The spotlight at the midpoint of the NFL season was on players helping themselves in a contract year. The opposite end of the spectrum is the focus now as teams hit the homestretch.
Subpar performances have already sealed the free agency fates for a lot of players. Some contract year players are still in a position to change their fortunes with a strong close to the season.
Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr was struggling in coverage early during the 2018 season when he was sidelined for a couple weeks with a hamstring injury. Once Barr was healthy, he gradually started displaying the form that made him one of the NFL‘s most complete and versatile linebackers in 2015. Barr was rewarded handsomely by the Vikings in free agency for resurrecting his season. He signed a five-year, $67.5 million contract (worth a maximum of $79.5 million through salary escalators) with $33 million in guarantees to stay in Minnesota.
Here are six players with expiring contracts who haven’t helped themselves this season. 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.
Financial Benchmark: Winston ($20.922 million average/$20.922 million in guarantees/one year)
Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians recently told NBC Sports’ Peter King that Winston, who is playing under a $20.922 million fifth year option, had a really good chance to land a new contract if he could “keep things up.” Winston was coming off two games, which included a come from behind win over the Cardinals, where he threw for almost 700 yards while completing nearly 65 percent of his passes. That was before Winston’s four interception game in Week 10 against the Saints. It was his third game this season with at least three interceptions.
The 2015 first overall pick’s most recent game, Sunday against the Falcons, was a microcosm of his career. Winston rebounded from two first quarter interceptions to throw three touchdowns and for 313 yards in a Tampa Bay victory.
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Turnovers have plagued Winston throughout his career. Nobody has come close to Winston’s 100 turnovers (78 interceptions and 22 lost fumbles) since he entered the NFL in 2015. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is second with 81. This season, Winston has a league leading 20 interceptions to go with 22 touchdown passes. There is a realistic possibility of Winston becoming the first quarterback to throw 30 interceptions in a season since Vinny Testaverde’s 35 in 1988, which was also with the Buccaneers. He could also become the first in NFL history to have at least 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in the same season.
Winston played well enough down the stretch last year once he regained the starting job from Ryan Fitzpatrick after a midseason benching for the Buccaneers to give him a fifth year. Demonstrating that the Saints game was a minor hiccup seemingly would be enough for Arians, who is known as a quarterback whisperer, to want Winston back. Arians developed his reputation primarily because of his work with Peyton Manning early in his career, Ben Roethlisberger’s ascension as an upper echelon passer and for resurrecting Carson Palmer’s career when was with the Cardinals. A Winston return to the Buccaneers in 2020 could mean either a short term deal or even a non-exclusive franchise tag. This quarterback number is expected to be right around $27 million in 2020.
Financial Benchmark: Teddy Bridgewater ($7.25M avg. with an additional $5.25M incentives/$7.25M in guarantees/one year)
Mariota, like Winston is also playing under a $20.922 million fifth year option. He was benched for ineffectiveness six games into the season when the Titans had a 2-4 record. The 2015 second overall pick was completing 59.1 percent of passes, averaging 196.5 passing yards per game and had been sacked a league most 25 times when he was benched. Mariota’s replacement, Ryan Tannehill, has gotten the Titans back in the AFC South race by going 4-1 since becoming the starting quarterback.
Mariota’s days with Tennessee are clearly numbered. He will be looking to become a starting quarterback or an opportunity to compete for starting job in free agency. Mariota’s efforts could be hindered because the veteran quarterback supply is probably going to exceed demand this offseason. He may be have to settle for the best backup situation that could eventually provide him an opportunity to play, should the starting quarterback falter.
Financial Benchmark: David Johnson ($13M avg./$31,882,500 in guarantees/three years)
Gordon is finally showing signs of life after an ill-conceived holdout that lasted until the fourth week of the season. He has gained 257 yards on 56 carries with three touchdowns in the last three games.
The Chargers reportedly offered Gordon $10 million per year during his holdout. No other details about the reported offer were ever disclosed. There were reports that Gordon was looking for top tier running back money in the Johnson neighborhood. The Chargers also gave Gordon permission to seek a trade. Nothing ever came of those trade efforts.
Top tier money always seemed like a stretch for Gordon. It remains to be seen whether he’ll regret rejecting the Chargers offer should he hit the open market in 2020 as a free agent, which seems likely at this point.
Financial Benchmark: Sheldon Richardson ($12M avg. worth up to $13M per year with salary escalators/$21.5M in guarantees/three years)
Williams wasn’t a great fit in Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ defense. He was a better suited to former head coach Todd Bowles’ defensive scheme.
Williams has been given a new lease on his contract life with the midseason trade from the Jets to the Giants, whose defense is similar to Bowles’. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman’s goal is to sign Williams long term. He has said he wouldn’t have given up a 2020 third round pick and a 2021 fifth round pick if he didn’t view Williams as a foundational player. The fifth round pick becomes a fourth round pick with Williams signing a contract extension before the 2020 league year starts in mid-March. The plan has been for the Giants to open extension talks with Williams right around Thanksgiving.
Williams hasn’t recorded a sack in his three games since the trade, but has 14 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits). He had 17 pressures during his seven games with the Jets prior to the trade.
Financial Benchmark: John Brown ($9M avg./$11.6M in guarantees/three years)
The Eagles were reportedly shopping Agholor during the offseason for a second round pick rather than have 2015’s 20th overall pick play under his fifth year option for $9.387 million. Agholor’s season has been defined by untimely drops and an inability to capitalize on injuries to Philadelphia’s wide receiver corps. DeSean Jackson has missed all but 15 offensive snaps since the season opener with a core muscle injury. He is on injured reserve after recently undergoing surgery to repair the injury. Ankle and calf injuries have kept Alshon Jeffery out of three games. A minor knee injury sidelined Agholor against the Seahawks on Sunday. Agholor has 36 catches for 322 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games. He is averaging a career low 8.9 yards per catch. With Philadelphia’s injuries at wide receiver, Agholor ought to be on pace to top his season bests of 64 receptions and 768 receiving yards, which he isn’t.
Financial Benchmark: Dante Fowler, Jr. ($12M avg. with an additional $2M incentives /$12M in guarantees/one year)
Beasley has been pretty quiet since leading the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016. He has 14 sacks in the 41 games he’s played following what was considered his breakout performance. Beasley’s lack of production since 2016 wasn’t enough for the Falcons to walk away from his $12.81 million fifth year option before it became fully guaranteed last March.
Beasley has started to pick up the pace lately; 2.5 of his four sacks this season have come after Atlanta’s Week 9 bye. A long term deal indicative of someone with a demonstrated ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks is out of the question for Beasley in free agency. He might be able to convince a team to give him a lucrative one-year “prove it” deal by consistently generating a pass rush for the rest of the season where he flashes the potential that made him 2015’s eighth overall pick.