You know what motivates players unlike anything else? Simply being in a contract year. It's 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 minimum or a cheap one-year "prove it" contract.
Erupt in your contract year, and you're 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. Franchise-tagged players weren't included, either.
Shenault has a legitimate case as the NFL's best yards-after-the-catch receiver. I'm serious. In 2021, he forced 20 missed tackles on just 63 receptions as a member of the Jaguars. Then, in 2022, he forced 15 missed tackles on a mere 27 grabs. Preposterous. He simply needs more opportunity and steady quarterback play.
While the former isn't guaranteed, he should get mostly consistent play from No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young, who proved to be a capable point-guard type passer at Alabama, routinely distributing the ball to all of his Crimson Tide targets and specializing in getting the ball out quickly. Plus, Frank Reich and Co. will design a QB-friendly system for Young that accentuates plenty of short, high-percentage passes -- precisely when Shenault will step in and become a household name for his super-powerful, tackle-breaking skills. I love him as a complement to the vertical, perimeter game of D.J. Chark and the nifty route-running talent of Adam Thielen.
Tart was an obscure undrafted free agent in 2020 after a collegiate career that included stops at three schools across four seasons and finished at Florida International.
And he's more than just beat the odds by making the team -- in a rotational, low-volume role, Tart's been a stud upfield rusher. At times, he's been borderline unblockable. After seeing the field for just under 500 total snaps in his first two seasons in Tennessee, Tart received 520 in 2022 and gave the Titans ample return on investment with 26 pressures on 305 pass-rushing snaps, which featured nine contests with at least two pressures.
Tart and Jeffery Simmons are a load on the inside of Tennessee's defensive front. Simmons got a well-deserved extension a few months ago. Tart will be next -- and the deal could come during the season.
Huff is so damn disruptive. Why he hasn't played more for the Jets through two seasons is beyond me. Last year -- his third season in the NFL -- Huff registered 36 pressures on 173 pass-rush snaps, equivalent to a 20.8% pressure-generate rate, which extrapolated out is in the Micah Parsons range.
Of course, with a lower sample, reaching that rarefied air of 20% pressure-creation rate is easier than across a full season, yet Huff has essentially been as productive as human possible with the opportunities he's been given, so he deserves -- and will likely get -- a more sizable role in Gang Green's pass-rush rotation, even with the presence of two first-rounders on the edge.
He's primed for a dynamic season thanks to his burst, bend, and tenacious hand work. He has the goods to beat tackles in a multitude of ways, which will spark his breakout campaign.
Walker is the best linebacker in football you've likely never heard of unless you're a faithful Falcons fan. A former fourth-round pick from Fresno State, Walker's production has swelled in each of his first three seasons in Atlanta, culminating with a 107-tackle, six pass-breakup, four tackle-for-loss, two-interception campaign without much defensive line help -- outside of Grady Jarrett -- in front of him in 2022.
Now, the Falcons are formidable in the trenches, particularly with no-nonsense masher Calais Campbell next to Jarrett. Newcomer David Onyemata brings it on every snap too at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds. Walker will be "kept clean" much more frequently than in the past. He's a sneaky-good coverage linebacker at a rather sleek 6-3 and 230-ish pounds.
Walker will piece together his finest season to date in the NFL and earn a monster payday in free agency after the season. Remember the name.
I can't quit Edwards. He was a draft crush of mine in 2020 class, a prospect I had a first-round grade on but realized he'd be picked later because of a pre-draft foot injury. The ailment ultimately sunk Edwards' stock to the third round but, when presumably fully healthy, the former South Carolina star had a 34-grab, 571-yard, three-score 2021 in his second year in the league catching passes from Derek Carr.
Now Edwards is reunited with Carr in New Orleans after a cup of coffee with the Falcons. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, I remember a complete wideout in the SEC playing with Deebo Samuel. Tremendous ball skills, plus capability after the catch and enough athleticism and nuance to get open on route-running alone.
Yes, there's Chris Olave and Michael Thomas in the Saints wideout room. But not much else. I expect Edwards to finally get the chance to play like the pass catcher he was in college in 2023 and earn a lucrative albeit not super-expensive contract next offseason.