Now that every NFL team has played at least eight games, we can officially say the 2016 season is entering its second half. Through the first half of the campaign, there’s been a lot take place.
Surprises in Dallas and Oakland. Major disappointments in Carolina and Arizona. Such is the nature of the beast in the ever-evolving NFL.
Though, as we embark on the second half of the season, one constant remains. Players in their contract years will either go boom or bust with a ton of cash on the line.
From a pass rusher in the desert to a potential comeback player of the year candidate in South Beach, here are eight NFL players breaking the bank in their contract years.
1. Chandler Jones, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals
The New England Patriots would like us to believe their scheme was the reason for Jones’ success with the team prior to being dealt to the desert during the spring. After all, Jones did rack up 12.5 sacks en route to earning his first All Pro honors last season. That simply hasn’t been the case.
Through the first half of his initial season with the Cardinals, Jones is again on pace to put up double-digit sacks for the third time in four years. It’s this type of consistency from a pass-rush standpoint that will make him a highly-regarded free agent come March.
Add in just how much teams value pass rushers in what has quickly become a pass-first league, and there’s no reason to believe Jones won’t receive a deal valued at anywhere between $90 and $100 million.
2. Terrelle Pryor, wide receiver, Cleveland Browns
The one lone bright spot in an otherwise horrendous season for Cleveland, Pryor’s first year as a full-time receiever has gone swimmingly. Including Sunday’s five-catch performance against Dallas, this former star college quarterback is on pace for 82 receptions and over 1,000 yards.
It couldn’t have possibly come at a better time for Pryor, who is set to become a free agent following the 2016 season. As a proven No. 1 receiver, we can expect the talented pass catcher to cash in big time.
Look for something similar to the four-year, $60 million deal A.J. Green inked with the Cincinnati Bengals back in 2015. Not too shabby for a dude that was out of the league altogether this time last year.
3. A.J. Bouye, cornerback, Houston Texans
Finally earning his way into the starting lineup, this former undrafted free agent from Central Florida has stood out big time. While Bouye has yet to record an interception this season, he leads the team with nine passes defended. More than that, opposing quarterbacks simply have not had much success throwing his way.
Yes, you read that right. Pro Football Focus had Bouye graded out as the best cover corner in the NFL through Week 7. He then proceeded to record five tackles and three passes defended while yielding just two catches on six targets against the Detroit Lions back in Week 8.
This is some splendid overall play from the young corner. And in a pass-first NFL, this type of coverage ability will surely earn a player of Bouye’s ilk a nice payday on the open market.
4. Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings
The injury to Stefon Diggs earlier this season gave Patterson, a former first-round bust, an opportunity to prove his worth on offense. And Patterson has not disappointed. The fourth-year receiver has caught 27-of-32 targets through eight games.
That might not seem terribly impressive as it relates to his catch numbers. However, when you add in Patterson’s elite-level special teams performance, he’s turned into a tremendous all-around player.
This comes on the heels of the Tennessee product not providing anything of substance on offense in 2015, catching a grand total of five passes.
While the sample size might be small here, Patterson can cash in big time with a strong performance in the second half of the season. His electric play-making ability will surely help increase Patterson’s value on a market that’s going to be slim pickings as it relates to skill-position players.
5. Jack Doyle, tight end, Indianapolis Colts
After putting up five receptions for 61 yards in Sunday’s surprising win over the Green Bay Packers, Doyle has definitely proved his worth among the most unheralded pass-catching tight ends in the NFL.
Through eight games, the fourth-year pro has caught 36-of-45 targets for 379 yards and four touchdowns. That 80 percent catch rate ranks first among starting tight ends thus far this season. In addition to this, those 36 catches are more than Doyle put up in his first three NFL seasons combined. And the year is just half over.
With defenses struggling to cover the middle of the field this season, consistent tight ends will become more valuable moving forward. It’s in this that Doyle can up his stock with a solid performance over the final seven games of the regular season.
6. Kawann Short, defensive tackle, Carolina Panthers
Flying under the radar due to bigger names such as Aaron Donald dominating the interior of the defensive line around the NFL, Short has quickly become one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles in the NFL.
The former Purdue standout is coming off a 2015 campaign that saw him record 11 sacks. While Short’s sack numbers (two) are down this season, he’s still putting a tremendous amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That won’t be lost in it all once he hits the open market come March.
It’s also extremely important to note just how big of a deal it is for defenses to accumulate pressure from the interior of their defensive lines. Simply put, pretty much every quarterback in the NFL struggles more when faced with pressure up the middle compared to out on the edge.
Should Short continue to perform at this high level from a pass-rush standpoint, he will receive elite-level money in free agency. If so, something to the tune of the $102.6 million Fletcher Cox received from the Philadelphia Eagles back in June could be in the cards for Short.
7. LeGarrette Blount, running back, New England Patriots
Earning a cool $1 million this season, Blount has taken over as the Patriots’ lead ball carrier and isn’t looking back. Through eight games, the former Oregon standout leads the NFL in rush attempts (161) and rushing touchdowns (9). He’s also on pace for over 1,200 rushing yards.
There’s nothing too sexy about Blount’s game. He’s averaging just 3.8 yards per rush and doesn’t have that home-run hitting ability. He, however, can get that yard or two on third and short. That’s big, especially in an NFL where rushing attacks are used as nothing more than secondary options behind the aerial assault we’ve seen in recent years.
A team like the Seattle Seahawks or Baltimore Ravens could sure use someone of Blount’s ilk. And in reality, he’ll surely see a bunch of other squads go after him. That should increase Blount’s stock on the open market.
8. Kiko Alonso, linebacker, Miami Dolphins
Remember when Alonso was considered one of the top young linebackers in the NFL? If it seems like a long time ago, that’s because it was. Back in 2013 with the Buffalo Bills, this Oregon product jumped on to the scene as a rookie, tallying 159 tackles, four interceptions, five passes defended and a forced fumble. More than that, he was legitimately considered one of the top cover backers in the game.
Now, three years later, and it looks like Alonso is rounding into pre-injury form. He’s recorded 66 tackles with two fumble recoveries in six games. His all-around play has been stellar for the surprising Dolphins.
This is probably the first game I’ve seen from Kiko Alonso where he’s played well in both phases. Big stop on third down.
— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) November 6, 2016
Sure there’s going to be concerns over his surgically repaired knee, an injury that forced Alonso to miss the entire 2014 season. That’s more than justified. But three-down linebackers are hard to come by in today’s NFL. Players of that ilk, those who can stop the run and defend the pass, are most definitely not a dime a dozen.
Should Alonso continue to play well in the second half of the season, defensive-needy teams will surely come calling when March rolls around. That much can’t be denied.