Previewing the Trickiest Upcoming Contract Negotiations in the NFL

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistJune 25, 2014

Previewing the Trickiest Upcoming Contract Negotiations in the NFL

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    We are headed into the 2014 preseason, but it's never too early to begin looking ahead. 

    As always, there are plenty of free-agents-to-be next season. Some will re-sign, while others will sign with new teams after wading through a pool of suitors.

    Negotiating some of those contracts might prove tricky, though. Injury history, age, off-field concerns or inconsistent play could be an obstacle to finding proper value for some players. 

    Here are six contracts that will be the trickiest to negotiate in 2015, barring retirement of course.

DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Running back DeMarco Murray has been great for the Dallas Cowboys when he has been on the field. The problem is that he has missed a significant amount of time in his three-year career, averaging just over 12 games per season.

    Murray is a great all-around back, and last season may have been a preview of great things to come for the 26-year-old. He had 1,471 total yards and 10 combined touchdowns in 14 games last season, a season in which he averaged 5.2 yards per carry and caught 53 passes.

    Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated him the eighth-best running back in the league last season, and he got there by rating positively in all aspects of his game. He was also among the league leaders in yards after contact per carry.

    Was 2013 a harbinger or an aberration? We will certainly find out in 2014. Unfortunately, it may not matter.

    The running back position has taken quite a tumble in value, as we saw this past offseason, when the best running back in free agency—Ben Tate—got a measly two-year, $6.2 million deal. Things can change dramatically from one year to the next, but Murray may be headed for a hostile market.

    It won't help if he misses more time this season, adding to his reputation as a bit of a fragile back.

Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    How much do you pay an elite, 26-year-old pass-rusher? Now how much do you subtract for lackluster seasons due to injury?

    Jason Pierre-Paul had a superb sophomore season in the NFL, registering 16.5 sacks and rating as one of the top defensive ends in the league over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) in 2011.

    Unfortunately, he has only been able to start 21 games in the two years since then, thanks to a debilitating back injury and a shoulder injury. He has had just 8.5 sacks in that span, and his play has been negatively impacted because of those injuries, from which he is still recovering. 

    Pierre-Paul says he will be ready for this season, and he is aiming to silence his critics, per's Tom Rock.

    The talented defensive end needs to prove he is all the way back first. If he gets back to double-digit sacks while playing good all-around football, the New York Giants will have quite the dilemma. Do they pay him the big bucks and take the injury risk? Or do they use the franchise tag and risk making the decision worse a year later?

Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Father Time catches up with the best of us.

    Reggie Wayne isn't getting any younger at 35, and he may have a difficult time finding suitors next offseason. 

    For starters, Wayne is coming off a torn ACL this season. Depending on his recovery, Wayne might get off to a slow start, the last thing he needs in a contract year.

    Age is the more important thing here, though. Wayne has been rather productive past 30, averaging 1,216 receiving yards at 12.8 yards per reception, to go along with six touchdowns per season, before he was lost to injury in 2013. He was right on that pace before the injury last season.

    If he is fully recovered and puts up another 1,000-yard season, it might be difficult for the Indianapolis Colts to let him walk. How much they would be willing to pay a 36-year-old receiver with some of the young talent they have on the roster would be interesting to see.

Julius Thomas, TE, Denver Broncos

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    How good is tight end Julius Thomas?

    The former basketball player broke out in 2013, after snatching the starting job away from injured Jacob Tamme, and he wound up with 65 receptions for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns, a fantasy football owner's dream.

    But how much of that was Peyton Manning's doing? After all, Manning had a season for the ages, shattering records once thought impossible to break. Thomas was a big part of that, but would Manning have done fine with Tamme or someone else at tight end?

    For his part, Thomas is a fine tight end. He possesses great athleticism, which makes him a tantalizing pass-catcher. The rest of his game could use some work—Thomas actually rated 24th at tight end over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) last season. That was worse than Tamme, who played far fewer snaps.

    The biggest reason for that was horrendous run blocking, which can improve with time. He will be just 26 next offseason, too.

    Still, finding the proper value for a tight end who can't block and might be benefiting from an elite tight end might prove difficult for Denver and teams in general next year.

Nick Fairley, DT, Detroit Lions

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions may have erred in judgment by not exercising the fifth-year option on defensive tackle Nick Fairley.

    Sure, Fairley hasn't quite lived up to that first-round status, joining embattled teammate and fellow defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in off-field shenanigans.

    Fairley was arrested for an alleged DUI and subsequent evasion of police back in 2012. That was his second arrest in as many months, having been booked for marijuana possession earlier in the year.

    He has done a fine job on the field, but his off-field problems may have caused the Detroit Lions to pass on the fifth-year option to his rookie deal.

    The big defensive tackle took umbrage to having the option year declined, per's Kyle Meinke, slimming down this offseason to play at a better weight and prove his worth. Motivation is sometimes a dangerous thing.

    So what do the Lions do if Fairley plays lights out football this season? They declined the fifth-year option for a reason, and there is always a real possibility a player will regress to his past habits after signing a big deal.

Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Like Reggie Wayne, Frank Gore might be in for a rough free-agent period next offseason because of the ageism inherent in the NFL.

    Gore is 31, and he has 2,518 career touches heading into the 2014 season not including preseason and postseason action. The San Francisco 49ers have clearly been trying to find his heir apparent, as evidenced by the numerous draft picks they have used on running backs in the past several NFL drafts.

    The veteran back has a Hall of Fame argument, and he was still productive in 2013. If the 49ers choose to manage his playing time to maximize his effectiveness, Gore could be in for yet another good season.

    So where would that leave him in free agency? Gore has only known one team in the NFL, but the 49ers may not have the room for him once he is a free agent.