Five NFL players in a contract year who need to step up
New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton (1) participates in a drill during the New England Patriots minicamp at the New England Patriots practice complex.  Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Most NFL players reach a point in their career where they’re seeking a long-term contract, but things simply aren’t working out. Sometimes that situation corrects itself, and sometimes it doesn’t.

However, consistent quality play will often pave the way for those players to sign long-term deals — especially during a contract year. As we head into 2021, these five players find themselves in contract years and lacking long-term security. Now they’ll need to step up if they want that big deal.

5. Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots

After the career he had in Carolina, it’s odd to see Cam Newton on a list like this. But there’s no denying that he belongs. It’s clear that Bill Belichick and company are not fully committed to Newton now or long-term, which is why they only gave him a one-year deal this offseason. The team also has Jarrett Stidham, while they re-signed Brian Hoyer in May and selected Mac Jones in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The odds are stacking up against Newton, who was less than spectacular in replacing Tom Brady a season ago. However, New England loaded up considerably this offseason, and there will be no more excuses for the veteran. If he does not perform up to par, he won’t only be replaced, but he may have a difficult time landing a long-term contract ever again.


Houston Texans running back David Johnson (31) gains yards against the Tennessee Titans during the second quarter at Nissan Stadium. Andrew Nelles/ Tennessean.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

4. David Johnson, RB, Houston Texans

Once upon a time, David Johnson was an emerging superstar who many believed was capable of becoming the cream of the crop at his position. However, following a wildly impressive 2016 campaign, it’s been all downhill for the 29-year-old. Johnson has missed 22 games over the previous four seasons, has seen his yards-per-carry average drop significantly, and then found himself traded from the Arizona Cardinals to the Texans last year. And while Johnson took a step in the right direction in 2020, some of the lingering issues continued to persist. This offseason, Houston restructured the final year on Johnson’s contract and then went out and signed Melvin Ingram, adding him to a group that also features Phillip Lindsay and Rex Burkhead, who also signed as a free agent. The writing is very clearly on the wall. Johnson had better turn back the clock or his Texans career (and possibly his NFL career) are likely over.


Cleveland Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney participates in drills during an NFL football practice at the team's training facility. Jeff Lange via Imagn Content Services, LLC

3. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Cleveland Browns

Jadeveon Clowney keeps getting paid, but that could soon come to an end if he doesn’t find his health and start producing on the field. The Browns took a one-year flyer on him after a wasted year in Tennessee and an unspectacular 2019 campaign in Seattle. The former first-round pick has never quite lived up to the hype and has yet to record a 10-sack season in his career. He’s also appeared in a full 16 games just once, so at the age of 28, his opportunities are dwindling. Now playing alongside Myles Garrett, Clowney will see more favorable matchups and one-on-one situations similar to what he saw early on in Houston when J.J. Watt was the dominant force. But make no mistake about it, if Clowney bombs again, his days of getting the big bucks (and any hope of a long-term contract) are over.


New York Giants tight end Evan Engram (88) catches the ball during OTA practice at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center. Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

2. Evan Engram, TE, New York Giants

Evan Engram has been a bit of an enigma since Day 1. He’s obviously extremely athletic and should be considered a matchup nightmare for just about every defense in the NFL. But injuries and inconsistency have defined his career. The Giants picked up his fifth-year option based solely on potential, but a long-term contract should not be expected unless Engram turns a corner in 2021. His work ethic is unparalleled. However, his on-field lapses are not only too frequent, but they often come at the worst possible times. Case in point: he had a drop in Week 7 against the Philadelphia Eagles last season that not only cost the Giants the game, but ultimately cost them the division. Luckily for Engram, he’s a favorite of head coach Joe Judge, but that will only take him so far.


Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

1. Chandler Jones, LB, Arizona Cardinals

Sometimes players appear on this list not because they’ve underperformed throughout the course of their contract, but because the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” league. Such is the case with Chandler Jones, who recorded 60 sacks over his first four seasons with the Cardinals before recording just one sack in five games last season. Fair or not, Jones now enters the final year of a massive $82.5 million deal. At the age of 31, he must prove to either Arizona or another team that he’s deserving of another long-term contract. If Jones is unable to rebound and return to his dominant ways in 2021, he may be looking at a one-year, prove-it deal during free agency next season.

This article first appeared on Larry Brown Sports and was syndicated with permission.

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