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2018 free agency preview: Bill comes due for WRs

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The wide receivers draft class of 2014 is ready to get paid.

Hyped as one of the great wideout classes of all time before any of its members had even caught an NFL pass, the group has lived up to expectations with superstars and depth aplenty.

All that production hasn't led to more money -- yet. While Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Brandin Cooks had fifth-year options picked up in their rookie contracts (which will carry them through the 2018 season), players like Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson, Davante Adams and Jarvis Landry are entering contract years. Throw in 2013 pick DeAndre Hopkins, who is also staring at free agency barring an extension, and there could be a glut of talented receivers on the market next March.

It's never too early to look ahead, so I thought it would be fun to break down some of the biggest names across all positions entering contract years, starting with those wideouts. Here's your way-too-early 2018 free agency primer. Scroll down for the following categories:

» Wide receivers (who should be rooting for Beckham).
» Big-fish QBs.
» Star QBs likely to stay put.
» QBs on the edge.
» The Prove-it Contract All-Stars.
» Players who could use a big contract year.
» Sneaky big-money candidates.

Wide receivers (who should be rooting for Beckham)

Before we get to this group, we need to talk about Odell Beckham. Because while he's currently not set to hit free agency until 2019, he could wind up earning the free agency class of 2018 plenty of money. That's his plan, anyhow.

Vastly underpaid at $1.8 million this season, Beckham -- who has more receiving yards (4,122) over the past three seasons than anyone in that span but Julio Jones and Antonio Brown -- wants to reset the receiver market with his next deal.

"What you want to do is change the game," Beckham said early in training camp, explaining his desire to be the game's highest-paid player. "This isn't for me, Odell Beckham. It's for everyone in the league, people who deserve it.

"You sit there and you watch the NBA and it's crazy. Being realistic, it's crazy what they are getting [paid], and there are people in the NFL who deserve that. I want to be in the forefront for it and help push the league and the game that way."

Don't underestimate Beckham or his agent. They just negotiated the biggest shoe deal in NFL history, and the Giants may smartly figure that his price will only keep going up. Any early contract extension by Beckham or Mike Evans -- who is tied for the third-most receiving touchdowns (27) in the past three seasons -- in Tampa Bay would have a ripple effect for the players set to hit free agency.

DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans: Hopkins could be the first of this group to get an extension, especially if he starts off this season well. The Texans have publicly expressed their desire to sign Hopkins long-term, and it's hard to imagine them letting him leave, especially considering the team's lack of depth at the position. The franchise tag looms as a backup plan.

Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills: The surprise trade to the Rams should only help Watkins' leverage heading into his contract year. A healthy, productive season in Los Angeles would earn him a franchise tag at the very least from the Rams, who will be highly motivated to retain Watkins long-term after sending a second-round pick to the Bills for him. Once set up to be the No. 1 overall free agent available next offseason, now the Rams can't afford to let Watkins go. The biggest concern with the Rams is whether Jared Goff can consistently get the ball to Watkins deep.

Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars: Robinson wasn't eligible for a fifth-year option, because he was drafted after the first round (in Round 2, with the 61st overall pick). Players like him are almost at an advantage compared to their first-round peers, because they get to their second contract more quickly. It will be a tricky deal for the Jaguars, though, given that they already paid No. 2 receiver Allen Hurns big money. Lee, the team's No. 3 option, is also entering a contract year.

Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins will have to decide whether Landry, who's posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, is worth No. 1 receiver money despite playing most of his snaps out of the slot. Even with all that production, the current Dolphins staff has harped on Landry to improve on the "details" of being a great receiver, and owner Stephen Ross has sounded unconcerned about the lack of a new deal, with Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald reporting this week that negotiations are at a standstill. A long-term deal could be difficult to settle on.

The class of 2014 has staying power because it's not just about the stars. Davante Adams (Packers), John Brown (Cardinals), Donte Moncrief (Colts) and Jordan Matthews (traded to the Bills on Friday) can all seriously increase their value this year. Some of the players above will inevitably sign extensions during the season, while others will start getting antsy about the lack of targets coming their way.

The glut of receivers stands in stark contrast to the prospective quarterback market, which will serve quality over quantity.

The big-fish quarterbacks

Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins: There are few historical precedents for Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo, the two most fascinating quarterbacks set to hit free agency in 2018.

Though he is still not a top-10 quarterback, Cousins can reset the quarterback market closer to the position's actual value, in large part because the Redskins have mishandled his situation.

Using the franchise tag on Cousins in back-to-back seasons gives the former fourth-round pick unprecedented leverage, with the league swarming with his former coaches, including Kyle Shanahan with the 49ers and Sean McVay with the Rams. (San Francisco is the most logical fit.) It probably won't help the Redskins' case for keeping Cousins that they went out of their way to make him look bad in negotiations for a long-term extension over the summer. It would cost the Redskins around $35 million to use the tag on Cousins a third time, a number that the team may consider paying if he plays well enough this season. Still, his value is somewhat dependent on how the Redskins perform. A down year could make it easier for a seemingly ambivalent front office to move on from him. Using the franchise tag on Cousins before dealing him is another possibility, because of the trade value young quarterbacks possess.

Jimmy Garoppolo, New England Patriots: The Patriots know said value well, which is one reason why the team turned down any inquiries for Garoppolo this offseason. If Bill Belichick truly believes he has the next great quarterback on his roster, the Patriots will do everything possible to either keep him or extract maximum trade value.

There doesn't necessarily need to be a plan yet for how the Patriots will retain Tom Brady -- who is under contract through 2019 -- and Garoppolo past 2017, especially considering Brady's health or playing status could change. The Patriots could attempt to draw up a creative contract that keeps Garoppolo in town as a backup or simply use the franchise tag to kick the decision down the road into 2019. Paying a backup quarterback more money than Brady fits snugly into the Belichick personnel-decision oeuvre. Garoppolo could surely earn starter-quality money -- over $20 million per season -- if he reached free agency, but promising young quarterbacks simply don't hit the open market often. Then again ...

The star quarterbacks likely to stay put

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: It would be stunning if the Lions don't figure out a contract with Stafford before the end of this season, if not the end of training camp. Even if talks get held up, there's no way the Lions will allow him to leave anytime soon.

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: Brees' future in New Orleans is more complicated than Stafford's because of Brees' age (38) and annual reports regarding Sean Payton's interest in other jobs. Brees has said publicly he plans to play out the 2017 season before figuring out his future, though it's difficult to imagine him playing anywhere besides New Orleans as long as Payton stays. The Saints reportedly were interested in drafting Patrick Mahomes before the Chiefs traded up for him, so it's clear the team has thought about life without Brees without actually preparing for it. That gives Brees great leverage in working out a deal to stay, unless this Saints season truly sinks below sea level.

Quarterbacks on the edge

Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings: Both will be free agents in 2018, with Minnesota declining to exercise Bridgewater's fifth-year option following the knee injury that wiped out his 2016 season. Bridgewater is rightly focused on his health, and any return to the NFL will be viewed as a triumph after all he's been through. But the Vikings will have to navigate the thorny reality of how to handle him and Bradford contractually. This is Bradford's job to lose. His history with coordinator Pat Shurmur and status as the team's starter allows Bradford an opportunity to earn another big contract in a career full of them.

Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins' last-minute splurge on Cutler as a fill-in for Ryan Tannehill was reminiscent of Minnesota's acquisition of Bradford before last season. While Cutler ultimately cost much less, the Vikings and Dolphins could have similar decisions to make after this season: Re-up with veterans, stick with homegrown prospects or try some combination of the two. Thus, Cutler could wind up sticking around longer than originally expected. Perhaps my Cutler-colored glasses are skewing things here, but it's not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the team chooses to keep Cutler, trade Tannehill and draft a quarterback of the future to be named later in 2018. Before all that, Cutler will have to make good on his one-year "prove it" contract. He's not the only one.

The Prove-It Contract All-Stars

Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers running back: He will eventually sign his one-year franchise tender and try to recapture his 2016 magic. A healthy, suspension-free season should lead to Bell topping a running back market that has fallen on hard times.

Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles receiver: He wanted this pressure. Jeffery passed on more guaranteed money on a multiyear offer from the Vikings to sign a one-year, $9.5 million deal in Philadelphia. He has the raw talent to perform like a top-10 receiver, then get paid like one.

Terrelle Pryor, Washington Redskins receiver: The more I read about Pryor, the more I'm convinced other teams should have signed him long-term while the price was so low. The former quarterback could just be scratching the surface of his potential.

Luke Joeckel, Seattle Seahawks offensive linemen: Seattle is not normally the place offensive linemen go to revive a career gone sideways.

Eric Decker, Tennessee Titans receiver: The Titans picked up Decker from the discount bin, but he could well prove too indispensable to Marcus Mariota for the team to let him walk away.

Dontari Poe, Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle: Along with Jeffery, Poe was the surprise He only got a one-year deal? contract in 2017 free agency. That's what happens when your contract year is a dud.

Players who could use a big contract year

Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks tight end: Graham was productive last season for a player who couldn't always practice fully and was coming off a torn patellar tendon. Now lighter and lighting up practices again, Graham could time his first foray into free agency just right.

Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit Lions defensive end: Viewed as a project coming out of BYU, Ansah was the best selection among the top 15 picks of the 2013 NFL Draft. His talent and strength will earn him a big deal regardless of how this season goes, but peaking in his contract year could land him offers approaching the level of the highest-paid defenders in football.

Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers running back: Shanahan has helped far less talented running backs make a lot of money.

Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals tight end: The Bengals let talented players walk away more than most organizations, so it's possible Eifert could price himself out of Cincinnati with a healthy season.

Nate Solder, New England Patriots offensive tackle: An up-and-down run in New England could be ending, which would be welcome news for a free agent market starved for tackle talent.

Malcolm Butler, New England Patriots cornerback: Like many good, young Patriots before him, Butler may have to leave Foxborough to get his fair market value.

Trumaine Johnson, Los Angeles Rams cornerback: Paid like a superstar by the Rams over the last two seasons, Johnson may find out that the rest of the league doesn't view him quite as highly.

Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets defensive tackle: More than any player on this list, Richardson is a candidate to be traded before the NFL's Halloween deadline if he starts the season well.

Vontae Davis, Indianapolis Colts cornerback: A veteran with a rollercoaster career arc, Davis showed up to camp this season like a player looking for one last big score.

Sneaky candidates for big money

Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end: Perhaps this selection doesn't seem so sneaky to Steelers fans and coaches, who know how rare it is to find a high-quality 3-4 defensive end.

Timmy Jernigan, Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle: Philadelphia traded for Jernigan from Baltimore for virtually nothing, hoping to get him at his most motivated during a contract year.

Justin Pugh, New York Giants guard: Big Blue has so many questions on the offensive line. The team won't want to create another by letting Pugh walk.

Justin Britt, Seattle Seahawks center: Excelling as an offensive lineman in Seattle scores high on the degree-of-difficulty scale, as does Britt's ability to play multiple positions.

Telvin Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker: The Jaguars have not been shy about taking care of their homegrown standouts, and Smith is well-deserving of a big deal.

Morgan Burnett, Green Bay Packers safety: Good safeties are hard to find, and Burnett has grown more comfortable every season.

Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints safety: See above. Vaccaro's career has gone up and down, but his all-around skills could be worth big coin if he enjoys a playmaking 2017 season.

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