Fortunes can be made because of performance in a contract year. Offensive tackle Trent Brown can attest to it.
Who would protect quarterback Tom Brady's blind side was a big concern for the Patriots during the 2018 offseason after left tackle Nate Solder briefly became the NFL's highest offensive lineman with the Giants in free agency. Brown was acquired from the 49ers for what was essentially a mid-fourth round pick during the 2018 NFL draft and Isaiah Wynn was selected 23rd overall to fill the void. Wynn tearing his Achilles in the preseason left the job to Brown, who primarily played right tackle with the 49ers.
Brown left the Patriots in free agency to become the NFL's top paid offensive lineman. He received a four-year, $66 million deal with $36.25 million fully guaranteed from the Raiders, which averages $16.5 million per year.
With the NFL season reaching the halfway mark, here are six players who 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.
Financial Benchmark: Jared Goff ($33.5 million avg./$110,042,682 in guarantees)
There was an overreaction to Prescott playing the best game of his career in a 35-17 season-opening victory over the Giants, which earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. That single game didn't materially increase Prescott's leverage any more than Jared Goff's horrendous play for the Rams when the most was at stake in Super Bowl LIII kept him from getting top quarterback money right before the regular season started.
Prescott is having the best season of his four-year NFL career. He is on pace for his first 4,000 yard passing season. Prescott has never thrown more than 23 touchdown passes in a season. He is on track for 30. Prescott's 69.6 completion percentage is a career high and the league's fifth best mark. His 102.5 passer rating, which is eighth in the NFL, is his highest since he was a rookie in 2016.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones indicated last week that progress was made on Prescott's new contract during the Week 8 bye. If negotiations continue to drag on, the Cowboys will surely designate Prescott as a franchise player in March. An exclusive franchise tag, which prohibits the solicitation of an offer sheet from other NFL teams, would likely be in order given Prescott's performance this season. An exclusive designation for Prescott would be the average of the top five 2020 quarterback salaries (usually salary cap numbers) when the restricted free agent signing period ends next April 17. This number currently projects to $33.229 million and is subject to change.
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Financial Benchmark: Nick Foles ($22 million avg./$50.125 million in guarantees)
Bridgewater thrived while getting his first game action over an extended period of time since suffering a gruesome, career threatening knee injury during the 2016 preseason when he was the Vikings starting quarterback. The Saints didn't really miss a beat in the five games he started, all victories, because of Drew Brees' thumb injury. In the five starts, Bridgewater completed 69.7 percent of his passes (115 of 165 attempts) for 1,205 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating was 103.7.
Bridgewater was content to return to the Saints this season as the league's highest-paid backup quarterback despite the Dolphins pursuing him in free agency to be their starter. He felt staying in New Orleans was the better long-term option since he would have been just a bridge quarterback in Miami. There has been some speculation that Brees, who is also in a contract year, could retire after the season, especially if the Saints win the Super Bowl. The 40-year-old Brees hasn't given an indication either way on continuing to play but has acknowledged he is taking a year by year approach to his career.
Financial Benchmark: Michael Thomas ($19.25 million avg./$60,989,043 in guarantees)
Patience has been Cooper's best friend. Michael Thomas raised the bar for wide receivers in July when he signed a five-year, $96.25 million extension (worth up to $100 million through salary escalators) with the Saints. Julio Jones took salaries for pass catchers to new heights with the three-year, $66 million extension, in which $64 million was fully guaranteed at signing, he received from the Falcons right before the start of the regular season.
The Cowboys didn't give up their 2019 first round pick to the Raiders for Cooper to have a short stint in Dallas. Prescott's improved play since the second half of the 2018 season has coincided with Cooper's arrival as the legitimate receiving threat that had been sorely missing. Cooper has 90 catches for 1,367 yards and 11 touchdowns in Dallas' last 16 regular season games. This gives Cooper a tremendous amount of leverage in negotiations.
Assuming Prescott's deal gets done, Cooper is a likely franchise tag candidate. The 2020 wide receiver number will be approximately $18 million provided the 2020 salary cap is in the $200 million range. A second designation for Cooper in 2021 at a Collective Bargaining Agreement mandated 20 percent raise could be more than $21.5 million. Cooper might be better off financially making roughly $39.5 million in 2020 and 2021 going year-to-year with two franchise tags where he would be an unrestricted free agent at 27, rather than signing with Dallas long-term.
Financial Benchmark: Jimmy Graham ($10 million avg./$11 million in guarantees)
Hooper has been one of the few bright spots for the disappointing Falcons, who have a 1-7 record. He is only the third tight end in NFL history to have at least 50 receptions, 500 receiving yards and five touchdown catches in the first half of a season. This feat was previously accomplished by Ben Coates (Patriots) and Shannon Sharpe (Broncos) in 1994 and 1996, respectively.
Hooper leads NFL tight ends with 52 receptions. His 591 receiving yards and five touchdown catches are second among tight ends. Hooper is on track for 104 receptions, 1,182 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches. If Hooper sustains his production, he'll join Dallas Clark (Colts, 2009) and Travis Kelce (Chiefs, 2018) as the only NFL tight ends to ever have at least 100 receptions, 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches in a season.
Keeping Hooper in Atlanta may not be that easy. The Falcons have one of the NFL's more challenging salary cap situations for next year. There are $205.19 million of 2020 cap commitments, which is third most in the NFL, with 40 players under contract. The top 51 cap numbers matter under offseason cap accounting rules. The Falcons have $5.61 million of existing cap space, which can be carried over to next year. The 2020 salary cap will be in the $200 million neighborhood with a similar increase as in recent years.
Designating Hooper as a franchise player would ensure that he stays in Atlanta next year. The non-exclusive tight end number projects to $10.7 million in 2020. It will take some salary cap gymnastics for the Falcons to comfortably accommodate a Hooper franchise tag.
Financial Benchmark: Za'Darius Smith ($16.5 million avg./$20 million in guarantees)
Barrett's bet on himself with a one-year, $4 million deal (worth up to $5 million through incentives) should pay big dividends. He earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for September with nine sacks in the first four games. Barrett tied an NFL record for the most sacks through four games. Although Barrett isn't getting to the quarterback with the same frequency as in September, he still leads the NFL with 10.5 sacks. He has also forced four fumbles, which are tied for the most in the league.
Financial Benchmark: Anthony Barr ($13.5 million avg./$33 million in guarantees)
The Patriots are getting tremendous value from Collins in his return to New England after two and a half lackluster seasons with the Browns. He signed a one-year, $2 million deal containing additional $3 million of incentives in May after being released by the Browns in early March.
Collins, who recently turned 30, is having his best season since earning All-Pro honors with the Patriots in 2015. He leads NFL linebackers with three interceptions, which includes one returned for a touchdown. Collins' six sacks are tops for NFL off ball linebackers. He has also forced two fumbles and has a fumble recovery.
Collins' biggest payday may be elsewhere in free agency. The Patriots don't make a habit of paying players whose contracts expire top dollar (Trent Brown, Trey Flowers, Nate Solder, etc.). If the market doesn't develop as expected, New England welcomes select players back with opens arms, such as Dont'a Hightower, on favorable contract terms. It will be interesting to see whether Collins' experiences with the Browns influence his decisions about his next contract.