Contract-Year Players with the Most to Prove in 2018
The vast majority of them will never strike gold in free agency, while a select few are destined to hit the jackpot almost regardless of what happens in 2018 (Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack and Odell Beckham Jr., to name a few).
But then there are high-caliber players who have yet to consistently shine but have done enough in their football lives (either on or below the NFL stage) that superb 2018 contract years could make them super-rich and wildly famous.
Here are 10 such players.
Cleveland Browns QB Tyrod Taylor
You get the feeling quarterback Tyrod Taylor's career will reach a crossroads in 2018. He's the bridge starter while the Cleveland Browns groom rookie No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, which probably means he'll be auditioning for the rest of the league in the final year of his contract.
In his first season as an NFL starter with the Buffalo Bills in 2015, Taylor made the Pro Bowl with a 99.4 passer rating and 568 rushing yards. But his rate-based numbers dropped in each of the next two years before the Bills traded him to Cleveland this offseason.
He limits his mistakes, and he makes a large impact with his legs. So a big 2018 campaign could convince somebody in this quarterback-starved league to give Taylor a lucrative long-term contract as a starter as he heads into his age-30 season.
But if he struggles, he'll likely be looking for a job as a backup next March.
Green Bay Packers RB Ty Montgomery
As a converted wide receiver, Green Bay Packers running back Ty Montgomery deserves a little extra time to develop as he gets acclimated to his new position. But this league lacks patience with players at that particular spot, so Montgomery can't afford a second consecutive disappointing season as his rookie contract expires.
With 2017 middle-round picks Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams breathing down his neck, Montgomery averaged just 3.8 yards per carry while battling injuries last season. But the team continues to speak highly of him, and it looks as though he'll have a chance to play a major role again in 2018.
If he can bounce back, hold off those youngsters and recapture some of the magic he displayed down the stretch after moving to the backfield in 2016, Montgomery could become a feature back in Green Bay or elsewhere. But if he can't stay healthy or productive and gets lost in the shuffle, he might hit the open market as a mystery man without a position.
New York Jets WR Terrelle Pryor
Not long before Montgomery converted from wide receiver, former quarterback Terrelle Pryor converted to that position. And it looked as though the tantalizing 6'4", 228-pound speedster was putting it all together when he went over 1,000 yards in his first full season as a receiver with the Browns in 2016.
That was a contract year for Pryor, but his resume as a receiver wasn't long enough to pull in a long-term contract. He settled for a one-year prove-it deal with the Washington Redskins, struggled while dealing with a nagging foot injury and is now a member of the New York Jets on another one-year prove-it deal.
If he doesn't prove himself now in what will be a third consecutive contract year, he might have trouble convincing the Jets or anybody else to pay for his services as a 30-year-old in 2019.
On the other hand, another 2016-type season could finally help Pryor hit the jackpot.
Chicago Bears WR Kevin White
The seventh player selected in the 2015 NFL draft has scored zero touchdowns over three seasons. That'd be fine if Kevin White were a defender or an offensive lineman, but he's a wide receiver—one who's played in five games since coming into the league.
It's safe to say he'll be a full-blown bust if he can't stay on the field and start to make an impact in the final year of his rookie contract.
A broken shoulder blade cost him all but one game in 2017, but the 26-year-old has been participating throughout the offseason. And the coaching staff appears to believe in him. New head coach Matt Nagy discussed White in April, per Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune:
"Forget about the whys of what happened. What matters is about right now. He's young. He has a big ceiling. … As coaches [we] try to pull it out of him, but he's got to work hard. He's got to put time in the playbook. He's got to put in the extra work after practice when he can. And then when the game comes, he's got to make plays."
He has to do all of that or risk washing out of professional football less than a handful of years into what once looked to be promising career.
Cincinnati Bengals TE Tyler Eifert
Like White, Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert is a 20-something-year-old first-round pick who has been limited by injuries for much of his NFL career. But unlike White (and like Pryor), Eifert at least has one big season under his belt.
The 2013 No. 21 overall pick caught 13 touchdown passes and made the Pro Bowl in 2015, but he played in just one game in the prior season and has been limited to just 10 over the last two campaigns. All told, he's missed 40 regular-season games in the last four years, and he's been far from 100 percent while dealing with a balky back this offseason.
The Bengals brought him back this offseason on a one-year prove-it deal, but if the 27-year-old can't get and stay healthy, he like won't receive much, if any, attention on the free-agent market next March.
Carolina Panthers OT Daryl Williams
Carolina Panthers offensive tackle Daryl Williams will also try to prove that he isn't a one-hit wonder based on a breakout 2017 season.
And it's important that he does because right tackle isn't a super-premium position. Quarterbacks (see: Keenum, Case) and left tackles (see: Kalil, Matt) might be in high enough demand to get paid big bucks based on one good year, but Williams needs a second one because the 2015 fourth-round pick wasn't much of a factor as a rookie or sophomore before excelling in his third season.
Pro Football Focus graded the soon-to-be 26-year-old as the best right tackle in 2017. Another campaign like that and he'll likely land a massive contract as a free agent, but a down season might force him to take a one-year prove-it deal instead.
New York Giants OT Ereck Flowers
White isn't the only top-10 pick from the 2015 draft who is trying to fight off the bust label entering the final year of his rookie contract. The New York Giants selected offensive tackle Ereck Flowers ninth overall, two spots after the Bears took White, but he's been a disaster the last three years at left tackle.
He and Bucs offensive tackle Donovan Smith were the most penalized players in 2016, and according to Austin Gayle of Pro Football Focus, Flowers has also surrendered 134 total pressures in his three NFL seasons.
As a result, the Giants declined to exercise his fifth-year option, spent big bucks to replace him with veteran Nate Solder and reportedly tried and failed to trade him. (ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan reported in May that the team wasn't able to get a middle-round pick for him.)
His PFF grades have at least improved in his first few seasons, and he only turned 24 in April. So there's hope. That's probably why the Giants are giving him a shot to start on the right side in 2018, but his former head coach isn't confident.
"He can't bend. You got to be able to bend," Ben McAdoo said recently, per Paul Schwartz of the New York Post. “You can run around him on that side just like you can on the other side."
This'll likely be a pivotal season for the oft-maligned University of Miami product.
Jacksonville Jaguars DE Dante Fowler Jr.
Oh, but there's one more top-10 pick from 2015 facing a potential make-or-break year as his rookie contract concludes. Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., who went third overall that year, has run into trouble on and off the field the last three campaigns.
He missed his entire rookie season because of a torn ACL, struggled as a sophomore and was nothing more than a situational contributor in 2017. He did manage to record an impressive eight sacks despite playing roughly 45 percent of Jacksonville's defensive snaps last season, but that wasn't enough for the Jags to pick up his fifth-year option.
That makes this a walk year for a player who will have to fight for opportunities to increase his production on the field while staying out of trouble. Fowler's been arrested on multiple occasions. But he's just turning 24 in August, and he'll have an opportunity to essentially clean the slate with a strong 2018 campaign.
Dallas Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence
Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence exploded with 14.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and the third-highest PFF grade at edge defender in 2017. But because Lawrence recorded just nine sacks prior to last season and missed large chunks of two of his first three campaigns, the Cowboys (and the rest of the league) might want to wait to ensure the 26-year-old can sustain that.
That's partly why Lawrence will be playing under the franchise tag in 2018.
If he stays healthy and puts up Pro Bowl numbers again, he'll be in line to become one of the highest-paid players in the game next offseason. But if he comes back to earth, nobody will likely want to pay him big long-term bucks.
Houston Texans S Tyrann Mathieu
In 2015, Tyrann Mathieu was one of the best defensive players in football. For that, the Arizona Cardinals rewarded him with a five-year, $62.5 million contract extension. But the Honey Badger hasn't been the same since, causing Arizona to essentially tear up that contract in March.
Now, he's a member of the Houston Texans on a one-year, $7 million deal. It'll be the first contract year of his career, which means he will look to prove he can stay healthy and produce the way he did when he had five picks, 17 passes defensed, 89 tackles, a sack and a touchdown in his third NFL season.
Some might give him a pass for a dud 2016 campaign because he was coming back from a major knee injury, and it should be pointed out that he bounced back last season despite failing to make a lot of splash plays during the first 16-game slate of his career.
Still just 26, Mathieu has superstar potential, and this season could determine whether he ever fulfills that.