|Justin Smith is a steal at $6.375M, while Kevin Kolb hasn't played up to his contract in Arizona. (US Presswire)|
There is no shortage of metrics to measure NFL players, and their worth, especially with advanced statistical analysis becoming much more the norm in the league and a philosophy of Moneyball finding its place in the game.
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But let's face it, the way guys are often measured in the locker room comes down to the size of the paycheck, with bragging rights at stake. A nd in an era when every knows, or can find out, what everyone else in the league is making, it's the time of year to take a look at some of the best bargains and most bloated contracts in the NFL.
The new rookie compensation system is putting an end to the immediate financial-bust potential of most picks, and it's also already providing a bumper crop of absolute steals (Cam Newton, anyone, at an average of like $5 million per season?).
But for the purposes of this exercise, I'm choosing to look at players with at least a few years in the league and who signed contracts under the old CBA. This list is by no means the end-all and be-all, but these are some of the contracts that caught my eye while perusing the breakdowns. And I tried to hit a good cross section of positions in this list as well, to spread things around.
In some of the cases of the bargains, you can expect contract extensions to come in the next year -- and some possibly considerably sooner -- and, at the other end of the spectrum, only significant guaranteed 2012 payments are keeping some of these guys off the street as free agents right now.
So, with that out of the way, let's start with 11 of the best steals in the NFL (All figures are total cash due to the player in 2012):
Aaron Rodgers, Packers, QB, $8.5M: Um, I don't really need to tout this guy's worth, do I? All he has done is quickly make everyone in Green Bay forget about Brett Favre, set historical records, show no fear of the big stage and he already has one Lombardi. I'm on record way back in 2009 as saying, based on age, production, and team-friendly contract, Rodgers was the one person I would pick to start any NFL franchise with, and three years later nothing has changed.
In an era where guys like Sam Bradford make $13.5 million a season and Drew Brees is shooting for $20 million per, Rodgers will earn $8.5 million in 2012 (that's Kevin Kolb money, people). And he's set to earn less than $20 million total in the two remaining years on his deal beyond that, though, I have to believe the Packers will get serious about contract talks with Rodgers after this season.
This is screaming for a renegotiation, with Rodgers' average salary placing him 10th in the NFL among all quarterbacks (behind the likes of Mark Sanchez, whom you will read more about below).
Justin Smith, DE, 49ers, $6.375M: Smith is heading into his third season after redoing his deal, but man if he isn't outperforming it again. He might have been the best defensive player in the NFL last season, and certainly was the central figure in San Francisco's resurgence. Without his wrecking-ball presence, I can't help but wonder if those linebackers would be as effective. Among all defensive ends, Smith stands 12th in average per year, and when Julius Peppers sets the market at this position at $14 million a year, Smith is certainly worth more than half that. He'll cost the 49ers a very manageable $8 million in 2013. Guys like Calais Campbell will pull in $17 million in 2012 alone, including bonuses, and Glenn Dorsey will make more on a cash basis than Smith this season.
Ryan Clady, T, Broncos, $3.5M: An offseason injury imperiled his 2012 season, but the stud left tackle got his game back and overcame it and is in line for a big payday. Of anyone on this list, his new deal could come first, given the import of his position and how underpaid he is as his rookie deal expires. No way you let him get a chance to hit the market being this good and this young, and Mike Shanahan has called him the best left tackle he has seen. Charlie Johnson and Adam Snyder are among those tackles set to make more than Clady in 2012, but, again, I doubt that ends up being the case. A deal could be done by the end of camp, if not sooner.
Joe Flacco, Ravens, QB, $6.76M: He is the subject of much debate, but through four years in the NFL, all he has managed to do is win at least one playoff game every year, he has won four road playoff games already, and he came a Lee Evans drop away from making his first Super Bowl appearance. And when you look at what he's making relative to guys like Sanchez and Bradford, and when you factor in that Flacco's earnings in 2012 put him in line with what stop-gap, end-of-their-career guys like Matt Hasselbeck make, then this is an absolute steal for a young quality starting quarterback. He makes less than Kolb and Matt Flynn in 2012.
Flacco hasn't been surrounded by great talent in the passing game and the offensive line has been iffy at times, but he has won a lot of games and been particularly strong at home. The Ravens would have to franchise him -- if nothing else -- in the future, as talks on a new deal haven't taken off and he's likely to play out this final year of his rookie deal; for a team with Baltimore's cap issues, having the QB count so little against the cap is huge.
Jason Babin, Eagles, DE, $5.75M: Criticize the Eagles and their Dream Team all you like, but everyone except for Nnamdi was signed to very cap-friendly and team-friendly deals. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn knew Babin well from his days at the Titans, and all this guy did was go out and challenge the NFL's single-season sack mark in his first year in Philly. The deal remains very cap-friendly and even in the event of injury, the cap prorations are set up so that the Eagles are protected and the team's cap is in great shape moving forward. Some of those moves from a year ago didn't work so well on the field, but this one certainly did (and Cullen Jenkins' deal is set up similarly as well, and Vince Young was only there for a year, and clearly trading Kevin Kolb made sense, too).
Alex Mack, Browns, C, $2 million: Another stalwart going deeper into his rookie deal, Mack has been an anchor for the offensive line and someone at the heart of what the Browns try to do in the run game and with pass protection. He gets overlooked some because of the team's overall offensive deficiencies, but just as the Browns took care of left tackle Joe Thomas a year ago, so too will Mack be in line for a new deal soon enough.
Mack ranks only 21st in the NFL in average salary for centers (Maurkice Pouncey is right in this area as well, and he's about a year behind Mack in the about-to-get-paid line), and with salaries for interior linemen shooting up big time since Mack entered the league, there is money to be made here. With another new quarterback-of-the-future under center in rookie Brandon Weeden, all the better to secure that QB/C combo for years to come.
Justin Tuck, Giants, DE, $3.85M: For all of the talk about Osi Umenyiora the past few years, and the Giants finally won over that pass rusher by reworking his deal, Tuck is in the same boat. An edge player who makes a huge difference in their pass rushing schemes, Tuck will count only $5.35M against the cap in 2012; another example of the Giants being proactive and getting young talent locked up. However, he's also due only $4.5M in 2013, and with guys like Charles Johnson making $12.7M per year, there will have to be a recalibration here as Tuck nears his turn on the free-agent market (worth noting that John Abraham and Ray Edwards will outearn Tuck in 2012).
Vince Wilfork, Patriots, DT, $5M: I know he is getting older, but is he really slowing down? And is anyone more vital on an erratic Pats defense? He is at the core of everything Bill Belichick does toggling from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and he can still be downright dominating in crucial situations. He allows that defense to survive despite having dynamic young pass rushers off the edge, and yes, you have to factor in the $18 million signing bonus he got in 2010, but still he's a bargain to me. The Pats structured the contract well in case the years do catch up to Wilfork, as he has $15 million in cash due to him between 2013-2014 -- manageable for sure.
Brian Orakpo, Redskins, LB, $1.39M: Washington was desperate for a young edge presence when it took Orakpo in the first round 2009, after flirting with quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez leading up to the draft, and he has delivered. He had a monster rookie season and there is no doubt his presence opened things up for rookie Ryan Kerrigan to shine on the opposite side in 2011. Orakpo could make another $500,000 in escalators in 2012, and in 2013, if he hits all escalators, then he would max out around $4.5M. For a double-digit sack guy, that's about as good of a bargain as you'll find. This is yet another example of how the old rookie system, outside of the first seven or eight picks, still allowed for teams to hit absolute home runs financially if they drafted well. Can't imagine Orakpo actually plays out his rookie deal, however, and the Redskins are willing to spend. And clearly he is a good sport, putting up with whoever was the creative genius behind those Geico commercials.
Brian Waters, Patriots, G, $1.5M: You have to think the Chiefs are kicking themselves for letting him go a year ago. One of the best men in the game and still a strong starting guard for a Super Bowl contender at this stage of his career. The Pats swooped in and signed him late, and he ended up being something of a salvation. And this year, should Waters play at anything close to the level he did in 2011, it's another big victory for the elite franchise. They could bump Waters up a few million based on last year's performance, and he would still be a bargain.
Victor Cruz, Giants, WR, $540,000: I am hesitant to put this one on, because I don't know anyone who expects him to play out his deal and not get better compensated by the time we get through the 2012 season. Cruz came out of nowhere, to not only make the team -- he had flashed at times in the preseason -- but become a true star for the Super Bowl champs. He blossomed into a legit No. 1 receiver and go-to guy for Eli Manning, and after losing Mario Manningham and with Hakeem Nicks injured, his value is tremendous right now.
And now, for the other side of the coin, literally, here are 11 of the more player-friendly contracts in the league:
Trent Williams, Redskins, T, $12M: While Orakpo shows how well teams could do in the past finding players in the first round outside the first quarter of the top round, his teammate shows the potential pitfalls and why the system was scrapped. Williams has been spotty on the field, with his motor questioned at times, with injuries an issue, and for repeatedly failing drug tests to the point where he has already faced a four-game suspension and where his next failed test would put him out of the league for a year.
And this is the guy who is supposed to have RG3's back on all of those bootlegs and rollouts? Look out. He needs to change a lot on and off the field in 2012, because carrying Williams with the fifth-highest average salary per year at this critical position, and getting the kind of scant production he has provided so far is a problem. He needs to be a big part of any offensive resurgence the Redskins can muster.
Mark Sanchez, Jets, QB, $11.75M: Similarly, a tip of the cap to agent David Dunn and the Athlete's First agency for managing to get a renegotiated deal for Sanchez coming off a woeful season with the team imploding and, now, with Tim Tebow nipping at his heels. Sanchez got $19.5M guaranteed as part of the deal and that pretty much locks him to the team through 2013 ... after all of the 2011 turmoil. Lot of people did double takes when this deal was done and the Jets have the propensity to be one of the primary sideshows in the NFL this season, with quarterback drama at the center of it all.
Kevin Kolb, Cardinals, QB, $8.5M: As mentioned, he's making as much as Aaron Rodgers this season, and at this point, it's a tossup whether he will beat out John Skelton as the starting quarterback. That tells the tale. Throw in a concussion and various injuries from a year ago, and the fact that Skelton became something of a cult hero as a former fifth-round pick -- out of Fordham, of all places -- and the team rallied for him, and this has the potential to be a short stint in the desert for Kolb. The Cards badly wanted Peyton Manning and obviously were willing to walk from Kolb to get him, but as it stands, they picked up the $7 million roster bonus on him. Thus far, the gamble hasn't worked, but expectations for the team are growing and without Kolb performing as a capable, steady quarterback, this trade and subsequent contract could end up blowing up. (Kudos to agent Jeff Nalley for securing the deal for Kolb, by the way).
Santonio Holmes, Jets, WR, $8M: Sorry to pile on here, but Holmes was one of the primary causes for the locker room and sideline meltdowns in New York last season, one of the biggest challenges to Sanchez, and after all of that, the Jets couldn't consider dealing or dumping him due to the heavy guarantees still in the deal (smart of agent Joel Segal for securing those). The Steelers look super smart now for dumping the malcontent a few years back for only a fifth-round pick, and they worried if the worst of Holmes would manifest itself more once Holmes really got paid. The Jets were the team that went ahead and put that money in his pocket after a great honeymoon first season for Holmes in green and white. Only 11 receivers make more on an average-per-year basis, and, aside from Brandon Marshall, all have been pretty much model citizens.
Brandon Marshall, Bears, WR, $9.5M: He obviously was a bust in Miami and has had domestic troubles and fought with teammates. This would seem to be his last, best shot to continue to earn big money in the NFL. The way the deal is structured, Chicago could get out of it in the future without much cap concern, and Marshall needs to make the most of his reunion with Jay Cutler.
Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars, TE. $7.35M: It was a noble gesture for the Jags to get him off the franchise tag a year ago and do a long-term deal that made him among the highest-paid at his position. But after a 2011 in which he virtually disappeared from a moribund offense and provided little help to embattled rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, and with the main crux of the Jags offense -- running back Maurice Jones-Drew and kicker Josh Scobee -- locked in contract disputes, Lewis needs to get in the end zone like he did in 2010. Only five tight ends make more in terms of average salary per year.
Bart Scott, Jets, LB, $7M: He was brought in on a big contract from Baltimore to lead Rex Ryan's defense and help teach it and be an on- and off-field leader. But the deal was fairly massive for an inside linebacker at the time, Scott was getting a little older, and now, with him no longer as effective and the Jets in discord, they are stuck with him since $4 million of his deal was effectively guaranteed. No one would trade for the deal, and cutting him at that price doesn't make much sense.
Gerald McCoy, Bucs, DT, $6.85M: McCoy has yet to find his way in the NFL, with injuries derailing the 2009 first-round pick. The quick emergence of Ndamukong Suh didn't help much, either, and this given that McCoy is set to make roughly $20M in salary between 2013-2014, and his $11M average per year makes him the fourth-highest paid DT in the NFL, it's fair to say the Bucs need much more out of him.
If he can produce anything remotely close to Suh's rookie season and display more of an ability to explode into the backfield and collapse the pocket, then that changes everything. But he's being paid as one of the very best at what he does -- again, the fatal flaw of the compensation of the top eight picks or so under the old CBA -- and another lost season and people will start throwing around that B-word.
DeAngelo Hall, Redskins, CB, $6.5M: This one looms large on several fronts. Hall is prone to outbursts, gambles far too often on routes and gets burned a ton, and also isn't known for his tackling. He gets some interceptions, but his plus-minus rating wouldn't be good. He can be disruptive and is making a boatload of money in a secondary that got shredded at times last season. Oh, and the Redskins dumped about $19 million in cash in his contract into the 2010 uncapped year, which led to the eventual sanctions by the NFL that included a $36 million cap hit over two seasons. (I thought the NFL coming out years later and agreeing to a side-deal on these cap ramifications was unfair, but whatever your opinion of that, the reality is that cap space is gone.) So, yeah, um, that's a prohibitive contract under any standard.
Zach Miller, Seahawks, TE, $6M: The Seahawks expected a game-breaker when they signed him as a free agent, pretty much the only one of the Raiders' 2011 top free agents Al Davis did not hand over ridiculous amounts of cash to retain. Instead, he never found his way in 2011 and, following the trade for tight end Kellen Winslow, when healthy a good pass catcher, the plot has only thickened in Seattle. The Seahawks are certainly hoping for bigger things from another 2011 free-agent splash, WR Sidney Rice, set to make $7 million this season.
Dunta Robinson, Falcons, CB, $5.0M: Atlanta envisioned a legit shutdown corner when it signed him to a huge deal at the start of 2010 free agency, despite his health issues with the Texans. A few years later, the deal was being restructured, corner remained an area of concern on the roster, and Brent Grimes was the top corner with Robinson trying to find his old form. His $5 million base is fully guaranteed, so he'll be with the Falcons at least through this season, but it jumps to $8 million next season, and that could be exit time if there's no resurgence this year.