For NFL players from the 2012 draft class, this season is extremely important. It's the third year of their career, which is when many first-round picks enjoy their breakout season and establish themselves as one of the best at their position in the league.
More importantly, after the season, players can cash in on their previous success. I'm talking a multiyear deal in free agency worth potentially nine figures. That's not an exaggeration for some of the players in the 2012 draft class, a class that already features four Pro Bowl quarterbacks.
The following 10 players are expected to earn the biggest deals when they enter free agency, although likely they will sign their contract extension after the 2014 season (to avoid entering the 2015 season without an extension).
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck is going to earn the biggest contract from the 2012 draft class. There's no question about it. You could debate between Luck and Russell Wilson as the best quarterback from the draft class (and I'll take Luck every time), but it's pretty obvious that Luck is more important to the Indianapolis Colts than Wilson is to the Seattle Seahawks.
While Wilson has a tremendous running game and the best defense in the National Football League supporting him, Luck is surrounded by a significantly below-average roster. He's as important to his team as any player in the game.
I expect a monster season for the former No. 1 overall pick in 2014. Luck will be just 25 years old after the season, and if he continues to progress as expected, he'll be the clear-cut fifth-best quarterback in the game (behind Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady).
I will predict a monumental contract extension for Luck in the area of six years, $140 million with $70 million guaranteed. That's what it takes to pay a franchise player, a once-in-a-lifetime young talent such as Luck. This isn't Matthew Stafford or Tony Romo or Jay Cutler, a good but not great quarterback, earning a contract extension.
This is a quarterback who could legitimately compete for both a Super Bowl title and an MVP award for the next 10 seasons. He's going to be a special, special quarterback. The next Peyton Manning? I wouldn't be surprised at all.
2. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins
The real RGIII likely isn't as good as the Offensive Rookie of the Year we saw in 2012. But he's definitely better than the player we saw hobbling around at the beginning of the 2013 season.
Obviously, his performance in 2014 will have a drastic impact on his next contract. But I trust that rookie head coach Jay Gruden will work wonders in reviving RGIII's career.
RGIII isn't as talented a quarterback as Russell Wilson, but I expect him to earn more because, quite simply, the Redskins are exactly the type of team that would overpay. I expect RGIII to earn a contract extension of five years and $100 million with $40 million guaranteed. For a running quarterback who will likely struggle to stay healthy, that's one risky contract.
3. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
What could Russell Wilson possibly do for an encore in 2014? He played at a Rookie of the Year level in 2012. He duplicated his regular-season success in 2013 before leading the Seahawks to the franchise's first Super Bowl title.
All Wilson needs to do to earn a massive contract extension is play anywhere close to the level he played at in 2012 and 2013. Of course, I think he will. I also think he'll take less money in his overall contract, but more guaranteed, to help give the Seahawks a hometown discount. After all, this is a team that also has to pay Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor after shelling out a massive deal for Richard Sherman.
I'll predict Wilson earns a five-year deal worth $75 million with $45 million guaranteed. That would pay him $25 million less than RGIII in terms of overall contract. But the $45 million in guaranteed money is more than RGIII earns.
4. Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
It's safe to say that Nick Foles' performance in 2013 showed that Chip Kelly really doesn't need a running quarterback in his offense. If you weren't convinced by Foles' 27-touchdown, two-interception output, Kelly's decision to pass on former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in the draft speaks wonders to his faith in the 25-year-old Foles.
Since he's never played a full season, Foles' 2014 season is obviously monumental in determining his next contract. If he comes anywhere close to his 2013 performance, he'll be one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league at this time a year from now. But if he struggles, the Eagles may let him play out his contract before extending him.
Based on his ridiculous 2013 season and Kelly's genius as an offensive mind, expect Foles to play almost as well in 2014.
That should be enough to earn him a team-friendly five-year deal worth $63 million, including $40 million guaranteed.
5. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Luke Kuechly is the next Ray Lewis. Or Brian Urlacher. Or Derrick Brooks. He's the best linebacker in the NFL, and he's only going to get better.
Kuechly earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 before winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013. He's the best player on one of the best defenses in the National Football League, and at this time next offseason, he's going to get one of the biggest contracts by a defensive player in league history.
I'll look for Kuechly to earn a five-year deal worth $70 million, including $50 million guaranteed. That may be team-friendly on the overall contract value, as the Panthers have Cam Newton and Star Lotulelei to extend in the next few years too. But $50 million guaranteed, more than either RGIII or Russell Wilson, shows just how valuable Kuechly is to the Panthers.
6. Matt Kalil, OT, Minnesota Vikings
The pressure is on for Matt Kalil this season. A top-five pick in the 2012 draft, Kalil enjoyed a tremendous rookie season, one that easily could have earned him Offensive Rookie of the Year honors if it wasn't for the dominance of rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck, RGIII and Russell Wilson (and running backs Alfred Morris and Doug Martin).
But Kalil regressed in 2013, meaning his next season will go a long way in determining his next contract. I have complete faith that Kalil will return to elite form in 2014, likely establishing himself as one of the top six or seven tackles in the game. That should earn Kalil a contract extension of six years and about $55 million, including $30 million guaranteed.
7. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
After barely seeing the field during his rookie season, Alshon Jeffery exploded onto the scene as one of the league's best receivers in 2013. In fact, his young age (just 24) and high ceiling make him the top receiver I would select if I were starting a team from scratch.
He's playing with a talented quarterback, another dominant receiver and a brilliant offensive-minded head coach. There's no question that Jeffery is only going to get better.
After the 2014 season, look for Jeffery to earn a contract extension of about six years and $55 million, including $25 million guaranteed.
8. Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
You'd have no problem convincing me that Lavonte David is the most underrated player in the National Football League. He's probably the second- or third-best linebacker in the game, and he's only played two seasons.
In 2013, David collected six sacks, five interceptions, nine passes defensed and 145 total tackles. Quite simply, he's all over the field, making plays. New head coach Lovie Smith should only help David's progression.
David won't quite earn a contract extension as big as Kuechly, but he should earn a deal around five years and $50 million with $25 million guaranteed.
9. Dontari Poe, DT, Kansas City Chiefs
Although Poe had a disappointing rookie season after the Chiefs selected him in the first round, he exploded onto the scene in 2013 as one of the best players on one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Surrounded by great talent, Poe could challenge Gerald McCoy and Geno Atkins for the title of best defensive tackle in the league in 2014. He's a lock to earn a contract extension after his third year, likely a five-year deal worth $45 million with $22 million guaranteed.
10. Stephon Gilmore, CB, Buffalo Bills
Stephon Gilmore had a solid yet unspectacular rookie season, but he really emerged as a shutdown corner during 2013. The former first-round pick surrendered just one touchdown all season, holding opponents to a 72.1 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Gilmore is one of the few bright spots on a Bills team that will likely finish with its 10th straight losing record in 2014. He'll be extended after the 2014 season. It won't be in Richard Sherman's or Patrick Peterson's range, but expect Gilmore to receive a five-year deal worth $40 million, including $22 million guaranteed.