The Best Bargain on Every NFL Team's Roster

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystFebruary 8, 2018

The Best Bargain on Every NFL Team's Roster

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    All draft picks in the NFLespecially the early onesare building blocks for the future. They're tickets that struggling teams use to crawl out from the league's basement. 

    In the salary-cap era, NFL teams need cheap labor. That's why so many of the league's best bargains at the moment are recent draft picks.

    If a team drafts a Pro Bowl-caliber player or even a solid contributor, it will get four years of quality play at below-market value. That's true even in the first round.

    For example, Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson was on his way to Rookie of the Year consideration before he suffered a season-ending ACL tear prior to Week 9. If he returns to form in 2018, he'll be giving Houston premium value at the most important position in football, all the while getting paid pennies compared to the top quarterbacks. The same applies to second-year Eagles signal-caller Carson Wentz, assuming his ACL recovery also goes smoothly.

    It isn't only quarterbacks filling the league's bargain bin. Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara, two running backs who won individual honors for their accomplishments in 2017 (Offensive Player of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year, respectively) also will be vastly underpaid in 2018. The same goes for Buffalo's Tre'Davious White and Baltimore's Marlon Humphrey, two young cornerbacks who are already starting to outperform their rookie contracts.

    Here's a look at each team's best discount.

Arizona Cardinals: Markus Golden, Outside Linebacker

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $969,318 

    Markus Golden's growth as a pass-rusher suffered a setback when he tore his ACL during a Week 4 overtime win against the San Francisco 49ers. On the other hand, his injury happened early enough that he should be recovered in time for training camp.

    If the soon-to-be 27-year-old doesn't expect a setback over the coming months, he could quickly return to his 2016 form, when he solidified himself as one of the NFL's most promising young edge-rushers. Golden's snap percentage jumped by 21 percentage points compared to his rookie season, and he rewarded the Cardinals with 12.5 sacks (tied for third overall in 2016).

    The 2015 second-round pick also recorded 110 pressures over his first two NFL seasons, according to Pro Football Focus, and his 53 pressures in 2016 ranked 12th among outside linebackers. With Golden heading into the final year of his rookie contract, the Cardinals will benefit from at least one more year of his being underpaid. 

Atlanta Falcons: Vic Beasley, Defensive End

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $705,000

    The Atlanta Falcons regrettably played Vic Beasley as a linebacker more often in 2017, which forced him to drop back into coverage instead of focusing solely on chasing quarterbacks. As a result, his sack total plummeted from a league-leading 15.5 in 2016 to just 5.0 this past season, though a hamstring injury that cost him two games didn't help matters.

    After the season, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said the experiment with Beasley at linebacker will end.

    "I have re-assessed it," Quinn told D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He played six games at linebacker and two injured. I'm going to put him full-time, all-the-time back at pass-rusher. I thought it was best for the team even though some of his production would go down.

    "His best role is doing what he does. He won't go back to linebacker."

    Quinn saw Beasley as a versatile defender and movable chess piece who could be effective in a dual role. However, the Falcons defense benefits more when he just collapses the pocket.

    Beasley is only one year removed from showing how powerful he can be in that role. With one more season plus a 2019 option left on his rookie deal, the 25-year-old can keep giving the Falcons great value and dirt-cheap production.

Baltimore Ravens: Marlon Humphrey, Cornerback

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $1.0 million

    Marlon Humphrey is living proof of how beneficial it is for teams to avoid landmines in the first round.

    Last year's 16th overall pick had a standout collegiate career at Alabama. The 6'0", 197-pound cornerback recorded five interceptions over two seasons for the Crimson Tide and allowed only 50 percent of the throws into his coverage to be completed, per PFF.

    The Ravens eased Humphrey in last season, as he started only five games while playing 54.5 percent of the team's defensive snaps. That didn't stop him from coming on strong in the second half of the season and recording two interceptions along with six passes defensed over Baltimore's final seven games.

    The top 10 cornerbacks in the league are paid an average of $10.5 million annually or more. Humphrey has the tools to join that group quickly, but thanks to his rookie contract, he won't even make $2 million until 2020.

Buffalo Bills: Tre'Davious White, Cornerback

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $923,687

    Like the Ravens, the Buffalo Bills dipped into a cornerback-rich draft in 2017. After trading their 10th overall pick to the Kansas City Chiefs, they used the No. 27 pick on LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White, who immediately became a shutdown presence on the outside.

    White recorded seven passes defensed over his first three games alone. He maintained that fast early pace and finished with 18 passes defensed, which ranked tied for sixth among all cornerbacks. He also snatched four interceptions, and even more impressively, opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of only 68.2 when throwing into White's coverage, per PFF.

    The Bills now have that high-level play under team control for three more years, with an option for a fourth, at an average annual salary of just $2.5 million.

Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey, Running Back

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $1.2 million

    The running back position is ground zero for bargain hunting. The multipurpose talents at the position can produce a significant percentage of a team's offense for little pay since running backs are so injury-prone, which torpedoes their earning power.

    That begins before a player is even drafted. For example, look at Carolina do-it-all back Christian McCaffrey. The Panthers deemed him one of the best running backs in his draft class, and they were willing to take the risk of drafting him with their eighth overall pick.

    They were rewarded right away, as he led the team with 80 catches, which also ranked among the top 15 leaguewide. The 21-year-old also led the Panthers in yards from scrimmage (1,086), and he scored seven times.

    If McCaffrey even comes close to repeating that output in 2018, the Panthers will be getting a top-end contribution from the NFL's 28th-highest paid running back.

Chicago Bears: Jordan Howard, Running Back

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $630,000

    Only four running backs have tallied 2,400-plus rushing yards since the beginning of the 2016 season, according to Pro Football Reference. One of them is Jordan Howard of the Chicago Bears, who has 2,435 yards over that period.

    Howard did stumble slightly in 2017 when his per-carry average dropped by over a yard (from 5.2 yards in 2016 to 4.1 in 2017). However, he made up for that by ensuring the high points of his season reached mountainous levels.

    The 23-year-old pumped out three games with 140-plus rushing yards, including a career high 167 against the Ravens in Week 6. Over only 31 career games, he already has 12 outings with 100-plus yards on the ground.

    Howard combines power and agility to keep defenders missing and piles moving forward. As a 2016 fifth-round pick, he'll be drastically underpaid for two more seasons.

Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Mixon, Running Back

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    John Grieshop/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $712,735 

    Joe Mixon didn't erupt immediately upon entering the NFL. The Cincinnati Bengals running back finished his rookie season with only 626 rushing yards on 3.5 yards per carry.

    However, a running back with Mixon's build (6'1" and 228 pounds) needs to be given a steady diet of carries to wear down opposing defenses. He only had 20-plus carries in two games as a rookiethe first of which didn't come until Week 11—but he still finished his first NFL season with a respectable 913 yards from scrimmage.

    Mixon should enter 2018 atop the Bengals' running back depth chart, and he has shown in the past that a larger workload can lead to frequent fireworks. In college, Mixon needed just two seasons at Oklahoma to record 2,921 total yards and 26 touchdowns. 

Cleveland Browns: Duke Johnson, Running Back

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2018 salary$742,500

    Duke Johnson represents what happens when a team waits until late in Day 2 of the draft to select a running back who can fill a specific need.

    Since entering the NFL in 2015, Johnson has become one of the league's best pass-catching running backs. The 24-year-old leads his position in receiving yards (1,741) over that three-season stretch, far ahead of the next-closest back, the Lions' Theo Reddick (1,512 yards), according to Pro Football Reference.

    In 2017, Johnson set new single-season highs in receptions (74), yards (693) and touchdowns (seven). He's done all that while getting paid an average of just $776,273 throughout his four-year rookie contract. 

Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott, Quarterback

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $630,000

    The Dallas Cowboys have a few salary-cap anchors on their roster. Wide receiver Dez Bryant isn't producing nearly enough to justify his $12.5 million base salary in 2018, and $5.75 million is suddenly looking steep for 35-year-old tight end Jason Witten.

    But when discussing successful teams being weighed down by hefty contracts, quarterbacks are often near the top of the list. The Cowboys are the rare exception because of Dak Prescott, the fourth-round gem they unearthed in 2016.

    Prescott took a step back in 2017, as his per-attempt passing average fell from 8.0 yards to 6.8, while his interceptions skyrocketed from four to 13. However, the second-year quarterback spent six games without the support of running back Ezekiel Elliott, who sat out due to a suspension.  

    Prescott's athleticism allows him to manipulate the pocket and make plays with his legs. He also isn't far removed posting a passer rating of 104.9 during his standout rookie season. He'll be the league's 43rd-highest-paid quarterback in 2018, with the same salary as backups such as Cardale Jones and Connor Cook.

Denver Broncos: Justin Simmons, Safety

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    Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $630,000

    It's an automatic win whenever a third-round pick is talented enough to start 16 games over his first two seasons. It's even better when that player is a safety who finished third on the team in tackles (68) in 2017, four of which went for a loss.

    Justin Simmons has quickly become a confident tackler in the NFL. He didn't miss on a single tackle attempt as a rookie in 2016, per PFF, and the Denver Broncos' confidence in him as a run defender was a factor in their decision to release T.J. Ward at the end of training camp this past season.

    His quality tackling fundamentals carried forward to 2017, as the 24-year-old averaged 5.2 tackles per game. Simmons was a key contributor on a run defense that gave up only 89.4 yards per game (fifth), and he also snatched two interceptions.

Detroit Lions: Kenny Golladay, Wide Receiver

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $586,000 

    At first, Kenny Golladay's rookie-year production doesn't stand out. But context is required.

    The Detroit Lions wide receiver was typically never higher than the third option for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Receivers often need more time to mature and develop upon landing in the NFL, so Golladay working his way up to the No. 3 role as the 96th overall pick is still notable.

    Unfortunately, a hamstring injury halted that impressive early progress. When Golladay returned in Week 10 after he missed five games, T.J. Jones had passed him on the depth chart.

    Yet despite that injury hurdle and the difficult adjustment to the NFL, Golladay still finished his rookie season with a solid 477 yards on 28 receptions over 11 games. He averaged 17.0 yards per reception and scored three times, all on just 48 targets.

    He's a 6'4", 213-pound mismatch creator who glides to get deep fast. Golladay also has the body positioning instincts and midair acrobatics to win jump balls with ease.

    There's a lot of talent in the large package he provides, all at a discount price.

Green Bay Packers: Davante Adams, Wide Receiver

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $1 million

    The price for Davante Adams' services is about to climb over the next few years, as it should. The Green Bay Packers signed their rising 25-year-old wide receiver to a four-year, $58 million contract extension in late December, with $30 million guaranteed.

    It's a well-deserved raise for Adams, who has put together two straight double-digit touchdown seasons. And even more impressively, he finished 2017 with 885 receiving yards while spending much of the year trying to haul in wobbly throws from backup quarterback Brett Hundley.

    Like with most lucrative extensions, Adams' extension is backloaded, and the heavy money doesn't kick in until 2020. That's when he's scheduled to be paid a base salary of $12 million, though for now, the Packers can still enjoy his red-zone effectiveness for the low price of $1 million in 2018.

    In each of the past two seasons, Adams has finished among the top three in receiving touchdowns. Yet in 2018, Adams' base salary will be tied for 70th at his position. 

Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, Quarterback

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $1.1 million

    Us mere humans can be sidelined by a cold for two weeks. Meanwhile, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is already running a mere three months after tearing his ACL.

    He recently posted a video of himself jogging on a treadmill. It was hard not to let your imagination instantly run wild with what Watson could become in his second season if he avoids any further setbacks.

    When the 22-year-old went down, we were robbed of seeing him shatter a number of rookie passing records. Through just seven games and six starts, he threw 19 touchdown passes. That was already a record for the most touchdown tosses over a quarterback's first seven games to begin his career.

    Watson also averaged 8.3 yards per attempt, had a passer rating of 103.0 and ran for 269 yards with two touchdowns on the ground. He has both the arm and athletic ability to lead the next generation of great NFL quarterbacks. And the Texans will enjoy Watson's top-tier play while not paying him like a franchise quarterback until at least 2022 after his fifth-year option.

Indianapolis Colts: Malik Hooker, Safety

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $1 million

    Indianapolis Colts safety Malik Hooker was on a long list of players whose 2017 seasons ended far too soon.

    The 15th overall pick in the 2017 draft had no problem justifying that lofty slot. He's magnetized to the ball and has the concentration to not only be in position to make plays, but also finish them.

    In just seven games before tearing his ACL, Hooker recorded three interceptions despite only being targeted eight times in coverage, per PFF. The 21-year-old looks to be the solution the Colts needed in their secondary after they allowed 262.5 passing yards per game in 2016 (27th) and 246.6 per game in 2017 (28th). 

Jacksonville Jaguars: Jalen Ramsey, Cornerback

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    Logan Bowles/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $2.6 million

    Jalen Ramsey comprises half of the league's best young shutdown cornerback duo. Alongside A.J. Bouye, those two were the driving force behind a Jacksonville Jaguars defense that allowed a league low 169.9 passing yards per game in 2017.

    The main difference between Ramsey and Bouye is their paychecks. The Jaguars spent heavily on their defense during the 2017 offseason, including signing Bouye to a five-year, $67.5 million contract. Ramsey, meanwhile, still has two seasons left on his rookie deal, plus a fifth-year option that Jacksonville will inevitably pick up.

    This past season, Ramsey recorded four interceptions and had the league's second-lowest passer rating when targeted (63.9), per PFF. In 2018, he'll have a salary that ranks 32nd at his position. 

Kansas City Chiefs: Marcus Peters, Cornerback

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $1.7 million

    No one tops Marcus Peters in terms of cornerbacks who can be relied on most to come through with a game-changing turnover.

    Since the Kansas City Chiefs selected him with the 18th overall pick in 2015, Peters has a league-high 19 interceptions over the past three seasons. The next-closest is Oakland Raiders corner Reggie Nelson, who is five interceptions behind, according to Pro Football Reference.

    Peters is tied for fourth all time in the number of picks over the first three years of a player's career, per Pro Football Reference. He's done that while also notching 20-plus passes defensed in two of his three seasons.

    The Chiefs soon must reward Peters for that constant pass-snatching. But for now, they'll enjoy his swarming ball-swatting for two more seasons (including a fifth-year option) at a bargain-bin price.

Los Angeles Chargers: Joey Bosa, Defensive End

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $630,000

    The Los Angeles Chargers didn't have much reason to hesitate when selecting defensive end Joey Bosa wth the third overall pick in 2016. Through just two seasons, the 22-year-old has already far outperformed his rookie contract while providing Pro Bowl-level value.

    Bosa recorded 10.5 sacks and was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016 despite missing four games. He then followed that up with 12.5 sacks in 2017 for a total of 23 sacks over his first 28 games.

    He ranks 11th on the all-time list of most sacks over the first two years of a player's career, per Pro Football Reference. The former Ohio State standout is constantly in the opposing backfield and alters plays even when he doesn't take the quarterback down. He registered 20 pressures over his first three games as a rookie alone, according to Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus.

    While Bosa is often unblockable, his base salary won't crack the top 80 at his position in 2018.

Los Angeles Rams: Todd Gurley, Running Back

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $2.3 million 

    Only two players not named Tom Brady received MVP votes in 2017. One of them was Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley, who finished second with eight votes.

    The 23-year-old had a strong MVP case after a dominant season under first-year Rams head coach Sean McVay. Gurley soared in a new offense while leading the league in yards from scrimmage (2,093), touchdowns (19) and finishing second in rushing yards (1,305).

    Gurley averaged 139.5 yards from scrimmage per game, and he also had a solid outing during the Rams' playoff loss to the Falcons, finishing with 111 total yards. He can sting defenses as a powerful runner up the middle at 6'1" and 227 pounds, or as a pass-catcher when put in space with a chance to reach top speed.

    The NFL's best all-around offensive weapon will be the 11th-highest-paid player on his own team in 2018, and he's 16th leaguewide at his position

Miami Dolphins: Kenyan Drake, Running Back

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $705,000

    The Miami Dolphins traded Jay Ajayi on Oct. 31, only to watch him play a key role in the Philadelphia Eagles' run to a championship.

    But one man in Miami didn't mind Ajayi's departure: Kenyan Drake.

    The 2016 third-round pick had been waiting for more playing time, and he received it following the midseason trade. He capitalized on that chance right away, recording 851 yards from scrimmage over the Dolphins' final nine games of 2017. That included two games with 100-plus rushing yards, and 79 receiving yards during a Week 14 win over the New England Patriots. Drake also averaged five yards per carry following the trade.

    The multidimensional threat is playing under a contract that will pay him only $1.5 million total over the next two years.

Minnesota Vikings: Stefon Diggs, Wide Receiver

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $705,000

    Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs will forever be remembered for his role in the Minneapolis Miracle against the New Orleans Saints. But he was already having a great season long before his heroics pushed the Vikings into the NFC Championship Game.

    It wasn't his best purely from a yardage perspective, as his 903 receiving yards in 2016 still stands as a single-season career high. It was, however, his best where it matters most.

    A blend of physicality and leaping ability made Diggs a reliable target in the red zone. Quarterback Case Keenum went through nearly his first full season as a starter (he started 14 games), and that inexperience meant he needed to rely on Diggs during critical moments deep in opposing territory. Diggs delivered with eight touchdown receptions and a league-best wide receiver rating of 132.2 in the red zone, per PFF.

    Diggs will soon get a sizable raise because of his unique red-zone ability and precise route running. But for now, the Vikings will get one last season of cheap production during the final year of his rookie contract

New England Patriots: Tom Brady, Quarterback

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $14 million 

    Tom Brady was the 2017 MVP and just threw for 505 yards in the Super Bowl. That came after a regular season during which he led the league in passing yards (4,577) while averaging 7.9 yards per attempt and throwing 32 touchdown passes with only eight interceptions.

    He did all of that at the age of 40. Although maintaining such a high level of play at age 41 and beyond is exceedingly difficult, Brady has shown no signs of slowing even after 18 seasons.

    Brady had won his third MVP award in 2017 while making $14 million, the same base salary he's set to make in 2018. He's slated to be only the eighth-highest paid player at his position, narrowly ahead of Andy Dalton ($13.7 million) and Mike Glennon ($12.5 million).

    Brady has taken below-market contracts to help the Patriots remain competitive. His reward has been three Super Bowl appearances over the past four years.

New Orleans Saints: Alvin Kamara, Running Back

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $635,000 

    The New Orleans Saints took their offense in a new direction with a run-oriented approach in 2017. It was a shift spearheaded by the constant playmaking brilliance of rookie running back Alvin Kamara.

    Kamara used his tremendous balance and agility to force missed tackles in the open field, which led to a sky-high average of 6.1 yards per carry. That same slipperiness also contributed to his 2.81 yards per route run as a pass-catcher, per PFF, which was the highest total among running backs.

    The third-round rookie also posted 1,554 yards from scrimmage and scored 14 regular-season touchdowns. Kamara rose up to be one of the league's most dynamic offensive skill players, and the Saints only have to pay him $2.4 million in base salary over the remaining three years of his rookie contract

New York Giants: Evan Engram, Tight End

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $952,196 

    The 2017 New York Giants were a mess offensively. They averaged just 15.4 points per game (31st), and quarterback Eli Manning threw only 19 touchdown passes.

    The last gasp of the Ben McAdoo era wasn't exactly a time for a rookie tight end to thrive. Evan Engram still somehow managed to emerge as the beacon of hope amid the darkness.

    Engram's role increased as the Giants kept losing other key pass-catchers for the season. The 23-year-old finished with 722 receiving yards and six touchdowns despite missing one game and getting shut out in another. 

    He did all that at a position where rookies typically struggle at first to adapt to the NFL. Engram somehow finished fifth in receiving yards among tight ends, and his production could quickly spike even further in 2018, a year when the Giants will pay him less than $1 million.

New York Jets: Jamal Adams, Safety

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $1.5 million

    The New York Jets needed to somehow inject their defense with a jolt of life and energy, especially on the back end. In 2016, they allowed 30 passing touchdowns (tied for 25th) and an average of 7.5 yards per attempt (tied for 22nd).

    They needed a versatile defender who could cover ground in coverage while also coming up toward the line of scrimmage to fill holes against the run. They found that and more in safety Jamal Adams.

    The 2017 sixth overall pick finished his rookie season with 83 tackles, which ranked 15th among safeties. He logged 13 run stops through the first 10 weeks of the 2017 season, which no rookie has accomplished over that same period over the past decade, according to Nathan Jahnke of PFF.

    He's a punishing run defender and is one of just four rookie safeties to record 35-plus stops since PFF's grading began 12 years ago. Toss in his two sacks and six passes defensed, and Adams is the complete package the Jets needed.

    That gets even better when you look at his rookie contract and remember he'll make a base salary of roughly $4 million over the next two years combined.

Oakland Raiders: Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $700,000

    Amari Cooper was downright awful at times in 2017. The butter-handed Oakland Raiders wide receiver finished with five drops while catching only 50 percent of his targets for 680 receiving yards.

    However, Cooper did miss two games due to an ankle injury that lingered during the latter portion of the season. With a return to full health, there's reason to believe he's due to rebound in 2018.

    Cooper was a target magnet able to churn out yardage far longer than he spent being a dud. The fourth overall pick in 2015 was targeted 130-plus times in each of his first two NFL seasons, and he turned that high volume into two straight years with 1,000-plus receiving yards.

    The talented receiver who vacuums up receptions is still inside of Cooper. And if new head coach Jon Gruden can get that guy to emerge again, the Raiders will benefit from one more year of premium production at a discount rate from Cooper.

Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz, Quarterback

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $2.9 million

    An ACL tear isn't the career-altering injury it was a decade ago in the NFL. Still, there's always some caution and brake-pumping needed when forecasting how an ACL tear will mend.

    That applies to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, too, even if he was moving around and zipping 50-yard passes during Super Bowl warm-ups Sunday.

    During the lead up to the Super Bowl, Wentz said he's hopeful to return for Week 1 of the 2018 campaign after tearing his ACL and LCL on Dec. 10, via Zach Berman of the Philadelphia Inquirer. If he either returns then or shortly thereafter and avoids any complications, the Eagles likely will be getting MVP-caliber play while giving backup money to their young, quickly blossoming franchise arm.

    Wentz was a leading MVP candidate prior to his injury in Week 14. He threw 33 touchdowns passes with only seven interceptions and posted a passer rating of 101.9. Wentz finished second to Russell Wilson in passing touchdowns even though he missed the Eagles' final three regular-season games.

    If he returns to that form again, the Eagles will have a generation-leading talent at the helm of their offense. Meanwhile, Wentz's 2018 base salary is rank 21st at his position, two spots below his teammate, Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Juju Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $655,717

    Juju Smith-Schuster needed some time to ease his way into the NFL. That's why his 2017 season can be split evenly into one half that was yawn-inducing and one that was unmissable. 

    Smith-Schuster played 14 games as a rookie, missing time due to a suspension and a hamstring injury. Over his first seven games, he averaged only 33 receiving yards. But over his final seven games, he went off for an average of 98 yards, including two 140-plus yard outings.

    He has the physicality to both win jump balls and battle for extra yardage after the catch. That same package also makes him an effective red-zone option. Including the playoffs, Smith-Schuster finished his first season with eight touchdown receptions.

    The 21-year-old likely won't reach his ceiling for a few years, so the Steelers will keep deploying him as a chunk-play threat while paying him peanuts.

San Francisco 49ers: Reuben Foster, Linebacker

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $875,696

    Reuben Foster's rookie season for the San Francisco 49ers was both frustrating and impressive.

    The linebacker came into the season with known injury issues after shoulder concerns led to a draft-day fall. The 49ers gladly halted that plunge by trading back into the first round and selecting him at 31st overall.

    As they did that, the Niners were bracing for a flare-up with Foster's shoulder. Instead, ankle and rib problems sidelined him for games.

    When healthy, however, Foster was dominant. He recorded 72 tackles over 10 games, including a standout 14-tackle performance during a Week 9 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

    He combines sideline-to-sideline speed with raw power to disengage from blocks, and he used those tools to finish with a run-stop percentage of 11.2, per PFF, which was tied for fifth among inside linebackers. In 2018, his base salary will rank 38th at his position.

Seattle Seahawks: Tyler Lockett, Wide Receiver

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $1.9 million

    Seattle Seahawks wide receiver and kick returner Tyler Lockett will be getting a raise in the final year of his rookie contract. But in 2018, he'll still be making less than Seahawks punter Jon Ryan.

    For a nominal fee, the Seahawks will once again trot out one of the league's most explosive returners, along with an all-purpose weapon who can be deployed as both a receiver and runner.

    Lockett's 949 kick-return yards led the league in 2017, and his 237 punt-return yards also placed him among the top 15. That skill alone is valuable, and it often provides the Seahawks offense with quality field position.

    Lockett plays a role in that offense, too, serving as the home-run threat. He has recorded three straight seasons with 500-plus receiving yards and has scored nine touchdowns as a receiver.

    The 25-year-old has chipped in with 192 career rushing yards and a touchdown as well, making him a well-rounded player who can contribute in multiple ways.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston, Quarterback

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $705,000 

    Yes, Jameis Winston struggled in 2017, perhaps in part due to a recurring shoulder injury. But when healthy, he was still prone to boneheaded decisions, leading to interceptions that came in bunches. He had four multiple-interception outings, including two games with three picks each.

    But there are a few reasons to feel optimistic regarding Winston's future.

    The first is tied to those interceptions. Though he had dud weeks, Winston still logged eight interception-free games. That resulted in an interception percentage of 2.5, a single-season career low.

    He also finished with single-season highs in per-attempt passing average (7.9 yards) and passer rating (92.2). Those numbers were the product of a strong finish to the season when Winston completed 65-plus percent of his pass attempts in four of the Buccaneers' final five games, all while averaging 316.8 yards per game over that stretch.

    There's hope for him yet, and when the Bucs eventually pick up Winston's 2019 option, they'll have two more years before deciding whether he's worth a steep financial commitment.

Tennessee Titans: Derrick Henry, Running Back

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    Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    2018 salary: $941,630

    Here's all you need to know about Derrick Henry and the steal the Tennessee Titans are about to get on their top running back in 2018: He's scheduled to be paid less than Robert Turbin and Fozzy Whittaker.

    Under new head coach Mike Vrabel, the Titans finally need to admit Henry is their best running back and treat him as such, even if they don't release DeMarco Murray.

    It's still baffling that the Titans split carries nearly evenly between those two even though Murray averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in 2017. Henry, meanwhile, scored six touchdowns and recorded 880 yards from scrimmage during the regular season on 187 touches. He then powered the Titans to an upset playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs by averaging 6.8 yards per carry and finishing with 191 total yards.

    Trying to tackle the 6'3", 247-pound Henry must feel like attempting to corral a log cabin pushed down a hillside by an avalanche. It rarely ends well, especially when Henry is near the goal line and is plowing his way toward six points.

Washington Redskins: Chris Thompson, Running Back

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    2018 salary: $2 million

    Prior to the 2017 season, Chris Thompson signed a two-year contract extension with the Redskins that will keep him in Washington until the end of the 2019 season.

    That was the Redskins offering Thompson a bit of job securityas much as anyone ever gets in the NFL, at leastwhile also buying low. Thompson had flashed his pass-catching potential out of the backfield over the previous two seasons, finishing with 589 receiving yards during that stretch. With another step forward, the Redskins would have a running back who can excel in a specific role at a discount price.

    That's exactly what happened in 2017, when Thompson became one of the league's top pass-catching running backs. He logged 510 receiving yards and four touchdowns over 10 games before he fractured his fibula in mid-November.

    The 27-year-old should be recovered in plenty of time for training camp in 2018. That's when he'll look to build on a breakout season highlighted by two games with 100-plus receiving yards.

    All contract figures via Spotrac.

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