The brightest lights will always shine on quarterbacks in the NFL. But this overshadows the meaningful developments that occur away from the sport's most glamorous position, especially when it comes to player movement. In 2015, an incredible array of talent will enter the all-important "contract year," the final season under which a player's current team can control them without invoking the franchise tag.
While some of these players will agree to long-term extensions before the start of free agency next year, some will indeed hit the open market and reshape the face of the NFL.
Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
For the better part of his four-year career, Houston has held the mantel of the most important player on Kansas City's defense. The edge rusher led all players in sacks last season (22) and trailed only Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt in total pressures as measured by Pro Football Focus (85). Houston, along with nose tackle Dontari Pie and aging linebacker Tamba Hali, form the core of the Chiefs defense.
And if nothing changes, Houston could leave Kansas City next offseason. The talented linebacker reached the end of his rookie deal earlier this offseason and, with the Chiefs unable to reach agreeable terms, looks to play out the season under the franchise tag. While the team could apply the tag again next year, the cost involved could prove overly burdensome. A return to the Chiefs remains more likely than not, but Houston could become the rare elite pass rusher to hit the market just as he enters the prime of his career.
Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Right now, the Cowboys and Bryant are locked in a contract standoff that has seen the wideout threaten to sit out the season opener. Bryant, perhaps the league's top receiver, finds himself in a position of power. Dallas lost 2014 rushing champ DeMarco Murray during the offseason, and now faces the gloomy prospect of playing without its all-world pass catcher. With a depth chart that features Terrence Williams as the only other viable starting receiver, the team must capitulate to Bryant's demands at some point.
Of course, that assumes they can. While the Cowboys sit on approximately $11.5 million of cap space per Over The Cap's calculations, Bryant is believed to seek a deal worth more than Calvin Johnson's. That would require Dallas to pay out more than $16 million to the receiver on average, a hefty salary more often associated with quarterbacks. If the Cowboys can't figure out a way to structure the contract around their cap and don't want to franchise Bryant again next year, the wideout could be headed for a new team.
Eric Weddle, FS, San Diego Chargers
More so than any other player included on this list, Weddle seems a lock to change teams next offseason. The All-Pro plays free safety, the defensive position with perhaps the shallowest pool of talent. Even at age 30, few players can replicate the on-field impact Weddle provides.
Yet the Chargers don't seem to care about extending his contract. Weddle called out the team earlier this month and has instructed his agent not to engage in extension talks after training camp begins on July 30. Short of an unexpected extension or major injury, it's difficult not to envision the former Utah standout fielding multiple lucrative offers during free agency in 2016. Great safeties have never been harder to find, and Weddle certainly qualifies as such.
Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos
Like Bryant, Thomas saw his rookie deal expire this offseason yet was kept off the market via the franchise tag. However, while the Cowboys appear to have every intention of signing their All-Pro wideout to a long-term deal, the picture isn't so clear in Denver.
Certainly, the Broncos aren't looking to lose Thomas, who has served as the team's top pass catcher since 2012. However, with Peyton Manning nearing the end of his historic career, perhaps the team feels a full rebuild is just around the corner. Thomas, who turns 28 during the 2015 season, may just be outside the age range where it makes sense to commit long term without a quarterback. Even if that's not the way Denver ultimately goes, an extension for Thomas appears distant at this stage.
Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
The Broncos picked up the fifth-year option for former first-round pick Miller, forcing the All-Pro linebacker to play one more season at a bargain rate.
Outside of an injury shortened 2013 campaign, Miller has provided spectacular production for a Broncos defense that, until recently, hasn't surrounded him with much of a supporting cast. While Denver may tear down the roster after Manning retires, the freshly 26-year-old Miller is certainly a part of the team's plans moving forward. A new contract could materialize before the start of the upcoming season.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Fresh off a career-best 104-catch, 1,593-yard campaign, Jones holds plenty of leverage over the Falcons. However, unlike his fellow elite pass catchers, he hasn't taken a hard stance during his contract talks.
Last week, Jones appeared to call out Bryant and Thomas by telling the local media that a holdout would be "selfish" and he wouldn't do that to his teammates. That approach seems to have served as a negotiation lubricant, as Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff declared Jones' contract status as the "focus" of the front office. As such, it doesn't appear Jones will actually make his way to free agency next year.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
Kansas City's Houston may not be the only uber-talented edge rusher that may hit the market next offseason. Pierre-Paul, also a recipient of the franchise tag, has seen little progress during contract negotiations with the Giants.
The market for Pierre-Paul is difficult to decipher at this point. Only 26 and with 42 sacks under his belt, he shouldn't have any issues garnering interest on paper. However, since breaking out in 2011, Pierre-Paul struggled through two disappointing (and injury plagued) seasons. 2014 began much the same way, with the defensive end notching just 3 1/2 sacks through 11 games. However, he finished the year on a tear, generating nine sacks during the final five weeks of the season. Most likely, the Giants will treat 2015 as a "prove it" year for Pierre-Paul. If all goes well, the team will open up the wallet for the pass rusher next offseason.
A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Since entering the league in 2011, Green has been the model of consistency. The wideout has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in each of his four seasons and has proven himself as one of the league's best at his position.
Which is why it may seem strange that the Bengals haven't already handed Green a long-term deal. The main reason the All-Pro remains unsigned past 2015 is the uncertainty surrounding Bryant, Thomas and Jones. With the top of the wide receiver market in flux (the top contract at the position was signed under the previous CBA), the team feels more comfortable waiting. Once both sides receive more clarity, an extension is likely to follow.
Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers
The state of the union between Smith and the 49ers looks dicey from the outside. Smith missed time in 2013 and '14 as the result of multiple DUI arrests, a physical altercation at his home and an incident at LAX. To protect its interests, the team threatened to cut the linebacker if he didn't agree to restructure his deal into a series of non-guaranteed roster bonuses.
At the same time, San Francisco enters the first year of the Jim Tomsula era. Though he ultimately decided against it, the former defensive line coach once considered shifting to a 4-3 defense, a setup that is less suited to Smith's skillset. That change could still occur down the line. In the interim, Smith enters a contract year in which he must prove that he can stay out of trouble and also consistently rush the passer without Justin Smith creating opportunities along the defensive line.