The NFP's top-25 contract-year players Plenty of elite talent is scheduled to hit the open market next winter. Who tops the list? Joe Fortenbaugh Print This August 15, 2013, 05:30 AM EST Whether it’s the chance to land that first, highly-lucrative payday or the final opportunity to pad an already overflowing bank account, players entering the final year of their current contracts have been known to elevate their games to never-before-seen heights, as the promise of new riches serves as the ultimate incentive to perform at the highest possible level. 2013 brings a new class of contract-year players that will not only look to cash in their chips after highly productive performances, but will also attempt to avoid turning into the next Albert Haynesworth. Here’s a look at the top-25 NFL players who enter the coming season in the final year of their current contracts. 1. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals 2013 Salary cap number: $1.541 million 2013 Base salary: $1.423 million Years of service: 3 The 25-year-old has gotten better each year since entering the NFL as a fourth-round pick out of Georgia in 2010. Atkins has rolled up 20 sacks over his last 32 regular season games (12.5 in 2012, sixth in NFL), paving the way for back-to-back Pro Bowl and All-Pro nominations in 2011 and 2012. Look for the Bengals and Atkins’ representation to come to terms on a gargantuan new contract before the young defensive tackle gets anywhere near the open market. 2. Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo Bills 2013 Salary cap number: Has yet to sign franchise tender ($6.916 million) 2013 Base salary: N/A Years of service: 4 Has appeared in 62 of a possible 64 regular season games for the Bills since being selected 42nd overall out of Oregon in 2009, amassing 18 interceptions and 304 total tackles in the process. Byrd led the AFC in interceptions in both 2009 and 2012, two seasons in which the dynamic playmaker earned both All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. Has yet to report to camp over a dispute regarding his $6.916 million franchise tender. 3. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints 2013 Salary cap number: $1.489 million 2013 Base salary: $1.323 million Years of service: 3 US PRESSWIREGraham wasted little time becoming one of the most dangerous tight ends in the NFL. Graham was considered an extremely raw prospect coming out of Miami (FL) in 2010 thanks to four years on the basketball court and just one season on the gridiron. But the versatile pass-catcher adapted to life in the NFL quickly, posting an All-Pro season in 2011 that consisted of 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 scores. Graham has already evolved into quarterback Drew Brees’ favorite weapon (led the Saints in receptions in ’11 and ’12), meaning the former Super Bowl MVP will likely go to bat for his tight end when contract time comes around. 4. Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants 2013 Salary cap number: $3.705 million 2013 Base salary: $2.675 million Years of service: 4 Recorded 155 receptions for 2,244 yards and 18 touchdowns from 2010-2011 despite appearing in just 28 of a possible 32 regular season games. Nicks has to be foaming at the mouth after having watched fellow Giant wide receiver Victor Cruz ink a new deal in July that runs through 2018 and comes with an average per year salary of $8.6 million. However, the key to Nicks’ new payday will be the wideout’s ability to stay healthy and on the field, as the UNC standout has never completed full 16-game regular season during his career. 5. Anthony Spencer, DE, Dallas Cowboys 2013 Salary cap number: $10.627 million (franchise tag) 2013 Base salary: $10.627 million Years of service: 6 Spencer was hit with the franchise tag this past offseason because the Cowboys are transitioning from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 and want to first see how the six-year veteran handles the move from outside linebacker to defensive end. That’s a tough break for the former Purdue Boilermaker, who is coming off a career-high 11-sack campaign in 2012. Age (29-years-old) is a bit of a concern here, but another highly productive season in a new defense should open the floodgates for a big contract come next winter. 6. Brandon Browner, CB, Seattle Seahawks 2013 Salary cap number: $773,756 2013 Base salary: $555,000 Years of service: 2 Browner spent four years in the Canadian Football League with the Calgary Stampeders (2007-2010) before getting a shot with the Seahawks, which immediately resulted in a six-interception campaign and a trip to the Pro Bowl. A four-game suspension in 2012 for a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy took its toll on Browner’s stats, but the 6-4, 221-pounder is still widely regarded as one of the most physical cornerbacks in the league. Turned 29-years-old on August 2 and will need another big season in 2013 to finally land that highly coveted lucrative payday. 7. Tim Jennings, CB, Chicago Bears 2013 Salary cap number: $5.1 million 2013 Base salary: $4.25 million Years of service: 7 Jennings left Indianapolis after four mediocre seasons with the Colts to sign with the Bears, where he produced another two below-the-radar efforts before busting loose last season to record a league-high nine interceptions en route to his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Turns 30-years-old in December and will have the rest of the league paying close attention to his play in 2013 to determine if last season was a fluke or if it was a coming-out-party for the league’s next star cornerback. 8. Jon Asamoah, OG, Kansas City Chiefs 2013 Salary cap number: $1.551 million 2013 Base salary: $1.323 million Years of service: 3 (FWIW we once had this guy on the team and let him go but kept a guys like EWill and CWill and we sign guys like Spencer and Rachal, not to mention his teacher's pet J'Marcus Webb. So much for Tice's ability to judge talent huh?) Started 31 of a possible 32 games over the last two seasons, surrendering just five sacks while committing only six penalties. Asamoah graded out as the tenth-best offensive guard in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus, ranking ahead of four-time Pro Bowler Chris Snee and five-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins. The 25-year-old out of Illinois will be considered one of the top offensive linemen to enter the free agent pool next offseason, assuming the Chiefs don’t find a way to lock him up beforehand. 9. Henry Melton, DT, Chicago Bears 2013 Salary cap number: $8.45 million (franchise tag) 2013 Base salary: $8.45 million Years of service: 3 The former Texas standout has racked up 13 sacks over his last 29 regular season starts to become one of the best young defensive tackles in the game while anchoring the Chicago front four. Graded out as the seventh-best interior defensive lineman in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus en route to his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Melton quietly signed his franchise tender this past offseason in the hopes of coming to terms with the Bears on a lucrative long-term deal before hitting the market next winter. 10. Charles Tillman, CB, Chicago Bears 2013 Salary cap number: $8.0 million 2013 Base salary: $7.95 million Years of service: 10 Tillman recorded a league-high ten forced fumbles in 2012. Can you name another defensive player responsible for more game-altering plays over the last two years than Tillman? If you can, there’s no doubt that it’s an extremely short list. Despite his age (32-years-old), Tillman is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl nominations and a 2012 campaign for the ages in which the ten-year veteran led the NFL in forced fumbles (10) while ranking ninth in passes defensed. Throw in 33 career interceptions, eight touchdowns and the fact that Tillman has started 122 of a possible 128 regular season games since 2005 and you know another respectable contract is on the horizon. If it weren’t for his age, there’s a good chance Tillman would currently be sitting at the top of this list. 11. Michael Johnson, DE, Cincinnati Bengals 2013 Salary cap number: $11.175 million (franchise tag) 2013 Base salary: $11.175 million Years of service: 4 Johnson busted loosed from the ranks of the NFL’s relatively unknown in 2012 with a campaign featuring career-highs in tackles (52) and sacks (11.5) that eventually netted the 26-year-old from Georgia Tech an $11.175 million payday via the franchise tag. Johnson was a big reason why the Cincinnati defense finished the 2012 season ranked sixth in the league, but his long-term contract will have to wait, as the Bengals are likely more preoccupied with getting defensive tackle Geno Atkins locked up for the foreseeable future. 12. Brian Orakpo, OLB, Washington Redskins 2013 Salary cap number: $5.109 million 2013 Base salary: $2.81 million Years of service: 4 Orakpo followed up a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 by bolting out of the gates in his NFL debut to garner back-to-back Pro Bowl nominations on the strength of 19.5 sacks over his first 31 professional appearances. 2011 brought a career-high in tackles (60) along with another nine sacks before the 27-year-old tore the pectoral muscle near his left shoulder after just two games in 2012 and was lost for the season. Another strong and injury-free effort in 2013 should lead to a wide-smile payday that keeps the young pass rusher in Washington for the foreseeable future. 13. Justin Tuck, DE, New York Giants 2013 Salary cap number: $6.15 million 2013 Base salary: $4.5 million Years of service: 8 Tuck recorded double-digit sack totals in three of four seasons spanning from 2007-2010, but has seen those numbers decrease dramatically over the last two years, as the eight-year veteran has brought down the opposing quarterback just nine times over his last 27 games. Still, the Notre Dame alum plays one of the league’s premium positions and brings a resume that features two Pro Bowls and two All-Pro nominations to the table. 14. Brian Cushing, ILB, Houston Texans 2013 Salary cap number: $4.643 million 2013 Base salary: $3.143 million Years of service: 4 Parlayed a Pro Bowl season in 2009 into All-Pro honors in 2011 and was well on his way to becoming one of the best inside linebackers in the league before suffering a season-ending ACL injury five games into his 2012 campaign. Cushing has yet to match the career-high 133 total tackles he recorded as a rookie, but the 26-year-old is a playmaker capable of wrecking havoc all over the gridiron. 15. Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears 2013 Salary cap number: $10.37 million 2013 Base salary: $8.47 million Years of service: 7 The former first-round selection out of Vanderbilt spent three seasons in Denver before he was traded to Chicago and, four years later, Cutler now finds himself entering the final year of a contract the Bears are in no hurry to renegotiate. What does that tell you? Quarterback is the most integral position in all of professional sports, so any team that believes they have a franchise signal-caller on the roster is generally going to do anything in its power to keep that player from bolting town. Cutler has already been sent packing from one organization and could be just a few months away from landing in his third NFL city in only eight years. The term “franchise quarterback” appears as if it does not apply in this case. 16. Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland Raiders 2013 Salary cap number: $9.655 million 2013 Base salary: $5.826 million Years of service: 5 Can McFadden stay healthy long enough to land a brand new payday? One of the most electrifying players on this list, McFadden could have a tough time trying to convince an NFL front office to shell out a lucrative, long-term contract this coming offseason given that the 26-year-old already has 769 rushing attempts under his belt and has missed at least three games due to injury in each of his five NFL campaigns. According to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, the Raiders recently reached out to their star running back regarding a possible contract extension, but McFadden balked at the pitch and would rather attempt to elevate his stock by playing out the 2013 season under his rookie deal. 17. Eugene Monroe, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars 2013 Salary cap number: $5.747 million 2013 Base salary: $3.8 million Years of service: 4 Has made 58 starts spanning four seasons since entering the league in 2009 as the eighth overall draft pick out of Virginia, but you can’t help but feel that Monroe has disappointed just a bit during his time in the NFL. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the Jaguars have already tried to lock up the 26-year-old former top-10 pick to a contract extension to play opposite rookie offensive tackle Luke Joeckel? Graded out as the 15th-best offensive tackle in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus, ahead of Seattle’s Russell Okung, Washington’s Trent Williams and Minnesota’s Phil Loadholt. 18. Alex Mack, C, Cleveland Browns 2013 Salary cap number: $5.032 million 2013 Base salary: $3.732 million Years of service: 4 Four years, 64 of a possible 64 regular season starts, only 6.25 sacks allowed and just seven total penalties. Mack has been a rock along the Cleveland offensive line, was named to the 2009 All-Rookie team and graded out as the ninth-best center in the NFL in 2012, per Pro Football Focus, ahead of more notable names Maurkice Pouncey (Pittsburgh), Matt Birk (Baltimore), Dan Koppen (Denver) and Eric Wood (Buffalo). The 27-year-old out of California was recently quoted as saying he’s really happy in Cleveland and would like to continue playing for the Browns. Cleveland fans should hope the new front office figures out how to make that a reality. 19. Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos 2013 Salary cap number: $1.506 million 2013 Base salary: $1.323 million Years of service: 3 Decker posted career-highs in receptions (85), receiving yards (1,064) and touchdowns (13) in 2012, but how much of that credit belongs to him and how much belongs to future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning? That will be the big point of contention between Decker’s representation and the front office sitting on the other side of the table come contract time, because we all know that Manning is capable of making every player around him that much better. Still, the 26-year-old wideout deserves recognition for hauling in 21 touchdown passes over the past two seasons (third in NFL). 20. Antonio Smith, DE, Houston Texans 2013 Salary cap number: $9.5 million 2013 Base salary: $6.0 million Years of service: 9 Wade Phillips may have been less than stellar during his multiple stints as a head coach in the National Football League, but the man sure as hell knows how to get the most out of a defense, as evidenced in part by the fact that Smith experienced a career-high in sacks in 2011 in his first year playing under Phillips (6.5), only to come back in 2012 to do it all over again (7.0). The 31-year-old landed his first Pro Bowl nomination in 2011 and graded out as the sixth-best 3-4 DE in the league in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus. J.J. Watt isn’t the only nasty pass rusher donning a Texans uniform on Sundays. 21. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars 2013 Salary cap number: $6.8 million 2013 Base salary: $4.95 million Years of service: 7 ICONMJD is looking for one last financial windfall before riding off into the sunset. 19 months from the dreaded age of 30 and coming off a season-ending foot injury that limited the three-time All-Pro to just six games in 2012, Jones-Drew will need to dig down deep to produce a stat line worthy of that one, final long-term deal he so desperately craves. Still, the Jacksonville running back rolled up three consecutive 1,300+ yard rushing campaigns from 2009-2011 and remains the most dangerous weapon on an offense semi-devoid of firepower. 22. B.J. Raji, DT, Green Bay Packers 2013 Salary cap number: $6.595 million 2013 Base salary: $4.49 million Years of service: 4 Raji’s career got off to a hot start that was highlighted by a 6.5-sack season in 2010, landing the Boston College standout on the radars of offensive coordinators around the league. But that total dipped to just 3.0 in 2011 before a disappointing 2012 campaign in which the 337-pounder posted the big squadoosh in the sack department. That effort is one of the big reasons why Raji stood idly by while quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews inked lucrative new deals with the Pack this past offseason. 2013 will be the big test that will determine just how much this once dominant inside force will be worth on the open market. 23. Kenny Britt, WR, Tennessee Titans 2013 Salary cap number: $1.881 million 2013 Base salary: $897,500 Years of service: 4 Injuries, suspensions and off-the-field issues are just three reasons why Britt will need to post a career year in 2013 if the four-year veteran wants any shot at a big money deal come next winter. The talent is there, but take note that through four NFL seasons, Britt has never topped 45 receptions or 800 receiving yards in any campaign. Come up short in 2013 and a one-year “prove it” deal will likely be the best course of action for the Tennessee wideout. 24. Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers 2013 Salary cap number: $1.328 million 2013 Base salary: $1.3 million Years of service: 3 The 2010 sixth-round pick broke loose last season and delivered a sizeable return on Carolina’s investment by notching a career-high 60 tackles and 11.0 sacks while grading out as the sixth-best 4-3 defensive end in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. However, the market for free agent defensive ends in 2012 was absolutely brutal (just ask Cliff Avril) and the Panthers may be trying to get away from the reckless spending that took place during the Marty Hurney era. Translation: Hardy will need another big effort in 2013 to have a shot at an upper tier contract. 25. Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle Seahawks 2013 Salary Cap number: $4.8 million 2013 Base salary: $3.0 million Years of service: 4 Experienced first-hand the effects of a bear market this past offseason when a career-high 9.0-sack campaign in 2012 resulted in nothing more than a one-year deal. After four years in Tampa Bay, Bennett now finds himself in the Pacific Northwest once again looking to prove that he’s worth the sizeable investment given to so many free agent pass rushers before him. Contending with fellow free agent acquisition Cliff Avril and the soon-to-return Chris Clemons, Bennett will need to separate himself from the herd in order to land a more favorable contract during his next free agent go-round.