The age of the salary cap is ever changing, and with those changes comes the emergence of a new NFL that sees quarterback contracts drawing closer to $150M and left tackles and defensive ends nearly breaking the seven-figure mark. Two recent changes in the cap climate of the NFL will see a new age of unprecedented contracts this upcoming season. First is the expiration of the remaining pre-2011 CBA rookie contracts that saw first-round picks making twice the money that rookies make these days. With the last non-scaled rookie contracts dying out, front offices are able to balance the cap more effectively across positions. Also, the salary cap was just raised $10M for the 2014 season, the largest increase since the first year of the old CBA in 2006. With another raise on the way that is projected to exceed $10M in 2015, teams are looking at over $20M of new bargaining space that has appeared in just the last two years.
Here’s a look at five players who will either see a new contract before the 2015 offseason, or enter the waters of unrestricted free agency. Basically, five big NFL contract years.
Alex Smith, QB Kansas City Chiefs
KC Cap Space: $5,495,217
Compare to: Jay Cutler, $18.1M per year
Alex Smith was traded to Kansas City by the 49ers with just two years left on his contract, but Smith and the Chiefs’ front office have been clear from the beginning that they both desire a long-term deal. In his first year with the team, he led the Chiefs to an eleven-win season and a playoff berth to secure his first Pro Bowl nomination. In comparison to other Pro Bowl quarterbacks, though, Smith is viewed as more of a facilitator of the tools around him, rather than an individual talent. His managerial offensive role, in addition to the fact that the Chiefs fielded ten Pro Bowlers last season alone, means that his contract will probably end up with a similar annual yield to Jay Cutler, who is the seventh-highest paid player in the NFL per season.
Dez Bryant, WR Dallas Cowboys
DAL Cap Space: $9,563,340
Compare to: Percy Harvin, $12.8M per year
Dez Bryant entered the league in 2010 to a highly touted Dallas passing attack, with Pro Bowlers Miles Austin and Jason Witten coming off a dual thousand-yard season under NFC passing leader Tony Romo. Now, in the final year of his rookie contract, Bryant has become the primary offensive weapon for the Cowboys, as Austin was released and Witten continues to age. The Cowboys will have to work some cap magic this season, as Bryant’s contract year coincides with the final year of running back Demarco Murray’s contract, and since Dallas is projected to be near $2M over the salary cap. Look for Bryant’s contract to come in above Percy Harvin’s current contract in Seattle.
Demaryius Thomas, WR Denver Broncos
DEN Cap Space: $7,133,155
Compare to: Larry Fitzgerald, $16.1M per year
Demaryius Thomas has emerged as one of the premier receivers in the league after two seasons of ridiculous production with Peyton Manning. In 2013, Thomas posted his second consecutive season of over 1,400 yards and double-digit touchdowns as part of the highest scoring offense in NFL history. Denver played aggressively in free agency in the 2014 offseason, signing three Pro Bowlers on defense. But with the departure of offensive weapons Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno, as well as a very favorable cap situation entering the 2015 season, look for the Broncos to keep the duo of Thomas & Thomas alive by giving Demaryius a contract similar to Larry Fitzgerald, who is currently the second-highest paid wide receiver in the league.
Jordan Cameron, TE Cleveland Browns
CLE Cap Space: $21,231,332
Compare to: Rob Gronkowski, $9M per year
Jordan Cameron is fresh off of his first Pro Bowl season, and he looks to add to that tally in 2014, considering that he will likely lead the Browns in all receiving categories due to the looming suspension of wide receiver Josh Gordon. The Browns enter the 2014 season with the third-highest amount of cap space, and they have shown a dedication to keeping Pro Bowl players in Cleveland, choosing to retain Joe Haden, Joe Thomas, and Alex Mack in recent years. With the benchmark set by Jimmy Graham this offseason, Cameron will likely become the third-highest paid tight-end behind Rob Gronkowski.
Frank Gore, RB San Francisco 49ers
SF Cap Space: $8,224,618
Compare to: C.J. Spiller, $5.1M per year
Frank Gore enters the 2014 season as San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher in yards, attempts, and touchdowns. He is 31 years old, however, and every indication is that this will be his final year in San Francisco. The 49ers have shown a dedication to the running back position, selecting a running back in each of the past six drafts. Gore will likely see his workload drop, as San Francisco looks to groom Carlos Hyde and LaMichael James, and the backfield will be even more crowded in 2015 with the return of Kendall Hunter and Marcus Lattimore. If Gore decides to go the route of Steven Jackson and delay retirement for a couple of years, his contract will probably be similar to that of C.J. Spiller, who is currently the oldest running back in the league.