The contract year. Motivation unlikely any other. The one season upon which financial futures hinge for hundreds across the NFL. Have a down contract year, and you could be looking at the vested veteran minimal, or a relatively cheap one-year "prove it" contract.
Erupt in your contract year, and you could be fielding a variety of multi-year deals with signing bonuses that eclipse all the money you've made to date.
Which players are bound to ascend in their contract years this season in the NFL? Below I've listed my five favorites.
You won't find players who've already experienced a breakout, like DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, Hunter Renfrow or Diontae Johnson. Each of those receivers have 1,000-yard seasons on their NFL resume. Franchise-tagged players weren't included, either.
Jones was a pass-rushing expert at Ohio State, a sleek inside rusher with slippery hands, loose hips and impeccable burst to the quarterback. He's slowly become that type of player in the NFL with the Broncos. He's gotten more pass-rush opportunities and generated more pressures in each of his three pro seasons to date, starting with a 23-pressure campaign on 213 pass-rush snaps as a rookie in 2019.
Now in Year 4, Jones will be tasked with operating as Denver's marquee interior pass-rushing threat, and having Bradley Chubb fully healthy -- along with explosive second-round pick Nik Bonitto -- on the outside will help attract attention away from Jones. Plus, with Russell Wilson in the shotgun this season, the Broncos defense should find itself in more favorable, obvious pass-rush situations.
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The stars have aligned for Jones to elevate his reputation in 2021 in a big way as a consistent, full-time disruptor on the inside.
Pollard is the most efficient back in Dallas. Twice he's averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry, which includes 2021 when he got his largest workload -- 130 regular season carries. If you dive deeper into the analytics repository, he averaged 3.29 yards after contact per rush in 2021, the lowest of his three-year career to date but still more than what Ezekiel Elliott has accomplished in any of the past three seasons. The feature back hasn't had a yards-after-contact-per-rush figure over 3.00 since 2019.
In 2021, Elliott forced a missed tackle every 12.4 rushes. Pollard did it once every 4.37 attempts. The dude is flat-out good, a more dynamic and explosive option out of the backfield for the Cowboys, regardless of draft position or celebrity status. Elliott has certainly handled a significantly larger yearly workload than Pollard, thereby making it more of a challenge to keep pace on the efficiency front, but fact is, the Cowboys run game operates more optimally when the ball is in Pollard's hands.
I don't know why I made this Elliott vs. Pollard, but here we are. I think it was mostly to hammer home the point that Pollard is a modern-day producer at the running back spot, and now, with Elliott entering 2022 with over 1,700 career carries on his resume, Pollard -- 321 career attempts -- is in prime position to secure larger responsibilities in Dallas offense and truly break out once and for all.
The impossibly long Omenihu started Year 3 strong with 16 pressures in his 105 pass-rushing snaps in Houston. That productivity perked the ears of 49ers GM John Lynch, who traded for Omenihu before the trade deadline.
What's weird was that after being on the field for close to 40 snaps per game with the Texans, the 49ers newly acquired, unique pass rusher never played more than 20 snaps in a single contest for the rest of the regular season. That changed in the first playoff win, when he erupted for six pressures on 27 pass-rush opportunities across 35 total snaps against the Cowboys. Sure, it was just one contest, a rather big one at that, but Omenihu made a statement to his new coaching staff -- he should've been playing more from the jump in his new locale.
The former Texas star has gotten more comfortable and productive rushing the passer in each of his first three seasons in the NFL. And in what should be a more prominent role on the 49ers defensive line, I expect a noticeable breakout en route to a hefty extension in the 2023 offseason for the nearly 6-6 defender with 36-inch tentacles attached to his torso.
Yeah, yeah, this is a bit of a stretch. Hear me out, though. Crowder's never had a 1,000-yard season in the NFL, and he's still not even 30. Is a household name for, say, the religious fantasy owner or family that's had Sunday NFL Ticket the past five years, sure, but I wouldn't call him a star. Yet.
Crowder was rewarded for laboring through lesser quarterbacks at the beginning of his career to land in Buffalo, with Josh Allen, in Cole Beasley's old gig. And Beasley felt like a player with the notoriety of current-day Crowder when he signed with the Bills, in 2019, as a 30-year-old.
With Allen, Beasley saw 100+ targets in all three regular seasons and set career highs in all the major receiving categories. For as much as Allen's rocket-launcher arm makes the highlights, he ascended to superstardom in large part to his pinpoint accuracy and willingness to utilize his underneath options. That new underneath option now happens to be Crowder, and everything about his signing in Buffalo has legitimate Beasley feels.
But Gaines brings it, too. At 6-1 and 312 pounds, he has a stocky build but wins with burst, speed-to-power conversio and a non-stop motor. His hand work is polished, too. After barely playing in his first two seasons -- fewer than 250 total snaps combined -- Gaines fell into an important rotational role in 2021 and thrived with 38 pressures on 476 pass-rushing snaps. No, that doesn't equate to a tremendous rate. It does, however, indicate Gaines rose to the occasion when his snaps were increased.
The Rams didn't draft a defensive tackle in April. Gaines will be the primary starter next to Donald at the outset of the 2022 season. The former Washington Husky has a big year ahead of him, which he'll parlay into a sizable payday next March.