NFL Players with More to Prove Before Receiving Mega Contract Extensions

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 10, 2021

NFL Players with More to Prove Before Receiving Mega Contract Extensions

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    It's easy for fans to become numb to some of the money that gets thrown around in modern NFL contracts. Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen just signed a six-year, $258 million extension, which somehow doesn't feel all that huge in the wake of the 10-year, $450 million extension that Patrick Mahomes signed last offseason.

    The reality, though, is that extensions like Allen's—and Darius Leonard's recent five-year, $98.5 million deal with the Colts—do represent massive financial commitments by NFL franchises. They can heavily impact a team's salary-cap situation and therefore carry inherent risk.

    While getting a jump on rising market values may seem like a good idea, prematurely extending players can come back to bite a franchise hard. The Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles experienced this when they signed their quarterbacks—Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively—to early extensions in 2019. Two years later, Wentz and Goff are both with new teams.

    Locking up Allen and Leonard—and perhaps some other proven young players in line for deals, like Jamal Adams, T.J. Watt, Lamar Jackson and Quenton Nelson—may be prudent decisions. However, plenty of other rising stars have much more to prove before they can be considered relatively risk-free investments.

    Here, we'll examine nine budding standouts currently eligible for contract extensions who still need to prove themselves worthy of that big second contract in 2021.

    Players are listed in alphabetical order.

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    When healthy, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley looks like a future Hall of Famer and a player deserving of a fat second contract. The second overall pick in the 2018 draft racked up 2,028 scrimmage yards as a rookie and produced 1,441 scrimmage yards in 13 games the following season.

    However, injuries are a legitimate concern for the Penn State product. He was hampered by an ankle injury in 2019 and suffered a torn ACL two weeks into the 2020 season. He is still recovering from that injury, and according to Paul Schwartz of the New York Post, Barkley made his return to practice on Monday.

    Unfortunately, being back at practice isn't the same thing as being regular-season ready or at 100 percent. New York has to get a long in-season look at Barkley before it can even entertain the idea of giving him a lucrative extension.

    While Barkley's past production may warrant a new deal, there's no guarantee he can be the same dynamic back he was before the knee injury. Before the Giants invest $12 million-plus per year into Barkley—running back Nick Chubb just inked a three-year, $36.6 million extension—they have to be damn sure that he can be.

Evan Engram, TE, New York Giants

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    Barkley isn't the only extension-eligible player the Giants may have to make a decision about this year. Tight end Evan Engram, the 23rd overall pick in the 2017 draft, is entering the final year of his rookie deal.

    Injuries have also been a concern for Engram—he missed time in 2018 with MCL and foot injuries and landed on injured reserve the following season—though he did appear in all 16 games last year. The question for Engram is whether he can join the ranks of the NFL's truly elite tight ends.

    Engram looked to be on his way as a rookie, finishing with 722 receiving yards and six touchdowns. However, he has only topped 600 yards in a season once since then and has had his fair share of reliability issues.

    While Engram was a Pro Bowler in 2020 with 654 yards and a touchdown, he was also responsible for 11 dropped passes. The Giants don't appear sold on Engram's long-term outlook either, as they signed fellow tight end Kyle Rudolph to a two-year, $12 million deal in free agency.

    If Engram is going to get a big second contract from New York, he's going to have to show that he's both a dependable target and a perennial Pro Bowl talent.

Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    This time two years ago, Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James seemed destined for a massive second contract. The former Florida State star—taken 17th overall in the 2018 draft—was nothing short of phenomenal in his rookie campaign.

    James finished his inaugural season with 105 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, 13 passes defended, three interceptions and an opposing passer rating of only 82.0. James was both a Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro as a rookie.

    Like Barkley, though, James has had his financial future clouded by injuries. He missed 11 games with a foot fracture in 2019 and missed all of 2020 with a torn meniscus. The good news is that James has been healthy and active in training camp, as evidenced by this highlight-reel interception over Pro Bowler Keenan Allen.

    For James, securing a second contract may be as simple as proving his health and durability over the course of this year's 17-game schedule. If he can do that, he could be in line for a deal similar to the four-year, $61 million deal Justin Simmons signed with the Broncos this offseason.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield insists he isn't worried about his second contract yet.

    "I'm worried about winning right now," he said, per ESPN's Jake Trotter. "I think the rest will take care of itself."

    This is a good approach because Mayfield has yet to prove that he deserves a mega-deal. While fellow 2018 draftee Josh Allen has gotten his extension—and Lamar Jackson, the 2019 MVP, has arguably earned his—Mayfield has work to do.

    The first overall pick in 2018 was terrific as a rookie, throwing a then-rookie-record 27 touchdown passes in 14 games. He was also great down the stretch last year, thriving under head coach Kevin Stefanski and leading the Browns to their first playoff win as an expansion franchise. Mayfield was graded second-best among quarterbacks from Week 7 through the playoffs by Pro Football Focus.

    However, Mayfield struggled during the 2019 season under Freddie Kitchens and early in 2020. That's a fact that Cleveland simply cannot ignore as it weighs the possibility of giving him an Allen-adjacent contract.

    If Mayfield is going to be one of the league's highest-paid young quarterbacks, he must first prove that he can be great for more than a half-season at a time. Building off what he did late last season and getting the Browns back to the postseason in 2021 would probably be proof enough.

Mike McGlinchey, OT, San Francisco 49ers

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers drafted their quarterback of the future this offseason when they took North Dakota State's Trey Lance third overall. Having a pair of elite bookend tackles would be a boon for Lance, and San Francisco appears to have one in left tackle Trent Williams.

    Williams, an eight-time Pro Bowler, signed a six-year, $138 million contract with the Niners this offseason.

    The 49ers picked up the fifth-year option of right tackle Mike McGlinchey, but the ninth pick in the 2018 draft has not proven himself to be elite, or worthy of elite money, just yet. While McGlinchey is a strong run-blocker, he has struggled with pass protection.

    Last season, McGlinchey was responsible for five penalties and five sacks allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. Still, the 49ers remain positive about his future.

    "He's made of the right stuff. He's a good football player. He's going to have a great career and I plan on it being here and I hope he takes it the right way and it makes him a better player next year for it," coach Kyle Shanahan said, per Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area.

    McGlinchey's future may well be in San Francisco, but if he's going to get high-market money in a second contract, he's going to have to prove that he can be more reliable as a pass protector.

Calvin Ridley, WR, Atlanta Falcons

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    Atlanta Falcons wideout Calvin Ridley had a breakout 2020 campaign, the sort of season that can lead a receiver to a hefty payday. With Julio Jones injured for much of the year, Ridley took over as Atlanta's new No. 1 receiver, and he did not disappoint.

    Ridley, the 26th pick in the 2018 draft, finished with 90 receptions, 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns. Perhaps more importantly, though, his booming season did not come out of nowhere. While playing more of a complementary role, Ridley was still productive in both 2018 and 2019.

    In his first two seasons, Ridley totaled 1,687 yards and 17 touchdowns. He has now averaged roughly 1,020 yards and nine touchdowns per year.

    However, if Ridley is going to get No. 1 receiver money, he's going to have to show that he can be a No. 1 receiver on more of a full-time basis. The Falcons still have complementary weapons, like Russell Gage, Hayden Hurst and rookie Kyle Pitts. Jones was traded to the Tennessee Titans, though, and will no longer be there to take defensive focus away from Ridley.

    Should Ridley produce another Pro Bowl-caliber campaign in 2021 without the support of Jones, he should soon become one of the highest-paid young receivers in the NFL.

Courtland Sutton, WR, Denver Broncos

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos offense has had its fair share of issues in recent seasons—it's still searching for a long-term replacement for Peyton Manning—but wideout Courtland Sutton has not been one of them. He had a promising rookie campaign in 2018 (704 yards, four touchdowns) and a breakout season in 2019.

    The 40th pick in the 2018 draft was a Pro Bowler in 2019 after finishing with 1,112 yards and six touchdowns on 72 receptions.

    However, the injury bug bit Sutton in 2020, as a torn ACL limited him to just one game and 66 receiving yards. The good news is that he is working his way back and has the Broncos thrilled about his pending return.

    "You can see all his hard work from the summertime, when he was here in an empty facility for a long time and working and 'winning in the dark' as we call it," receivers coach Zach Azzanni said, per Kyle Newman of the Denver Post. "He's a dream to coach and his talent is off the charts."

    Another Pro Bowl campaign could be enough to earn Sutton that proverbial fat cash from Denver, though he'll have to stay productive and healthy to earn it. The Broncos added two receivers in the 2020 draft—Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler—who could cut into Sutton's workload significantly.

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is another player who seemed destined for a big second contract just a couple of years ago. He's also another player for whom injuries have been an issue.

    As a rookie in 2018, the 19th overall pick out of Boise State was fantastic. He finished with 140 total tackles, seven passes defended and two interceptions and was named to the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, a neck injury cost him seven games in 2019, while a broken collarbone wiped out six games of the 2020 season.

    This offseason, the Cowboys drafted another linebacker in the first round, Penn State's Micah Parsons, which further clouds Vander Esch's Cowboys future. Dallas declined Vander Esch's fifth-year option, meaning he'll have this year to prove himself worthy of a second deal.

    "Vander Esch needs to stay healthy and produce. Simple as that," Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News wrote. "He is considered to be in the best physical shape of his career, but a 17-game regular season is his test."

    Vander Esch will need to prove himself healthy, durable and productive throughout 2021, or else he could be looking to get his second contract from a different franchise.

Denzel Ward, CB, Cleveland Browns

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    The Browns have not yet begun serious extension talks with Baker Mayfield, but they have begun negotiations with cornerback Denzel Ward.

    "After extending Nick Chubb, the Browns have begun discussing a potential deal with cornerback Denzel Ward, per sources," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler tweeted. "This could be difficult to do with two years left on Ward's deal."

    Based on Ward's on-field performances, the Browns should be willing to jump on an early extension. The fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft was a rookie Pro Bowler and has allowed an opposing passer rating below 80.0 in all three of his pro campaigns.

    However, Ward has also struggled to stay healthy and has missed four games in each of the last two years, 11 games in all. The Browns cannot count on Ward being a lockdown No. 1 corner if he's regularly going to miss a quarter of the season.

    While Cleveland may be in early talks with Ward, it would be wise for the Ohio State product to prove he can stay healthy for a 17-game run before putting ink to paper. If Ward hopes to be paid like one of the league's best pass defenders, he must first show that his availability is an asset.


    Contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.