Every season, there are NFL players entering contract years that put together their best campaign at the perfect time to cash in on a lucrative deal. Take wide receiver Corey Davis for example. The former No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft was once seen as a bust, but in 2020, he put together an impressive season and signed the second-most lucrative wide receiver deal in free agency this offseason. Who are some players looking for new deals that we should keep an eye on in 2021?
Below, we will discuss one underrated player from each AFC team who could be on the verge of a big payday should they impress in 2021. These players aren't necessarily candidates to reset the market at their position, but could sign new deals that are more lucrative than we initially anticipated. Each player listed either has their contract expiring at season's end or after 2022. Let's go ahead and jump in.
Elliott replaced Earl Thomas in the secondary for 2020, and CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora even reported that the Ravens' leadership council backed Elliott and urged Baltimore to cut ties with Thomas. The Texas product missed his rookie season due to a fractured forearm, and played in just six games in 2019. In his first season as a starter, however, he impressed. Elliott recorded 80 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks, four passes defensed and two forced fumbles in 16 games played. He's entering the final year of his contract, and should really turn some heads if he builds on last season in 2021.
Ford has two more years left on his contract, but he's a player Bills fans should keep an eye on moving forward. The second-round pick out of Oklahoma has played both guard and tackle, but is now locked in on the inside. Ford played in just seven games last year after suffering a torn meniscus, but could be set for a big season in 2021.
Sample hasn't been a dominant weapon for the Bengals in his first two seasons, but he's set up for what could be a breakout year. The Bengals found their franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow and have two intriguing receivers on the outside in Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Tyler Boyd is nothing to sneeze at either. Sample could be the future at tight end for the Bengals, but he needs to start making that argument in 2021 with two years left on his rookie deal.
The Bills shipped Teller to Cleveland for a couple of late-round picks in 2019, but he has proven to be much more valuable than that. Last season, Teller helped pave lanes for the No. 3 rushing offense in the league, was named Second Team All-Pro and posted an impressive Approximate Value (AV) of 9. PFF has the Browns entering the 2021 season with the No. 1 offensive line in the NFL, and Teller is a big reason for that. He's on the last year of his contract as well, so he's expecting to cash in.
The former fourth-round pick out of Iowa took a huge step forward in 2020. In 16 starts, he recorded 113 combined tackles, two sacks, four passes defensed and recorded a career-high AV of 8. PFF even ranked Jewell as the No. 19 linebacker in the NFL entering this season. He has one more year remaining on his contract, and will receive plenty of attention if he can again improve his game.
Texans safeties coach Greg Jackson says Reid is going to "rise up" in this new defense, which would be a good idea considering he is entering a contract year. There's not a ton to be excited about when it comes to Houston's defense, but Reid has solidified himself as a starter despite having played a few different roles in the secondary. His versatility is appreciated, and he will earn a new contract from the Texans if he can stay healthy and make an impact for new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith.
The Colts have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and while Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly are more well-known names, Smith deserves praise as well. He has posted an AV of at least 7 in all three seasons, and has missed just two games over the past two years. He could be set for his best season yet, which would virtually guarantee a monster contract next offseason.
Chark is one of the more well-known names on this list, but it's possible he's still underrated at this point. He caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns in his second season back in 2019, and earned Pro Bowl honors. He took a step backward in 2020, however, as he caught just 53 passes for 706 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games played. New head coach Urban Meyer described Chark as a "big guy that played little," last year. So, Chark got into the weight room, gained good weight and said that he respects how Meyer is going to push him. The Jaguars added Marvin Jones in free agency and have an emerging weapon in Laviska Shenault, but Chark could end up being Trevor Lawrence's No. 1 receiver in 2021. It's sink or swim for Chark this season, and he could sign a huge deal if he puts together his best campaign yet.
Kansas City Chiefs: LT Orlando Brown Jr.
The Chiefs made a huge addition by trading away a few picks for young left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. The former right tackle moved over to the left side for the Ravens last year when Ronnie Stanley went down with an ankle injury, and he found success there. He has always maintained that, like his father, he is a left tackle, and he has a chance to really take off with one of the best teams in the NFL. Maybe Brown isn't "underrated" enough to make this list, but we believe he is going to be more of a household name this time next year.
Mullen entered the starting lineup once the Raiders traded away former first-round pick Gareon Conley, and in the starting lineup he remained. The two-time national champion out of Clemson recorded 64 combined tackles, 14 passes defensed and two interceptions in 2020, and should improve again this upcoming season. He's got two years left on his rookie deal, but he's already started to make an argument for an extension.
Adderley will certainly be a popular pick for "breakout candidate" for the Chargers this season, and for good reason. While he missed most of his rookie season in 2019 due to injury, he recorded 69 combined tackles, three passes defensed and one interception in 15 games played in 2020. Adderley has been asked to move around a lot due to the injuries fellow star safety Derwin James has dealt with, but these two have the potential to be a dynamic duo in the secondary. James is the more notable name, but what happens if he gets hurt again and rarely sees the field for the third year in a row? Adderley could be the guy to focus on.
Gesicki put up career numbers across the board in 2020 with 53 receptions for 703 yards and six touchdowns. While he's not a household name, Gesicki may already be a top 10 tight end and is entering the final year of his contract. It's true that the Dolphins did go out and acquire some speed on the outside with Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, but that could just end up opening up the middle of the field for Gesicki to operate in 2021. He is effective downfield and also has shown the ability to make tough catches.
The Patriots are currently locked in a contract-related issue with cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and they will soon have to give their attention to the other starting cornerback in Jackson. New England placed a second-round tender on him ahead of free agency, and he signed said restricted free-agent tender. Jackson is coming off of a monster season, in which he recorded 40 combined tackles, 14 passes defensed and nine interceptions -- which ranked second behind Miami's Xavien Howard. He's due for big money, but it's unknown which franchise is going to give him that big money.
We considered safety Marcus Maye for this spot, but he's not very underrated if he's receiving the franchise tag. So, let's go in a different direction and reach a bit. Davis struggled mightily last year with the Detroit Lions. However, he's a young player with potential, and maybe defensive mastermind Robert Saleh can get him on the right track. Additionally, Davis won't be the Jets' middle linebacker, so this position change might also help him -- along with the leadership of new teammate C.J. Mosley. Davis signed a one-year contract worth $7 million, and he could become an intriguing prospect next offseason if this change of scenery works well for him.
The Steelers did not exercise the fifth-year option on Edmunds' contract, but GM Kevin Colbert said that the decision was based on salary cap and not his performance, via Andrew Fillipponi of CBS Sports Radio. Colbert also added that the Steelers thought last year was Edmunds' best season. The strong safety recorded 68 combined tackles, eight passes defensed and two interceptions in 15 games played. The Steelers have several notable players to re-sign in the future such as T.J. Watt, but if Edmunds has another great season in 2021, he could make himself some money. Whether that money will come from the Steelers or another team is yet to be determined.
Tennessee Titans: OL Nate Davis
Davis was pushed into the starting lineup immediately as a third-round pick out of Charlotte in 2019, but was a clear weak spot along the offensive line with a 30.1 PFF grade in Weeks 1-14. However, he really turned it up at the end of the year, and posted a 71.5 grade in Weeks 15 through the Titans' magical postseason run to the AFC championship game. Davis has maintained that kind of level of consistency and posted an impressive AV of 10 in 2020, which was tied for fourth among all offensive guards. Davis has helped running back Derrick Henry lead the league in rushing for two straight years now, and will be a player many teams are interested in if his market value reaches a point where the Titans can't keep him.