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 Cookshad 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.
"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 Texanshave 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
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 Redskinsaround $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
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
Players who could use a big contract year
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.