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#pounditSunday, November 29, 2020

5 NFL players in a contract year who need to step up

AJ Green

Most NFL players reach the point in their career where they’re seeking a long-term contract, but things simply aren’t working out. Sometimes that situation course corrects, and sometimes it doesn’t.

However, consistent quality play will often pave the way for those players — especially during a contract year. And as we head into 2020, these five players find themselves in that exact situation. Now they’ll need to step up.

5. Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

A first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Sammy Watkins has repeatedly flirted with elite play at the NFL level but has never quite been able to put together all of the pieces. Rather than a WR1 in the conversation among the best in football, Watkins has been relegated to supporting roles and modest production, even on a Kansas City offense that puts up Madden-like numbers. After signing a one-year deal with the Chiefs earlier this offseason, Watkins now faces what may be his final chance to earn a substantial long-term contract. In order to do that, he’ll not only have to stay healthy for the first time since his rookie season, but he’ll also have to display more consistency and big-play potential.

4. Kenyan Drake, RB, Arizona Cardinals

Kenyan Drake always seems to make it into one of these articles, and that’s for good reason. Drake has finally proven himself capable of handling a full load and changing games, he’s on the brink of earning what may be the only long-term, big-dollar contract of his NFL career. He’s slated to play the 2020 season on the transition tag, which will earn him more than $8 million, but he has his sights set on something more, whether that’s with the Cardinals or elsewhere. General managers are fickle when it comes to running backs, so any signs of struggle or injury will severely damage Drake’s value on the open market. Needless to say, he’ll have to carry over his 2019 success into 2020 and then some.

3. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Once upon a time, A.J. Green was considered one of the best wide receivers in football. He was as consistent and reliable as they came, but over the last three seasons, his production has tumbled and injury issues have haunted him. Because of that, the Bengals slapped Green with the franchise tag, which is something he previously expressed displeasure with. It’s possible he requests a trade as the two sides seem unlikely to hammer out a long-term deal, but whether he spends 2020 in Cincinnati or elsewhere, the 31-year-old will need to reestablish himself or risk the window closing on one final long-term deal. On the plus side, Green is still entirely capable of producing big-time numbers when healthy.

2. Trent Williams, OT, San Francisco 49ers

After sitting out the 2019 season, Trent Williams is poised to return in 2020 following a trade to the San Francisco 49ers. Somewhat surprisingly, Williams restructured the final year of a five-year deal and seems content to play things out, essentially banking on himself. Once considered among the best offensive tackles in the league, no one is entirely sure what to expect from the 31-year-old (32 when the season starts) this year. One thing is for certain — Williams has to play well in order to earn a long-term contract at his age. The good news is that NFL teams are still offering up ridiculously bloated contracts for even average tackles, so Williams could earn a pretty penny by merely starting 16 games and holding his own.

1. Leonard Williams, DT, New York Giants

Leonard Williams has been a controversial topic in New York even before being traded to the Giants, but that’s only heated up in recent months. The Giants are reportedly working on a long-term deal with Leonard, but for now, he’s poised to play the 2020 season on the franchise tag, which he’s already signed. The issue facing Williams is that he wants to be designated as a defensive end rather than a defensive tackle, which has kept him and the organization at financial odds. In the event Williams and the Giants are unable to hammer out a new contract, the former first-round pick will have to produce more than a single sack if he’s to land the type of contract he desires. One thing working in Williams’ favor is that analytics paint a prettier picture of his in-game impact than his numbers in the box score. The bad news is that players still get paid based on their box score numbers.

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