Playing well when a payday is right around the corner is all NFL players wish they could accomplish. This year there have been some outstanding campaigns put together so far by soon-to-be free agents in a contract year.
These men have risen to the occasion and should find multiple suitors for their services next year, unless their respective teams make them an offer they cannot refuse before free agency officially opens in mid March.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Martin was a revelation coming out of Boise State in 2012. He set the league on fire as a rookie, totaling 1,926 yards and 12 touchdowns, showing skill as a runner and a receiver.
Then, Greg Schiano happened, along with some frustrating injuries. However, as training camp began we heard whispers that Martin was back to his rookie form.
Through eight games, it’s quite clear he is. With 643 yards on the ground, another 148 through the air and four total touchdowns, Martin has been phenomenal for the Bucs. Not only are the numbers impressive (he’s on pace to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards for the first time since his rookie season), but Martin is a veritable bowling ball, as his 32 broken tackles indicate, via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
While running backs aren’t getting paid these days like they did in years past, Martin is in line to earn a nice multi-year contract after the season based on his outstanding production this season.
Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers
It seems like Norman has come out of nowhere to suddenly become one of the NFL’s best shut-down cornerbacks.
With 22 starts under his belt in the first three years at Carolina, Norman had showed some promise but hadn’t yet risen to elite status, with three interceptions and 16 passes defended. He’s already intercepted four passes this year (including two that went for six the other way) and has 13 passes defended.
Needless to say, quarterbacks are quickly learning not to throw it Norman’s way.
Josh Norman allowed only 32 yards in coverage in October. pic.twitter.com/TQs9mo2r8P
— PFF (@PFF) November 7, 2015
Playing on a defense full of stars, Norman has shined brighter than all of them. That’s saying something.
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson might find Norman is too expensive to keep after this season. He’s going to command top dollar on the open market.
Michael Crabtree, WR, Oakland Raiders
Playing with second-year quarterback Derek Carr has allowed Crabtree to show off what many thought were diminished skills. Apparently, all he really did need was “new scenery” to thrive.
Halfway through the 2015 campaign, and he is on pace to have his most productive season as a pro, with 47 catches for 591 yards and five touchdowns. Displaying quickness, agility and explosion after the catch that hasn’t been evident since his early days in San Francisco, Crabtree’s breakout campaign is an eye-opener.
As an aside, how much more damning is his success in Oakland to the idea that Colin Kaepernick just isn’t a franchise passer?
Having just turned 28, there is a good chance Crabtree will get an opportunity at a long-term deal this offseason could make up for the money he lost this year when he signed the one-year contract with Oakland worth just $3.2 million.
Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
Truly one of the best stories of the year is the return of Berry to the field and to his rightful place as one of the league’s best safeties. It’s a shame his remarkable comeback is happening during a dark time for Kansas City, which has a record of 3-5 at the halfway point.
Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma last December, Berry has made a successful return far quicker than anyone anticipated. His lone interception, which came on Oct. 25 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, was a bright spot for himself and the team in an otherwise difficult season.
“You just want to help your team any way you can,” Berry said after the game (h/t ESPN.com), “and if it’s turnovers — that’s the biggest way we can — so be it. Some of those things we do on the field don’t show up on the film, but it’s just making those plays that come your way, just being in good position.”
The splash plays haven’t come in bunches, but Berry’s steady play on the back end of Kansas City’s defense has been impressive. While nobody should expect him to sign a record deal this upcoming offseason, we shouldn’t be surprised if he signs back with the Chiefs on a long-term deal that is generous with up-front cash.
Rishard Matthews, WR, Miami Dolphins
Before this season, Matthews was stuck in a backup role for the Dolphins, never starting unless others were unable to play. He earned plenty of buzz from beat writers this past summer during training camp and then followed up the hype with production on the field.
Matthews has become the most explosive target quarterback Ryan Tannehill has in the passing game. He leads the team in receiving yards (554) and touchdowns (four), catching 37 passes on 51 targeted attempts. One wonders why he’s not getting more opportunities to shine on a team that needs more big plays in the passing game.
Chances are he will, whether that’s with the Dolphins next year or another team in need of help. Given his penchant for finding open zones and for getting past defensive backs down the field, he’d be a great fit on a contender like New England or Seattle. Regardless of where he signs, Matthews is in line for a significant boost of income next spring.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, New York Jets
The white whale of this list, even more so than Norman, Wilkerson is in line to receive a deal that matches or exceeds the record-breaking contract signed by Ndamukong Suh this past year in Miami.
Based on his past production, Wilkerson was going to get paid big, regardless of having a monster season in 2015 or not. However, he has actually raised his game to another level for New York this season and should be one of the hottest free agents on the market in March.
Oh, and he can do this:
We thought Muhammad Wilkerson was a big chap when we met him at the Media Day, but, well… (that's a regular door!) pic.twitter.com/JBvTgh00nO
— Gridiron Gentlemen (@GridironGents) November 13, 2015
A guy who can line up all over the line and win at every spot, Wilkerson already has seven sacks this year as a 3-4 defensive end and is almost in J.J. Watt territory when it comes to being able to pretty much do everything on the field. Speaking of which, he leads Watt and every other 3-4 defensive end in quarterback hurries (28, per Pro Football Focus).
Wilkerson is going to be in a position to earn a contract that will set himself and his family up for life.
Gary Barnidge, TE, Cleveland Browns
Playing out the final year of a three-year deal worth $3.75 million, Barnidge was just another number in the NFL before this year. That is to say, nobody but NFL personnel men, NFL scouts and devout fans who know every special-teamer knew who he was.
Thanks to fantasy football, pretty much everyone who follows the NFL on a weekly basis knows who Barnidge is now. A third-down guru, he’s been keeping drives alive single-handedly with clutch catches to move the sticks and is on pace to catch 75 passes for 1,070 yards and 10-plus touchdowns.
It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of offers Barnidge receives this upcoming March. He’s 30 years old but hasn’t been an every-down player until this season, and we’ve seen some impressive late-career performances from many other tight ends in NFL history. Regardless of the end figure, nobody in the league is boosting their stock in a contract year more than Barnidge.