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25 NFL stars with most to prove in contract years

Every year, NFL stars entering contract years make themselves a ton of money. Though, not all are so lucky. Some players lose gobs of cash, either due to poor performances, injuries or off-field issues.

Heading into the 2018 season, there are some big-name players who find themselves under serious pressure to play their best in the final year of their current deals. Some are young, and some are a bit on the older side. But you’ll recognize all these stars, including some legitimate superstars.

These players are facing prove-it seasons in a contract year.

Dante Fowler Jr., defensive end, Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jags surprised many by opting not to pick up Fowler’s fifth-year option this spring. With that decision came a clear message that Fowler still has a lot to prove, both on and off the field. The former No. 3 overall pick did have somewhat of a breakout 2017 season, posting eight sacks as a situational pass rusher. However, he only had four the season before and missed his entire rookie campaign with an ACL injury. He’s also been in trouble with the law, so clearly Fowler needs to show the Jaguars (and the rest of the league) he’s worth the long-term investment.

Jay Ajayi, running back, Philadelphia Eagles

When Ajayi came out of Boise State a few years back, his stock took a hit due to medical issues with his knees. That’s why he ended up sliding all the way into the fifth round in 2015. Since then, Ajayi has done a lot to dispel the notion he’s not able to handle the rigors of the NFL, rushing for 2,145 yards and nine touchdowns the past two years. However, we know running backs have a short shelf life, and if Ajayi doesn’t have a big season in 2018 he’ll struggle to land a contract in free agency next year worth a heck of a lot.

Danielle Hunter, defensive end, Minnesota Vikings

This upcoming season is a pivotal one for Hunter, who’s been a tremendous asset to Minnesota since the club selected him in the third round three years back. However, out of the three seasons he’s played, Hunter has sandwiched one stellar 12.5-sack campaign in between two solid seasons, during which he tallied six and seven sacks, respectively. Likely, Hunter is going to garner plenty of interest in free agency next year, regardless. But he’ll either command top dollar after a big-time season or he’ll have to settle for something less if he has another solid, but not outstanding, showing.

Devin Funchess, wide receiver, Carolina Panthers

Since being selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, this former Michigan star has progressively improved. Last season he was the Panthers’ top wide receiver, hauling in 63 passes for 840 yards and eight touchdowns, effectively doubling up on the production he posted in his first two years as a pro. The Panthers have some stiff competition for touches this year, however. D.J. Moore was drafted in the first round and is going to push for targets immediately, and veteran Torrey Smith will be out there plenty, too. Needless to say, Funchess has to continue improving his craft to remain the top target out wide for Cam Newton.

Robert Quinn, defensive end, Miami Dolphins

Being traded to Miami could have been a huge blessing for Quinn, who will now get to go back to his natural position at defensive end. From 2015-16 he dealt with injuries and only played about half the time. Then, last year he was playing out of position as an outside linebacker in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme. This all resulted in some poor production, and it’s why the Dolphins were able to land Quinn for essentially a sixth-round pick. He needs to get back to dominating like he did from 2013-14 to land another lucrative deal in free agency.

Martavis Bryant, wide receiver, Oakland Raiders

The Pittsburgh Steelers gave Bryant his wish from a year ago, shipping him off to Oakland in a trade during the draft. Bryant has plenty to prove, both on and off the field. He needs to prove he can stay clean, having already been suspended multiple times by the league for marijuana. He also needs to prove he’s going to be a consistent threat on the field after catching just 50 passes for 603 yards and three touchdowns last year in Pittsburgh. It’s going to be fascinating to see how he performs in Jon Gruden’s offense this year.

Shane Ray, EDGE, Denver Broncos

With a rookie (Bradley Chubb) breathing down his neck, Ray is facing a do-or-die campaign in Denver. He was expected to take a giant leap last season as the replacement to DeMarcus Ware, but instead he was hampered by an injury and barely contributed. What’s even more of an issue besides his injury is that Ray has proven to be a one-trick pony. He’s not a good player in space and has only been effective rushing the passer. And even then, he’s only had one good season out of three in his young career.

Duke Johnson, running back, Cleveland Browns

Looking at Cleveland’s roster, it’s hard to figure out how Johnson is going to get many opportunities to run the ball this year. The Browns brought in Carlos Hyde in free agency, and then they used a second-round pick to select Nick Chubb out of Georgia in this year’s draft. Unlike those two powerhouses, Johnson is an incredible receiver, so he can be used in that capacity. But he’ll need to make the most of his opportunities, because Cleveland has Jarvis Landry out there as the volume receiver on the field now. Johnson is extremely talented, but he could end up suffering through another frustrating season in 2018.

David Irving, defensive tackle, Dallas Cowboys

David Irving

When he’s healthy and on the field for the Cowboys, Irving is a tremendous asset. He’s an up-and-coming talent who managed seven sacks, six pass deflections and a forced fumble last season, despite playing in just eight games. Four games were missed due to a suspension for PEDs, and then a concussion took him out the final four games of the season. This former undrafted player out of Iowa State has a bright future in front of him, but he still has a lot to prove.

Stefon Diggs, wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings

Diggs has been a pleasant surprise in Minnesota since his rookie season, when he exceeded expectations as a fifth-round pick out of Maryland. In three seasons, he’s shown himself to be a tremendous perimeter receiver who has a knack for making big plays down the sideline (like this). But last year it was Adam Thielen, not Diggs, who emerged as the No. 1 receiver for the Vikings. If that holds up once again in 2018 with Kirk Cousins under center, Diggs’ leverage for a new contract will be significantly lessened.

Landon Collins, safety, New York Giants

Collins and the entire New York defense was phenomenal in 2016, and many thought the safety deserved to be the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts. He put up a stunning 125 tackles, five interceptions, four sacks, 13 pass defenses and scored a touchdown that year that was one of the best plays of the season. While Collins was still solid last year, he wasn’t nearly as effective, and neither was Big Blue’s defense as a whole. The former second-round pick out of Alabama needs to get back to playing at an elite level to land a monster contract ahead of the 2019 season.

Teddy Bridgewater, quarterback, New York Jets

It’s going to be pretty telling to see what happens to Bridgewater this summer. There’s a chance the former Vikings star won’t even make the final roster with the Jets, who recently selected Sam Darnold No. 3 overall. A recent report indicated Bridgewater might not be ready to fully participate in OTAs, which isn’t exactly encouraging. The best possible scenario for Bridgewater might be that he gets traded, which we recently explored. But whatever happens, just sticking on a roster anywhere would be a good first step.

Tyrann Mathieu, safety, Houston Texans

NFL stars

When healthy, Mathieu is a dangerous defensive back who strikes fear into the hearts of opposing offenses. He’s a do-it-all playmaker who’s racked up 11 interceptions, four sacks, four forced fumbles and one touchdown as a pro, and he’s a strong slot defender, too. Unfortunately, Mathieu has struggled to stay healthy, and the Cardinals didn’t think he was worth paying big bucks this season. Now Mathieu has a one-year, prove-it deal in Houston. It’s up to him to prove it.

Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver, New York Giants

The Giants haven’t been bashful about sending messages to OBJ about the fact he still has to prove he’s trustworthy enough to land a massive long-term deal. That’s why the trade rumors were running so rampant leading up to the draft. In terms of pure talent, there’s no doubt Beckham is worth big money. But he’s also been a headache from an off-the-field perspective, and he needs to play it squeaky clean going forward to show the Giants he’s someone they can invest in long term.

Ezekiel Ansah, defensive end, Detroit Lions

Ansah is making a ton of cash this year on the franchise tag. But the fact he didn’t land a long-term deal with the Lions speaks volumes about how the team views him right now. A very talented pass rusher, Ansah has put up two tremendous campaigns in the past three seasons, racking up 14.5 sacks in 2015 and 12 sacks last year. But the other three years as a pro have produced far less impressive numbers, as he’s totaled 17.5 sacks combined. So, it’s going to be very important for Ansah to prove he’s capable of stringing together two consecutive dominant seasons.

Tyrod Taylor, quarterback, Cleveland Browns

At this point it seems pretty clear that NFL teams view Taylor as nothing more than a bridge to better things. He served in that capacity for the Buffalo Bills, who traded him away in favor of starting over with Josh Allen this year. And now he’ll do it again in 2018 with rookie Baker Mayfield breathing down his neck the entire way. How Taylor responds to this pressure will determine his fate going forward. If he can stave off the No. 1 overall pick and has a strong season playing with a talented group of receivers in Cleveland, then perhaps Taylor can flip the script.

DeMarcus Lawrence, defensive end, Dallas Cowboys

Much like Ansah, Lawrence has shown some serious promise with a couple of strong seasons as a pro. He finished last season tied for the second-highest sack total in the league (14.5) and had eight sacks in 2015. Lawrence also has a suspension for violating the league’s policy on substance abuse on record, and he’s had back surgeries. So Dallas made the right move to use the franchise tag to secure him for the 2018 season while making it clear he has to prove he’s worth a long-term deal.

Mark Ingram, running back, New Orleans Saints

This upcoming season was already a huge one for Ingram, especially with Alvin Kamara breathing down his neck for more carries. Then Ingram got hit with a four-game suspension for PEDs, putting even more pressure on his broad shoulders in a contract year. The former Heisman winner has been a strong multi-purpose back for the Saints the past four years, averaging 1,296 yards and nine touchdowns from scrimmage since 2014. But he’s two years away from 30 now, and he’ll need to have a huge impact when he hits the field after his suspension to earn a lucrative long-term deal ahead of the 2019 season.

Anthony Barr, linebacker, Minnesota Vikings

The first two years of Barr’s pro career seemed to prove Minnesota right about taking him No. 9 overall in 2014. He was making impact plays behind the line of scrimmage and even hauled in an interception. The past two years, however, Barr hasn’t been nearly as effective. He’s taken a back seat to some of Minnesota’s other top defenders and looks much more like an average linebacker than a bona fide stud. It’s time for Barr to get back to dominating again in this, his contract year with the Vikings, who did pick up his fifth-year option.

Robert Griffin III, quarterback, Baltimore Ravens

Griffin has the most to prove out of anyone on this list. This former Rookie of the Year has now spent two out of his last three years doing absolutely nothing worth noting in regards to football. And the year in between his bubble-wrap 2015 season in Washington and last season, when he wasn’t even on a roster, he was a train wreck in Cleveland. It’s going to be fascinating to see if RG3 even makes it on Baltimore’s final roster when it’s all said and done this year. The Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson at the end of Round 1, and we know Joe Flacco isn’t going anywhere this season.

Vontae Davis, cornerback, Buffalo Bills

The 2018 season is likely a make-or-break one for Davis, who was once one of the more feared cover guys in the league. A groin injury derailed his 2017 season, and Davis ended up signing a one-year deal with Buffalo in free agency that includes just $3.5 million guaranteed. This former first-rounder needs to prove he’s still capable of playing at a high level this year, or he may never get another chance to land a long-term deal in the NFL.

Doug Martin, running back, Oakland Raiders

Martin’s career has been a roller coaster. He’s either been among the league’s very best, or he’s flopped in no small way. His rookie season got Martin’s NFL career off to a roaring start, as he racked up 1,926 yards and 12 touchdowns from scrimmage. Two awful years followed, and then Martin pumped his game back up in 2015, piling up 1,673 yards and seven scores. He’s been ineffective ever since, so it’s going to be fascinating to see if Jon Gruden can get something positive out of the man formerly known as “Muscle Hamster.”

Geno Atkins, defensive tackle, Cincinnati Bengals

For years, Atkins has been one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the NFL. He’s a bowling ball of a man with tremendous strength and quickness, and he disrupts opposing offenses from the inside better than just about anyone in the league not named Aaron Donald. All that being said, Atkins is 30 now, and one wonders when Father Time will catch up to him. Atkins isn’t guaranteed a single dime as he plays out the final year of his current deal (way to go Bengals), so it’s imperative that he stays healthy and dominates once again so he can leave Cincinnati in free agency next year.

David Johnson, running back, Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson is one of the top NFL players at any position

It’s rough being a running back in the NFL sometimes. Johnson broke out as one of the NFL’s elites in 2016, piling up 2,118 yards and 20 touchdowns from scrimmage. He appeared to be well on his way to becoming one of the rare running backs who strikes it rich. Then disaster struck early in 2017, when a season-ending wrist injury put Johnson down. He’s fully healthy again ahead of the upcoming season. But he’ll have to prove he’s still capable of putting up top numbers this year to land that big long-term deal.

Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams

Suh made a smart decision to sign a one-year deal with Los Angeles. Should he produce at an All-Pro level and help the Rams continue ascending as an elite NFC team, he’ll be in line for one more big payday before he retires. Should he not fit in, suffer an injury or simply doesn’t perform at an elite level, then Suh might never see top dollar again as he enters the twilight of his career.