On some level, every NFL contract represents a guess, built off a team's projection of how well the player being signed will perform in the future. Teams will soon begin putting money behind these guess, with free agency opening on Wednesday, March 16. Before moves start being made, I wanted to highlight 10 players on the market who could either play like superstars or underwhelm on their next contracts -- 10 boom-or-bust free agents, with "boom" and "bust" scenarios sketched out for each player.
NOTE: Players are listed with the age they will be on Sept. 8, when the 2022 NFL season is set to kick off.
Boom: Armstead's surgically repaired knee holds up, along with the rest of his body, and he's able to be a dominant force up front for the majority of his next contract. Over the past five seasons, Pro Football Focus grades Armstead as the fourth-best offensive tackle overall and the third-best in pass-blocking.
Bust: Injury problems (he also dealt with an elbow injury in 2021) continue to dog him as he ages into his mid-30s, preventing him from living up to his new deal. It's probably reasonable to assume Armstead will miss some time each year, given that he has yet to play a full season in the NFL. But there's a difference between losing him for one or two games per season and having to make up for his absence for several weeks.
Boom: Scherff serves as an interior anchor, proving worthy of the contract he's in line to earn as one of the top guards on the market. He's talented and versatile, capable of occupying basically any spot along the offensive line.
Bust: Injuries continue to be an impediment, as they've been for the last several seasons. Scherff hasn't appeared in a full complement of games in any year since 2016, most recently losing time in 2021 with a knee injury.
Boom: After two years of seasoning under Sean Payton, Winston finally -- finally! -- puts it all together with an entire year of winning football. Winston's lower-than-normal yardage totals seven games into 2021 belie the fact he was on pace to post the first single-digit interception total (on pace for seven) of his NFL tenure before he tore his ACL.
Bust: Whether because he struggles to recover from the injury or because he reverts to bad habits without Payton (or both), Winston plays himself onto the bench by midseason, setting himself on the Competent Veteran Backup track for the next phase of his career.
Boom: Gregory fulfills the potential that has been hinted at since the Cowboys drafted him in 2015, notching double-digit sacks for the first time. In 2021, he ranked second in Dallas in both sacks (six) and pressures (38), per Next Gen Stats.
Bust: With a chance to show what he's capable of after the early portion of his career was interrupted by multiple suspensions, Gregory falters, failing to break out in the final season of his 20s. His health is also something to keep an eye on after he was sidelined by a calf injury in 2021 and underwent knee surgery in January.
Boom: Patterson's awakening as a true dual-threat asset at 30 years old takes hold, and he makes a real difference both on the ground and over the air. Patterson and Chargers back Austin Ekeler were the only two players in the NFL to post at least 20 catches and 20 rushes of 10-plus yards last season. And while running backs don't often thrive into their fourth decade, Patterson should have a decent amount of tread on his tires, having averaged just three offensive touches per game between 2013 and 2020.
Bust: The magic fades, and Patterson turns back into the fitfully useful offensive fringe player he was for most of the first eight seasons of his career. This scenario looms much larger if he changes teams and shrinks considerably if he stays in Atlanta with the coach (Arthur Smith) who finally figured out how to make the most of his potential.
Boom: The former first-rounder shows off the ability suggested by his promising first three NFL seasons (31.3 catches and 485.3 yards per year, with a yards-per-catch mark of 15.5).
Bust: Howard's plunge toward the bottom of the pecking order in Tampa in 2021 after missing most of 2020 with an Achilles injury (he finished with just 21 targets, behind eight other Bucs, including tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate, and a career-low 9.6 yards per grab) proves to be a harbinger of things to come, and he ultimately fails to make the kind of impact one would expect from a first-round pick in their sixth pro season.
Boom: Beckham's recovery from an ACL tear in Super Bowl LVI goes well, and upon his return, he picks up right where he left off in that game, having been rejuvenated by Matthew Stafford and the Rams (48 catches, 593 yards, seven TDs in 12 games, including the playoffs) after one of his worst stretches as a pro (17 catches, 232 yards, zero scores in six games with Cleveland last season).
Bust: After dealing with two ACL injuries in less than two years, Beckham -- who will turn 30 this November -- is unable to return to form. The sparkling start to his career (he posted at least 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his first three pro seasons) ends up seeming further away than ever.
Boom: Coming off his first full season since his 2018 debut, Vander Esch makes good on the promise suggested by that impressive rookie effort, in which he led the Cowboys in tackles (138), while also chipping in two picks and seven passes defensed. A return to elite status could make Vander Esch a relative bargain for whichever team lands him.
Bust: Whether because of more bad injury luck (Vander Esch missed 13 games in 2019 and '20) or an inability to recapture that first-year magic, Vander Esch reverses the gains he achieved in 2021, when he earned a good-not-great defensive grade from PFF that placed him 10th among Cowboys defenders.
Boom: One of the biggest names among the available tackles after Armstead (with Orlando Brown being tagged by the Chiefs), Fisher solidifies someone's blind-side protection for the next several seasons.
Bust: Fisher's middling 2021 (his PFF grade ranked him 46th among tackles) serves as the high-water mark for the latter portion of his career, and he fails to play up to his pedigree as a former No. 1 overall pick.
Boom: Coming off one of his more efficient seasons on a per-carry basis (he posted a career-high mark of 4.5 yards in 2021), Fournette plays with enough pop to outproduce the rest of this year's class of free agent backs, securing a stable home for himself in someone's rushing attack.
Bust: Fournette's per-game impact continues to be a crapshoot (he notched consecutive games with 80-plus yards just once last season, in Weeks 6 and 7), and he makes this list for a third straight time in 2023. Although perhaps that would be a fitting outcome for a player who has run for 50-plus yards in almost exactly half of his career regular-season games (32 of 63).