Contract-Year NFL Players with the Most on the Line in Training Camps
For just about every NFL player, there's a lot on the line in training camp. Most are just trying to hang on to roster spots and keep their dreams of playing in the league alive. Others are trying to work their way into the starting lineup...or stay there.
And for some, there's nothing going on but the rent.
Granted, some contract-year players have little to worry about in 2018. Regardless of what happens this season, Oakland Raiders edge-rusher Khalil Mack is going to get his megadeal. So will defensive lineman Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams.
However, some players are entering a season that will define their careers. Play their cards right, and tens of millions of dollars in guaranteed money will follow. Come up short, and next year will bring a soft free-agent market and a prove-it deal at best.
These players are at a fork in the road, about to embark on one of the most important journeys of their lives.
A journey that begins in training camps in this summer.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, New York Jets
Generally speaking, if a young quarterback has led his team to the playoffs, contract-year training camps are a time for celebration. They know that a massive payday is just around the corner.
However, Teddy Bridgewater is not most young quarterbacks with a trip to the playoffs on his resume. After a horrific knee injury in camp two years ago with the Minnesota Vikings, Bridgewater will be battling veteran Josh McCown and rookie Sam Darnold for reps with the New York Jets after barely playing over the last two years.
As the Associated Press reported (via CBS New York), Bridgewater said his knee is feeling as well as it has in a long time.
"It feels great," he said earlier this week. "I've been working with the training staff. We've been making some great progress. The goal is to get better each day. That's our primary focus right now. That's my focus as an individual goal, and we're going to continue to just make those strides."
To his credit, Bridgewater looked sharp at OTAs, according to the AP. And even with the long layoff—he's played just a handful of snaps since the 2015 postseason—the 2014 first-round pick is still only 25 years old.
But if he's going to carve out a role this year that could get him a chance to start elsewhere in 2019 (the Jets are all but surely Darnold's in the long term), it's going to take many more good showings on the practice field.
Terrelle Pryor, WR, New York Jets
It wasn't long ago that Terrelle Pryor Sr. appeared to be headed for a big payday. The 28-year-old converted quarterback hit free agency in 2017 fresh off a 77-catch, 1,007-yard season with the Cleveland Browns.
Even after Pryor settled for a one-year, $6 million prove-it deal with the Washington Redskins, his career seemed like it was trending up. He just had to back up that breakout season, and some team would fill up the Brink's truck.
Instead, the truck ran over Pryor.
Everything that could go wrong in Washington, D.C., did. Pryor didn't fit well into the Washington offense, and he battled injuries and fell out of favor with coaches. By season's end, he had caught all of 20 passes for 240 yards.
That miserable season "earned" Pryor another one-year deal for significantly less money ($4.5 million)—this time with the Jets. At this point, Pryor is in make-or-break mode. The upcoming campaign could be his last, best chance to demonstrate that 2016 wasn't a fluke.
Unfortunately, things aren't off to the best start. Per Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, Pryor sat out the first part of OTAs while recovering from another ankle injury.
He's not going to create any separation on the sidelines as part of a crowded depth chart.
At least none in the direction he wants.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
It wasn't supposed to be like this for Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert. In 2015, he caught 52 passes for 615 yards and an eye-popping 13 touchdowns en route to a Pro Bowl nod.
Eifert looked to be headed toward the ranks of the elite players at his position. Instead, he settled for a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Bengals this spring and will find himself right back on the market after the season.
The reason isn't hard to pinpoint. Eifert has more than a few abilities as a pass-catcher, but over the past two seasons, availability hasn't been one of them.
Since 2015, Eifert has missed 22 of 32 possible regular-season games—just under 70 percent. Last year, back and knee surgeries cost him 14 contests, and he's appeared in more than eight games in a season just twice in five years.
At the outset of OTAs, Eifert was in a familiar spot: on the sidelines, per Jay Morrison of Cox Media Group. It makes sense to bring him along slowly, but at some point in the not-too-distant future, the 27-year-old tight end is going to have to show he can produce with regularity—that the Bengals can count on him week in and week out.
Otherwise, that next deal will be for a lot less than $5.5 million.
Trent Brown, OT, New England Patriots
Less than a year ago, Denver Broncos pass-rusher extraordinaire Von Miller told ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner that Trent Brown was the best right tackle in the NFL:
"I've said it before, he’s a great tackle. He is the best right tackle in the National Football League, if not a top-five offensive tackle, period. So going against Trent Brown and Joe Staley, they have two of the best tackles. Trent Brown is one of the best in the National Football League, and Joe Staley has been one of the best for a long time."
The San Francisco 49ers apparently did not share this assessment. During April's draft, they shipped Brown (along with a fifth-round pick) to the New England Patriots for a third-rounder.
It wasn't much of a haul for a player who started 26 games over the last two years. But a shoulder injury cut short Brown's 2017 season, and weight has long been an issue for the 6'8", 355-pounder.
Now Brown is heading into the last year of his rookie deal on a new team and potentially about to switch positions. With Marcus Cannon seemingly entrenched at right tackle, Brown will compete with LaAdrian Waddle (and perhaps first-round rookie Isaiah Wynn) for one of the most important line spots—protecting the blind side of Tom Brady.
If the 25-year-old big man can show the versatility to play both tackle spots and prove that he's healthy? Quality free-agent tackles get paid.
Alex Okafor, DE, New Orleans Saints
At first glance, New Orleans Saints defensive end Alex Okafor might not appear to be the sort of player with a ton to prove this year. Or someone who could be set to hit the jackpot.
The 27-year-old's best season came in 2014, when he amassed eight sacks with the Arizona Cardinals. But Okafor has totaled just 10 sacks in the three seasons since, and he's missed time in each of those campaigns, including six games in 2017.
Those missed contests came courtesy of an Achilles tear, but Okafor told Josh Katzenstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he expects to be ready when training camp gets underway.
"I'm right on track," he said at the beginning of the month. "I should be ready to go by training camp, but honestly, at this point, there's no rush. We're just trying to take it one day at a time and make sure that when I do come back, I'm right back where I was."
With New Orleans' selection of Marcus Davenport, the clock appears to be ticking on Okafor's time in the Big Easy. The Saints didn't move up in Round 1—trading a 2018 fifth-rounder and a 2019 first-rounder to pick Davenport—so they could hand Okafor a pile of money and have him play ahead of the 21-year-old.
However, while Davenport is a wildly talented prospect, he's also a raw one. If Okafor is as healthy as he says, he has the inside track to start opposite Cameron Jordan—at least early in the season.
That may not be enough to keep Okafor in New Orleans, but it will go a long way toward determining the size and location of his next contract.
David Irving, DT, Dallas Cowboys
When he was on the field in 2017, Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle David Irving made quite the impact. In just eight games, the 24-year-old amassed seven sacks.
But Irving also missed four games to a suspension and another four to a concussion. This is a huge year for him. If he is able to stay on the field and back up those numbers, the second-round tender he got from the Cowboys will look like spare change.
There's a reason Irving got that second-round tender instead of a first, though. And it isn't just because of that suspension last year.
As Clarence E. Hill Jr. reported for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , Irving's attendance at the Cowboys' offseason conditioning program was...less than stellar.
Both head coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli were blunt while explaining why Irving wasn't on the field at the outset of OTAs.
"[He is] working his way back into shape," Garrett said.
"Not in shape," Marinelli concurred.
To say that this is not a good look at the beginning of a make-or-break season is an understatement. There's still time for Irving to get his act together and build on last year's success.
But all the talent in the world is of little use if he doesn't put in the work.
Dee Ford, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
In 2016, Dee Ford looked to be coming into his own with the Kansas City Chiefs. After he piled up 38 tackles and 10 sacks, the team gladly exercised his fifth-year option for 2018.
With Tamba Hali on the physically unable to perform list to open the 2017 season, the table was set. The time had come for Ford to claim his spot as the long-term starter opposite Justin Houston.
The fact that Ford's on this list should tell you something went wrong.
He played in just six games last year and ended up going on injured reserve with a back issue, managing just two sacks. The 27-year-old was expected to fail his physical a few months ago, according to Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star, which would in turn guarantee his $8.7 million salary for 2018.
After that, the guarantees run out.
Ford has shown more than a few flashes, and proven pass-rushers are worth their weights in gold. That's especially true when you consider that Houston carries a cap hit in the range of $20 million each of the next three seasons.
If 2016 Ford emerges again, the Chiefs will have a hard choice to make: Expend upward of $40 million in wiggle room on their outside linebackers, or consider the unthinkable and move on from Houston.
If 2017 Ford shows up, though, this is likely the end for him in K.C.
Denzel Perryman, ILB, Los Angeles Chargers
It may seem a little strange to be talking up Denzel Perryman given how God-awful the Los Angeles Chargers were against the run in 2017 (31st in the league). Those struggles, however, had more to do with the linebacker's absence than his presence. He missed over half the season after tearing a ligament in his ankle in a preseason game last August.
As defensive coordinator Gus Bradley told Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times when Perryman returned in November, when the linebacker is on the field, he is easily the team's most athletic and explosive option.
"He's very instinctive and is probably our most explosive linebacker as far as his ability to hit and tackle," Bradley said. "You can tell when he came into the huddle that players lit up. He has that presence about him. He's aggressive, he plays with a lot of energy, and he rarely makes mistakes."
The issue, though, is the same it's always been: durability. Perryman has yet to make it through a 16-game slate unscathed since the Chargers selected him in the second round of the 2015 draft. He missed nine games a year ago. Four the year before that. Two the season before that.
If that trend continues and Perryman misses significant time in 2018, he may be forced to settle for a one-year deal in 2019.
But if Perryman stays healthy and can post the first 100-tackle season of his career, he'll hit free agency as arguably the best player available at his position.
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
The last player is something of an anomaly on this list. The 26-year-old has already had his breakout season. In 2017, Dennard piled up 85 combined tackles and a pair of interceptions. Both were career highs.
Picking up his fifth-year option was one of the easier decisions for Cincy in recent years.
Per Brian Calloway of the Lansing State Journal, Dennard thinks last year was just a step in the right direction. There's still a lot of work to be done.
"I have a lot to build on, and I have a lot to prove still," Dennard said. "I think I'm an All-Pro or Pro Bowl-caliber player, and I just think I need to continue to do what I'm doing and be healthy."
Prior to last season, Dennard had been a serviceable corner but hardly a star. But then he lived up to his status as the 24th overall pick in the 2014 draft. According to CBS Sports, Dennard finished as a top-25 cornerback on Pro Football Focus.
If he can repeat last season's success (or even come close), he'll hit free agency at one of the NFL's premium positions in the prime of his career—if the Bengals don't sign him to a fat extension first.
He has tens of millions of reasons to get after it from the first day of camp this year.