2020 NFL season: Nine players poised to earn a big payday

The final days before the 2020 NFL season began brought a flurry of contract extensions, with players like Deshaun Watson, Keenan Allen, Tre’Davious White and Jalen Ramsey being rewarded for their superlative play.

Which players are poised to do the same next offseason? Below is a list of players who I project will outplay their current contracts in 2020 and earn hefty raises in 2021. Some are already on the big-money radar, but most will elevate themselves to the premium tier of would-be free agents (either for the first time or after going through a career slump) by balling out on the field over the next few months.

In other words, the following players’ respective NFL teams should enjoy the bargains they represent now, because signing each of these guys to his next contract is going to cost a pretty penny.

NOTE: All contract details come from Over the Cap or NFL.com reporting.

2020 base salary: $1.05 million, on a one-year, $1.75 million deal (worth up to $7.5 million with incentives).

If you think about Cam Newton’s pairing with Bill Belichick in relationship terms, it’s like the quarterback and coach are rebounding after being spurned by their respective former partners (Carolina in Newton’s case, Tom Brady in Belichick’s) earlier this offseason. Newton steamrolled past second-year pro Jarrett Stidham to win the starting QB job in the preseason, earning effusive praise from Belichick. If Newton can avoid the injuries that have ruined his past two seasons, he is a strong candidate to earn the Comeback Player of the Year award while extending New England’s streak of consecutive division titles to an unprecedented 12. 

2020 base salary: $1.3 million, in final year of a four-year, $6.4 million rookie contract.

The chances of Cook and the Vikings getting a long-term extension done in the immediate future were pretty much nixed by the team’s addition of trade prize Yannick Ngakoue; even with the reduction in salary Ngakoue agreed to, Minnesota has less than $400,000 in cap space for 2020, per Over the Cap. The team figures to potentially have difficulty finding room for a Cook extension in 2021, as well, presuming the cap is lowered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as one of the top all-around backs in the NFL coming off his best season to date (1,135 rushing yards, 13 rushing TDs, 4.5 yards per carry), he’ll provide the kind of play this year that definitely puts Minnesota in a tough spot next offseason. The Vikings will be forced to find a way to pay him or hang on to him via the franchise tag; either way, by the end of the season, the former second-round pick should be looking forward to a handsome bump in compensation. If, of course, he can stay healthy.

2020 base salary: $2.1 million, in final year of a four-year, $3.9 million rookie contract.

The Saints might work something out with Kamara soon. But if they can’t, the former third-round pick is going to justify a healthy payday with his 2020 play. Don’t pay too much attention to the fact that he’s never reached 900 yards rushing in any of his three seasons; he’s also caught 81 passes each time out. This matchup nightmare will bounce back from an injury-inflected 2019 in a big way — and earn big bucks in the process.

2020 base salary: $1.2 million, in Year 3 of a four-year, $7.4 million rookie contract.

Like other members of the 2018 draft class, the former second-round pick will first become eligible for an extension after the 2020 season. If he continues to excel like he did in his first two years, he’ll be worthy of a sizable new deal. Chubb built upon a strong rookie campaign by rushing for 1,494 yards and eight touchdowns at a clip of 5 yards per carry in 2019, and he should continue to thrive in the new run-friendly offense installed by head coach Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland. 

2020 base salary: $1.1 million, in Year 3 of a four-year, $7.2 million rookie contract.

Look at the incredible amount that Leonard accomplished in his first two NFL seasons: 284 combined tackles, 12 sacks, 15 passes defensed, seven picks and six forced fumbles. Now consider that he should be even more effective in 2020, thanks to the acquisition of stud DT DeForest Buckner, and it’s clear the former second-round pick (who, like Chubb, is first eligible for an extension next offseason) is in line to make bank. Even with the projected drop in cap mentioned Dalvin Cook’s blurb, the Colts should have enough space to carry a generous new deal for the linchpin of their defense.

2020 base salary: $910,000, on a one-year, $1.05 million deal.

After failing to live up to his draft pedigree in Philadelphia, the 2015 first-round pick accepted a low-end deal with the Raiders for the opportunity to reinvent himself under Jon Gruden. Agholor should become a popular target for Derek Carr, especially with two players who were once expected to have an impact on offense (Tyrell Williams, on injured reserve, and Lynn Bowden, who was traded away) now out of the picture. A productive 2020 would resurrect his market value in 2021.

2020 restructured contract: One-year deal worth up to $8 million (with a $2 million signing bonus and $4 million guaranteed).

The 38-year-old future Hall of Famer accepted a modest (by NFL standards) one-year deal in July with the understanding he’d slot in at right guard for the season rather than at the left tackle spot from which he’s earned seven Pro Bowls over the past 11 seasons in Philly. That plan changed when Andre Dillard, the former first-rounder who’d been drafted to replace Peters, suffered a season-ending injury in late August. Per head coach Doug Pederson, Peters volunteered to move back to left tackle, meaning QB Carson Wentz can still rest easy knowing his blind side will be protected (and, of course, Peters also received a corresponding pay increase for the year). I expect Peters — whom I could honestly see playing until he’s 40 — to prove he still has enough in the tank to merit another deal in 2021 from someone, presuming he wants to keep playing. 

2020 base salary: $1.1 million, on a one-year, $4.1 million deal.

After receiving surprisingly little interest from other teams following a 10-sack, 27-hurry 2019, Golden is back with the Giants, who helped ensure his return by using a May 5 tender — which required him to re-sign with the team or miss the year if he remained unsigned by anyone else by July 22. I expect the 29-year-old Golden to make himself an exceedingly attractive free-agency target in 2021. The $1 million incentive reportedly added to his contract will be money well spent for the team if he can trigger it by posting another strong season.

2020 base salary: $1.5 million, on a one-year, $3 million deal.

It was stunning to see a player as talented as Rhodes struggle as badly as he did in 2019. The 30-year-old is either now on the downside of an outstanding career, or his final season with the Vikings was hampered by previously unknown injuries. I’m hoping the latter explanation is true, and that he corrects his personal trajectory in Indianapolis.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter.

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