Playoff games matter more, not just in the literal sense — if you lose, your season is over — but from a monetary perspective as well. Play well in the playoffs with free agency on the horizon and your prospects are going to change. That may be flawed methodology on the part of some NFL general managers, but it’s reality.
Like any other, these playoffs featured a large handful of players who changed their perceptions thanks to a good playoff game or two. A number also cemented themselves as high earners by following up on a strong regular season with big postseason games. Here are 14 players whose postseason performances will earn them big money come March.
Blake Bortles, quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars
It’s unlikely Bortles earns the same $19 million he’s set to in 2018 after a contract extension, but it’s equally unlikely the Jaguars look for a quarterback to replace him. It’s kind of hard to move on from the guy who got you to an AFC Championship Game, even though Bortles was anything but the primary reason Jacksonville got there.
Had he come out in the playoffs and laid an egg, it would have confirmed that Jacksonville couldn’t possibly win with Bortles under center. Instead, he played legitimately well at Pittsburgh and New England. The Jaguars were some bad game management decisions away from winning the AFC. It’s hard to take a risk on someone else after that, however justified it may be to do so. Expect Jacksonville to extend Bortles sooner rather than later.
Aaron Colvin, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars
Though Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye (rightly) got most of the attention, Colvin was quietly one of the best slot corners in football during the regular season. He gave up a minuscule five yards per pass on a 53 percent success rate, per Football Outsiders. That success continued into the postseason as Colvin gave up just 21 yards against Pittsburgh and followed it up with a strong day in the AFC title game.
Colvin is at the end of his rookie contract this season, so he should be in for a large raise for his $1.8 million salary. Whether Jacksonville will end up keeping him is another question, but the Jaguars should certainly try.
Case Keenum, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings
As poorly as Keenum played in the NFC title game, he made it overwhelmingly clear that he’s capable of being a starting quarterback on a title contender. Not just during a regular season run that saw Keenum rank top-five among quarterbacks in DYAR and lead the position in DVOA either. Keenum spun it for over 300 passing yards and nearly eight yards per attempt against New Orleans — one of the league’s best pass defenses — in the Divisional Round.
The Vikings have some tough decisions to make with Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater all becoming free agents this offseason. However, it’s hard to imagine Keenum won’t be their preferred choice after the 2017 he had. Regardless, it will warrant a raise from his current $950,000 salary.
Stefon Diggs, wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings
There was little doubt Diggs would see a significant uptick in earnings from his rookie deal before the postseason. A total of 1,752 receiving yards over the last two seasons gets you that distinction. However, there will be some renewed urgency to extend Diggs after he played himself into Vikings’ lore with this 61-yard, game-winning touchdown during the final seconds against the Saints.
Diggs, 24, is headed straight into his prime, and Adam Thielen is under contract through 2020. Those two could make up the best receiving corps in football for the next three years if Minnesota plays its cards right.
Danielle Hunter, defensive end, Minnesota Vikings
The 23-year old Hunter should be due for an extension fairly soon. He’s certainly earned one. Despite an underwhelming sack total during the regular season, Hunter registered 40 pressures, per Football Outsiders, a top-15 mark. He didn’t slow down during the postseason either, notching a sack, two tackles for loss and two QB hits against the Saints and Eagles.
Hunter is already one of the best young pass rushers in football. The only reason he isn’t a household name is because a relatively low number of his pressures became sacks. That will change sooner rather than later. Minnesota should lock him up for the long term before it does.
Dion Lewis, running back, New England Patriots
Despite a fumble that nearly cost New England the AFC title, there’s no denying Lewis was an integral part of both Patriots playoff wins. Right now, he’s Tom Brady’s security blanket, going for 16 receptions and 111 receiving yards total in the postseason — numbers we came to expect from Shane Vereen and Kevin Faulk in previous New England iterations.
Thing is, Lewis is a better runner than either of them. He averaged five yards per carry during the regular season, led running backs in DYAR and trailed only Alvin Kamara in DVOA. If Bill Belichick is ever going to pony up big money for a running back, it will be Lewis. If not, another team gladly will.
Danny Amendola, wide receiver, New England Patriots
During Amendola’s tenure in New England, there have been points where he’s been relegated to a secondary player. Last year, for example, he had just 23 receptions. At 32, Amendola isn’t going to be signed to a long-term deal by anybody (let alone New England), but his AFC title game performance served as a perfect reminder of just what he can do.
With Rob Gronkowski out for the second half, Amendola was Tom Brady’s top target and played the role perfectly. He scored two touchdowns and was on the receiving end of arguably the game’s biggest play, a third-and-18 conversion to set up a fourth quarter score. This a week after Amendola went for 112 yards on 11 receptions against Tennessee. Those two games will serve as a reminder of just how important Amendola is to the Patriots’ success when the time comes to negotiate a new contract this offseason.
LaAdrian Waddle, right tackle, New England Patriots
Waddle’s inclusion on this list may raise some eyebrows. The Patriots’ backup right tackle only played this season after Marcus Cannon went down with an ankle injury and missed the AFC Championship Game with an injury of his own. Waddle’s importance was proven in his absence. Cameron Fleming — who played instead — was a liability in every sense of the word The Jaguars’ pass rush was too much for him and, if Waddle misses the Super Bowl, it’s hard to imagine Fleming faring much better against the Eagles.
Waddle is good enough to start on some teams. Though he won’t get a massive payday, it will be surprising if Waddle isn’t starting somewhere on Opening Day next season.
Ricky Jean-Francois, defensive tackle, New England Patriots
After Francois was released by the Green Bay Packers in November, following six underwhelming at best games, it looked like the 31-year old’s career could be at an end. Then, the Patriots did what the Patriots do: picked him up off the scrap heap and turned Jean-Francois into a run defense weapon. He played 22 snaps against Jacksonville and had an impact. Jean-Francois made three tackles and assisted two more, consistently bothering Leonard Fournette in the backfield. (It should be noted that the Patriots as a whole consistently got to Fournette in the backfield).
Though he averaged barely three yards per carry, the rookie was frequently contacted before hitting his own line of scrimmage.) At his age, nobody will look to sign Jean-Francois long term. However, he’s proven that he can still be a solid run defender on early downs.
Senio Kelemete, guard, New Orleans Saints
When Andrus Peat went down midway through the Saints’ first round playoff game against Carolina, it was worth being worried. A backup guard stepping into a playoff game is a scary thing for most teams. Kelemete got thrown into the fire and did an admirable job. He didn’t just hold down the fort against Carolina, he did his part against a great Minnesota pass rush the next round.
On the year as a whole, Kelemete has been a godsend for a Saints’ line which has dealt with injuries across the board. He played 61 percent of snaps, filling in at every position except center. That sort of versatility without ever becoming a liability is not a quality you see in many backup offensive linemen. Kelemete should see some rewards this offseason.
Patrick Robinson, cornerback, Philadelphia Eagles
The one-year, $775,000 deal Robinson signed with Philadelphia was something of a last chance. He was one of the worst cornerbacks in football last season and, at age 30, being cut from training camp and out of the league was a real possibility. Not only did Robinson survive training camp, he became one of the best cornerbacks in football during both the regular season and playoffs.
He had an absurd 61 percent success rate on 70 targets during the regular season, per Football Outsiders. And against some superstar receivers — Julio Jones, Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs — Robinson has done more than hold his own in the playoffs. Though his age makes big money a tough ask, Robinson’s salary next season will probably be more than he’s ever earned annually.
Nick Foles, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
Foles still has a year left on his deal before a potential out, but his NFC Championship Game performance completely shifted his value. Foles wasn’t just on the winning side — he was the catalyst, something literally nobody thought he could be. He went for 352 passing yards and three touchdowns — 12.48 adjusted yards per attempt(!!) — against one of the best defenses in football. Nick Foles did that!
In the two regular season games he started after Carson Wentz went down, both against bad defenses, Foles averaged 2.69 adjusted yards per attempt. He hasn’t played as well as he did on Sunday since 2013. Making Foles a starter based on one game is a terrible idea, but if you don’t think someone’s going to talk themselves into it, you don’t know the NFL. Foles would be an improvement for a handful of teams. Whether or not the Eagles decide to extend him probably depends on what happens in the Super Bowl, but Foles has set himself up for 2019 nicely.
Taylor Lewan, left tackle, Tennessee Titans
A Pro Bowler the last two seasons, Lewan’s postseason performance is only a small part of what will earn him a sizable payday when the time comes. However, Lewan availed himself in the postseason, making just one big mistake in pass protection over two games when he failed to pick up a stunt leading to a Ricky Jean-Francois sack. (There were a seven other New England sacks that game, most of them when the pocket collapsed after a blitz).
It would be wrong to say Lewan played incredibly well in the postseason, but he certainly played well. Coupled with two straight years in which Lewan has excelled during the regular season, it would be surprising if he didn’t get a huge extension within the next year.
Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams
Donald’s situation is similar to Lewan’s. He’s arguably the best defensive player in the league and made the All-Pro team for the third straight time this season. Donald was getting an ungodly amount of money regardless of what happened in the postseason. However, Donald’s postseason debut was a clinic. He was a constant presence in the Falcons’ backfield, notching half a sack, a tackle for loss, four tackles and an assist.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Donald was the best player on the field in that game. The rest of the Rams’ defense didn’t exactly play up to standard, but nobody can say Donald wasn’t good enough for the moment. With a contract year on the horizon, Donald deserves every penny he’s going to get.