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The NFL Contract-Year All-Stars

For this group of standouts, 2018 could be a make-or-break year as negotiations loom

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Over the next few months, contract negotiations—or lack thereof—for Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, and Odell Beckham Jr. will take NFL offseason center stage. But as that trio of headline-hogging superstars threaten holdouts and seek long-term extensions with their respective teams worth a combined hundreds of millions of dollars, a handful of other big-name, über-talented playmakers are heading into the final year of their contracts and are looking to get paid the big bucks, too.

Some of those upcoming-contract-year players will be rewarded with big-money extensions before training camp kicks off, some will get deals during the season, and others still will be forced to play the year out, awaiting free agency or the franchise tag next spring. Excluding a few obvious candidates—like the guys set to play on the franchise tag (Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Ansah, and Demarcus Lawrence) or those players hoping to cash in on recently signed one-year “prove-it” deals (like Sheldon Richardson and Ndamukong Suh)—here are the contract-year All-Stars for the 2018 NFL season.

Cardinals RB David Johnson

Johnson missed all but a few snaps of the 2017 season because of a broken wrist, so it’s easy to forget just how dominant he can be while healthy. The Cardinals’ versatile All-Pro racked up an NFL-best 20 rushing and receiving touchdowns in 2016 while producing a league-high 2,118 yards from scrimmage (1,239 rushing and 879 receiving)—and this year, he’s looking to join the exclusive 1,000/1,000 club currently made up of just two players: Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig. The fact that it’s not too much of a stretch to believe he can do just that might make his path toward a long-term pact in Arizona seem smooth. But a staggeringly depressed free-agent market for veteran running backs could limit Johnson’s earning power on a long-term deal.

The Cardinals would reportedly like to lock Johnson in to a new deal this offseason, but will the versatile star run into contract negotiation slow-ups like Le’Veon Bell did in Pittsburgh? Bell—who is perhaps the closest player-usage comparison to Johnson in the league—is set to play on the franchise tag for the second straight year after failing to come to a long-term agreement with the Steelers. He reportedly wants to be paid like a no. 1 running back and a no. 2 receiver—which would put his demands at over $15 million a year—but Pittsburgh has thus far balked, perhaps because of the running back position’s relatively short shelf life or the fact Bell has missed games in every season except one. In any case, while Johnson (like Bell) may be eyeing a contract that averages north of $15 million a year, he may end up having to settle for something closer to the five-year, $41.3 million deal Devonta Freeman signed last August. That contract, which reset the running back market, averages $8.25 million in average annual value and includes $22 million in practical guarantees.

Cowboys G Zack Martin

Martin is set to play on a fifth-year team option worth $9.3 million, but the Cowboys’ elite right guard has already made it clear that he’d like to get a long-term contract extension done before the season begins (he’s sitting out of the team’s voluntary OTAs). For Dallas, it’s a no-brainer—Martin is a huge, integral piece of the team’s run-heavy identity and is one of the top pass-blocking guards in the league—but the decision may come down to whether Jerry Jones and Co. are willing to make him the top-paid guard in the NFL.

Martin has a strong case to be that guy: In four seasons in the league, he has yet to miss a game, has been named to the All-Pro lists four times (two first team, two second team), and at 27, is just entering his prime. And after watching Andrew Norwell get a five-year, $66.5 million deal from the Jaguars in free agency (with $30 million in practical guarantees), you can bet that Martin is using those numbers as a starting point. We’ll soon find out whether Dallas aims to play hardball with one of its core players.

Bengals DT Geno Atkins and DE Carlos Dunlap

Is there a more underrated pair of pass rushers in the NFL than Atkins and Dunlap?

Let’s start with Atkins, who may be the best pass-rushing interior defensive lineman on the planet not named Aaron Donald or J.J. Watt. In 2017, Atkins notched 70 pressures, per Pro Football Focus, second only to Donald among interior defensive linemen and 3-4 ends. In 2016, his 77 pressures finished second in that group (again behind only Donald), and in 2015, his 81 pressures were second only to J.J. Watt (and ahead of Donald). In other words, Atkins is ridiculously good—and the 30-year-old playmaker heads into 2018 on the final year of his deal, looking to cash in big with what may be his final big-money extension.

Dunlap is no slouch himself. Last year, the 29-year-old pass rusher racked up 72 pressures, sixth among 4-3 defensive ends, per PFF, and grabbed 7.5 sacks—his fifth straight year with seven or more. He’s currently holding out of OTAs, and like his defensive line compatriot in Atkins, is looking to get another long-term extension.

Per Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson, the team has made locking both players in for the long run a priority, but they’ll have to be ready to pay up. Atkins will be watching Donald’s contract situation with the Rams closely; he should also be looking for a deal that averages somewhere in the vicinity of $16 million per year, assuming he’s going off of the contracts Kawann Short (five years, $80.5 million) or Fletcher Cox (six years, $102.6 million, $63 million guaranteed) signed over the past two years. Meanwhile, it’d be no surprise if Dunlap’s starting point is somewhere north of $15 million a year, too.

Rams WR Brandin Cooks

After being traded to the Rams in April, Cooks is now with his third team—but there’s no denying that the speedy pass catcher has produced at elite levels on each of his first two stops:

The Rams are reportedly hoping to ink Cooks to a long-term deal, but that plan depends on just how much the former Patriots and Saints pass catcher is hoping to get. Say Cooks has his sights set on somewhere close to the record five-year, $82.5 million deal Mike Evans recently signed with the Buccaneers: Will Sean McVay and Les Snead be willing to fork out top dollar (and his approximate market value, per Spotrac) to a player who has yet to play a game in a Rams uniform? For a team that has yet to hand Donald an extension—and still has decisions to make over the next couple of years on upcoming free agents like Marcus Peters, Lamarcus Joyner, Todd Gurley, and Jared Goff—it makes for an interesting negotiation. For now, Cooks is set to play 2018 on a $8.5 million fifth-year option.

Lions WR Golden Tate

Tate doesn’t get as much fanfare as some of his peers, but over the last four seasons, just five receivers (Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Jarvis Landry, Demaryius Thomas, and Larry Fitzgerald) have caught more passes than the 5-foot-10, 197-pound tackle-breaking gyroscope. Tate has racked up 372 receptions for 4,224 yards and 19 touchdowns since joining the Lions in 2014 and heads into 2018 set to make just $7 million—a salary that ranks 17th among NFL receivers.

Tate’s not a classic outside threat in the mold of Evans or Deandre Hopkins, and a good chunk of his production comes from his innate ability to take a short pass and pick up yards after the catch (he led the NFL with 22 missed tackles forced in 2017 and averaged 6.9 yards after the catch per reception, per Pro Football Focus, third in the NFL). Tate can use the five-year, $75.5 million deal that Jarvis Landry recently signed (including $47 million in practical guarantees) with the Browns as a starting point in negotiations.

Eagles DE Brandon Graham

Graham was one of the Super Bowl champions’ top playmakers off the edge last year, where he racked up a team-high 9.5 sacks and 60 pressures (12th among 4-3 defensive ends), per PFF. The 30-year-old heads into his contract year as one of the best pass rushers in the league, and his earning potential is massive; he and his reps should point to Jason Pierre-Paul’s four-year, $62 million deal with the Giants last year—which included $40 million in guarantees—as a benchmark for any new contract talks.

But considering linemate Fletcher Cox is already one of the highest-paid defensive linemen in the league, the Eagles must decide whether to slice off a huge piece of their salary cap pie for two players. With Carson Wentz locked in to his cheap rookie contract for a few more years, the Eagles could certainly still offer Graham a generous deal, but the Eagles won a championship in big part due to their depth at just about every position on the roster—and keeping Graham long-term could hurt GM Howie Roseman’s ability to keep that group together.

Texans DE Jadeveon Clowney

Like the Eagles, the Texans look primed to take advantage of their rookie-contract QB’s discount salary—and the flexibility that gives them to spend big at other positions—over the next few years. And, also like Philly, the team must decide how much of its salary cap they should tie up on the defensive line. The Texans already pay J.J. Watt an average of $16.7 million per year, and now must put a dollar amount on Clowney’s worth to their defense long-term. The former first-overall pick hasn’t lived up to the lofty hype he carried into the 2014 draft, but he has developed into a very good player: He finished 2017 with a team-high 9.5 sacks, ranked second in NFL in tackles for a loss (21), and notched 64 quarterback pressures per PFF, including 18 quarterback hits.

On the open market, the 25-year-old Clowney would likely seek something close to Justin Houston’s six-year, $101 million deal with the Chiefs—but he may be willing to settle for something closer to what Chandler Jones (a five-year, $82.5 million deal with $51 million in practical guarantees) or Melvin Ingram (a four-year, $64 million deal with $34 million guaranteed) got with the Cardinals and Chargers, respectively.

Vikings DE Danielle Hunter and WR Stefon Diggs

Hunter fell back to earth with 7.0 sacks last year after racking up 12.5 quarterback takedowns in 2016, but he still provided consistent pressure off the edge, collecting 61 pressures on the season, tied for 10th among 4-3 defensive ends. At just 23 years old, though, the sky remains the proverbial limit for the Vikings’ athletic edge rusher, and if they wait on an extension and Hunter hits the open market, he’ll certainly fetch a pretty penny ... especially if he manages to break back into the double digits in sacks this year.

Hunter doesn’t have to look far to find a benchmark in his negotiations: He can point to the four-year, $58 million contract deal that teammate Everson Griffen signed in 2017 as a jump-off figure.

The Vikings have a tough call to make on Diggs as well: They could save money this season by letting the former fifth-round pick play out the final year of his rookie deal—he’ll make just $1.96 million on that contract—but they’d risk losing him on the open market next year, as they may need the franchise tag for Hunter. Instead, they could try to get a deal done early, but may have to pay top dollar to do it. After catching 64 passes for 849 yards and eight touchdowns last year, Diggs knows he’s in line for a huge payday in 2019.

Seahawks FS Earl Thomas and DE Frank Clark

Trade rumors have swirled around Thomas for most of the offseason, and the Seahawks All-Pro safety has stayed away from the team’s voluntary OTAs the past few weeks with the implicit message that he wants to become one of the highest paid players at his position. Thomas will be looking at Chiefs safety Eric Berry’s deal—a six-year, $78 million contract that includes $40 million in guarantees—as a starting point, and if Seattle decides that’s just too much to hand over to the (at times unpredictable) 29-year-old, a trade may still happen before it’s all said and done.

That’s not the end of the team’s worries, though: Seattle has decisions to make on contract year players in linebacker K.J. Wright, receiver Tyler Lockett, tackle Duane Brown, and perhaps most important, pass rusher Frank Clark. Clark quietly produced a team-high 9.0 sacks last year while racking up 56 pressures (second to Michael Bennett’s 70), and after the Seahawks traded away Bennett and released Cliff Avril, the 24-year-old pass-rusher is now the team’s top edge rusher. Like Hunter, Clark is still a young, developing player whose best football may be in front of him, and should Seattle balk at a long-term extension before the year, he’ll have the chance to make himself a lot of money with a double-digit sack campaign.

Ravens LB C.J. Mosley

Mosley’s flown under the radar compared with other middle linebackers like Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, but the three-time second-team All-Pro is a consistent anchor in the middle of Baltimore’s defense. Mosley will make $8.7 million in 2018 playing on a fifth-year team option and will be poised to cash in on a big-money deal next spring—but the Ravens may instead decide to sign him to a long-term extension before the season starts. In either case, Mosley should command in excess of $10 million per year; the five-year, $50 million deal that Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks signed in April or the four-year, $42.8 million deal Alec Ogletree signed with the Rams (before being traded to the Giants) should both act as a guide.