The NFL’s Under-Pressure Team: Barnwell picks 20 people with something huge on the line in 2022

    Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

NFL players can make a lot of money in one year. Ask Josh Allen, who went from looking like the league’s most spectacular question mark in 2019 to a true superstar in 2020. The Bills subsequently gave the quarterback a six-year, $258 million extension. In March, wide receiver Christian Kirk, pass-rusher Randy Gregory and linebacker Foyesade Oluokun each signed deals that would have seemed unfathomable before the 2021 season began.

Of course, players also can lose a lot in one year. Julio Jones went from being a key trade pickup for the Titans to being a salary-cap casualty to getting picked up by the Bucs on a prove-it deal. Carson Wentz’s supposed reclamation season with the Colts turned him into the Commanders’ problem. Former Jaguars coach Urban Meyer managed to erase his entire legacy as a successful college program builder in a few months. Neither players nor coaches need a long time for things to crash down.

Let’s run through the players, coaches and front-office executives who have the most to gain or lose during the 2022 season. In many cases, we’ll be looking at players who can make themselves many millions of dollars with four months of excellent football. Others have already made plenty of money and have their legacies on the line. Things that seem impossible today will be indisputably true six months from now. These are the people who can do the most for their own cause by exceeding expectations.


Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

Let’s start with the 25-year-old former MVP, who is heading to training camp without a contract extension. Most quarterbacks with Jackson’s résumé sign a massive new deal after their third season in the league. Jackson, who is representing himself in contract negotiations, didn’t sign an extension at that point a year ago and doesn’t appear to have much interest in signing whatever the Ravens might have put on the table this offseason. He’s set to hit free agency next March.

While the fifth-year option will bump Jackson’s compensation from $1.8 million last year to just over $23 million this year, his future after this season is uncertain. The Ravens would likely franchise-tag him in 2023 and 2024 (at a projected cost of more than $72 million) before having to seriously weigh the possibility of losing their star quarterback in free agency, but just about every quarterback takes the security of a long-term deal over the risk of maximizing his leverage and year-to-year compensation. Jackson, who has repeatedly defied skeptics during his time in the league, is seemingly willing to bet on his own ability to stay healthy and produce at a superstar level.

He wasn’t healthy or a superstar in 2021, though. He had his worst stretch as a pro before suffering a season-ending right ankle injury. In a season in which the Ravens added pass-catchers and threw more often in neutral situations than ever before, Jackson’s interception and sack rates spiked. Baltimore then traded Jackson ally Marquise Brown this offseason and used a first-round pick on center Tyler Linderbaum while seemingly hinting toward a move back to the sort of run-heavy approach Jackson thrived under during his 2019 MVP campaign.

No, Jackson does not need to be an MVP again in 2022 to justify a new deal. His closest comparable in terms of passing production is Josh Allen, whose numbers also slipped between 2020 and 2021 (before a spectacular return to form in the postseason). If Jackson wanted to get a contract similar to the one Kyler Murray just signed with the Cardinals, he already has played at a high enough level to justify such a deal. It might take something more spectacular for the Ravens to justify a deal structured like the one Allen signed with the Bills or Patrick Mahomes’ 10-year, $450 million contract with the Chiefs.

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