The 25-and-under NFL stars primed for big paydays

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Each summer, many NFL front offices face a decision fraught with anxiety and long-term implications: whether to blow a sizable fraction of the salary cap on a rising player who might not earn it.

That’s when it pays to be young and contractually available.

While 23 first-round picks from the 2014 draft just received fifth-year options that delay their big extensions until 2018, the overachieving mid-round picks from that draft are less than a year from free agency and open for business now. The playbook: Play like a first-rounder, and you can beat an actual first-rounder to the bank.

A few gladly took advantage this offseason, including a pair of offensive linemen — Washington Redskins tackle Morgan Moses and Cleveland Browns guard Joel Bitonio — who combined for nearly $100 million in new money if they play out their commitments.

Teams don’t have to extend these 25-and-under players who worked the system in three seasons or less. Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams, for example, plays for a team known to re-sign players closer to free agency.

But the players already identified as indispensable? Their agents should be getting contract proposals soon enough.

Here’s a quick look at who fits the bill this offseason:

Age: 25

The Raiders and Carr’s agent have had productive early discussions about a mega deal, but there has been no substantial movement just yet. Carr has said publicly that he wants to secure the deal before training camp to limit distractions. There’s someone else who wants a swift Carr deal: Matthew Stafford. One NFL source expects Stafford to wait for Carr to reset the quarterback market before finalizing a new deal with the Lions. This is where the money will get wild. Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck is the standard-bearer at $24.5 million, the mark for which Carr will take aim. Carr’s urgency to expunge his $977,519 bargain salary might favor the Raiders in negotiations. But Carr’s line of 11,194 yards, 81 touchdowns and 31 interceptions isn’t far from Luck’s first three years (12,957 yards, 86 touchdowns, 43 interceptions), and he’s a marketable, young quarterback in a league starved for them. This contract should come into focus deep into the summer.

Age: 24

Landry will have to wait to make good on his promise to sweep the Patriots, but he has the potential to make top-10-receiver money soon enough. The Dolphins have made clear internally that they’d like to keep Landry long-term, though contract talks have not yet heated up. The highest-paid receivers — Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones and A.J. Green — make between $14 and $17 million per year. Landry probably won’t hit that mark. But his 288 catches in three seasons, coupled with a ballooning salary cap and Mike Tannebaum’s willingness to spend, might get him to the top-10 receiver floor of $11 million as the team’s No. 1 receiver. The Dolphins can try to knock Landry at the negotiating table for his 13 receiving touchdowns in three seasons, and the team is expecting former first-round pick DeVante Parker to make a jump in Year 3, but Landry turns 25 in November, has Antonio Brown-like qualities and is one of the Fins’ toughest competitors. Those are the players you reward.

Age: 25

The race for new running back money is on. Freeman and Le’Veon Bell might both surpass LeSean McCoy‘s $8 million per year, a league high for running backs once Adrian Peterson went off the books in Minnesota. The Steelers are staying keenly aware of Freeman’s situation. If Freeman goes first, the Steelers could be forced to go higher. And Freeman seems to have momentum on his side, with one NFL executive predicting that Freeman will get bigger money than expected. Freeman is on record that he won’t hold out and doesn’t want to go anywhere. The Falcons have about 27 reasons to prioritize Freeman — one for every touchdown he scored over the past two seasons. During that time, he also pumped out 127 receptions to accompany back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Assuming the contract demands are reasonable, Freeman should stay in a good situation with the Falcons.

Age: 25

One NFL source expects Jackson’s deal to be finished before Carr’s, which means the Raiders will enjoy a frenzied next two months of in-house work coming off the Las Vegas buzz. The offensive guard market has seen an explosion the past 14 months. The new normal has vaulted top guys into the stratosphere of $10-12 million per year, compared to around $8 million just two years ago. Although Jackson probably won’t eclipse his teammate, Kelechi Osemele — whose $26.7 million in his first two years smacks of a move to tackle eventually — Jackson’s extension should land somewhere in the top five or 10 for the position, at $8 million or more per season. Jackson is sort of a sneaky star player. He’s a Pro Bowl alternate without much fanfare, but he brings an edge to a Raiders’ offensive line that is already very good.

Age: 23

Pressed against the salary cap for years, the Steelers have created some breathing room. The latest NFLPA data shows Pittsburgh with $15.7 million in cap space, which is middle-of-the-road for current league standards. The Steelers have managed that space with extensions for Tuitt and Bell in mind. (Bell’s deal would have to come before the July 15 deadline.) Contract discussions with Tuitt have not intensified, but with Pittsburgh, things typically heat up closer to training camp. Re-signing Tuitt now is timely. He turns 24 on May 23. He’s a defensive cornerstone whose presence is obvious on tape, but with 13 sacks in three seasons, he lacks the breakout season to command otherworldly money. Both parties should be able to find a sweet spot before August.

Age: 25

While guard Justin Pugh prepares to play on his fifth-year option, Richburg might beat Pugh to the obligatory pen-to-contract picture on social media. Richburg is a skilled pass protector and a trusted Eli Manning soldier who played through a torn ligament in his snapping hand in 2016. Westburg’s run-blocking dipped from fourth to 29th in the league among centers, according to Pro Football Focus, but let’s assume the hand issue played a part in that. With former first-round tackle Ereck Flowers struggling to make the NFL transition, the Giants will place a premium on steady performers up front. Plus, center money isn’t outrageous. The average per-year payout for the top-10 centers is $7.9 million. The Giants acknowledged last summer that Richburg was a candidate for an extension, and it might happen this summer.

Age: 24

The Browns are low on defensive staples, but Kirksey appears to be one. After compiling 148 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season, Kirksey is on the Browns’ radar for a larger percentage of the team’s $72 million in cap space. The Browns made 22 draft selections from 2012-14, and Kirksey, a 2014 third-rounder out of Iowa, is one of two still on the roster. The other is Bitonio, who got paid. As the Browns continue to stockpile young talent, they have a nice core of linebacker veterans with Kirksey, Demario Davis and Jamie Collins, who signed a four-year, $50 million deal this offseason. Inside linebacker is one of the NFL’s most cost-effective positions, so reaching a deal with Kirksey would seem like a sensible move. Kirksey isn’t considered a star player, but he has range, adequate speed and locker-room leadership qualities.



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