NFL players in contract years who could cash in

US PRESSWIRE

Big names are heading into contract years, including Brian Orakpo, Jake Locker and Jason Pierre-Paul. Who stands to gain or lose the most from the 2014 season?

Contract years must be a terrifying thing for NFL players. In exchange for a shot at a big salary, they put themselves of a lot of physical abuse, certainly, but perhaps overlooked is the mental stress. The idea that one's livelihood can disappear with one bad foot plant at the wrong time, or perhaps due to no fault of one's own as more youthful players enter the league, would understandably spark feelings of restlessness in most mortal men. It can't be easy doing a job that consists of daily work evaluations.

The futures of the following men are the most uncertain (give or take, this is subjective), whether due to injury troubles, odd dips in production, or disparate valuations of worth between club and player. Whatever the reason, these players need to make the most of their 2014 seasons, or find themselves playing elsewhere, potentially without a long-term contract.

Is he worth it?

Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins (2014 contract: $11.455 million)

The franchise tender that Orakpo signed this offseason doesn't necessarily suggest that the Redskins are brimming with faith in the pass rusher. Granted, there should be no question that he is one of the best at what he does. Though Orakpo's 10 sacks from a year ago don't jump off the page, he also plays a bigger run-stopping role than most at his position. He was also more effective at getting to the quarterback than sacks would suggest. Pro Football Focus' Pass Rushing Productivity metric, which accounts for quarterback hits and hurries, had Orakpo tied for fifth in the NFL with John Abraham as the NFL's most effective pass rusher.

There are concerns for the Redskins, however, namely whether they can afford to pay Orakpo like one of the best outside linebackers when they have so many other holes to fill on the team. There's also warranted concern about his ability to stay healthy. Orakpo missed all but two games of the 2012 season due to a pectoral injury.

Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers (2014 contract: $9.754 million)

Worilds was the eighth-most effective pass rusher in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus' PRP metric, but that stat is somewhat deceiving. It hides the fact that Worilds had an incredible second half of the season -- seven sacks over the Steelers' final eight games -- and largely ineffective first half. It also clouds how we view the first three seasons of his career, when he had just 10 total sacks over 42 games.

Worilds' production earned him a healthy transition tag tender, and the fact that the Steelers didn't address his position in the 2014 NFL Draft suggests that he is a part of their long-term plans. One has to be leery of players with sudden leaps of production when their contracts are on the line, but a full productive season could sway the Steelers to give Worilds a long-term deal.

Tramon WilliamsGreen Bay Packers (2014 contract: $9.5 million)

Williams was signed to a big extension in 2010, and played up to his deal initially, but has since been much less effective. He has to prove himself this season, and seemingly knows it, too, or else be shooed away from the Packers if he doesn't take a paycut.

The good news for the 31-year-old cornerback is that he is versatile. He played at nickelback often last season, which suggests that coaches like his ability in run support as well as coverage. Williams isn't the Packers' top cover guy any more, however. That's Sam Shields. The Packers may not be able to afford paying two players as if they are top lockdown corners.

Michael Roos, Tennessee Titans (2014 contract: $6.625 million)

There is nothing wrong with Roos. He has been a loyal and reliable pass protector for the Titans for nine seasons now, and has been named All-Pro three times. And yet, Tennessee seems to be doing their best to shove him out the door. This offseason, the Titans signed Michael Oher to a four-year contract, before selecting Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan with the No. 11 overall pick in the draft. That does not bode well for a veteran entering a contract year.

The Titans could be stockpiling depth, which isn't a bad idea in a division that features J.J. Watt, Robert Mathis and, now, Jadeveon Clowney. The team may also be banking on Roos re-signing for lower pay, hoping that a long career in Nashville means he'll do anything to stay. The message sent to Roos by the Titans is that they don't need him, however. It'll be up to Roos to prove them wrong.

Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles (2014 contract: $5.25 million)

The Eagles signed Maclin to a one-year deal this offseason that may as well have been accompanied by a chicken taunt. In perhaps the most "prove-it" deal of the offseason, Maclin will be paid a relatively modest $5.25 million to demonstate his worth, after four seasons of sub-elite prediction before a season-ending torn ACL last year.

Chip Kelly clearly doesn't have any problem with letting go of big names if they don't meet his exacting standards. Maclin needs to step up as the Eagles' No. 1 receiver before Kelly hand picks someone else.

Is he too old?

Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers (2014 contract: $6.45 million)

Gore has played nine seasons at football's most short-live and dispensable position, for a team that seems to be trying very hard to replace him. And yet, he keeps plugging away. Last season he averaged a career-low yards per carry, but in the grand scheme 4.1 YPC isn't that bad, especially on 276 carries, which was the third-highest season total of his career.

But the truth remains that he has probably slowed down a tad at 31 years old, and the 49ers have a lot of strong talent behind him -- any one of four running backs they have drafted within the first four rounds of the NFL Draft the last four years.

Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons (2014 contract: $6.325 million)

White's streak of consecutive games played came to a sad end last season due to a severe ankle sprain. Though he missed just three games, he was rendered largely ineffective when he was on the field, and was held to 63 receptions for 711 yards and three touchdowns, all of which were his worst numbers since 2006.

It's hard to imagine the Falcons having the heart to kick White aside after so many productive seasons, but he is 32 years old, and turning 33 in November. He'll likely have to except a paycut on a three/four-year contract to stay in Atlanta.

Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts (2014 contract: $6.167 million)

In fact, the three-year, $17.5 million contract that Wayne signed in 2012 could be a good barometer of what White may be offered in 2015. Wayne, 35, had an even longer streak of consecutive games played before succumbing to a season-ending knee injury last year. If he is re-signed, it will be almost certainly be a short-term, low paying deal. That's if he decides to come back at all. Few would be shocked if Wayne opted for retirement after the 2014 season.

Can he stay healthy?

Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants (2014 contract: $4.611 million)

There's no question that Pierre-Paul's 2011 season was incredible, but beyond that he hasn't been particularly impressive. He had just 6.5 sacks in 2012, and two in 2013 while trying to gut out 11 games with back and shoulder issues. Pierre-Paul claims he is healthy and has vowed a return to form. At 25 years old, he has all the potential in the world to become great again. The Giants may not hesitate to let him walk if 2014 is another dud, however.

Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans (2014 contract: $4.005 million)

The Titans had a bevy of choices at quarterback when the No. 11 overall pick rolled around, but instead opted for an offensive tackle. Take that as a vote of confidence for Locker if you want, though the fact that the organization targeted Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round -- who has the physical tools to play as a rookie, if not that maturity -- suggests that it is willing to light a fire under Locker's butt.

Locker has looked intermittently good, but perhaps not as good as a No. 8 overall pick ought to look, and that's before factoring in the litany of injuries. It's imperative that he stays healthy and plays well, or else a new regime could quickly send him on the path towards being a career journeyman.

Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers (2014 contract: $3.612 million)

Anyone who has played fantasy football the last four years probably got tired of hearing that Mathews was on the verge of a breakout season. Many had given up hope for the oft-injured running back prior to 2013, so conveniently he went on to have the best season of his career, playing in 16 regular season games for the first time.

As with Worilds and Pierre-Paul, the question is whether the outlier season can become the norm. That makes 2014 vitally important Mathews. It may be a blessing that injuries have kept his mileage low at a position with a short life span.

DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys (2014 contract: $1.597 million)

Like Mathews, Murray picked a good time to finally bust out. After playing 23 games over his first two seasons, he was able to appear in 14 games last season, and topped 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career. He averaged an excellent 5.1 yards per carry, and his nine rushing touchdowns tied for sixth-most in the NFL.

The problem, as it is with all running backs, is that the Cowboys (and anyone else) may be leery of signing Murray knowing that his career may not short-lived, especially given how much he has struggled with injuries early in his career. Murray was great last season, but he may need to be jaw-droppingly good to earn a big contract.

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