NFL Analysis


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NFL Players Entering Make-or-Break Contract Seasons in 2024

May 23, 2024; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Zach Wilson (4) and quarterback Jarrett Stidham (8) during organized team activities at Centura Health Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The 2024 NFL season will reveal the next batch of superstars. Some will be more predictable than others, and a few will emerge despite facing setbacks in recent years. One category of players who must be feeling the heat to step up is the players entering their contract season in 2024.

With time running out to earn a multi-year, big-money deal, these five players are facing make-or-break years.

Failing to grab the opportunity in front of them could doom the rest of their career to being journeymen constantly fighting to make the roster or get one-year deals with low guarantees. On the other hand, a stellar 2024 can change the direction of their career and boost their fame and longevity.

Make-or-Break Players Entering Contract Season

We opted for players who aren't on one-year deals but rather individuals coming off their rookie contracts or multi-year extensions. Who will prevail as a success story?

Zach Wilson, QB, Denver Broncos

Shockingly, we're still talking about Zach Wilson despite three abhorrent seasons with the New York Jets.

The Denver Broncos just drafted Bo Nix in the first round, and their addition of Wilson for a late-round pick doesn't mean there will be a ballyhooed competition of any sort. However, there's always an appetite for quarterback talent, and Wilson turns 25 this summer.

I'm not here to say Wilson will live up to his draft status as a former No. 2 overall pick because he won't. But should he push or even beat out Nix — an experienced collegiate quarterback with great physical traits and what should be an NFL-ready skill set — Wilson will turn some heads.

Being a capable spot starter can give Wilson a decade-long NFL career.

As we've seen with fellow former Jets bust Sam Darnold, there's always a segment of decision-makers who will blame a player's failure on their previous organization. Wilson has the physical tools to stick with the Broncos or another situation that might suit him a little better.

Now is the time for him to show his processing and decision-making are anywhere near what's required for NFL quarterbacks to be more than a camp arm or possible backup.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Diontae Johnson
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) runs the ball in the second half against the Buffalo Bills. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

Diontae Johnson, WR, Carolina Panthers

Turning 28 in early July, Diontae Johnson is one of the most interesting non-star players in the league entering 2024. His production has cratered since his Pro Bowl season in 2021, notably seeing his receptions per game drop from almost seven to less than four.

The advanced metrics show someone declining in explosiveness and reliability, but he also played in an awful scheme with one of the league's worst passers.

The Steelers traded Johnson for CB Donte Johnson and a late-round pick swap. Now, entering the final year of his $36.7 million deal signed in 2022, Diontae Johnson hopes to redefine his impact in an offense desperately searching for answers around their own young quarterback.

However, the odds are against Johnson more than most think.

The Panthers inherited Johnson's $10 million cap hit in the deal, so they believe he'll help Bryce Young get rid of the ball quickly to effective playmakers. Johnson thrived with Ben Roethlisberger in 2021 because he earned his trust and was a natural fit in the slot. But the on-field play was never replicated, and a few issues with locker room incidents and on-field effort soured his previous relationship.

The best-case scenario is that Johnson and Young will find a special chemistry that vaults him above guys like 2024 first-round pick Xavier Legette and 2023 second-round pick Jonathan Mingo.

Adam Thielen seems to have Young's trust already, so Johnson's ceiling and floor in 2024 will be determined by his pecking order alongside talented but raw rookies.

Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell
Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell (24) breaks up a pass intended for Green Bay Packers wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks (13). Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports.

A.J. Terrell, CB, Atlanta Falcons

Life as an NFL cornerback is hard. Coverage numbers are noisy because pass-rush effectiveness, scheme, and competition all matter. Life in 2023 was difficult for 2021 AP Second-Team All-Pro A.J. Terrell. It was the second straight year where his production was down, and his impact wasn't quite the same.

Turning 26 in September, Terrell is in the final year of his five-year rookie contract. The former first-round pick was arguably the league's best corner in 2021, notching 81 tackles, three interceptions, and 16 pass breakups. However, he hasn't logged an interception since and barely totaled the tackle and pass-defensed numbers in the last two seasons.

The coverage numbers are more concerning than the raw stats. He ranked 61st in receptions, 66th in yards, and 36th in passer rating allowed. New coach Raheem Morris could ask Terrell to play fewer man coverage snaps, as he was second in man coverage rate. The counterargument is that Terrell is known for being especially good in man, so what's his value if that's no longer the case?

Cornerbacks are in a tough spot because one big play can completely change a narrative.

Denver Broncos running back Javonte Williams (33) celebrates his touchdown scored against the against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports.

Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos

Major knee injuries can derail even the most promising of NFL careers in a heartbeat. Javonte Williams was a preseason darling of 2022 prognosticators for good reason, as the former North Carolina star had a great blend of size, speed, power, and creativity.

His rookie season highlighted his strengths, even if he wasn't as consistent as his veteran counterpart.

But four games into 2022, Williams tore his ACL and LCL, and he still lacks the burst we had seen previously. He totaled only 774 yards and three touchdowns as a rusher on an offense dealing with a limited quarterback and banged-up offensive line.

Denver is surely hoping Williams gets back to what he was, but it's also not an accident they drafted Notre Dame's Audric Estime in the fifth round of the 2024 draft and signed Memphis' Blake Watson as a UDFA.

It's conceivable that Williams gets back to his form and pushes Samaje Perine, Estime, Jaleel McLaughlin, and Watson down the pecking order a bit as it is. It's also possible he will be out of the rotation by mid-October. That's a tough spot to be in.

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Elijah Moore (8) celebrates after a touchdown during the first half against the New York Jets at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports.

Elijah Moore, WR, Cleveland Browns

Self-scouting can be rare at the professional level, but the Cleveland Browns' mid-season adjustment in Elijah Moore's role saved some face on a trade that was trending as a bust.

Another former Jet who drew interest from other teams amidst their chaos, Moore was considered a gadget-type playmaker for the Browns. However, by midseason, they figured out he's faster than quick and not a fit for someone who will take short passes or handoffs and succeed.

Moore had only one carry after logging eight in the season's first five weeks, and his yards per target grew substantially. Despite lining up in the slot almost 80 percent of snaps, he was a more natural option as an intermediate route-runner. The skill set wasn't what the Browns thought they were getting, but they made it work as Moore set career highs in key categories.

What's next for Moore will be fascinating. Cleveland traded for and extended Jerry Jeudy, another slot-heavy, intermediate option. Amari Cooper and Jeudy will surely be bigger priorities, and recent mid-round picks Cedric Tillman, Jamari Thrash, and David Bell will push to play with their varying skill sets.

Moore isn't flotsam, but it wouldn't be shocking if the Browns rerouted him elsewhere if one of the young talents shows up in training camp. Otherwise, he'll have to maximize limited opportunities in an offense loaded with other playmakers.