2014 NFL fee agents can cash in on opportunity

Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

Thrust into bigger roles due to injuries, a few players could earn some extra money on their next contract with strong finishes to the season.

Injuries are a part of the NFL and whenever a player goes down, it opens an opportunity for someone to step into his place. In some instances, that increased role could lead to a big payday for a few impending free agents.

Whether they are starting due to injury, or simply more involved because of a teammate who's hurting, here are five players who could earn themselves a lot of money with a good close to the season.

Ben Tate, running back, Houston

Tate figured to be in line for a nice contract in the offseason even before Arian Foster went down with an injury. With Foster now on injured reserve, Tate has the chance to show teams he can be a successful every down back. He's started the last two games and will likely get six more starts to close the season.

A 25-year-old with limited carries under his belt, Tate would be an attractive player on the free agent market for teams looking for a starting running back. But it's one thing to average 5.0 yards per carry when spelling the starter, and quite another to put up big numbers carrying the ball 20 times a game to close out the year.

If he finishes well, Tate could receive a deal similar to the six-year, $34.5 million deal Atlanta gave Michael Turner in 2008.

Golden Tate, wide receiver, Seattle

Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch draw the headlines in Seattle, but quietly Tate is having an excellent season. Many have focused on the return of Percy Harvin, ignoring Tate's solid start to the season. With Harvin still working his way back in and Sidney Rice out for the season with a torn ACL, Tate has been thrust into the role of No. 1 receiver.

He showed he was capable of being a lead guy in Week 10, hauling in six passes for a career-high 106 yards against the Falcons. With the Seahawks focused on running the ball, Tate isn't likely to put up huge numbers on a week-to-week basis. Instead, he's taking advantage of the opportunities he gets. No wide receiver has forced more missed tackles than Tate's 14, according to Pro Football Focus. While the play drew attention for his taunt, Tate's 80-yard touchdown catch against St. Louis showed off his ridiculous body control and ball skills. He's made several explosive plays as a punt returner this season, while also showing off great hands.

Tate will have the benefit of playing in the playoffs where a strong performance can lead to more recognition and free agent attention. He may not get a big contract in Seattle, but he'll get a hefty raise someone.

Brandon Spikes, linebacker, New England

Spikes had 28 career starts coming into this season, but with Jerod Mayo going down for the season, Spikes has played a bigger role on New England's defense. With Mayo in the lineup, Spikes averaged 5.0 tackles per game. Since Mayo went down, Spikes has averaged 7.5 tackles per game.

He's on the field more and has the opportunity to prove he can be more than just an above-average run defender. According to Pro Football Focus, Spikes has played 73.6 percent of New England's defensive snaps since Mayo's injury. Teams will pay good money for a run-stuffing middle linebacker, but they'll pay considerably more when he isn't limited to strictly being a two-down player.

Josh McCown, quarterback, Bears

Out of football in 2010, the 34-year-old McCown has played well in replacement duty for Jay Cutler. He's 2-0 as the starter and is averaging 7.5 yards per attempt this season. He's in line for at least a couple more starts with Cutler out.

McCown isn't likely to get much attention as a potential starter, but he could receive a nice deal to be the No. 2 quarterback somewhere. If he continues to play well, he could receive a deal similar to the two-year $7.25 million deal Matt Hasselbeck singed. That would be a nice upgrade from the one-year $865,000 deal McCown signed last offseason.

Walter Thurmond, cornerback, Seattle

There has been a lot of talk about Seattle's "Legion of Boom" but that talk focuses on Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Brandon Browner. Thurmond is rarely mentioned with his teammates. With Browner likely out for the rest of the regular season, Thurmond has stepped into the starting role. He started outside last week and recorded the first interception of his career.

Not many have questioned Thurmond's talent, even dating back to his time at Oregon. Injuries, however, have always held him back. A serious knee injury caused him to slide in the draft and he's struggled to stay healthy during his career. He's healthy now and could play his way into a nice deal.

He's played well all season, beating out Antoine Winfield for the nickel job in training camp. Now thrust into the starting role, Thurmond could prove he belongs as a starter in one of the best secondaries and on one of the best teams in the NFL. Tramaine Brock signed a four-year, $16 million deal with San Francisco and a similar deal doesn't seem out of line if Thurmond continues to play well.

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