NFL Players Who Must Show Up Big in Contract Years

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJune 16, 2013

NFL Players Who Must Show Up Big in Contract Years

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    The 2013 NFL season has yet to begin, but we’re taking this time to look at what the ramifications of that season will be for some notable players.

    Yes, it’s the dreaded contract year.

    We’re not predicting that any of the 12 players listed will be signed or not re-signed, and each player’s situation is obviously different. But the one similarity is that their current contracts (or possible contracts) will expire following next season and it will be interesting to see what the future holds for these performers.

    For the sake of common sense, we’ve excluded potential unrestricted free agents such as Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen and Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (among others) as the likelihood of these players hitting the open market next year is remote. And in case you are wondering, the following list is in alphabetical order by team.

    Per usual, all contract information for the players in this piece comes courtesy of the outstanding work done by Spotrac. And a special thanks to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) for their outstanding statistical breakdowns and analysis.

FS Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills

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    Like Denver Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady, Buffalo Bills free safety Jairus Byrd was given the franchise tag prior to the start of free agency and has yet to sign his tender (Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio did an outstanding job laying out the current franchise tag rules in February).

    The bigger question will be if and when he does, will the Bills hang onto him for more than one season?

    Unfortunately for the Bills, they’ve had a recent history of watching top-notch talent move on and exceed elsewhere. In four seasons in Buffalo, Byrd has been one of the best at his position in the league, totaling 18 interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) and 10 forced fumbles.

    The Bills have until July 15 to get Byrd signed to a long-term contract. After that, he can still sign that one-year tender and the team will have his services in 2013.

    Then the game really begins.

DE Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers

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    Whenever you talk about the Carolina Panthers these days, the focal point usually starts and ends with quarterback Cam Newton.

    Sure, linebacker Luke Kuechly was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and Ron Rivera’s defense ranked 10th in the league in yards allowed last season.

    Then there’s the Panthers' pass rush, led by defensive end Charles Johnson, who led the club with 12.5 sacks in 2012.

    But not far behind was teammate Greg Hardy, who totaled a career-high 61 tackles and 11.0 sacks last season. In his two previous seasons, the former sixth-round draft choice combined for 7.0 sacks. But it’s worth noting that in 2011 Hardy did knock down 11 passes.

    So was 2012 a sign of things to come for the defensive end or was it the exception and not the rule? Another double-digit sack season for Hardy and the Panthers may have something special on their defensive front.

QB Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

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    Would the Chicago Bears actually consider cutting ties with quarterback Jay Cutler?

    We’re not suggesting that in the least. But with other quarterbacks such as Joe Flacco, Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers all getting big pay days this offseason, will the Bears lock up their strong-armed signal-caller anytime soon or actually let him test the free-agent waters this offseason?

    In four years in the Windy City, Cutler owns a 34-22 record as a starter, completing 59.6 percent of his passes for 12,292 yards, 82 scores and 63 interceptions.

    You will notice that win-loss mark adds up to 56 games. That means Cutler has missed eight games with the Bears and hasn’t started all 16 contests since his first season with the team in 2009. The Bears signal-caller has been sacked a whopping 148 times the last four years.

    Chicago has spent its share of money and draft choices this offseason to improve its offensive line. But will the Bears ante up if Cutler takes another beating in 2013? Time will tell, but it has been worth some discussion.

DE Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys

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    It was a disappointing 2012 on both sides of the ball for the always-promising Dallas Cowboys.

    But it proved to be a good year for outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. The former first-round draft choice led the team in tackles (95) and finished second in the club to DeMarcus Ware with 11.0 sacks in a season in which the club’s linebacking corps was devastate by injuries.

    A potential free agent this season, Spencer was designated the team’s franchise player and signed his tender a few months ago. But will the team be able to strike a long-term deal with the Cowboys defender before July 15?

    More so, does it want to? Dallas is switching to a 4-3 defense this season under coordinator Monte Kiffin, and both Spencer and Ware will be the team’s starting defensive ends.

    Perhaps this is just what the doctor ordered for Spencer, who totaled only 21.5 sacks his first five seasons in the NFL before last year’s breakout campaign. Time, as usual, will tell.

DE Robert Ayers, Denver Broncos

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    Now would be a good time for Denver Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers to show why the team made him the second of two first-round draft choices in 2009.

    Now it’s certainly not Ayers’ fault that he was picked where he was picked. In any case, it’s time for the former University of Tennessee product to elevate his game.

    Yes, the Broncos have one of the best pass-rushers in the league in Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller. But the defensive standout (as well as John Fox’s entire team) will miss defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who had 63.5 sacks in six seasons in the Mile High City and is now a member of the Baltimore Ravens.

    In four seasons with the Broncos, Ayers has totaled 6.5 sacks in 57 games.

    The Broncos may be getting ready for a big season in 2013. But their defense, which tied for the league lead with 52 sacks last year, must do its share. And if Ayers want to get his share of the credit, it’s time for a breakout year.

T Marshall Newhouse, Green Bay Packers

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    When you’re good, you’re good. And the Green Bay Packers are a very good organization.

    They also have some very good football players that are potential free agents following the 2013 season. The list includes tight end Jermichael Finely and defensive lineman B.J. Raji.

    And then there’s tackle Marshall Newhouse, who will make the switch from the left side to the right side in 2013 as the team will revamp the line in a major way.

    Why? Last season, Aaron Rodgers was sacked 51 times, more than any other quarterback in the league. In fact, Rodgers has been dropped an NFL-high 118 times since 2010.

    How big of a year is this for Newhouse? Former first-round draft choice Derek Sherrod is still waiting in the wings and the Packers did draft David Bakhtiari in the fourth round in April.

    It’s a new year and a new position for Newhouse. But the Packers, thanks to this look by Pro Football Focus, can’t afford the same old results.

LB Brian Cushing, Houston Texans

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    We’ve been waiting for some big things from the Houston Texans the last few seasons and Gary Kubiak’s club certainly has the talent.

    And through three-quarters of 2012, it looked like they were on course to make a February trip to the Superdome.

    However, losing former Pro Bowl inside linebacker Brian Cushing on a Monday night against the New York Jets last October would prove to be a big blow to the team’s championship aspirations.

    Cushing’s loss, along with injuries to a few other key players, took its toll on the Texans defense. Including their playoff split with the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots, Houston allowed 242 points in their last nine outings, compared to giving up 143 points during the team’s 8-1 start.

    A Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2009, Cushing was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season after violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Now there’s last season’s injury, although the former Southern Cal standout will be back on the field soon.

    As for his long-term future in Houston, this could be an interesting year for the standout performer.

T Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs

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    We’re so sorry, Branden Albert.

    It’s been an offseason of speculation regarding the former first-round draft choice (2008). Would he sign his franchise tender or wouldn’t he? Will he be traded to the Miami Dolphins or won't he?

    Now Albert is back in the fold as the starting left tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs. Of course, the team made tackle Eric Fisher the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. The former Central Michigan standout will open on the right side this season.

    But Albert’s performance this season is the key. And it could dictate whether head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey decide that he is their left tackle for the long term.

    Of course, the team could lock up Albert for the future before next March. We shall see. But it’s been a somewhat confusing offseason regarding the Chiefs left tackle.

CB Aqib Talib, New England Patriots

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    While there’s been plenty of discussion about the New England Patriots passing game this offseason, the additions the team has made on the defensive side of the ball offer a lot of promise.

    The signings of strong safety Adrian Wilson and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, released this year by the Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders, respectively, give Bill Belichick’s team a nice veteran presence on the defense.

    But it was the 2012 midseason trade that brought cornerback Aqib Talib to Foxborough that’s worth talking about.

    Of course, the former first-round draft choice began the season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but would be dealt to the Patriots in November, while in the midst of a four-game league suspension. He played in just six games for New England last season.

    But it was his injury in the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens that opened the door for a big second half by wideout Anquan Boldin as the Pats fell to the eventual Super Bowl champions, 28-13.

    A big year by Talib could reap some big benefits, both personally as well as for the team.

WR Victor Cruz, New York Giants

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    The New York Giants have some big decisions coming up sooner than later.

    But first things first and that’s speedy wide receiver Victor Cruz. The restricted free agent signed his tender on Friday and is now back with the club.

    The former undrafted free agent from the University of Massachusetts has enjoyed a meteoric-type rise the last two years. In 2011, he set a franchise record with 1,536 receiving yards. Last year, Cruz led the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown grabs for the second straight year en route to being named to his first Pro Bowl.

    But here’s the rub. Standout teammate and wideout Hakeem Nicks, the club’s first-round pick in 2009, is in the final year of his contract. Will the Giants have to choose between the pair, will both players be back in the fold in 2014, or will Cruz make the team dance a little when it comes to a new contract?

RB Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

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    One thing you will notice about the video included in this piece is Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden breaking away for a long touchdown run.

    That means McFadden was on the field. And that hasn’t always been the case for the former fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft.

    In five seasons with the Silver and Black, the former Arkansas star has missed 23 contests. And he’s yet to play any more than 13 games in any one season. For his career, McFadden has rushed for 3,334 yards and 18 scores and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. He’s also added five touchdown receptions in as many years.

    But time could be running out in Oakland. This offseason, general manager Reggie McKenzie released other former top-10 picks in safety Michael Huff, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and linebacker Rolando McClain.

    Healthy, McFadden is one of the best runners in the league. But there’s an awfully big asterisk attached to his career to date.

LB Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The release of outside linebacker James Harrison this offseason couldn’t have been a popular decision for his teammates with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    And that decision could be even more painful now that Harrison is a member of the Cincinnati Bengals.

    But that’s a different discussion for another time. The topic here is fourth-year outside linebacker Jason Worilds, Harrison’s full-time replacement. The former second-round pick has filled in as a starter when injuries have struck the defense. In three seasons, Worilds has totaled 10.0 sacks, five of those in 2012.

    But the Steelers made University of Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, the 17th overall selection in April. The team is looking to put the big play back on the defensive side of the ball. Mike Tomlin’s team has totaled only 35 takeaways the last two seasons combined, this after forcing 35 turnovers on the way to Super Bowl XLV.

    Is Worilds ready for the challenge? He will have to be as he attempts to fend off Jones.