NFL Players Hitting 2023 Free Agency Who Are Earning Major Paydays
It’s never too early to start thinking about the upcoming free-agency class. General managers around the league already have short lists of players they are hoping to sign, but some may no longer fit the budget after breakout years.
Several players have gone from relatively unknown entities to stars this season, while others have elevated their play to a level that will earn them a much bigger contract than they would have inked during the 2022 offseason.
With that in mind, let’s look at a handful of talents who are set to cash in during free agency and project just how much they will make in their next contract.
Cooper Rush, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush is making a shade over $1 million for the 2022 campaign, but the backup-turned-starting-savior for the club could be in line for one of the biggest pay raises of any player this coming offseason.
Rush adeptly kept the Cowboys afloat after it was revealed that the thumb injury Dak Prescott suffered in the opener would keep him out for over a month. Over Rush's first four starts, the 28-year-old racked up 775 passing yards and four touchdowns without a single interception while his team went a perfect 4-0.
Although Rush had a bad outing in Week 6—he threw three interceptions in a losing endeavor against a tough Philadelphia Eagles defense—he should still be one of the most intriguing quarterbacks to hit the open market this spring.
Rush had spent the last half-decade largely working as Dallas’ backup signal-caller. He was only active for 10 games prior to the 2022 season, however, and threw just three passes between entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of Central Michigan in 2017 and 2020, a year he spent out of football after failing to make the New York Giants practice squad.
Since rejoining the team in the wake of Prescott’s season-ending injury, Rush has had a meteoric rise following his time with the practice squad. After seeing sporadic action in 2021—including a lone start in which he went off for 325 yards and two scores while leading a fourth-quarter comeback against Minnesota—the quarterback is now poised to potentially become a full-time starter in 2023.
Even if Rush doesn’t end up starting, he’ll make a case for being the top backup option for franchises needing depth at the position. He’s shown he can carry an NFL offense and manage a game, traits that will help him stick around the league for the foreseeable future.
Contract Prediction: Two years, $20 million
Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
Saquon Barkley had an incredible start to his career before enduring one of the harder falls in recent memory. That is all in the rearview now, as the running back is well on his way back to the top during a resurgent 2022 campaign.
Barkley entered the league as a prized No. 2 overall draft pick of the New York Giants in 2018. He began living up to his promise immediately, finishing his rookie year by amassing over 2,000 all-purpose yards and 15 total touchdowns while earning a laundry list of accolades that included an Offensive Rookie of the Year award and a Pro Bowl nod.
While his sophomore campaign wasn’t as successful, Barkley still tallied nearly 1,500 yards and eight scores while appearing in 13 games. Unfortunately, a pair of injury-plagued years followed that campaign, notably a 2020 season that saw Barkley suffer a torn ACL just two games in.
After slogging through a rough 2021 season—the running back could only muster 593 rushing yards on 162 totes, well below the 4.8 yards per attempt he averaged in 2018-19—Barkley finally appears healthy for the first time in years.
Barkley has been more effective than ever in 2022 despite getting little help from an inept Giants passing attack. He’s posting an average of 5.2 yards per carry and is the second-leading receiver on the roster, notching 155 yards on a team-high 21 receptions over the first six games.
The back has led Big Blue during their surprise run from the league’s basement to a playoff contender. He’s been the focal point of an offense that ranks No. 4 in the league in rushing yards with an average of 163.0 per game. The Giants have leaned heavily on Barkley to pound the rock while jumping out to a shocking 5-1 record.
Barkley has once again proved he can be a versatile bell cow, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. He’s well on his way to getting paid like a top featured back this offseason and will be considered one of the crown jewels of the 2023 free-agent class barring injury.
Contract Prediction: Three years, $45 million
Ethan Pocic, C, Cleveland Browns
Ethan Pocic went into the 2022 campaign with the tall task of replacing ironman center JC Tretter, who was released by the team and subsequently retired in the offseason.
Pocic beat out several contenders for the role after projected starter Nick Harris suffered a season-ending injury during training camp. Since then, the 27-year-old has risen from an unheralded free-agent addition to one of the NFL’s better centers.
Over the first six weeks of the season, Pocic has logged all 429 of Cleveland’s offensive snaps. He’s allowed only one sack while avoiding being flagged for any penalties, earning a commendable 74.6 grade for his efforts, per Pro Football Focus.
The hulking 6’6”, 320-pounder has also done an admirable job clearing rushing lanes for Cleveland’s stable of running backs. The Browns lead the league in rushing yards per game with 172.0, an impressive mark that has been made possible by Pocic’s quality play.
While Pocic is now in his sixth season since entering the league as a second-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2017, he’s still young, has logged fewer than 3,000 career snaps and should have plenty of tread left on his tires.
Pocic is barely clearing $1 million in salary on his current one-year deal, but he’ll be handsomely rewarded during the upcoming free-agency period if he can continue his current trajectory.
Contract Prediction: Three years, $25 million
T.J. Edwards, LB, Philadelphia Eagles
Linebacker may not be the most lucrative job in the NFL, but it’s a crucial one and the best ones tend to earn a nice payday compared to their peers. Philadelphia Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards could soon be joining that club thanks to a fantastic start to his 2022 season.
The fourth-year man out of Wisconsin came to the City of Brotherly Love after going undrafted in 2019. He immediately earned a rotational role in the Eagles linebacking corps as a rookie and has since shown immense growth every season.
Edwards put himself on the map in the latter half of the 2021 campaign. He played approximately 95 percent of Philadelphia’s defensive snaps over his final eight games, helping guide the squad to a 6-2 record and a wild-card berth during a playoff push that turned their season around.
The linebacker finished last season with a commendable 76.3 PFF grade, amassing 130 tackles and five pass defenses in addition to an interception, fumble recovery and a sack.
Heading into the season, linebackers coach Nick Rallis predicted great things from Edwards.
“He’s going to play that much faster,” Rallis said, per Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “He’s already an extremely fast processor, extremely smart, he’s moving really well, he’s playing physical. You guys know T.J. We’re just taking it to the next level. We want to take every aspect of his game up another notch.”
Edwards has delivered during the first month-and-a-half of 2022. The 26-year-old is leading the team by a wide margin with 55 tackles in six games and already matched his career high with two sacks to go with three pass defenses.
Thanks to drastically improved coverage ability since he entered the NFL, Edwards is now an elite three-down linebacker. Come spring, he’ll get paid like one on the open market.
Contract Prediction: Five years, $70 million
Cameron Sutton, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Up until two years ago, Cameron Sutton was a little-known and little-utilized cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 2017 third-round pick only drew two starts over the first three seasons of his career but finally earned a larger role in Pittsburgh’s defense in 2020.
Sutton capitalized on the long-awaited opportunity, finishing that season with 30 tackles, eight pass defenses, three forced fumbles, an interception, a fumble recovery and a sack while playing 53 percent of the defensive snaps and earning a 68.6 PFF grade.
That showing earned him a two-year contract and a full-time starting role last year. While Sutton slightly regressed—he had 52 tackles, six pass defenses, a pair of interceptions and a forced fumble (61.9 PFF grade)—he was on the field for nearly every defensive snap.
Although the 27-year-old’s coverage skills aren’t perfect—he allowed 48 receptions and five scores on 72 targets last year—they are improving in 2022. Sutton is conceding a career-low 53.6 percent completion rate when targeted and only giving up an average of 6.1 yards per target, down from 8.6 last year.
This development is reflected in his PFF mark, which is a solid 70.3 after five games. He did miss half of Week 5 after aggravating a hamstring injury—an issue that kept him off the field this past week—but the corner should return to a lineup that sorely needs him soon.
If he can come back healthy and fare as well as he did early in the season, Sutton will secure a lucrative contract in free agency.
Contract Prediction: Three years, $30 million
Current contract data courtesy of Spotrac.