Projecting NFL's next big-money contracts

The Minnesota Vikings have made Harrison Smith the highest-paid safety in the NFL, wrapping up one of the most anticipated (and likeliest) contract agreements of the summer. Which can only lead to one question: Who's next?

June and July are big business months for the NFL, despite the relative lack of on-field activity. The July 15 deadline for extending players under the franchise tag sparks some deals. For others, the motivation is a desire to finish negotiations before the start of training camp.

What follows is a projection of the NFL's next big-money contracts. They're listed in alphabetical order, and it's always possible that they could be delayed. But at some time relatively soon, these players should have a few more zeros at the end of their current salaries.

Le'Veon Bell

Position: Running back

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

Comment: Bell is the best of a trio of running backs selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, and his contract would expire after this season (along with Giovani Bernard and Eddie Lacy) without a new deal. Unless your name is Adrian Peterson, you're not getting an eight-figure annual salary as a running back. But Bell should push for a deal that nears the $9.05 million averaged by the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles.

Eric Berry

Position: Safety

Team: Kansas City Chiefs

Comment: Berry is scheduled to earn $10.8 million this season as the Chiefs' franchise player. Smith's five-year, $51.5 million deal offers the sides a good glimpse at the market value for Pro Bowl safeties.

Drew Brees

Position: Quarterback

Team: New Orleans Saints

Comment: Brees is entering the final year of a contract that pays him $20 million and counts $30 million against the salary cap. He turned 37 in January, but the Saints don't have an heir apparent on the roster and it would take a whopping $43.09 million to use the franchise tag on him next offseason. So unless the Saints want to move on in 2017, they'll need to do a multiyear extension before then.

Jamie Collins

Position: Linebacker

Team: New England Patriots

Comment: Collins is the most talented of a number of Patriots players who will be in the contract market over the next year or so, especially after the trade of defensive end Chandler Jones. The Patriots don't often hand over premium contracts, and over the years they've been able to recover from key personnel losses. But Collins wants an elite deal, and if the Patriots aren't willing to give it, someone else will in free agency next year.

Kirk Cousins

Position: Quarterback

Team: Washington Redskins

Comment: At the moment, it appears Cousins will play out the season under his $19.953 million franchise tag number. But that could change, and unless he takes a big step back on the field in 2016, Cousins will receive a multi-year contract that averages near $20 million per season within the next year.

Alshon Jeffery

Position: Receiver

Team: Chicago Bears

Comment: As a franchise tag player, Jeffery is scheduled to earn $14.599 million this season -- the highest single-season cash total for any receiver in the NFL. Both sides are interested in a deal to extend the agreement beyond 2016, but it'll be tricky. Jeffery made the Pro Bowl in 2013 but has had some injury issues, and the Bears must decide if he should be one of the NFL's highest-paid receivers. The current bar for annual salaries among receivers is $15 million, for the Cincinnati Bengals' A.J. Green.

Andrew Luck

Position: Quarterback

Team: Indianapolis Colts

Comment: Luck will earn $16.155 million this season in the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. Given his importance to the Colts, he should be in line for a market-setting new deal. At the moment, the highest-paid NFL quarterback on an annual basis is the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco ($22.13 million per year).

Tyrann Mathieu

Position: Cornerback/safety

Team: Arizona Cardinals

Comment: Mathieu has suffered two major knee injuries in three seasons, but the Cardinals are convinced he will be a cornerstone of their defense for years to come. Both sides want a deal to happen long before he is eligible for free agency after this season. The trick: factoring in the time Mathieu lines up at cornerback (a more expensive position) and the extent to which that impacts his value.

Von Miller

Position: Linebacker

Team: Denver Broncos

Comment: Miller would be paid $14.129 million this season if he remains under the franchise tag. The bar he would presumably like to scale is the $16.83 million annual average of Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston. The Broncos have a tight salary-cap situation but could make it work if they want.

Muhammad Wilkerson

Position: Defensive end

Team: New York Jets

Comment: Wilkerson isn't happy about his status as the Jets' franchise player. At the moment, the Jets appear to have no urgency to give him a long-term deal, especially with Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams also on their defensive line depth chart. There has been some speculation that the Jets would franchise Wilkerson in consecutive years rather than commit long term, but the guess is that something will come before then -- either with the Jets or another team.