Agent's Take: Contract awards for the best and worst NFL signings of 2016
From DeMarco Murray to Brock Osweiler, here's the good, the bad and the ugly
The 2016 regular season is coming to a close, which means it's time to hand out honors for the best and worst signings. This is the fourth consecutive year that I've assessed the NFL's financial landscape through awards for CBSSports.com. These awards differ from the traditional NFL honors because they are from an economic perspective emphasizing 2016 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.
Here is the good, bad and ugly when it comes to free-agent signings in 2016:
Most Valuable Acquisition
Murray has bounced back in a big way after failing to live up the expectations of the five-year, $40 million free agent contract he received from the Eagles in 2015. That deal included $21 million in guarantees and was worth a maximum of $42 million through salary escalators. Murray was traded to the Titans early this past offseason in an exchange of 2016 fourth-round picks following an awful 2015.
Murray was the NFL Offensive Player of Year in 2014 after rushing 392 times for 1,892 yards behind the Great Wall of Dallas. But he was a bust in Philly the following season. He accrued the second-worst rushing total in his five NFL seasons -- 702 yards -- on a career low 3.6 yards per carry in 2015. In the trade to the Titans, Murray cut $5.45 million out of the remaining four years of his contract while adding $1.85 million of annual incentives to make the trade work.
Murray has thrived as the workhorse running back in head coach Mike Mularkey's "exotic smashmouth" offense. He's third in the NFL with 1,266 rushing yards and tied for sixth with 12 touchdowns. A receiving threat out of the backfield, Murray has also caught 52 passes for 379 yards. He is fourth in the NFL with 1,645 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards) and was selected to his third Pro Bowl this season.
Murray has been a major catalyst in the Titans going from securing the rights to the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft with a 3-13 record in 2015 to staying in playoff contention up until losing to the Jags in Week 16. The Titans are assured of finishing with at least a .500 record regardless of the outcome in the season finale.
Least Valuable Acquisition
The Texans giving Osweiler a four-year, $72 million contract containing $37 million fully guaranteed after just seven career starts has been a complete disaster. Texans owner Bob McNair, desperate for a significant upgrade at quarterback over the much-maligned Brian Hoyer, made the deal with little input from head coach Bill O'Brien. Instead of being the answer at quarterback, Osweiler's play has almost made the Texans long for the days when Matt Schaub was a pick-six machine in 2013. The Texans have defended their AFC South title in spite of the big-money free agent.
Osweiler ranked near the bottom in a majority of major statistical categories before losing his starting job to Tom Savage when he was pulled from Week 15's contest against the Jaguars. He has completed 59.5 percent of his passes (280 of 470 attempts), which ranks 25th in the NFL. Osweiler's 71.4 passer rating is 29th out of the 30 quarterbacks with enough pass attempts to qualify for league rankings. His 16 interceptions are tied for the fourth-most in the NFL. With only 14 touchdown passes (tied for 26th in the NFL), he is one of three qualified passers, along with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum, that have a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Osweiler's play has neutered DeAndre Hopkins. He has been unable to develop chemistry with Houston's best and most dangerous offensive weapon. Hopkins arguably had the most impressive 2015 season of any wide receiver (111 catches/1,521 yards/11 touchdowns) considering he had a bunch of mediocre-at-best quarterbacks (Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, Brandon Weeden and T.J. Yates) throwing to him. The 2015 All-Pro only has 71 catches for 831 yards and four touchdowns this season.
The Texans can't realistically move on from Osweiler after this season because his $16 million 2017 base salary is fully guaranteed. Osweiler's dismal play and the guarantee destroy his trade value. His 2017 salary cap number is $19 million. Houston would have a $25 million cap charge by releasing Osweiler. This is because of the guarantee and $6 million of signing bonus proration from his 2018 and 2019 contract years immediately hitting Houston's books. It isn't helpful for Houston to prevent the future bonus proration from accelerating onto the 2017 salary cap by waiting until June 2 to release Osweiler or giving him a post-June 1 designation. There would still be a $19 million salary cap charge next year, which is the same as his 2017 cap number, under these circumstances.
Osweiler being a colossal failure with a limited track record should serve as a cautionary tale for other teams. It remains to be seen if fiscal restraint is exercised if New England trades 2014 second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo, who has two career starts and will be in a contract year in 2017, to a quarterback-needy team in the offseason. The same goes for impending free agent Mike Glennon. He has hardly played in his two seasons as Jameis Winston's backup with the Buccaneers.
Offensive Signing of the Year
Blount languished on the open market for about month before returning to the Patriots on a one-year, $1-million deal worth up to $2 million through incentives. He was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for September because he helped keep the Patriots afloat with a 3-1 record while Tom Brady served his four game Deflategate suspension. Blount has a career high 1,110 rushing yards, which is eighth-most in the NFL. He also has a league-leading 17 rushing touchdowns. Blount has nearly doubled his 2016 compensation by earning $750,000 of his incentives for reaching the 1,100 rushing yard mark.
Defensive Signing of the Year
Green Bay's loss has been San Diego's gain. Packers general manager Ted Thompson let Hayward walk because of perceived depth at cornerback. Hayward could only muster a three-year, $15.3 million deal in free agency from the Chargers. Expected to be San Diego's third cornerback, Hayward has been up to the task of increased responsibility and tougher assignments with Jason Verrett tearing an ACL four games into the season and Brandon Flowers missing a majority of games because of two concussions.
Hayward has earned his first Pro Bowl berth this season. He leads the NFL with seven interceptions and 27 pass breakups. The four-year, $36.1 million contract that Flowers signed in 2015 illustrates how much of bargain Hayward is. The $18 million fully guaranteed in Flowers' deal is more than Hayward's entire three-year contract.
The Bills never imagined Alexander would make a tremendous defensive impact when he was given a one-year deal at his league minimum of $885,000. The 33-year-old journeyman was expected to contribute primarily on special teams. 2016 first round pick Shaq Lawson's rookie minicamp shoulder injury, which required surgery and kept him out of action for the first six games, opened the door for Alexander.
He started the season with a seven-game sack streak and earned AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for October. Alexander was leading the NFL in sacks until a midseason hamstring injury slowed him. He is tied for fourth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks. Alexander earned a Pro Bowl berth because of his emergence as a sack artist at such a late stage in his career. Prior to this season, Alexander had nine sacks during his nine-year NFL career. If Mario Williams had performed in 2015 like Alexander is currently, the Bills may have been willing to pay him his scheduled $14.5 million salary on a $19.9 million cap number this season instead of releasing him in March.
Best Use of a Contract Year
Pryor has successfully made a difficult transition from quarterback to legitimate starting wide receiver in the NFL. He emerged as Cleveland's best and most reliable receiving option due to 2016 15th-overall pick Corey Coleman missing several games with a broken hand and Josh Gordon's indefinite suspension for repeated violations of the NFL's Substance Abuse Policy.
Pryor leads the Browns with 70 receptions, 913 receiving yards and four touchdown catches. Although Pryor has a knack for getting under the skin of opposing defensive backs with excessive trash talk, retaining the 6-foot-4, 223-pound speedster is a priority for the Browns. Preliminary contract extension talks were reportedly held with Drew Rosenhaus, Pryor's agent, earlier in the season. The $10,012,500 per-year offseason extension Rosenhaus got Allen Hurns from the Jaguars, which helps set the market for No. 2 wide receivers, could be the salary floor for the converted quarterback.
Worst Use of a Contract Year
A disappointing season got worse when Floyd was arrested on December 12 with a blood alcohol level close to three times the legal limit after falling asleep in the driver's seat of his running car at a traffic light. He was released by the Cardinals a couple of days later. The Patriots extended an NFL lifeline to Floyd by claiming him through waivers. Since Arizona has one of the nation's toughest DUI laws, Floyd could be facing jail time. Suspensions under the NFL's Substance Abuse and Personal Conduct Policies could be in order.
Prior to his release, Floyd was having the worst season of his five-year NFL career with 33 catches for 446 yards and four touchdowns in 13 games. A one-year prove-it deal in the $3 million to $4 million neighborhood with incentives where as much as $5.5 million could be made, like Michael Crabtree and Hakeem Nicks previously signed, is probably on the horizon since a long-term deal to Floyd's liking is unlikely to materialize in free agency.
Runner-up: Ryan Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
Best Contract Year Extension (for a team)
Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West signed identical $4.2 million contracts (worth a maximum of $8.2 million with salary escalators) in the offseason covering three years. In Ware's case, it's a two-year extension with a base value of $3.6 million since he was already under contract this season for $600,000. Ware is taking advantage of the increased workload created by Jamaal Charles' knee problems. He has a career high 921 rushing yards this season, which was increased his 2017 base salary from $700,000 to $1.3 million. It will be $1.9 million if Ware can gain 79 yards on the ground against the Chargers in the season finale to reach 1,000 yards.
Either way, Ware is tremendous value compared to Charles, who he is replacing. Charles is making $5,187,500 this season. The success over the last two seasons largely without Charles and Ware's emergence probably means Charles' days in Kansas City are numbered. The 30-year-old is scheduled to make $7 million next season.
Worst Contract Year Extension (for a team)
Mark Barron capitalizing on the Rams declining his fifth option year may have influenced the decision to pick up Austin's $12.268 million fifth-year option for 2017 when the 2013 eighth overall pick's production hadn't warranted it. Austin had career bests of 52 receptions, 473 receiving yards and five touchdown catches in 2015 when the option was exercised. He also rushed for a career high 434 yards on 52 attempts (8.3 yards per carry) and added another 284 yards returning kicks last season.
The Rams doubled down on their faith in Austin by giving him a head-scratching four-year extension averaging approximately $10.5 million per year with $28.5 million of guarantees during the preseason. The deal could easily be worth a lot more because of $14 million of incentives and base salary escalators, which wouldn't be too hard to achieve with Austin producing like a good wide receiver. 1,000 combined receiving and rushing yards this season is worth $250,000. Every 125 combined yards up to 1,375 is worth an extra $250,000, except the highest threshold also requires at least nine wins by the Rams or a playoff berth. The amount earned would also be added to Austin's 2017 base salary.
If Austin's performance remotely matched his contract, making a minimum of $1 million annually under these clauses would be a realistic possibility. There are also annual incentives for touchdowns between $250,000 and $500,000 with 10 scores as the highest threshold. Since Austin currently has 648 combined yards (491 receiving and 157 rushing) and four touchdowns, he won't earn anything this season.
Austin's contract is not only a headache for the Rams but the rest of the NFL. Kenny Britt, the Rams' leading receiver with 68 receptions, 1,002 yards and five touchdown catches, is in his contract year. It's going to be hard for the Rams to justify offering him less than Austin to re-sign when he is almost twice as productive. Other impending free-agent wide receivers, such as Pryor, DeSean Jackson and Kenny Stills, are likely to use Austin's deal as a salary benchmark for their own contracts.
Had the Rams passed on Austin's fifth-year option, which would have been a reasonable decision, he would have become an unrestricted free agent after this season and he could have been re-signed for pennies on the dollar. It's highly unlikely a strong free agent market would have developed for him.
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