2017 free agents who could play themselves into huge contracts

Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin and Patriots defensive end Jabaal Sheard could be in line for big contracts next offseason. Getty Images, AP Photo

Timing is everything in free agency. Players rarely have opportunities to hit the open market and test the waters with all 32 NFL teams, and as the salary cap keeps rising, free-agent contracts keep getting bigger.

Maximizing output in the final year of a contract while on the doorstep of free agency can alter the fortunes of a player in a major way. At this time last year, Panthers cornerback Josh Norman was regarded as a quality player at a premium position. He was not a superstar, but he was a player in whom Carolina saw enough to discuss a contract extension before last season. Norman was a breakout star in 2015, and he earned the franchise tag from Carolina, which has catapulted his price tag into a new, far more lucrative tier.

Which players hitting free agency in 2017 could make the leap into the next tier, as Norman did? Here are five very good players who enter a contract season and are primed for substantial paydays in the open market, if they capitalize with productive campaigns.

Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin

Let's use a couple of factors to assess Baldwin's value: his 2015 season, and the wide receiver market of 2016. Baldwin had a historic stretch in 2015 in which he hauled in 10 touchdown receptions in a four-game window and tied for the league lead with 14 for the season. While teams pay for future performance and not past production, Baldwin's numbers won't entirely be ignored in negotiations. He is a No. 1 wide receiver on a team and will be valued as such. This past offseason, players such as Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, who served as the second and third options in Cincinnati behind A.J. Green, received contracts valued at $8 million and $6.5 million annually to be their new teams' No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, respectively. A contract valued near $10 million per season for Baldwin would not be a surprise and would represent a substantial raise from his $4 million salary for 2016. Also, given the pipeline of upper-level talent Seattle has drafted and developed, retaining Baldwin amid a host of other lucrative deals to key cogs could prove to be a challenge for the Seahawks.