There’s something about the contract season. It’s as American as apple pie, as true as blue, and in the NFL, players have been delivering career years on them since the dawn of free agency in 1993.
Deion Sanders did it in 1994, when he joined the San Francisco 49ers and won the AP’s Defensive Player of the Year and the Super Bowl before bolting for Dallas the next offseason. So did the great Reggie White, who joined the Green Bay Packers in 1993 and became the catalyst for a Super Bowl champion after a monster 14-sack season in Philadelphia in 1992.
When I started covering the NFL full-time in 2013, that’s when I got an appreciation for how real the contract season phenomenon is, and why it’s so. In 2014, as a beat writer who covered the Kansas City Chiefs, I watched outside linebacker Justin Houston make the team pay for its decision to franchise him with a monster 22-sack campaign. He was an unstoppable, Hulk-like force vs. the run and pass.
Houston, in turn, received a $100 million contract (way more than what he asked for a year earlier) in July 2015.
A few months later, another outside linebacker did a Lawrence Taylor impression in a contract season while racking up 11 sacks, 11 billion hurries and a Super Bowl MVP for the world champion Denver Broncos. General manager John Elway was forced to make that man, Von Miller, the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.
So the next year, when Eric Berry posted one of the single greatest seasons I’ve ever seen by a safety (he earned bonus points for simultaneously reigning in sometimes-combustible cornerback Marcus Peters) after the Chiefs stupidly placed a franchise tag on him that year, I realized that for really talented players, contract seasons are the football equivalent of the upgrades Lucius Fox makes to Bruce Wayne’s Batsuit. You can count whatever weaknesses Batman has for that upcoming fight to be counteracted by those adjustments.
That’s why, when many in Kansas City were ready to write off outside linebacker Dee Ford last offseason, I always told them to hold their horses. Ford, 27, was a first-round pick in 2014 who has battled a series of nagging back and leg injuries throughout his career. His run defense was inconsistent, specifically early in his career, but aside from a promising 2016 campaign — in which he led the team in sacks and hurries — he never fully delivered on his lightning-fast first step and elite speed rush. Until now.
Ford, who is in the fifth year of his rookie deal, is set to be an unrestricted free agent in March, and he is absolutely ripping it up. He has always played hard, but he’s more explosive than he’s ever been, and more productive, too. Ford has four sacks and 12 hurries, the most of any edge rusher in the NFL.
What’s more, Ford is playing so well for the undefeated Chiefs that some fans are even clamoring for Kansas City to franchise-tag him or extend him for 2019 … which is how it always goes, you know.
As long as Ford keeps his Quintessential Contract Season up, he’ll be seeing a raise in 2019 no matter what, whether it’s on the open market, via the franchise tag or a contract extension.
Ford isn’t the only one in line for a big payday, either. Here’s a list of players who are setting themselves up for a nice come up in 2019 (provided they keep it up, of course).
Chicago Bears CB Bryce Callahan
With 14 tackles, an interception and a pass deflection this year, Callahan, 26, is quietly playing really good football for the Bears as a slot cornerback. The 5-foot-9, 188-pounder isn’t very big, but he’s athletic, instinctive and he plays his tail off. And those aren’t my words — Bears coach Matt Nagy said that this week to Pro Football Weekly. Not bad for a guy who went undrafted in 2015 and will be a free agent in March after four seasons.
If the Bears don’t take care of Callahan financially this offseason, someone else will. Due to the heavy proliferation of three-wide sets, “nickel” defenses with three corners are considered the base defense in the NFL now, and tough guys with plus athleticism and sticky cover skills like Callahan are quite valuable.
Oakland Raiders TE Jared Cook
With Oakland off to a disappointing 1-4 start, the Jon Gruden era hasn’t lived up to its billing. But one player who has benefited mightily from Gruden’s arrival is Cook. He is on pace to catch 96 passes for 1,248 yards and six touchdowns this season. Though he’s 31— and has had a key drop or two this season — Cook has ripped it up as a slot-receiver type from Gruden’s plethora of tight formations, even gaining an impressive 204 yards after the catch, the eighth most in football and second most among tight ends. Again, in today’s pass-happy NFL, someone can use this guy in 2019 if Oakland doesn’t bring him back.
Green Bay Packers S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
The 25-year-old former first-round pick in 2014 has given up a few big plays this season, but by and large, he’s doing the things he needs to command a big deal in free agency. The versatile 6-1, 208-pounder is on pace to finish with 64 tackles, 10 interceptions, 10 pass deflections and three sacks, a nice bounce-back following a sometimes-shaky 2017.
New York Jets RB Isaiah Crowell
Crowell, 25, was third in the NFL in rushing heading into play this week and — even more impressive — second in yards per carry average (6.8), as he’s carried the rock 57 times for 390 yards and five touchdowns in a timeshare with Bilal Powell. The 5-11, 225-pound bowling ball opened some eyes with his 15-carry, 219-yard performance on Sunday against the Broncos. While it’s unlikely he keeps up this pace — he’s on track to finish with 1,248 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns — he’s taking care of his business in a walk year.
New England Patriots DE Trey Flowers
Flowers’ raw numbers aren’t eye-popping — 12 tackles, two sacks and four QB hurries — but you’ll have a hard time finding a more consistent hand-down edge defender, particularly against the run. Flowers, 25, pairs powerful hands and good leverage with sharp on-field awareness, and he’s difficult to move and reach. As a fourth-rounder in 2015, the 6-2, 265-pounder is set to be a free agent in the spring.
Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence
Lawrence, 26, is well on his way to backing up his breakout 2017 season with a contract year that will get him paid in 2019. A former second-round pick in 2014, Lawrence — who had 14½ sacks last year — is on pace to finish with more than 17 this season. What’s more, Lawrence’s effort has been fantastic this season, as he can regularly be seen chasing plays from behind. That’s why the 6-3, 265-pounder is on pace to finish with 70 tackles, as well.
Denver Broncos C Matt Paradis
One person who surely took note of the massive five-year, $55 million extension the Tampa Bay Buccaneers handed center/guard Ali Marpet is Paradis, 29, who signed a one-year deal last season. A former sixth-round pick in 2014, Paradis — who was once waived by the Broncos — was a starter for the Super Bowl champs in 2015 and has already established himself as one of the best interior blockers in football. The 6-3, 300-pounder is durable (he has made 53 straight regular-season starts) and versatile, both as a zone-run blocker and in pass protection. It’s hard to imagine the Broncos letting him go, but if they do, he’ll have a great market because good offensive linemen are at a premium these days.
Los Angeles Rams LG Rodger Saffold
Saffold, 30, is a big (6-5, 323 pounds), powerful man who uses that blend to bend opponents to his will on one of the league’s best offensive lines. He moves well enough, plays through the whistle and does it all with emotion. He punishes defenders in the run game and is solid in pass protection. Throw in the fact he has been durable, starting 35 of his team’s last 37 games, and Saffold is in line for a nice payday this March, despite his age.
Jacksonville Jaguars RB T.J. Yeldon
He has an upright running style and isn’t a downhill runner like Leonard Fournette, the team’s No. 1 back. But Yeldon’s ability to pass protect and catch the football will help him get paid in March, thanks to the league’s shift toward the passing game. The 25-year-old has flashed those traits while Fournette has dealt with a hamstring injury this season, and is on pace to rush for 826 yards and (most important) catch 70 passes for 621 yards and 10 touchdowns.
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