Austin Jackson had a hard time finding a home on the Dolphins offensive line during his first three NFL seasons. Jackson, the 18th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, struggled playing left tackle, his college position, as a rookie. Shifting Jackson to left guard in 2021 was a failed experiment. The plan in 2022 was to see if Jackson would fare better at right tackle but an ankle injury limited him to two games. 

It was a no-brainer for the Dolphins to decline a fifth-year option on Jackson in 2024 for a fully guaranteed $14.175 million based on his first three NFL seasons. More of the same was likely going to have Jackson looking to be a swing tackle in 2024 free agency. A healthy Jackson, providing stability at right tackle this season, led to the Dolphins signing him to a three-year, $36 million contract extension, averaging $12 million per year with $20 million of guarantees, in early December.

As Jackson can attest, fortunes can be made because of performance in a contract year. With the NFL regular season coming to a close, here are several players who have made good use of their contract year. A key contract benchmark and the probability of hitting this financial target ranging from one dollar sign to four dollars signs are listed for each player.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Buccaneers

  • Financial benchmark: Geno Smith ($25 million avg./$40 million in guarantees/3 years worth up to $105 million with incentives and/or salary escalators)
  • Probability: $$$

The Buccaneers weren't expected to be in contention for a fourth straight playoff berth with Mayfield taking over for a retiring Tom Brady at quarterback. Beating the Panthers in the regular-season finale will give the Buccaneers a third consecutive NFC South title and a 9-8 record.

Mayfield signed a fully guaranteed one-year, $4 million deal, worth up to $8.5 million through incentives, with the Buccaneers in March after a 2022 campaign in which his subpar play was an impetus for the Panthers firing head coach Matt Rhule after a 1-4 start. The Panthers released the 2018 first overall pick several weeks later.  

Mayfield is having a career resurgence with the Buccaneers. He is connecting on 64.4% of his passes for 3,907 yards with 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions to post a 95.9 passer rating. Mayfield has career highs in passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage. There is reportedly mutual interest in Mayfield remaining with the Buccaneers beyond this season. 

Josh Allen, OLB, Jaguars

  • Financial benchmark: T.J. Watt ($28,002,750 avg./$80 million in guarantees/4 years)
  • Probability: $$

Allen is playing under a $10.892 million fifth-year option this season because the Jaguars didn't make an effort to extend his contract during the offseason. He has responded with a franchise-record 16.5 sacks, which is third in the NFL. His 93 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) are the league's sixth-most, according to Pro Football Focus. 

Allen's salary floor should be the four-year, $98 million extension, averaging $24 million per year, Montez Sweat signed with the Bears in November. Sweat's deal has $72,865,360 in guarantees, of which $41,965,360 was fully guaranteed at signing. 

A franchise tag seems likely if a long-term deal isn't reached before the 15-day designation period ends on March 5. The 2024 linebacker number projects to $22.794 million if the salary cap is set at $242.5 million. 

Justin Madubuike, DT, Ravens

  • Financial benchmark: Jeffery Simmons ($23.5 million avg./$65.8 million in guarantees/4 years)
  • Probability: $$

Madubuike has been the NFL's most consistent passing rushing interior defensive lineman this season. He leads interior defensive linemen with 13 sacks. The 13 sacks in 16 games are 4.5 more than Madubuike had in the 42 career games he had played in his three previous NFL seasons. Madubuike tied an NFL record with at least a half-sack in 11 straight games during a Week 15 contest against the Jaguars. 

The Ravens putting a franchise tag on Madubuike is a possibility. The defensive tackle tag is expected to be 8.654% of the 2024 salary cap. The projected cost to designate Madubuike as a franchise player should be $20.986 million with a $242.5 million salary cap. 

Jaylon Johnson, CB, Bears

  • Financial benchmark: Trevon Diggs ($19.4 million avg./$42.304 million in guarantees/5 years)
  • Probability: $$$

Johnson has put himself in the shutdown cornerback conversation this season. Opposing quarterbacks are only completing 46.3% of passes (25 of 54 attempts) for a 31.0 passer rating when targeting Johnson, according to PFF. He also has a career-high four interceptions.

Johnson hasn't let the business of football become a distraction. The two sides weren't on the same page for a contract extension when the Bears granted Johnson's camp permission to shop him to other teams shortly before the late-October trade deadline. The Bears were reportedly looking for a late first-round pick or early second-round pick in a trade. Johnson has recently expressed a desire to remain in Chicago. 

The Bears quickly getting a deal done with defensive end Montez Sweat, shortly after acquiring him at the trade deadline, has opened up the franchise tag for Johnson. The cornerback franchise tag projects to $18.802 million with a $242.5 million 2024 salary cap.

Kevin Dotson, OG, Rams

  • Financial benchmark: Ben Powers ($13 million avg./$28.5 million in guarantees/4 years)
  • Probability: $$$

One team's trash is another team's treasure. Dotson was on the chopping block when he was dealt to the Rams as the late-August roster cutdown was approaching because of the Steelers signing offensive guards Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig as free agents in March. The Rams gave up a 2024 fourth-round pick and a 2025 fifth-round pick in exchange for Dotson, a 2024 fifth-round pick and a 2025 sixth-round pick. 

Dotson reworked his contract as a part of the trade. Scheduled to make an unsecured $2.743 million this season, Dotson reduced his pay to a fully guaranteed $2.25 million. An additional $1 million can be earned through incentives. 

Dotson was brought in to provide the Rams offensive line depth after taking all 1,160 of Pittsburgh's offensive snaps last season at left guard. He has thrived at right guard since being inserted in the starting lineup four games into the season. Pass protection has typically been Dotson's strength. His run-blocking is much improved this season. Dotson was a penalty waiting to happen in 2022. He was flagged 12 times with 11 of the infractions being accepted. Dotson has been only been penalized twice this season.

Jonathan Greenard, DE, Texans

  • Financial benchmark: Emmanuel Ogbah ($16.35 million avg./$36 million in guarantees/4 years)
  • Probability: $$$

Greenard has rebounded from an injury-plagued 2022 season where he had 1.5 sacks in eight games. He has 12.5 sacks in 14 games to rank in a tie for 10th in the NFL. In Greenard's first three NFL seasons (2020-2022), he had 10.5 sacks combined. 

Greenard has joined JJ Watt and Mario Williams as the third player in Texans franchise history to have at least 12.5 sacks in a season. With edge rushers Josh Allen (Jaguars) and Brian Burns (Panthers) expected to receive franchise tags, Greenard could reap the benefit of their absence in free agency.