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For some, strong 2011 finish could mean big bucks in 2012

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With five weeks to play in the regular season, teams are trying to string together some wins for a playoff push or at least make a run to build on for 2012. Several players, too, need to go on a run to not only make something of this season, but make some scratch come next year and beyond.

The career lifespan of an NFL player is just over three years. For star players, it's longer, but usually they only get a couple of shots to earn a big contract, or to maintain their status as a frontline starter. As quickly as a guy like Chris Johnson can make millions based on his first three seasons, a player like DeSean Jackson can ruin his earning potential by faltering in a contract year.

Here's a look at the players who have the most to gain -- or lose -- this season:

DeSean Jackson

Let's start with the explosive D-Jax, who has been just as implosive to his team. Early in the year, few around the league noticed his lack of production, save for hardcore fantasy owners. But as the year has worn on, No. 10 in green has flat-out disappeared in games. Moreover, he's been a distraction: He was benched two weeks ago after missing a special teams meeting, then benched again last weekend for ill-timed drops.

Considering Jackson is still playing on his rookie contract, at an industry-low $600,000 per season, he's dropping the ball on more than just furthering his playing time. Putting up a 1,000-yard season, some dynamic plays in the return game, and helping his team win an NFC East title would have virtually guaranteed a monster raise for the diminutive wideout. Obviously, that hasn't happened. Philly is 4-7 and one Marshawn Lynch Tecmo Bowl run from being out of the playoffs and potentially blowing the team up. All the more reason for Jackson to play like a true number one, or else he may not see a bright -- or green -- future in 2012.

Peyton Hillis

Another guy in a contract year who has been a more subtle distraction, who is also working on a $600,000 salary. The should-be power back has been a brittle back. The Browns have been forced to play with a running back by committee partially due to Hillis' hamstring woes as well as his 3.5 yards-per-carry average.

After a 1,100-yard season in 2010, when Hillis ran hard and productively against everybody, the motivation to put up big numbers seemed to be there for Cleveland's tailback. Except, for a myriad of reasons -- offensive line, poor explosion, bad hamstring and, by some accounts, a so-so attitude -- Hillis has been everything but a feature back who has earned a big payday somewhere in 2012.

Hillis needs to string together some 120-yard games to prove to the league he's worth rolling any dice on.

Matt Hasselbeck

A player not in a contract year, but one who could be a contractual issue for Titans GM Mike Reinfeldt. The 13-year veteran has been decent, but his base salary this season is three million bucks. Next year it leaps to $5.5 million. That's some coin for a team that has Jake Locker waiting in the wings.

Locker looked good in limited duty vs. the Falcons, and Reinfeldt didn't draft him eighth overall to sit. So what's in it for Hasselbeck? He's not playing to be the Titans starter. At 36, he's competing to be a starter somewhere next season if Tennessee cuts ties. Otherwise, he might end up replacing Mark Brunell as Mark Sanchez's caddie in New York next year.

Kyle Orton

Another quarterback who's playing in 2011 to be a starter in 2012. While the Mayan calendar comes to a close, so will Orton's days as a starting NFL quarterback if he falls flat on his face. Maybe it's a moot point for now if Todd Haley goes through with his plans to start Tyler Palko against the Bears Sunday.

The perception of Orton is that he's productive in garbage time, but just good enough to get you beat when it counts. Whether that's fair or not, it's hard to argue with his 1-4 record as a starter this season when Tim Tebow has gone 5-1 with the same group of guys.

This is a contract year for the former Bears and Broncos quarterback, who's playing for nearly $7.4 million this season. If he wants to make money, as well as start in 2012, he must play effectively versus the Jets, Packers, Bills and Broncos down the stretch. If he can produce, while limiting costly turnovers, there's a good possibility Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli brings him back in 2012.

Michael Bush

A player who, like Orton, has been a big factor in the AFC West, but in a good way. Since starting for an injured Darren McFadden, Bush has racked up 107.8 yards and a touchdown per game for the Oakland Raiders. He's also made hay in the passing game.

Bush is on a one-year, $2.6 million deal, and presents his team with quite the conundrum. Will the Raiders pay him highly to be a second option? Would Bush even settle for being a complementary back in 2012? At 27, his window is closing on being a featured runner in the NFL.

Still, those are good options to have. Bush can ensure he has them (if he hasn't already) by tearing up the Dolphins this week, and making the most of his touches even after Run DMC gets back in the lineup.

Alex Smith

The Bay Area is home to another guy who could definitely use some strong performances down the home stretch. This is not to disparage Alex Smith, as he's been solid all season. Yet he hasn't engendered enough confidence throughout his seven-year career to mail it in over the Niners' last five games.

That would be easy to do. A Klingon cruiser would have to crash into San Francisco Bay (like in "Star Trek IV") for the 49ers to not take home the NFC West crown. Smith can't act like he's playing with house money, though. The opportunity for big completions and chunks of yards on play-action will still be there. If Smith can capitalize, he'll do more than just show Jim Harbaugh and the front office that he's capable of being a guy who can avoid turning the ball over. He could also earn himself an opportunity to start and earn a handsome living elsewhere.

Shouldn't we all be so fortunate…be a productive worker for five weeks, and get paid for a year -- or many years to come?

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