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The NFL’s All-at-Stake Team

Which players and coaches have the most on the line in 2016?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL offseason features a lot of moving parts: 32 rosters of 53 bodies, a seven-round draft, and a massive free-agent pool make for plenty of change before a given season kicks off. In an effort to get you ready for the 2016 campaign, The Ringer will spend each Friday through September 2 doing its part to remind you how the dust settled — who landed where, what will be expected of them, and what’s different than it was last year. Today, we’re looking at the players and coaches who have the most at stake, financially or otherwise, this fall.

Gus Bradley, Jaguars

No one could have expected Bradley to do much during his early days with the Jags. The situation in Jacksonville upon his arrival in January 2013 was a real snake pit. The team had finished 2–14 the season before and was leaning on a combination of Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. It was also in the throes of a stretch of drafting that, in retrospect, was so bad that it barely seems possible.

Now Bradley is entering his fourth season as head coach, and even for a patient franchise, that means it’s time for results. Last fall brought signs of life for the offense — the Jags were 14th in the league in points per game (23.5) after two straight seasons of finishing dead last — but Bradley has made his bones coaching defense, and in that realm, his team has been putrid. Jacksonville’s best DVOA ranking since he was hired was 20th overall in 2014; last year, the Jags’ DVOA slipped to 26th.

In seasons past, the defense’s dearth of talent was a sufficient excuse for its woes. But with all of the moves the Jags made this offseason, it seems like they have the pieces to finally present a menacing group. Last year’s first-round pick Dante Fowler, free-agent signing Malik Jackson, and a healthy Sen’Derrick Marks should ignite a formerly hapless pass rush. Top-five-caliber talent Myles Jack is working with the starters at inside linebacker, and the secondary has been totally retooled behind first-round cornerback Jalen Ramsey. For the first time since Bradley got to town, he has what he needs on defense. Now, it’s just a matter of putting it all together.

The Show-Me Quarterbacks

Washington’s Kirk Cousins and Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor both landed starting roles by stepping up as contingency plans for failed first-round picks. Now, both enter this fall looking to show their franchises that last season’s performances were no fluke.

After piloting a 2015 Bills offense that finished ninth in the league in DVOA, Taylor was rewarded with a “long-term” deal earlier this month. But even more than most NFL contracts, his is comprised almost entirely of funny money. Only $9.5 million of Taylor’s five-year, $90 million deal — the total of this season’s base salary plus his signing and 2016 roster bonuses — is guaranteed. The bulk of the payout comes only if Buffalo elects to keep Taylor on its roster by the third day of the 2017 league year; that’s when a $15.5 million option bonus, as well as his $12 million 2017 base salary, would become guaranteed.

For Taylor, that makes 2016 hugely important: If he’s anywhere close to the player he was a year ago, he’ll ensure himself of getting at least one more season of NFL starter pay.

Cousins is in a similar situation after turning down an offer from Washington and opting to play this season on the franchise tag. Rather than cede all control to his employer, Cousins bet on himself, hoping that his entire 2016 season can resemble the second half of his 2015 campaign, when he completed 73.6 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns against just two interceptions.

If Cousins plays at that level, there’s a chance that Washington could franchise-tag him again (at roughly $24 million instead of $19.95 million) next offseason, meaning we could get to do this all one more time. Regardless, Cousins is a 28-year-old QB playing on a one-year deal — and he has a stable of playmakers who could pump up his value for the second straight season.

The Franchise-Tagged Non-QBs

I’ve written about this group before, but it’s worth remembering that Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery, Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson, and Chiefs safety Eric Berry are all on one-year franchise tenders, hoping to play well enough to secure long-term paydays. Both the Bears and Rams have comfortable cap situations — this year and going forward. The situation in Kansas City is stickier, though. The Chiefs should be more flexible when the cap rises next season, but the financial road for Berry to be retained is rougher than for the other two.

Matt Kalil, Vikings, and Luke Joeckel, Jaguars

There’s a chance that the two tackles — both of whom went in the top four of their respective drafts (Kalil went fourth overall in 2012; Joeckel second overall a year later) — are nearing the end of the line with the franchises that took them. After Kalil had a tough, injury-riddled go of it in 2014, the Vikings still elected to pick up his fifth-year option, but things didn’t get much better in 2015. Kalil will be a free agent at season’s end, and while he’s locked into his left tackle spot for now, nothing is guaranteed beyond this year: If Minnesota chooses to try the recently signed Andre Smith or 2015 fourth-rounder T.J. Clemmings at the position, there’s a way that the Vikings could piece together their future line without spending big in free agency or blowing an early-round draft pick.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The consensus is that Kalil’s drop-off in recent seasons is at least partly attributable to his knee trouble. Whatever the reason, though, I loved him coming out of USC, and it hasn’t been fun seeing him struggle on the heels of a promising start to his career.

Somehow, Joeckel might be in an even worse spot. Jacksonville didn’t pick up his fifth-year option this offseason, making him a free agent next spring. The Jaguars also signed Kelvin Beachum as another option at left tackle, and the two were listed as costarters on the team’s first 2016 depth chart released in August.

If Beachum wins the gig, Joeckel could slide inside to left guard. Of course, a four-year deal and a position change isn’t what the Jags envisioned for their top 2013 pick.

Chandler Jones, Cardinals

Arizona has handed out a five-year, $62.5 million deal to Tyrann Mathieu this offseason, and Jones hopes to get in on that action after the 2016 campaign. Part of the suspected reasoning behind the Patriots dealing Jones to the Cardinals in March was that New England had a slew of young defenders that it would need to retain next year. Though Arizona also has some noteworthy soon-to-be free agents in defensive end Calais Campbell and wide receiver Michael Floyd, there’s reason to think that Jones is more of a priority than either.

Campbell has been a mainstay for the Cardinals. It’d be easy to argue, given Patrick Peterson’s swoon two years ago, that he’s been their most consistent defensive force over the past several seasons. But he also turns 30 next week. Jones is a 26-year-old pass rusher the likes of which the Cardinals haven’t seen in more than a decade. The last Arizona defender to rack up at least 12.5 sacks in a season — Jones’s total from 2015 — was Bertrand Berry … 12 years ago.

Jones can be an inconsistent force along the edge, but he’s at his best as a standup rusher who’s allowed to be creative in finding routes to the QB. That’s where he’ll line up from the start with Arizona. I think the Cards will welcome the results.

Jamie Collins, Patriots

Of the two Patriots linebackers (Collins and Dont’a Hightower) who are set to become free agents next spring, Collins is easily more intriguing. Aside from Vikings superstar Anthony Barr, there’s no one in the league quite like Collins. He’s 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, can run step-for-step with backs and receivers, and is also a terrifying pass-rushing option: In just 12 games last season, he managed 5.5 sacks.

Name the defensive scheme, and Collins fits in it. That’s why I could see a team offering him a deal that pushes the one that made Luke Kuechly one of the highest-paid linebackers in football. Like other New England standouts in the past, Collins may have to take less to stay on the Pats, because a monster offer will be out there. He has the type of skill set that can get personnel folks drunk on talent.

Kawann Short, Panthers

You can learn everything you need to know about Short from watching Carolina’s pair of wins over the Seahawks last season. He recorded two of his 11 sacks during a Week 6 visit to Seattle, and he spooked Russell Wilson into throwing an easy pick-six that ended their divisional-round playoff matchup seemingly before it began.

The stars have aligned for Short to get paid next spring. He blossomed into a star just as teams started handing out $60 million guaranteed deals to defensive tackles, and with another season like last year’s, he should be next in line. Considering what happened between Carolina and Josh Norman this offseason, it’s reasonable to wonder if that sort of contract would come from the Panthers. But given that the franchise has used three first- and second-round picks on defensive tackles since general manager Dave Gettleman was hired in 2013, the notion that Short, not Norman, would get a boatload of money seems to fall more in line with the GM’s belief system.

Le’Veon Bell, Steelers

Four picks after Carolina took Short in the 2013 draft, the Steelers grabbed the player who might be the most complete back in football. Based on his mixtape (that’s the first time I’ve written that), Bell thinks he deserves a deal in the $15 million–per-year range when he hits free agency next spring. That was unlikely to happen before Bell got suspended for a second drug-related incident (this time for missing a test) in July.

If teams were sure they could keep Bell on the field, he’d warrant a bigger contract than any back in the league aside from Adrian Peterson. The problem for Bell isn’t just the suspensions, though; it’s that he can’t stay healthy. He missed the Steelers’ wild-card playoff game on January 3, 2015, after going down with a hyperextended knee in Week 17. Then he missed the final nine games of last season after tearing his MCL.

No matter how 2016 plays out, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a franchise take a financial chance on a back with Bell’s ability. But he’d make the idea of taking that chance a lot more attractive if he can finish this year with a clean bill of health.