Contract-Year NFL Players with the Most to Gain or Lose in 2017

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 13, 2017

Contract-Year NFL Players with the Most to Gain or Lose in 2017

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    A lot of NFL players—A.J. Bouye, Tony Jefferson, Kenny Britt and T.J. Lang, to name a few—made big money with strong campaigns to close out contracts in 2016. More will surely do the same in 2017, while others will struggle and lose money on the open market. 

    Excluding players who are likely to cash in regardless—Matthew Stafford, Le'Veon Bell and Kam Chancellor, for example—here's a look at a dozen notable players who can either hit the jackpot or cost themselves big bucks as their contracts expire this season. 

    That is, of course, unless they sign extensions before then. 

Kirk Cousins

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    If Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins plays under the franchise tag in 2017, his $23.9 million base salary will easily be the highest in football. But because it would cost about $35 million to tag him again in 2018, the 28-year-old is in line to receive a huge long-term deal on the open market next spring. 

    That's if he can put together a strong 2017 season. 

    Cousins, who has ranked in the top eight when it comes to completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating while leading the Redskins to winning records in each of his first two seasons as a starter, is shamefully underrated. But you're only as good as your last season when you're living year to year in a league like this. 

    If a tagged Cousins again helps the Redskins put together a winning season while again ranking among the top five quarterbacks in key statistical categories, he could become the highest-paid player in NFL history early next year. 

    If instead the Redskins sink in the standings and Cousins comes back to earth statistically, he might struggle merely to find a starting job. 

    This truly is a make-or-break year for the former fourth-round pick out of Michigan State.

Sam Bradford

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    Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford quietly put together a solid 2017 season in place of injured phenom Teddy Bridgewater.

    The former No. 1 overall pick posted a 71.6 completion percentage, which is the highest qualified mark in NFL history, while throwing just five interceptions on 552 passes. The problem is he didn't make a lot of big-time throws, which is why it doesn't seem many are convinced he can take the Vikes (or anyone) on a deep run. 

    Bradford ranked below the league median with a 7.0 yards-per-attempt average. To his credit, Pro Football Focus found that he was the most accurate qualified quarterback in football on passes that traveled 20-plus yards, but he threw that deep on a league-low 8.5 percent of his attempts. 

    The other moving part here is Bridgewater, who is also entering a contract year after the team declined to pick up his fifth-year option. The 24-year-old Louisville product was supposed to be the man in Minnesota before a brutal knee injury cost him his 2016 season and paved the way for a trade for Bradford. But Vikings general manager Rick Spielman recently told Chris Tomasson‏ of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Bridgewater's recovery timeline remains "unknown because of the severity of the injury."

    Regardless, Bradford has a chance this year to prove that his career turned a corner in 2016 and that his strong season in terms of rate-based statistics wasn't a fluke. If he does that, he'll earn another starting role and a contract worth at least $20 million annually in Minnesota or elsewhere. If he doesn't, it might be hard to convince yet another team to pay him big bucks. 

Carlos Hyde

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    NFL running backs have such short shelf lives that they all have a silly amount of cash and clout to gain or lose on a yearly basis. But that's especially the case for backs closing out rookie contracts. 

    Carlos Hyde of the San Francisco 49ers is one of those backs this year. 

    Hyde rushed for 988 yards despite playing in a bad offense and missing three games last season. He averaged a strong 4.6 yards per carry and also scored nine touchdowns from scrimmage. But he simply hasn't been healthy very often, which explains why Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline reported in April that the 49ers are "ready to give up" on the 26-year-old former second-round pick. 

    The team drafted promising former Utah back Joe Williams in the fourth round, and Hyde won't have much of an edge over his rookie teammate as the two learn a new system. 

    "Hyde is the slowest and most indecisive running back on the team," wrote Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat after watching OTAs in May. "I'm not saying he's badhe does have quick feet between the tackles, he can bounce inside runs to the outside and he plows through defenders. But he doesn't seem to have the vision to succeed in Kyle Shanahan's outside-zone running scheme."

    If Hyde holds off Williams, stays healthy and produces the way he did last season, he'll become very rich. If he doesn't, nobody will trust him enough to give him a lucrative long-term deal. 

Alshon Jeffery

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    Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery entered the offseason with one of the highest profiles among impending free agents, yet he accepted a one-year, $9.5 million prove-it contract from the Philadelphia Eagles. 

    Now Jeffery must prove it. 

    Prove what? Prove that he can stay healthy and clean. After all, Jeffery has started all 16 games in just one of his five NFL seasons, with injuries and a four-game PED suspension marring his time with the Chicago Bears. 

    Jeffery has failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark in each of his last two seasons, and he has scored just six touchdowns in his last 21 games. But we know he has the talent, and he has delivered. In 2013 and 2014, only five players had more receiving yards than Jeffery, who scored a combined 17 touchdowns in back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns. 

    Can he recapture that form in Philadelphia? If so, the 27-year-old will strike it big. But if he can't reach the 1,000-yard mark for a third straight year, teams won't likely see—or payhim as a No. 1 receiver. 

Sammy Watkins

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins has yet to make a Pro Bowl and has just one full season under his belt. He's missed 11 games in the last two years due to injury, he's still recovering from an ankle injury as we speak, and Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News has doubts the team is motivated to keep him around beyond the 2017 campaign.  

    That might explain why the Bills spent a second-round pick on promising East Carolina product Zay Jones and why they hosted veteran free-agent receiver Jeremy Maclin last week. 

    Watkins is only three years in and is turning 24 this week, but folks will call the former No. 4 overall pick a bust if he doesn't deliver in 2017. And busts rarely get paid handsomely in free agency. 

    If, on the other hand, he finally delivers and averages 80-plus yards per game like he did in 2015 while playing 16 games like he did in 2014, Watkins will cash in. 

Davante Adams

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    In his first two seasons in the NFL, Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams caught just 55 percent of the passes thrown his way for a total of 929 yards, scoring just four touchdowns. But the 2014 second-round pick exploded in his third season, catching 62 percent of the passes thrown his way for 997 yards, quadrupling his career touchdown total with 12. 

    Will Adams continue down a path toward stardom in 2017? He'll again be fighting Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb for opportunities in that passing game, and free-agent addition Martellus Bennett could receive some extra attention at tight end. And he still has work to do after dropping nine passes in his breakout 2016 season.

    But he's still only 24, and his career trajectory is extremely promising, especially if he can stay healthy (Adams was fighting an ankle injury during that putrid second season).

    If the Fresno State product continues to rise at a similar rate in 2017, he could be a candidate for a huge contract or even the franchise tag. But if we see glimpses of the 2015 Davante Adams, he'll be lucky to get more than a one-year prove-it deal. 

Tyler Eifert

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    Can Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert get—and stay—healthy? 

    The 2013 first-round pick has struggled with injuries for much of his career. When he was last relatively healthy, back in 2015, he caught more than 70 percent of the passes thrown his way for 615 yards while scoring 13 touchdowns and earning a Pro Bowl nod. 

    But Eifert still missed three games that season, and he's missed 27 in his four NFL campaigns. He scored five touchdowns and fell just short of 400 yards despite missing eight games while hampered by ankle, knee and back issues in 2016, and he told ESPN.com's Katherine Terrell in April that he was still recovering from December back surgery. 

    "Eifert said there will also be certain limitations for the rest of his career due to the nature of his injury," wrote Terrell, "such as doing squats when weight lifting."

    In a full, healthy season with per-game numbers from previous years, the 26-year-old could push for 1,000 yards while catching double-digit touchdown passes. If he can do that, he'll win a football jackpot. But if he's again hampered by injuries in 2017, Eifert will likely have to settle for scraps. 

Justin Pugh

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    Guards were paid handsomely this offseason. Kevin Zeitler got $60 million over five years from the Browns in March, and Cleveland also gave Joel Bitonio a six-year, $51.2 million extension. Ron Leary signed a four-year, $36 million contract with the Denver Broncos. Larry Warford got $34 million over four years with the New Orleans Saints. And Laurent Duvernay-Tardif signed a five-year, $42.4 million extension with the Kansas City Chiefs. 

    Entering his walk year, New York Giants guard Justin Pugh is well aware. 

    "Do you even know who some of those guys are that were getting paid?" Pugh said earlier this month, per Dan Duggan of NJ.com. "I feel good about where I'm at."

    "The guard market has gone up," he added. "I definitely have taken notice. I've seen what these guys are getting."

    The 2013 first-round pick should be in line to receive Zeitler-level money. Pro Football Focus graded him as the fourth-best run blocking guard in the NFL in 2016, despite the fact he missed five games. Prorate his overall grade of 16.7 over 16 starts and only three guards would have graded out better. 

    Now, a guy who hasn't played a 16-game season since he was a rookie in 2013 just has to prove he can stay healthy. And maybe that he can excel at left or right tackle, because current starters Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart are liabilities, and Pugh might be the first candidate to be flexed outside if either is benched or injured.

    He should be in for a nice payday either way, but a strong season would help, and a bad or injury-plagued one would hurt. 

Star Lotulelei

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has started 59 of a possible 64 regular-season games since being drafted 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers in 2013, but the Utah product is now entering the final year of his rookie contract and has yet to do anything to indicate he's becoming a special NFL player. 

    Lotulelei has just 10 sacks and two forced fumbles in four years, and he received negative grades from Pro Football Focus in each of the last two years. 

    The Panthers just gave defensive tackle Kawann Short a five-year, $80 million contract, and they used a first-round pick a year ago on former Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Vernon Butler. So it's highly unlikely they'll spend big bucks to retain Lotulelei after the 2016 campaign. But the 27-year-old will only cost big bucks if he can finally have a breakout season. 

    He has the talent to do that, but he also finds himself in a situation in which he could realistically be benched in favor of Butler this fall. 

    This year, we'll likely find out if Star Lotulelei is a big-money player or just a face in the NFL crowd. 

Ziggy Ansah

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    In his first two seasons in the NFL, Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel (Ziggy) Ansah was a solid starter who put up 15.5 sacks in a 30-game span. In his third season, the No. 5 overall pick finally appeared to become a star, with 14.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and a Pro Bowl nod. 

    But in 2016, he hit a wall, managing just two sacks and zero forced fumbles in 13 games as he dealt with a nagging ankle injury. 

    Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press reported in March that the Lions were interested in extending Ansah's contract before his walk year. And of course that's the case, because you'd have to think the team would get good value for the guy coming off a down year statistically. 

    Would Ansah be better off betting on himself and waiting? The franchise tag is certainly a possibility next year as well, and a big, healthy season would definitely increase his value. But if he were to play out 2017 without a contract and once again fail to make an impact, Ansah would have trouble striking it big as a free agent in 2018. 

Trent Murphy

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    After recording just six sacks and three forced fumbles despite starting 23 games and playing in 31 over the first two years of his career, Washington Redskins linebacker Trent Murphy was essentially moved to a backup/situational role in 2016. It looked like he was going to fade into the football abyss, but the 2014 second-round pick shocked everyone outside of the Murphy family with a nine-sack campaign in which he forced three fumbles. 

    Thus, his stock value was already up for debate before the 26-year-old was hit with a four-game PED suspension in March.

    That leaves Murphy with only 12 games to prove that 2016 wasn't a fluke (and, for that matter, that it wasn't tainted). While fighting for opportunities in a linebacker corps that includes regular starters Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith, as well as second-round rookie Ryan Anderson from Alabama, that won't be easy. 

    If Murphy can find a way to make another run at double-digit sacks despite all of that, he'll be a hot commodity entering free agency. Otherwise, you might not hear about him at all. 

Bashaud Breeland

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland has started 42 games in just three NFL seasons, intercepting seven passes and forcing seven fumbles in the process. He's been inconsistent in coverage, though, especially when tasked with working as the No. 1 corner. And with Josh Norman in Washington, the former fourth-round pick out of Clemson likely won't have a chance to flex his coverage muscles in pursuit of a Bouye-like contract in his walk year. 

    But what if Breeland moves to safety in 2017? 

    He's a tough, aggressive, 5'11", 197-pound defensive back who projected as a potential free safety coming out of college, and now Mike Jones of the Washington Post reports that there's been talk of moving Breeland over. 

    If that happens and the 25-year-old excels, he could earn big money next offseason as a versatile safety who has the ability to come up big in coverage. But if he stays at corner or makes a position switch and fails to take that next step, Breeland will likely have to settle for a deal that contains limited guaranteed money. 

Honorable Mentions

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    I'm not sure if being listed in this piece is good or bad, but these guys just missed out...

    Eddie Lacy: The former Offensive Rookie of the Year didn't have much of a chance to earn big bucks in a contract year with the Packers last season because he missed all but five games due to injury. That caused him to settle for a one-year, $4.5 million prove-it deal with the Seattle Seahawks. The 26-year-old averaged 5.1 yards per carry in that short stretch last year. If he can repeat that for an entire season in Seattle, he'll get paid somewhere. 

    Terrelle Pryor: The Redskins receiver put up 1,000 yards in his first full season as a wide receiver last year with the Cleveland Browns. That was a big contract year, but he didn't get a big deal. Just $6 million for one year with Washington. The soon-to-be 28-year-old will have to prove 2016 wasn't an anomaly. 

    Demarcus Lawrence: A second-round pick who came to the Dallas Cowboys with high expectations in 2014, Lawrence has just nine sacks in three NFL seasons. But eight of those came in one year (2015), indicating that he has the ability to explode. With first-round pick Taco Charlton applying pressure, this is a make-or-break year for Lawrence. 

    Morgan Burnett: The 28-year-old Green Bay Packers safety is an example of a player looking to cash in on his third NFL contract. Entering the final year of a four-year, $24.8 million deal, the seven-year veteran is coming off a fine season in which he intercepted two passes, recorded three sacks and registered 91 tackles. But he's yet to make a Pro Bowl. It's hard to tell how he'll be viewed on the open market as a 29-year-old, but a big season would help, and a poor one could make him vulnerable.