There are no free seasons in the NFL. The majority of players on rosters enter training camp on unguaranteed deals, but even the lucky few who have their money secured have something to prove.
Young players are looking to establish themselves and earn a more significant second or third contract after playing on a below-market rookie deal. Veterans are trying to hold on to those contracts and establish their legacy. Coaches and general managers have their money guaranteed, but many of them are one season away from the hot seat, if not out of a job altogether.
Even in that crucible, though, some players and executives have more on the line in 2023 than others. Let's run through my annual list of the people around the NFL who have the most riding on the season and break down what their upside and downside looks like over the next few months.
There is no more obvious example of how much a year can change a player's fortunes than one of the players I mentioned in last year's column.
Heading into 2022, it was unclear whether Jalen Hurts was going to be the quarterback of the future in Philadelphia. I mentioned that the upside for Hurts if he thrived was going to be a deal with $100 million guaranteed, which was about $97 million more than what he projected to make without a breakout season. I was wrong: Hurts landed $110 million guaranteed after his MVP-caliber season. He actually had $107 million or so riding on 2022.
Hurts was the only member of the nine-figure club in 2022. There's one player who very clearly fits that criteria in 2023, and we'll start with him:
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Dolphins
Let's start with the most obvious answer. Like classmates Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts and Justin Herbert, Tagovailoa had his fifth-year option picked up in March, guaranteeing him $23.2 million for the 2024 season. Unlike Hurts and Herbert, who have signed significant extensions, and Burrow, who is sure to sign his own deal before the start of the season, Tagovailoa isn't expected to come to terms on a contract this year. His long-term future with the Dolphins might depend on what happens over the next eight months.