The NFL's financial landscape is being assessed through awards for the ninth straight year on CBSSports.com now that the Super Bowl LVI matchup is set. These awards differ from the traditional NFL honors because they are from an economic perspective emphasizing 2021 veteran acquisitions.
Players acquired by trades or in free agency can have a tremendous impact on an NFL team's fortunes. Rookies weren't given any consideration because their salaries are a function of draft position and the rookie wage scale. The same applies to players who signed restricted free agent tenders since the amounts are set by the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement. A runner up is named when warranted.
Most Valuable Acquisition
Rams head coach Sean McVay wanted an upgrade at quarterback after souring on 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff last season despite him signing a four-year contract extension averaging $33.5 million per year with the Rams shortly before the 2019 regular season started. Matthew Stafford is in Los Angeles because the Lions accommodated his request to be traded to a contending team. Goff was included in this trade where the Lions received a 2022 first round pick, a 2023 first round pick and a 2021 third round pick from the Rams. Stafford was viewed as the missing piece for a Rams team that lost to the Packers in the divisional playoffs last season with the NFL's best defense after beating the Seahawks in the wild card round.
Stafford's strong start to the season made him a leading candidate for NFL MVP while the Rams went 7-1. A brutal November in which the Rams lost all three of their games and Stafford threw a pick-six in each contest ended his MVP candidacy.
Stafford, who never won a playoff game in three tries with the Lions, has risen to the occasion by getting the Rams to the Super Bowl. In three playoff games, Stafford has completed 72% of his passes (72 of 100 attempts) for 905 yards with six touchdowns and one interception to post a 115.6 passer rating.
After Stafford was instrumental in the Rams overcoming a 10 point fourth quarter deficit to defeat the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, McVay's comments about him spoke volumes.
"We went out and got him because we thought it was a chance to be able to get a great player of his magnitude. Those things don't come around often," McVay said. "What he's done, he's elevated everybody around. He's made me a better coach. He's made teammates better."
Wide receiver Cooper Kupp had a season for the ages with Stafford throwing to him. He became the first player since Steve Smith with the Panthers in 2005 to win the receiving triple crown by leading the NFL in receptions, receiving, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Kupp nearly broke the single season record for catches and yards. Kupp's 145 receptions and 1,947 receiving yards are both second on the single season list. He had 16 receiving touchdowns.
2022 is a contract year for Stafford. He should be able to pretty much name his own price in a contract extension with a Super Bowl victory. It's conceivable that Stafford could become the league's highest player, which is currently Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes at $45 million per year, even if the Rams' quest for a championship falls short. The five-year, $135 million contract extension Stafford signed in 2017 put him at the top of the NFL's pay scale despite a lack of postseason success.
Least Valuable Acquisition
Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry exceeded most reasonable contract projections when the Patriots signed the tight ends to three and four year deals averaging $12.5 million per year. The deals made the duo the NFL's third highest paid tight ends. Smith set a record for the most money fully guaranteed in a tight end contract with $31.25 million. The Patriots were seemingly trying to replicate the two tight end success of the early 2010s when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were the league's two highest paid tight ends.
Smith didn't come close to living up to the old saying of "to whom much is given, much is expected." Smith only had 28 catches for 294 yards and one touchdown in 16 games this season while taking 47.64% of New England's offensive snaps (525 of 1,102 plays). Among tight ends, Smith was 34th in the NFL in receptions and 31st in receiving yards.
Offensive Signing of the Year
Nobody envisioned Cordarrelle Patterson becoming an indispensable offensive weapon for the Falcons when he signed a one-year, $3 million deal with $1.7 million fully guaranteed last April. Patterson led the Falcons with 618 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He was third on the team with 52 receptions. Patterson was named the Pro Football Writers of America's Co-Most Improved Player with Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs. 306 of Patterson's 472 offensive snaps were in the backfield at running back while 164 were at wide receiver according to Pro Football Focus.
Patterson set a career high with 1,166 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards) this season. A member of the 2010s All-Decade team as a kick returner, Patterson's 1,609 all purpose yards (combined rushing, receiving and return yards) were sixth most in the league.
Defensive Signing of the Year
Trey Hendrickson was brought in to help address an anemic Bengals pass rush. The Bengals ranked last in the NFL during the 2020 season with 17 sacks. He was signed to a three-year, $45 million contract averaging $15 million per year.
Hendrickson was a classic buyer beware free agent signing because he came out of nowhere last season to tie three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald for second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks. In his three previous NFL seasons, Hendrickson had a total of 6.5 sacks.
Hendrickson proved his 2020 season wasn't a fluke. He earned his first Pro Bowl berth with 14 sacks, which were the fifth most in the NFL. Per PFF, Hendrickson's 85 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) were also fifth in the NFL. Cincinnati's sack total more than doubled with Hendrickson, increasing from 17 to 42.
Runners Up: De'Vondre Campbell, LB, Packers; Matthew Judon, EDGE, Patriots
De'Vondre Campbell didn't sign a one-year, $2 million deal with an additional $500,000 in playtime incentives until last June because nobody was willing to meet his target price, which was initially in the $10 million per year range according to my sources. It was the second year in a row Campbell signed a one-year "prove it" deal in free agency. The base value of the Packers contract was for one-third of the money he made in 2020.
Campbell thrived in Green Bay as an every down linebacker. He was on the field for 91.56% of Green Bay's defensive plays (987 of 1,078 snaps). Campbell was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October. It was a precursor to Campbell earning 1st team All-Pro honors.
Darius Leonard and Fred Warner took off ball linebacker compensation to new heights in 2021. Warner was the first to hit the $19 million mark with the five-year extension he received from the 49ers just before the start of training camp. Leonard subsequently eclipsed Warner on the five-year, $98.5 million extension he signed with the Colts in early August,
Campbell won't approach this salary stratosphere on the open market although he had a better season than Leonard and Warner. He'll need the off-ball linebacker market in free agency to be more like 2020 than 2021. Matt Milano was the only such linebacker to hit the $10 million per year mark in 2021 with the four-year, $41.5 million contract (worth up to $42.8 million through incentives) he signed to remain with the Bills. Five off-ball linebackers did in 2020 (Jamie Collins, Cory Littleton, Blake Martinez, Joe Schobert and Kyle Van Noy).
Runner Up: Rasul Douglas, CB, Packers
Best Use of a Contract Year
J.C. Jackson put to rest any questions about whether he could assume number one cornerback duties in New England raised by Stephon Gilmore's early season departure to the Panthers in a trade. The 2018 undrafted free agent was second in league this season with eight interceptions. Jackson's 22 interceptions are the NFL's most since the start of the 2019 season. He also had a league leading 23 passes defensed. Jackson was named to his first Pro Bowl and November's AFC Defensive Player of the Month.
Jackson is a prime franchise tag candidate although salary cap space will be at much more of a premium for the Patriots than during the 2021 free agency spending spree. His franchise tag projects to $17.287 million (8.303% of the expected $208.2 million 2022 salary cap). Using NFLPA data, the Patriots preliminarily are $12.25 million under this number based on offseason accounting rules. Only the top 51 salaries (i.e.; cap numbers) matter with these rules. The Patriots have 56 players under contract for the 2022 league year.
A cornerback in his prime with a complete skill set, like Jackson, would be a hot commodity in free agency. Byron Jones briefly became the NFL's highest paid cornerback in 2020 free agency when signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract averaging $16.5 million per year with the Dolphins. The deal contains $54.375 million of guarantees where $40 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Runner Up: De'Vondre Campbell, LB, Packers; Harold Landry, EDGE, Titans
Worst Use of a Contract Year
Ronald Jones was part of one of the NFL's better running back combinations with Leonard Fournette last season when he nearly had 1,000 rushing yards in 14 games while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He took a backseat to Fournette this season. Jones got in head coach Bruce Arians' doghouse by fumbling in the season opener against the Cowboys and making mental mistakes in pass protection. Fournette's late season hamstring injury opened the door for Jones to salvage his season. Jones didn't take advantage of Fournette's absence. An ankle injury kept Jones out of the regular season finale and the playoffs. Jones had four 100 yard rushing games in 2020. He didn't rush for more than 65 yards in any of his 16 games this season.
Best Contract Extension (for a team)
The Eagles signed Jordan Mailata, a rugby player who had never played American football when taken in 2018's seventh round, to a four-year, $64 million extension (worth up to $80 million through salary escalators) with $40.85 million of guarantees. Mailata played at a Pro Bowl level in his first season as a full-time starter. He only gave up 20 quarterback pressures this season according to PFF.
Without the extension, the Eagles would have been forced to designate Mailata as a franchise player or risk losing him in free agency. Since Mailata is just scratching the surface of his talent, he would have been in high demand on the open market. Mailata joining the $20 million per year offensive lineman club, which currently has three members, would have been a certainty. Left tackles Trent Williams, David Bakhtiari and Laremy Tunsil have deals with the 49ers, Packers and Texans averaging $23.01 million, $23 million and $22 million per year respectively. Becoming the NFL's highest paid offensive lineman, like Trent Brown did with the Raiders in 2019 free agency, wouldn't have been out of the question since Mailata doesn't turn 25 until the end of March.
Worst Contract Extension (for a team)
The Saints surprisingly gave Taysom Hill a four-year, $40 million extension with $21.5 million of guarantees in late November. The deal is worth as much as $94 million through base salary escalators and incentives contingent on Hill being a highly productive starting quarterback. Hill didn't do anything to demonstrate he could be the long term answer at quarterback for the Saints in his five starts.
$10 million per year is the current going rate for a bridge quarterback. Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick signed one-year, $10 million contracts to be stop gap or short term quarterback solutions for the Bears and Washington Football Team. Incentives made Fitzpatrick and Dalton's deals worth as much as $12 million and $13 million respectively. The base value of Hill contract is the equivalent of him being a bridge quarterback for multiple seasons.
Hill has been most effective as a jack of all trades contributor lining up at running back, wide receiver and tight end as well as taking snaps under center in wildcat formations. He would have been hard pressed to sign a contract averaging $10 million per year, whether as a quarterback or multi-faceted player, in 2022 free agency. Teams wouldn't have been clamoring to make him a bridge quarterback after losing a competition with Jameis Winston, who tore the ACL in his left knee seven games into the season, to start. Jacoby Brissett's $5 million for one year with an additional $2.5 million in incentives from the Dolphins was the best pure backup quarterback deal in 2021 free agency.
Hill could be best classified as a tight end or slot wide receiver when he isn't playing quarterback according to PFF's tracking of where he has lined up on offense since 2018. As a tight end, Hill is currently the NFL's eighth highest paid at the position with $10 million per year.
The extension makes Hill one of the NFL's better paid slot wide receivers. It's in the same neighborhood as Tyler Boyd and Sterling Shepard's contracts. Shepard and Boyd signed four-year extensions averaging $10.25 million and $10.75 million per year with the Giants and Bengals respectively in 2019. Boyd had back-to-back 1,000 receiving yard seasons in 2018 and 2019. For his entire career, Hill has 34 catches for 388 yards with seven touchdowns.
Runner Up: Jamal Adams, S, Seahawks