8 NFL Stars Playing for a New Contract in 2014
NFL free agency rarely provides excellent value, as teams are often willing to overpay for veterans with proven track records. The head of each class typically consists of upper-middle-class quality players receiving top-tier contracts. Therefore, the spring hype surrounding each big-money acquisition often far outstrips the fall contributions seen from that player.
However, a preliminary look at the 2015 NFL free-agent class suggests that teams might actually be justified in shelling out huge dollars next year. Some, like USA Today's Nate Davis, are already pointing out the plethora of elite young talent set to hit the market next spring—a few of whom could establish new contract parameters for their position.
In compiling a list of players who are the likeliest to receive the biggest contracts after 2014, a few caveats are in order. Most of the names in Davis' list won't hit the open market. So while opposing fans can dream of stealing Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas away from Seattle, the Seahawks are almost certainly going to lock up those foundational stars for the foreseeable future.
Additionally, the 2011 CBA implanted an automatic fifth-year team option in the contract of all 2011 first-rounders. Players like J.J. Watt and A.J. Green, for example, won't be on this list because they are technically under contract in 2015, even though they are likely to receive extensions before then. Likewise, 2011 rookies who are likely to have their options exercised soon, like Cam Newton and Julio Jones, will be left off this list.
Even after removing all those impressive names, the list of potential free agents in 2015 is stunning. When looking at the names who could realistically hit the open market next year, the free-agency hype might finally be justified.
8. Alex Smith, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
The lingering stench of former top overall pick Alex Smith's early-career failures seems to color the public perception surrounding the Kansas City quarterback. While drafting Smith over Aaron Rodgers in 2005 was clearly a mistake, the reality is that Smith has been a well-above-average quarterback over the last three seasons.
Since 2011, Smith has led his teams to a combined 30-9-1 regular-season record with 53 touchdowns against just 17 interceptions and a 62.7 percent completion rate. Adjusted net yards per attempt—a stat which resembles the traditional yards per attempt but places emphasis on interceptions—places Smith as the 16th-best quarterback over the last three years.
That seems like a fitting place for Smith, whose risk-averse tendencies generally prevent him from being a top-notch quarterback capable of taking over games. Nevertheless, for a West Coast offense like the one featured by the Chiefs, he is a solid fit as a cog within the machine, though he is not an overwhelming game-changer.
When fans think of "game managers," Smith is often the first quarterback that pops to mind. But as Smith's win-loss record indicates, that semi-derisive term does not necessarily preclude success.
Smith will be 30 after next season, and he will be approaching his age-31 season going into 2015. Still, truly competent quarterbacks are hard to find in free agency, so Smith should receive a fairly handsome payday.
7. Cliff Avril, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Despite a combined 20.5 sacks in his final two seasons as a Lion, Cliff Avril encountered a surprisingly quiet free-agent process in 2013. After turning down a three-year, $30 million offer from Detroit, Avril was a victim of the salary-cap plateau and had to settle for a much more modest two-year, $13 million contract in Seattle.
Avril's loss was the Seahawks' gain in 2013. Playing a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role, Avril accrued eight sacks in 15 regular season games. The advanced stats portray an even more impressive picture—with 46 pressures in just 339 pass-rushing snaps, Avril had the fifth-best pass-rushing productivity among 4-3 defensive ends.
Entering the final year of his deal, Avril represents one of the more underrated bargains in the league. He's not really a linebacker, in spite of what his role last year indicated, as he dropped back into coverage just 32 times. And yet, 4-3 edge-rushers are a valuable commodity, so Avril is an important piece in any defense, regardless.
During Super Bowl week, Avril said he "would love to" sign an extension in Seattle, per Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith. However, with massive extensions due for Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, the Seahawks might not have the resources to keep Avril. Indeed, by signing Michael Bennett this offseason, Seattle may have already committed its allotted long-term cap space to the defensive end position.
If Avril hits the open market again, however, he should have a significantly easier time finding employment the second time around.
6. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
Following a 16.5-sack campaign in 2011, Jason Pierre-Paul looked like one of the best young players in the game. However, Pierre-Paul's path toward becoming a transformational defensive presence has taken a detour, with just 8.5 sacks over the past two seasons.
Pierre-Paul seemingly hit rock bottom in 2013, as a debilitating back injury limited the Giants phenom to two measly sacks in 11 games. Pierre-Paul ranked as the fifth-worst 4-3 pass-rushing defensive end, as his minus-6.0 pass-rushing grade reflected his stunning fall.
Nonetheless, that does not mean the 25-year-old is a hopeless cause. Pierre-Paul will be 15 months removed from back surgery by the time the season begins, and according to Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News, the defensive end claimed he was at "95 percent" early this offseason.
ESPN.com's Dan Graziano speculated that New York would go the Hakeem Nicks route in handling Pierre-Paul, choosing to see if the formerly promising first-rounder can bounce back before committing to him long term. Nicks followed up a poor 2012 with a disastrous 2013, and the Giants are now free of a potential salary-cap albatross as a result.
Of course, that strategy could backfire if Pierre-Paul regains his elite pass-rushing form. If Pierre-Paul is truly healthy once again, his freakish athleticism should place him back on the path to stardom and allow him to cash in a year from now.
5. Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers
By all accounts, Randall Cobb looks like a blossoming No. 1 receiver. After a 954-yard, eight-touchdown campaign in 2012, Cobb was on pace to shatter those marks last season before he fractured his fibula in October. Even in just six games in 2013, Cobb compiled 433 yards, four touchdowns and an impressive 14.0 yards per catch.
In 2012, Cobb's plus-14.2 overall grade made him the 11th-highest rated receiver in the game, placing him in the same neighborhood as the likes of Brandon Marshall and Wes Welker. That season, Cobb caught 63 out of 81 targets from the slot, a rate that gave him the second-best slot-catch percentage in the game.
And yet, even with that immensely promising season, it appears unlikely that Cobb will receive long-term security this offseason. NFL.com's Dan Hanzus reported before free agency began that Cobb's agent has yet to engage in any extension talks with Green Bay, and there have been no updates since.
Interestingly, fellow receiver Jordy Nelson is also slated for free agency in 2015. Unlike Cobb, however, the Packers are making Nelson's extension an important priority, per NFL Media's Ian Rapoport. Though Nelson looks like a superior receiver at this point, it's a bit surprising that the Packers have not at least opened discussions with Cobb.
Given the similarities in their respective games, Cobb could receive at least a Victor Cruz-type five-year, $43 million contract if he stays healthy in 2014, with the potential for more due the escalating cap. Aaron Rodgers' supporting cast has thinned out a bit in recent years, but it's unclear if Green Bay would swallow hard and stomach two big receiver deals on their cap.
4. Brian Orakpo, OLB, Washington
At the moment, Brian Orakpo faces a situation quite similar to the one described with Cliff Avril. Like Avril, Orakpo has been franchised after a stellar 10-sack season, leaving his long-term Washington future in doubt.
Apart from a torn pectoral that limited him to two games in 2012, Orakpo has been one of the league's premier 3-4 edge-rushers over the past five seasons. Last year, the former first-rounder compiled 51 pressures in just 363 pass-rushing snaps, ranking sixth in pass-rushing productivity among 3-4 outside linebackers.
However, Orakpo is no one-trick pony, which is where his value truly lies. At his position, Orakpo also ranked ninth in run-stop percentage and 12th in coverage snaps per reception, highlighting his all-around excellence. There are only a tiny handful of players in the league who are capable of penetrating the backfield, setting the edge and dropping into coverage as effectively as Orakpo, making him an extremely valuable commodity.
According to CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir, Orakpo is hoping to sign an extension in D.C. before the July 15 deadline. However, Washington is just now crawling out from under the damage inflicted by the league-imposed salary-cap penalties. If Robert Griffin III bounces back and Alfred Morris continues his climb to the top of the NFL running-back hierarchy, Washington's budget may not be able to hold Orakpo.
3. Brandon Marshall, WR, Chicago Bears
The track record of wide receivers over 30 isn't promising. Of the 211 1,000-yard receiving seasons over the past decade, just 51 have come from those aged 31 or older—and 31 will be Brandon Marshall's age when he heads into free agency next year.
And yet, given Marshall's recent production, a long-term contract does not look unjustified at the moment. Over his past two years in Chicago, Marshall has compiled 218 receptions, 2,803 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns. Those numbers rank second, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the league over that span.
Moreover, Marshall's versatility is a valuable trait that could allow him to age well and cash in accordingly. Because of his 6'4" frame and high touchdown totals, many might conceive of Marshall as purely an outside-the-numbers vertical threat. While that is certainly part of his game, Marshall also ran 43.8 percent of his routes from the slot in 2013 and compiled 39 catches for 566 yards and five touchdowns.
According to ESPN Chicago, Marshall has explicitly stated his desire to remain a Bear beyond 2014. Marshall has tremendous chemistry with Jay Cutler, but while such a sentiment makes sense, fellow receiver Alshon Jeffery also looks poised for a huge contract.
This is where Marshall's age may work against him, as Cutler's big contract and Chicago's numerous defensive holes might prevent them from making two big financial commitments at receiver. Still, if the Bears cannot shell out the money for Marshall, some other team surely will.
2. Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers
Amid the ruins of the Panthers' free-agency mess this offseason, Carolina was at least able to salvage budding superstar Greg Hardy from the salary-cap rubble. The Panthers franchised the defensive end before the start of free agency, retaining their most important piece of the offseason.
If Hardy sustains his 2013 form, though, Carolina is merely kicking the can down the road. The 25-year-old ranked fourth among 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity in 2013, with 15 sacks, 24 quarterback hits and 44 hurries in 536 pass-rushing snaps.
Indeed, the former sixth-rounder has proven himself to be a franchise-changing steal since anonymously breaking into the league in 2010. Hardy's 24.0 sacks since 2012 rank fifth in the league, behind only J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Aldon Smith and Robert Mathis. National perception is just starting to give Hardy his due as one of the league's truly dominant edge-rushers.
Per Fox Sports' Alex Marvez, Panthers general manager David Gettleman thinks the chances of striking a long-term deal with Hardy are much better than they appeared at the end of the season. The big projected increases in the cap certainly help a cap-strapped Carolina franchise.
However, the Panthers still have to factor in a big extension for Cam Newton as well. Irresponsible contracts from the Marty Hurney era continue to haunt the organization (DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, etc.). Considering that Hardy will likely be looking to exceed teammate Charles Johnson's six-year, $76 million deal, it's not a slam dunk that he stays a Panther.
1. Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots
OK, so Darrelle Revis is technically under contract for 2015. But with a staggering $25 million scheduled cap hit, the Patriots have essentially constructed a sham two-year deal that will void after next season.
The perception that Revis has declined is likely a byproduct of his anonymous 2013 campaign on a dysfunctional Tampa Bay squad. In reality, Revis was Pro Football Focus' top-rated corner last season, with an overall grade of plus-18.2. Moreover, Revis conceded a reception just once every 16.4 coverage snaps, second only to Richard Sherman.
Now another year removed from a torn ACL and back in a press-man coverage scheme, Revis appears poised to recapture his Sandersian form in 2014. Since trading for Aqib Talib midway through the 2012 season, New England has adopted Seattle's modified Cover 3 scheme, with a rangy free safety in Devin McCourty and physical man-to-man coverage from the outside corners.
With Talib defecting to AFC rival Denver, Revis is one of the few corners who actually represents an upgrade in the Pats' scheme. So long as he remains healthy, Revis has a legitimate opportunity to reclaim his status as the game's premier shutdown corner.
Beyond 2014, it seems likely a team other than the Patriots will reap the benefits. New England's focus on middle-class value makes them an unlikely candidate to hand Revis a long-term contract similar to the six-year, $96 million pact the Bucs gave him last year. Likewise, Revis' business-first mentality means he will likely attempt to maximize his next deal, meaning his stay in Foxboro could be short-lived.
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