Expert Analysis


14 min read

13 NFL Players Set to Hit Pay Dirt in 2024 Free Agency

I speak from experience when I say NFL GMs prefer to sign free agents who are in their mid-20s and are coming off their rookie deals. Generally speaking, the injury risk is lessened in this scenario, and these players are hungry to justify their new lucrative contracts.

As the 2023 season winds down and with free agency only three months away, here are 13 players who are poised to cash in after excellent seasons — and for the most part, highly productive careers. nine of these players fall in the advantageous category (from a GM’s standpoint) of players going into their second contracts. There are five offensive and eight defensive players on my list.

13 NFL Free Agents Set to Cash in


Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

Kirk Cousins was having an excellent season when he tore his Achilles at Lambeau Field in Week 8. He had the Minnesota Vikings on a three-game winning streak, during which he won road games at Chicago and Green Bay and had delivered perhaps the best performance of his career in a Monday night home win over the San Francisco 49ers (35 of 45 for 378 yards and two touchdowns).

Over the season, Cousins had a 103.8 passer rating with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. Since his injury, the Vikings have started three other quarterbacks (Jaren Hall, Josh Dobbs and Nick Mullens) with uneven play at the position.

Cousins’ expiring contract is for $35 million per year. The four-time Pro Bowler (who was likely headed to a fifth) will find plenty of teams interested in him despite his injury status, age (36 in August) and salary demands, which should be around $45 million per year.

The Vikings can’t put the franchise tag on Cousins, and Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell wants him to return. That’s likely to happen with a significant salary increase for a player whose market interest should be somewhat lessened by his current injury. Cousins has a close connection with O’Connell, who runs the offense, and the quarterback has a great supporting cast led by WR Justin Jefferson. Cousins also doesn’t want to uproot his family.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) catches a touchdown pass against the Green Bay Packers) during their football game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Wm. Glasheen USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This consistently productive four-time Pro Bowler is in the midst of a record 10th consecutive 1,000-plus-yard season. Mike Evans has 66 receptions for 1,077 yards and 11 touchdowns for the division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Despite past concerns about soft tissue injuries, Evans hasn’t missed a game this season.

He is finishing his $16.5 million-per-season contract, and Tampa Bay is unlikely to franchise tag him at the high wide receiver amount and his his age (30) because the Buccaneers will probably tag the younger Antoine Winfield Jr. at the cheaper safety position, instead.

The 6-foot-5, 231-pound Evans is a big target who will be attractive in the free agent market. It will be interesting to see if he decides to stay with the Buccaneers if they come up with a suitable offer. He’ll be seeking a contract in the $25 million-per-year range, a fair number because Jefferson will reset the receiver market with an extension for more than $30 million per year in the offseason.

Tee Higgins, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Now we start hitting the younger players coming off their rookie deals.

Tee Higgins was the Cincinnati Bengals’ second-round pick in 2020. Higgins, 24, has 26 career touchdown receptions including the postseason (he caught two touchdown passes in Super Bowl LVI, including a 75-yarder from Joe Burrow).

After two straight 1,000-plus yard receiving seasons, Higgins’ production has dropped this season because he’s missed four games with rib and hamstring injuries. He has 36 catches for 497 yards and four touchdowns.

He'll still be a premier free agent target as a big (6-4, 219 pounds), athletic receiver who makes game-changing plays — such as the leaping touchdown reception against the Vikings last Saturday where he reached back over the pylon to send the game to overtime and aid in a critical Bengals victory.

Higgins’ salary is $3 million this season, and the Bengals will have the cap room to re-sign him, but he will likely command a salary in the $18 million per year range. With Burrow’s deal kicking in and a looming huge extension in the next couple years for top receiver Ja’Marr Chase, the Bengals may opt to re-sign the less expensive Tyler Boyd and draft a young receiver. Higgins would hit the open market.

Whether it’s returning to the Bengals or signing elsewhere, Higgins is headed toward a major salary increase.

Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts

Michael Pittman Jr., 26, was the Indianapolis Colts’ second-round pick in 2020. He’s earning $3 million and is on his way to a career year with 99 receptions (third in the league) for 1,062 yards and four touchdowns. 

He brings size (6-4, 223 pounds) and play-making ability to the Colts’ offense. Pittman is currently in concussion protocol after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from the since-suspended Damontae Kazee on Sunday.

Pittman is a building block for the Colts' offense — along with first-round QB Anthony Richardson and Pro Bowl RB Jonathan Taylor. 

The Colts have enough cap room to put the franchise tag on Pittman, which will create a substantial raise to $20-21 million in 2024, and then try to negotiate a long-term deal above that level. In the unlikely event Pittman hits the open market, he’ll land as a team’s No. 1 receiver with a salary befitting such a role.

D’Andre Swift, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

After being drafted in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions, D’Andre Swift battled injuries that reduced his playing time in his first three seasons. He has capitalized on his trade to the Philadelphia Eagles by leading them in rushing while playing in every game. He has 896 rushing yards, a 4.6-yard average, 38 catches for 209 yards and five combined touchdowns.

It’s a great time for him to hit free agency after a career-best season.

Swift is making $1.77 million in the last year of his rookie contract. He’ll be faced with the running back devaluation problem as he hits free agency, but he should command a sizable raise to the $6-8 million-per-year range with incentives if he stays healthy and produces the rest of this season. 

The Eagles didn’t want to pay Miles Sanders at that level, though, so we’ll see if they step up with the speedy and shifty Swift or if he has to move on as Sanders did to make the jump in pay.


Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen
Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen (41) hypes up the crowd after a turnover against the San Fransisco 49ers in the first quarter at EverBank Stadium. (Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports)

Josh Allen, Edge/OLB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Josh Allen is the first of three edge rushers/outside linebackers on this list ready to break the bank via the franchise tag or in free agency. Allen is playing out the fifth-year option in his rookie contract as a 2019 first-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars. His salary is $10.9 million, and he has set himself up for a big pay boost with a career-high 13.5 sacks (fifth in the league) and 26 quarterbacks hits.

He also plays the run well, as evidenced by his 54 tackles and 13 tackles for loss. Without his contributions, the Jacksonville defense would be even worse than its No. 27 ranking. Allen has almost half of the team’s 30 sacks (No. 28th). 

That surely makes Allen a priority for the Jaguars to retain via the franchise tag (projected to be around $20 million) or a new deal before the tag deadline in order to save cap space. If the 26-year-old signs a new long-term deal, it should be in the range of Montez Sweat’s recently signed four-year, $98 million contract ($63 million guaranteed) with the Chicago Bears.

Allen made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season when he had 10.5 sacks. Other than missing eight games in his second season due to a knee injury, he has been durable and consistent.

Brian Burns, Edge/OLB, Carolina Panthers

Like Allen, Brian Burns is a former first-rounder playing on his fifth-year option after not being extended by the Carolina Panthers. But the team has declined trade offers from other teams (including the Los Angeles Rams) over the last two years.

Burns, 25, is making $16 million this season as a two-time Pro Bowler. His production has dropped a bit from last season (12.5 sacks and 63 tackles) to this season (six sacks and 37 tackles). Burns has added 13 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hits for the 2-12 Panthers, whose third-ranked defense is one of their few positives.

The Panthers will have plenty of cap space to put the franchise tag on Burns in March if they so choose. Whether that happens or if he hits the open market (which would be another mistake by Carolina), Burns is going to hit the jackpot at the franchise-tag amount or with a long-term deal similar to Sweat’s.

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter
Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) tackles Chicago Bears tight end Cole Kmet (85) during the first quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

Danielle Hunter, Edge/OLB, Minnesota Vikings

Danielle Hunter is the best player on a greatly improved Vikings defense that ranks seventh in points allowed. Hunter, 29, leads the way with a career-high 15.5 sacks (second in the league), and he is an excellent run defender (67 tackles with a league-high 21 tackles for loss).

A third-round pick by the Vikings in 2015, Hunter developed into a dominant 4-3 defensive end over his first five seasons before a neck injury in 2020 and a torn pec in 2021 derailed him. He signed a $14.5 million extension in 2018 that he had outperformed before the injuries hit.

Hunter is healthy now and made his third Pro Bowl last season when he had 10.5 sacks and 65 tackles. He has not missed a game in the past two seasons, which sets him up for a big raise from his one-year, $20 million contract that includes a no-tag clause.

Hunter will be a priority re-signing for the Vikings, who also have to deal with big contracts for Jefferson and probably Cousins.

It’s possible Hunter could be headed to a new team because he will look for a contract in close proximity to T.J. Watt’s $28 million-per-year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's still south of the contract of the highest-paid edge rusher, Nick Bosa, who recently signed a $34 million-per-year extension. Bosa will actually earn $31.5 million annually over six years, including this season as the final year on his rookie deal. 

Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs

After Chris Jones was a training camp holdout because of the lack of an extension on the $20 million-per-year contract he signed in 2020, the four-time All-Pro returned with a one-year deal for $19.5 million plus $5 million in potential incentives. Jones has 7.5 sacks but has been sackless the past four games and needs to reach 10 sacks to hit a $1.25 million incentive. He should collect $2 million in playing time incentives.

Jones is still highly productive — 26 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 20 quarterback hits — but he’s behind his pace in sacks from last season when he tallied 15.5 sacks.

He was the Kansas City Chiefs’ second-round pick in 2016 and turns 30 in July. It’s questionable if the Chiefs would franchise him and then try to trade him rather than meet his demands for a contract close to Aaron Donald’s $31.5 million per year as the league’s highest-paid defensive tackle.

But would the Chiefs want to lose the best player on their fourth-ranked defense? Whether Jones stays in Kansas City or moves on, he will be in line for a big salary increase. 

Patrick Queen, ILB, Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens did not exercise the fifth-year option on Patrick Queen, who was their first-round pick in 2020 and is being paid $2.3 million. He has responded with his best season — 112 tackles, 3.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss for the Ravens’ second-ranked defense.

Baltimore traded for LB Roquan Smith last year and extended him for $20 million per season. Then, the Ravens drafted Trenton Simpson in the 2023 third-round as a potential future starter at inside linebacker, so Queen, 24, is headed to free agency.

He’ll be seeking a contract similar to Smith's. Queen, who has been a consistent performer over his first four seasons who has never missed a start, will be in demand and should find a deal at his desired price tag.

Christian Wilkins, DT, Miami Dolphins

Christian Wilkins was the Miami Dolphins’ first-round pick in 2019, and he is playing on his fifth-year option for $10.75 million. He staged a hold-in to try to force an extension that didn’t happen. 

It’s possible he’ll be hit with the franchise tag, although the Dolphins are significantly over the projected 2024 salary cap at this juncture. So it’s likely they’ll try to sign one of their top defenders and a team captain before the deadline for tagging players in early March.

Wilkins is having an excellent season with a career-high eight sacks along with 54 tackles, so he’s an elite play-maker against both the run and pass, which is highly valued by teams. He had 98 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season, so he’s a consistent player who hasn’t missed a game the past three seasons.

Wilkins’ target salary-wise will be a deal similar to Daron Payne’s $22.5 million-per-year contract from the Washington Commanders in 2023 free agency or Jeffery Simmons’ $23.5 million-per-year extension with the Tennessee Titans that kicks in next season.

Antoine Winfield Jr., Safety, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Antoine Winfield Jr. is demonstrating great timing as he turns in a career-best season on the cusp of free agency. His 2023 stat line is impressive: 107 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions, 11 passes defended, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He’s a versatile defensive back who can play deep safety, cover slot receivers, play run defense and blitz effectively.

Winfield was Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in 2020 and made the Pro Bowl in his second season. He is being paid $1 million this season and is a franchise-tag candidate for the Buccaneers, who will have plenty of cap room to absorb the projected $15 million franchise tag amount for safeties. 

His salary is going to take a big leap beginning in 2024 under the one-year franchise tender or on a long-term deal with the Buccaneers or elsewhere. Tampa Bay will surely want to keep him.

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Chase Young
San Francisco 49ers defensive end Chase Young (92) stands at the line during the third quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Levi's Stadium. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Chase Young, DE, San Francisco 49ers

With his ACL injury behind him, Chase Young, the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, was having a fine season for the Washington Commanders with five sacks in the first seven games. Then the Commanders surprisingly sent him to the San Francisco 49ers at the trade deadline for a third-round pick.

He’s added two more sacks in his six games with the 49ers to bring his season total to seven sacks, along with 20 tackles and seven tackles for loss.

It’s doubtful San Francisco can afford the cap hit that would come with franchising or re-signing Young because the team is approximately $15 million over the 2024 cap. The 49ers can let Young depart in free agency and recoup the third-rounder as a compensatory pick. 

San Francisco simply has too much invested on its stout defensive line (with sizable dead money hits) in Bosa, Javon Hargrave ($21 million per year) and Arik Armstead ($17 million per year) to re-sign the 24-year old Young, who is earning $5.3 million. 

Young should hit pay dirt as one of the highest-paid free agents in March if he stays healthy and has a good finish to the season. His target will be to exceed his former teammate Sweat’s deal with the Bears and to get incentives to sweeten the deal if he’s among the league leaders in sacks.