Contract year performances can have significant economic consequences. Fortunes can be made and lost when playing on an expiring contract. Trey Hendrickson and A.J. Green are prime examples.
Hendrickson was just a situational pass rusher during his first three NFL seasons with the Saints. He came out of nowhere in 2020 to tie three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald for second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks. Hendrickson parlayed his contract year success into a three-year, $45 million contract averaging $15 million per year with the Bengals during March's free agency.
Green was the other end of the contract year spectrum. A healthy Green had his worst year statistically as a pro in 2020 while playing for the Bengals on a $17.971 million franchise tag, Green's statistical downturn was preceded by a couple of injury-plagued seasons. The 32-year old free agent signed a one-year, $6 million deal worth up to $8.5 million through incentives with the Cardinals to try to rejuvenate his career.
With the NFL season heading into the homestretch, here are 10 players who are either helping themselves or aren't doing themselves any favors in their contract year. A key contract benchmark and the probability of hitting this financial target ranging from one dollar sign to four dollars signs are listed for each player.
Players Helping Themselves
Financial Benchmark: Marshon Lattimore
- $19.4 million average
- $68,346,588 in guarantees
- Five years worth up to $100 million with incentives
Jackson is putting to rest any questions about whether he could assume No. 1 cornerback duties in New England raised by Stephon Gilmore's early season departure to the Panthers in a trade. The 2018 undrafted free agent, who is playing under a $3.384 million restricted free agent tender, was named November's AFC Defensive Player of the Month.
Jackson is the NFL's premier ballhawk. He is second in league this season with seven interceptions. Jackson has the NFL's most interceptions since the start of the 2019 season with 21.
A franchise tag could be on the horizon, although salary cap space will be at much more of a premium than during this year's free agency spending spree. Jackson's franchise's tag projects to $17.287 million (8.303% of the $208.2 million 2022 salary cap). The Patriots have $185.73 million in 2022 cap commitments with 47 players under contract and just over $3 million of unused 2021 cap space that can be carried over to the 2022 league year, according to NFLPA data. Under offseason accounting rules, only the top 51 salaries (i.e.; cap numbers) matter.
Financial Benchmark: Tyler Lockett
- $17.3 million average
- $37 million in guarantees
- Four years
Williams started the season like gangbusters with 22 receptions for 295 yards with four touchdowns in the first three games. He hasn't been able to sustain that pace but is having a career year. Williams has 61 receptions (a career high) for 915 yards with seven touchdowns in 13 games. A franchise tag isn't out of the question. The Chargers have the NFL's second-fewest 2022 cap commitments with $144.9 million, although only 33 players are under contract. It will cost the Chargers $18.816 million to designate Williams as a franchise player, which is a 20% percent raise over his current $15.68 million fifth-year option.
Financial Benchmark: Matt Milano
- $10.375 million average
- $23 million in guarantees
- Four years
Campbell didn't sign a one-year, $2 million deal with an additional $500,000 in playtime incentives until June because nobody was willing to meet his target price, which was initially in the $10 million per year range according to my sources. It was the second year in a row Campbell signed a one-year "prove it" deal in free agency. The base value of the Packers contract is for one-third of the money he made in 2020.
Campbell is thriving in Green Bay as an every-down linebacker. He was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October. In five October games, all victories, Campbell had 45 tackles, one sack, three tackles for loss, an interception, two forced fumbles and two passes defensed.
Campbell might take a more cautious approach to free agency because of his previous experiences on the open market. He'll have a better shot of cashing in during free agency with an off-ball linebacker market more like 2020 than 2021. Milano was the only such linebacker to hit the $10 million per year in mark 2021. Five off-ball linebackers did in 2020 (Jamie Collins, Cory Littleton, Blake Martinez, Joe Schobert and Kyle Van Noy).
Financial Benchmark: Leonard Floyd
- $16 million average
- $32.5 million in guarantees
- Four years
The Titans were expecting an improved pass rush this season. Bud Dupree was signed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract (worth up to $85 million through incentives) with $35 million of guarantees. 2021 is proving to be a lost season for Dupree. He is currently on injured reserve with an abdominal injury and missed three games early in the season related to the torn right ACL he suffered last December playing for the Steelers. Landry is more than doing his part. He has a career-high 11 sacks (eighth in the NFL) this season. The Titans retaining Landry could be a difficult proposition. Landry would be justified in insisting on more than Dupree to remain in Nashville given how things have unfolded between the two this season.
Financial Benchmark: Hunter Henry
- $12.5 million average
- $25 million in guarantees
- Three years
Schultz had a breakout 2020 campaign with 63 receptions for 615 yards and four touchdowns thanks to Blake Jarwin's right ACL tear in the 2020 season opener. He was slated to be Dallas' blocking tight end until Jarwin's injury. Schultz hasn't looked back since winning a preseason competition with Jarwin to be the starter. He's nearly matched his 2020 production through 13 games this season. Schultz ranks seventh among tight ends with 53 receptions and eighth with 584 receiving yards. Surprisingly, Schultz is fifth among tight ends with 267 yards after the catch.
Schultz should be the beneficiary of the dramatic jump in the tight end market since 2020 free agency began. There weren't any tight ends making over $10 million per year when the 2019 season ended. Now there are seven. Among the seven are Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, who received $12.5 million per year deals from the Patriots in this year's free agency. Neither ranks in the top 20 among tight end in receptions or receiving yards this season. In fact, Schultz isn't far off from their combined production of 61 receptions and 665 receiving yards.
Players Who Aren't Doing Themselves Any Favors
Financial Benchmark: Keenan Allen
- $20.025 million average
- $50 million in guarantees
- Four years
Coming into this season, Robinson had thrived in Chicago despite shaky quarterback play. He had the NFL's fourth-most receptions (200) and receiving yards (2,397) over the last two seasons (2019 and 2020).
Robinson is in the midst of his worst NFL season (other than 2017 when he tore his left ACL in the season opener). The 28-year-old has 32 catches for 353 yards with one touchdown in 10 games. This can be attributed to a lack of chemistry with rookie quarterback Justin Fields rather than a diminishment in skills.
One thing Robinson doesn't have to worry about is getting another franchise tag in 2022, which would cost $21.556 million. The lack of production this season probably won't have an impact on Robinson's financial expectations. The four-year, $80.1 million contract extension Keenan Allen received from the Chargers last preseason was an important data point to Robinson's camp when the last serious contract discussions reportedly took place early in the 2020 season.
That type of price was going to limit the number of suitors in free agency even if Robinson were performing in 2021 like he did during the previous two seasons. Robinson only needs one team to view 2021 as an anomaly similar to how the Giants were the only team willing to sign Kenny Golladay to a four-year, $72 million contract (worth up to $76 million through incentives) with $40 million of guarantees this year.
Financial Benchmark: Andrew Whitworth (2017 deal)
- $11.25 million average
- $15 million in guarantees
- Three years worth up to $36 million with incentives
Brown's lengthy training camp hold-in only produced slight modifications to his existing contract instead of a new deal. Seattle's reluctance to give Brown a new contract stemmed from his age. Brown is 36, and there isn't much of a track record with offensive tackles playing at a high level into their late 30s besides Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who just turned 40. Brown is showing signs of decline this season. He has allowed eight sacks according to Pro Football Focus. It's the same number Brown gave up during his previous four seasons combined (2017 through 2020).
Financial Benchmark: Jarrad Davis
- $5.5 million average
- $5.5 million in guarantees
- One year worth up to $7 million with incentives
The Cowboys declined to pick up Vander Esch's fifth-year option for $9.145 million because of durability concerns. This season, Vander Esch hasn't resembled the player who was a Pro Bowl participant and earned second team All-Pro honors as a rookie in 2018. After being an every-down linebacker for most of his first three NFL seasons when healthy, Vander Esch has been on the field for 53% of Dallas' defensive snaps despite playing every game and Jaylon Smith being released early in the season.
Financial Benchmark: Logan Thomas
- $8,021,667 average
- $10.315 million in guarantees
- Three years
Engram hasn't been able to build upon last year's selection to the Pro Bowl, which was aided by injuries to Zach Ertz and George Kittle, when he had 63 catches for 654 yards and one touchdown. He was initially slowed by a calf injury that kept him out of this season's first two games. Engram ranks 20th and 23rd, respectively, in receptions (36) and receiving yards (342) for tight ends in 2021. If 2017's 23rd-overall pick wants an opportunity to get in the upper stratosphere of tight end pay, he'll probably have to sign a one-year deal somewhere and have a career year in 2022. Gerald Everett is currently playing under a one-year, $6 million contract worth up to $7 million through incentives with the Seahawks, which is consistent with Engram's $6.013 million fifth-year option for 2021.
Financial Benchmark: Kenyan Drake
- $5.5 million average
- $11 million in guarantees
- Two years worth up to $14.5 million with incentives
Jones was part of one of the NFL's better running back combinations with Leonard Fournette last season when he nearly had 1,000 rushing yards in 14 games while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He has taken a backseat to Fournette this season. Jones got in head coach Bruce Arians' doghouse by fumbling in the season opener against Dallas and making mental mistakes in pass protection. Jones had 10 games with 10 or more carries in 2020. He was one this season.