Eight in the Box: Playing for a contract

A look at a player entering a contract year on each NFC South team who must deliver in 2013:

Atlanta Falcons: Let’s skip the easy way out and not go with quarterback Matt Ryan, because he would be only a temporary answer. You know as well as I do that Ryan is going to get signed to a huge contract extension before the season ever gets here. The Falcons don’t have a lot of other players not under contract through at least 2014, but one position group jumped out at me when I looked at guys heading into contract years. That’s defensive tackle, where Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry all are headed into the final year of their deals. I think Peters is the most significant one. If he can produce a solid season, I think the Falcons will want to keep him around to anchor the interior of their defensive line. Babineaux is aging, and some scouts will tell you he’s in decline. The Falcons don’t hold on to aging players too long (see John Abraham and Michael Turner), so this could be the last year with the Falcons for Babineaux. Same for Jerry, but for a different reason. A major injury as a rookie has kept him from reaching his potential, and it’s unlikely he’ll get a second contract with the Falcons. Peters is the one guy in his prime with starter ability, and a strong season could secure his future.

Carolina Panthers: Defensive end Greg Hardy isn’t fighting for a job as much as he is competing to earn a fortune. Hardy hit double-digit sacks last season, and he and Charles Johnson arguably are one of the league’s best defensive end tandems. If Hardy can hit double digits or close again, he’s going to earn a huge payday with the Panthers or someone else. Although Carolina has salary-cap issues well into the future, I think the Panthers will find a way to pay Hardy if he delivers another big season.

New Orleans Saints: Safety Malcolm Jenkins’ rookie contract initially was scheduled to run through 2014, but it was structured in a way that allowed the final year to void. That means this is a contract year for Jenkins, and the pressure is on the former first-round pick. He seems to have all the physical and intellectual skills, but he has yet to put it all together and become the player the Saints had hoped for. There is at least some reason to believe it all might come together for Jenkins. But the use of this year’s first-round draft pick on safety Kenny Vaccaro means the Saints are prepared to move on if Jenkins doesn’t step up.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: No player fits this category more firmly than quarterback Josh Freeman. When the Bucs were 6-4 and Freeman was playing well last season, it seemed certain that Tampa Bay would lock up Freeman for the long term this offseason. But Freeman stumbled down the stretch, raising concerns about whether he really is a franchise quarterback. The Bucs decided to hold off on the extension and let Freeman go into this season needing to prove he’s worth a long-term commitment. I don’t see third-round draft pick Mike Glennon as an immediate threat to beat out Freeman for the starting job. But the Bucs have started the process of trying to find an answer in case Freeman isn’t it.