41-Day NFL Warning: The 20 Contract-Year Players With the Most at Stake in 2013

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Jay Cutler

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20. Jairus Byrd, FS, Bills

The only franchise player not to sign his tender for the season, Byrd has apparently decided not to report to Bills training camp. Typically, a franchised player would have a lot on the line, but Byrd’s far down this list because his big-money deal is more about “how much” than “if.” Byrd wants to be the highest-paid safety in the league, and it’s not a ridiculous request. No one has been a better single-high safety during the past couple seasons, and in a pass-happy world, that makes Byrd a major asset. For all the talk about the Bills trading him or Byrd sitting out a portion of the season, the likeliest outcome is him returning before Week 1, having another great year, and getting a deal near or at the top of the market.

19. Brian Orakpo, OLB, Redskins
18. Sean Lee, MLB, Cowboys
17. Brian Cushing, ILB, Texans

There’s only one reason these three are even on this list, and it’s the season-ending injuries each suffered last year. Finishing 2012 healthy probably would’ve meant an offseason deal, but now, each is being forced to show they can return to form.

As of right now, it looks like Orakpo is the only one currently in negotiations. The Redskins have made it clear they want to re-sign him, and they should. According to Pro Football Focus, Orakpo was the fifth-most productive pass-rusher among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2011. With Ryan Kerrigan on the other side, locking up Orakpo would give the Redskins one of the league’s best pass-rush duos, and neither is older than 27.

Of the three, Cushing has had the best career, and his injury probably carries the most significance as to why he hasn’t been extended yet. It’s hard to blame Houston for wanting to see him back healthy before committing long term, but his absence was so glaring in the Texans’ playoff loss to New England that it’s hard to envision a scenario in which he’s not back.

Lee’s situation raises the most concerns because injuries have become a trend. He tore his ACL and had to take a medical redshirt at Penn State, missed most of his rookie season because of various ailments in training camp, had to wear a cast for a portion of the 2011 season, and played only six games last year before being placed on injured reserve with a toe problem. Dallas’s defensive DVOA before Lee left the lineup was -1.16 percent, which would’ve been the 14th-best total in the league over an entire season. Overall, they finished 23rd. Lee should stand out as the middle linebacker in the Cowboys’ new 4-3, and if he can show that he’s healthy, he’ll be well compensated.

16. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars
15. Darren McFadden, RB, Raiders

It seems like it’s been longer than a year since MJD’s high-profile holdout, and that’s probably because it hasn’t taken long for him to slip from conversations about the league’s best running backs. The 2011 rushing champion followed his contract spat from a year ago by playing just six games before going down with a Lisfranc injury that ended his season.

Jones-Drew should be 100 percent when this season starts, but the real question is what sort of shape he’ll be in by the time it ends. If he gets the workload we’d expect, it’ll be his fourth season with about 300 carries, and he’ll be 29 by the time next season begins. The foot issue is the first significant injury of his career, but it comes at a pretty inopportune moment. Even if he can put together another 1,200-yard season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a relative lack of interest if he hits the market.

While MJD’s injury issues are new, McFadden’s have defined his career. In five seasons, McFadden has never played more than 13 games, and even when he did play a year ago, he was slowed. Still, McFadden is only 25 and undoubtedly one of the most talented backs in the league. If he someone does manage to get a clean bill of health all year, there’s a team out there that will take a chance.

14. Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints

Considering the comments by Saints GM Mickey Loomis, it’s not likely the Saints and Graham don’t get a deal done. Graham has been excellent when healthy — the only concern is if he’ll be healthy going forward.

13. Danario Alexander, WR, Chargers

After getting waived by St. Louis, Alexander had 658 yards and seven touchdowns in just 10 games with San Diego last year. As has been the case with Alexander throughout his pro and college careers, his main issue is staying healthy. He signed a one-year deal this offseason to remain with the Chargers, and if he can build upon the run he had to end last season, he may end up as the no. 1 option for Philip Rivers by season’s end.

12. Kenny Britt, WR, Titans
11. Jeremy Maclin, WR, Eagles
10. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants

Britt is another high-talent, always-injured case, and to go along with that problem, he’s also seen his share of issues away from the field. In 2010, Britt finished second in DVOA but played in only 12 games. An ACL injury ended his 2011 season after only three games, and after two surgeries that offseason, he never got back to full speed last year. The word out of Tennessee is that Britt looks to be his 2010 self again, and if that’s true, he’s another player teams will likely talk themselves into.

Fellow 2009 draftee Maclin has dealt with some nagging injuries here and there, but for the most part, his production has been steady since coming to Philadelphia. Maclin was also in the top 10 in DVOA in 2010, and carried out over a full 16 games, his 2011 averages would’ve yielded about 77 catches and 1,050 yards. The best news for Maclin — news he’s cognizant of — was the extension Mike Williams signed earlier this week. Maclin’s numbers are better than Williams’s in almost every way, and as Maclin noted earlier this offseason, escaping Andy Reid’s offense is likely to give his another boost.

Nicks was taken one spot ahead of Britt in the 2009 draft, the fifth of six wide receivers taken in the first round, and so far, he’s been the most productive member of the group, as Percy Harvin’s injury problems persist. Nicks dealt with his own issues last season, and as Eli Manning made clear earlier this year, the Giants suffered because of it. Teammate Victor Cruz already cashed in this offseason, but the Giants have long considered Nicks the type of no. 1 receiver capable of taking over games. If he has anything close to the seasons he had in 2010 and 2011, he’ll be just fine.

9. Michael Bennett, DE, Seahawks
8. Lamarr Houston, DE, Raiders

This is the second consecutive season Bennett will be playing for a contract, after getting a one-year deal worth $5 million from Seattle. I was initially surprised that there wasn’t a bigger market for Bennett this offseason, but then we learned that he tore his rotator cuff in 2012, which likely played into the diminished interest. If he has another season like he did in Tampa Bay last year, that multiyear deal will be waiting. He was the Bucs’ only pass-rush option a year ago, but more importantly, he was also one of the best run-defending defensive ends in the league. As part of Seattle’s defense, the 27-year-old may be poised for the best season of his career.

Houston is right alongside Bennett as one of the best run-defending defensive ends in football. He doesn’t get much recognition as part of a Raiders team that’s never been anything more than mediocre in his time there, but Houston is one of the more underrated players in the entire league. Able to play both end and tackle, Houston would be a welcome addition for just about any defense. Anything close to his 2012 production will end in a sizable deal after this season.

7. Greg Hardy, DE, Panthers

There was a time when Hardy was considered a future first-round pick and one of the best pass-rush prospects in college football. That was before a series of injuries at Ole Miss pushed him into the sixth round of the 2010 draft. Last year, in his third season, Hardy finally became the player many envisioned while he was dominating the SEC. According to Pro Football Focus, Hardy was the fifth-most productive pass-rusher among 4-3 defensive ends, tallying 60 pressures and 11 sacks. Football Outsiders recorded 21 quarterback knockdowns, good for 15th in the league. If he can replicate those numbers, he’ll be looking at a payday not far from what teammate Charles Johnson got a couple years ago.

6. Henry Melton, DT, Bears
5. Charles Tillman, CB, Bears

Both Melton and Tillman had their best seasons last year in Chicago, but those seasons came at very different point in their careers. This season will be Tillman’s 10th, but last year was the first time — justifiably or not — he’s been voted All-Pro. He was among the best defensive players, but in making a decision on his future, his age will likely be a significant factor for the Bears. Tillman is 32, and any multiyear deal would take him past 35. The decision here will probably be influenced by the results — both individually and as a team — in Chicago this year. If the Bears fail to make the playoffs, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Tillman among the high-profile players Chicago decides to let walk.

Melton, on the other hand, is a 26-year-old defensive tackle who was franchised this offseason. A prototypical penetrating, one-gap tackle, Melton was excellent as an interior pass rusher for the past two seasons, collecting at least six sacks in each. In an era when mismatches inside are more important than ever, Melton is a desirable piece, and another productive year should come with the long-term deal he’s after.

4. Eugene Monroe, OT, Jaguars
3. Branden Albert, OT, Chiefs

Monroe and Albert come into 2013 facing almost identical situations. Both have been good options at left tackle for most of their careers after coming into the league as first-round draft picks, and now, the future of each is being threatened by a top-two pick from this year’s draft. The Chiefs explored trading the franchised Albert before the draft, but a deal with the Dolphins fell through. Kansas City has said they’re interested in signing Albert long term, even with no. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher in the fold.

As of now, extension talks for Monroe haven’t started, and it’s easy to understand why. The Chiefs may have had the first overall pick in last year’s draft, but Kansas City has enough talent for its new regime to stay committed to the players already on the roster. For Jacksonville, it’s likely they don’t like the idea of paying a premium for a left tackle immediately after drafting the player they consider a future star at the position. One advantage for Monroe and Albert is that the line between right and left tackles has never been less defined. Teams need strong pass protection for both sides, and if each has another strong year in 2013, there’s a good chance they’re retained.

2. Josh Freeman, QB, Buccaneers
1. Jay Cutler, QB, Bears

For the full Freeman treatment, check out Bill Barnwell’s work from earlier today. Tampa Bay’s entire roster — not just the offense — is playoff ready, and whether Freeman can take them there will go a long way in determining how his offseason goes.

Cutler is in a similar situation in Chicago. Every decision the Bears made this offseason — signing Jermon Bushrod, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Slauson; hiring Marc Trestman — was done with Cutler in mind. Phil Emery’s entire strategy since taking over as the team’s GM seems to be centered on removing the excuses for Cutler’s struggles and unearthing whether he’s the answer moving forward. Talks about an extension were reportedly halted after Trestman was hired, an indication the new coach wants a long look at his quarterback before committing. As an avowed Cutler fan and a Bears diehard, I know my view is a bit skewed, but it does feel like this might finally be the year Chicago sees the quarterback it mortgaged its future for in 2009. The combination of weapons and protection will be the best Cutler’s seen in his time as a Bear — by a long way. That, along with Trestman’s arrival, should be enough to gain the Bears’ trust.

Filed Under: Jay Cutler, NFL, Robert Mays

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays