Show Me the Money: NFL Contract-Year Players Who Could Break the Bank

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 7, 2017

Show Me the Money: NFL Contract-Year Players Who Could Break the Bank

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    Over the final four weeks of the 2017 NFL regular season, the focus for the majority of the league's players will be on trying to help their teams make playoff pushes. 

    But the reality is a lot of players will gain or lose a whole bunch of cash between now and then, because free agency looms for about 500 of them. 

    Excluding veteran stars who have already cashed in on long-term, big-money contracts (Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Sam Bradford and Nate Solder, to name a few), let's take a look at 10-plus emerging or current NFL stars on track to become a hell of a lot richer in about three month.

Honorable Mentions

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    Miami Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry: Landry will get more attention (and maybe more money) than some players later on this list because he's already caught 368 passes with four games remaining in his fourth season. But he's never been a big-time playmaker, and this year he's averaging a disappointing 8.7 yards per catch. 

    Seattle Seahawks WR Paul Richardson: Finally a regular starter in his fourth season, the 25-year-old is on pace to catch 49 passes for 789 yards and six touchdowns in a breakout campaign. Somebody will pay him a premium for his potential. 

    Detroit Lions DE Ezekiel Ansah: The 2013 No. 5 overall pick made the Pro Bowl with 14.5 sacks in 2015, but the last two seasons indicate that may have been his peak. 

    Los Angeles Rams CB Trumaine Johnson: There's almost no way the Rams hit the six-year veteran with a third consecutive franchise tag, especially with teammate Lamarcus Joyner slated to hit the market. Still, Johnson has 18 picks and 63 passes defended in those six seasons. 

    Los Angeles Chargers S Tre Boston: Waived a year ago by the Carolina Panthers, who drafted him in 2014, the 25-year-old has experienced a breakout season with four picks as a regular starter. 

Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell (Again)

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    Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell placed a heavy wager on himself when, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he turned down a five-year contract worth more than $12 million per season and instead played under the $12.1 million franchise tag in 2017. 

    Thus far, that bet appears to be paying off. 

    The 25-year-old is the league's leading rusher by a 118-yard margin, and he leads all NFL backs with 66 receptions. Few players in the league break tackles the way he can, and his vision and patience remain unmatched.  

    Running backs don't break the bank in this league, and it's slightly concerning that Bell is on pace to become just the second player in the last decade to receive 425 or more touches in a season (and that the other guy to do that, DeMarco Murray, hasn't been the same since).

    That said, Bell just might be an exception to several rules. And if indeed the Steelers were willing to give him that kind of cash last offseason, somebody will likely be ready to give him even more next spring. 

    Worst-case scenario assuming he stays healthy? Bell is hit with the franchise tag again and is owed about $15 million in 2018. 

Washington Redskins QB Kirk Cousins (Again)

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    Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has become Mr. Franchise Tag, making close to $44 million under the tag the last two seasons. If the Redskins tag him again in 2018, he'll make a record $34 million for one season. But even if they don't and Cousins signs a long-term deal in Washington or elsewhere, he'll almost certainly become one of the highest-paid players in NFL history. 

    Salaries for premium quarterbacks have skyrocketed in recent years, and the 29-year-old Cousins has premium numbers smack dab in the middle of his prime. Among 32 quarterbacks who have started at least 20 games since Cousins became a full-time starter in 2015, the Michigan State product ranks third in completion percentage and yards per attempt and fifth in passer rating (behind only Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson). 

    Another tag isn't out of the question, with JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington noting in the spring that team president Bruce Allen is open to that possibility. But if instead Cousins hits the market in this increasingly quarterback-hungry league, he'll inevitably strike a deal that pays him at least $25 million a year, just like Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford

Minnesota Vikings QB Case Keenum

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    Minnesota Vikings surprise star quarterback Case Keenum doesn't have a Cousins-sized resume, but his breakout 2017 campaign should be enough to make him a rich man. 

    The 29-year-old journeyman has led the Vikings to eight consecutive wins, all without star rookie running back Dalvin Cook. In that span, he has a 100.3 passer rating, a completion percentage of 70.0, and he's thrown just five interceptions while surrendering just five sacks. His sacks-allowed rate of 2.4 is the best in the league by a wide margin, and he also ranks in the top 10 in every other key rate-based statistical category. 

    I know it's a cliche, but the NFL has 32 teams and fewer than 32 franchise-caliber quarterbacks. Keenum has proved this year that he might be a late bloomer with the ability to become a franchise quarterback.

    In a league in which Mike Glennon makes $15 million a year, Andy Dalton makes $16 million a year, Sam Bradford makes $18 million a year and Ryan Tannehill makes $19 million a year, Keenum's hot 2017 should be enough for him to earn a long-term deal worth close to $20 million per season. 

San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo

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    The sample is even smaller for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who is primed to cash in on a big contract as his rookie deal expires. The 26-year-old will have started no more than seven career games when that happens, but he's highly valued for a reason. 

    The 2014 second-round pick showed signs of being the real deal in limited opportunities behind Tom Brady in New England, and the brass in San Francisco felt strongly enough about him to trade the Patriots a second-round pick for his services with just half a season remaining on his rookie contract. 

    Among quarterbacks who have attempted at least 100 passes, Garoppolo has the third-highest passer rating in NFL history, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson. He's won all three of his starts in New England and San Francisco and has thrown just one interception on 133 attempts. He's been at his best when it has mattered most, albeit in limited action.

    Bred by Bill Belichick and mentored by Tom Brady, Garoppolo is viewed as a potential wunderkind with a higher ceiling than most other unproven quarterbacks. He'll be paid that way in 2018, even if it means the 49ers wind up slapping him with the franchise tag

Green Bay Packers WR Davante Adams

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    It's possible fourth-year wide receiver Davante Adams has actually made himself some extra cash as a result of the collarbone injury that has kept superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of the lineup since Week 7. 

    That's because Adams has continued to excel even without Rodgers at the helm, proving to potential future employers (as well as his current one) that he has a bright future regardless of who's throwing him passes. 

    One year after breaking out with 75 catches, 997 yards and 12 touchdowns, the 24-year-old is on pace to catch 78 passes for 992 yards and nine touchdowns. And he's been more productive with struggling backup Brett Hundley under center than he was with Rodgers earlier in the season. 

    Adams has become a top target in a talented offense, and he'll be paid that way. 

    If the significantly less accomplished Robert Woods was able to land a five-year, $34 million deal in free agency last spring, Adams could be in for a deal that pays him at least $10 million a year starting in 2018. 

New York Giants OL Justin Pugh

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    Entering this season, New York Giants offensive lineman Justin Pugh knew he was on the verge of striking free-agent gold. 

    "Do you even know who some of those guys are that were getting paid? I feel good about where I'm at," Pugh said in May, per Dan Duggan of NJ.com. "The guard market has gone up."

    Indeed it had, with guards Kevin Zeitler, Gabe Jackson, Joel Bitonio, Ron Leary, Larry Warford and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif all signing big-money contracts in the 2017 offseason. And when healthy, Pugh emerged in 2015 and 2016 as one of the game's most talented guards. 

    The problem is we haven't seen him at that position much over the last calendar year. He missed five games due to injury in the second half of the 2016 campaign and was forced to slide over to right tackle in order to help patch up a mess of an offensive line early this season. Now, he's fighting a back injury that has allowed him to play in only one game since Week 8. 

    It's fair for teams to wonder about Pugh's durability, since he hasn't played a complete season since he was a rookie in 2013, but he's still only 27, and his upside and versatility could make up for that. 

    With so many teams dealing with major issues along the offensive line, Pugh will likely land a deal that pays him at least as well as Zeitler (five years, $60 million), Jackson (five years, $55 million) and Bitonio (six years, $51 million). If he can return and excel between now and the end of a lost season for the Giants, he could still make himself a few extra dollars. 

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence

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    With four weeks remaining in the 2017 NFL season, the league's sack leader is a 25-year-old whose rookie contract is about to expire. Considering how much value is placed on elite pass-rushers these days, that should have Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence on the verge of hitting the jackpot. 

    While Lawrence hasn't put up consistently strong sack numbers throughout his first four seasons in the league, the 2014 second-round pick out of Boise State has done enough in his two full healthy campaigns to prove that 2017 probably isn't a fluke.

    He has a league-high 13.5 sacks in 12 games this season, and an eight-sack 2015 campaign (seven of them came after Week 9) indicates that his injury- and suspension-marred 2016 season might have been a mere speed bump. 

    Lawrence also has four forced fumbles this year, and according to Pro Football Focus, he entered Week 13 with the league's second-best pass-rushing productivity rating among qualified 4-3 defensive ends. 

    Great edge-rushers rarely hit the open market, which means the franchise tag is a possibility for Lawrence. That would at least give him a chance to earn upward of $17 million during a second consecutive contract year in 2018.

    If he does sign a long-term contract in Dallas or elsewhere, don't be surprised if he lands a deal within reaching distance of the four-year, $60 million pact Calais Campbell inked with the Jacksonville Jaguars last offseason. 

Seattle Seahawks DT Sheldon Richardson

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    Considering the Seattle Seahawks traded away a second-round pick and a starting wide receiver in exchange for defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson just prior to the start of the 2017 season, it's safe to predict they will try to work out an extension with the 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year. 

    But while the 27-year-old hasn't been to a Pro Bowl since 2014, he's likely to be costly when his rookie contract expires in March. 

    Richardson's impact up front can't fully be measured using statistics, but he has an interception, a sack, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, a pass defensed, 33 tackles and the ninth-best run-stop percentage at his position, per PFF

    "It shows up every game," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said of Richardson this week, according to Gregg Bell of the News Tribune. "He does something special."

    Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams frankly isn't the player Richardson is, but Williams landed a five-year, $52.3 million contract after his rookie deal expired last year. Richardson is likely to earn something closer to the six-year, $85.5 million contract Malik Jackson signed with the Jaguars in 2016.

New England Patriots CB Malcolm Butler

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    New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler has lacked consistency in coverage while playing under a $3.9 million restricted free-agent tender in 2017, but he's still made several key plays in big moments.

    Butler has a pair of interceptions under his belt and is on pace to defend 15-plus passes for a third consecutive season. 

    In less than three full seasons as a starter, the 27-year-old undrafted West Alabama product has intercepted eight passes while recording three forced fumbles and 147 tackles. And that doesn't include his epic end-zone pick which clinched Super Bowl XLIX. 

    That probably has him in the franchise-tag mix, but the Patriots gave a five-year, $65 million contract to another cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, last offseason. Butler is arguably more valuable than Gilmore, but it's hard to imagine the Pats giving $13-plus million a year to two players at that position. 

    Butler's up-and-down season might bring his price down a tad, but corners get big bucks these days. Someone is likely to cough up A.J. Bouye money ($13.5-plus million per year) for a dude who hasn't accomplished as much as he has. 

Los Angeles Rams S Lamarcus Joyner

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    Fourth-year Los Angeles Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner is experiencing a breakout season just in the nick of time. The converted cornerback has found his groove at safety, with three interceptions, nine passes defensed and a touchdown. And he's done that in just nine games.

    Naturally, few players at that position have been as strong in coverage. But Joyner also has a good track record against the run. 

    The 27-year-old should have a shot at getting Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro love in the coming weeks, and that versatility should give him a chance to sign a sneaky-blockbuster deal after his rookie contract expires in March. 

    Tony Jefferson won free agency at the safety position when he landed a four-year, $34 million deal with the Ravens last offseason. Joyner might be worth more than that.