9 NFL Players Poised for Massive Success in Contract Year

Ian WhartonContributor IJune 19, 2014

9 NFL Players Poised for Massive Success in Contract Year

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The 2014 NFL offseason is officially in the books, as mandatory minicamps are wrapping up this week. With training camp coming up in July, there is plenty of time to analyze roster storylines and positional battles, but once the season starts, the focus will be on the weekly games.

    Since we have some time, let’s talk about players who are entering their contract year and poised to have massive success before they get paid.

    With the NFL salary cap expected to jump to $140 million next year, young NFL stars will have an opportunity to sign contracts that will serve as the new benchmark for future stars to exceed.

    For this article, I only put two restrictions on the players chosen. The first is that players who signed a massive rookie contract under the old collective bargaining agreement aren’t eligible. This disqualified Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

    The second restriction is that only players who are hitting free agency for the first time were selected. This disqualified Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds and New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.

    The 2015 NFL free-agent class is deep, so if I didn’t mention anyone, please leave a comment and we can discuss it more in-depth.

Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Justin Houston enters 2014 as one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL.
    Justin Houston enters 2014 as one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The former third-round pick from the 2011 draft has been one of the best players from that class, tallying 21 sacks the past two seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs, despite missing five games. Not to mention, Justin Houston was one of the biggest contributors to a defense that allowed less than 20 points a game, good for fifth in the league.

    With pass-rushers being so important, Houston is going to score big time in free agency because he’s a tremendous athlete who has developed great technique. In games against some of the leagues top offensive tackles last year (Joe Thomas, Ryan Clady and Jordan Gross), Houston produced three sacks, five hurries and six solo tackles. He doesn’t shrink in marquee matchups.

    He’s one of the few proven pass-rushers who is in his prime years, so there is a chance he will be the top free agent in 2015. 

    Brandon Flowers being cut means #Chiefs serious about A. Smith and Houston's contracts according @bobfescoe http://t.co/tO0AkNLjEu #NFL

    — Paul Kaplan (@pkapproductions) June 13, 2014

    Kansas City has taken steps to open the salary-cap room to retain Houston, but another monstrous season could lead to a Mario Williams-type $100 million contract from the right suitor. In the meantime, we’ll all be able to enjoy his 2014 demolition of offensive lines.

Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys

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    Although polarizing, no one can deny Dez Bryant is a tremendous receiver on the field.
    Although polarizing, no one can deny Dez Bryant is a tremendous receiver on the field.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The 26-year old Dallas Cowboys receiver is looking to produce his third consecutive 1,200-plus-yard season in 2014, and if he does, he will cash in big time a year from now.

    Dez Bryant has a history of on-field tantrums that some see as immaturity, but physically he is the definition of a grown man. At 6’2” and 225, Bryant is able to outmuscle any cornerback in the NFL and has developed into a solid route-runner in his first four seasons.

    With the Cowboys selecting another offensive lineman in the first round in 2014, quarterback Tony Romo should only get more protection to find Bryant throughout the season and expect Bryant to take advantage of that. The young star wants to stay with Dallas for the long term, and he knows his play will take care of his contract, per David Moore of The Dallas Morning News:

    Bryant was asked Wednesday if he hopes to have an extension before the start of the season.

    “That’s going to take care of itself,’’ Bryant said. “I’m very confident in the work I put in. Whatever happens, happens.

    “All I know is I’m going to continue to keep doing my job. That alone shows my dedication and love I have for the game. I’m going to let it work out.’’

    A young and elite player at a premium position in the NFL, Bryant should only continue to produce monster seasons, and 2014 might be his best yet.

Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants

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    Now that he's healthy, JPP is looking to re-establish himself as an elite defender.
    Now that he's healthy, JPP is looking to re-establish himself as an elite defender.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    The New York Giants star pass-rusher was limited to action in 11 games, starting only six times in 2013, and without the presence of the former All-Pro, the Giants defense ranked 25th in total-team defense.

    Due to Jason Pierre-Paul’s injury issues, the Giants were unable to replicate the formula that has helped them win two Super Bowls in the last seven seasons, which included a deep, versatile defensive line that tallied 48 sacks in 2011.

    The Giants' 2013 sack total was a mere 34 sacks, so losing JPP for stretches of the season clearly hurt.

    The good news for JPP and Giants fans is that he has had the entire offseason to recover from back surgery. Pierre-Paul had this to say about his recovery time from the surgery (h/t Dan Graziano of ESPN.com):

    "It really is going to take that whole offseason to get back to the old JPP," Pierre-Paul said Thursday after Giants practice. "But he's not gone."

    A few weeks ago, Pierre-Paul said he’s “ready to go,” although he still feels a “little something” in his shoulder and back, per Paul Schwartz of the New York Post (h/t Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk). That didn’t stop him from sounding confident about his health and performance entering 2014. 

    Jason Pierre-Paul: I'm ready to go http://t.co/TENraQtOl7

    — ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) May 30, 2014

    Entering a contract season, players tend to stay healthy and perform with career-high totals. Although Pierre-Paul might not match his 16.5 sacks from 2011, expect him to look much more explosive this coming season. Considering he will be 26 at this time next year and his level of athleticism and production, expect JPP to get a huge payday next year in free agency.

Torrey Smith, WR, Baltimore Ravens

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    Torrey Smith is ready to prove he's not just a deep threat for the Ravens.
    Torrey Smith is ready to prove he's not just a deep threat for the Ravens.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    When the Baltimore Ravens rolled the dice with the 58th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, they hoped the 6’1”, 205-pound Torrey Smith would one day blossom into a starting receiver. Luckily for quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens, Smith has been a starter since his first season, and in 2013, he became a legitimate No. 1 option, racking up 1,128 yards on just 65 receptions.

    How did the Ravens invest in their prized possession already? By hiring former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, who had tremendous success with Andre Johnson in his offensive scheme. 

    Torrey Smith is 25 years old, playing the Andre Johnson spot for new OC Kubiak & is in a contract year. Trending up: http://t.co/E4DhgOc1Oj

    — Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) June 16, 2014

    Some call Smith a “one-trick pony” because of his tremendous speed and knack for home run plays, but he’s improved his route running throughout his career, showing dedication to the craft.

    Those same people forget that Smith was considered an athlete-playing-receiver out of Maryland because of his issues with drops and a limited route tree. Entering his fourth season, Smith is close to entering the upper tier of receivers.

    The last time a receiver with Smith’s big-play ability hit the free-agent market, Mike Wallace scored big with the Miami Dolphins. He might not get that much, but after another productive season where Smith improves, he’s going to be rewarded handsomely.

Jabaal Sheard, OLB, Cleveland Browns

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    Don't sleep on Sheard; he might be the best edge defender you haven't heard of.
    Don't sleep on Sheard; he might be the best edge defender you haven't heard of.Jason Miller/Getty Images

    The fourth-year edge player has seen his role change as much as the head coaches in Cleveland have changed, but he’s excelled all over the field. Despite rumors a year ago that Jabaal Sheard could be traded after the team selected Barkevious Mingo in the first round, Sheard has proven to be one of the best defensive players whom most haven’t heard of.

    At 6’2” and 254 pounds, Sheard has had great success as a weak-side defensive end in a 4-3 base scheme but also as a strong-side rush linebacker in a 3-4. With his athleticism and ability to drop back in coverage, Sheard allowed the Browns defense to reach new heights in 2013. 

    #Browns OLB Jabaal Sheard eager to play part of Pro Bowler Mario Williams in coach Mike Pettine’s scheme: http://t.co/WU69feWPKf

    — Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) June 11, 2014

    Cornerback Joe Haden gets a lot of publicity for his abilities, but from my film work on the Browns, Sheard was the best defensive player for the team in 2013. New head coach Mike Pettine will undoubtedly get great results from Sheard as he terrorizes offenses all over the field.

    As free agency approaches, the Browns have talked extension with Sheard, but someone will certainly pay the man next year if the Browns cannot reach an agreement with him.

Jurrell Casey, DT, Tennessee Titans

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    Casey is looking to improve upon a dominant 2013 campaign.
    Casey is looking to improve upon a dominant 2013 campaign.Michael Thomas/Getty Images

    The former third-round pick from Southern California put all of his physical gifts to use last season for the Tennessee Titans, as he racked up 10.5 sacks and was arguably the best defensive tackle in the NFL.

    Dontari Poe or Jurrell Casey? (Hint: There is no wrong answer)

    — Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 24, 2014

    At 6’1” and 305 pounds, Jurrell Casey has tremendous speed off the snap and disrupts opposing offenses routinely. The most impressive aspect of Casey is his awareness, though. Some defensive linemen just try to defeat the man lined up over him and don’t bother to locate the ball, but Casey penetrates the line and keeps his eyes on the ball. This ability is what sets apart average tackles and the top-tier guys. 

    He was a force in 2013. RT @jwyattsports: #Titans DT Jurrell Casey motivated heading into offseason http://t.co/YOBnsfUbOc

    — SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) January 2, 2014

    Casey will be cast as a one-gap tackle in the Titans' new 3-4 scheme under Ray Horton, but like Desmond Bryant in Cleveland, Casey will be able to focus on disruption instead of just eating blockers like a traditional tackle in a 3-4 does.

Julius Thomas, TE, Denver Broncos

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    Thomas caught everyone off guard in 2013, but he's looking to make more noise in 2014.
    Thomas caught everyone off guard in 2013, but he's looking to make more noise in 2014.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    I could’ve easily selected fellow Denver Bronco and Julius Thomas’ teammate, Demaryius Thomas, but he’s too easy of a selection for this list after his track record.

    Julius broke out in 2013 after a few injury-riddled seasons, and he did so in a big way, earning a Pro Bowl selection and racking up 12 touchdowns and 788 yards in his first season on the field. That's not bad for a guy who is a converted college basketball player who only played one season of college football.

    Julius Thomas is motivated to improve after 2013, especially practicing against DeMarcus Ware: http://t.co/rss8q6upLi pic.twitter.com/XZ2w1oTnf0

    — Denver Broncos (@Broncos) June 6, 2014

    As for his comfort level with football, here is what Thomas had to say about his progression in a recent conversation when asked about it, per NFL.com’s Judy Battista:

    Would it be fair for me to say, "Maybe a couple of weeks ago?" Seriously. Last year, I was able to do a lot of good things. I kind of survived on self-confidence and athleticism.

    In one game, the defense did something, and Peyton was like, "Julius, did you see that?" And I said, "Peyton, they got me; I had no clue what they were doing." There are still situations I haven't been in before, and I'm still learning what to do."

    Improvement seems inevitable for the budding star, as he learns the position intricacies and continues to earn the trust of quarterback Peyton Manning. With his ability to separate from linebackers and go over defensive backs with his impressive 6’5” frame, Thomas is one of the best athletes in the league.

    If he can stay healthy, Thomas has a chance to be one of the top producing tight ends in the NFL, and that means he’ll be paid accordingly very soon.

Jared Odrick, DT, Miami Dolphins

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    Odrick was quietly one of the most productive defensive tackles in 2014, despite playing there full time for the first time.
    Odrick was quietly one of the most productive defensive tackles in 2014, despite playing there full time for the first time.Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    The Miami Dolphins moved Jared Odrick from defensive end to defensive tackle full time last season, in hopes of creating more pass rush from their front four, and the experiment was a smashing success. Alongside tackle Randy Starks, Odrick was ranked Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 13th-best defensive tackle in the NFL. 

    Jared Odrick has been a solid starter at two positions - DE and DT - for the Dolphins, and might be a top 10 player for this team.

    — Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) May 6, 2014

    Odrick brought consistency for 14 games in 2013, being graded below-average in only two weeks, then he struggled to close out the season strong. That shouldn’t be held against Odrick, however, as he logged the most snaps at the position for the Dolphins, with 874. His production was solid, with 34 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 28 hurries.

    That being said, with the Dolphins signing free agent Earl Mitchell and re-signing Starks this past offseason, Odrick might be the odd man out a year from now. But Odrick is the most well-rounded of the three and has produced at every position he’s played at. Expect a better year for Odrick, as he is fully prepared for his role this season.

Nick Fairley, DT, Detroit Lions

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    Fairley is already showing a better work ethic to become a more consistent player for the Lions.
    Fairley is already showing a better work ethic to become a more consistent player for the Lions.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The fourth-year defensive tackle has been inconsistent in his time in Detroit, but Nick Fairley has also flashed the ability to be a dominant player along the Lions front four. To help give incentive to give better effort in 2014, the Lions declined the fifth-year option in his contract, which means Fairley will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

    The raw statistics that Fairley has accumulated in 39 games with the Lions aren’t worthy of a new groundbreaking contract, but if he increases his activity level and quarterback pressures, teams will line up for a disruptive 3-technique who is entering his prime. In only 22 starts, Fairley has 12.5 sacks and 51 hurries.

    According to Nate Williams of Detroit Jock City, Fairley is highly motivated to perform:

    With Lions general manager Martin Meyhew’s intentions clear, Fairley rededicated himself in the offseason, staying on a workout plan that allowed him to drop his weight to 295, or 27 pounds lighter than where he finished last season.

    Fairley hit the football field Saturday as he took on Detroit area youth during the Third Annual Nick Fairley Kickball Tournament in Clark Park. If Lions executives and coaches haven’t noticed Fairley’s slimmer figure yet, they will at Monday’s organized team activity at the Lions practice facility in Allen Park.

    “I’d say I’m back to my Auburn ways, I feel like back when I was at that national championship, and you know how that year went so looking to repeat it.”

    So far, it seems the message has been delivered loud and clear to Fairley. With the motivation of a new contract, expect a career year out of the former Auburn Tiger.

     

    All contract information was provided by Spotrac. All statistics provided by Sports-Reference.com.

     

    You can interact and follow Ian on Twitter @NFLFilmStudy.