30 big-name NFL players who must capitalize on contract years

Odell Beckham Jr. is one of many NFL players who has a lot to prove in a contract year

What have you done for me lately?

That question is a central theme for NFL players, agents and general managers on a yearly basis, especially when it’s time to land new contracts.

Even the best players can end up losing out big time due to injuries or simply due to a poor season in a contract year. We’ve seen it happen with players like Tyrann Mathieu and Richard Sherman this past offseason. And it’ll happen again next spring, too.

So with that in mind we’re taking a spin around the league to highlight 30 NFL players you’ve heard of who need to have huge 2018 seasons to cash in big on their contract years.

Tyrod Taylor, quarterback, Cleveland Browns

After putting together three very strong seasons playing with the Buffalo Bills, Taylor has a chance to continue proving he’s a legitimate NFL starter and deserves starter pay. He’s earning a base salary of $10 million this year, which is a pittance compared to most starting NFL quarterbacks. Taylor will be the starter all year for Cleveland, provided he stays healthy and plays well. If he can help the Browns win some games and continues to take care of the ball, then he’ll be in line for a nice payday next year, likely with another quarterback-needy team as Baker Mayfield emerges as the long-term answer in Cleveland.

DeMarcus Lawrence, defensive end, Dallas Cowboys

We know Lawrence can be a dominant force on the edge. He was tied for second in the league last year with 14.5 sacks and earned a nice one-year payday when the Cowboys used the franchise tag to keep him in Dallas. The big reason Lawrence didn’t earn a long-term deal is that he’s been wildly inconsistent in his career, along with suffering two back injuries. So, Lawrence needs to stay healthy and continue dominating for the ‘Boys to land the long-term deal he desires.

Mark Ingram, running back, New Orleans Saints

Ingram picked the worst possible time to get busted for PEDs. He’s suspended the first four games of the season due to a positive test, and it’s been reported his work load could decrease even when he returns. This is a player who’s averaged 1,296 yards and nine touchdowns from scrimmage the past four years. Now he’s in his age-28 season (likely his last big chance to earn a lucrative contract) and has to fight an uphill battle to prove he’s still an elite back in 2018.

Geno Atkins, defensive tackle, Cincinnati Bengals

It’s hard to imagine that Atkins might have anything he needs to prove at this point in his career. He’s racked up an absurd 29 sacks the past three years and 61 over the course of his stellar eight-year career. However, Atkins is now 30 years of age, and it’s much harder to land massive deals when you’re older, especially if there’s any hint that you’re a shell of your former self. We’re not suggesting Atkins will be, but if he has a down year for Cincinnati, then that shadow of doubt will exist, hampering his efforts at landing what will likely be his final shot at a big-money deal.

Ereck Flowers, right tackle, New York Giants

This former first-round pick out of Miami (No. 9 overall in 2015) has thus far failed to live up to his draft slot. He’s been extremely inconsistent and quite honestly a huge liability on the left side since his rookie campaign (26 penalties and 18 sacks allowed). Now that Nate Solder is cemented as the starting left tackle, Flowers will shift to the right side, where he’ll have one more season to prove he’s not a bust. He recently said he wants to prove to himself he can still play. Well, he needs to prove that to more people than just himself, especially since he’ll be a free agent next spring.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, safety, Green Bay Packers

Over the past few seasons, Clinton-Dix has made a name for himself as a ball-hawking safety (11 interceptions in four years) who’s been the best of a bad bunch in Green Bay. The Packers picked up the fifth-year option on this former first-round pick, who needs to show more discipline and leadership in 2018 than he has in the past. The Packers now have some more talent to play around Clinton-Dix than they’ve had in previous years. It’s time for this young player to really show he’s a star.

Tyler Eifert, tight end, Cincinnati Bengals

To be honest, it was pretty surprising that Cincinnati signed Eifert to a one-year deal with $3 million guaranteed this past offseason. After all, for as talented as he is, Eifert has missed much more time due to injury than he’s actually played the past four seasons (24 games played since 2014). Things aren’t exactly looking great so far this summer, either, as it’s not known if Eifert will be healthy enough for training camp. Time is running out for this tight end to prove he’s still capable of staying on the field, let alone making big plays on a regular basis.

Brandon Graham, defensive end, Philadelphia Eagles

One of the key players for Philly last season, Graham put up a career-best 9.5 sacks during the regular season and then was responsible for the game-sealing play in Super Bowl LII.  However, NJ Advance Media’s Zack Rosenblatt recently suggested Graham is unlikely to get an extension, meaning he’ll be a free agent in 2019. The Eagles have a ton of talent up front, so that’s not a huge surprise. Regardless, Graham is now 30 and really needs to prove last year wasn’t a blip on the radar to land one final big contract, either with Philly or another team, before he retires.

Randall Cobb, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers

For a couple of years, Cobb was the apple of Aaron Rodgers’ eye. He racked up 170 catches on 256 targets from 2014-15, going for 2,116 yards and 18 touchdowns during that stretch. Not surprisingly, he earned a lucrative contract in 2015. Unfortunately for him, his production has been on a slow decline ever since. Now entering the final season of that deal, Cobb needs to work hard to land another big deal, not to mention simply maintaining a spot on Green Bay’s roster.

Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams

If the Rams were smart, they’ll make sure Donald’s 2018 campaign isn’t one that leads to him becoming a free agent in 2019. The two sides are reportedly working feverishly to make a long-deal contract happen, but so far nothing’s happening, and it’s looking more and more likely that Donald will skip training camp for a second consecutive year. If he doesn’t land a long-term deal, then Donald can set himself up for the biggest contract an NFL defender has ever seen by replicating his 2017 season, during which he won Defensive Player of the Year honors even though he missed two games due to his holdout.

Tavon Austin, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys

If you believe Dallas offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, Austin is going to be one of the most active offensive weapons in the NFL this coming season. You’ll forgive us if we need to see some proof before buying into this. The former No. 8 overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft has thus far in his career been largely underwhelming, barring some pretty impressive splash plays. If he flames out in Dallas this year, then it seems unlikely that Austin will ever be viewed as anything more than a gadget for the remainder of his career.

Jadeveon Clowney, outside linebacker, Houston Texans

Jadeveon Clowney

Clowney is looking for a long-term deal, but the Texans have been awfully quiet about that since April. It seems that Houston might still be in wait-and-see mode as he deals with yet another knee injury ahead of his fifth NFL season. When healthy, Clowney is darn effective. He’s extremely disruptive and is coming off a career year in which he had 9.5 sacks and a defensive touchdown (watch here). That said, the coming season is a critical one for this former No. 1 overall pick.

C.J. Anderson, running back, Carolina Panthers

Anderson landed in a perfect spot this offseason, signing a one-year deal with Carolina, where he’ll back up Christian McCaffrey. There will be plenty of opportunities for him to build off his career 2017 season, during which he racked up 1,007 yards on the ground. At the age of 27, Anderson could land one more long-term contract as the starter for a team that needs help in 2019 if he has a big 2018 season.

Clay Matthews, outside linebacker, Green Bay Packers

Matthews has been awfully beaten up the past few seasons. Due to poor roster management, this edge specialist has been forced to play inside, which has certainly taken a toll on his body, not to mention his sack totals. Still a very disruptive player, Matthews has a chance to get back to double-digit sack totals in 2018 thanks to some help inside, meaning he can get back to playing on the edge. If he does, then Matthews should land a pretty sweet deal ahead of 2019.

Duane Brown, left tackle, Seattle Seahawks

Easily the best offensive lineman on Seattle’s roster, Brown needs to stay healthy and keep Russell Wilson upright in 2018 to cash in on a new deal ahead of 2019. We know that Brown, currently set to play out the final year of a six-year, $53.4 million deal, wants to land elite left tackle money — he sat out the first seven games last year in Houston before being traded to Seattle. The Seahawks haven’t had good luck with offensive linemen in recent years. So if Brown has a stellar season, he’ll likely land a massive long-term deal with plenty of guaranteed cash.

Markus Golden, outside linebacker, Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals have one of the best values in the league right now in Golden, a former second-round pick playing out the final year of his rookie deal. He racked up 12.5 sacks in 2016 before unfortunately missing most of last year with a torn ACL. If he can show the same burst that he did two seasons ago and gets back to sacking quarterbacks on the regular this year, then he’ll be in line to earn a massive payday next offseason.

Donte Moncrief, wide receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars

Courtesy of USA Today Images

The deal Moncrief signed with Jacksonville this offseason was both surprising ($9.6 million guaranteed) and not surprising (that it was a one-year deal). He’s struggled to stay on the field the past couple of years in Indianapolis, and even during his best pro season he hasn’t been an elite player. Still, the tantalizing aroma of potential continues to waft around this young receiver, who has a real chance to emerge as a go-to playmaker for the Jaguars in 2018. Should he have a big season, then he’ll land a nice multi-year contract next spring.

Preston Smith, outside linebacker, Washington Redskins

Since emerging as a full-time starter in Washington two seasons back, Smith has shown some flashes of greatness. He’s an extremely athletic linebacker who has potential both as a cover man and pass rusher, having tallied three interceptions and 12.5 sacks since 2016. Set to play out the final season of his rookie deal, this former second-round pick has a real chance to land a very nice deal in free agency with a breakout season in 2018.

Teddy Bridgewater, quarterback, New York Jets

Based on the reports we’ve been seeing this offseason, Bridgewater has a real chance to start for the Jets over Josh McCown and rookie Sam Darnold. Before suffering the injury that caused him to miss most of the past two seasons, he was a very promising young quarterback the Minnesota Vikings were high on. Obviously he stands to gain in a huge way if he does win the job in New York and puts together a positive campaign in 2018. If this happens, then it stands to reason that Bridgewater will be one of the most coveted free agents in 2019.

Kwon Alexander, inside linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Alexander is an extremely intriguing player who has the potential to become an elite linebacker in the NFL if he can ever develop some discipline around the line of scrimmage. He’s an exceptional cover linebacker who’s tallied six interceptions in his first three seasons. Unfortunately, he’s also missed a ton of tackles. This is a pivotal season for the linebacker, who’ll turn 24 in August. If he tightens up his game he’ll be in line to sign a very lucrative contract next season.

Stefon Diggs, wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings

Diggs is a tremendous young receiver who’s emerged as one of the league’s best at coming down with contested catches (and the occasional miracle). All he’s done since his rookie season is haul in 200 passes for 2,472 yards and 15 touchdowns. A former fifth-round pick out of Maryland, Diggs is also one of the best bargains in football, currently set to earn $1.907 million this season. That figure should swell considerably in 2019, especially if he has another big season for the Vikings.

LaMarcus Joyner, safety, Los Angeles Rams

The Rams were smart to use the franchise tag on Joyner this offseason, securing his services for at least one more year. One of the better safeties in the NFL last season, he emerged as a huge playmaker for the NFC West champs. However, Joyner, who only landed the permanent starting gig last season, needs to show he’s capable of consistently playing at a high level. Should he do that, then he’ll land the big-money long-term deal he’s looking for in 2019.

Jake Matthews, left tackle, Atlanta Falcons

Since being selected with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Matthews has been darn solid for the Falcons, starting 63 games. The only game he missed during his career came in his rookie season, and dependability is a tremendous asset for offensive linemen, especially guys who protect the blind side of their franchise quarterbacks. That being said, it’s tough to argue that Matthews deserves to be paid like an elite left tackle. He’s been solid but not spectacular so far in his career. If he can elevate his game even more this coming season, especially in pass protection, then the Falcons would be foolish not to lock him up on a massive contract.

Muhammad Wilkerson, defensive tackle, Green Bay Packers

Wilkerson left the Big Apple on bad terms. There’s no arguing that point. He inked a huge contract after a career year in 2015 before utterly failing to live up to it in the next two seasons. He failed to show up for team meetings and was even left behind on a road trip last year. So it wasn’t surprising that New York released him, saving $11 million. Now he’ll have a fresh start in Green Bay. Talent isn’t a question. He’s an excellent player when motivated. Now he needs to prove himself all over again.

Kelvin Benjamin, wide receiver, Buffalo Bills

Benjamin’s career started out with a bang. Then he suffered an ACL injury before his second season began, and his game has fizzled a bit more every year since then. Last year Benjamin was surprisingly traded to Buffalo from Carolina midseason, and he failed to do much when he arrived, thanks in part to a knee injury and in part to a lack of cohesion with the team’s quarterbacks. Now he has one more year to prove he’s capable of playing at a high level before it’s time to ink his first veteran contract. Needless to say, the 2018 campaign is hugely important to Benjamin.

Tyrann Mathieu, safety, Houston Texans

Given the way he plays the game, it’s not all that surprising that Mathieu has struggled to stay healthy during his NFL career. He was released by the Cardinals this offseason, despite playing a full, 16-game season due to salary cap issues. Now he is set to play out a one-year deal in Houston, which could lead to another huge contract after the season if Mathieu can get back to playing like he did in 2015. He’s supremely talented, and if he puts together two consecutive healthy seasons it seems inevitable that he’ll be among the highest-paid safeties in the game once again in 2019.

Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver, New York Giants

This is rather simple, really. OBJ just needs to stay squeaky clean off the field and stay healthy on it to become the highest-paid receiver in the NFL next year. The Giants have made it clear that he’s not going to land a long-term extension until he can prove he’s matured off the field. And we already know he’s a dynamo on it. Barring a freak injury that sets him back in a big way, we fully expect this playmaker to reel in the biggest contract an NFL receiver has ever seen, either during or after the 2018 NFL season.

Ezekiel Ansah, defensive end, Detroit Lions

Ansah’s last few seasons have been like a roller coaster. He’s experienced some tremendous highs and one pretty staggering low, having sandwiched two double-digit sack seasons with a miserable 2016 campaign in which he only had two sacks and generally struggled to make a positive impact. The Lions smartly used the franchise tag to keep him in Detroit for another season with the hope that he’ll continue to build on his 12-sack 2017 season this coming year. If he does, then the Ghanaian star will rake in a massive long-term deal next spring.

Le’Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers

Le'Veon Bell Steelers

The Steelers and Bell have been playing a game of chicken the past two years. He wants to be paid like a top running back and a top receiver, and the Steelers have thus far refused to accede to his demands. He’s in an interesting position, as playing running back in the NFL is extremely risky health wise. That’s why he’s staying away from Pittsburgh until he either lands a new deal (unlikely) or until the season begins. That being said, should Bell have another outstanding season in 2018, then there’s no doubt one of the teams with a lot of cap space will be glad to meet his demands in free agency next year.

Khalil Mack, defensive end, Oakland Raiders

Based on the tenor of relations between Mack and the Raiders this offseason, nobody should be surprised if this star pass rusher ends up holding out of training camp barring a new contract. Sure, his fifth-year option is worth over $13.8 million fully guaranteed. But compared to what he’d land on a long-term deal that’s peanuts. Mack has piled up 36.5 sacks the past three seasons and is one of the best pass rushers in the game. He’ll get paid, regardless of what happens between himself and the Raiders. Should he have another monster season like he did in 2015, then he’ll easily set a new market for edge rushers if he heads into the 2019 offseason as a free agent.