking among the NFL sack leaders seemed like a safe assumption considering defense end Cameron Jordan had 40.5 sacks over the last three seasons (2017 through 2019). Nobody envisioned Hendrickson being tied for third in the NFL with 10.5 sacks with three games to go. The 2017 third-round pick's playing time was so sporadic he didn't earn the CBA's Proven Performance Escalator available to third through seventh-round picks in the final year of their rookie contracts raising fourth-year compensation to the lowest restricted free agent tender, which is $2.133 million in 2020, for participating in a minimum of 35 percent of the offensive or defensive plays (whichever is applicable) in two of the first three seasons of their deals or an average of at least 35 percent playtime in their first three seasons.
A training camp elbow injury that kept 2018 first-round pick Marcus Davenport sidelined for the first four games opened the door for Hendrickson to emerge. Retaining Hendrickson will be difficult for the Saints because of the NFL's most challenging salary cap situation for next year. At best, the 2021 salary cap will remain flat at $198.2 million but could be as low as $175 million. According to NFLPA data, the Saints have $282.48 million in 2021 cap commitments with 44 players under contract while there is $5.06 million of existing cap space that can be carried over to 2021. Under offseason accounting rules, the top 51 salaries (i.e.; cap numbers) matter.
Marcus Maye, S, Jets
Financial Benchmark: Budda Baker ($14.75 Million-avg/$33.1 Million in guarantees/four years)
Maye has been one of the few bright spots for the winless Jets. He has established himself as the leader of the defense with strong safety Jamal Adams' trade to the Seahawks. Adams' departure has given Maye an opportunity to display his versatility by lining up at different spots in the defense although he has been playing as more of a traditional free safety lately. Keeping Maye from hitting the open market with a franchise tag won't be a problem for the Jets. Assuming a $175 million 2021 salary cap, the Jets are projected to have right around $70 million in cap space when factoring in the top 51 salaries. The safety franchise tag is expected to be $10.176 million with a $175 million salary cap.
Jason Verrett, CB, 49ers
Financial Benchmark: Desmond Trufant ($10 Million-avg/$14 Million in guarantees/two years)
Ability has never been the issue with Verrett. Availability has. He only played six games during the previous four seasons (2016 through 2019) primarily because of a partially-torn ACL in his left knee and a ruptured Achilles tendon. He earned Pro Bowl honors with the Chargers in 2015, which was his last healthy season.
Because of the injuries, Verrett did not figure prominently in San Francisco's plans when re-signed to a one-year deal for $1,047,500 in April. Richard Sherman's calf injury in the season opener against the Cardinals allowed Verrett to get extensive playing time. Finally healthy, Verrett has regained his Pro Bowl form. In most years, Verrett would be the leading candidate to be named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year but Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith is certain to win the award. Sherman, who also has an expiring contract, is pessimistic about re-signing with the 49ers. The prospect of losing Sherman could make retaining Verrett more of a priority.
Durability concerns are likely to impact Verrett financially. Without the injury history, Verrett surpassing the $14.5 million per year James Bradberry received from the Giants with $31.9 million in guarantees would be a distinct possibility.
Nelson Agholor, WR, Raiders
Financial Benchmark: Randall Cobb ($9 Million-avg/$18 Million in guarantees/three years)
Agholor signed a one-year deal worth $1,047,500 after a disastrous 2019 season with the Eagles playing out his rookie contract. The change of scenery has done Agholor plenty of good. He has helped fill the void created by Tyrell Williams missing the season because of a shoulder injury. After primarily being used in the slot the last couple of years in Philadelphia, Agholor is showing his deep threat capabilities this season. He is fourth in the NFL with 16.7 yards per catch. Agholor is on track to top his career highs of 768 receiving yards and eight touchdown receptions with projections of 782 yards and nine scores.