Make It or Break It: The NFL Players Who Have Everything to Prove in December

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The NFL season is almost over. We’re three-quarters of the way home, with four weeks left to go for each team. For most players, the season’s story has already been written. There will be a few who rewrite their 2014 narrative with a playoff run or a drastic change in their performance, but the vast majority of what we’ll take away from the season has already made its way into the history books. While there are still plenty of teams competing for the playoffs, a fair number of the league’s players will spend the next four weeks playing out the string.

There are a few players who have much more to play for in the next four weeks than it might seem. Some are on playoff-bound teams and others already have their January vacations booked, but they all have one thing in common: The final month of the season is likely to have a disproportionate impact on their impending contract negotiations. The vast majority are free-agents-to-be, guys who would create a better group of comparables for their agents by putting up big numbers in December. Others could use a healthy month to assuage injury concerns and remind interested teams of what they can do when they’re on the field.

This list isn’t designed to be entirely comprehensive, since there’s an entire world of players who could stake a claim on a bigger contract with a hot final four weeks, but it’s a grouping of guys who all have much to gain. And that starts with a quarterback who’s gone a long way toward revitalizing his career in Philadelphia …

Mark Sanchez, QB, Eagles
It’s not necessarily a surprise that Sanchez has been able to rebuild his career with the Eagles, given how friendly Chip Kelly’s system can be to quarterbacks. Sanchez has basically matched Nick Foles’s broader level of production during 2014, even if the style is slightly different:

There are a couple of hidden factors that might have made things easier for Sanchez. He’s spent his time behind a healthier offensive line than Foles, who was behind Jason Peters, Todd Herremans, and a bunch of backups for most of the season before fracturing his clavicle. In addition, Sanchez hasn’t played a very difficult schedule during his four weeks as the starter; he’s played the checked-out secondaries of Carolina and Tennessee, the rapidly declining Dallas pass defense, and looked worst against the only above-average (by DVOA) pass defense he’s faced, Green Bay. This Sunday’s game against Seattle will be Sanchez’s biggest test to date as Philadelphia’s quarterback.

Of course, Sanchez has even more to battle with over the next month than most of the other players on this list. First, Sanchez has to play well enough to convince the Eagles to leave Foles on the bench when he’s cleared to return from his collarbone injury. Then he has to play well enough to keep the Eagles ahead in the NFC East, a division that may come down to the home game against Dallas in Week 15. The Eagles have an 89 percent chance of winning the division, and if they blow their lead while Sanchez plays poorly, he’s likely to take the bulk of the blame.

On top of all of that, Sanchez needs to play well enough to convince Kelly that he — and not Foles or somebody in the draft — is Philadelphia’s quarterback of the future. Sanchez is an unrestricted free agent after the season, while Foles will have one year remaining on his rookie deal. If Sanchez plays well enough, the Eagles could choose to re-sign him while getting a draft pick or two for Foles while his value remains relatively high.

Then again, Kelly has been relatively ruthless about replacing quarterbacks during his time as the head coach at Oregon and now with the Eagles, so Sanchez may find himself in an interesting situation. The Eagles may very well lowball him with what amounts to a one-year deal with team options, like a small-scale version of the Colin Kaepernick deal. If he gets a multiyear offer with guaranteed money past 2015 from a team like the Bills or Rams, would it be better for Sanchez to take the financial security and leave for a less-comfortable system with inferior coaching? The best thing Sanchez can do is play well enough in December (and January) to leave himself able to pick between those options this spring.

Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens
Michael Crabtree, WR, 49ers
Sanchez’s top wideout, Jeremy Maclin, has done enough through the first three months to ensure he’ll get a lucrative contract from somebody, barring any injuries. Dez Bryant, still unsigned, will almost surely get paid by the Cowboys. Demaryius Thomas is going to get his. The two young wideouts with the most to gain, then, are a pair of players who looked like budding superstars during their rookie seasons, only to raise questions with uneven 2014 campaigns.

Smith has been the better of the two this year, mostly for what he’s done as the weather has grown colder. With Steve Smith dominating the Baltimore offense during the first month, Torrey Smith uncharacteristically disappeared. In Baltimore’s first five games, Torrey Smith caught just 11 of the 29 passes thrown to him, gaining a mere 176 yards while scoring once. He’s been far better since his breakout two-touchdown game against the Bucs in Week 6. Some of that has been a fluky touchdown streak, as an unsustainable 26 percent of his catches have resulted in touchdowns, but prorate his numbers since that Bucs game over a full season and you get a line with 62 catches for 990 receiving yards, roughly in line with his past performance.

Crabtree has been much more of an enigma, and it’s fair to wonder if he’s still struggling with injuries. He tweaked his long-problematic left foot earlier this season, and outside of that one playoff game against the Packers last year, he hasn’t looked like the guy who posted elite numbers with Kaepernick in the lineup since tearing his Achilles during the 2013 offseason. The entire San Francisco offense is out of whack right now, as I’ll get to in a moment, but unless Crabtree suddenly finds his old form in December (and/or the 49ers make what appears to be rapidly becoming an unlikely playoff run into January), he is going to hit the market two years removed from looking like the guy who dominated during the 2012 playoffs.

It’s tough for me to imagine Crabtree getting a multiyear deal at this point. The market loves young, talented receivers, but the old Crabtree needs to show up sometime soon to get a team to believe. The obvious comparison here is Hakeem Nicks, a player who tried to rebuild his value by signing a one-year contract to be the third wideout for a team that throws the ball very effectively. Seeing Crabtree end up somewhere like Denver or Philadelphia would make a lot of sense.

Smith can shoot far higher. It’s a bit of a surprise the Ravens haven’t locked him up already, although cap concerns might have justified holding off on his extension until the end of his rookie contract. Smith doesn’t turn 26 until January, and his representation will likely try to compare him to Golden Tate, another player leaving a relatively conservative offense who turned 26 the year he hit free agency. Over his two years as a starter in Seattle, Tate averaged a 54-793-6 line; Smith’s career average is 50-858-7 with four games to go.

A strong finish would make that comparison easier and allow Smith to push for a deal closer to that of Eric Decker, who got $21.5 million over the first three years of his contract with the Jets, than to the $18 million Tate received from the Lions.

Mike Iupati, G, 49ers
Once viewed as the best young interior lineman in football, Iupati’s stock has slipped over the past 12 months. Part of that is simply down to the way the players around him have performed; the San Francisco offensive line, dominant in 2011 and 2012, slipped in 2013 and has declined much further this season. Most of that falls on the right side of the line, where Alex Boone and injury replacement Jonathan Martin struggled mightily during the first half, but Iupati has gone from being a candidate for the best guard in football to looking like a slightly above-average player.

That’s still valuable. Iupati is going to get a long-term contract with significant guaranteed money. But it would be nice to see him finish the season with his best tape, a hint that the team that signs him might be coming away with a perennial Pro Bowler in the prime of his career. That could be enough to ensure that Iupati comes away with a top-level deal like the one signed by Andy Levitre.

Iupati might also price himself out of San Francisco’s range in the process. Trent Baalke hasn’t shown a lot of interest in retaining his interior offensive linemen in years past. He let center David Baas walk, happily replaced guard Adam Snyder with an unproven backup in Boone, and, when Boone held out this summer, refused to offer him a revamped contract until the very end of August. If the bidding for Iupati hits $8 million a year — and it could — the 49ers may very well use their precious cap space elsewhere.

Colt McCoy, QB, Washington
You may not remember that McCoy was once Iupati’s teammate, and I can’t say I would blame you if you didn’t, as the former Texas star only threw one pass for the 49ers during his lone season with the organization in 2013. Thrust into the starting role in Washington after Robert Griffin and Kirk Cousins both flamed out in spectacular fashion, McCoy has looked competent during his two starts.

McCoy’s numbers (75.3 percent completion rate, 9.2 yards per attempt) grossly inflate how he has performed, but the 62.9 QBR he has posted on his 89 attempts is about right for how McCoy has looked this season. Some will always want to describe him as a winner because of his time at UT and his intangibles, and that’s mostly hogwash, but he has looked good enough to ensure that he’ll have an NFL job in 2014.

That’s a huge step for McCoy, who was on the career path to graduate assistant after leaving Cleveland. His upside is still likely as an NFL backup, but what he does over the next four games will help determine what sort of backup he’s paid to be. Before this year, he was somewhere in the void between second and third quarterback, which is why he got a one-year deal for just $795,000, narrowly above the league minimum for a player with his experience.

If he keeps things up, McCoy will enter the 2015 market as an upper-echelon backup, a target for teams that want some stability alongside their likely quarterback of the future. That should put him in line with guys like Chad Henne and Matt Cassel, who signed two-year deals last offseason worth $8 million and $10.5 million, respectively. And if Washington does trade Griffin, who knows? One thing seems sure: It won’t be trading up in the draft for a quarterback again.

Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
The once-fearsome JPP is probably never again going to be that guy from 2011, the absolute freak who accrued the second-most sacks for a player in his age-22 season in league history. Of course, the only player ahead of Pierre-Paul on that list is another cautionary tale, as Shawne Merriman struggled with injuries and was basically done after he turned 23.

What’s curious is that Pierre-Paul isn’t necessarily shot. He’ll have plays — usually one or two a game, sometimes more, sometimes less — in which he looks like a dominant defensive end. He’ll get across the face of a left tackle and be gliding past offensive linemen as they’re barely out of their stance, the announcers will chatter about how the old Jason Pierre-Paul appears to be back, and then they won’t mention him again for another hour. He gave the wildly disappointing Luke Joeckel fits at times during Sunday’s collapse against Jacksonville, and yet, on the final drive, Blake Bortles beat him around the edge on a read-option keeper.

Teams are desperate for pass-rushers, let alone pass-rushers who have dominant seasons on their résumé and still haven’t turned 26. Pierre-Paul had 1.5 sacks against Joeckel and the Jags on Sunday. If he kept that up and finished the year with four sacks in his final four games, it would take him to nine sacks this year. That would probably be enough to earn him a multiyear deal with guaranteed money, even if it wasn’t the sort of position-defining contract it looked like he was on pace to receive after 2011.

The flip side is true, too. The Jaguars lead the league in sacks allowed by a significant margin; they’re at 50, and second-place Washington (39 sacks) is nearly as close to league average (27) as it is to Jacksonville. If Pierre-Paul’s nice game was just a flash of former brilliance against a team that seems to facilitate pass-rushers, he’ll hit the market three years removed from his career season. That might consign him to a one-year, prove-it deal as a situational pass-rusher. It would not be a stretch to see him land in New England, which found success rehabbing a post-hype pass-rusher a few years ago with Mark Anderson, or in Dallas,1 where the league’s best defensive line coach, Rod Marinelli, serves as defensive coordinator.

DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys
Marinelli’s defense has been part of a winning formula in Dallas this season, but for all the plaudits the Cowboys received during their six-game winning streak, things aren’t looking up at the moment in Big D. Dallas’s playoff odds dropped to 49.9 percent this week, with just an 11 percent chance of claiming the NFC East.

Even that 38.9 percent chance of making it as a wild card is likely overstated, given that the Cowboys are stuck rooting for the Cardinals to win the NFC West. The Cowboys would win a tiebreaker with the Seahawks, having beaten Seattle in October, but after losing to Arizona in Brandon Weeden’s only start, they would lose a tiebreaker to the Cardinals. With that Football Outsiders simulation model not programmed to realize that Drew Stanton’s now the starting quarterback for the Cardinals, it’s likely overestimating Arizona’s chances of winning the West. This model gives Arizona a 50.5 percent chance of winning its division, while the odds at Bovada have the Cards down at 36.5 percent.

What does that have to do with DeMarco Murray? Well, when they were 6-1, the Cowboys might have hoped they could comfortably slide their way into the postseason and give Murray some much-needed rest over the final few weeks of the regular season. Now that’s unlikely to be the case. If anything, the Cowboys will need to rely more heavily on Murray, who remains on pace for 384 rushes and 1,902 rushing yards. For a player who hasn’t yet completed a full season in the pros, a continually heavy workload will keep Murray’s risk of suffering a serious injury before free agency too high for comfort. It’s not about how Murray plays over this next month; it’s about how healthy he looks afterward.2

The Cowboys can help by being smart about how they use Murray, something that wasn’t the case on Thanksgiving. At home and facing their division rivals on a short week, it made total sense to rely upon Murray’s skills. What didn’t make sense is how Dallas kept Murray in the game when it was down 23 points in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys were in total desperation mode, as evidenced by them no longer running the ball and using Murray to pass block and catch screens and checkdowns. It’s impossible to prove that those specific touches are ruinous for Murray, but one thing is for sure: It’s harder to get hurt on the bench than it is in the middle of the field.

Nick Fairley, DT, Lions
With player health in mind, Fairley is another example of a player whose market could be determined by how he looks at the end of the season. The problem, unfortunately, is that he has already suffered an injury. Fairley went down with sprained ligaments in his knee during the London win over the Falcons, an injury that was expected to sideline him for about a month. It has now been a month, and he doesn’t appear close to returning.

It’s a shame, too, because Fairley had really delivered on his promise this season — and delivered at a high level. Surprisingly, Detroit chose to pass on his fifth-year option this offseason, partly in the hopes of motivating Fairley to take that next step forward. Fairley even suited up with the second team when he showed up to training camp out of shape. Once the games started, though, Fairley looked like the star tackle he was supposed to be next to Ndamukong Suh, routinely pushing linemen around and creating lanes for his teammates to make plays.

If Fairley can just make it back onto the field and look upright, it might be enough to attract a multiyear deal from a team that believes he’s on the straight and narrow for good. If not? Maybe he settles for a one-year deal from the Lions and takes over as the primary tackle if (when?) Suh leaves.

Ryan Tannehill, QB, Dolphins
Let’s finish up with a player who still has a fifth-year option left to be decided. The Dolphins would owe Tannehill something in the $15 million range for 2016 if they chose to pick up that option, so they will surely wait until the last possible moment before making that sort of commitment.

I’ve described Tannehill as football’s most enigmatic, unknown quarterback: a passer who stayed healthy, got good receivers, and still somehow managed to avoid showing very much about where his ceiling and floor might lay. The hope was that Tannehill would get a revamped offensive line this season and a fresh set of eyes at coordinator.

And yet, after 12 games … I’m still not sure. Tannehill is consistently inconsistent, routinely mixing in flashes of his athleticism and arm strength with stretches during which he looks overmatched and unsure of his abilities. Most of the Jets game last Monday would be considered the latter. The offense he’s running under Bill Lazor is a little more conservative and includes safer throws, which is why his completion percentage has spiked all the way up to 66.5 percent with no real change in his other per-play metrics. His QBR is up to a career-high 57.7, but that’s hardly the landing point for legends.

What Tannehill does over the next month could determine his pro future. With Miami holding on to the final playoff spot in the AFC, Tannehill is uniquely poised to either make or break his reputation, which took some heat after the Dolphins lost to the Bills and Jets to end 2013 and miss the playoffs. If Tannehill can beat the Patriots in New England in Week 15, the entire city of Miami might shut down. More likely, he’ll need to win his three remaining home games to get to 10-6 and make the playoffs.

As for the option? I don’t think the Dolphins will exercise it. Tannehill’s just not worth $16 million based on what we’ve seen, and if he proves the Dolphins wrong, well, he can always renegotiate an extension before the old deal expires. It might cost the Dolphins extra money if it works out that way, but, as always seems to be the case with Tannehill, we just need more time to figure out if he’s any good.

Filed Under: NFL, Mark Sanchez, Philadelphia Eagles, Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens, Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers, Mike Iupati, Colt McCoy, Washington Redskins, Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants, DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys, Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions, Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell