With the new NFL collective bargaining agreement now in place until 2020, NFL players and owners know there is stability and structure for years to come. The rookie salary cap has made negotiating rookie contracts very simple, yet provides proven players a chance to sign multimillion dollar deals.
Take, for example, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Heading into the 2012 season, the former Purdue star signed a five-year, $100 million which paid him $40 million this year. Contracts like those will continue to exist and grow with the popularity of the NFL and the new television contracts on the horizon.
One caveat for the players is the existence of the franchise tag. The tag allows the NFL team to hold onto the rights of a player who would become a free agent after the season. While getting paid the average of the top-five highest-paid players at their position sounds great, most players want a long-term deal for more security.
Barring getting hit with the franchise tag, which can handcuff negotiations, here is a list of 18 players, by position, who have set themselves up for huge paydays come March 2013.
Though Flacco has been up and down this season in terms of statistics, the former Delaware Blue Hen has won more games in his first four years in the NFL than any other quarterback in history. That bodes well for his case in the negotiations.
Flacco has played in nine playoff games in four seasons and, in 2011, was a dropped pass or a missed field goal from going to the Super Bowl. There are countless teams in need of a quarterback with Flacco’s pedigree that would be willing to pay the quarterback big money for his services.
Flacco, a home-grown draft pick under general manager Ozzie Newsome, has been the best quarterback in franchise history. Look for the Ravens and Flacco to work out a long-term deal before the start of the 2013 season.
Bush made $4.754 million this season, but is primed to almost double that once free agency starts. The electrifying running back has had one of his best seasons as a professional and is on pace to eclipse his career bests in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.
Bush has proved over the last two seasons that he can be a feature back in the NFL. The former USC star is no longer looked at as a change-of-pace runner or just a return man. Bush has stayed relatively healthy and, if he can finish the year strong, will vault himself into the upper echelon of running-back salaries in the NFL.
Bowe’s talent has never been a question, but his work ethic and concentration have been second-guessed. Neither of those issues will be a concern for Bowe come the start of free agency. Many personnel people look at the success receiver Vincent Jackson has had in Tampa as an indicator for what Bowe could do in the right offense.
Bowe is on pace for a career season in receptions and that is without a stable quarterback at the helm. Bowe’s three seasons over 1,000 yards and his mammoth 2010 season when he caught 15 touchdowns still resonate with front-office management.
Depending on who is running the Chiefs front office come March and if Bowe receives the franchise tag again, look for the former LSU star to be among the highest paid at his position.
Wallace is on pace to have his third straight 1,000-yard receiving season. He is also on pace to top his career high in touchdowns in a season. Those statistics are never bad to have when heading into a free-agent year.
Wallace just turned 26 and is one the fastest players in the NFL. He is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Since the Steelers just signed Antonio Brown to a large contract extension, many around the NFL wonder if Pittsburgh will allocate a ton of money for that position.
If the Steelers do let the speedster walk, one obvious landing spot would be in Indianapolis, where Wallace could reunite with former Steeler offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. No matter what happens, Wallace is about to get a major hike in pay.
Talk about perfect timing. Hartline, who was almost an afterthought in the Miami offense, has now become the go-to target for rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. What makes this sweet for Hartline is that his contract is up after the season.
Much like Laurent Robinson did last year for the Dallas Cowboys, Hartline is having his best season with money on the line and will parlay this success into a giant contract this offseason.
Hartline already has the most yards of his career for a season and still has eight games to play. He should also blow away his best year in terms of receptions and touchdowns. Look for Hartline to be a hot commodity in free agency in 2013.
Cook may not be the first name when fans think about Pro Bowl tight ends, but the former South Carolina star is one of the most athletic players in the NFL. Cook is a hard matchup for most linebackers, and offensive coordinators around the NFL would love to have the opportunity to use him in their offense.
Cook is on pace for career bests in catches, yards and touchdowns. If the Titans allow Cook to hit free agency, he will garner tons of interest and could end up as one of the highest-paid tight ends in the NFL. The fact Cook is only 25 and still maturing adds to his value.
Long hits free agency due to a clause in his contract that made the 2013 year voidable. Though Long has had his struggles this season, the former Michigan Wolverine is still considered one of the premier left tackles in the NFL and will command a huge market.
One interesting location for Long to end up is in Detroit. Jeff Backus is on his last leg and Long could go back to his roots. A Pro Bowler in his first four years, Long could end up being the highest-paid offensive tackle in NFL history.
If your team needs an offensive tackle, the 2013 offseason is one of the best to find one. Clady, along with Long, are two of the premier players at their position. Though Long has more Pro Bowls, Clady has two to his credit and actually has more All-Pro appearances than Long.
Clady has shown his versatility by playing well in different offensive schemes and excelling in both run- and pass-blocking. There are many personnel people around the NFL that believe Clady may be the best left tackle in football.
When the smoke clears after free agency, Long and Clady will be the Nos. 1 and 2 highest-paid offensive tackles.
The Chiefs may not be a very good team, record-wise, but Kansas City has accumulated a ton of talent. Albert is no exception. The former college offensive guard has made the transition to NFL left tackle seamlessly and, with his versatility, will earn a bigger paycheck in 2013.
Albert is a very good athlete who understands angles, leverage and can move his feet. Though Albert is not of the same caliber as Long and Clady, a team that does its homework will get a steal.
Albert has positioned himself for a major upgrade in 2013 and has a bright future in the NFL. Look for a team like the San Diego Chargers or St. Louis Rams to make a play for the former Virginia star.
Offensive guard is not a “sexy” position in the NFL, but if recent years are any indication, NFL teams will pay big bucks for a quality guard. Ben Grubbs, Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph have all scored big-money deals.
Levitre may not be in that category, but the four-year professional is on the verge of hitting the lottery. Levitre has never missed a game in his career and brings a toughness and stability to a younger offensive line. A case can be made that Levitre is the best football player on the Bills' offense.
Look for the former Oregon State Beaver to set his price on the open market in free agency.
Avril received the franchise tag from the Lions in 2012 after a monster season. In 2011, Avril had 11 sacks and six forced fumbles.
In 2012, Avril has 4.5 sacks and is on pace to record a career high in tackles. The NFL is not afraid to pay a premium for elite pass-rushers and Avril has shown he can get to the quarterback.
Avril is making $10.605 million this season. Expect that number to increase two or three million in 2013.
Bennett must wake up every morning and think how blessed he is to have head coach Greg Schiano come into his life. In Bennett’s first three years, he had a total of six sacks. In his first eight games under Schiano, Bennett already has six on the season.
Those sacks, along with his improvement as a run-defender, put Bennett in line for a huge payday once free agency starts. Bennett also has three forced fumbles on the season.
Bennett may not start a fire in terms of fans’ excitement, but the former Texas A&M star is on every NFL team’s wish list for the 2013 free-agency period.
Melton is one of the best players on one of the best defenses in the NFL. He also happens to be one of the lowest-paid players in the league at his position, but that will all change in less than six months.
Melton will eclipse his season best in sacks and tackles in 2012, and with interior pass-rushers so hard to find, Melton will run the free agency market.
Melton is only 26 years old and a major reason the Bears' defense is so successful this season. Look for Melton to be in the top-five highest-paid players at his position entering the 2013 season.
The Texans have the third-best defense in the NFL and Barwin is a vital cog in the system. Though his sack total is down compared to 2011, Barwin still is a versatile defender who can rush the passer and drop into coverage.
The Texans may not be able to afford Barwin with many other players they have to address in terms of contracts. If Barwin hits the open market, look for teams like the Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots to make a major push for the former Cincinnati Bearcat.
The former Tennessee Titans practice-squad player gambled before the year and turned down a multi-year deal from the Ravens. The gamble looks to be paying off. The lanky cornerback already has four interceptions on the season and leads the AFC in that category.
Williams is also in the top 10 among cornerbacks in total tackles. With a premium paid for cornerbacks, Williams has set himself up for a life-changing payday in free agency. With the success of big receivers in the NFL, teams are looking to sign big cornerbacks. Williams fits that profile and will benefit in free agency.
Lewis has bypassed Ike Taylor as the best cornerback on the Steelers' roster. And that maturation could not have happened at a better time.
Lewis will be a highly sought-after free agent in 2013. The Steelers will have a tough decision to make in determining who to franchise-tag: Lewis or Mike Wallace. Both will make big money on the open market, but setting career highs this season has added to Lewis' value.
Look for Lewis to stay a Steeler because general manager Kevin Colbert values his draft selections and paying the players that have been there from the start. But Lewis will command at least $8 million a year and could get more.
The best thing to ever happen to Biggers, besides getting drafted out of Western Michigan, was the trade of Aqib Talib to New England.
He's now the starter and has a chance to showcase his talents each week versus the best in the league. Biggers has good speed, foot quickness and has already proved to be a very good special-teams player.
With the opportunity to show off his coverage skills week in and week out, Biggers' status on the free-agent market will only increase. Look for Tampa Bay to try to re-sign him to a multi-year deal, but if Biggers hits the open market, his price tag will eclipse $5 million a year.
The most dynamic playmaker in the secondary outside of Ed Reed, Byrd is set to get paid major dollars on the open market. In three and a half seasons, Byrd has 16 interceptions and nine forced fumbles.
If Byrd played in a major market and on a better team, the former Oregon star would be a household name. He is a very good tackler and always seems to be around the ball.
Byrd has the opportunity to set the bar for the amount safeties are paid in the NFL. The 2009 All-Pro is still young and will only get better.
Other free agents that will score solid free-agent deals but have age, injury history, etc. working against them:
WR Greg Jennings
WR Wes Welker
RB Rashard Mendenhall
RB Felix Jones
OL Jermon Bushrod
OL Phil Loadholt
OL Sebastian Vollmer
OL Kraig Urbik
TE Dustin Keller
DE Dwight Freeney
OLB Shaun Phillips
OLB Anthony Spencer
LB Rey Maualuga
LB Daryl Smith
LB Brian Urlacher
LB DeAndre Levy
CB Sean Smith
S Ed Reed
S Glover Quin
S Dashon Goldson