6 2014 NFL Free Agents Who Should Get Contract Extensions Now

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterJuly 14, 2013

6 2014 NFL Free Agents Who Should Get Contract Extensions Now

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    In the NFL, it is never too early for an organization to start planning ahead for the future by re-signing players who are currently under contract.

    Teams like the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens (just to name a few) are currently ahead of the pack. All four teams have managed to lock up their franchise quarterbacks during the 2013 offseason. 

    Even though fans and media members alike enjoy glorifying quarterbacks, there are plenty of high-dollar players around the league who don’t play quarterback. Some are defensive backs, some are pass-catching targets on offense and others are pass-rushing phenomenons. It doesn’t matter which position a player plays; the best of the best seemingly always rise to the top.

    Let’s analyze six different contract-year players from multiple positions who should garner contract extensions right now. 

    All contract information is provided by Spotrac

Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints

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    Is there anyone more deserving of a contract extension than New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham? Since Graham entered the league in 2010, he has amassed 2,648 yards receiving on 215 catches. Additionally, he has managed to catch 25 touchdown passes from quarterback Drew Brees during that three-year span. 

    The only tight end to catch more touchdown passes since 2010 is New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Prior to the 2012 season, New England gave Gronkowski an eight-year, $55.23 million deal. The deal ensures $13.17 million in guarantees over the length of the contract.

    Gronkowski’s contract should be a baseline for the Saints and Graham, but the third-round pick out of Miami could accumulate more guaranteed money than Gronk.

    Graham has only missed two games in three years, and he has been the most targeted tight end in the NFL since the start of the 2011 season. He also picked up more yards per route (2.41) than any tight end in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    Furthermore, one could argue that Graham is the most vital piece to New Orleans’ offense, even after a down year in 2012.

    Since 2011, he has not only led the team in targets, but he has led the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns. Aside from his statistical accomplishments, Graham is a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers and defensive backs. His leaping ability in the red zone and capacity to pick up yards after the catch make him a scoring threat on every play.

    Graham will turn 27 this season, so this contract could easily be his biggest and his last. He deserves a four-year deal that promises him at least $15 million in guarantees. Head coach Sean Payton and Brees would be beside themselves if the 6’7”, 265-pound tight end were donning a different uniform in 2014.

Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers

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    Over the course of his three-year career, Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy has made a name for himself by notching 18 quarterback sacks, 29 quarterback hits and 57 quarterback hurries. Without question, 2012 was the most productive season of his career.

    Last year alone, Hardy piled up 11 quarterback sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 35 quarterback hurries. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he was the eighth-best pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end in the NFL. It’s hard to deny such strong numbers, yet we have all seen plenty of one-year wonders make their way through the league.

    Being considered among the league’s elite doesn’t happen overnight. More often than not, it takes time and consistent production. As Hardy looks to continuously climb up the ranks, he would be wise to try and get an extension signed as soon as possible.

    In 2013, he’s scheduled to make $1,378,946. For a player of his caliber, he could easily fetch $4 million on the open market. Defensive end Michael Bennett signed with the Seattle Seahawks this past offseason for $4.8 million a year after he posted career highs in quarterback sacks, quarterback hits and quarterback hurries.

    By signing a multi-year deal before the season, Hardy can safeguard himself from injury and a possible dip in production. The fourth-year player out of Mississippi is still very young (24), so it’s feasible to think his second contract won’t be his last.

Josh Freeman, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    This past offseason, quarterbacks around the NFL have been cashing in. After Joe Flacco helped the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl, he signed a six-year, $120.6 million deal. Less than three weeks later, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo signed a six-year, $108 million extension.

    The most recent signal-caller to ink a long-term extension was Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. On July 10, Stafford signed a three-year, $53 million deal that guarantees him $41.5 million through 2017.

    One has to think that all of the recent contract activity has Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman wondering where he stands heading into 2013. The organization drafted Mike Glennon in the third round of this year’s draft to back up and compete with the fifth-year veteran out of Kansas State. 

    Drafting Glennon wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence for Freeman—which is exactly why he should be on the phone with his agent Erik Burkhardt right now. Burkhardt needs to strike a deal with Tampa Bay while the iron is hot.

    Freeman won’t make Stafford-esque money, but he has shown enough to garner the $9.76 million he’s owed in 2013. If the Buccaneers offer him a three-year, $30 million prove-it deal, he should sign it immediately.

    It will give Freeman time to prove that he’s improving, and he’s worth a top-dollar contract. Moreover, he will only be 28 years old at the end of his second contract.

Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals

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    When it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals, there’s no one player who is more important to the success of Mike Zimmer’s defense than defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Over the last two seasons, Atkins has established himself as the most dominant defensive tackle in the NFL.

    Opposing quarterbacks fear the two-time All-Pro selection for obvious reasons. In three seasons, Atkins has been able to muster up 23 quarterback sacks, 36 quarterback hits, 100 quarterback hurries and six forced fumbles.

    The folks over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) believe the fourth-round pick out of Georgia is the second-best interior defensive lineman since the start of the 2008 season. Some of you may be wondering how that is even possible based on the fact he didn’t enter the league until 2010.

    Here’s how:

    Based on PFF’s grading system, Atkins managed to record a plus-130.4 grade in 48 career games. Only San Francisco 49ers interior defensive lineman Justin Smith played well enough to earn a higher grade. He graded out at a plus-158.3. But here’s the catch: It took him 78 games to arrive at a plus-158.3 grade. 

    Even though Atkins isn’t a household name yet, he will be after he signs a contract extension that makes him one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in the league. In terms of guaranteed money, no defensive tackle makes more than Detroit Lions superstar Ndamukong Suh.

    Under the old collective bargaining agreement, his rookie contract promised him $38.3 million in guarantees. One would be hard-pressed to think Atkins would see that kind of money from the Bengals, yet it’s not hard to fathom him receiving a contract extension that is structured like Haloti Ngata’s with the Baltimore Ravens.

    Ngata’s annual average salary is $9,704,800, and he received a $25 million signing bonus with $27.9 million guaranteed.

    Atkins deserves an extension based on his superior play, and Cincinnati would be smart to give him one before the start of the 2013 season. Another mind-boggling year for the defensive tackle would only drive his price up higher.

    Bengals owner Mike Brown doesn’t exactly shell out the cash like Jerry Jones, so he better act fast.

Brian Cushing, LB, Houston Texans

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    Inside linebacker Brian Cushing is in a strange predicament as he heads into the 2013 season. In 2012, the first-round pick only made an appearance in five games before landing on season-ending injured reserve. A torn ACL against the New York Jets brought Cushing’s fast start to a screeching halt.

    Before he exited Houston’s Week 5 contest, he was on pace for 92 solo tackles, 56 defensive stops and 20 quarterback pressures. A stat line like that would have ensured a monster payday during the 2013 offseason. There’s no way the Texans would have allowed him to play out the final year of his contract.

    Now, it appears as if Cushing will have to play out the final year of his contract unless he’s willing to take a hometown discount. At the moment, St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis carries the highest cap number for all inside linebackers in 2013. He’s scheduled to make $12.4 million this season. 

    Sure, Cushing won’t make that kind of cash if he signs an extension before the season. But he could score a contract that is similar in value to the Kansas City Chiefs' Derrick Johnson’s. Johnson’s current contract promises him $15 million in guarantees, and his average annual salary is $6,079,167.

    A little more than $6 million a year is more than fair for a player who is returning from a serious knee injury. However, the 26-year-old linebacker could opt not to sign a long-term deal and try to improve his stock by playing out the final year of his contract. By playing out the final year of his deal, Cushing could re-establish himself as one of the best inside linebackers in the game.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he was the third-best inside linebacker in the league in 2011. Returning to top-five form would seemingly net Cushing a contract that compares to Paul Posluszny’s with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Posluszny’s deal calls for an average of $7.5 million per season.

    Yet, it’s hard to say whether or not Cushing will ever return to his 2011 form, so Cushing and the Texans should hammer out a contract extension before the 2013 season starts. 

    The agreement would seemingly be a win-win for both sides. Houston would get a star-studded player at a discounted price, and Cushing would have a sense of security after a major knee operation.

Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

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    If Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo hauled in $40 million in guarantees this past offseason, how much will Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan yield when his extension is finalized? Rotoworld concludes that Tom Condon (Ryan’s agent) will likely seek more than $52 million in guarantees.

    Only two quarterbacks are currently guaranteed to make more than $52 million. One is Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, and the other is Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Manning signed his five-year, $96 million deal prior to the 2012 season. Rodgers signed his five-year, $110 million extension on April 26.

    Has Ryan done enough to deserve Manning and Rodgers money, or have his postseason shortcomings devalued his impressive regular-season statistics? It’s safe to say he has probably done enough, but it’s also safe to say he could afford to do more during the playoffs when the game is on the line. 

    The success of an NFL team is predicated on how well a team’s quarterback performs—which is exactly why teams around the league are constantly looking for improved play at the league’s most important position.

    The importance of top-notch quarterback play should help lead us all to the same conclusion: Despite his deficiencies, Ryan is one of the five best quarterbacks in the league. And he deserves to be paid like one.

    In five years' time, the 2008 NFL Rookie of the Year holds 21 franchise records and two NFL records. Let’s not forget that Atlanta is victorious 71.8 percent of the time when Ryan gets the start. General manager Thomas Dimitroff knows he would be hard-pressed to do better at the quarterback position, so it will only be a matter of time before an extension is announced. 

    Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk wrote on June 18 that talks between the Falcons and Ryan would heat up after July 4. By the sounds of it, a deal could be signed, sealed and delivered by the end of the preseason.