Who is the next Jalen Hurts or Geno Smith? Here are 5 guys who can play their way into big contracts

Some of the best stories in sports are when a player comes out of nowhere or resurrects their career for another shot at success — and the money that comes with it. Geno Smith and Jalen Hurts, who had top seasons last year and received significant investment from their teams, changed the future landscape of the league. There are a handful of players hoping to do exactly what they did to cash in at the perfect time and secure the big NFL contracts that are elusive for the majority of the player pool.

Here are five players who could get seriously overpaid in 2024 with strong seasons this year. A handful of young defensive players, a journeyman quarterback and a receiver returning to the field are capable of playing their way into an assured future in this league.

Young, the former second overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, had his option declined by the Commanders after an injury-plagued start to his career. Young has played in just 12 games over the past two seasons and has just 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss in that sample size. It’s been a few years since Young has played good football, but he’ll have a chance to get things moving back in the right direction if he can stay on the field this year.

He still plays with a ton of talented defensive linemen who will allow him to see advantageous blocking situations. Young needs to prove he can still be a long-term starter, and taking advantage of playing with Pro Bowl-caliber teammates is the first step toward regaining that status as a top defensive player. It’s not like Young has never shown elite talent as a pro; he won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020 and was the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Month for December that season. That’s talent worth waiting for, and if Young can return to being a productive player, he’ll have talent worth paying for.

Jeff Okudah didn’t pan out in Detroit, but he has a big chance ahead of him with the Falcons. (AP Photo/Lon Horwedel)

The Falcons took a swing at potential when they traded a fifth-round draft pick for Okudah, the third overall pick in 2020. For a team that has struggled to build cornerback depth outside of AJ Terrell, this was a cheap trade that may pay off down the road — for the Falcons and Okudah. The former Ohio State star had an up-and-down season in 2022, but occasionally flashed the talent that made him such a coveted prospect in the 2020 draft class.

Okudah had not picked up his option before being traded to the Falcons, so he will be a free agent when the season ends. Okudah will play the entire season as a 24-year-old and should have a robust market in 2024 if he is able to perform up to his talent level. He still has a lot of football ahead of him and he’s getting into a situation where he doesn’t want too much competition that’s going to be a problem for him. There’s a reason the Falcons had to trade for Okudah — they need him to play right away. He will get all the chances he needs this season to prove he is worth a big contract next year.

There aren’t too many Geno Smith-esque picks to be made here in terms of a long-time quarterback who has a late breakout, but Brissett is in an interesting situation with the Commanders. He is currently battling with second-year quarterback Sam Howell for the starting job, which could end up out of his control if the team opts for a youth movement.

Brissett played the best football of his career for the Browns last season, while Deshaun Watson served an 11-game suspension. Brissett was a steady hand, ranking 10th in expected points added per games (0.115) among all quarterbacks with at least 320 plays. The Browns may not have won a ton of games while Brissett was at quarterback, but he showed some starter potential and now finds himself in a potentially advantageous position with the Commanders.

The wild card here is new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who will hope to replicate some of the success he had in Kansas City with a new team. A lot of dominoes need to fall into place for Brissett to make this happen, especially to win the starting job, but there is a path for him to have a successful season and get a bag. Win the starting job, let Bieniemy rock, throw to Terry McLaurin, get paid. That’s the plan.

Ridley is one of the biggest wild cards in the NFL this season. The Jaguars acquired him from the Falcons following his yearlong gambling suspension in 2022, potentially giving Jacksonville a dominant quarterback and wide receiver duo for the future.

Ridley has not played in an NFL game since October 2021 before taking time away from the Falcons. His lone year with Arthur Smith and the current Falcons regime was shaky, but before that, Ridley was a bonafide No. 1 receiving talent. Taking over for an injured Julio Jones, Ridley put up monster numbers — including eight 100-yard games and four straight 100-yard games in December that season.

When the regular season starts, it will be nearly two years since Ridley played in an NFL game. He’s still one of the most talented WRs in the league, but things still need to be played out before the Jaguars can figure out how to proceed with his contract. If Ridley can push back on the receiver that helped carry a passing game in 2020, he and Trevor Lawrence should tear defenses apart this year. That would certainly help his cause for an extension that brings him closer to the market rate for veteran receivers. The talent is there, he just needs to get back to playing.

Queen is most likely playing his final season with Baltimore, but that doesn’t mean he can’t cash in on a huge contract after the season. Queen has had an up-and-down career with the Ravens, prompting them to pass on picking up his fifth-year option that would have tied him to the team for another year. With his contract expiring at the end of next season, Queen now finds himself in a place where he has to be the best version of himself to get that salary.

Fortunately, Queen is in an advantageous position to do just that. His play improved greatly after the Ravens’ acquisition of Roquan Smith, who subsequently received a five-year, $100 million contract from the team. Playing with Smith, a talented group of defensive backs and a capable defensive coordinator in Mike Macdonald will at least give Queen the framework he needs to have a consistent season from start to finish.

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