Best & Worst 2015: The Worst Quarterback Contracts

For the last two seasons I have done a summer “Best and Worst” contracts for each team in the NFL, but I decided this year to put that on hold since it recycles so many players and instead take a positional approach to the concept. So during the course of the summer I’ll do my choices for the top three and bottom three contracts at each position from a team perspective. As usual the rules are no rookie contracts allowed in the selection.

Today I’ll give my opinion on the worst contracts at the quarterback position. That doesnt mean worst player, just the deals I felt teams may have most compromised themselves on the structure or stuck their head out most on the valuation of the contract.

3. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (5 years, $103.8 million, $41 million fully guaranteed)

There were a few players I considered for this spot. Drew Brees’ contract was horribly structured, but is a terrific player. Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract is incredibly player friendly, but he is also the catalyst for the Steelers. Carson Palmer’s contract pushes a lot of money into the future. But when I factored in the structure, contract size, body of work, and timing of the contract I thought Newton’s new contract surpassed them all.

Newton’s contract is based on the theory that the strength of being a top draft pick still outweighs some of the lack of production of the player. Newton set the NFL on fire as a rookie, but his numbers have dropped and in 2014 hit career lows in passing yards (3,127) and touchdowns (18). His rushing efficiency has declined and given the usual career path of the QB you never want to pay for that anyway. While he has not had a good supporting cast around him, it’s still a leap of faith to assume that’s the only issue.

That leads me to the odd timing of the contract. Given the huge contract and top end cash flow metrics, this is nothing Newton could have done in 2014 that he did not do in 2013 to warrant the extension. He didn’t play better. The team didn’t improve. He didn’t win a Super Bowl. If you know you are going to extend the player on his terms do it earlier to improve the cap structure and guarantee structure of the contract. The Panthers should have been able to mitigate the risks in the contract by signing him prior to the start of the 2014 season rather than 2015.

The result was a contract structure that is tremendous for Newton. $32.5 million in prorated money over a two year period is a great win for a player. There is no season in which Newton is under contract where there is $0 in dead money and in his second to last year there is still $8.5 million sunk. He is the top earning quarterback to never win a Super Bowl and of the top nine at the position, one of only two (Ryan Tannehill is the other) to not reach a championship game prior to signing.

The contract runs almost identical to Matt Ryan’s, another super friendly player contract, but to compare Ryan to Newton is putting all the negatives of Newton solely on the supporting cast on offense around him. Any way you spin it, Newton’s contract will be one that any high pedigree, limited performance player will try to use to increase their value in their upcoming contract negotiations.

2. Jay Cutler (6 years, $126 million, $38 million fully guaranteed)

This was one of the strangest contract decisions of recent times. The Bears allowed Cutler to play out his contract seemingly because there was a disparity in valuation. That seemed somewhat logical since Cutler was looking for what was considered top starter money and anyone should have had reservations about making Cutler that player. After all what were the benefits of Cutler?  He was drafted highly in 2006?  He has a rocket arm which he loves to tell you about?

Statistically Cutler hasn’t been a top tier guy since 2008 when he threw for 4,500 yards and was then traded to Chicago. In the interim five years passed in which Cutler averaged under 3,000 passing yards per year on about 60% passing with a 20/15 TD to interception ratio. I’m not sure what you call that, but I am sure you don’t call it a top line starter. There were no intangible qualities either. Reportedly teammates don’t care for him. Coaches didn’t necessarily like him. He wasn’t a prolific winner. He was just a guy that had a gifted arm and one good season.

The Bears should have had every benefit when negotiating a contract with Cutler after the 2013 season. Cutler had been hurt again and missed five games. That left him with just 2,600 yards on the season and his fill in, Josh McCown, lit up some bad teams filling in. But Chicago acted as if there was no leverage and rewarded Cutler with a massive contract that essentially would guarantee him $54 million.

When I mention the timing of the Newton contract, this one is 100 times worse. Chicago had so many opportunities to extend Cutler before he was about to hit free agency. In 2012 Cutler went 10-5, 3,000 yards, 19/14 TD/INT. In 2013 he went 5-6, 2,621, 19/12.  What made this 2013 so much better that they went from “cant extend at this price” to “whatever you want we’ll sign it” is a question nobody can answer.  That logic got the general manger fired.

Rather than building in old money into Cutler’s guarantee package the $54 million is entirely made up of new money. With most of the guarantee being earned by March of 2015,  that made this arguably one of the worst guarantee structures in the NFL for any team. It was touted as a benefit for the team that no signing bonus was included (they had to quickly restructure and add one in a few weeks later) but with the monstrous guarantee it more or less provided a block to movement the same as a bonus. Other teams were soon able to do contracts with better guarantee structures and cash terms for similar question mark players but Chicago didn’t even seem to try to go down that path. Had they signed Cutler in 2013 rather than 2014 they would have been able to release him after this year and probably saved themselves around $10 million.  Instead they are more or less stuck with two more seasons of likely lackluster play and sulking on the sideline while they keep their fingers crossed that he can justify the contract. Out of all the big QB contracts in the NFL this one probably has the least upside at time of signing than any other player.

1. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens (6 years, $120.6 million, $29 million fully guaranteed)

Every star in the universe aligned for Flacco when he earned this massive haul following his 2012 Super Bowl championship, making him the highest paid player in the NFL at the time of signing. Prior to his Super Bowl win Flacco was probably looked at as a $15-17 million a year player, not that far off from an Andy Dalton type.  He’s a 3,600-3,900 yard a year type passer with a very strong arm in a league where players are chasing 5,000 yards. But his playoff record has been good and his 11 touchdown/0 interception run in 2012 is as good as anyone’s in history.

Flacco was probably the first test case of a non top half of the draft player earning a massive contract because of a playoff run. While Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning accomplished similar feats they were picked 11th and 1st overall and, I believe, at the time considered higher upside players.  It’s the Flacco contract that helped paved the way for a Colin Kaepernick to receive $19 million a year with $12 million in upside potential for having a team run like the Ravens did.

What makes the contract stand out the most though is the structure. In order to fit Flacco in their salary cap, the Ravens used a series of prorated bonuses totaling a whopping $51 million and then backloaded the contract.  This leads to a showdown in 2016 where Flacco’s cap charge is $28.55 million but the cost to release him is $25.8 million. It gets worse from there with a $31.15 million cap number in 2017 and the sunk cost is still over $15 million. This is similar to the monster that was the backend of the Ndamukong Suh contract with the Lions in which there is no leverage to really push for an extension.

Normally when teams stick their neck out on a market pusher they know that the tail end of the contract will be beneficial if salaries continue to rise or the player fails to perform and needs to be released. The Roethlisberger, Manning and Philip Rivers contracts all were big market deals but eventually ended up being normal because of the change in the landscape. The Ravens will never get that with Flacco because the backend of his deal outpaces the market. It is hard to imagine any recourse other than extending Flacco. Given the landscape of the market and incredible leverage Flacco has it would not be surprising to see him get a new deal worth over $23 million a season next year even if it’s another season of less than 4,000 yards in the air, especially if Russell Wilson ends up the highest paid player in the NFL. While Flacco will never give you the dowside of a Cutler, this deal has the makings of one of the great player contracts of all time.

  • McGeorge

    I’d much rather have Flacco than Newton or Cutler.

    The way Flacco’s contract is structured is he was paid less at first and more at the end, but if you consider the average cost and compare it to the others, its ok.

    The real knock was his was signed a couple of years ago, before the cap went up so by “inflation adjusted cap” it was pricier at the time. But now that the cap has gone up, I don’t think his contract is so bad.

    At the time I thought it was high, and that he was over paid, but he got a premium because there are no “average” quarter backs available. The replacement is “kinds of sucks” or “really sucks”.

    One last point – if a team signs 2 players (A and B) player to a contract so that:

    Player A B
    Year 1 500K 10MM
    Year 2 500K 10MM
    Year 3 20MM 10MM

    Year 4 20MM 11MM

    The team shouldn’t complain about A’s year 3 and 4, because they had an “extra 9.5MM” cap space for the first 2 years.

    If the Ravens back loaded the contract, they didn’t have to use up all that cap savings, they should have rolled it to the next year. No one forced them to do that, they made a bad decision.

    Had the cap stayed where it was (123MM) I would agree with you.
    The cap went up a lot (20MM?) , compared to when Flacco signed, with the extra 20MM, they can absorb his contract.

    The Ravens have Flacco for 4 years, after which he’s be 34 (turns 35 at the end of the 4th year). QBs begin to decline at that point. Put a 1st and 3rd round draft pick tender on him, and keep him one additional year, then let him walk. He’ll be 36, and was never elite, so is unlikely to be that good at that point.

    • Ghoston

      You can’t put a 1st and 3rd rnd tender on him. Where are you getting that from? Plus player A breaks the 25% rule, I think. I would need someone to clarify that.

      • McGeorge

        What is the 25% rule?

        The Ravens could use the Non-Exclusive tag.
        I mixed that up with the 1st & 3rd tender, which isn’t a franchise tag.

      • You are probably thinking of the 30% rule. That does come into play but only for contracts that extend beyond the terms of the CBA

    • I dont think you would ever see a contract like that one with 20M backloaded in the last two years. The player would never go for it (the minimums would need to be a little higher than 500K as well). The problem with saying a team doesnt have to spend the cap room is the league doesnt work that way. In theory it can, but in reality teams structure these contracts this way because they dont have the space to retain other players.

      Im not sure the Ravens could franchise Flacco for one year at the end of this deal I guess it depends on where the cap is and where the QB contracts are this year. Right now the minimum cost would be 1 year for $29.7M in 2019, meaning they will allocate an average of $28.5M per year in cap money for the 2016-2019 season.

  • mike jones

    Newton had another year of carrying the panthers pretty far into the playoffs. He got into the second round, and he was losing to the Hawks 21-17 in the 4th quarter. That’s a team that had no right to be there with the Hawks, and the Hawks should have been superbowl champs again. He has Mike Shula as a OC. His best offensive weapon has been Greg Olsen.

    He’s done more with less than Matt Ryan in the same division. So I don’t get it? IS it recency bias? What more do you want? Gaudy stats? With what? Mike Shula? A line that can’t protect? banged up runningabcks? He doesn’t have julio jones, roddy white, tony gonzales and micheal turner playig with him, but he has one playoff games. You said the contract is comarable to Ryans. Why isn’t he up here? He appears to be the load stone. The guy that’s getting old and has never put it together despite being surrounded with all the skill position talent anyone could have ever hoped for.

    /Not a panther fan. I’d rather have Flacco and Newton any day of the week at their rates over Ryan though. He’s making 20 million this year. What has Ryan done? He’s making 20 million again this year, they won 6 games last year, 4 games the year before, and he’s never won a playoff game.

    • Wade8813

      Newton got into the 2nd round by facing a Cardinals team that was dead on its feet. And if you want to talk about weapons, it should be mentioned that Jonathan Stewart was doing really well for the Panthers in the 2nd half of the season (and into the playoffs). Kelvin Benjamin was inconsistent, but inconsistent players can still be good at key times, as Benjamin was against the Seahawks.

      Plus, if you’re talking about playoff wins, you can’t just look at offensive weapons – Newton has played in front of a very strong defense.

      Also, the fact that Newton was able to keep the game close going into the 4th quarter doesn’t mean as much when you consider how much better the Seahawks played in the 4th quarter all year long

      • mike jones

        and matt ryan had 6 wins.

  • Kirk Vollmer

    Cutler’s contract with the Bears might be a crappy deal as far as the team is concerned but I disagree with all this talk about cutting him. Thing is for all his faults (and they are many) he’s still a *decent* quarterback in a league that doesn’t have 32 decent quarterbacks. Unless they get their hands on someone that they are pretty certain is a better player, Cutler is staying in Chicago, even if there where no guaranteed money left on his contract they still wouldn’t cut him. At best they could try to deal him away for another quarterback. But almost no one outside of Chip Kelly would make a move like that. And I don’t think even he’s crazy enough to deal for Cutler. Unless Chicago wants to be 2-14 regularly and deal with possibly years of terrible quarterbacking before they find someone, they are stuck with him.