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Contract-year winners! 10 ascending players poised to break the bank in 2024 NFL free agency

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he spotlights players who have positioned themselves to break the bank on the open market ...

As the 2023 NFL regular season winds down, we are about to completely shift our focus to the postseason tournament. But in the meantime, it is important for personnel folks to update their scouting reports on players who could enter free agency in the offseason.

The "contract year" is always an alluring topic, but not all contract years are created equal. For instance, when established superstars like Chiefs DT Chris Jones and Buccaneers WR Mike Evans -- two Super Bowl champions with four Pro Bowl nods apiece -- entered this season in a walk year, everyone knew they'd eventually get PAID, one way or another. But not everyone came into this campaign with elite earning power. And those are the individuals I'd like to focus on today: The guys who've significantly raised their stock with spectacular play in the final year of their current deal.

With a few more weeks to put the finishing touches on the résumé, here are 10 players who have truly capitalized on a contract season, presented in alphabetical order.

Josh Allen
Jacksonville Jaguars · Edge · Age 26

Allen earned a Pro Bowl nod after notching 10.5 sacks as a rookie in 2019, but over the next three seasons, he totaled 17 sacks, and few evaluators would have included him in the discussion of elite defensive playmakers heading into the 2023 campaign. That should change, thanks to Allen's spectacular play this season. He has developed into a destructive force off the edge with a combination of speed, quickness and power that makes him nearly impossible to contain in one-on-one situations. Consequently, he's at 13.5 sacks and counting. The Jaguars likely could have extended Allen, who is playing on his fifth-year option, prior to the season. Now, though, his price tag has surely skyrocketed.

Kevin Dotson
Los Angeles Rams · OG · Age 27

It is not a coincidence the Rams have re-emerged as playoff contenders behind a blue-collar offense that controls the game at the point of attack. Dotson, who was traded from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles this past August, has keyed the unit's effort with his scrappy effort and mauler/brawler style. The fourth-year pro moves defenders off the ball with his nasty demeanor, which has changed the entire personality of the Rams' front line. With his success in L.A. putting the roller-coaster tenure in Pittsburgh in the rearview, Dotson could hit the jackpot as a dominant road grader who'll attract teams looking for a true trench warrior in free agency. 

Jonathan Greenard
Houston Texans · Edge · Age 26

Playing on the final year of his rookie contract, this former third-round pick has helped spark the Texans' surprising resurgence as a playoff contender, posting career highs in sacks (12.5), tackles for loss (15) and quarterback hits (22) this season in a new scheme that has accentuated his talents on the edge. With Greenard's improvements as a pass rusher resulting in elite production and performance, he should be in line for a hefty payday.

Robert Hunt
Miami Dolphins · OG · Age 27

Lost amid the shiny toys on the perimeter of Miami's explosive offense is a group of ballerinas at the point of attack. Hunt is arguably the most nimble of the dancing bears, keying the Dolphins' emergence as an offensive juggernaut. The 6-foot-6, 330-pounder is a rare find as a polished pass protector with rock-solid run-blocking skills that suit multiple schemes. As a productive player with 54 starts over three-plus seasons, Hunt will be a top target for teams looking to insert an athletic interior blocker in a movement-based scheme at the point of attack.

Danielle Hunter
Minnesota Vikings · Edge · Age 29

After dealing with some crippling injuries in recent years, Hunter has spent the 2023 campaign reminding evaluators of his disruptive potential as an edge defender in an aggressive scheme. Hunter ranks second in the league with 15.5 sacks (behind only T.J. Watt with 16), but leads the NFL with 21 tackles for loss while also tallying four forced fumbles. The impressive performance marks his second straight season with at least 10 sacks and gives the veteran 86.5 sacks in 116 career games. Given how pass rushers are coveted on the open market, Hunter's dominance as a sack artist will force the Vikings or another team to break the bank to secure his services for 2024 and beyond.

Jaylon Johnson
Chicago Bears · CB · Age 24

Since his arrival as a second-round pick out of Utah in 2020, the feisty corner has shown impressive cover skills on the island, but some critics still wondered about his ability to produce game-changing plays. This season, though, he's shown improved ball skills and awareness. And as he's grown more comfortable in Matt Eberflus' zone-based scheme, he has begun to tally more interceptions and pass breakups, due to better vision on the quarterback: So far this year, the 6-foot, 195-pounder has tallied four picks, 10 passes defensed and a forced fumble. With a more balanced overall game that makes him an ideal prospect for defensive coordinators wanting to employ multiple coverage schemes, Johnson definitely belongs on this list.

Justin Madubuike
Baltimore Ravens · DT · Age 26

It is rare to find an interior defender with elite pass-rushing skills. That's why scouts and coaches will covet Madubuike, a disruptive defender with 12 sacks. In 2022, he registered 5.5 sacks, showcasing his promise and potential as an athletic "big" with strong hands and exceptional short-area quickness. And now, in the final year of his rookie contract, he's fully breaking out. The former third-round pick actually just tied an NFL record by recording at least a half sack in his 11th straight game. Considering his growth as a playmaker over the past two seasons, Madubuike's production and performance should prompt the Ravens (or another suitor) to pay a top-of-the-market price for a pass-rushing defensive tackle with blue-chip traits across the board. 

Baker Mayfield
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB · Age 28

The former No. 1 overall pick has resurrected his career with an impressive debut season in Tampa Bay. Playing on a one-year prove-it deal worth $4 million, the sixth-year pro is on pace to set career highs in passing yards and touchdowns while guiding the Buccaneers to the top of the NFC South. As an efficient, quick-rhythm passer in offensive coordinator Dave Canales' system, Mayfield is an ultra-confident game manager supported by a talented collection of pass catchers and a persistent running game. With the Bucs exceeding most expectations and the veteran thriving as a low-risk distributor in a ball-control offense, Mayfield has changed the narrative around his game and re-emerged as a viable starter in this league. 

Michael Pittman
Indianapolis Colts · WR · Age 26

The 6-4, 223-pounder has established himself as a legitimate No. 1 receiver, posting the second 1,000-yard campaign of his career. Despite spending most of the season catching passes from a journeyman quarterback with a limited game (Gardner Minshew), Pittman has utilized his superior size, strength and length to flourish as the go-to guy in the Colts' aerial attack. Whether winning on an assortment of in-breaking routes (slants and digs) or back-shoulder fades along the boundary, the fourth-year pro's consistency as a pass catcher and playmaker makes him an intriguing option as a long-term WR1. 

Patrick Queen
Baltimore Ravens · LB · Age 24

Baltimore's decision to decline Queen's fifth-year option for 2024 has ultimately become a blessing in disguise for the young linebacker, who is playing like a top-five playmaker at his position. He's a tackling machine with a "see ball, get ball" mentality that results in big hits and splash plays. Queen's speed, awareness and burst make him an intriguing prospect for teams looking to add a versatile defender with disruptive skills as a run stopper, pass rusher and cover man on the second level. 

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