10 NFL Players in Contract Years Who Could Earn a Big Payday for 2014
With one year left on their contracts, players throughout the NFL can feel some pressure to produce in order to earn their next contract.
If recent history is any indication, someone is going to be the highest-paid player at their position next offseason, and it will likely be a result of a stellar performance in the 2013 season—if not also from year's past.
Players slapped with the franchise tag are looking for long-term deals, but their talents are already being rewarded with contracts that put each of those eight franchised players among the top-five base salaries at their position for the 2013 season.
Whether it's a player in the final year of his rookie deal or a veteran trying to earn one last big paycheck, a solid campaign in 2013 likely means a solid contract in 2014 for these soon-to-be free-agents.
All contract and salary cap info via Spotrac.
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Much of the Bengals' defensive success can be traced to its dominant front four, and defensive tackle Geno Atkins is one of the key cogs that makes the unit so efficient.
For his efforts, he has been voted to the Pro Bowl two straight years and the All-Pro team in 2012.
According to stats website Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Atkins ranked first in pass-rushing productivity, which is defined as a measure of pressure created on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks. He logged 49 pressures, 13 hits and 16 total sacks (half-sacks counting as full sacks) in 2012.
The youthful Atkins, alongside veteran defensive tackle Domato Peko and young defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, were key ingredients on a Bengals defense that ranked third in sacks with 51 as a team.
Atkins is hardly a one-trick pony, though. In fact, he ranked second in PFF's run-stop percentage (tackles that constitute a "loss" for the offense) with 28 stops on 263 run-snaps.
The Bengals are getting Atkins at quite the bargain in 2013 at just $1.54 million, which puts him well outside the top-10 at his position.
Given their current exorbitant amount of cap space ($21.66 million in 2013), the Bengals could work on a new deal for him this year to make sure they don't have to worry about him hitting the open market.
Of course, they could also hit him with the franchise tag to make sure that doesn't happen, but either way, Atkins will have earned a nice payday for 2014.
It took the Atlanta Falcons a long time to find a franchise quarterback, and they'd be foolish to let him get away.
Matt Ryan is set to earn a $10 million base salary in 2013, and if he plays at the same level he's shown over the past few seasons, he'll be one of the NFL's top-paid quarterbacks come next offseason.
Over the past four years, Ryan has steadily climbed the quarterback stat sheet. In passer rating, he ranked 20th in 2009, 11th in 2010, eighth in 2011 and fifth in 2012.
Sure, any quarterback would love to throw to wide receivers like Julio Jones and Roddy White on a regular basis, but few quarterbacks in recent memory have made a similar instant impact as Ryan did in the NFL.
In his first two years in the league, Ryan led the Falcons to their first back-to-back winning seasons ever. Since then, he has guided them to three straight trips to the playoffs, including as the NFC's top seed two of the past three seasons.
This season, the Falcons earned their first playoff victory since 2004.
Their streak of success coincides with the arrival of Ryan as well as that of head coach Mike Smith, but who is more responsible for their success? The Falcons probably don't want to find out just yet.
The New England Patriots brought Aqib Talib back on a one-year, $4.86 million deal for the 2013 season. It was a wise move, considering the long history of off-field trouble and on-field injury problems that have followed the cornerback throughout his NFL career.
He started off on a good note with the Patriots in terms of staying out of trouble, but four months of good behavior does not a model citizen make. He didn't get off to such a great start in terms of staying healthy, suffering from similar hip and hamstring issues to what have plagued him in the past.
Three circumstances must go Talib's way if he wants to earn a big payday—he must continue to play well, stay healthy and stay out of trouble. Fortunately for Talib, he has control over all three, especially considering the nature of his injury history.
Emmanuel Sanders almost didn't have to wait for his payday.
The New England Patriots made the wide receiver an offer as a restricted free agent which would have sent a third-round pick to the Steelers in exchange for the wideout. The Steelers wisely matched the offer sheet, making sure not to lose two of their top three wide receivers in one offseason.
Sanders didn't exactly light up the stat sheet last year, picking up just 44 receptions for 626 yards and one touchdown, none of which ranked him among the Steelers' top three pass-catchers. Now, though, with Mike Wallace out of the picture, there will be more targets and receptions to go around—not to mention that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will certainly be looking for a new security blanket to turn short passes into long gains.
This offseason proved that there is a market for Sanders' services. A solid 2013 campaign will only strengthen that market for next offseason.
Brian Orakpo made an early exit from the 2012 season, missing all but two games with a torn pectoral muscle in Washington.
Although pass-rushers use their arms and hands frequently to ward off blockers, Orakpo's abilities will not be impeded as greatly as they would have been had he torn, say, his ACL.
The Redskins' defense sorely missed his presence off the edge last year, logging just 32 sacks as a team (24th in the NFL). Orakpo logged double-digit sacks just once in his career, but even if he had matched his total of eight sacks from 2011, the Redskins would have finished with 39—tied for ninth in the NFL.
Orakpo has no reason to go hunting for a new contract just yet. If he were to try to get a new contract now, his injury status would likely give the team leverage in negotiations.
Instead, he should just focus on hunting quarterbacks for 16 or more games from September through January. If he does his job and stays healthy while he's at it, the Redskins will likely hold up their end of the bargain.
Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz
The Giants made it to Super Bowl XLVI—and won it—on the strength of dominant playoff performances and a few key plays in particular from wide receivers Mario Manningham, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
Manningham left the team as a free agent in 2012, and the Giants put a first-round restricted free-agent tender on Cruz this offseason to prevent a similar fate.
All that has done is delayed the inevitable. The Giants will have to sort out contracts for Nicks and Cruz at some point.
Cruz burst onto the scene with two straight seasons of more than 80 receptions, amassing 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. He missed all of the 2010 season with a hamstring injury, but has not missed a game due to injury in the past two years, starting all 16 games in 2012.
If Cruz can be productive for a third consecutive season, he'll surely get paid handsomely, regardless of who is signing the check.
Nicks, on the other hand, has missed at least one game in each of his four seasons in the NFL and missed three games last year with a knee injury. The injury slowed him down all year, as he recorded the lowest totals of his career in both receiving yards and touchdowns. If Nicks can return to the form he saw in 2010 and 2011, he will have proven himself worthy of a nice contract.
The Giants are currently on the hook for around $103 million against the 2014 cap, so it's feasible they could afford both receivers, although it wouldn't leave them much money for other signings.
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The Miami Dolphins have spared no expense in fielding a dominant team for the 2013 season, but they are sparing plenty of expense on their starting strong safety.
Reshad Jones signed a four-year contract as a fifth-round pick out of Georgia and is set to make just $1.323 million as he enters the final year of that deal.
It's not surprising that he's a bit upset, considering all the new money that has entered the Dolphins locker room in the past three months. He has vocalized his disappointment by failing to show up for OTAs, but while he has every reason to be upset, things could work out favorably for him.
If Jones has another great season, he could earn a huge payday next offseason, perhaps even in the neighborhood of the lucrative five-year, $41.25 million deal signed by safety Dashon Goldson with the Buccaneers.
There's little doubt that Jones has begun to emerge into a top-flight safety, but if he were to sign a deal now while coming off just one productive season, he might not make exactly what he's worth.
He won't be leaving any money on the table if he just continues to play at the level he showed last year—a level which put him among the top safeties in the NFL, in my opinion.
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The Cleveland Browns have long- and short-term questions about quarterback Brandon Weeden, one of their first-round picks from 2011.
On the other hand, they have all kinds of stability on the offensive line, and that starts with Mack, who has not missed a single snap for the Browns in his four-year NFL career.
It has been a secret world for Alex Mack, whose talents have gone largely unnoticed due to Cleveland's overall awful offensive attack, which has ranked 24th or worse in scoring each of Mack's four years with the Browns. Nevertheless, Mack was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2010 when he was opening up holes for running back Peyton Hillis.
Trent Richardson averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in 2012, but nearly reached 1,000 yards rushing as a rookie. If he comes out of his shell this year like many expect, Mack will be at the forefront again.
Mack is set to earn a cool $3.7 million base salary in 2013, with another $1.3 million in bonuses on top of that. His base salary is among the top five at center in the NFL this year, but his average salary of $2.9 million ranks him in the 20's among center salaries. If he continues to play at a high level, his next contract will reflect his true status.
If the NFL draft is any indication, the San Francisco 49ers are building for the future with a team that's already built to win now.
Defensive end Justin Smith has been an integral part of their defensive success. His ability to soak up multiple blockers is a big reason why linebacker Aldon Smith was a threat to the single-season sack record.
He doesn't log many sacks of his own, but relative to his position, his production in that area is just fine. Smith graded out as the fifth-best 3-4 defensive end, according to Pro Football Focus.
Besides his performance, his consistent presence on the field hasn't gone unnoticed. Despite missing over two games in 2012, Smith had the fourth-most snaps of any defensive linemen in football over the past two years, according to ESPN.
He has fully recovered from the triceps injury which kept him out of those two games, and if he maintains the level of play he has enjoyed throughout his career, there's no reason he won't make big money come free agency in 2014.
The 49ers have some room to work with beneath the cap for the 2014 season, with just over $105 million already accounted for in player contracts, according to Spotrac. That, in theory, leaves them with around $20 million (depending on cap growth) to spend.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from the Sports-Reference.com network, and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.