Players to lock up long term

Browns CB Joe Haden and Panthers QB Cam Newton are two young stars with bright futures. USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to investing a large sum of money, three key components tend to guide your decision. Performance. Risk. Timing. When it comes to managing the salary cap in the NFL, the criteria is much the same.

You have a set number of cap dollars that can be spent in each league year; you must work with the coaching staff to accurately determine who are consistently the highest-performing players; you have to decide what is the best way to allocate those cap dollars to ensure that those high performers are getting the appropriate financial incentive to perform; and you need the flexibility to adequately field a competitive 53-man roster -- as well as a sense of timing on when to invest.

At this point in the season, there's a conversation to be had about ensuring the team's best young players are a part of the club for the next three to four years. How are they performing? What are they worth? Is the time right to lock them up?

So let's have that conversation. Here's what I assess:

The future. This is about players who have been drafted in 2010 or 2011, as it is this group of players that could be potential 2014 unrestricted free agents (2010 draft) or eligible to have their rookie contracts renegotiated once they complete their third season in the league (2011 draft). These players will typically fall in the 23- to 26-year-old range, are about to hit their peak performance years and thus are the players who are most likely to be approached.

Timing. It's important with these kind of players, as the benefits of approaching them early or locking them up before they enter the final year of their rookie contract can go a long way toward getting the kind of deal that satisfies both management and the player while showing the rest of the team that committed, consistent young players will be "taken care of." Contract negotiations in these early pre-emptive strike situations tend to be less combative; it's not a leverage-intense atmosphere, contrary to what tends to happen when both parties are up against a deadline (like the onset of unrestricted free agency), where contract parameters can get out of whack because of desperation and panic on the part of the member clubs.

Commitment. I've also added comments from a veteran agent who represents players to help assess that side of the equation. Keep in mind that this is just an estimate.

I picked eight players -- four from the 2010 draft class and four from the 2011 draft class -- whom I would consider as being prime candidates for new deals in the very near future. Seven of the eight play positions that fall in what I would consider to be top 10 positions when ranking the 22 players who can be on the field offensively/defensively at a given time.

2010 Draft


Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers