Just who are the top 15 NFL players who deserve an improved contract?
With a slew of players such as Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant and Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas taking their game to new heights, singling out these outstanding performers ought to encourage newer players to be the best performers they can possibly be.
Case in point: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, who signed a four-year, $68 million contract extension on Sept. 1st. As of Nov. 24th, he has thrown for a total of 36 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions since he first donned a Chiefs uniform two seasons ago.
More importantly, Smith has helped Kansas City become relevant again since its 2-14 debacle during the 2012 NFL season. First, he was one of the reasons why the Chiefs made a remarkable nine-game turnaround a season later, only to lose to Andrew Luck’s Indianapolis Colts during the AFC Wild Card Game. Now, Kansas City is 7-4 and is neck-and-neck with the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers for AFC West supremacy.
Let’s also not forget about Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, unarguably the biggest menace to opposing quarterback’s in today’s game. Watt signed a six-year, $100 million deal with the Texans a day after the Chiefs locked up Smith. In spite of the Texans’ struggles, Watt is on pace to surpass his 10.5 sacks last season. He already has a career-high four fumble recoveries on top of four touchdowns in 2014.
A defensive end with four touchdowns. What can the guy not do?
That being said, zeroing in on players who are primed to cash in on a bigger paycheck a la Alex Smith or J.J. Watt should be interesting, to say the least.
For the purposes of this article, players will be assessed based on how much they have done for their respective teams during the past few seasons with individual stats, improved records and division titles as some of the considerations.
15 Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If there’s one bright spot in the Buccaneers’ dismal 2014 campaign, it’s third-year linebacker Lavonte David.
In his first two NFL seasons, David averaged 142 combined tackles and is on pace to surpass this average in 2014 (he is tied with the Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly for first in the league with 116 as of Nov. 28th). David, who was a First-Team All Pro last season, had an impressive five interceptions in 2013—a total which cornerbacks are mostly known for.
Buccaneers Hall-of-Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks told The Tampa Bay Times’ Ira Kauffman on Nov. 13 why David is due for a bigger paycheck. Brooks quipped, “Lavonte David invests all he has into winning. The critical point will be the investment toward him from the organization. About this same point in my career, the organization locked me up, so I knew I’d be here.”
David, who is earning an average of $899,183 yearly, inexplicably did not make it to the Pro Bowl last season. He has proven he has what it takes to be a player of that caliber, thus earning the right to a more lucrative deal with Tampa Bay.
14 Charles Clay, TE, Miami Dolphins
Guess who’s the tight end that beat out the likes of Jason Witten and Jordan Cameron in the NFL’s “Top 100 Players for 2014?”
Yep, it’s Charles Clay of the Miami Dolphins.
Clay turned plenty of heads his way in 2013 when he recorded 69 receptions, third-best on the team behind wide receivers Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace. His hands are also a sure thing, as he’s never fumbled the football in his four seasons in Miami. He has really been instrumental in helping in the Dolphins’ climb back to respectability.
Clay, a would-be free agent in 2015 who is grossly underpaid at $538,000 per season, deserves nothing less than a deal which would pay him in the $5 million range each season.
The Miami Herald reported in August that Clay has approached the Dolphins to talk about a new contract, but nothing has come up just yet.
13 Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets
Muhammad Wilkerson and Lavonte David are pretty much in the same situation. They’ve proved their worth for bad teams this season. Wilkerson is highly regarded as one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the business. He led the Jets with 10.5 sacks in 2013, adding a pass rushing element to his versatile game.
His stats have taken a slight dip this season, but that shouldn’t stop the Jets from dangling a better contract than the one he currently has, where he averages just $1.7 million a year. The Jets recently picked up the 5th year option on his rookie contract, meaning he'll make nearly $7 million next year. He'd likely command way more on the open market.
12 Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
Still another defensive pillar who deserves to go up the salary scale is none other than the New York Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul.
Pierre-Paul got off to a hot start in his NFL career. The 2011 season was arguably his best. Aside from earning his first Super Bowl ring, he also amassed 16.5 sacks, which was good for fourth in the league. He hasn’t had a season like that since he underwent back surgery last year, but he still remains one of the vital cogs in Perry Fewell’s defense—a defense that has allowed a second-worst 396.5 yards per game in 2014.
Take Pierre-Paul out of the equation, the Giants’ defense is destined to become even more porous. He is in the last year of a five-year deal he signed in 2010 that averages $3.2 million annually, though the club has an option for a 6th year, at only $680,000. He has what it takes to be as good as Hall of Famer Michael Strahan and the Giants should pay him like it.
11 Chris Harris, CB, Denver Broncos
If the Denver Broncos are to remain Super Bowl contenders, they must re-sign cornerback Chris Harris.
Harris, one of the top No. 2 cornerbacks in the NFL, is currently on a one-year deal worth $2.187 million. He proved his value to the Broncos when he suffered a partially torn ACL during the AFC Divisional Round matchup against the San Diego Chargers in January. When he went down, Philip Rivers nearly rallied his team back from a 17-0 deficit by throwing repeatedly in the direction of Harris’ replacement, Quentin Jammer.
Harris has bounced back nicely from his injury, recording two interceptions so far during the 2014 season. According to a Nov. 8th update from The Denver Post, he and the Broncos are negotiating a contract extension.
One that can’t come soon enough.
10 T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts
T.Y. Hilton, wide receiver of the Indianapolis Colts, that’s who.
Prior to his rookie season in 2012, not too many NFL fans have heard of this unheralded and speedy wide receiver from Florida International University. Hilton has responded in a big way and become one of Andrew Luck’s favorite targets.
Eleven games into the 2014 NFL season, Hilton has already matched his 1,083-yard output from a season ago. And guess what? This accomplishment currently places him third in the league in receiving yards (after week 12), ahead of supposedly bigger-name receivers such as Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson.
Without Hilton, who is in the third year of a four-year deal that has an average annual cap hit of just $660,000, the Colts, who have been struggling in their run offense, would struggle putting points on the board.
9 Terrance Knighton, DT, Denver Broncos
Aside from Chris Harris, another stalwart of the Broncos’ defense who deserves a bigger contract is none other than defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
Knighton is in the last year of a two-year, $4.5 million deal. As of February 2014, he was behind the recently retired Champ Bailey ($10 million) and Von Miller ($6.682 million) in the Broncos’ pay scale for defensive players. Fast forward more than nine months later, Knighton is fourth behind DeMarcus Ware ($10 million), Aqib Talib ($9.5 million) and T.J. Ward ($5.625 million).
Knighton rose to the occasion last season after Kevin Vickerson injured his hip last November. The former was one of the defensive pillars who helped the Broncos reach Super Bowl XLVIII.
8 Jeremy Maclin, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Talk about coming back with a bang, and a huge bang at that.
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin sat out the entire 2013 NFL season with a torn ACL. He came back with a vengeance this season, churning out Pro Bowl-caliber numbers with no signs of slowing down.
Eleven games into the 2014 campaign, Maclin is set on eclipsing his best season, which came in 2010. That year, he caught for 964 yards and 10 touchdowns on 70 receptions with Michael Vick as his quarterback. Now, he has caught for 1088 yards and nine touchdowns on 71 receptions with Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez under center.
It’s just unfortunate Maclin and the Eagles couldn’t come to terms on a multi-year deal prior to the 2014 season. He’s currently on board on a one-year, $5.25 million contract. However, his performance has spoken volumes. He’s one of the reasons why Philadelphia does not miss DeSean Jackson. If the Eagles can make him stay, all the better.
7 Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Peyton Manning’s replacement has done very well, thank you very much.
Three years into his NFL career, Luck has been outperforming his predecessor this year, as far as passing yards are concerned. Through Nov. 25, Luck has thrown for 3,641 yards—best in the league. Manning, who recorded his 500th career touchdown pass on Oct. 5, checks in at No. 2 with 3,558 yards.
Luck has had to put up with Indianapolis’ less-than-stellar running game (17th in the league at 110.7 yards per game). Plus, the Colts are without leading pass rusher Robert Mathis.
Nonetheless, Luck has found ways to win.
In the Colts’ 11 games this season, he has registered nine games of at least 300 yards. In spite of Indianapolis’ flaws, it is 7-4 and is primed to win the AFC South once again.
Luck has one more year left on his four-year, $22.1 million deal. Just like his teammate T.Y. Hilton, his game speaks volumes. Thus, he is looking at a bigger paycheck, especially if his Colts can win the Super Bowl.
6 Justin Houston, LB, Kansas City Chiefs
Nobody should forget about the NFL’s leading pass rusher in 2014.
Houston has registered 13.0 sacks through Nov. 25, besting the likes of Von Miller (10.0) and J.J. Watt (9.5). The most impressive thing about Houston is he has improved every year in that department. Since his rookie year four seasons ago, he has posted sack totals of 5.5, 10.0, 11.0 and 13.0.
With five games left to play in 2014, Houston is poised to register more than 13.0 sacks. He is primed to someday join the ranks of Chiefs defensive greats Art Still, Neil Smith, Willie Lanier, Bobby Bell and Derrick Thomas. As far as Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl aspirations are concerned, Thomas is a vital part of the equation.
For all of his exceptional pass rushing prowess, Houston only has an average annual salary cap hit of $696,562. He is going to become an unrestricted free agent in 2015, so Kansas City must make re-signing him a chief priority.
5 Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
If there’s one bright spot to the Dallas Cowboys’ mediocrity the past three seasons, it’s wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Dallas finished with an 8-8 record from 2011-2013. During that span, Bryant was nothing less than stellar. He caught for nine, 12 and 13 touchdowns in each of those seasons. It took four years, but he finally earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2013.
Now, he needs to get a bigger contract.
The numbers speak for themselves. While Bryant is ninth in the league with 879 receiving yards, he leads all wide receivers with 10 touchdowns (tied with the Green Bay Packers’ Randall Cobb) through Nov. 25th.
For someone of Bryant’s caliber, he’s making an average of just $2.362 million. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2015, and it’s a safe bet Jerry Jones and Co. are going to reach deep into their pockets to keep their star wide receiver.
Bryant, running back DeMarco Murray, and a rejuvenated Tony Romo have led the charge for the surging Cowboys, who are battling the Philadelphia Eagles for NFC East supremacy.
4 Julius Thomas, TE, Denver Broncos
As big as a 2014 season the likes of Jeremy Maclin, Andrew Luck and Dez Bryant have had, Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas is just as deserving of a bigger paycheck.
While Maclin, Luck, and Bryant have been instrumental in putting their respective teams in position to secure a division title, Thomas has done that,too, and could possibly see his Broncos return to the Super Bowl for a second consecutive season.
Prior to the 2013 NFL season, nobody knew much about Thomas. When all was said and done, he wound up with 788 yards and 12 touchdowns on 65 receptions. He also rewrote Broncos franchise history by recording the most touchdowns by a tight end in a season. He's certain to beat his own record this season, as he already has eleven TDs through 11 games.
Thomas is in the last year of a four-year, $1.68 million deal. Denver would be wise to lock him up, as elite TDs are not easy to find.
3 Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos
Julius isn’t the only Thomas on the Denver Broncos’ roster whose pleas for “Show me the money!” should be heard.
Demaryius should also get some consideration.
Ever since Peyton Manning became the Broncos quarterback in 2012, Demaryius Thomas’ career has skyrocketed. With Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow as the play callers during Thomas’ first two NFL seasons, the Denver wide receiver mustered a total of six touchdowns.
When Manning came on board two years ago, Thomas quadrupled that total to 24 in 2012 and 2013. That being said, this is a classic example of a quarterback making the players around him (in this case, a young wide receiver) better.
Thomas hasn’t stopped there. His 1,192 receiving yards currently lead the NFL to go with nine touchdowns. His gaudy totals ought to catapult him to a third straight Pro Bowl stint.
Just like Julius, Demaryius will be able to test the market in 2015. You can be sure John Elway will do all he can to give the latter more than the average of $2.8 million he is currently receiving.
2 DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys
If you’re a young running back who broke one of Jim Brown’s all-time records, you should be paid handsomely.
That’s what Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray did this season when he ran for at least 100 yards in seven consecutive games to start a season, eclipsing Brown’s 56-year-old mark. Murray accomplished the feat when he ran for 128 yards during Dallas’ 31-21 win over the New York Giants on Oct. 19.
With Adrian Peterson’s legal troubles this season, it’s been Murray who’s been stating his case as the league’s best running back. His 1,427 rushing yards are 409 more than his closest pursuer, the Philadelphia Eagles’ LeSean McCoy.
Of course, credit goes where it is due. The Cowboys’ offensive line has done a great job not only in protecting quarterback Tony Romo, but also in opening up holes for Murray, who has repeatedly gashed opposing run defenses.
Murray is vastly underpaid at $743,360 per season. Both he and Dez Bryant will be unrestricted free agents in 2015. However, expect Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones to go all out in locking both of them up to lucrative, long-term deals.
1 Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Wilson isn’t the prototype quarterback gunslinger. As a matter of fact, he’s currently not in the top 10 passers in the NFL, he’s 20th (after week 12). However, he is perhaps the best in the league at eluding pass rushers. Russell isn’t the most athletic quarterback out there, but his 644 rushing yards are hard evidence of how nimble he is on his feet.
What’s more is he’s the only quarterback in the top 20 rushers in the NFL.
Think about that for a moment.
Wilson’s versatility was in full display during a Week 5 win against the Washington Redskins. He threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 122 yards and one more touchdown.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. He’s simply the heart and soul of the Seattle Seahawks. As far as helping Seattle win a Super Bowl title is concerned, past quarterbacks such as Jim Zorn, Dave Krieg and Matt Hasselbeck couldn’t do it. However, Russell Wilson could.
2015 will mark the last year of his four-year, $2.996 million rookie contract. Needless to say, the Seahawks would be wise to give him that raise he so richly deserves.