Intriguing contract-year conundrums

By Sean Tyler @seantyleruk

2020 will see a wealth of the NFL’s top players hit their contract year on one level or another. There’s obviously Dak Prescott at Dallas, looking to get paid for four years rather than five, but we yak about Dak elsewhere on the site so let’s park him for now. The F10Y gang have also discussed Minnesota’s Captain Holdout, Dalvin Cook, on a recent podcast so again, I’ll step away.

The old timers, like Philip Rivers at the Colts, new Raiders tight end Jason Witten and fellow TE Greg Olsen, now in Seattle, will probably see out their careers one year at a time. And barring disaster, many of those under the franchise tag, from Jalen Ramsey to Chris Jones, will probably waltz right into their next big deal.

But which players have more uncertain futures? Who has everything to play for – or all to lose – this year?


Cincinnati Bengals: Can AJ rediscover the old magic?

John Grieshop/Getty Images
Status: Franchise tagged

While Cincy need to work on a deal for Joe Mixon, Adriel Jeremiah Green is the real head-scratcher. There’s a lot of speculation surrounding AJ, which isn’t surprising, given that the veteran has missed almost a year and a half with an ankle injury sustained in the first offseason training camp and, before that, turf toe. When healthy, Green has been one of the league’s best receivers and currently ranks second in franchise history in receptions (602), receiving yards (8,907) and touchdowns (63). Green hasn’t taken the field since November 2018, which is why the seven-time Pro Bowler got franchise tagged.

There’s no doubting AJ’s pedigree but the big question is, just how much will age and recent injury woes impact his performance? We’ll have to wait till mid-September to see whether he’s worth tying up longer-term in the Queen City. Turning 32 before another snap is played, his current one-year, $18 million “prove it” arrangement is eminently sensible. But should he endure another injury-ravaged campaign, there’s a distinct possibility he’ll be out the door and relying on short-term contracts for the rest of his career.

Green and the Bengals front office have been in talks over a third multi-year deal for a while now but as yet, there’s no agreement. Unless something gets inked before the 15 July deadline, he’ll be in the same boat next off-season. The Bengals rejected trade offers so they must want him around but will they commit to three or four years for a player who’s missed 29 of the last 64 games? If he gets back to his old self and clicks with rookie QB Joe Burrow, I reckon so…


New Orleans Saints: Is Jameis the heir apparent?

Status: One-year deal

As one of the league’s top runners, Alvin Kamara is likely to get (over)paid Christian McCaffrey-esque amounts of money when his deal runs out. But I’m more intrigued to see how Jameis Winston’s one-year, $1.1 million deal plays out.

The 26-year-old is coming off a 5,000-yard, 30-TD season (yeah, OK, there were 30-odd interceptions too) so if Drew Brees is unavailable at any point, Winston could make watching the Saints even more exciting – or nerve-wracking, depending on your allegiances.

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The other incumbent, Taysom Hill, was given a rather generous extension for a 30-year-old who only ranks third on the current roster for passes to Saints players, behind Brees and, somewhat amusingly, Winston himself. (Yes, Jameis has been picked off 10 times by Saints defenders while at the Buccaneers, eclipsing Hill’s seven career pass completions!). Yet Hill, whose own $21 million contract is the third-highest for a back-up QB, is also a special teams Swiss Army knife and they may have other plans for him.

We won’t know for sure whether Winston will be the immediate stand-in, let alone the long-term answer, unless Brees goes down. But, much like Teddy Bridgewater last year, things could work out well if he fills in successfully for a few games.

For all his foibles, at least Winston is a known quantity but what if he sits out the whole year? The Saints will have quite the dilemma deciding what to do with the former #1 overall pick if he stays on the bench. Brees signed a two-year, $50 million contract in March so he won’t be put out to grass quite yet, so do they sit on Jameis for another year?

I think they do. I can see him learning the ways of Sean Payton so that when Brees does finally retire, the Saints have their long-term replacement primed and ready to go.


Chicago Bears: Do they trust Trubisky?

David Banks/Getty Images
Status: Fifth-year option rejected

I think we can safely say that, in acquiring Nick Foles during the offseason and declining Mitchell Trubisky’s fifth-year option, the Bears have put their QB on notice. It’s possibly a bona fide battle for the starting job in 2020 and it’s arguably Trubisky’s to lose at this point. But given his form since Chicago traded up to take him at #2 overall in the 2017 Draft – ahead of Deshaun Watson (oof!) and Patrick Mahomes (ouch!) – he may not start all 16 games. 

Over the last three campaigns, Trubisky clearly hasn’t progressed as expected, with a completion rate of 63.4%, an average of 6.7 yards per attempt and just 48 touchdowns. He’s also struggled with shoulder injuries, which is probably another reason why the final-year option wasn’t picked up.

In short, Trubisky needs a breakout season to keep Foles off the field, and propel the Bears to a playoff spot that really should’ve been theirs last year. Even if he suddenly becomes the QB they’d hoped he was three years ago, Chicago could franchise-tag him next year, just to be sure it’s not a flash in the plan. Or they might just trade him away, with Foles waiting in the wings. However it plays out, 2020 feels like a make-or-break year for Trubisky.


San Francisco 49ers: Where’s Trent Williams’ head at?

The Associated Press
Status: Final year of existing deal

It’s hard to see the Niners letting TE George Kittle walk away when his deal expires, and they may also have to budget for fellow contract-year teammates Richard Sherman and Kyle Juszczyk. So for me, the main question mark facing the 49ers is Trent Williams.  

Williams has been one of the best tackles in the NFL for years, competing with the likes of Jason Peters for being top of the class for pass and run blocking. But obviously, there are alarm bells concerning his health issues last year: a pre-cancerous growth on his head led to him sitting out the entire 2019 season, due to how he felt the Redskins medical staff handled the situation.

The 49ers traded for Williams during the 2020 Draft, so what kind of player will the 33-year-old be after such a protracted layoff? Well, he passed his medical, didn’t ask for an extension and restructured the final year of his existing deal so that he could prove himself. He’s also familiar with Kyle Shanahan, a former offensive coordinator in Washington, so he should prove to be a plug-and-play, Pro Bowl calibre starter in a position of need, having joined the Niners just as Joe Staley retired. Assuming he’s OK health-wise, I can only see this working out well for both parties.


Tennessee Titans: Will Derrick Henry get paid?

Status: Franchise tagged

Derrick Henry was a contract-year conundrum this offseason so the Titans slapped him with the franchise tag (just north of $10 million) to keep him away from free agency, giving the prolific running back another 12 months’ grace.

The 25-year-old half-man, half-tank led the league in rushing yards (1,540) and rushing touchdowns (16) in 2019, and almost single-handedly carried the team through their three playoff games. But the fact that he still hasn’t earned himself a multi-year contract says a lot about how teams undervalue running backs. It also says a lot about how much the Titans value QB Ryan Tannehill, who did get paid.

So where does this leave Mr Henry? The vibe between team and player seems pretty positive: he wants to be in Tennessee and Tennessee want him so hopefully, it’s just a matter of time before he gets the pay day his services deserve.


Pittsburgh Steelers: Has JuJu lost his mojo?

Getty Images
Status: Fifth-year option declined

The Steelers have a lot of talent with a year left on the clock but they can’t afford to pay them all. They slapped the franchise tag on linebacker Bud Dupree and DT Cameron Heyward is probably due a monster, Aaron-Donald-like deal. Tackle Alejandro Villanueva could earn himself a new contract too, but RB James Conner may well leave, having taken a backwards step last year.

But what about his 2017 classmate, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? He needs a bounce-back season as much as anyone. In his 12 games last year, he totalled 42 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns – all career lows and certainly not numbers worthy of a No.1 receiver. With Diontae Johnson and James Washington showing promise, plus new draftee Chase Claypool, the odds of JuJu getting a big second contract are dwindling.

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I don’t know whether last year’s struggles were all due to the rotation of back-up quarterbacks, or if a team’s top wideout should still post decent numbers, whoever’s throwing the rock. Maybe it’s a bit of both but at least Ben Roethlisberger is back at the helm after missing most of last year. Perhaps this will help JuJu will get back to where he was in 2018: 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns, with a trip to the Pro Bowl thrown in, despite playing second fiddle to Antonio Brown.

Had he kept that momentum going last year, he might already have that extension in his pocket. But for now, the best Smith-Schuster can hope for now is a return to form and a franchise tag a year hence.


Jacksonville Jaguars: Is Fournette a bust?

Status: Fifth-year option declined

While the Bears deserve some stick for drafting Trubisky in 2017, the Jaguars are probably equally culpable for selecting Leonard Fournette at #4. With Blake Bortles (with a 11-34 record) on their books, a new QB might have been a wiser move but they aslo passed on two generational signal-callers and plumped for a running back. Even then, they picked the wrong one, with Christian McCaffrey available.

It’s easy to be critical with hindsight and Fournette is at least coming off his best season, after a terrible 2018. Despite just three TDs, his 1,674 total yards was a career high. But even when performing well, he’s not worth the big-money deal, which is why the Jaguars tried to trade him before rejecting his fifth-year option.

Without Jalen Ramsey, Nick Foles and Calais Campbell, the Jags could struggle this year. So, even if Fournette does well on an individual level, he’s still likely to end up signing a cheap, short free-agent deal with another franchise next off-season.


Los Angeles Rams: Will Cooper’s cup runneth over?

Action Images via Reuters
Status: Fifth-year option declined

The Rams have two big names playing in the final season of their rookie contracts. The first, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, will almost certainly recalibrate the value of elite CBs when a deal gets done. The other is WR Cooper Kupp.

A third-round section in the 2017 Draft, Kupp’s fifth-year option wasn’t taken up. Maybe the Rams’ miniscule salary cap space was a factor, having coughed up huge deals to Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, Aaron Donald and Brandin Cooks over the last couple of years, but it still came as a bit of a surprise to me.

Admittedly, an ACL injury ruled him out for half of 2018 but in his other two-and-a-half seasons, he’s notched 21 touchdowns and caught 196 passes for 2,596 yards (a figure boosted by the 220 he got against the listless Bengals defence at Wembley… but I digress).

Is Kupp special enough or productive enough to hit pay dirt? Well, his 1,161 regular season receiving yards (12th) and 10 touchdowns (second) were certainly up there with the best in 2019. Sure, he faces some fresh competition from rookie Van Jefferson and a plethora of undrafted free agent WRs, but I’d expect Kupp to have another solid season and sign a deal that keeps him in LA.


Atlanta Falcons: Is it too early to write off Gurley?

Status: One-year deal

After being let go by the Rams in March, Todd Gurley II found a new home in Atlanta just 24 hours later. Largely driven by concerns over his troublesome left knee, the brevity of his $6 million deal – it’s just for a year – marks quite the comedown from the 2018 deal that made him the highest-paid RB in NFL history: $60 million over four years. The fact that LA were willing to let the 25-year-old go, despite the massive hit in dead-cap money, speaks volumes. Ludicrously, despite not having to fork out a roster bonus, the Rams will still be paying Gurley more this year ($7.5 million) to play for the Falcons than the Falcons will!

In five seasons with the Rams, Gurley rushed for 5,404 yards and scored 58 touchdowns; he also caught 218 passes for 2,090 yards and 12 more TDs. He was 2017’s NFL Offensive Player of the Year but by the end of 2018, things had gone sour in LA. Then, last year, Gurley rushed for a career-low 857 yards and while questions about his knee persisted, Rams coach Sean McVay swore he was healthy and eventually called himself an idiot for not giving him more touches.

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So will Gurley’s homecoming of sorts – he’s a product of the University of Georgia – enable him to earn himself a longer, more lucrative deal? It feels like a crucial year for HC Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff as they target the playoffs so if they get there, even partly due to Gurley, the next contract shouldn’t be an issue.

With a wealth of talent around him – Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst – Gurley doesn’t need to be superman. He just needs to stay healthy, and give Atlanta’s anaemic, 30th-ranked running game some life support. As a replacement for the outgoing Davonta Freeman, Gurley could just be the man to save the day.

Banner image credit: Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports

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