As the NFL continues to become more of a passing league, this upcoming football season will be so interesting due in large part to the number of elite wide receivers and quarterbacks who will be playing for new contracts. This will only add more excitement to just about every game as the prospect of seeing more big plays down the field or acrobatic catches becomes more likely with many of these players looking to separate themselves from the crowd.
There are still some talented players who play other positions like Marcell Dareus or Matt Forte, but the number of wide receivers about to become free agents in 2016 is mind boggling. Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning head a strong class of quarterbacks, and there are some of the league’s best pass rushers like Von Miller, Justin Houston, Aldon Smith and Tamba Hali. The 2016 free agent class is so rich that there are several Pro Bowl players like Eric Berry (health concerns) and Andrew Whitworth (age), who are not even able to headline this list. We'll see if these players end up making it to free agency, if they're slapped with a franchise tag or even get re-signed during the season. For now, it's an intriguing bunch.
The following 20 players represent the best players who will be playing for a new contract in 2015. As the NFL salary cap continues to rise, the chances of many of these players landing a nice and healthy multi-year deal will rise as well. This only adds to the excitement of this coming season. Every team starts the season with a good chance to improve and if that doesn’t happen, this list will certainly be a consolation prize.
Salaries represent cap hits for 2015.
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20 Eric Weddle - $10.1 million
Eric Weddle has been the best defensive player on the San Diego Chargers for quite some time now. In eight NFL seasons, Weddle has an incredible 773 tackles from his free safety position, with 229 of them coming in the last two seasons alone. He also led the NFL in interceptions in 2011, with seven, and has 49 passes deflected in his last five seasons. Weddle was selected to play in the Pro Bowl three times, in 2011, 2013, and 2014. He has quietly become one of the best safeties in the NFL with his ability to excel at playing against both the pass and run.
Although Weddle just turned 30 and is not a particularly imposing physical specimen, he has the tenacity and football acumen to continue to thrive in any defensive scheme. Weddle’s ability to diagnose plays and get himself in position to make plays with his outstanding football speed, is second to none. He is worth the relatively high price tag and can be a huge asset to any young secondary looking for veteran leadership.
19 Tamba Hali - $5 million
Tamba Hali has been to five consecutive Pro Bowls and is one of the league’s most formidable pass rushers off the edge. Since 2010, Hali has recorded 52.5 sacks, leading the AFC in 2010 with 14.5. In addition to his sacks, Hali has logged 505 tackles in his quite productive nine-year career, forcing 30 fumbles and deflecting 12 passes as well. He is invaluable to the Kansas City Chiefs defense, joining Justin Houston to form one of the best pass rushing tandems in the league.
Hali’s salary is quite low for the production and havoc he can wreak on the opposition. Although he is 31 years of age, he is still in good shape and did have 11 sacks in 2013. Hali is a warrior and agitator off the edge and well worth taking a chance on, thanks in large part to his reasonable salary and the experience that he has.
18 Alfred Morris - $1.6 million
Alfred Morris might have been a 6th round draft choice in 2012, but he has played like a 1st round choice since he has been in the league. After three years in the NFL, Morris already has 3,962 yards of rushing with 28 touchdowns and an average of 4.5 yards per carry. He has been to two consecutive Pro Bowls and has been the Redskins' most consistent offensive player in each of his three years in the league. Last season, Morris struggled a bit with only 1,074 yards of rushing, but despite his lack of gaudy production at least he only turned the ball over one time.
Morris is a powerful runner at 5-foot-10 and 225 pounds, hitting the line of scrimmage hard with a workmanlike mentality that overshadows his lack of elite speed. He isn’t flashy, but is consistent despite being unable to make himself more valuable in the passing game. With his current salary at just over $1.5 million, Morris is still a value for any team looking for a back who has proven he can carry a load.
17 Aldon Smith - $4.9 million
Aldon Smith might have his problems off the field, but he can be one of most feared pass rushers in the league when he actually plays. In his first two seasons (2011, 2012), Smith had 103 tackles with 33.5 sacks. He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, while also earning an invitation to his first Pro Bowl. He is only 25 years old and has plenty of football yet to play.
The problem with Smith has more to do with character issues and his inability to stay out of trouble off the field. If he has a comeback year in 2015, he could easily be in line for a raise. His ability to time the snap of the ball and quickness off the edge make him a tough player to block. This season, he will have to prove himself without the luxury of working off of Justin Smith.
16 Nick Foles - $1.5 million
In 2013, Nick Foles had a fantastic year. His quarterback rating of 119.2 was superlative, as well as his 27 touchdowns against only a pair of interceptions. In 2014, Foles broke his collarbone, finishing his season after only eight games. He finished with 2,163 yards of passing and 13 touchdowns, but threw 10 interceptions in just half a season played. Earlier this year, Foles was traded to St. Louis for Sam Bradford giving him something to prove this coming year.
Foles is only 26 years old and has plenty of life left in his arm. If he can pick up where he left off in 2013 and play in more games than Sam Bradford was able to, the Rams might come out on the winning end of the trade. He will cost the Rams considerably less and has the opportunity to play his way into a new multi-year contract and big raise if things go his way.
15 Jason Pierre-Paul - $14.8 million
Jason Pierre-Paul is one of the premier defensive linemen in the league, capable of rushing the passer and holding the edge on outside running plays. In 2014, Pierre-Paul had 77 tackles with 12.5 sacks and six pass deflections. In his five year NFL career, he has 42.5 sacks and an astounding 27 pass deflections from his position at defensive end. Pierre-Paul is a tremendous athlete, and is only 26 years of age.
Certainly it can be argued that Pierre-Paul is currently overpaid, but the Giants felt he was valuable enough to place the franchise tag on him for 2015. He is still one of the top defensive ends in the league with his ability to play well against both the run and pass. He will still need to have a big year in 2015 to secure a long-term contract.
14 Demaryius Thomas - $12.8 million
Demaryius Thomas has established himself as one of the league’s premier receivers during the last few years. How much of it has to do with Peyton Manning’s arrival in Denver or his development into a star remains to be seen. In 2014, Thomas caught 111 passes for 1,619 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has caught 297 passes for 4,483 yards with 35 touchdowns in his last three seasons, earning trips to the Pro Bowl each year. In his five year NFL career, Thomas has 5,202 yards of receiving with an average of 15.2 yards per reception.
Thomas is getting paid more than many of the other receivers on this list, and that is the only reason why he is not near the top of the list. He has the size and speed that every team desires in a wideout, but his salary requirements will not be an easy fit for so many of the teams in need of an elite receiver. In Denver, he is a star playing in the perfect scheme, so it is hard to bet against him having another banner year.
13 Justin Houston - $13.2 million
Another guy playing under the franchise tag, Justin Houston has quickly become one of the best pass rushers in the NFL after only four seasons. He already has amassed 48.5 sacks, with 22 of them coming last year. Houston has been to three straight Pro Bowls, getting double digit sack totals in each of the last three years. A tremendous athlete and football player, Houston already has 234 tackles, seven forced fumbles, and 18 pass deflections, in his relatively brief NFL career.
Houston makes an impact in every game he plays, requiring opponents to chip block him or account for him in some other manner if they want to protect the quarterback. He is relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback, and is just coming into his own at only 26 years of age. Look for Houston to continue to improve his pass rushing technique, adding even more sacks to his total and even more value to his high price tag.
12 Trent Williams - $13.7 million
Trent Williams is a mammoth offensive tackle with 340 pounds of bulk on his 6-foot-5 frame. He has used his massive size and strength to make appearances in three straight Pro Bowls after entering the league as a first round draft choice of the Washington Redskins in 2010. He is a tremendous athlete who has already earned plenty of consideration for being one of the best tackles in the league.
Williams was tabbed the 60th best NFL player in 2014, an honor bestowed upon him by his peers. He has all the tools and is only 26 years of age, giving him plenty of time to keep proving he is one of the best tackles in the league. His salary might seem quite lofty, but is a bargain considering he was the 4th overall pick in 2010 and has lived up to his billing. We'll see if he'll cash in next offseason if Washington locks him up before that point.
11 Matt Forte - $9.2 million
One of the best overall running backs in the league, Matt Forte can run pass patterns as well as he can take handoffs. In seven seasons, Forte’s lowest rushing total for a season was 929 yards in 2009. He has 7,704 career yards rushing, 3,727 yards receiving, and has scored a total of 57 touchdowns. In 2014, Forte even managed to have 102 receptions for 808 yards. He has over 1,800 yards of total offense in his last two seasons and earned trips to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and 2013.
Forte is a back who can fit in almost any offensive scheme. He is only 29 years old and is certainly one of the league’s most versatile running backs. Despite the lack of value affixed to today’s veteran running backs, Forte is different because he has the ability to stay on the field for all three downs. He can be a valuable addition to many of the league’s needy teams, especially after another big year. The Bears will have to be thinking of keeping him off the open market.
10 Von Miller - $9.8 million
Von Miller has been one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL for his four seasons in the league. He already has 48 sacks and has even forced 12 fumbles in his short career. Miller has been to three Pro Bowls in 2011, 2012 and 2014, only missing an appearance in 2013 because of a six game suspension for apparently trying to cheat a drug test. Miller, however, returned to form in 2014 with 14 sacks and another stellar year.
Miller is a freakish athlete who is just approaching the prime of his career. At just under $10 million, he is far from being overpaid for his production. He is a franchise type of player who should add to his value with a big year in 2015.
9 T.Y. Hilton - $1.67 million
The deep threat of the Indianapolis Colts has also developed into Andrew Luck’s primary target. In 2014, Hilton was selected to his first Pro Bowl after leading the Colts in receiving with 1,345 yards on 82 receptions. In three seasons, he has 3,289 yards of receiving, despite starting in only 26 games.
Hilton is not a big prototypical NFL receiver, carrying less than 180 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame, but he has been pretty durable in the three years he has been in the league. What Hilton has proven he can do is stretch the defense with his speed. A third round pick out of Florida International, Hilton is in line for a quite substantial raise. The Colts might want to keep him, but wherever he ends up playing it definitely will be for more than the $1.67 million he currently makes.
8 Marcell Dareus - $8 million
Marcell Dareus has quickly become one of the most dominant interior defensive linemen in the NFL. In four seasons, Dareus has logged 201 tackles and 28.5 sacks, despite working against constant double teams. He has even deflected 12 passes, despite the fact that he is a rather squat 6-foot-3. His production has been noticed throughout the league, earning him trips to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014. Dareus has certainly lived up to the hype surrounding him after being the 3rd overall selection in 2011.
Since there are very few defensive tackles who carry over 330 pounds and move the way Dareus does, he is most definitely a hot commodity. His ability to play nose tackle and control the line of scrimmage with his size and strength coupled with his knack of getting to the quarterback on passing plays, makes him a valuable cog in any defensive scheme. He is only 25 years old and also racked up 10 sacks last year. If he doesn’t come to terms with the Bills, he will likely be able to play in a warmer climate and still get a raise.
7 Alshon Jeffery - $1.4 million
One of the biggest bargains in pro football, Alshon Jeffrey has quickly become an NFL star. With only three seasons under his belt, Jeffery has already had two consecutive 1,000 yard receiving seasons with a combined total of 2,554 yards in 2013 and 2014. In his 36 NFL starts, Jeffery has 198 receptions for 2,921 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2013. A former Biletnikoff Award finalist and SEC star, Jeffery has exceeded his status as a second round pick.
Jeffery is young (25 years old) and still has plenty to learn, but should have a big year with the Bears since Brandon Marshall moved on to the Jets. Jeffery has the size and speed that most NFL teams covet in a receiver these days and with so many big name receivers playing for contracts this year, he might be the hidden gem. The Bears will probably try to lock him up sooner than later, but the only certainty is that he will be earning quite a bit more.
6 Philip Rivers - $17.4 million
Despite the fact that his only consistent receiver through the years has been his tight end, Antonio Gates, Philip Rivers has managed to have quite a career with the Chargers. Rivers has been to five Pro Bowls, has passed for 36,655 yards and has 252 touchdowns, with a career QB rating of 95.7. He has been remarkably consistent and durable, managing to play in every regular season game since 2006. Rivers is a consummate pro, proven leader, and can make all the NFL throws with touch and accuracy.
Rivers might be getting up there in age (33 years old), but he doesn’t need to use his legs much to be effective. Although Rivers wants to remain in San Diego, he could be amenable to a move if the Chargers decide to move to L.A. He is a solid quarterback who might even be better with more talent around him. His situation is unique, but so are his skills and NFL experience. If for whatever reason he moves on from San Diego, many teams would line up for his services.
5 Eli Manning - $19,75 million
Eli Manning is one of the bigger names in the free agent class of 2016. After having a rough outing in 2013, Manning got back on track in 2014 with a solid season. He passed for 4,410 yards with 30 touchdowns, completed 63.1% of his passes, with 14 interceptions. When Manning has been at his best, he has led the Giants to two Super Bowl victories winning MVP both times. He might not have the gaudy numbers of some of the other big name quarterbacks, but he knows what it takes to win big games. Manning has passed for 39,755 yards in his 11-year NFL career, and has been to the Pro Bowl three times.
Manning is still one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. He has a terrific arm and despite occasional lapses with accuracy, he is a proven commodity who is worth the price he is being paid. The Giants will try their best to lock him up and he now has some weapons in place on offense with a healthy Victor Cruz and upstart Odell Beckham leading the way. Staying put in New York might be his best move.
4 Julio Jones - $10.2 million
Julio Jones had a breakout year in 2014, with 1,593 yards of receiving on 104 receptions, and an average of 106.2 yards per game. Jones also has tremendous size and speed, and is still learning the nuances of the professional game. In four NFL seasons, he has 4,330 yards of receiving with 26 touchdowns, and an average of 15.6 yards per catch. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2012 and 2014, and led the league in receiving yardage last year. Jones has become one of the NFL’s most dangerous deep ball threats.
Jones is one of the many elite receivers whose contracts come up at the end of this coming year, but he might actually be the most physically gifted. He might need to improve in the red zone, but he has no problem stretching a defense and making his share of big plays in the middle of the field. Look for Atlanta to try and keep Jones on the roster at whatever cost that might entail. They have an aging receiving corps and need Jones.
3 A.J. Green - $10.2 million
Since coming to the Bengals as the 4th overall selection in 2011, A.J. Green has been a model of consistency, as evidenced by his four consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. In his four-year career, he has had 329 receptions for 4,874 yards with 35 touchdowns. He has become Andy Dalton’s favorite target, and one of the top receivers in the league. Green has also been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons in the league.
Green missed three games and parts of two more last year, but still had a 1,000 yard season. He is tough receiver who can catch the ball in crowds, with a long body that helps him go up and pluck it out of the air. He would like to get a new deal done in Cincinnati, but it will no doubt come at a high cost. If the Bengals can’t get a deal done and Green has a big year, he could easily become one of the highest paid receivers in the league.
2 Dez Bryant - $12.8 million
Dez Bryant is probably the most productive receiver about to become a free agent after the 2015 season, that is if he isn't given an extension first. He has averaged over 1,300 yards of receiving during his past three seasons, and has an eye-popping 41 touchdowns during that same time. He has been to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014, and was ranked number 25 on the NFL’s list of The Top 100 players of 2014. Despite any issues with his temper and well-documented sideline tantrums, Bryant is easily one of the top players vying for a new contract in 2016.
Bryant has had some issues with dropping balls, but also has moments where he strings together many unbelievable catches and big plays. He makes many clutch plays look routine and is always a serious threat in the red zone. Bryant will be making some pretty good money this year, but the Cowboys and Bryant both want to get a new long-term deal done. Bryant has made it clear that he wants to be paid near the top three at his position, but it remains to be seen if the Cowboys think the same way. Anything is possible, or not, with the way the supremely confident Bryant seems to work.
1 Russell Wilson - $1.7 million
There is one thing that is certain in Russell Wilson’s future. He will be getting a huge raise. The quarterback who has led the Seattle Seahawks to two consecutive Super Bowl appearances and one title, is the most notable player with an expiring contract. Wilson has been steady, with a career quarterback rating of 98.6, and has 72 touchdown passes with only 26 interceptions in three seasons. He has only passed for a modest 9,950 yards, but hasn’t really been asked to carry the team. The only question is whether he really is an elite quarterback or just the beneficiary of a stout defense and running back Marshawn Lynch.
It is hard to say Wilson has done anything to prevent the Seahawks from reaching out to him with a lucrative long-term deal, but a $20 million raise will certainly make it harder to surround him with good players. Wilson can make all the throws and has been able to make them with a very suspect receiving corps. He is also a proven leader who is able to use his legs to look for opportunities down the field, while at the same time managing to avoid making costly mistakes. Look for him to get locked up by the Seahawks and get a healthy raise.
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