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The All–Bad Contracts Team

Let’s break down the worst deals in the NFL and the five different ways to overpay someone

After covering the league’s most valuable contracts earlier this week, it’s time to move on and pillory the worst deals in the NFL. Now, while it’s easy to do this solely for the sake of ridicule, it’s not my goal; I’ve found that bad football contracts often fit into one of five categories, and by examining those archetypes among the league’s current contracts, we can actually learn about which sorts of deals teams shouldn’t make before they actually sign them.

As I wrote about in last year’s All–Bad Contract Team article, here are the five contract stories to watch out for:

The Old-CBA Rookie Deal: Contracts signed by players taken in the top five of the NFL draft under the old collective bargaining agreement, which includes players selected as recently as 2010. These deals often made players like Jake Long among the highest-paid at their respective positions in league history before ever stepping on the field. This contract archetype is actually soon to disappear, as the last stragglers from the 2010 NFL draft will have their rookie contracts expire by the end of 2015.

The Marginal Talent: When the salary cap remains relatively stagnant, the middle class gets squeezed. When the cap rises dramatically, as it did this past season, teams overpay replacement-level or otherwise marginal players who are readily available even without paying a premium. If a player was available on the waiver wire the previous year and you weren’t interested in bringing him in for the league minimum, chances are that he’s not worth $10 million in guaranteed money 12 months later.

Paying for the Outlier: Watch out for those career years, teams. When a player who averages two touchdowns per season over four years puts together a 10-touchdown campaign, don’t pay him like he’s going to score 10 touchdowns a year from that point forward. This was a classic Jaguars blunder under Gene Smith, as they made that move with Marcedes Lewis and Laurent Robinson. The same stands for the oft-injured player who manages to stay on the field for 16 games and gets paid like he’ll never miss a game again. It’s one thing to sign a healthy player and have him tear his ACL, like Geno Atkins, and another to give a long-term extension to a player who is constantly on the shelf. Health is a skill, too.

System Guy Out of System: Players don’t produce in a vacuum; different schemes and surrounding personnel dramatically influence what a player can or can’t do. The classic blunder here is paying for a second or third receiver from a great offense and employing him to produce the same numbers as the top wideout for your abysmal passing attack.

Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have? Perhaps the toughest contract to avoid. Teams too easily fall in love with the players they’ve nurtured and pay a premium to avoid having them leave town. You want to retain some of your talent, of course, but when the price tag doesn’t match the player’s talent level, you have to trust your ability to draft and develop a rookie to take his place. This is the mistake Jerry Jones loves to make.

Click here for more from our 2014 NFL preview.

This group starts with a repeat contributor who must surely be getting his last chance to justify his outlandish contract …

The All–Bad Contracts Starting Offense

Quarterback: Joe Flacco, Ravens
Contract Flaw: Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have?

I thought nothing would be able to top the Sam Bradford rookie contract as long as it stayed on St. Louis’s books, but the massive deal given to Flacco after his Super Bowl win narrowly takes the cake. As bad as the Bradford deal is, at least the Rams can get out of it after this season and save significant money ($13 million) in the process. Flacco is surely the better quarterback of the two, but Baltimore is stuck in this deal for years to come. It can’t really do much about this deal until after the 2016 season, during which Flacco will have a cap hit of — shield your children’s eyes — $28.6 million. In 2017, the Ravens get to choose between paying Flacco $31.2 million or eating $15.3 million in dead money on their cap. Flacco will be better than he was last year, and the cap is going to rise, but Flacco has to be a great quarterback to justify this deal, and the only time he really was great was during the 2012 playoffs.

Running Back: Arian Foster, Texans
Contract Flaw: System Guy Out of System; Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have?

Under Gary Kubiak, the Texans ran a zone-blocking scheme that was famous for creating superstars out of no-name running backs in Denver. After cycling through backs in Houston, Kubiak eventually found a steady starter in Foster, an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee. After Foster ran for 2,840 yards and 26 touchdowns in two seasons as a starter, the Texans could have chosen to re-up Foster for one more season as a restricted free agent, paying him $3 million or so on a one-year deal while planning to move on to fresh backup Ben Tate the following year. Instead, the Texans declined a cheap year of Foster and gave him a five-year, $43.5 million deal. Foster’s yards per carry and yards per game are both down since the extension, and injuries held him to a half-season in 2013. Foster is a tough player and one of the most erudite men in the league, but the Texans should have taken advantage of their system and minted the next Arian Foster while using their money elsewhere.

Running Back: DeAngelo Williams, Panthers
Contract Flaw: Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have?

I wrote about the disastrous contracts handed out by Marty Hurney to the core of his 2-14 Panthers team here, which includes Williams’s ill-advised deal. Despite the presence of former first-round pick Jonathan Stewart and a paucity of depth elsewhere on the roster, Hurney badly misread the running back market and re-signed Williams to a five-year, $43 million contract with $21 million guaranteed. Carolina has already had to restructure the deal to try to create cap space, and Williams hasn’t even produced a 900-yard season since signing his new contract.

Wide Receiver: Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs
Contract Flaw: Paying for the Outlier; Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have?

A useful wideout who has been saddled with some middling quarterbacks during his career, Bowe’s résumé as a top-10 wideout primarily consists of a seven-week stretch in the 2010 season in which Bowe caught 49 passes for 733 yards and 13 touchdowns against abysmal defenses. Bowe has just 13 receiving touchdowns in the three seasons since that career year, but when he was about to hit free agency last year, a desperate Chiefs team gave him a five-year, $56 million contract with $20 million guaranteed.

Wide Receiver: Greg Jennings, Vikings
Contract Flaw: System Guy Out of System

Wanting a new no. 1 wideout for young quarterback Christian Ponder, the Vikings went shopping in free agency and came away with Jennings, who was once a star for the Packers. Despite the fact that he would be moving from Aaron Rodgers to Ponder, the Vikes authorized a five-year, $45 million deal for Jennings, who would turn 30 at the beginning of the 2013 season. He finished with a pedestrian 68 catches for 808 yards and four touchdowns in his first season away from Lambeau; the good news, perhaps, is that there’s no further guaranteed money in Jennings’s deal after 2014.

Tight End: Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars
Contract Flaw: Paying for the Outlier; Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have?

Nichols’s Law of Catcher Defense holds that a catcher’s defensive reputation is inversely correlated to his offensive output. A catcher who hits well will be regarded as a subpar defender, but as his output decreases, his work with the glove will begin to attract positive attention. A catcher who never hits will be treated as a defensive guru. In much the same vein, Marcedes Lewis has come to be regarded as a very good blocking tight end. I don’t doubt Lewis’s competency, but much of that reputation surely owes to the facts that he both makes a ton of money ($35 million over five years) and is an offensive zero.

Offensive Tackle: Sam Baker, Falcons
Contract Flaw: Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have?

Having repeatedly seen Baker struggle with both his health and his performance as a pass blocker in the left tackle role he had been drafted to fill, the Falcons found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place last offseason. They had few options at offensive tackle and limited salary-cap space to work with, but Baker just wasn’t athletic or reliable enough to play left tackle. Instead of moving on, Atlanta compromised and gave Baker a six-year, $41 million contract with $14.3 million guaranteed. One year later, Baker has proven yet again that he’s not a quality left tackle, which led Atlanta to use its first-round pick this year on Jake Matthews. He’ll be Matt Ryan’s left tackle sooner rather than later, while Baker will become one of the more expensive right tackles in football.

Offensive Tackle: Michael Oher, Titans
Contract Flaw: The Marginal Talent

Having failed to develop into the elite left tackle described in The Blind Side, Oher left the Ravens this offseason in search of a new deal. Despite his having been limited to playing right tackle, the Titans gave Oher a four-year, $20 million deal with nearly half of that figure guaranteed. Even worse, they used their first-round pick on Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan, meaning that Oher may very well spend his first year in Tennessee on the bench.

Guard: Jeromey Clary, Chargers
Contract Flaw: The Marginal Talent; Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have?

A mess at right tackle in San Diego for years, Clary has repeatedly been defended by the organization as a worthwhile contributor to what has usually been a terrible offensive line. He moved to guard last season after the team drafted D.J. Fluker in the first round, where he wasn’t much better. He’s in the final year of a four-year, $20 million deal; if the Chargers don’t cut him, he’ll be the fourth-highest-paid player on the team.

Guard: Chris Williams, Bills
Contract Flaw: The Marginal Talent

Perhaps the 2014 offseason’s most inexplicable contract, Williams was rewarded for a year of middling guard work in St. Louis with a four-year, $13.4 million contract from Buffalo.

Center: Alex Mack, Browns
Contract Flaw: Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have?

The most surprising bidding war of the offseason came between two of the league’s doormats, Cleveland and Jacksonville. The duo fought over Mack, an above-average center who suddenly became the highest-paid center in the league. Mack’s five-year, $42 million contract guarantees him a staggering $26 million, $7 million more than any other center in football. He’ll have a 2014 cap hit of $10 million; no other centers cost more than $7.3 million. Because the Jaguars structured the deal to discourage Cleveland from matching, they also left Mack with a player option in 2016, which he can use to hit free agency again. No center is worth this sort of deal, even a good one.

The All–Bad Contracts Starting Defense

Defensive End: Kamerion Wimbley, Titans
Contract Flaw: Paying for the Outlier

The 13th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft, Wimbley was ticketed for stardom after accruing 11 sacks in his first season with the Browns. Since then, he’s been consistently disappointing. He has averaged six sacks per season in the seven ensuing campaigns, with his profile artificially raised by a four-sack performance on Thursday Night Football in 2011 against backup Chargers tackle Brandyn Dombrowski. The Titans brought him in on a five-year, $35 million deal in 2012 to provide sacks, but he lost his starting job last year and had to settle for a restructured three-year deal to keep his roster spot this offseason.

Defensive End: Everson Griffen, Vikings
Contract Flaw: Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have?

A promising backup who has accrued 17.5 sacks across four seasons with Minnesota while playing behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison, Griffen was marked for the starting lineup after Allen’s contract expired this past offseason. The only problem? Griffen was also about to hit free agency. To avoid losing him, the Vikings gave the 26-year-old a stunning deal. Despite starting just one career pro game, Griffen was signed to a five-year, $42.5 million contract that guarantees him nearly $20 million. If Minnesota had that much faith in Griffen, why didn’t it extend him during his time as a backup, when he surely would have come cheaper? The best-case scenario is that Griffen delivers on his promise and lives up to the massive deal. The worst-case? Minnesota just gave a superstar’s deal to a player best used in small doses.

Defensive Tackle: Jason Hatcher, Washington
Contract Flaw: Paying for the Outlier; System Guy Out of System

Hatcher had spent years as a backup 3-4 end in Dallas before 2013, in which two key things happened: The Cowboys moved to a 4-3 defense, and they hired defensive line guru Rod Marinelli to coach their linemen. Hatcher kicked inside to tackle and had an enormous year as an interior pass-rusher, leading a disappointing Cowboys defense with 11 sacks. He’d had just 16 sacks across his previous seven seasons. Washington, exhibiting its usual wisdom, saw this and signed the 32-year-old Hatcher to a four-year, $27.5 million deal in which he will once again become a 3-4 defensive end more than a thousand miles away from Marinelli’s tutelage. And even that might be generous; Hatcher will miss part of training camp after having his knee scoped.

Linebacker: Paul Kruger, Browns
Contract Flaw: Paying for the Outlier; System Guy Out of System

After struggling to carve out consistent playing time during Kruger’s first three and a half seasons in Baltimore, injuries and subpar play led a desperate Ravens team to turn to him, their second-round pick from the 2009 draft. He responded with 12 sacks in his final 12 games as a Baltimore player, culminating with two sacks in the Super Bowl win over the 49ers. Cleveland saw the possibility to steal a young pass-rusher away from its rivals and gave Kruger a mammoth five-year, $40.5 million deal with $20 million guaranteed. He mustered up a mere 4.5 sacks in his first year with the team, often looking like their third-best pass-rusher behind rookie Barkevious Mingo and supplanted incumbent Jabaal Sheard.

Linebacker: Philip Wheeler, Dolphins
Contract Flaw: Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have? (But mostly Letting Jeff Ireland Touch the Checkbook)

In his last offseason as Dolphins general manager, Jeff Ireland decided that he wanted to revamp his linebacking corps. Out went Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby, the latter of whom would produce a Defensive Player of the Year–caliber season for Arizona for $2.25 million. In, on enormous contracts, came Dannell Ellerbe and Wheeler. Ellerbe, a competent player being paid like he’s a star, is merely overpaid. Wheeler received a five-year, $26 million deal and was so bad during his first season in Miami that the Dolphins would surely have cut him in March if it wouldn’t cost them $10.6 million on this year’s cap.

Linebacker: Erik Walden, Colts
Contract Flaw: The Marginal Talent

A practice squad journeyman who caught on with the Packers during their Super Bowl run, Walden is a replacement-level talent who can serve as a competent run defender at times. The Colts gave him a four-year, $16 million deal with $8 million guaranteed, perhaps owing to a rare big game Walden had played against the Colts the previous season. Good organizations find players with Walden’s skills in the free-agency market and replace them with the next Erik Walden when they get expensive; bad organizations pay a premium for the name brand when the generic is just as good. Of course, sometimes, bad organizations fall into Andrew Luck, too.

Linebacker: Jon Beason, New York Giants
Contract Flaw: Paying for the Outlier

After struggling with injuries for two years, Beason lost his middle linebacker spot in Carolina to Luke Kuechly and his spot in the starting lineup to former Giants special-teams wizard Chase Blackburn. Carolina then dealt Beason away to those same Giants, who seemingly haven’t invested in linebackers  since Bill Parcells was around. Beason miraculously stayed healthy and was a productive part for a defense that got better as the season went along. Instead of thanking their lucky stars that Beason solidified things and moving on to a player with a less-checkered injury history, the Giants gave Beason a three-year, $16.8 million deal with just over $6 million guaranteed. By June, Beason had suffered a serious foot injury that is expected to keep him out for the remainder of camp and, possibly, part of September.

Cornerback: Orlando Scandrick, Cowboys
Contract Flaw: Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have?

Scandrick was a decent slot cornerback who represented solid value when he was making fifth-round pick money; Jerry Jones gave him a five-year, $25 million deal in 2011 that paid him like a starting corner. Then, with the team facing its annual cap woes, Dallas extended the deal to 2018. The good news is that Scandrick has been better than Morris Claiborne, who has been a disaster since Dallas traded up to draft him with the sixth overall pick of 2012. The bad news is … oh, it’s all bad news.

Cornerback: Kyle Arrington, Patriots
Contract Flaw: The Marginal Talent

For a defensive genius, Bill Belichick has really struggled to identify cornerback talent over the past decade or so with the Patriots. He has repeatedly wasted first- and second-round picks on corners who failed to develop, and as a result, he’s been stuck using undrafted free agents and late-round picks in key roles. One of those journeymen was Arrington, a versatile, willing defensive back who is often picked on by opposing offenses. Despite his being benched during 2012, the Patriots surprisingly gave him a four-year, $16 million contract before the 2013 season. He found himself limited to slot duty and was New England’s fourth-best cornerback for most of the season. With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner now in town, Arrington’s buried even deeper on the depth chart, but it will cost the Patriots more to cut Arrington ($4.9 million) than to keep him ($3.6 million).

Safety: Dashon Goldson, Buccaneers
Contract Flaw: System Guy Out of System

The 49ers have one of the league’s best defenses, but bad things seem to happen to the players who leave Patrick Willis’s warm embrace each offseason. Players like Aubrayo Franklin and Takeo Spikes have failed to impress elsewhere after succeeding in the Bay Area, and Goldson might be the next player on that list. After forming a big-hitting partnership with Donte Whitner, Goldson hit the free-agent market in 2013 and finally got the long-term deal he craved, signing a massive five-year, $41.3 million deal with the Buccaneers. He spent his first season with the team overrunning plays and seemingly daring the NFL to suspend him for his illegal hits. The NFL finally obliged in November. The fourth-highest-paid safety in football, Goldson still has $9 million in guaranteed money remaining on his deal over the next two seasons.

Safety: Troy Polamalu, Steelers
Contract Flaw: Ever Fallen in Love With a Player You Shouldn’t Have?

Nobody doubts Polamalu’s legacy as an all-time great Steelers defender and a likely future Hall of Famer, but the former USC star simply isn’t the player he once was, as he lacks the range to play the rover role he perfected under Dick LeBeau and is often reduced to relying on his instincts and film study to guess how a play will turn out, with little chance of recovering if his guesses are wrong. A capped-out Steelers team probably shouldn’t have given Polamalu an extension in 2011, but they did themselves no favors by restructuring the 33-year-old’s deal this offseason to pay him $22.6 million through 2016.

Of course, it’s impossible to avoid bad contracts. Every team in football has a bad deal or two on its books, and that’s not going to change. Variance is too powerful. By being forward-thinking and avoiding high-risk deals like the ones I’ve mentioned here, though, teams can reduce their exposure to contracts that are likely to blow up in their faces while saving money for the players they need to lock up. 

Filed Under: NFL, 2014 NFL Preview, Joe Flacco, Arian Foster, DeAngelo Williams, Michael Oher, Alex Mack, Orlando Scandrick, Jon Beason, Troy Polamalu, Dashon Goldson, Dwayne Bowe, Greg Jennings, Marcedes Lewis, Sam Baker, Jeromey Clary, Chris Williams, Kamerion Wimbley, Everson Griffen, Jason Hatcher, Paul Kruger, Philip Wheeler, Erik Walden, Kyle Arrington, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pittsburgh Steelers

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell