The 2017 season is a lost cause for approximately a third of the league at this point. That means it’s a good time to start looking forward to what can be done to fix that over the course of the offseason. The cap is once again expected to make a sizable leap in the upcoming league year, which means pay days abound.
Here are the guys who made themselves the most money by exceeding expectations this season.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins
Cousins took a sizable risk when betting on himself by playing on a one-year franchise deal once again. Losing your top two receivers (Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson) can spell doom for many quarterbacks, but it’s been business as usual for Cousins even as his offensive line has been decimated by injuries.
The Washington signal-caller is grading as a top-10 quarterback (82.8), and soon he’ll have the long-term contract of one. Only this time its value will be exponentially higher than any one he would have signed back when he first became a free agent in 2016.
Case Keenum, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Keenum signed a one-year, $2 million deal last offseason as purely a stopgap in case the worst happened to Sam Bradford before Teddy Bridgewater finally got healthy. Not much from Keenum’s past suggested he was worth anything more than that. Before 2017, he had a sub-60-percent career completion percentage with 38 turnover-worthy throws (TWTs) compared to only 35 big-time throws (BTTs). The ratio of BTTs to TWTs is over 2.0 for most elite quarterbacks and anything under 1.0 is non-starter level. This season he has 14 BTTs compared to nine TWTs and a completion percentage of 67.5. It’s like he’s a completely different player and one that looks like he deserves to be paid like a starter.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Edge, Dallas Cowboys
Lawrence is currently in the midst of the kind of career year NFL players dream about. Lawrence has flashed dominant edge talent at times in his career, but now it’s game in and game out. Lawrence’s 14 sacks are second-most in the NFL, but what’s as impressive is the fact his pressure rate suggests it’s not a fluke. His 14.0 pass-rushing productivity is second to only Von Miller for full-time edge rushers.
There is exactly zero chance that Lawrence doesn’t at least get franchised tagged this offseason, especially considering the weak defensive line class hitting free agency. Dallas isn’t in great cap position for 2018, but it’s difficult to believe they’d let the man who has 27 more pressures than anyone else on the team walk for a lone compensatory pick.
Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers
Playing receiver for Aaron Rodgers ain’t a bad gig. With his pinpoint accuracy, one doesn’t need a ton of separation to put up some gaudy stats. That’s why the fact Adams’ numbers haven’t dropped since Rodgers went down, but rather improved, is a boon for his free-agent stock. With Rodgers at quarterback this season, Adams was averaging 1.24 yards per route (he averaged 1.58 last season). With Brett Hundley at quarterback that number has skyrocketed to 1.92. Maybe as importantly, the drop issues that plagued him early in his career have improved each of the last two seasons
Junior Galette, Edge, Washington Redskins
Galette’s 2015 and 2016 seasons were both lost due to Achilles tears. With more question marks than game film, Galette limped back on the ultimate "prove it" deal: one year, $800,000.
Through 12 games, he’s done just that. He’s accumulated the 27th-highest pass-rushing grade of any edge defender this season, but in only 264 snaps. At 29 years of age, it’s doubtful he ever gets back to the level of the contract that he once had on the table with New Orleans. With how he’s played this season though, some pass-rush-needy team will pay handsomely for his services.
Patrick Robinson, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
A former first-round pick of the Saints back in 2010, Robinson never quite lived up to his draft billing. After a rocky 2012 season where he allowed over 1,000 yards in his coverage, Robinson got pigeonholed as a slot-only defensive back - the kiss of death for any corner looking for a long-term deal. He then bounced from the Chargers in 2015, to the Colts last year, and now the Eagles in 2017 where he’s finally looked like the corner the Saints thought they were getting out of Florida State. Robinson is on pace to set career bests for catch rate allowed (54.0) and passer rating against (66.3). He’s still manning the slot almost exclusively, although with the increase in three receiver sets in recent years the stigma around the position is softening. At 30 years old, Robinson won’t break the bank, but he’ll comfortably surpass his current $775,000 deal.
Renner is a writer for Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.