The 30: Tipping Point

30 for 30 Shorts: ‘Tommy and Frank’

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Charles Johnson

The All–Bad Contracts Team

As this lineup shows, it doesn't take much for the wrong team to spend too much on the wrong player

What makes for a bad NFL contract? When a guy gets too much money? Sure, but that’s not a particularly useful explanation. Unless you really dislike certain players, in a vacuum, the money doesn’t really matter; your favorite team could give $15 million to a scrub every year and still come out without even the slightest financial concern, thanks to that enormous television contract. The money matters because there are a salary cap and opportunity cost involved. If you spend $15 million on that scrub, that’s $15 million you can’t spend on a better player or set of players elsewhere. That’s what (saving) the money’s for.

In a vacuum, then, a bad contract is one that grossly overcompensates a player relative to his production. That seems fair. Nobody tries to give out a bad contract, so why do they happen? Are there certain characteristics that stand out? I’ve written about specific positional archetypes that make for bad free-agent deals, but some contracts are bad before a player ever hits free agency. I’ve gone through the league and put together a starting 22 of bad contracts, and they all seem to fit into one of five categories.

The Five Categories of Truly Terrible Contracts

The Old-CBA Rookie Deal: Under the old collective bargaining agreement, rookies taken at the top of the draft were paid exorbitant sums before ever stepping onto a football field. Jake Long memorably became the highest-paid offensive lineman in league history after signing his rookie deal. It’s an issue that was corrected with the new CBA, but there are still a few stragglers on mammoth rookie contracts.

The Marginal Talent: This problem reared its head a lot during free agency in the last days of the old CBA, when the cap was rising so quickly that teams rarely found themselves in cap trouble. With the cap expanding at a far slower rate after the new CBA was signed in 2011, teams have generally avoided big deals for replacement-level veterans, but there were a few examples this past offseason, mainly concentrated with one team in the Midwest.

Paying for the Outlier: Too often, teams pay a premium for a player who has one season that stands out like a sore thumb on his résumé. Usually, this happens right after that player had the one big season, and it comes even though the player might have been available at a much cheaper rate the previous year. The deals given out to Laurent Robinson and Mark Anderson before the 2012 season are examples of such a mistake.

System Guy Out of System: A player’s teammates and fit within a system can drastically distort his value before moving to a new organization. Too many teams have bought high on a second or third weapon in a good passing attack, only to find that the player in question — let’s say his name rhymes with Deerless Dice — doesn’t fare so well as the primary receiver in an offense with an inferior quarterback.

Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have? Teams are supposed to be the best judges of their own talent, but for a variety of reasons, they still make mistakes. They pay a premium to keep a guy off the market while waiting for development that never comes, or to retain a player who already knows their system out of the fear of having to both replace him and teach a new guy how to do his job. There’s nothing wrong with re-signing your own players, of course, but signing them at above-market rates doesn’t make for a better team.

As I go through the All–Bad Contracts team, I’ll make an effort to point out which category or categories each horrific deal fits into. Keep in mind that I’m considering the contract as a whole as opposed to the remaining value on the deal. Contract data here comes from the excellent

The All–Bad Contracts Starting Offense

Quarterback: Sam Bradford, Rams
Contract Flaw: The Old-CBA Rookie Deal

Bradford was the last first-overall pick before the new CBA was signed in 2011. As a result, he signed a six-year, $78 million deal that guaranteed him a whopping $50 million. Since then, Bradford has struggled with injuries and been an average-at-best starter under center for the Rams, which is a huge disparity versus the near–$13 million average cap hold he has had since the first year of his contract. Next year will be the first season when the Rams could seriously consider moving on from Bradford, because it will cost them “only” $10.2 million. If they wanted to cut Bradford after last season, it would have accelerated $23.3 million onto their 2013 cap. Even Mark Sanchez’s contract extension can’t compare to this.

Running Back: Shonn Greene, Titans
Contract Flaw: The Marginal Talent

Only the Titans could give a running back $30 million guaranteed and decide that they still need a situational back to play off his weaknesses. So, since Chris Johnson is too weak-willed for short-yardage situations, enter Shonn Greene. Greene’s deal isn’t enormous — $10 million over three years, $4.15 million guaranteed — but it came in a buyer’s market for running backs. Wouldn’t they rather have had Ahmad Bradshaw, who signed with the Colts three months later on a one-year, $1.1 million contract? Hell, he even scores near the goal line when he’s trying not to.

Wide Receiver: Sidney Rice, Seahawks
Contract Flaw: Paying for the Outlier

Rice had an 83-1,312-8 line with Brett Favre at quarterback in 2009, but was otherwise unimpressive or injured during his time in Minnesota. The Seahawks gave him $18 million guaranteed as part of a five-year, $41 million deal to see if he could repeat that 2009 campaign in Seattle, but he was injured for most of 2011 and produced pedestrian numbers in 2012. He has averaged just 49.3 yards per game as a Seahawks wideout. The good news is that most of his remaining contract is tied up in large base salaries, so Seattle can cut him if desired with only a minor bump of dead money.

Wide Receiver: Robert Meachem, Chargers
Wide Receiver: Eddie Royal, Chargers
Contract Flaw: System Guy Out of System (Meachem), Paying for the Outlier (Royal)

San Diego’s dip into the free-agent market for wideouts last year proved to be disastrous. In 25 games between the two of them, Meachem and Royal produced 37 catches for 441 yards and three touchdowns. Total. Meachem might have looked better in the old San Diego downfield passing attack when it actually gave Philip Rivers time to throw, but Meachem’s $14 million guaranteed is basically a sunk cost now. Royal got only $6 million guaranteed and could have a more meaningful role if San Diego moves to a short passing game, but he has to make the roster first.

Tight End: Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars
Contract Flaws: Paying for the Outlier, Falling in Love With a Player They Shouldn’t Have

Departed general manager Gene Smith gave Lewis a five-year, $34 million contract extension before the 2011 season that guaranteed him $17 million, because Lewis had caught 10 touchdown passes and been a dominant red zone threat the previous year. Of course, he had seven touchdown receptions in the four seasons before that, and in the first year of his new contract Lewis went 15 games without scoring once. The Jaguars are paying him Rob Gronkowski money to play like Rob Gronkowski, and instead they’re getting the Emmett Richter of the Gronkowski family.

Offensive Tackle: Doug Free, Cowboys
Contract Flaws: Paying for the Outlier, Falling in Love With a Player They Shouldn’t Have

Dallas was pleased as punch with itself after Free had one competent season at left tackle in 2010, so it gave him a four-year, $32 million deal and guaranteed $17 million for Free to stay there. Since then, he has lost the left tackle job and nearly lost the right tackle job, forcing the Cowboys to restructure his deal. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 notes that Free was fifth in the league in blown blocks and led the league in both false starts (eight) and total penalties (15). Offensive linemen have fluke years, too.

Offensive Tackle: Gosder Cherilus, Colts
Contract Flaw: The Marginal Talent

You can understand the Colts wanting to protect Andrew Luck. No shame in that. But they severely misread the tackle market in giving Cherilus a five-year, $34.5 million contract with $15.5 million guaranteed during the opening week of free agency. Far superior tackles like Andre Smith and Sebastian Vollmer would later come off the market on less-lucrative deals.

Offensive Guard: Uche Nwaneri, Jaguars
Contract Flaw: Who Is Uche Nwaneri?

In terms of player recognition to salary, nobody makes more in the NFL than Uche Nwaneri, and it’s not even close. An otherwise-anonymous guard whom Gene Smith signed to a six-year extension in 2010, Nwaneri will occupy a whopping $5.9 million on Jacksonville’s cap this upcoming season, as well as each of the following two years if they choose to retain him. He just underwent a stem cell surgery on his knee that the Food and Drug Administration called a public health risk, though, so it sounds like everything is going to be cool there!

Offensive Guard: Mike Brisiel, Raiders
Contract Flaw: System Guy Out of System

The Raiders signed Brisiel away from Houston last offseason. There, Brisiel had been a key interior lineman in the zone-blocking scheme that had helped spring Arian Foster to superstardom. The Raiders were making a switch to a zone-blocking scheme themselves, which made no sense at the time. It sucked, Brisiel was disappointing, and now they’re moving back to a power-blocking scheme, leaving Brisiel a fish out of water. He restructured his deal this offseason, but the restructuring only served to convert some 2013 salary into a bonus that will be spread over the cap in seasons to come.

Center: Jeremy Zuttah, Buccaneers
Contract Flaw: Falling in Love With a Player They Shouldn’t Have

Zuttah is a decent utility lineman who has started at four of the five spots up front; that’s a player who has merit, but he’s not a particularly effective center, and he’s being paid $8.1 million guaranteed over 2012 and 2013 to be one.

The All–Bad Contracts Starting Defense

Defensive End: Charles Johnson, Panthers
Contract Flaw: Falling in Love With a Player They Shouldn’t Have

Johnson is a genuinely good player whom the Panthers were right to re-sign, but they waited until after his breakout year to do so. To prevent him from hitting the free-agent market, deposed general manager Marty Hurney gave Johnson an astounding six-year, $76 million contract that guaranteed him $32 million and made him one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. Since then, Johnson has been a good defensive end, but he’s not the sort of dominant player who would even come close to justifying that sort of contract.

Defensive End: Tyson Jackson, Chiefs
Contract Flaw: The Old-CBA Rookie Deal

Jackson was the third overall pick in the 2009 draft out of LSU, and as a defensive end, got a five-year, $57 million deal with $31 million guaranteed. He was never supposed to put up big pass-rushing stats as a 3-4 defensive end, but he failed to deliver on his potential as a run stopper. The Chiefs had to give him a restructured two-year, $21.97 million deal with $6.5 million guaranteed just to get out of the gruesome second half of his rookie contract.

Defensive Tackle: Barry Cofield, Redskins
Contract Flaws: The Marginal Talent, System Guy Out of System

One of Washington’s many forays into midlevel free agency, Cofield was a competent defensive tackle taking rotation snaps amid the league’s best defensive line with the Giants. The Redskins love taking away talent from the Jets and Giants, and Cofield gave them a chance to strike at Big Blue. Giving him a six-year, $36 million deal with $12.5 million guaranteed, though, was a strike too far.

Defensive Tackle: Ricky Jean-Francois, Colts
Contract Flaws: The Marginal Talent, System Guy Out of System

RJF has a very similar story to Cofield, but Cofield saw the field more frequently than Jean-Francois did as a 49er. The LSU product has started just two games in his career and only played sparingly in a great defense, but the Colts gave him $22 million over four years and $6.5 million guaranteed in the hopes that he’ll be their starting nose tackle up front. Maybe it will work, but this is a lot of risk for a deeply buried backup.

Linebacker: David Harris, Jets
Contract Flaw: Falling in Love With a Player They Shouldn’t Have

Please don’t think that I would have called out all these moves as bad decisions the day they were signed; I would have disparaged (and in fact did disparage) some of the choices, but in Harris’s case, I would have driven the Brink’s truck to valet myself. Harris was a dominant run-stopping linebacker, a guy who took on blockers and stopped backs in their tracks. Since he signed his four-year, $36 million deal, though, Harris simply hasn’t been the same guy. He looked like a shell of himself last season, and with $29.5 million of that deal guaranteed, the Jets can’t afford to cut him. Harris has a $13 million cap hit this year if he’s on the roster and a $13.6 million hit if he’s released. The Jets will hope he returns to form.

Linebacker: Will Smith, Saints
Contract Flaw: Falling in Love With a Player They Shouldn’t Have

The Saints have been forever waiting for Will Smith to emerge as an upper-echelon pass rusher, but like the other Will Smith, the football version might be five years past his prime. Smith has only two seasons with double-digit sacks on his résumé through seven years as a full-time starter, and he has averaged a mere 7.8 sacks per 16 games as a pro. Now he’ll move to outside linebacker with New Orleans’s push into the 3-4, so you can add “inexperienced” to the list of issues with Smith’s six-year, $61.4 million contract extension from 2008.

Linebacker: Jon Beason, Panthers
Contract Flaw: Falling in Love With a Player They Shouldn’t Have

People in and around the Carolina organization swear that Jon Beason was healthy when he signed his contract extension before the 2011 season, but Beason couldn’t practice that summer before the deal, didn’t practice after the deal was signed in camp, suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1 of 2011, and then limped through four games in 2012 before hitting the IR again with a knee injury that required microfracture surgery. He restructured his deal last week to lower his base salary from just over $5 million to $1 million, but he’s still in the middle of a six-year, $53 million deal with a $20 million signing bonus that makes him virtually uncuttable; the Panthers would have had to absorb a $13.3 million dead-money charge on their cap this year to do so, and that figure will be at $8 million next year. Beason was a very good player once, but this was a disastrous contract.

Cornerback: Carlos Rogers, 49ers
Contract Flaw: Paying for the Outlier

Even the 49ers make mistakes. They signed Carlos Rogers away from the Redskins on a bargain-basement one-year deal for $4.25 million, and Rogers promptly picked off six passes and made the Pro Bowl. When he hit free agency, the 49ers had to pay up to get him back, and after an uneven 2012, they’re already regretting the four-year, $29.3 million deal they gave him last offseason. Rogers was rumored to be on the cutting block when the 49ers tried to acquire Eric Wright last week, and if they do add a veteran cornerback before camp, his name will continue to fly in such rumors.

Cornerback: Orlando Scandrick, Cowboys
Contract Flaw: Falling in Love With a Player They Shouldn’t Have

Scandrick is a pretty good, undersize slot cornerback whom the Cowboys are paying like he’s a starter: A six-year, $28.2 million contract is simply too much for a player archetype that’s so easy to find around the league. Even a restructuring this offseason just pushed a bigger bonus for Scandrick into the future; he’s closer to being cut than to justifying this deal, although the dead-money situation should prevent that from happening until next year at the earliest.

Safety: Troy Polamalu, Steelers
Contract Flaw: Falling in Love With a Player They Shouldn’t Have

Polamalu was a force of nature when healthy, but since he signed this extension before 2011, he hasn’t been the same guy. Teams were able to pick on him during the second half of the 2011 campaign, when he was clearly struggling with an injury and far below 100 percent. Last year, he played just seven games and 386 snaps, a mere 39 percent of Pittsburgh’s defensive opportunities. The instincts will still be there in 2013, but at age 32, can Polamalu’s body hold up? Pittsburgh is paying him like the answer is yes.

Safety: Roman Harper, Saints
Contract Flaw: Falling in Love With a Player They Shouldn’t Have

Harper is a pretty good strong safety in terms of run blitzing and attacking the line of scrimmage. He’s an absolute disaster when he’s not sprinting toward the line at the snap. Nobody was worse in pass coverage last year, as teams spent the season picking on Harper with their running backs, tight ends, and combination routes. Harper was in the middle of a four-year deal with $16 million guaranteed before restructuring this offseason; he’s got $4 million guaranteed over the next three seasons with a max of $10.5 million in salary, but he might very well be benched for first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro and leave New Orleans after this year.

Keep these bad-contract types in mind when you see your team making decisions. There are exceptions to every rule, but this bad-contract crew represents the worst of NFL largesse.

Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, NFL, People, Sports

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell