Buying or Selling Contract-Year NFL Stars in 2016
In the National Football League, there's no motivator like an expiring contract.
We've seen it time and again. Players regularly post career seasons when their deals are about to end. It's almost as if millions of dollars were on the line.
The stakes are even higher since the collective bargaining agreement changed back in 2011. The insertion of a more team-friendly rookie wage scale means that contract No. 2 is where the big bucks kick in—the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Kirk Cousins of the Washington Redskins is a great example of just how big that pot can get. After three years as the backup in Washington, D.C., Cousins was in a contract year entering his first season as the starter for the Redskins in 2015.
And in leading the Redskins to the playoffs, Cousins played his way into a salary of nearly $20 million in 2016.
Of course, he also gets to do it all again, as he'll be playing under the franchise tag this season.
Cousins isn't the only NFL star with a lot on the line this year. Whether veteran or youngster, quarterback or pass-rusher, a lot of big names will be playing for their supper.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins
Well, since I already mentioned him.
At this point a year ago, Cousins was in a slightly different place in his career as a professional football player. To be specific, he was nowhere.
Cousins had spent most of his first three seasons either holding a clipboard for Robert Griffin III or playing unevenly in his stead. Year 4 was a different story.
Named the starter just before the season, Cousins started off slowly but caught fire down the stretch. When the dust settled, his completion percentage (69.8) led the National Football League. His 4,166 passing yards were a franchise record.
Oh, and Washington won the division. There was that, too.
The Redskins, perhaps unsure exactly what they have in Cousins, haven't broken the bank yet. Yes, he will net nearly $20 million in 2016 playing under the tag, but that's it.
Play like he did last year, and Cousins will get a long-term deal well north of $100 million. Half that, at least, will likely be guaranteed. He would be financially set for life and then some.
It's possible the two sides work out a deal between now and July (the deadline for tagged players to sign extensions). And as Stephen Czarda of the team's website wrote, Redskins vice president of football administration Eric Schaffer said that's the end game—locking up Cousins long term:
We all want to make this work out and we all want to make this work out long-term. Jay [Gruden] and the coaching staff are obviously very supportive of Kirk, and that’s one of the things I admire about Jay. Sometime about half way through last year some things weren’t going as well and Jay had to stand up in front of all you media [and] sort of talk about it every week, ‘Hey, there’s no quarterback controversy, Kirk’s our guy.’
The pressure is all-encompassing for Cousins. He's the starting quarterback for a high-profile NFL team. After signing cornerback Josh Norman to a huge contract, the Redskins sent a clear message to both players and fans. They want to win now. Make it to Houston and Super Bowl LI.
Financial expectations. Fan expectations. Franchise expectations. Personal expectations.
It's a lot.
It's not a knock on Cousins. Over the second half of last season, he played as well as any quarterback in football. But there are a lot of moving parts that have to click for a repeat, because Cousins just isn't a "carry the team on his back"-level talent.
The Redskins have to stay relatively healthy, especially at the skill positions. The defense needs to play better than last year. Washington has to run the ball effectively. And for that to happen, the offensive line is going to have to improve.
A blowup in any of those areas could be enough to derail the team. And as goes the team, so go perceptions of the quarterback.
Cousins may well have a good year. But just backing up his second half of last season would have been difficult enough. Doing it with all these moving parts and $100-plus million on the line?
That's just asking too much.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
The 2015 season didn't go according to plan for Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. The 26-year-old lost seven games to injury and failed to hit 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since 2012.
Given that, playing under a franchise tag that will pay Jeffery over $14 million in 2016 isn't the worst thing in the world that could have happened.
Earlier this spring, it appeared relatively certain Jeffery would spend the upcoming year under the tag. Now however, ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler believes there's a chance the two sides work out a long-term deal before the July 15 deadline:
It's been widely assumed Alshon Jeffery will play on the one-year tag of $14.6 M, and though that might happen, I'm told the Bears and Jeffery have continued to talk about a long-term contract and a new deal is certainly possible. July 15 deadline gives plenty of time. If a deal happens, it will be late in process. Bears red-zone offense markedly better with a fully healthy Jeffery in 2014. He missed seven games last year and the team's RZ ranking dropped.
Jeffery may not get his big deal before July, but make no mistake, he's going to get it.
Because the stars are aligned for his fifth NFL season to be his best.
It isn't just a matter of the 6'3", 216-pounder's not inconsiderable talent. Or the fact he opens 2016 as the Bears' unquestioned No. 1 receiver.
There's also the matter of youngster Kevin White, who like Jeffery is a big, athletic target capable of taking the top off a defense. If White is half as good as advertised, opponents won't be able to constantly bracket Jeffery with coverage.
Never mind quarterback Jay Cutler. Say what you will about Cutler (just about everyone has), but the 2015 season was quietly one of the veteran's best. If he can build on that success, Cutler is going to make Jeffery and White look good...and vice versa.
Jeffery's career highs are 89 receptions, 1.421 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He has a real shot at besting all three in 2016.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, New York Jets
Before you ask, no. Not every player in this article will play under the franchise tag in 2016.
And no, not every player playing under the franchise tag is included on this list. You won't find Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who I think will get a long-term deal before he hits the field in September. Or Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller, who I know will get a new deal this summer. Or Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker...
Because he's a kicker.
For New York Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, 2016 is all about timing. Racking up a career-high 12 sacks and grading as NFL's fifth-best 3-4 end, per Pro Football Focus, in 2015 was good timing.
Being up for a new deal in a year when the Jets have little cap space and still need to sign (hopefully) quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick? Not so much.
It didn't help matters when Fletcher Cox of the Philadelphia Eagles signed a six-year, $103 million extension last week.
Wilkerson didn't mince words about the deal while speaking to Brian Costello of the New York Post:
I think he’s a great player. Do I feel like I’m better than him? Yes. Not to be cocky, it’s just a confidence thing. Everybody in the league that plays feels like they’re the best player at their position. If you ask any NFL player, they’re going to say they’re the best at their position. I feel like I’m better than him and whatever [his deal is] I deserve that or better.
Chances are Wilkerson isn't getting a similar deal this season. The Jets just don't have the money, and with second-year pro Leonard Williams joining Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson on the defensive line last year, Gang Green has depth galore at end—depth that gives the team options.
And that depth will make it hard for Wilkerson to repeat last season's career numbers.
If negotiations become even more contentious and it looks like Wilkerson will hit the open market in 2017 (as they have and it does), then it makes sense for the team to get Williams more snaps opposite Richardson. The same holds true as Wilkerson returns from a broken leg. There's no need to rush him back.
Fewer snaps for Wilkerson mean fewer opportunities.
Also, sacks (the big-money stat) can be fluky. In 2014 Wilkerson actually received a higher PFF grade (third at the position) than a year ago. But he reached the quarterback only six times.
Will Wilkerson be every bit as effective on a per-snap basis in 2016? Probably. Will his numbers drop anyway?
DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins
There's been dirt being thrown on DeSean Jackson since April. From the moment the Washington Redskins drafted Josh Doctson in Round 1 of the 2016 draft, talking heads galore have been packing the bags of Jackson and/or running mate Pierre Garcon.
It's not as if the speculation is unfounded. Jackson turns 30 during the 2016 season. His 30 receptions and 528 receiving yards in nine games last year were both career lows. And Jackson's vertical-threat skill set doesn't appear a great fit with what Kirk Cousins offers the team at quarterback.
When Jackson skipped voluntary workouts, the speculation only grew that 2016 would be the end of the line for Jackson in the nation's capital.
However, while talking with Larry Michael’s Redskins Nation (via Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post) Jackson did his best to quell the rumors. His absence from workouts was simply a matter of a veteran player spending time with his family. And despite all you may have heard to the contrary, he's actually quite happy where he's at:
I love being here. Washington, this is home to me. Since I came here the first day I’ve said all along they had open arms in bringing me here and making me feel like a guy that’s one of them. All the way up to Bruce, to Dan Snyder, I feel like this is a home for me and I can call this a home, and hopefully I can stay here throughout my career until I’m over and done and retire here and be a Washington Redskin. Teammates love me, I love them, all the way to the coaching staff and to the [front office]. … So hopefully we can make it work to where I come back here. It’s a big year, the last year on my contract, so you never know how it’ll play out, but I’m hoping everything goes right and I’m back here next year.”
Yes, Jackson had a down year in 2015. Yes, he's not getting any younger. And yes, even by wide receiver standards, he has been a handful over his eight seasons in the NFL.
He's also a player who as recently as 2014 put up almost 1,200 receiving yards and nearly 21 yards per catch. Jackson may be nearing 30, but he's still arguably the NFL's most feared receiver when it comes to the go route.
And while that might not appear an ideal mesh with Cousins, consider this: Cousins' second-half surge last year just so happened to coincide with Jackson's return to the lineup.
Also, Jackson may be a handful, but he's not dumb. He knows that 2016 is an audition for work the next season, whether it's in the nation's capital or somewhere else.
That gives Jackson literally millions of reasons to be on his best behavior. And when his head is right and he's healthy, we've already seen what the speedster can do.
He'll do it once more in 2016.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
There are contracts. Then there are big contracts. Then there are megadeals. Then, about six steps past that, there's the knee-buckler of a pact that quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts are going to agree to at some point in the coming months.
The deal is going to happen. That's not at all in question. The question is just how massive the deal will be.
Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated expects it to set records:
Let’s set the Colts’ ideal starting point on Luck at five years and $105 million, with $40 million guaranteed—slight inflation-based increases on (Cam) Newton’s deal. Even if there is very little indication Luck would sign such an offer, the front office has the benefit of time with Luck coming back from all those injuries and the franchise tag still on the table. Eliminating a major distraction and keeping Luck happy are the main reasons to act now.
The actual guess, then, as to where Luck’s new deal comes in when all is said and done: five years and $120 million, $80 million guaranteed and $65 million fully guaranteed (topping Ndamukong Suh’s record-setting number of $60 million fully guaranteed in his 2015 deal with the Dolphins).
Those totals would make Luck the new standard for quarterback contracts. All he would have to do then is live up to the billing.
About the only billing Luck lived up to in 2015 was a doctor's bill. Besieged by a litany of injuries, Luck managed only 1,881 passing yards in seven games. It was far and away the worst season of his career.
It was also, however, the first blip in an NFL career that saw the No. 1 overall pick back in 2012 lead the Colts to the playoffs each of his first three seasons.
As general manager Ryan Grigson told reporters, per Burke, the Colts don't have any real concerns about their franchise quarterback in 2016—only how to improve the team around him:
Obviously, we need to protect our quarterback better. There’s a lot of different ways to do that. I think that every team in this league knows, no matter if you have a line full of ones, your quarterback’s going to get hit. You have to find ways, whether it be through acquiring better talent, smarter players, schemes. There’s a lot of different ways to protect your quarterback.
When we had our quarterback [on the field], we felt like we had the pieces to get where we wanted to go. But you’re always trying to get better.
Chances are the Colts will make Luck the league's highest-paid player ever well before Week 1. But even if negotiations drag on, he remains an elite-caliber talent who is just entering the prime of his career with a plethora of offensive weapons at his disposal.
One who is steaming after a down year and is eager to wash off the stink.
He will in short order.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
Andrew Luck's career may have only just begun, but for Drew Brees, the end is getting close.
And after 15 years in the NFL, including a decade with the Saints where he became the face of the franchise and the best player in team history, what once was considered heresy has now become a real question.
Could 2016 be the end of the line for Brees in the Big Easy?
Brees, who led the Saints to their first, last and only Super Bowl win, told Alysha Tsuji of USA Today he isn't interested in speculating about his future after a "down" 2015:
I feel like I’ve got quite a few good years left. I got one year left on the contract, but whether you have a one-year contract or a five-year contract, you’ve still got to prove it every year ... even if you’re locked into a long-term deal, they can get rid of you at any time, so that’s my mindset.
Brees may not want to speculate, but USA Today's Steven Ruiz isn't shy about doing so. In fact, with the franchise tag off the table (it would run the Saints $40-plus million to tag Brees in 2017), Ruiz is one of those heretical pundits who think this should be it for player and team:
The team needs rebuilding, and New Orleans needs high draft picks and cap space to start that process. It’s not get either with Brees on the roster. At this point, is there any logical reason for keeping Brees around? The team is not close to competing for the NFC South title, let alone a Super Bowl, and it’s unlikely it will ever will be with one player taking up such a huge chunk of the cap — no matter how good he may be.
It's a testament to how good Brees has been for so long that nearly 4,900 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and a passer rating over 100 qualifies as a "down" year. But Brees did miss time in 2015, and at times his age started to show.
Like it or not, Ruiz has a point. Teams such as the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks have had the luxury of building around their quarterbacks before they had to pay them big money. And it shows. The Saints are a hot mess defensively and annually one of the most cap-strapped teams in football.
The harsh truth is the Saints aren't a Super Bowl contender. Or especially close to being one. And Brees' salary complicates a rebuild.
Frankly, if summer turns to fall with no extension in sight, the grumblings and speculation will grow that 2016 is the swan song for the most successful player to ever don black and gold.
But whether it's just another year on the bayou or his farewell tour, the Saints did get Brees two more targets to throw to in tight end Coby Fleener and rookie wideout Mike Thomas. Almost 4,900 yards and 32 scores last year wasn't dog food. And the Saints will need to score to win in 2016.
You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but that doesn't mean the old tricks don't still work.
Brees has one more big year left. It's after that that things get really cloudy.
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo Bills
This year, Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor will make just over $3 million.
Next year, he is going to make more. A lot more. Exponentially more.
That's what happens when you go from unheralded depth signing to surprise starter to legitimate NFL quarterback over the course of a single season.
As Tadd Haislop of the Sporting News wrote, that's exactly what Taylor did for the Bills in 2015:
If Taylor’s numbers out of the gate are any indication — his 99.4 rating, 67.84 QBR and 8.0 yards per attempt formed a better stat trio than that of Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers in their respective first seasons as full-time starters — Buffalo will have to break out its checkbook sooner than later.
Those numbers are impressive. But Taylor told Tyler Dunne of the Buffalo News that he feels in his second season as the Bills' starter he can do that much better.
Like, say, Cam Newton better:
I am 100 percent confident that I can do that. Cam played very well and willed his team. He took his team to the game that everyone who plays this game wants to get to. I commend him for that. We came in the same year so I definitely kept up with him. We became friends throughout our time in the league. Yes, I am 100 percent confident I can do the things that he did. Of course, he started more years than I have and I’m not putting a timetable on anything. I want to keep grinding and I believe with the talent I have surrounding me that this team could be special and I can definitely take my game to the next level.
OK, it might be roll-slowing time. Asking for an MVP-caliber season from Taylor is getting greedy.
Still, the reasons for optimism are undeniable. Not only was Taylor's mobility on full display last year, but he was better as a pocket passer than anyone expected. He posted a touchdown-to-interception ratio of plus-14, a passer rating of nearly 100 and completed almost 64 percent of his passes.
He also voided the final year of his contract, which set up the sixth-year veteran to get the NFL's biggest pay bump in 2017 if he can build on last year's success.
Never mind all the free chicken wings he can eat for life if he gets the Bills back in the playoffs.
I'm partial to honey hot, myself.
Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals
It hasn't generated the run it should have, but general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians have quietly turned the Arizona Cardinals from punching bag to powerhouse. For much of last season (the NFC Championship Game most certainly notwithstanding) the Redbirds looked like the class of the NFL.
Of course, building a strong roster has its perils. Sooner or later, all those draft picks that teams hit on play out their affordable rookie contracts.
And at that point, decisions have to be made.
The Cardinals are about to find that out the hard way.
Wide receiver Michael Floyd didn't post staggering numbers in 2015 (52 catches, 849 yards, six touchdowns), but those numbers aren't necessarily indicative of his talent level. There are a lot of mouths to feed in the Arizona aerial attack, and Floyd insisted to 98.7 FM in Phoenix (h/t Adam Green of Arizona Sports) that's just fine with him:
I go into the season same as I always do every single season. I kind of put the contract aside, knowing people say it’s a big year, stuff like that. If I just maintain, doing what I’m doing, on and off the field, I think that side of everything — the business side — will take care of itself.
I think the ball is going to get distributed with the guys we have on our team, and that’s skill players all around. I think when the time comes for you to get the ball, you’ve got to make the best of it because it could be a big game for the running backs for us blocking as wide receivers, or it could be a big game for me, too. I think for that part, you’ve just got to play your role and dive right into it.
Veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, on the other hand, has already reaped a windfall. A couple, in fact. And in 2015 the 32-year-old earned every dime, topping 1,200 receiving yards on a career-best 109 catches.
Given Fitz's age and robust salary, his future with the team has been an annual storyline for some time, but as offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin astutely observed to Darren Urban of the team's website, 2015 showed Fitz isn't ready for the scrapheap just yet.
“I think Larry has a lot of tread left on the tire,” Goodwin said. “Obviously he’s in the last year of his deal—that’s out of my pay scale—but I think he’s still got juice.”
Now, if for whatever reason the wheels fall off for Fitz in 2016, this is a decision that will make itself. However, we saw nothing last year to indicate that will happen, and if it doesn't, I have a hard time seeing the Cardinals parting ways with arguably the best player in franchise history unless they win a Super Bowl and he retires. It will be Floyd who hits free agency next spring.
And yet, I'm voting the opposite way. It's a numbers game. Backing up 109 catches and nine touchdowns isn't going to be easy, even for Fitzgerald. Assuming he can stay healthy, though, (and that quarterback Carson Palmer does as well) a second 1,000-yard season for Floyd in 2016 isn't a hard target to hit at all.
Regardless, Keim faces a tough call here, as only one of these receivers is likely to be in the desert in 2017.
Verdict: Buy (Floyd), Sell (Fitzgerald, begrudgingly)
Calais Campbell and Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals
...The Cardinals face an equally daunting dilemma on defense.
For years the backbone of the Arizona defense has been defensive end Calais Campbell. Some might look at the fact he has never had a double-digit sack season and ask what it is that makes him so special.
Those people have obviously never seen Campbell play. They haven't watched his ridiculous quickness for a man his size. They haven't sat there slack-jawed as the 300-pounder chased down a tailback from behind. They don't get that retread linebackers such as Dwight Freeney and John Abraham having career years playing with Campbell isn't a coincidence.
J.J. Watt is in a world all his own among 3-4 ends. But Campbell is in the conversation for the No. 2 spot. And as we saw with Cox and will see soon with Wilkerson, that equates to a fat paycheck.
While speaking with NFL.com, Campbell was clear—he wants to end his career where he finished it:
It's hard to do, and there's a lot of prestige that comes with staying with one team your whole career. … I would really like to be one of those guys that gets a chance to, and, I mean, it's always tough because it's the business side of the game. But I still feel like I'm in the prime of my career, going into Year 9. I'm a veteran, I like to joke around like I'm old, but I feel great -- I feel fantastic.
Twelve months ago, this deal would probably already be done. A complete no-brainer. Pay the man and move on.
But there's a glaring difference on the Arizona defense between then and now.
The addition of Pro Bowl pass-rusher Chandler Jones.
The Cardinals acquired Jones, who tallied a career-high 12.5 sacks for the Patriots last year, in a March trade. Campbell told Vince Marotta of Arizona Sports that the move should help the defense, especially on early downs:
Me and Chandler Jones have a really good connection already. We already have that chemistry. We’re not doing it in pads yet, but you can just tell. It’s going to be special.
Chandler Jones is an every-down player — he’s on the field on first, second and third down. Now we become a lot better on first down rushing the passer and be able to run games where we can tell it’s a pass, but it’s a first-down run situation.
There's no denying it's an addition that may cause Keim some sleepless nights this winter. In Floyd, Fitzgerald, Campbell and Jones, the Cardinals have four players with expiring contracts who could each easily command more than $10 million per season.
Something has to give.
But before that day comes, Keim and fans of the team will get to watch an Arizona front seven that should make quarterbacks thoroughly miserable. I won't sit here and predict 12.5 sacks again for Jones, as it's a fluky stat.
I'll go one better and predict that Campbell hits double digits for the first time ever as Arizona makes a run to Houston.
Verdict: Buy all day long unless you're a quarterback. Then cry.
Matt Kalil, OT, Minnesota Vikings
You had to know an offensive lineman was going to work his way onto this list somewhere. And said lineman would be a tackle—the linchpins of most lines.
As Matt Kalil of the Minnesota Vikings enters an option year that will pay the four-year veteran just over $11 million in 2016, just how good a tackle is he?
When the Vikings made Kalil the fourth overall pick in 2012, the belief was that the former USC standout would become the team's blindside bedrock for years to come. He appeared well on his way after making the Pro Bowl as an alternate as a rookie.
Kalil has yet to so much as recapture that rookie form, much less build on it. After ranking 22nd among tackles in 2012, Kalil fell to 43rd in his sophomore season. In 2014, playing on a pair of bad knees, Kalil plummeted to 79th—the sixth-worst qualifier at the position.
Kalil rebounded to 42nd a season ago. It's an improvement but hardly the sort of ranking that would appear to merit the third-highest 2016 cap hit among tackles.
Heading into a make-or-break 2016, Kalil told ESPN.com's Ben Goessling that his knees are pain-free for the first time in years:
I play well, or I don't, and everything takes care of itself. That's always been my mindset. Your play on the field has to be good, and everything else will settle in. It's a little extra motivation. Obviously, I want to stay a Viking the rest of my career and play for four or five more years, or who knows how much longer I can play. But I want to compete and play at a high level as long as I'm in the NFL. I'm pretty optimistic this year; I've had a full offseason so far, and I'm ready to get after it when camp comes around.
The Vikings made significant changes up front in 2016, adding offensive line coach Tony Sparano and veteran guard Alex Boone. There's ample reason to believe the unit will improve in 2016.
The question then becomes just how much Kalil can improve. He was drafted as an elite tackle and is being paid like one in 2016. But we haven't seen anything since he left USC to indicate Kalil will ever play like an elite left tackle.
That isn't to say he's not good. Just that good may be all he's ever going to be.
Luke Joeckel, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars
Kalil isn't the only high-profile young tackle who hasn't lived up to his billing in recent years. Nor is he the only one of those tackles entering a contract year.
In fact, it says just about everything you need to say about Luke Joeckel's three seasons in the NFL that the Jacksonville Jaguars elected not to pick up the fifth-year option on the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Or as it's now known, "The Dark Draft of Mordor."
In the two full seasons Joeckel has actually played (injury wiped out most of his rookie season), he's alternated between mediocre and awful. Last season he allowed seven sacks and a staggering 39 hurries. Both ranked in the bottom 10 at his position, per PFF.
And that was an improvement over the year before, when he allowed eight sacks.
But wait, it gets better!
With the signing of free agent Kelvin Beachum, it appears the Jaguars are already readying for a post-Joeckel future. Granted, Beachum is also dinged up, and there are those (including John Oehser of the team's website) who think it isn't a foregone conclusion that Beachum will beat out Joeckel at left tackle:
When (Beachum) returns, I would imagine he and Joeckel will switch days working with the first team for a while – similar to how Luke Bowanko and Stefen Wisniewski switched days/practices working with the first unit at center last training camp. My guess is that will be the setup for about three weeks – until around the third preseason game. I think the Jaguars generally are entering training camp with the idea that Beachum probably will end up winning the job with Joeckel starting at left guard. I’m still of the idea that Joeckel will be tougher to beat out than many believe, but we’ll see.
The reality is this: Unless Beachum is hurt, based on their respective bodies of work to date, he'll beat out Joeckel easily.
Another harsh reality: Joeckel hasn't played well. At all. He hasn't given one reason to think that will change in 2016. All he's done so far is appear to be one of the bigger busts in a draft filled with them.
Come free agency next year, some NFL team will talk itself into overpaying Joeckel based on his potential, based on that No. 2 overall pick status and collegiate pedigree.
Then it will find out what the Jaguars already know.
He just isn't that good.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
"May you live in interesting times" is a slogan Jason Pierre-Paul no doubt wishes he'd never heard.
The past 12 months have been a whirlwind for the 27-year-old. At this point in 2015, talk surrounded the megadeal Pierre-Paul and the Giants were discussing after the team applied the franchise tag to him.
Then came the Fourth of July and the fireworks accident that cost Pierre-Paul part of his right hand and tens of millions of dollars—followed by a truncated season in which he managed a single sack.
Pierre-Paul is back in New York in 2016, but rather than playing the first season of a $100-plus million whopper, he's on a one-year, $10 million "prove it" deal.
Pierre Paul assured Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News that his Independence Day festivities this season are going to be much different. “I’ll be gone,” Pierre-Paul said. "I won’t even be in the United States. Where I’m going, they don’t even celebrate the Fourth of July.”
The seventh-year veteran also allowed that the JPP who existed one year ago is gone for good:
I will never be completely back to normal, but I’m doing everything they ask me to do. I find ways around it. That is why I am out there today. I am lifting weights, I’m out here with the guys. I won’t say it is normal, but it is normal for me. I can deal with it.
There are reasons for optimism. Yes, Pierre-Paul only had the one sack in eight games last year. But the burst that made him such a force off the edge hasn't diminished. In fact, he ranked 11th among 4-3 ends last year in pass-rushing, per Pro Football Focus. Pro-rated over an entire season, his 34 hurries would have led the NFL.
There were all sorts of close calls. He just couldn't seal the deal.
With a full offseason to acclimate to his new situation, Pierre-Paul is going to get better. He may never be the force he once was, but he can still be pretty danged good.
Stephon Gilmore, CB, Buffalo Bills
There are those who would argue that Stephon Gilmore has actually been something of a disappointment over his four NFL seasons. You won't often hear the fifth-year pro's name mentioned among the best at his position.
Given his status as a top-10 draft pick, it's not an unfair assessment. He hasn't posted many splash plays, failing to intercept more than three passes in a season. His ranking of 20th at the position last year at Pro Football Focus was good but not great.
Gilmore will get paid like an elite cornerback during an $11 million option year in 2016, but according to Vic Carrucci of the Buffalo News, if he wants Josh Norman money ($15 million per season), it's going to come somewhere else in 2017:
Gilmore is being fairly compensated now. The Bills, as I understand it, would be willing to put him in the range of about $12.5 million, maybe $13 million, per year. But they aren't going to $15 million. Their cap space doesn't allow it and, with (Tyrod) Taylor likely to be getting a huge payday in the future and second-year corner Ronald Darby headed for a whopping second contract in a couple of seasons, they can't justify the room a Norman-like deal would devour.
Teammate Marcell Dareus, who just last year reaped his own nearly $100 million windfall with the Bills, told SiriusXM Radio his advice to Gilmore was simple: control what you can and let your work speak for you.
"He's got to understand that it's a business and you've got to be patient," Dareus said. "You have to be patient, you can't just be like this, like that. You still have a job. You still have a job. Do your job and just come to be patient. Let things fall as they may."
It's good advice. And barring something catastrophic, Gilmore is going to make a lot of money next year. The number of teams that have shutdown cornerbacks is a lot lower than the number of teams that want one.
But the same problem exists with Gilmore as Kalil. He's going to get paid like an elite option at a premium position, but he hasn't played like one. Part of the reason the Bills may let him walk is that Ronald Darby flat-out outplayed him in 2015.
We've seen nothing to date that would lead me to think that's suddenly going to change, no matter how badly an NFL team wants to believe it will.
David DeCastro, OG, Pittsburgh Steelers
For the most part, interior linemen toil in relative obscurity in the NFL. They bang away in the trenches week after week without ever getting a Chunky Soup commercial.
They also don't get paid as much as their high-end defensive counterparts. You won't find an offensive guard making $15 million per season.
That isn't to say there aren't hog mollies who earn some serious coin, and David DeCastro of the Pittsburgh Steelers is about to join their ranks.
In fact, as Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com pointed out, now that DeCastro can add All-Pro to his resume, he might become the highest-paid guard in the league:
Expect him to seek something close to Kelechi Osemele's five-year, $58.5-million deal with Oakland. With Osemele’s average of $11.7 million per year assuming he plays the deal out, that’s $3-plus million more than the next closest guards, Arizona’s Mike Iupati and Philadelphia’s Brandon Brooks at $8 million apiece. It is unclear if the Steelers would be willing to hit the $12 million mark, but DeCastro is more accomplished than Osemele, so both sides should be able to find a sweet spot.
It may have taken the former unanimous All-American and 24th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft a bit longer to realize his potential than the Steelers expected, but after ranking inside the top 25 at his position last year at PFF and playing the fourth-most snaps of any guard in football, it's safe to say the Steelers got what they were hoping for from DeCastro.
The time has come now to pay for it. The Steelers would like to have this deal done well before next spring, but for a Pittsburgh team with little cap space, that may be easier said than done.
Make no mistake, though: It will get done, even if another quality season winds up costing Pittsburgh more money down the line. Fans may underestimate the importance of guards in the NFL, but teams don't.
And the Steelers know how important players like DeCastro are for the final young star in this slideshow.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
It's fitting that we close things asking for whom the Bell tolls—because there probably isn't a harder player on this list to figure out than Pittsburgh Steelers tailback Le'Veon Bell.
When he's healthy, one can argue he's the best running back in the entire National Football League and that the 24-year-old deserves to be paid as such.
However, that "when he's healthy" caveat looms large with Bell. He was held to a career-low 556 rushing yards in six games last year. In each of the past two seasons, he has seen his season ended by a knee injury.
To Bell's credit, even he allowed to Fowler that's it premature to talk contract until he can demonstrate that his knee is 100 percent. "I just want to make sure my knee's good," Bell said. "Make sure everything's straight before all that comes about."
Of course, that willingness to wait might also be borne of the knowledge that Bell's extension will be much fatter coming off a 1,500-yard season than a 500-yard one.
Team president Art Rooney told Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (via Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk) that the team isn't waiting for Bell to prove anything to them. According to Rooney, it's simply a matter of cap space (or the lack thereof) and timing:
[Bell] is somebody we would like to continue to have on the team for the long run. I don’t think we are sitting here waiting to see something from Le’Veon. I think we’ve seen enough. It is going to come down to how his contract fits in with others. It is kind of a jigsaw puzzle.
It isn't a matter of talent. Bell is among the best in the NFL at what he does, and at only 24 he's not even into the prime of his career yet. When it comes to hurting opponents both as a ball-carrier and a receiver, there isn't a better back in the NFL. And that versatility fits Todd Haley's offense in Pittsburgh beautifully.
I want to buy Bell. I really do, especially since at least one of my fantasy football teams will rise or fall based on how he does this season.
I'm selfish. Sue me.
But I just can't get past the 10 missed games in 2015. The knee injuries in back-to-back seasons. At a position where durability is everything, Bell's has been shaky.
And if he misses time again in 2016, that's going to be a huge consideration when he and the Steelers sit down to play let's make a deal.
Bell won't have much trouble bettering 2015's numbers. But to break the bank he needs a season like 2014's 2,200 total yards and 11 scores.
That's a tall order for a back coming off a major injury who has struggled to stay on the field.