Players in contract years are a bit like employees on commission: The extra motivation never hurts.
Here’s a list of the top skill-position guys looking to break the bank next offseason. (Assuming their teams don’t sign them before free agency.) It’s a loaded group with high-end talent at every position.
Note: Players are listed according to their spot in our Rankings.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks
Wilson’s easily the biggest bargain in football right now. He’ll enter the final season of his rookie deal slated to make just $1.54 million in base salary. That’s less than almost every other projected starting QB, including Cleveland’s Josh McCown ($2.25 million).
Seattle’s taken care of the defensive core, inking Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and K.J. Wright to long-term deals. The team still isn’t hurting for cap space, but there hasn’t been much progress in contract talks with Wilson – at least on the surface.
Beyond that, Wilson’s June 22 appearance on a North Carolina radio show raised some eyebrows when he mentioned his transfer experience (from Wisconsin to NC State).
"At the end of the day I trust the process," Wilson said. "I know God's going to take me and put me where he wants to have me. I hope that's Seattle. I love it there, it's a great place. But I've gone through the ups and downs and been moved around before. I loved NC State and loved playing there and then having to go somewhere else and start new."
Wilson also tossed out a number in a June 29th interview. Speaking to ESPN, Wilson said that “no matter if it's $25 million or if it's $1.5 million … I'll be ready to go."
If he’s truly looking for $25 million, it’s no wonder contract talks haven’t progressed. Aaron Rodgers is the NFL’s highest paid QB with a yearly salary of $22 million.
Still, the smart money remains on Wilson staying with Seattle long term. But pen might not meet paper until 2016. And, unfortunately for the Seahawks, Wilson’s price tag will jump if he makes another deep postseason run. We project the 26-year-old for career highs in passing yardage and passing TDs this season.
Eli Manning, Giants
Entering July, there hasn’t been much positive chatter about a new contract for Eli.
It’s a slight surprise considering his 2014 performance, especially with Odell Beckham Jr. in the lineup. From Week 5 on, Manning ranked 5th in yardage (3,427) and 10th in TDs (21). He passed the eye test under new OC Ben McAdoo.
Manning has now appeared in 167 straight regular-season games. Among QBs, that’s the longest active streak and the 3rd longest of all-time.
His agent – Tom Condon – clearly isn’t concerned.
“The quarterbacks always get done,” Condon said. “And the Giants are not a skittish team. So it's not one of those things where they get nervous or they jump around or anything like that. You know you're going to go in and it's going to get done. I'm sure at the appropriate time it'll happen."
That time might be next offseason, as it looks like the Giants will force Manning to prove his worth in his age-34 season. Replacing the 2-time Super Bowl champ wouldn’t be easy, so we expect him to return barring a major decline. Current backup Ryan Nassib hasn’t generated much buzz since sliding to Round 4 of the 2013 draft.
Sam Bradford, Eagles
HC Chip Kelly has touted competition between Bradford and Mark Sanchez, but we fully expect the former Ram to enter Week 1 under center.
And he better. Philly’s slated to pay him nearly $13 million in the final year of his rookie contract. (Recall that the Rams took Bradford 1st overall in 2010, the last year before the league instituted its rookie wage scale.) As Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Brandt noted, the Eagles could have negotiated a Bradford extension as part of a trade contingency. Maybe the Eagles wanted to see their new QB stay healthy for a full season – something he hasn’t done since 2012 – before committing to him long-term. Yet NFL insider Albert Breer has passed along word that both sides have engaged in “preliminary” contract talks.
We expect Bradford to play out the final year of his rookie deal. Slow to recover from a torn ACL, the 27-year-old was a limited participant in spring practices. A healthy Bradford should thrive in Kelly’s scheme, although it’ll also raise the value of the QB. If he enjoys a strong season, we’d expect Philly to do their best to retain a player who Kelly’s long been high on.
Philip Rivers, Chargers
Early this offseason, Rivers made it clear that he wouldn’t welcome a move to Los Angeles. The Chargers, of course, are 1 of the teams that might relocate. But Rivers – who’s spent 11 years in San Diego – cited his family and ties to the area as reasons why he’s against a move.
As a result, pre-draft rumors indicated that the team would seriously consider trading its franchise player. That always seemed like a long shot, though. San Diego ultimately retained Rivers and is now “actively pursuing” a new deal for him, per insider Michael Gehlken.
We see Rivers ending his career with the Bolts. The 33-year-old is still playing at a high level, coming off his 2nd straight year with 4,200+ yards and 30+ TDs. Plus, there’s no successor on San Diego’s roster.
Nick Foles, Rams
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said earlier in June that extending Foles is a “priority” for St. Louis. It’s an odd sentiment given that Foles regressed significantly following a 2013 breakout. His completion percentage dropped from 64% to 59.8%, while his yards per attempt dipped from 9.1 to 7.0. Foles also missed the final 8 games with a broken collarbone.
Foles doesn’t carry much fantasy value as a member of the run-first Rams. Time will tell if the team extends him, but he’ll need a much better environment to escape low-end QB2 range.
Matt Forte, Bears
Forte turns 30 in December, so it’s no surprise that the Bears aren’t rushing to hand him a new deal. He hasn’t missed a game over the past 2 seasons, but his workloads have proven astounding. In fact, over the past 2 years, he leads all RBs with 731 touches.
Forte has already said that he won’t stage a training-camp holdout. So he’ll enter the final year of a 4-year, $30.4 million deal. Whether the Bears re-sign him in the future likely depends in part on the development of rookie 4th-rounder Jeremy Langford and/or 2nd-year RB Ka'Deem Carey. Beyond that, it’s tough to see a team sinking premium dollars into a player whose best ball will be behind him.
Alfred Morris, Redskins
Washington secured a possible long-term replacement for Morris in May’s draft. Third-rounder Matt Jones packs 3-down upside into a 6’2, 231-pound frame.
Morris is certainly deserving of an uptick in pay. He’s slated to make $1.5 million in base pay this season and has been 1 of the NFL’s steadiest RBs, posting 1,200+ total yards in all 3 pro seasons.
But we’re not sure his raise will come from Washington. His lack of receiving ability takes some appeal away. Plus, the team could likely find a comparable replacement at a better price. Mix in the fact that Washington’s current HC/GM combo didn’t draft Morris, and it should be no surprise if he plays elsewhere in 2016.
Lamar Miller, Dolphins
Miller broke out last year to the tune of 1,099 rushing yards and 8 TDs on 5.1 yards per carry. But his future in Miami looks iffy following the addition of rookie Jay Ajayi.
Long-term knee issues aside, Ajayi carries the ability to step into a feature role in 2016. Miller turns just 25 next April, and the Fins will likely attempt to lock him up through his prime years. The cost just might prove to be too much, though, especially for a team that just gave huge deals to Ryan Tannehill and Ndamukong Suh.
LeGarrette Blount, Patriots
It’s always tough to predict what the Patriots are thinking. But history shows that their RB spot is interchangeable.
Blount’s just a 2-down thumper anyway, albeit an effective 1. Over the past 2 years, he’s averaged 4.7 yards per carry and popped in 12 TDs. Blount’s future in New England will depend largely on his asking price.
For 2015, though, he looks like 1 of the best values at RB in non-PPR fantasy football leagues.
Chris Ivory, Jets
Judging by the moves of New York’s new regime, they’re not real high on Ivory.
Sure, he currently sits atop the depth chart. But the team inked Stevan Ridley in free agency and made a draft-day move for Zac Stacy. While neither guy is a lock to even make the final roster, those transactions don’t come off favorably for Ivory.
Ultimately, Ivory won’t cost much to retain in 2016. But there are questions about how well he’ll fit into new OC Chan Gailey’s offense.
Doug Martin, Buccaneers
Early in the offseason, Martin seemed like a lock to depart in 2016. Not so much anymore.
Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune said that Martin’s enjoyed his “best offseason in 3 years.” We’ll see if his strong play continues deep into the summer, but for now, he looks like the #1 RB over Charles Sims.
The cap-rich Bucs could retain Martin if he re-emerges in 2015. It’s just not a likely outcome for a guy who’s averaged 3.6 and 3.7 yards per carry over the past 2 seasons.
Fred Jackson, Bills
Now 34, Jackson could be entering his final NFL season. There’s even a chance that he doesn’t make it to the Week 1 roster.
"We’ll see what happens with me getting cut or not," Jackson admitted in June. "I’ll go out and do whatever I can to make sure that doesn’t happen."
There’s not much fantasy impact here with LeSean McCoy assuming a workhorse role. Jackson’s unlikely to play in Buffalo next season – or emerge as a useful fantasy asset in 2015.
Demaryius Thomas, Broncos
Denver applied the franchise tag to Thomas in March. But he hasn’t signed it and has instead boycotted OTAs in hopes of landing a long-term deal.
Well, it hasn’t happened yet. The magnitude of the deal suggests that it’ll take some time to hammer out. As NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport passed along, “league executives” believe Thomas should be paid Calvin Johnson money. (He signed an 8-year, $130 million deal in 2012.) There’s also chatter that Thomas is hoping for Dez Bryant (or the 2 guys listed below) to set the market before committing to the team that drafted him.
There’s a small chance that Thomas slips out of Denver. But the team will need to be awfully impressed with 2nd-year WR Cody Latimer to let their go-to target slip away. Note that the Broncos’ financial flexibility will increase when Peyton Manning’s contract expires after the 2016 season. (And of course, there’s a chance that 2015 is his final year in the NFL.)
As you can tell by our WR Rankings, we’re not worried about the contract issue affecting Thomas this season.
UPDATE: The Broncos signed Thomas to a long-term deal on July 15.
Dez Bryant, Cowboys
Currently under the franchise tag, Bryant has until July 15th to sign a long-term contract. If both sides can’t agree to a deal, negotiations can’t fire up again until after the season.
Team VP Stephen Jones said in mid-June that there’s a “divide” between both parties. So while there’s clear interest in getting a deal done, a pre-deadline handshake seems 50/50 at best.
We don’t buy the talk that Dez will hold out into Week 1, though. He’s showed up to OTAs and has stayed in touch with owner Jerry Jones, per the Dallas Morning News. After the Cowboys let DeMarco Murray bolt to Philly in free agency, expect them to do everything in their power to retain such an elite playmaker.
UPDATE: Dallas signed Bryant to a long-term deal on July 15.
Julio Jones, Falcons
Jones hasn’t skipped OTAs – and he’s not planning to stage a training camp holdout, either.
“I'm not going to hold out for anything,” Jones said. “My teammates need me. I'm being selfish if I'm not here and doing what I need to do.”
Jones turned 26 in February and just set a franchise high with 1,593 receiving yards. He’s an obvious priority for GM Thomas Dimitroff, especially with Roddy White entering his age-33 season and scant depth behind the starters. Don’t expect Jones to leave Atlanta.
A.J. Green, Bengals
For now, Green’s slated to play the 2015 season under his 5th-year player option. That’ll pay him a cool $10.2 million.
We haven’t heard much in the way of contract talks between Green and the Bengals. But with several other elite WRs in the same (or similar) situation, it’s not a huge surprise. Once the first domino falls – and market value is established – look for talks to heat up.
The soon-to-be 27-year-old has tallied 4 straight years with 1,000+ yards. He did so last year despite missing 3 games due to injury. Green’s fantasy outlook would likely brighten outside of Cincy – and away from Andy Dalton. But that’s an unlikely scenario.
Alshon Jeffery, Bears
Jeffery’s in a great spot for monster numbers, especially with Brandon Marshall out of the picture. The Bear is also slated to hit free agency at a ripe 26 years old.
Chicago hasn’t rushed to sign the 2013 breakout. It’s understandable, as they look for him to prove that he can be a true #1 WR. The addition of 1st-round WR Kevin White might signal that Jeffery is expendable, but we don’t see it. Standing 6’3 with plus speed and downfield chops, Jeffery’s skill set is simply hard to replace. He should also come noticeably cheaper than the top-4 WRs on this list.
T.Y. Hilton, Colts
In early June, Colts owner Jim Irsay said that a new deal for Hilton “will” get done. We’re not so sure.
Indy invested a 1st-round pick in WR Phillip Dorsett. He joins a loaded WR corps that already includes Donte Moncrief and Andre Johnson – plus TEs Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen (more on them below). The Colts also need to work on an extension for QB Andrew Luck, while it’s safe to say that they should invest more of their cap dollars on defense.
Hilton’s obviously a bona fide asset, surpassing 80 catches and 1,000 yards in each of the past 2 seasons. But if he’s looking to really cash in, that money will likely come from elsewhere.
Rueben Randle, Giants
Randle enters a contract year despite turning just 24 in May. He’s certainly not a guy the Giants or fantasy owners should give up on.
He scored just 3 times in 2014 but notched career highs in catches (71) and yards (938). He also ended the year on a high note, posting lines of 6-132-1 and 6-158 over the final 2 weeks.
The final year of Randle’s deal comes at a great time. Victor Cruz is returning from an ugly torn patellar injury. And Odell Beckham has struggled to shake lingering hamstring issues. The potential for 1 or both players to miss games gives Randle a great shot to carry his 2014 momentum into the new season. He’s a candidate to take another step forward, a scenario that would only make it tougher for New York to retain him.
Antonio Gates, Chargers
It’s hard to see Gates – a franchise icon – playing anywhere other than San Diego. We haven’t heard any whispers about a contract extension, but that’s to be expected for a 35-year-old TE. He still looked excellent last year, posting 821 yards and 12 TDs on 69 grabs.
Rebuilding dynasty leaguers should obviously shop Gates this summer. 2015 might be his last year in the league.
Coby Fleener, Colts
Fleener’s 2014 numbers look strong on the surface: 51 catches, 774 yards and 8 TDs. But he’s not an efficient or reliable player, instead reliant on volume.
While Fleener hasn’t endured the injuries that Dwayne Allen has, we expect the Colts to focus on bringing back the stronger blocker. Fleener’s simply a luxury pass-catching option for a team with a loaded group of WRs.
Dwayne Allen, Colts
Allen might have already earned a new deal had he stayed healthy. He missed all but 1 game in 2013 with a back injury. Then in 2014, he missed 3 matchups with a knee issue and admitted that he played at 70% health all year. Allen even said that it “felt like” his body “broke down” as the season progressed.
When healthy, though, Allen provides a sturdy bookend as a blocker. And he’s an established scoring machine with 12 TDs on just 75 career catches. The Clemson product enters training camp at full health. But his ability to stick around for a full season figures to play a large role in his long-term future with the Colts.
Vernon Davis, 49ers
2015 is a huge year for Davis. Was 2014 just a fluke brought on by Colin Kaepernick’s struggles? Or is the 31-year-old really washed up?
His dirt cheap ADP makes him a worthy flier in fantasy drafts this summer. But the 49ers are likely to see if Davis is able to bounce back before handing him a fresh contract. They drafted Blake Bell in Round 4 of May’s draft, but he’s more of a developmental player.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Redskins
Robert Turbin, RB, Seahawks
Ronnie Hillman, RB, Broncos
Justin Blackmon, WR, Jaguars
Malcom Floyd, WR, Chargers
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Bengals
Marvin Jones, WR, Bengals
Brian Quick, WR, Rams
Ladarius Green, TE, Chargers