You can argue that just about every year in the NFL is a contract year. The only players with more than two years of job security are rookie first-round picks and true upper-echelon superstars. Most free-agent deals these days are for two years of guarantees with team options afterward, and even those guys are the exceptions to the rule. Such is life in a league with non-guaranteed contracts.
With so many players operating year to year and the average career being shorter than any other major U.S. sport, each individual season is more important for a football player than it is for players elsewhere. Players such as Brock Osweiler (seven starts) and Byron Maxwell (17 starts) were able to unlock huge sums of money in free agency on what basically amounted to a season or less of work. That almost never happens in other sports.
Everyone has something on the line this year, but players who are at or near the end of their current deals have the most to gain or lose in 2017. With that in mind, I went through the players who were likely to become free agents in 2018 or 2019 and attempted to estimate how a great 2017 or a disappointing campaign would impact their short-term earnings. For each player, I calculated the money they probably would make in 2018 if they had a frustrating campaign this year and signed a one-year "prove-it" deal and compared it to what they would make if they performed at a 90th percentile level for their talent and established level of performance.
These numbers are for the first three years of their new deal, given that some NFL teams use the three-year value of a player's contract as the best measure of a contract's actual value. Those free agents might have only two guaranteed seasons, but enough of them make it to a third non-guaranteed year to use the three-year metric. Obviously, each player will make more over three years than they would in one, but in a league with such a high attrition rate, it's impossible to project what a player might make if they don't do well with the prove-it contract.
I found 15 players for whom I think a great 2017 would be worth a minimum of $30 million. Let's run through those players:
Short-term deal: $8 million
Breakout deal: $38 million
Difference: $30 million
Traded to the Rams after the Bills declined his fifth-year option, Watkins could compete with Alec Ogletree for Los Angeles' franchise tag this offseason. The book on the former fourth overall pick is that he's effective but can't stay healthy, so if he misses time because of injuries in 2017, he could be forced to take a one-year deal in the $8 million range to try to rebuild his value.
On the flip side, if Jared Goff continues to look as good as he did on Sunday, Watkins might be in line for a breakout campaign. Watkins' 2015 season, in which he played 13 games, prorates out to a 74-catch, 1,289-yard, 11-touchdown season. If the former Clemson star stays healthy and manages to top those numbers, he would have something like 1.75 No. 1-caliber wideout seasons to his name before hitting free agency at 24.
Kenny Stills just racked up $25 million over the first three years of his new deal with the Dolphins by virtue of his youth and without a season anywhere near as impressive as Watkins' 2015, let alone whatever we're projecting he does in 2017. Rams general manager Les Snead gave Tavon Austin $28.8 million over the first three years of his contract despite no discernible production. In a market where a half-dozen wideouts could top $40 million over their first three years, it's hardly difficult to imagine Snead doubling down on his trade and giving Watkins a huge deal.
Short-term deal: $3 million
Breakout deal: $33 million
Difference: $30 million
Speaking of the Rams, Robinson was a disaster after being taken with the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft. Snead dumped him off to the Lions this offseason, and Detroit found a spot for him in its lineup after left tackle Taylor Decker suffered a shoulder injury that could cost him half of the 2017 season.
Robinson has looked much improved during the preseason and held up in Week 1 against Chandler Jones. The Lions have no spot for him at tackle in the long term and probably will need their franchise tag (and cap space) for Ezekiel Ansah, meaning that Robinson will almost definitely hit unrestricted free agency this offseason. If he washes out, some team will take a flier on his athleticism and draft pedigree. (See: Joeckel, Luke.)
If Robinson looks like a solid left tackle, though, he'll be a tantalizing option as a 25-year-old blindside protector. Matt Kalil just got $32.3 million over his first three years from the Panthers as a result of producing one solid season at left tackle, and that campaign was four years prior. Robinson would get a big deal.
Short-term deal: $13.25 million
Breakout deal: $44 million
Difference: $30.75 million
The Texans already have tendered Clowney a fifth-year option for 2018 at $13,846,000, so this slightly reduced number accounts for the possibility that Clowney either struggles to stay healthy or plays poorly enough for the Texans to decline the option. A serious injury would guarantee the option, so Clowney would need to toe the narrow line between being injured enough to struggle and healthy enough to pass a physical. It's extremely unlikely.
If Clowney does have the sort of career year everyone seems to be expecting, though, $13.8 million might look like a bargain. The former first overall pick would be one year away from hitting unrestricted free agency at age 26 in the spring of 2019, where he would be in line for an Olivier Vernon-sized contract. The Texans can try to leverage Clowney's prior knee troubles to sign him to a new deal before he starts the fifth-year option, but it would take more than Houston had to give J.J. Watt over the first three years of his extension in 2014.
Short-term deal: $8.5 million
Breakout deal: $40 million
Difference: $31.5 million
The former Chiefs star hit free agency this offseason and found his market dry, as teams probably were concerned about Poe's surgically repaired back and the pass-rushing production that has gone missing since. Poe made it to consecutive Pro Bowls in 2013 and 2014, producing 10.5 sacks over the two-year stretch. After undergoing back surgery in the summer of 2015, though, Poe recorded just 2.5 sacks in his final two seasons in Kansas City.
Poe took a one-year deal to rebuild his value in Atlanta. If he continues to stand out solely as a run defender, he might have to continue playing on one-year deals or accept a below-market deal. If the pass-rushing spigot turns back on and Poe racks up 10 sacks as an interior rusher, he could top the three-year figures handed out to two-down interior linemen such as Damon Harrison ($30 million) and Brandon Williams ($33.8 million).
Short-term deal: $6.5 million
Breakout deal: $39 million
Difference: $32.5 million
This offseason, Pryor didn't find a long-term deal to his liking after an out-of-nowhere season with the Browns and took a one-year, $6 million deal to prove himself with a better quarterback. Kirk Cousins was staring down Pryor at times during Week 1, as the former Ohio State quarterback racked up a team-high 11 targets during Washington's 30-17 home loss to the Eagles.
It's possible that Pryor has a disappointing season and loses targets to Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder, in which case he'll probably have to settle for another one-year deal with a slight raise for the increasing salary cap. Given that the 28-year-old Pryor racked up 77 catches for 1,007 yards with arguably the worst set of quarterbacks in football last season, though, it's hardly out of the question his numbers will rise. If Pryor can produce a 1,300-yard campaign, he would hit free agency in a year in which Washington might need to use its franchise tag to retain some leverage in the Cousins negotiations. DeSean Jackson just got $33.5 million from the Bucs for his three-year deal; given Pryor is a more complete receiver and would be entering free agency a year earlier, it's not hard to imagine him topping that figure.
Short-term deal: $5 million
Breakout deal: $40 million
Difference: $35 million
Quarterbacks have more to gain or lose from huge seasons than players at any other position; remember that Brock Osweiler went from being a backup who would have been in line to get about $5 million per year to a free agent who racked up $37 million in guarantees and $46 million over three years in free agency after seven competent starts with a great defense.
Sadly, the most likely outcome for Bridgewater after suffering a career-threatening knee injury last August is that a team gives the former Louisville star a one-year deal for decent backup money and hopes to get more. Until we see Bridgewater actually play like his old self, it will be hard for any team to commit more. Sam Bradford looked great during Minnesota's Week 1 victory over the Saints, but if Bradford gets hurt or declines, the job could eventually fall to Bridgewater by the end of the season. If he is healthy enough to play by Thanksgiving and comes off of the PUP list to push Minnesota into the playoffs, some team is going to give him meaningful money to start in 2018.
Short-term deal: $8.5 million
Breakout deal: $44 million
Difference: $35.5 million
If you're a true top-end talent, the most lucrative positions to play in the NFL are quarterback, edge rusher, then interior disruptor. The top six interior linemen in the league average a total of more than $50 million across the first three years of their respective deals, a figure topped only by players at those two aforementioned positions.
The best way to get the most possible money is to be a young player hitting free agency on a team that isn't likely to re-sign you. The Eagles have a ton of money invested along their defensive line and probably can't pay Jernigan what he would get in the free market. And they probably won't franchise Jernigan at a price tag of around $14.5 million, given that Philly already has $169.5 million committed to its cap next season.
Jernigan has been a useful, if not dominant, interior rusher during his career, although injuries sapped his playing time in 2014 and 2015. He racked up 5.0 sacks and 11 hits for the Ravens last season and sacked Cousins during his debut with the Eagles in Week 1. If Jernigan has a Kawann Short-esque season and makes it to 11.0 sacks, the free market probably would spot him just below those top six players, solely because of that injury history. The Ravens traded Jernigan because they knew they had no chance of re-signing him; whichever team does might have to pay up.
Short-term deal: $13 million
Breakout deal: $50 million
Difference: $37 million
Barring a career-threatening injury, Bell will get paid this offseason. Will it be by the Steelers? If reports are true and Bell turned down a deal worth $42 million over three years, chances are the contract will come from another team.
The Steelers could decide to franchise Bell for a second time and pay him $14.5 million, but given that no other running back in football will have a cap hit larger than $9 million (and nobody else will be above $7 million), that sort of difference seems impractical. If Bell has a disappointing season, he might have to settle for a little less than that $14.5 million figure on the open market on a one-year deal.
If Bell produces an MVP-caliber campaign and the Steelers can't justify paying Bell $15 million per year, there will be a bidding war for a 26-year-old back with Bell's unique talents in free agency. Could Washington give Bell a mammoth deal as part of their efforts to replace a departing Cousins? Would the Jets make him the focal point of their rebuild? How much of a psychological blow would it be if the Browns signed away one of the best players Pittsburgh has produced in years? It takes only one team to reset a market.
Short-term deal: $9.5 million
Breakout deal: $47 million
Difference: $37.5 million
After re-signing Kenny Stills this offseason, the Dolphins don't appear especially interested in locking up Landry for the long term. Offseason contract talks went nowhere, and it seems plausible that Miami doesn't think its slot wideout is worth paying No. 1 receiver money, which is what Landry should rightfully ask for given his production over the past three seasons. Landry's Dolphins didn't play in Week 1 because of Hurricane Irma, but from 2014 to '16, he was fifth in the NFL in receptions and 12th in receiving yards.
Landry's skill set isn't going to be valued by every team, but with the league moving more and more to the three-wideout set as their base offense, some team is going to pay Landry as if he's a top receiver. A great year from Landry wouldn't net him Odell Beckham Jr. money, but Landry wouldn't be all that far off from his former LSU teammate.
Short-term deal: $11.5 million
Breakout deal: $50 million
Difference: $38.5 million
Jeffery, who turned down a multiyear contract from Minnesota, took a one-year deal after a lost season in 2016. He has a higher perceived ceiling than Landry around the NFL because of his ability to line up on the outside. Even given the injuries and suspensions that cost him 11 games and portions of several more in 2015-2016, Jeffery was a bonafide star during his four years as a starter in Chicago. From 2013 to '16, Jeffery was ninth in total receiving yards, just between former teammate Brandon Marshall and Golden Tate.
At 27, Jeffery is in line for a career-changing 2017. If he excels with Carson Wentz and stays healthy, he could hit free agency as a productive No. 1 wideout in a league in which those guys never hit the market. (The best wide receiver to hit free agency since the new CBA was signed in 2011 is probably Vincent Jackson.) Jeffery bet on himself this offseason: All you have to do is look at guys like Joe Flacco and Kirk Cousins to see what happens when that bet goes right.
Short-term deal: $9 million
Breakout deal: $48 million
Difference: $39 million
It's amazing what a new destination can do. Richardson was forced out of his role as a defensive end in New York by the presence of Leonard Williams, with the Jets recasting him as an unlikely outside linebacker for stretches of time. The Seahawks traded for Richardson to serve as a replacement for top draft pick Malik McDowell, who is out indefinitely after suffering still-unknown injuries in an ATV accident. Richardson looked like a force of nature against the Packers in Week 1, racking up a hit and four run tackles while living in the Green Bay backfield.
There are few human beings on the planet who combine Richardson's size and athleticism, and NFL teams are inclined to give them loads of money. If Richardson can repeat his 2014 season, when he racked up 8.0 sacks and 21 hits for the Jets, he could get a deal that looks a lot like the five-year, $80.5 million extension Short signed in Carolina. The Seahawks might not be in position to make that sort of offer given that Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas will be entering the final year of their deals in 2018.
Short-term deal: $14 million
Breakout deal: $63 million
Difference: $49 million
Taylor is under contract for 2018 as part of his offseason restructure with the Bills. He would earn $16 million if the Bills kept him on the roster, but it's totally plausible that Buffalo moves on from their supremely underrated starter if he struggles in 2017, a move that would push Taylor into what could be a crowded free-agent market for quarterbacks. Taylor would still be a viable starting option for a handful of teams, but his one-year deal might only come in between $10 million and $12 million.
If the former Ravens backup raises his game, though, the Bills might regret cutting three years off the previous extension they had agreed to with the 28-year-old Taylor. Taylor's previous deal was set to pay him $50 million over its first three years, but with far less leverage this time around, the Bills would need to offer a much better deal to keep their franchise quarterback around in the long term.
Short-term deal: $8 million
Breakout deal: $65 million
Difference: $57 million
Are we sure Bortles isn't a zombie? Left for dead after losing his starting job during the preseason, Bortles got the gig back when Chad Henne wasn't much better with the starters in Week 3. He was a virtual bystander during Jacksonville's dominant victory in the season opener against the Texans, going just 11-of-21 for 125 yards and a touchdown pass. The Jags will try to win this way all season, but chances are that their defense won't sack the opposing quarterback six times in the first half.
Even if they do become a team built around running the ball and playing great defense, there would be no reason for the Jaguars to keep Bortles around at his $19 million fifth-year option in 2018. It seems unlikely the UCF product will ever see that option. If Bortles gets released, there will be organizations that give him a second chance at success in 2018. Arizona seems like an entirely plausible destination, especially if the price tag is below $10 million. If Bortles excels, the Jags would almost assuredly want to give him a long-term deal to keep him around for years to come, which would take in excess of $20 million per season.
Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings
Short-term deal: $18 million
Breakout deal: $80 million
Difference: $62 million
NFL scouts and executives have believed in Bradford for years, and his Monday night performance against the Saints is an example of why they might be right. Bradford finally got some semblance of protection from his offensive line and carved up the New Orleans defense, averaging a respectable 7.4 air yards per attempt while posting a league-best 93.9 Total QBR. As was the case with Alex Smith against New England, this wasn't just a bunch of checkdowns.
Skeptics might rightly wonder whether Bradford will look good if he isn't playing the reliably putrid Saints defense, and we'll see. If Bradford plays this way and stays healthy -- and he's already on the injury report for this week because of a knee injury -- the Vikings will have to pay a premium to keep him in town. The franchise tag seems likely as a precursor to a long-term deal, which would come in just below the massive contracts Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers will sign. Even if he gets hurt or struggles, Bradford has shown enough for a quarterback-needy team to pay him near-franchise money on a one-year deal.
Short-term deal: $14 million
Breakout deal: $85 million
Difference: $71 million
The one player in the league with the most to gain or lose this offseason is a guy who might not take a meaningful snap. The Garoppolo story is likely to be on hold until this offseason, when the Patriots will have to make a fascinating choice about their future in the short term and long term. The most likely scenario is that the Pats franchise Garoppolo for about $22 million before doing anything, but that assumes Jimmy G spends the entire season on the bench.
Remember: Garoppolo has really played only a game and a half as the New England starter. If he is forced onto the field and struggles over a multigame stretch, the sheen would be off his status as a potential franchise quarterback. There would unquestionably be a team or two that would give him very low-level starter money to see if there's anything there during the offseason, but the situation would be totally different from how it seems right now.
Alternately, nobody in New England is rooting for Tom Brady to get hurt, but let's imagine a scenario in which Brady is ineffective or injured and Garoppolo plays at an MVP level for 12 games before hitting free agency. The Patriots would keep Garoppolo around, but we would be talking about a quarterback who would hit $100 million over three years in unrestricted free agency. Even if Garoppolo were to take a discount to stay in New England, he would be looking at a deal in line with what Matthew Stafford just got from the Lions. If your best-case scenario is taking a discount and still matching the largest contract in NFL history, you've got some upside.