Earning a second contract in the NFL is one of the hardest things to do in the league. According to a statistic compiled by the website Over the Cap, only 43 percent of the players that were drafted in 2015 finished out their rookie contracts. A lot of the players from that draft class, along with others from the 2016 class, are in their ‘contract year.’ A few players such as Todd Gurley, Carson Wentz, and Landon Collins have already proven their value and were paid accordingly. However, for a handful of other players, their performance in the 2019 season will determine what kind of contract offers they will get next off-season. Let’s take a look at which upcoming free agents have the most to prove in 2019.
Upcoming Free Agents Who Have a Chance to Earn Huge Paydays With Their Play in 2019
Jameis Winston’s rocky career has been well-documented. The former Florida State Seminole has led the league in fumbles (15 in 2017), served a three-game suspension in 2018 (for an incident with an Uber driver) and has yet to lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the playoffs. He hasn’t had the most stability either, as the Buccaneers have had three different head coaches during Winston’s career. Tampa Bay has also been lacking a solid run game and offensive line during Winston’s tenure.
But the quarterback’s on-field production in the NFL has been a disappointment. In 2018 after returning from suspension, Winston was eventually benched after a four-interception game against the Cincinnati Bengals. He was outplayed by backup Ryan Fitzpatrick and finished the season with only 19 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. Winston has been a turnover machine throughout his career and his numbers have digressed since 2016.
Bengals D is EATING ? pic.twitter.com/cvAGgbgKKC
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 28, 2018
New head coach Bruce Arians was brought in this off-season and his history working with quarterbacks gives the Bucs organization hope. Hope that Arians might be able to fix Winston’s flaws and turn him into the franchise quarterback they think he can be. If not, the former number one overall pick might find himself in a backup role on a different team next season.
Marcus Mariota was the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and has had an equally disappointing career as Winston’s. The biggest thing hurting Mariota is his durability. The quarterback has missed eight games in his career and has played through a handful of minor injuries. His lack of size and durability was something many scouts questioned when he came out of college.
Not only that, but Mariota has yet to prove he can light up defenses through the air on a consistent basis. The quarterback has never thrown for more than 3,500 yards in a season and has 14 career starts in which he threw for 150 yards or less in a game. Mariota’s career totals of 69 touchdowns to 42 interceptions in 56 games give many the impression that he is nothing more than a ‘game manager.’ In 2019, Mariota will be working with his fourth offensive coordinator (Arthur Smith) and has a lot to prove if he wants to remain a starting quarterback in the NFL.
Dak Prescott may have captured the hearts of Dallas Cowboys fans but has he captured the likes of the team’s front office? The former fourth-round pick had an impressive rookie season in which he threw 23 touchdowns to only four interceptions. With his backfield partner Ezekiel Elliot, the two led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record in 2016 which had everyone believing the two were the real deal.
However, in 2017 when Elliott faced his six-game suspension, Prescott’s performance drastically decreased. He struggled to air the ball out when needed and could not win games with his arm alone. Elliott returned for a full season last year and Prescott’s play improved once again. Yet, his season totals of 3,885 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, and eight interceptions don’t scream ‘elite quarterback.’ If Prescott wishes to get paid like some of the elite have, he will have to show he can be more of a threat through the air.
Before the 2018 season, it seemed pretty clear that Derrick Henry was incapable of being an elite-level NFL running back. His 1,234 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns and four starts in his first two seasons were disappointing. However, Henry’s 2018 caught everyone off guard, in particular, the second half of the season. Through eight games, the former Alabama running back had only 300 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Henry went on to rush for 759 yards the last eight games, including a 238-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Jaguars. His performance that night included an NFL-record 99-yard rushing touchdown in which he broke several tackles.
99 Yards. Derrick. Henry. Unbelievable.
— PFF (@PFF) December 7, 2018
His 1,059 rushing yards was good for seventh in the league last year but was it enough to earn him a big payday? Henry has to prove this season that he was not a one-year wonder and can be a reliable threat on the ground.
Robby Anderson was a pleasant surprise for the New York Jets. After going undrafted in 2016, the Jets signed Anderson with no intent he’d make the 53-man roster. Yet, the former Temple wide receiver had a great preseason and since has played a pivotal role in the Jets passing attack. He’s led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns each of the past two seasons and led the team in receptions in 2018.
However, one of the knocks on Anderson’s skill set is his limited route running ability. His blazing speed allows him to be a dangerous deep threat but he has not shown the ability to beat top-tier corners on underneath and intermediate routes. Off the field, Anderson has found himself in a bit of legal trouble as well. The wide receiver has been arrested twice during his career which has hurt his stock.
With Sam Darnold now the franchise quarterback in New York, Anderson has a chance to prove he can continue to be a reliable option for the young quarterback. The two linked up for six touchdowns last season and with Adam Gase as the new head coach, the duo could have a bigger 2019.
— The Game Haus Sports (@TGHSports) October 7, 2018
Dante Fowler Jr.
After being drafted third overall in 2015, Dante Fowler Jr has had a disappointing start to his career. The edge rusher missed his entire rookie season due to an ACL injury. In the following two years, he recorded only 12 sacks and 13 tackles for loss for the Jacksonville Jaguars defense. Like Anderson, Fowler too found himself in legal trouble and was arrested during the 2017 off-season.
After a sluggish start to the 2018 season, the Jaguars decided to trade the former first-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams. Fowler got the ‘fresh start’ he asked for and helped the Rams reach the Super Bowl that postseason. He only recorded 21 tackles, five sacks and four tackles for loss with the Rams but his play was much better than anything he did with the Jaguars. Fowler elected to re-sign with the Rams on a one-year ‘prove-it’ deal in hopes that he can continue to improve his stock before hitting free agency next year.
Vic Beasley is another edge rusher from the 2015 NFL Draft class that needs a big 2019. The former Clemson defender had a solid rookie year starting all 16 games and collected 26 tackles and four sacks. Beasley became a household name in 2016 after lighting up opposing quarterbacks with a league-leading 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. His pass-rush sparked the Atlanta Falcons defense during the regular season, but he had little impact during Atlanta’s postseason run.
After the stellar 2016 season, Beasley has yet to duplicate that success. He’s recorded five sacks each of the past two seasons and has one forced fumble over that time span. Beasley will be looking to put up big numbers in 2019 or else he may find himself signing a less-desirable contract next off-season.
Like Fowler, Eli Apple is another former first-round pick that benefitted from a fresh-start last season. The New York Giants traded Apple to the New Orleans Saints last year after two and a half disappointing years. On the field, Apple’s play was subpar and he recorded only one interception and 15 pass deflections in his first two seasons. Off the field, some of his teammates felt the corner was a ‘cancer’ to the Giants locker room after a few incidents involving Apple and his Twitter account.
Apple was thrown into the starting role immediately with the Saints due to their injuries in the secondary. The former Ohio State Buckeye was reunited with his college teammates Marshon Lattimore and Vonn Bell. In 10 games, Apple recorded 52 tackles, two interceptions, nine pass deflections and added eight tackles and a pass deflection during the Saints postseason run.
Eli Apple vs. Devin Funchess
A Buckeye owning a Michigan Man – a tale old as time. pic.twitter.com/XEpI4g5ljq
— Eleven Warriors (@11W) December 18, 2018
Despite the improved play, the Saints declined to pick up Apple’s fifth-year option meaning he will be a free agent next off-season. The cornerback will look to continue his play from the second half of 2018 in hopes he can earn himself a big payday.