With the 2023 NFL season winding down, it’s time to discuss which players are likely to get paid. There will be extension candidates and then there are pending free agents who stand to benefit from an opportunity to talk to every team and maximize their next contract.
We’re looking at 10 players who entered this season in a contract year and have positioned themselves to secure a substantial payday.
Players in Line for Big Contracts
Gardner Minshew, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Age: 27 || Drafted: 2019 / Round: 6 / Pick: 178
One of the big topics in league circles has been that teams will emphasize having a reliable backup quarterback. The Philadelphia Eagles, under GM Howie Roseman, and the New Orleans Saints, under GM Mickey Loomis, have emphasized the backup quarterback role — but others haven't.
We've seen a lot of poor quarterback play this season with all the injuries in the NFL, and Gardner Minshew has been the one quarterback who was thrust into action and has held his own. He has kept the Indianapolis Colts alive in the playoff hunt and given them a chance to win the AFC South.
Minshew has, at the very least, done more than enough to get a better contract than the one-year, $3.5 million deal he signed in the offseason. It wouldn't be surprising if backup quarterbacks started getting paid more on the open market.
Danielle Hunter, DE, Minnesota Vikings
Age: 29 || Drafted: 2015 / Round: 3 / Pick: 88
Danielle Hunter returned to the Minnesota Vikings this offseason after a contract dispute, agreeing to a one-year, $20 million deal with a no-tag clause, guaranteeing him a shot at the open market at age 29. He has taken advantage of the situation, totaling 13.5 sacks on the season.
Additionally, Hunter has forced four fumbles and has 18 tackles for loss. Top edge rushers rarely make it to the open market, but Hunter has an open path to getting a big contract in free agency.
Justin Madubuike, DL, Baltimore Ravens
Age: 26 || Drafted: 2020 / Round: 3 / Pick: 71
The decision has paid off thus far.
The former third-round pick out of Texas A&M has recorded at least a half-sack in the past nine games, becoming the first Ravens player to notch at least 10 sacks in a season since 2017. According to Sports Info Solutions (SIS), Madubuike has accumulated 36 pressures this year (No. 5 among defensive tackles in 2023) and has proven to be a force as a pass-rusher and in the run game.
After the defensive tackle market saw a spike last offseason with significant extensions for Quinnen Williams, Jeffery Simmons, Daron Payne and Dexter Lawrence, Madubuike has positioned himself to secure a substantial payday this offseason.
Kevin Dotson, OG, Los Angeles Rams
Age: 27 || Drafted: 2020 / Round: 4 / Pick: 135
Before the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers traded Kevin Dotson to the Los Angeles Rams, thrusting him into a starting role for Sean McVay’s offense. He’s been one of the best guards in the NFL, excelling in both pass protection and the run game. Per SIS, Dotson is the No. 6 right guard in the NFL by Points Above Average.
Los Angeles would like to keep him for the long haul, but as we've seen around the league this year, it’s tough to find reliable offensive linemen. Dotson will surely have a strong market if he gets to free agency.
Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Age: 30 || Drafted: 2014 / Round: 1 / Pick: 7
Mike Evans set a self-imposed deadline before the start of the regular season to secure a contract extension with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but both sides failed to reach an agreement. Thus, Evans has played in the final year of his contract.
He has delivered a classic Mike Evans season, surpassing 1,000 receiving yards for the 10th consecutive season, extending his NFL record for the start of a player's career.
While Tampa Bay would prefer to retain him for his career, it faces a significant challenge. Evans’ franchise tag number will be more than $28 million, given that his cap number for this year is $23.6 million. He won’t have the standard franchise tag number for wide receivers.
Essentially, Evans has set himself up to get to free agency no matter what.
His performance is not showing any decline, as some in Tampa might’ve predicted, so Evans will have the opportunity to get another nice payday. He’ll certainly use his chance to become a free agent as leverage.
Michael Pittman JR., WR, Indianapolis Colts
Age: 26 || Drafted: 2020 / Round: 2 / Pick: 34
Michael Pittman Jr. is a player who should've been extended in the offseason. Still, for whatever reason, the Indianapolis Colts and owner Jim Irsay were adamant that no extensions were happening after the debacle of the 2022 season.
That led to the Jonathan Taylor saga — which got nasty — but cooler heads prevailed with an extension for Taylor that he and the team agreed to after Week 4.
Pittman Jr., on the other hand, decided to stay quiet and just play things out.
The result? He has had an exceptional season.
He's on pace to have career numbers in virtually every category. There's no way the Colts let a homegrown talent and fan-favorite like Pittman leave, so in a worst-case scenario, he'll get franchise tagged. However, both sides will try to get an extension done, and it's a safe bet that the 26-year-old will get a lucrative deal that pays him as a top-10 receiver.
Jordyn Brooks, LB, Seattle Seahawks
Age: 26 || Drafted: 2020 / Round: 1 / Pick: 27
The Seattle Seahawks declined Jordyn Brooks’ fifth-year option after he suffered a torn ACL late last season. I say this every year: A team declining a fifth-year option could be a blessing in disguise for a player. If a talented former first-round pick can perform in his contract year, the leverage shifts to his side.
It’s not like Brooks has underperformed. He led the team in tackles in the past two seasons, including a franchise-record 184 in 2021.
Brooks’ injury may have influenced the Seahawks' decision to decline his option, but he recovered and returned in time for Week 1. Plus, he has not missed a game this season.
Whether against the run or pass, missing him during a Seahawks game feels impossible.
He leads the team in tackles and has a career-high 4.5 sacks to go along with his first NFL pick-six. At age 26, Brooks could hit the open market if he wanted to. That's in part due to the fact that the NFL does not distinguish between edge rushers and off-ball defenders when determining the franchise tag cost for linebackers.
Patrick Queen, LB, Baltimore Ravens
Patrick Queen is another player whose fifth-year option was declined. There were rumblings that he could request a trade with extension talks at an impasse, but the Ravens were adamant they wouldn't do anything. They wanted to see a full year of Queen with Roquan Smith, and so far the two have formed arguably the best linebacker duo in the NFL.
Queen is second on the team to Smith with 102 tackles and is tied for second with Kyle Hamilton with eight tackles for loss. Queen has played with more physicality and has been an influential part of the Ravens' dominant defense.
Baltimore already gave Smith a five-year, $100 million contract, so the chances of them handing out another massive deal for an off-ball linebacker are low. Regardless, Queen is in a good spot to get a big payday somewhere.
Bryce Huff, DE, New York Jets
Bryce Huff has improved year-over-year for Robert Saleh’s defense. He led the league in pressure rate last season and leads again in that category, generating pressure on nearly 25 percent of his pass rushes, according to Next Gen Stats.
"One of the best pass rushers in this league, and I don’t think anyone can argue that anymore," said Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich earlier this season. "You would never know it, just by his level of humility and the quiet nature that he walks around with."
General manager Joe Douglas acknowledged that the New York Jets have had preliminary extension talks with Huff, and if a deal got done, it would be expensive.
Jaylon Johnson, CB, Chicago Bears
Jaylon Johnson voiced his frustrations with contract extension talks before the trade deadline and even got permission to seek a trade, but the Chicago Bears were only going to make a deal if it blew them away. The Steelers and Buffalo Bills tried aggressively to get a deal done, but it was not enough in general manager Ryan Poles’ eyes.
Johnson has evolved into a lockdown corner to the extent that teams avoid throwing the ball in his direction. The franchise tag will be an option for Chicago, making it unlikely he will reach the open market. But a new deal for Johnson could fetch close to $20 million per year.