Debrief: Future free agents who stand to make bank with 2020 play

Money is the best, especially when employers give you a bunch of it. With that in mind, I wanted to look at which players have a lot of money on the line down the stretch this season, and which upcoming free agents have already boosted their future earnings:

Big stretch run ahead

Taysom Hill is technically under contract for 2021 — but he’s got a real chance to impact his earnings next year and beyond. His two-year, $21 million deal has been the subject of fascination since the day he signed it in April. Now given the chance to succeed Drew Brees as the franchise quarterback for one of the premier organizations in football, his audition over the next month will likely decide how the Saints approach the position in 2021.

It’s getting harder by the week to envision the 41-year-old Brees playing another season, especially after the reports that the Saints expected him to retire after last season. With Brees going on injured reserve last week, Hill has at least two more games to prove he’s worthy of a longer look after winning his debut start Sunday against the Falcons. There could be a scenario where Hill plays well enough that Brees doesn’t get his job back this year.

Hill’s contract feels like a placeholder. He’s due more than $12 million in 2021, which is somewhere above a top-shelf veteran backup and below a true starting quarter. Perhaps the Saints could pair Hill with a rookie and use 2021 to evaluate them both, or perhaps the Saints rip up the contract to give Hill more money on a longer deal and possibly lower his cap 2021 cap hit. That sounds more like the traditional Mickey Loomis move, but Hill will have to ball out to earn it.

Sunday’s performance against Atlanta was mostly encouraging. While he didn’t always make quick decisions, and his deep ball could be a limiting factor (not unlike Brees), Hill also made some quality throws against pressure. Michael Thomas was more productive in one game with Hill than he was in three games combined with Brees this season. Hill connected on a number of traditional dropback timing throws. Most importantly, Hill’s running ability, combined with the presence of Alvin Kamara, opens up the passing game dramatically. 

The job figures to get tougher next week at Denver, but the upcoming matchups (at Atlanta in Week 13 and at Philadelphia in Week 14) are manageable. The Saints’ defense and offensive line make life easier on any quarterback, and the franchise has performed the Patriots-like feat of remaining a top-five NFL team four years running. Now is the time for the Saints to cash in all their great regular seasons with a long playoff run, which makes the stakes so high to this fascinating likely end of the Brees era.  

He’s clearly not the old Cam Newton, but the 31-year-old has proven he’s worth a lot more than the bargain-bin discount rate the Patriots signed him for in June. To put it another way, Newton is still playing like a starting quarterback, albeit one who feels more like a temporary solution. If Cam stays healthy and performs well down the stretch, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see New England bring him back on a bigger deal. 

Sacks have always been hard to come by for Jadeveon Clowney, but his pressure rate has declined during this injury-plagued season in Tennessee. Now on injured reserve, Clowney is unlikely to get the big deal he was hoping for last offseason, barring a monstrous stretch run. 

At 7-3 and playing his best football of the season, everything is on the table for Philip Rivers. The 38-year-old could earn another short-term deal in Indianapolis with excellent play or run out of starting opportunities if he struggles. A Super Bowl run isn’t even out of the question, dadgummit!

Money makers

If you know, you know. Allen Robinson is one of the 10 best wide receivers in a golden age for wide receivers. His route-running and ability to get deep present a rare combination in a league full of short and intermediate threats. The franchise-tag possibility here is strong if the Bears can find cap space, which would be a shame for a player who deserves combat pay after what his quarterbacks have put him through

Players never want to get hurt during a contract year. Then again, Kenny Golladay’s occasional absence from the Lions lineup has only outlined his terrific value. If Golladay plays, the Lions’ offense has a chance to be explosive. If not, they are stuck in mud, with Sunday’s hope-ending shutout loss to the Panthers being the latest example. Detroit’s roster figures to look a lot different next season, but finding the money to bring back Golladay feels like the easiest move the Lions can make.

Yes, Bud Dupree is in an ideal situation. No, that hasn’t stopped pass rushers from getting paid top dollar in free agency before. Dupree has backed up his 2019 breakout season with another strong year, playing 2020 on the franchise tag. He looks like the one core player in the Steelers’ front seven who could get away, just because Pittsburgh can’t pay everyone.  

The range that Justin Simmons showed on his game-sealing interception in Sunday’s win over Miami is why he should be so sought-after next offseason. He has three picks in his last four games and nearly intercepted Tua Tagovailoa and Ryan Fitzpatrick if not for a shaky, unrelated penalty overturning another amazing pick Simmons made in the first quarter Sunday. Simmons is equally strong in run support. 

One season after making second-team All-Pro and finishing first in Pro Football Focus’ safety rankings, Simmons is ranked second among qualifiers by PFF this year. Backing up a breakout season is one way to guarantee the Brinks truck will also be backed up, and the Broncos will have plenty of cap space to pay him a market-setting safety contract. They could also use the franchise tag on him for the second straight year, which is a rare thing to do with a non-quarterback. It also wouldn’t be a bad deal for the Broncos at roughly $13.7 million, which is another example of the tag dramatically limiting players’ earnings. 

Simmons’ play and Denver’s thorough dismantling of the Dolphins were a reminder that the 4-6 Broncos won’t necessarily be an easy out down the stretch. They face four teams currently slated to make the playoffs and have the offensive firepower and defensive coaching to hang with most any non-Chiefs opponents, if QB Drew Lock can stay out of trouble.  

The recipe for an offensive lineman to get rich beyond his wildest dreams is to play well on the franchise tag. Joe Thuney has shown his versatility while stepping in at center and continued his solid play at guard. He has yet to miss a start in his career, and there are plenty of former Patriots assistants around the league likely willing to pay him top dollar, even if Bill Belichick doesn’t want to. 

After two years in Washington/injury purgatory, Trent Williams has re-emerged as a top left tackle again. If Andrew Whitworth can get paid until he’s 40, Williams is sure to lock up big money again before he turns 33. 

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman may have paid more than market value by retaining Leonard Williams on the franchise tag this season, but Williams has responded with improved play in defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s scheme. Williams remains an above-average starter in his prime, which he’s been all along. Just pretend he was taken No. 18 in the 2015 NFL Draft instead of No. 6, and you’ll like him, I promise! 

Here’s the list of edge defenders with more pressures than Romeo Okwara this season, according to PFF: T.J. Watt, Shaquil Barrett, Joey Bosa, Brian Burns (!), Bradley Chubb, Bud Dupree and Khalil Mack. That’s it. Okwara is one of Matt Patricia’s only success stories, and he may not be long for Detroit, with a new coaching staff possibly arriving.

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