Now that NFL off-season programs are getting going and teams are preparing for the 2017 campaign, it’s time to move on from free agency and the draft. It was surely an interesting two-plus months around the league.
Some rather huge contracts were signed by free agents. Meanwhile, others who were looking for big paydays decided to either wait it out or sign short-term deals and test the free-agent market next March. These players are putting it on themselves to perform well next season.
They include a certain former Chicago Bears wide receiver in Philadelphia and a Pro Bowl quarterback in the nation’s capital still waiting to collect his big check. These are among the eight NFL veterans playing for huge contracts in 2017.
Alshon Jeffery, wide receiver, Philadelphia Eagles
Jeffery headed into free agency this past March as the consensus No. 1 receiver on the market. But after it didn’t play out to his liking, the Pro Bowler figured it made sense to take a one-year, prove-it deal with Philadelphia. Still only 27 years old and coming off a suspension, this was probably the best decision for Jeffery.
In terms of where he landed, the former second-round pick couldn’t have found a better situation. To say that Philadelphia’s wide receiver situation was a disaster for then rookie quarterback Carson Wentz last season would be an understatement. Drops continued to plague youngster Jordan Matthews. Meanwhile, former first-round pick Nelson Agholor found himself in the dog house big time.
Jeffery now heads into the 2017 campaign as the Eagles’ unquestioned No. 1 receiver. He does so prepared to catch passes from a dynamic young quarterback who should take that next step after an uneven rookie season. If Jeffery can remain healthy and produce at a high level, there’s no reason to believe he can’t cash in big time next March.
Remember, here’s a guy that put up over 2,500 combined receiving yards in 2013 and 2014. He’s a true No. 1 receiver when on, and will be paid that way should he have a good season in Philly.
Kam Chancellor, safety, Seattle Seahawks
The writing seems to be on the wall for Chancellor in Seattle. Here’s a team that picked up four defensive backs, including two safeties in the recent 2017 NFL Draft. General manager John Schneider and Co. are surely preparing for Chancellor to leave in free agency. And the lack of any real extension talks magnifies this further.
The 29-year-old four-time Pro Bowler now enters his contract season with a lot to prove to other teams. He had a down 2016 campaign, struggling to make a huge impact as the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom regressed a tad from previous seasons.
Even then, Chancellor remains one of the best all-around strong safeties in the game. He was still able to record 71 tackles, eight passes defended and two interceptions.
The issue here is that Chancellor will be 30 by the time his first season under a new deal begins. He also plays a position that is not anywhere near as valuable as other areas in the secondary.
In-the-box safeties have proven to be scheme dependent and a dime a dozen for multiple teams out there. It’s going to be important for Chancellor to return to pre-2016 form in order for him to land that final big payday of his career. He needs to show teams outside of the Pete Carroll coaching tree (San Francisco, Oakland and Atlanta) that he can play in pretty much every scheme. That’s why 2017 is so important for the former mid-round pick from Virginia Tech.
Le’Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers
There wasn’t much drama unfold between Bell and Pittsburgh as the team placed the dreaded franchise tag on the star running back. This means that Bell will more than likely be back in Pittsburgh next season.
That’s huge news for the Steelers, especially considering Bell has taken over for Ben Roethlisberger as the face of the team’s offense in recent years. This past season saw the 27-year-old running back put up 1,884 yards and nine touchdowns in just 12 games. He also averaged 5.6 yards per touch while catching 75 passes out of the backfield.
However, there are some major questions that need to be raised here before concluding Bell will be in for a huge payday next March. First off, he was suspended three games last season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Another dirty test will result in a 10-game ban.
Secondly, the running back position has been of no value to teams in free agency. Just look a the deals Eddie Lacy, Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles received this spring. Sure Bell stands above all of those backs, but that should definitely be taken into account.
Some will argue that Bell’s $12.1 million salary for 2017 is more than reward enough for his recent performance. The issue here is that it provides him no real long-term security.
With the second-highest annual average at running back currently sitting at $8 million per, Bell will need to prove himself to come close to his 2017 salary on a new long-term deal. That includes remaining healthy, continuing to show elite production and staying out of trouble off the field.
Ezekiel Ansah, defensive end, Detroit Lions
We’ve seen what elite defensive ends get paid in today’s NFL. The five-year, $85 million deal Olivier Vernon signed last year with the New York Giants was the first escalation. That continued this past March with veteran Calais Campbell inking a four-year, $60 million deal in Jacksonville.
Picked No. 5 overall by Detroit back in 2013, Ansah jumped on to the scene as a third-year player in 2015, racking up 14.5 sacks and ranking among the top players in quarterback pressures. This earned Ansah his first and only Pro Bowl appearance.
Unfortunately for the former BYU standout, he struggled with both injury and production in 2015. He missed three games with an ankle injury early in the season and saw it plague him throughout the entire campaign. It wasn’t until Week 11 that Ansah actually recorded the first of what would be two sacks on the season.
We can easily chalk Ansah’s 2016 struggles up to injuries. Though, if that were to continue this upcoming season, there will be more wide-ranging concerns over his ability to live up to the expectations that a long-term contract will bring. On the other hand, a repeat performance of 2015 would likely enable Ansah to set a new benchmark for defensive ends in free agency. Yeah, we’d say there’s a lot on the line here.
Sammy Watkins, wide receiver, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo decision not to pick up the final year of Watkins’ rookie deal was initially met with criticism. Why exhaust a huge capital to trade up for a receiver only to let him test free agency within the matter of a few years? For the Bills, this decision made perfect sense.
Watkins’ option for 2018 would have cost the team $13.3 million. By declining said option, Buffalo can still place the franchise tag on Watkins next March at a cost of just a couple million more per season. That limits the risk for Buffalo, especially after Watkins underwent two foot surgeries within the past calendar year.
This is somewhat good news for Watkins should he perform at a high level and remain healthy in 2017. Here’s a guy that’s averaging four-plus receptions for 67 yards per game throughout his career. Translated over the course of a 16-game season, that’s 67 receptions for nearly 1,100 yards per year. Considering Buffalo’s questionable quarterback situation during this span, that’s not too shabby at all.
In reality, Watkins has No. 1 receiver potential. He showed it in college at Clemson and has been ultra productive when healthy in the NFL. It’s now all about remaining healthy and taking his game to the next level. Should that happen in 2017, Buffalo might have done Watkins a favor by declining his 2018 option.
Malcolm Butler, cornerback, New England Patriots
Scheme. There’s a train of thought out there that suggests Butler is a product of what New England does on defense. This philosophy led to New Orleans balking at the idea of yielding its original first-round pick (11th overall) to the Patriots for Butler. Instead, the Saints added former Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore in the draft.
Sure Butler will still have to prove himself in the Patriots’ scheme this upcoming season after he signed the restricted free-agent tender the team threw his way. That’s going to continue leading to questions about his ability to perform once he does move on from New England.
But there’s a concrete fact we cannot shy away from. New England exhausted a huge capital by signing Stephon Gilmore away from Buffalo in free agency. It also decided against trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent with Butler next March.
What does this mean? Well, it’s rather simple. In all likelihood, Butler is playing his last season for the defending champs unless they fork over a huge payday. That’s unlikely to happen.
If so, Butler has an opportunity to prove to the league’s 31 other teams that he can be a true No. 1 cornerback in any scheme the NFL has to offer. Considering he defended 31 passes with six interceptions while yielding a sub 55 completion percentage over the past two seasons, there’s no reason to doubt Butler.
And given the fact that New England has another top-end corner in Gilmore on the roster, Butler’s job should be made easier in 2017. Look for another stellar performance this upcoming season, followed by an absolutely huge payday next March.
Vontaze Burfict, linebacker, Cincinnati Bengals
While Burfict himself has a reputation for being a dirty player on the field, that’s not necessarily going to limit his market should he enter free agency next March. The former Arizona State star has kept his nose clean off the field, and that’s likely the sole focus of teams looking to potentially add him.
On the field and in when it comes to production, Burfict continues to prove himself to be among the most-dynamic middle linebackers in the game. The 26-year-old former un-drafted free agent is coming off a 2016 campaign that saw him put up 101 tackles, eight passes defended, two interceptions, two sacks and two forced fumbles.
He flies to the ball in a sideline-to-sideline manner that reminds us of the Patrick Willis’ and Luke Kuechly’s of the world. Simply put, he’s among the top-20 defenders in the entire NFL.
The issue here for Burfict is reputation. Will he be dogged with more personal foul penalties in 2017? Can he keep his on-field passion while bottling up the anger that has led to issues in the past?
Remember, Burfict was considered a potential first-round pick coming out of college before he dealt with numerous issues with the Sun Devils. That’s not going to be lost on teams should the linebacker continue to struggle bottling his emotions. If Burfict is able to perform at a a Pro Bowl level while proving himself to be more mature, he’ll be in line for a huge payday come March of 2017.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington Redskins
Where to begin with this one? Cousins ultimately decided to sign the franchise tag Washington handed him for a second consecutive year.
He did so after months of speculation that the Pro Bowler wanted to play for his former offensive coordinator in San Francisco with the 49ers. Rumors that still suggest that he will end up with Kyle Shanahan in Northern California following the 2017 season.
There’s definitely a lot going on here. Cousins has reportedly indicated he’s unwilling to discuss a long-term deal with Washington as long as Bruce Allen is the team’s president. He’s also allegedly told those around him he wants to play for the 49ers.
All of this is out of Cousins’ hands until the end of the 2017 season. Right now, his focus has to be on performing at a high level on the field.
Coming off another tremendous season that saw him put up nearly 5,000 yards with 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, Cousins will be in line for a huge payday next March. He simply needs to continue progressing on the field, proving naysayers in D.C. wrong in the process. It’s surely something he’s done over the course of the past two years now.
The interesting dynamic here is that Washington could technically place the franchise tag on Cousins once again next March. Though, by league rules, that would likely cost the team north of $35 million in 2018. Talk about a huge one-year payday.
The likelier scenario here is that Washington either signs Cousins to an extension before then or decides to trade him to another team. If not, the 49ers will surely come calling to pay him one of the richest contracts for a quarterback in league history. The ball is almost literally in Cousins’ court here. And with another strong performance in 2017, he’ll definitely be paid like a star he thinks he is. Whether that’s with Washington, San Francisco or another team remains to be seen.