- Last season, some players in a contract year elevated their game, knowing that money was on the line. Others, well, regressed.
Each time NFL free agency begins, we must be reminded of two guiding rules. The first is that quarterbacks will get paid, so prepare your mind to be blown for however much money Kirk Cousins receives. The second is that NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed, and sometimes even the “guaranteed money” isn’t guaranteed.
That said, we’re three weeks from the start of free agency, which has actually become more of a formality than an official commencement. In the two days prior, the league allows for a “legal tampering” period, an oxymoron that doubles as dubious. Nearly every player agent and NFL executive will be in Indianapolis from Feb. 28 to March 6 for the combine, where illegal tampering (or is it just tampering?) has been an open secret. But I digress.
Every season is a proving ground for players in contract years, and 2016 showed what players helped themselves with their next paycheck and who hurt themselves. Here’s a look at seven players on either side of that.
Players who helped their value in 2016
Dont’a Hightower, LB, Patriots: The Patriots dispatched Jamie Collins to the Browns for any reason you wish to believe, but the move to trade Collins and keep Hightower indicated where New England was leaning early in the 2016 season. His linebacking play has been consistent in his five years in the league (though he’s missed more than two games per year), and at 27 next season he should be entering his prime as the league’s No. 1 scoring defense’s signal caller.
Hightower won’t get paid off one play alone, but his sack/forced fumble of Matt Ryan in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI keyed the Patriots’ comeback. It was Hightower’s first postseason sack and a reminder that he can be a game-changer along with being a reliable force in the middle of the defense.
Chandler Jones, OLB, Cardinals: There’s no doubt he had the talent to excel for the Patriots, but his bizarre trip to the Foxborough Public Safety Building in the 2015 playoffs brought an end to his time there and cast uncertainty on his future earning potential. But the outside linebacker did exactly what he needed to do after that strange ending in New England.
In Arizona, which has taken a castoff or two and turned them around, Jones had his third double-digit sack season and appears to have avoided any trouble. Cardinals team president Michael Bidwell already stated that they “won’t mess around” with Jones’ contract and plan to either tag him or sign him to a long-term deal. That likely wouldn’t have been the case if Jones didn’t sack the quarterback 11 times in 2016.
Melvin Ingram, OLB, Chargers: If the Chargers don’t put the franchise tag on Ingram, he may win the free-agent sweepstakes in a few weeks. Ingram balled out in his previous two seasons with 18.5 sacks and proved he’s one of the best pass-rushing outside linebackers in the game.
With new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley going to a 4–3 scheme, the Chargers and Ingram may not fit as well in 2017. With so many teams in need of a guy like Ingram, he’ll basically be able to name his price this offseason.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants: Credit to the New York Giants for showing enough faith in a guy who had just one sack in eight games with seven-and-a-half digits to give him a one-year, $10 million contract. And credit to JPP for nearly returning to his 10-digit form in 2016 with seven sacks in 12 games.
Pierre-Paul showed last season that he can still get to the quarterback despite losing fingers in an embarrassing July 4 fireworks accident. He’s told NFL Network that he won’t be playing under a one-year deal in 2017, and Pierre-Paul did enough in ’16 to warrant a long-term deal. He’s still only 28 years old, so this next deal should take him into his 30s.
Mario Addison, DE, Panthers: For the second straight year, Mario Addison led all Carolina defensive ends in sacks. The seventh-year Troy product earned himself a payday this offseason after racking up 9.5 sacks in 2016, following up on his 6-sack season in 2015. He has 24.5 sacks since 2013, which is pretty good for a situational player.
Addison played around 240 pounds during his time in Carolina because the Panthers used him on special teams, as well. If he signs with another team, he’ll no doubt bulk up so he can become an every-down pass-rusher as opposed to a third-down rusher. If the Panthers don’t pony up for Addison (they should), he’ll get his first legitimate NFL contract elsewhere in the coming weeks.
Tony Jefferson, SS, Cardinals: Here’s a guy who shows up on film all the time. Tony Jefferson may not be known to the casual NFL fan, but you can’t watch an Arizona Cardinals game and not notice him. The safety had a career high in tackles (74) and tied career-highs in sacks (2) and passes defensed (5) in 2016.
No team matched his tender offer last year so he played for the Cardinals at just $1.67 million in 2016. He’s searching for, and should get, a long-term deal this offseason. He’s just 25 years old and seems ready to make a name for himself after going undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2013. Jefferson is one of the best run-defending strong safeties in the league, and he’ll get paid like one.
Jared Cook, TE, Packers: Before his insane sideline grab in the divisional round game in Dallas, Jared Cook may have been best known for getting a fried chicken head among his wings at a chain restaurant. He should price himself out of Buffalo Wild Wings with this next contract.
The Packers haven’t had a tight end who can stretch the field vertically since Jermichael Finley, and Green Bay’s offense was potent with that element. Now Aaron Rodgers has Cook, who signed a one-year prove-it deal after the Rams cut him following the 2015 season. Cook’s 30 catches were his fewest since his sophomore campaign in Tennessee, but he still averaged 12.6 yards per reception. He showed up big in the postseason with 229 receiving yards and two touchdowns in three games.
Players who hurt their value in 2016
Alshon Jeffrey, WR, Bears: Look, Jeffrey is still going to get paid. A 27-year-old, 6' 4" receiver who just averaged 16 yards per catch will always get paid in this league. But 2016 left a lot of money on the table for Jeffrey.
He’s been hampered by soft-tissue injuries the past two seasons, missing 11 games in that time. Jay Cutler’s mostly-bad play also contributed to Jeffrey missing the 1,000-yard benchmark in two consecutive seasons. But tagged before the 2016 season, Jeffrey proved little in his contract year. He could have locked up a big deal this offseason if he proved to be among the elites at his position, but instead he missed four games due to violating the league’s PED policy.
Michael Floyd, WR, Cardinals: Early in the season, Bruce Arians posited that Michael Floyd was pressing to make plays in a contract year. Floyd didn’t make many plays in 2016, and that will be reflected in whatever contract he signs in the coming months. Along with having the worst year statistically of his career (just 488 receiving yards), Floyd was arrested on suspicion of DUI for the second time since college, and video of the arrest appeared to show him asleep at the wheel.
Of course, Floyd won a Super Bowl with the Patriots, so that certainly has some intrinsic value. If he signs with another team, his 2016 play and off-field behavior will sink his asking price. And if he remains with the Patriots, he won’t be getting market value from Belichick.
Justin Gilbert, CB, Browns: Three years is usually the proper amount of time needed to evaluate whether a player is a bust. In the case of Justin Gilbert, the verdict is in. He’s a bust.
Drafted eighth overall by the Browns in 2014, Gilbert went to the Steelers in a trade last year after two disappointing seasons. He played mostly on special teams and was cut the day after Super Bowl LI. Most of the players on this list are at the end of their contracts, but Gilbert had another year left on his and the Steelers bounced him as soon as they could. Three of the seven players drafted in front of Gilbert have already become Pro Bowlers. So, too, have seven of the nine players drafted after him in the 2014 class.
Blaine Gabbert, QB, 49ers: An offensive genius calling the plays. An underweight backup coming off injury behind him. Very few expectations on his shoulders. Blaine Gabbert seemed to be in pretty good shape entering 2016. The former 10th overall pick was set to built on a decent end to the 2015 season where he completed 63% of his passes, threw 10 touchdowns against seven picks in eight games.
But Gabbert was B-A-D last season. In only one game did he throw more touchdowns than interceptions and went 1–4 as a starter before being yanked in favor of Colin Kaepernick. At 27, Gabbert is a known entity in the league. He had the opportunity to get paid like a top backup with a good 2016 and instead will get paid like the No. 3 quarterback he is.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Jets: We're just going to leave the highlights from the Jets-Chiefs Week 3 game right here.
Reggie Bush, RB, Bills: There’s no space in the NFL for old running backs, and next season Reggie Bush will be 32 years old. It’s tough to believe that the former Heisman winner* is about to enter his 12th season with (likely) a sixth different team, but that’s the case for Bush in the twilight of his playing career.
Just three seasons ago Bush was a 1,000-yard rusher for the Lions, then Detroit cut him a year later and he got one-year deals from San Francisco and Buffalo. Last year he became the first non-quarterback to carry the ball more than 10 times and finish with negative rushing yardage. A veteran minimum deal is all that awaits Bush in a market where there are better 30-plus-year-old running backs (Justin Forsett, Rashad Jennings, DeAngelo Williams) available.
Prince Amukamara, CB, Jaguars: The Jaguars were full of problems last year, so forgive Prince Amukamara if he wasn’t a standout on a bad team. But for the sixth-year cornerback not to get an interception for the first time in his career? That’s tough to digest.
Amukamara had his struggles in his first season away from New York. On a one-year, $5.5 million deal with Jacksonville, Amukamara started 12 games and had only six passes defended—his fewest since his injury-shortened rookie season. Wherever he ends up in 2017, he’ll probably get paid like a No. 3 cornerback.