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Avoiding Football’s Poison Pen

The 10 types of NFL contracts that will absolutely haunt your franchise

For all the arduous hours of research and scouting that go into the process of acquiring players, NFL organizations are littered with contracts they wish they had never agreed to. Every team has one, as even the best personnel departments fall in love with the wrong guy and get an itchy checkbook. The best are such because they limit their bad deals to one or two fingers; to count their regrettable contracts, the league’s worst franchises fill up both hands and have to take off their shoes.

A list of the league’s worst deals would be easy enough, but that’s not the point. Cherry-picking bad deals after the fact is easy. What’s more interesting is identifying bad sorts of deals, contracts that seemed ill-advised before pen ever touched paper just on concept alone. It’s one thing to say that the Redskins shouldn’t have signed Albert Haynesworth; it’s another to figure out why Haynesworth was a bad idea1 and be able to apply it to future decisions.

While NFL teams will always find new ways to be parted from their cash, we’ve identified 10 contract archetypes that stand out as frequent failures. Naturally, each of them is currently in play at one NFL spot or another, making up many of football’s most egregious contracts in the process. There’s no way to totally avoid bad deals, but knowing which sorts of deals failed in the past can at least protect your organization from setting itself up for failure. And, as it turns out, even old adages like “build through the lines” can fail if you identify the wrong lineman.

The Artifact

Type: The enormous top-five rookie contract from the old CBA that becomes a curse when stuck to a busted pick.
Current NFL example: Jason Smith

The Artifact goes first because it’s about to be extinct, thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement dampening rookie salaries at the top of the draft. First-rounders from the 2010 draft will be the last subset of players to command exorbitant salaries straight out of school.

Smith, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, was traded to the Jets on Monday after three disappointing seasons in St. Louis. Drafted to be the team’s left tackle of the future, Smith has instead been limited to the far-less-expensive right side of the line and was losing a camp battle to journeyman tackle Barry Richardson before being traded for Wayne Hunter. The disappointing performance likely owes to a repeated string of injuries, including concussions in each of his first three professional seasons. Smith was guaranteed $33 million by the six-year deal he signed before his rookie campaign, and while he re-negotiated his deal before the 2011 season, he was a colossal flop by any account. By comparison, USC tackle Matt Kalil received a guaranteed four-year, $20-million contract when the Vikings selected him with the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft.

Of all the contract types that will come up, this one is the most unfair because teams were forced to pay a particular price, with very little negotiation available. All of the other deals we’ll discuss are of a team’s own volition.

The Double-Down

Type: Locking a first-round pick who barely paid dividends on his rookie contract into a second long-term deal in the hopes that he’ll finally deliver on his promise.
Current NFL example: Michael Huff

There’s nothing wrong with locking a player into a big deal if he’s played well during his rookie contract, of course; we’re focusing here on guys who struggled during their entire four- or five-year deals and still got a second big contract from the same team. These are often inconsistent players who showed flashes of brilliance, causing their teams to be petrified with the idea of losing them to somebody who will elicit more consistent success out of them. Huff’s a good example, as a seventh overall pick who never really stuck the landing as a starter at safety for the Raiders. Despite that, Oakland gave him a four-year, $32 million contract2 last offseason that guaranteed him $16 million. The only reason new general manager Reggie McKenzie didn’t cut him this offseason is because Oakland owed him $8 million in guaranteed money whether he was in their organization or not.

If you’re thinking about possible upcoming contracts who would fit this archetype, there’s one obvious candidate: Joe Flacco. Unless Flacco takes a big leap forward this season — one that goes past his 2008-10 numbers, not one that merely surpasses his dismal totals from 2011 — the Ravens will have to decide whether it’s a good idea to give an occasionally awful quarterback $40 million in guaranteed money.

The Cash-and-Carry

Type: Giving a veteran running back significant guaranteed money on a long-term deal after his first 1,000 (or so) carries.
Current NFL examples: Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson

Quick: How many veteran running backs have been productive for more than one season on their current upper-echelon running back contract? Are there any? Maurice Jones-Drew might qualify, but his deal was well below the sort of contracts that Johnson and Peterson received. The only examples might be Michael Turner and Steven Jackson, and they stand against plenty of players who got the money and did nothing with it, either through a decline in performance (Marion Barber) or because of injuries (Brandon Jacobs, the guys above). Both these teams would take back the contracts their indispensable running backs signed if they could. Correction: Both these teams would deal their indisputable running backs and their mammoth contracts to the Dodgers if they could.

The Makeup Cash

Type: Giving a player lots of money to satiate him after hurting his feelings.
Current NFL example: Mark Sanchez

This contract was covered in March when the Jets failed to acquire Peyton Manning or Robert Griffin III. It’s not as bad as it might have seemed on the surface, since it freed up about $6 million for the Jets on their 2012 cap, but it turned $20.5 million in unguaranteed money from Sanchez’s rookie contract into guaranteed cash. That’s not going to force the Jets into bankruptcy, but it’s two years of guaranteed money for a guy who is going to be competing for a starting job with Tim Tebow as the season goes along. Sanchez’s deal might also qualify as a Double-Down, since the Jets are still waiting to see signs of development from their frequently embattled starter.

One relatively docile version of this is when teams will give a disgruntled player a much smaller sum to get him out of a holdout and back into camp. It’s a move the Titans pulled with Chris Johnson in 2010, increasing his guaranteed 2010 pay by $1.5 million to prevent him from holding out. Of course, Johnson still held out before the 2011 season, and got his massive deal anyway, so the appeasement strategy arguably didn’t work. This is what will probably end up happening with the Maurice Jones-Drew holdout; the Jaguars will give him a couple million bucks for 2012 without giving him the long-term deal he craves, all three sides (team, player, and agent) can claim a small victory, and the argument will be tabled till 2013.

The Brand-Name Shopper

Type: Paying for the illusion of quality/consistency when freely available talent would offer a similar level of performance for a fraction of the price.
Current NFL examples: Connor Barth, Matt Prater, Josh Scobee

Another topic that’s seen previous action here on Grantland, relatively fungible players like Barth, Prater, and Scobee are getting long-term deals despite the fact that there’s virtually no difference between their likely production in the future and that of a kicker available on the waiver wire. Teams sign these guys off the scrap heap — Barth and Prater were both undrafted journeymen before catching on in their respective cities — and then choose to give them long-term deals for millions of dollars as opposed to merely going back to the scrap heap and finding the next Barth or Prater.

An example of how this contract often fails to work out came on Sunday, when the Ravens released Billy Cundiff only one year after Cundiff made the All-Pro team and received a lucrative extension. Cundiff is exactly the sort of player who fits these criteria. He was signed off the waiver wire by the Ravens in 2009, and despite the fact that he’d hit 74.4 percent of his field goals before 2010, they were fooled by a 26-for-29 (89.6 percent) performance during his “breakout” season.3 In 2012, Cundiff promptly went 28-for-37, a 75.7 percent rate that looked far more like his career numbers than that tremendous 2010. And while the Ravens signed Cundiff because they undoubtedly wanted somebody they could trust in the big moments, Cundiff finished the season by badly missing a 32-yard field goal that would have pushed the AFC championship game into overtime. The Ravens paid for certainty and instead received the illusion of certainty. When your favorite team locks a kicker into a long-term contract for his field goal accuracy, they’re doing the same.

The Copycat

Type: Trying to emulate a successful strategy without the talent by overpaying for a mediocre version of the player(s) you need.
Current NFL example: John Carlson

Earlier in August, we pointed out that the Vikings gave a $25 million contract to former Seahawks tight end John Carlson in the hopes of teaming him with promising draft pick Kyle Rudolph. Undoubtedly, their hope is to emulate the Patriots’ combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, giving second-year quarterback Christian Ponder a pair of reliable targets.

That’s all fine and dandy, but Carlson? Really? The Notre Dame product has seen both his reception and yardage totals decline during each successive pro season, and after a 31-catch year in 2010, the Seahawks gave Zach Miller a big contract to push Carlson onto the bench. Instead, Carlson missed the entire season with a torn labrum. Despite the presence of Rudolph on the roster, the Vikings still gave Carlson more than $9 million in guaranteed money. Deals like Carlson’s are why agents have beach houses.

The Out-of-Context

Type: Signing a player out of the perfect scheme/roster construction for his skills and expecting him to produce similarly elsewhere.
Current NFL example: Aaron Ross

Last June, just about anyone in the NFL could have acquired Aaron Ross for a mid-level pick. The former first-round pick had fallen out of favor in New York after insisting on playing cornerback, and he was a distant fourth on the Giants depth chart. After three other Giants cornerbacks went down with long-term injuries, though, Ross stepped up and started all season for a Super Bowl winner. The Jaguars followed up by signing Ross to a three-year deal.

What’s the problem with that? Think about the Giants defense. They have arguably the league’s best set of defensive linemen, a freakish pass rush that shows up on every single play. Across from Ross was Corey Webster, one of the league’s best cornerbacks. Ross was basically in a perfect situation for a limited cornerback, and the Jaguars have now signed him without any of those things in tow. Do you think Ross will look more like the steady starter or the guy who was available for peanuts?

Unfortunately for Jaguars fans, we’re not quite done with Jacksonville yet.

The Stat Nerd

Type: Convincing yourself that a performance in a single statistical category represents an actual skill that’s worth paying over the market for.
Current NFL example: Marcedes Lewis

In 2010, Marcedes Lewis caught 10 touchdown passes amid 58 receptions. He had just seven touchdowns across 123 receptions and four years before that, but that 10-touchdown year meant that he was now a “red-zone threat” and got a $35 million contract that resembles the deal given to Rob Gronkowski.

Pick your statistical outlier! Topping your career touchdown total in a given season? Averaging a touchdown every six catches? Both? Either way, the Lewis contract was unconscionably bad on the day it was signed, and the Jaguars paid the piper when their red-zone threat failed to catch a single touchdown pass in 2011.

The Refilled Health Meter

Type: Signing an injury-prone player to a long-term deal after a rare season of health.
Current NFL examples: Laurent Robinson, D’Qwell Jackson

Occasionally, players struggle with injuries for years at a time and suddenly get healthy. It happens, with Charles Woodson being a notable example. Most of the time, though, teams who sign a player with a limited track record of attendance after one notably healthy season get the injury-riddled guy as opposed to the healthy one. In this case, the Jaguars are paying Laurent Robinson like the guy who answered the bell every time in Dallas last season as opposed to the one who missed time with injuries during each of his four previous NFL seasons. They gave Robinson $13.8 million guaranteed — just over $1 million less than the Eagles had to give DeSean Jackson — to find out whether he can extend that healthy streak into 2012 and beyond.

The Browns made the same mistake with Jackson this year, giving a player who missed all of 2010 and one out of every three games as a pro a five-year, $42.5 million deal.

The Unfilled Health Meter

Type: Giving a player coming off of multiple injuries without any sustained track record of health a long-term deal.
Current NFL example: Thomas Davis

As talented as the Panthers linebacker was when he was healthy, Davis missed nine games in 2009 and all of the 2010 season after suffering consecutive ACL tears. Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, as part of his plan to lock up the core of the 2-14 2010 Panthers to long-term deals, gave Davis a five-year, $36.5 million contract. Davis promptly tore his ACL again in Week 2. The Panthers got him to waive an $8 million roster bonus this offseason to stay with the team, but who were the Panthers competing with to give Davis a long-term contract?

You can probably distill these concepts into even more generic ideas. Don’t sign injury-prone players to long-term deals. Avoid guys with one lone year of success. Don’t pay the performance rate for potential. Consider history when deciding whom to lock up. You could be a director of pro personnel if you stuck by those four tenets. Well, it’s safe to say that most NFL teams think about those concepts and would be happy to abide by them. The reality, unfortunately, is that general managers get desperate and force themselves into moves that are ill-advised. Perhaps they’re running a mediocre team and give a guy more money than he deserves in the hopes that the team will play better and the GM won’t get fired. Maybe they’re a competitive team that has money to burn and one or two holes to fill. A coach or even an owner could have a predilection for a particular player and insist on acquiring him. Strange things happen.

Those sorts of decisions reinforce just how valuable it is to draft well and build the bulk of your team from within. Doing so allows you to avoid the free-agent market altogether (Steelers) or invest at the absolute top and bottom of the market (Eagles, Patriots), where the true talent and possible bargains lie. Most important, it keeps you from making desperate, money-burning deals for mediocre players. That — in combination with knowing what sorts of contracts tend to fail — keeps your organization successful.

Filed Under: NFL, Sports

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell