Who Has the Leverage in Every Big Contract Dispute This Offseason?

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistJune 28, 2013

Who Has the Leverage in Every Big Contract Dispute This Offseason?

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    NFL contracts are all about leverage.

    Just look at Joe Flacco. A year ago, would you have guessed he would be the second-highest-paid player in the NFL? He happened to catch fire like the Human Torch during the playoffs en route to a championship.

    Naturally, the leverage was all his this offseason, and the Ravens had little choice but to give him a massive contract or risk seeing their franchise quarterback walk.

    Who has the leverage in contract negotiations this offseason? There is no real danger of a holdout this season—Darrelle Revis did sign a new contract with the Buccaneers—but these are players who might be playing on one-year deals thanks to the franchise tag or expiring contracts.

Michael Johnson

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    Michael Johnson was a pleasant surprise for the Benglas last season, so much so that they gave him a nice slip with the words "franchise tag" on it.

    Now what?

    Cincinnati did have a bundle of money to spend this offseason, and they have a good chunk of it left thanks to a hefty rollover from last season. Defensive ends have not commanded massive contracts this offseason to boot.

    So, why not sign Johnson to a long-term deal? 

    The fact that Johnson doubled his career sack production in just one season could be a factor. It might be the evolution of his game, or it could simply be great production in a contract year. 

    At any rate, the depressed defensive end market means Johnson might not like what the Bengals have to offer. They have until July 15 to convince him to sign a long-term deal.

     

    Leverage: Neutral

Hakeem Nicks

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    Victor Cruz isn't the only receiver dealing with a contract situation with the Giants.

    Hakeem Nicks is in a contract year himself, creating a bit of a competition to see who will get paid big bucks in New York next season. 

    Of course, one of the two has health on his side—at least historically—and his name rhymes with bruise.

    Nicks has literally been on the injury report for half his career, constantly hampered by injuries since he came into the league. He is one of the more talented receivers in the league when healthy, but that is the rub.

     

    Leverage: Team

Sam Shields

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    One of the more underrated players in the league plays for the Packers, and he doesn't even play on that vaunted offense.

    Sam Shields has quietly become Green Bay's best cornerback, though Casey Hayward came on strong for that honor as a rookie.

    Undrafted out of Miami, Shields has parlayed his opportunity with the Packers into a restricted free agent tender he recently signed. That means the Packers have another year to sign him to a long-term deal, which could prove quite costly if Shields continues to play at a high level.

    Of course, the Packers rarely blink when it comes to overpaying players. Aaron Rodgers aside—it is easy to justify paying the best player in the league the most money—Ted Thompson has been known to let overpriced players go.

    Still, keeping a good, young cornerback will be key for a defense that has not exactly been good the past couple of seasons.

     

    Leverage: Player

Matt Ryan

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    Joe Flacco? Paid. Aaron Rodgers? Even more.

    Next up on the quarterback docket: Matt Ryan. When will the Falcons quarterback get his due?

    Should #Falcons Matt Ryan hold out of training camp, if a new contract extension is not reached the next 3-4 weeks?

    — buck belue (@buckbelue8) June 24, 2013

    Matt Ryan contract talks are expected to pick up after July 4 http://t.co/QONilRiVLQ

    — ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) June 18, 2013

    This one is pretty easy. Matt Ryan is vital to Atlanta's chances in the NFC South. He has led the Falcons to the playoffs in all but one of his seasons in the NFL, nearly reaching the Super Bowl last year before his defense collapsed. 

    He will get paid.

     

    Leverage: Player

Ryan Clady

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    Peyton Manning has a fantastic blindside protector. The Broncos have a decision to make on him next season.

    Denver slapped the franchise tag on Ryan Clady this season. That buys them a year, though they are looking to sign him to a long-term deal.

    Top quality left tackles are few and far between, and Peyton Manning isn't exactly Russell Wilson in that backfield. Clady knows how valuable he is to the team, which is why he has all the leverage.

     

    Leverage: Player

Geno Atkins

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    There is no better bargain in professional football than Geno Atkins. As Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated points out, he is woefully underpaid:

    Henry Melton, Randy Starks and Gerald McCoy combined for 15.5 sacks last season. They are set to make a total of $24,921,250 in base salaries this coming season, with Melton and Starks currently signed on franchise-tag tenders of $8.45 million.

    Geno Atkins had 12.5 sacks on his own last year, the most of any defensive tackle in football. He will earn $1.423 million.

    Indeed, that is just over $100,000 per sack. At defensive tackle.

    The most dominant defensive lineman in the league—save, perhaps, J.J. Watt—is in a contract year. The Bengals will have the franchise tag up their sleeve for next season, but that can only contain Atkins for so long.

     

    Leverage: Player

Branden Albert

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    The Chiefs find themselves in an interesting situation with Branden Albert.

    On the one hand, they retained a good left tackle with the franchise tag this offseason. On the other, they were reportedly trying to trade him before drafting Eric Fisher, who is also a left tackle.

    Barring an unlikely trade, Fisher will be manning the right tackle position while Albert continues to toil on the left. But will that be the long-term situation?

    Albert is a fine left tackle, but his price tag might be too high for a long-term deal. WIth Fisher in town, the Chiefs can afford to be stingy with the contract offers.

     

    Leverage: Team

Victor Cruz

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    The salsa king of the New York Giants has had the most visible contract dispute of the offseason.

    Until recently, Victor Cruz was the last player standing in terms of unsigned free-agent tenders. This makes perfect sense considering what happened to Steve Smith, who was lowballed after breaking the New York reception record and ultimately underwent microfracture surgery that ruined his career.

    The ghosts of recent history understandably spooked Cruz, who wants to sign a long-term deal while avoiding the risk that comes with playing without one.

    Given New York's past approaches, it seems that Cruz is destined for another contract battle next year if he cannot come to terms with the team on a multiyear deal. 

    If he has another drop-filled season like he did in 2012, he might not get what he wants.

     

    Leverage: Team

Anthony Spencer

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    The Cowboys like Anthony Spencer so much that they placed the franchise tag on him for a second consecutive season.

    That means they will be paying a 3-4 outside linebacker 120 percent of his 2012 salary to play defensive end in a new 4-3 scheme. 

    Spencer should be up to the task after breaking out last season, but who knows if he will fit. Perhaps he will thrive, which would mean he might command a salary too big for even Jerry Jones to handle.

     

    Leverage: Player

Henry Melton

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    Geno Atkins is far and away the best defensive tackle in the league, but Henry Melton is no slouch.

    At the very least, Melton is the second-best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the league, save Ndamukong Suh when he's not kicking opponents in the crotch or speeding in his Chrysler.

    The Bears recognize this, which is why they placed the franchise tag on him this offseason. They have talked with Melton about a long-term deal, but talks have been slower than Tim Duncan on a fast break.

    Melton is an important cog in that defensive line; defensive tackles like him don't come around too often. The Bears would be wise to wrap him up before the season.

     

    Leverage: Player