Young NFL Stars in Line for Big New Contracts in the Near Future

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 22, 2017

Young NFL Stars in Line for Big New Contracts in the Near Future

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    For all intents and purposes, free agency is over. And now a lot of NFL players are a heck of a lot richer than they were in February.  

    More than 300 veterans have signed contracts with a combined value in excess of $2.3 billion this offseason. But another wave is coming which contains a batch of talented young players with expiring entry-level contracts.

    All of these guys are supposed to hit free agency in the next couple of years. Many of them won't get there. Almost all of them will strike gold one way or another. Here are the ones we're keeping a close eye on.

Raiders QB Derek Carr

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    Fully recovered from a broken leg and preparing for the final year of his rookie contract as a 26-year-old Pro Bowler with an MVP-caliber season already under his belt, Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr could be in line to become the highest-paid player in NFL history. 

    Seriously. The 2014 second-round pick was fire while winning 12 of his 15 starts for the Raiders last year, and it's hard to argue he's worth any less than the $24.6 million average annual salary Andrew Luck is getting from the Indianapolis Colts. Luck is older and no more dynamic, and he signed that contract a year ago. 

    That might explain why NFL Network's Michael Silver reported last week that Carr has "grown frustrated" with the "slow pace" of extension talks, but just last month Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie told Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle that he felt "good" about getting a deal done before training camp. 

    Whenever it happens, it'll be a blockbuster. 

    Predicted contract: Six years, $155 million with $50 million guaranteed

Redskins QB Kirk Cousins

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    During his first two full seasons as a starter, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins posted the sixth-highest passer rating in the NFL. In that span, only three quarterbacks have passed for more yards than Cousins' 9,083, yet 12 have thrown more interceptions. And his 7.91 yards per attempt rank fifth. 

    He also has plenty of tread on his tires coming off back-to-back winning seasons and a Pro Bowl nod at the age of 28, because he didn't get a lot of reps in during his first three seasons in the league. 

    Cousins is slated to make $23.9 million under the franchise tag in 2017, which probably means the 2012 fourth-round pick will demand a huge payday on the open market next offseason. That's if the Redskins let him get there. 

    Predicted contract: Five years, $125 million with $40 million guaranteed

Lions QB Matthew Stafford

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    The majority of the players listed here are finishing up rookie contracts, but we'll make an exception for veteran Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford because players at his very-important position usually have long shelf lives. 

    The 29-year-old is entering the final year of the five-year, $76.5 million deal he signed in 2013, and he's coming off a winning season in which he set a new NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks. 

    Lions general manager Bob Quinn told Sporting News' Alex Marvez earlier this month that the two sides are "in the early stages" of contract talks, but a source recently told ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler that Stafford's camp could "wait for Carr to reset the quarterback market before finalizing a new deal with the Lions."

    Predicted contract: Five years, $120 million with $40 million guaranteed

Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell

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    Running backs are rarely paid big bucks these days, but Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers could be a major exception. The 25-year-old Pro Bowler is coming off a season in which he gained 1,884 yards from scrimmage despite missing four games, and he's a couple of years removed from an All-Pro campaign in which he accumulated 2,215 yards. 

    In fact, four years into his career, Bell is averaging 128.8 scrimmage yards per game, which is the highest mark in modern NFL history (post-1970 merger) among 405 players with at least 5,000 scrimmage yards in total. 

    It's complicated, though, because Bell is slated to make $12.1 million under the franchise tag, he's missed 14 games the last two years due to injury/suspension, and he's recovering from groin surgery as we speak. Expect him to sign a massive new contract between now and next spring, but don't be surprised if it's a shorter deal with less guaranteed money than many might expect. 

    Predicted contract: Three years, $32 million with $15 million guaranteed

Falcons RB Devonta Freeman

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    Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons has a lot in common with Le'veon Bell. He's also a 25-year-old running back who poses a huge threat as a receiver and is coming off a big season.

    Freeman might not stand out on tape the way Bell does, but he's missed just one game the last two years, and during that span he has more yards from scrimmage (3,175) than anyone else in the game except teammate Julio Jones (3,280). 

    And now the 2014 fourth-round pick is entering the final year of his rookie deal. 

    "I want to be the best," he told ESPN's Josina Anderson last week. "I want to be elite paid. Whatever that is, that's where I want to be." 

    Although he could be a candidate for the franchise tag next offseason, Freeman is unlikely to get Bell money. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told the Sporting News' Alex Marvez in March that he expects them to get something done in training camp. If that happens, he should get more than the $8 million per year LeSean McCoy received from the Buffalo Bills two years ago. 

    Predicted contract: Four years, $36 million with $18 million guaranteed

Browns RB Isaiah Crowell

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    In his first full season as a starter, Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell racked up a career-high 952 yards on the ground, including two 110-plus-yard efforts in the final four weeks of the season. One of those—a 113-yard performance in a Week 14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals—came on just 10 carries. 

    Despite receiving little support as part of the league's 30th-ranked offense, the 24-year-old also ranked in the top 10 among qualified backs with 4.8 yards per attempt. One more season like that under a restricted free-agent tender and Crowell should be a hot commodity regardless of whether he hits the open market next offseason. 

    Predicted contract: Four years, $25 million with $12 million guaranteed

Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr.

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    Say what you will about Odell Beckham Jr.'s temperament and/or character, but the New York Giants wide receiver is the only player in NFL history to post 90-plus receptions, 1,300-plus receiving yards and 10-plus touchdowns in each of his first three seasons. 

    The team obviously picked up his fifth-year option for 2018 this offseason, but if Beckham can avoid negative headlines while continuing to produce at that level in 2017, he'll likely earn a huge new contract between now and the start of the next league year.

    Frankly, Beckham will soon become a remarkably rich man either way. But my money's on his delivering again while avoiding trouble in order to become the highest-paid receiver in the game. 

    Predicted contract: Five years, $86 million with $38 million guaranteed

Buccaneers WR Mike Evans

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans hasn't been quite as productive as Odell Beckham three years into their respective careers, but he isn't far off. Only Beckham and Antonio Brown have more touchdown catches than the 27 Evans has put up since coming into the league in 2014, and he also ranks seventh with 3,578 receiving yards in that span. 

    At 6'5", Evans is a monster in traffic, and he appears to be getting better. Still only 23, he cut down on his drops while bolstering his catch rate and increasing his numbers across the board in 2016. 

    The Bucs exercised Evans' fifth-year option for 2018, but he'll likely land a major long-term extension before reaching his walk year. 

    Predicted contract: Five years, $80 million with $35 million guaranteed

Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins

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    Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is a year ahead of Odell Beckham and Mike Evans, which means there's more of a sense of urgency entering the final season of Hopkins' rookie deal. 

    Unfortunately for him, the 2013 first-round pick is coming off a bit of a down year. After catching 111 passes for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns in a Pro Bowl 2015 campaign, Hopkins caught a career-low 51.7 percent of the passes thrown his way while failing to hit the 1,000-yard mark and scoring just four touchdowns. 

    He didn't have a lot of support from a bad group of quarterbacks, though, and the soon-to-be 25-year-old should rebound in 2017. The Texans seem to believe that, which is why general manager Rick Smith told Deepi Sidhu of HoustonTexans.com that re-signing Hopkins is a priority. 

    It might even happen this summer. But if it doesn't, Hopkins could be in for an even larger payday later on. 

    Predicted contract: Four years, $60 million with $28 million guaranteed

Giants G Justin Pugh

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    Top-flight guards have been getting paid this offseason. Kevin Zeitler got $60 million over five years from the Browns in March, and Cleveland also gave Joel Bitonio a five-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. 

    New York Giants guard Justin Pugh has noticed. 

    "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."

    Could Pugh be the next elite guard to land a big deal? It's possible. Pro Football Focus graded him as the fourth-best run blocker in the NFL at that position 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. 

    It's still possible he moves back to tackle at some point in 2017, and the Giants might want to ensure he can stay healthy. But if all goes according to plan, the 26-year-old 2013 first-round pick should make a ton of money in his walk year. 

    Predicted contract: Five years, $64 million with $26 million guaranteed

Giants C Weston Richburg

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    Justin Pugh isn't the only strong young interior offensive lineman entering a contract year for the Giants. It's the same deal for center Weston Richburg, who has started 31 of New York's last 32 regular-season outings in the middle and has missed just one game in his three-year NFL career. 

    In 2015, PFF graded Richburg as the Giants' best offensive player. And although his advanced stats fell off a bit in 2016, that might have had to do with the fact he played the entire season with torn tendons in his snapping hand, according to NJ.com's James Kratch. 

    Yet he still posted the second-best PFF pass-blocking grade in the league among qualified centers. 

    Don't be surprised if the Giants wrap Richburg up long-term this summer. But regardless of when it happens, he'll become one of the highest-paid centers in the game.  

    Predicted contract: Six years, $42 million with $15 million guaranteed

Jaguars C Brandon Linder

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    As a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014, third-round pick Brandon Linder was one of the best right guards in the game. He missed most of his sophomore season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, but then he moved to center in 2016 and was often dominant again. 

    Pro Football Focus graded the 25-year-old as the sixth-best center in football last season, indicating just how strong he is as both a pass- and run-blocker. That versatility is key, and the Jags will likely be willing to fork over a large paycheck to keep Linder around beyond his 2017 walk year.

    Predicted contract: Five years, $32 million with $12 million guaranteed

Steelers DE Stephon Tuitt

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    Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt has yet to make a Pro Bowl or become a household name, but the 2014 second-round pick has quietly become a force the last two years.

    He has 10.5 sacks in 28 starts since the start of 2015, despite the fact he's more of a natural run-stuffer as a 3-4 defensive end. And as a 23-year-old last season, Tuitt earned the league's ninth-best PFF grade at that position. 

    Mark Kaboly of DKPittsburghSports.com reported in February that the team would be looking to extend the big guy's contract before the start of the 2017 season. If that happens, look for him to sign a shorter-term deal worth a lot of guaranteed money. 

    Predicted contract: Four years, $50 million with $25 million guaranteed

Rams DT Aaron Donald

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    Not a lot has gone right of late for the St. Louis-turned-Los Angeles Rams, but they can at least take solace in knowing 2014 No. 13 overall pick Aaron Donald has been close to perfect. 

    The defensive tackle has made the Pro Bowl with eight-plus sacks in all three of his pro seasons, earning first-team All-Pro nods in the latter two. In 2015, his 99.2 PFF grade was the highest in all of football, regardless of position. And then he went out in 2016 and accomplished the same feat with a league-high grade of 88.3.

    Los Angeles exercised Donald's fifth-year option for 2018, but Rams general manager Les Snead pointed out earlier this offseason—per ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez—that Donald "deserves a raise." Gonzalez reports that the team is "very interested" in giving him that raise with a long-term extension this summer, but there's little doubt it'd have to make him the highest-paid defensive player in the game. 

    So let's take Von Miller's six-year, $114.5 million contract with the Denver Broncos and go from there. 

    Predicted contract: Six years, $120 million with $50 million guaranteed

Raiders OLB Khalil Mack

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    But Oakland Raiders pass-rusher Khalil Mack could have something to say about that, because sack artists get the big bucks and Mack has been nearly as dominant as Donald three years into his career—except with edge-rushing flavor. 

    The No. 5 overall pick from the 2014 draft has also been a first-team All-Pro in each of his last two seasons, and he has 26 sacks in that span. He also beat out Donald for Defensive Player of the Year honors last season. 

    It was the second consecutive season in which PFF graded the 26-year-old as the best edge-defender in the league. 

    So there's a chance Donald will get his big contract first, but there's also a chance Mack will trump him soon after that. 

    Predicted contract: Six years, $123 million with $48 million guaranteed

Texans DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney

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    The No. 1 overall pick from the 2014 draft, Jadeveon Clowney, isn't quite as close to a blockbuster extension as it appears Aaron Donald or Khalil Mack is. But after a breakout season in which he often carried the Houston Texans defense without three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, the pass-rusher probably isn't far off.

    After injuries essentially derailed the first two seasons of his career, Clowney really found a groove over the course of his third season. Among 3-4 outside linebackers, only Mack posted a higher PFF grade during the final four weeks of the 2016 regular season, and he was unstoppable in Houston's playoff victory over the Raiders. 

    That landed Clowney in the Pro Bowl and on the second-team All-Pro squad. And it put him in line for what Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle termed a "mega deal" next offseason, assuming he can "repeat [his] 2016 success this season."

    He's got two years remaining on his rookie deal now that his fifth-year option has been exercised, so it appears the team is cool with waiting a little longer to see how Clowney will perform with an apparently healthy Watt in 2017. If he comes through—and there's little reason to believe he won't, based on his pedigree and that aforementioned momentum—he'll become so freakin' rich. 

    Predicted contract: Six years, $105 million with $32 million guaranteed

Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes

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    When throwing in the direction of Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes last season, NFL quarterbacks posted a passer rating of just 47.0. According to PFF, that was the lowest opposing quarterback rating among 119 qualified corners. 

    The 26-year-old 2013 first-round pick also intercepted five passes, recorded 52 tackles, forced a fumble, scored a touchdown, defended 10 passes and graded out at PFF as the best run-defending cornerback in the league. 

    Rhodes did all that in 14 games, earning his first Pro Bowl nod in no-brainer fashion. 

    And it's not as though that was a fluke. Rhodes has been stellar in coverage for much of his four-year career, which explains why Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune reported in February that the Vikes were looking to "discuss a new deal" with him this offseason. 

    Whether they lock him up soon or he hits free agency next spring, Rhodes is likely to become one of the highest-paid corners in the game. 

    Predicted contract: Five years, $72 million with $28 million guaranteed

Patriots CB Malcolm Butler

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    New England Patriots corner Malcolm Butler actually didn't make the Pro Bowl in 2016, but PFF still graded him as the fifth-best player in the game at that position while earning second-team All-Pro honors.

    The 27-year-old was a Super Bowl hero in 2014, a Pro Bowler in 2015 and a highly rated starter again with four interceptions, 16 passes defended, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, a sack and 63 tackles in what was probably his best season yet in 2016. 

    But because Butler was undrafted in 2014, he made just $1.5 million in his first three seasons. He did sign a $3.9 million RFA tender in March, but any hope of a long-term extension this offseason was probably dashed when the Patriots and New Orleans Saints couldn't agree on compensation for a potential trade before the draft. 

    The Pats gave big money to veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore in free agency, which means Butler will likely have to wait until next offseason to cash in there or somewhere else. But as long as he doesn't fall off a cliff in 2017, he'll get elite money anyway. 

    Predicted contract: Four years, $62 million with $26 million guaranteed

Giants S Landon Collins

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    Landon Collins is only two years into his Giants career, but he was so clearly the best safety in the NFL last season that he could be in line for a large new contract very soon. 

    Collins had five interceptions, four sacks, a touchdown, 13 passes defended and 125 tackles in 2016, which was enough to finish third in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year while also landing in the Pro Bowl, on the first-team All-Pro squad and atop PFF's list of qualified safety grades. 

    Since the 23-year-old didn't stand out much at all as a rookie, the Giants might want to wait a year before offering him a long-term extension. But because Collins was (just barely) a second-round pick when he went 33rd overall in 2015, there'll be no fifth-year option available to Big Blue.

    Collins is halfway to free agency. Regardless of whether he gets there, he's going to hit the jackpot. 

    Predicted contract: Six years, $81 million with $35 million guaranteed

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