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. Here are my selections for the worst reciever contracts
Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions (7 years, $113.45 million, $48.75 million fully guaranteed)
The Lions had a number of high draft picks in the mid to late 2000’s and proceeded to make the cardinal sin of reworking those contracts for salary cap relief. That created a massive lack of leverage when it came to contract negotiations. Johnson would use that leverage to sign a massive contract in line with the absurd Larry Fitzgerald contract in Arizona. Johnson had been a wonderful player for Detroit, but to value someone at about $5 million a year than the highest paid player in the normal market and even more than the average market would be something difficult to justify, especially at a position where the numbers don’t hold steady as player’s age.
The Lions guaranteed Johnson a massive $48.75 million of the contract, a number that even quarterbacks are still rarely achieving. Johnson would receive about $28 million in first year new money on this contract and because of the Lions cap problems most of it came in the form of prorated bonus money. This functionally guaranteed the first four years of the contract for Johnson leaving him with a $24 million cap charge in 2016 and more contract leverage at the age of 31.
Johnson’s body began to break down last season and the team has to hope that the trend doesn’t continue over the next two seasons because they have no recourse if his play tails off. The team was likely worried about that fact as they avoided restructuring his contract despite the $20.5 million cap charge this season. Any restructure would have greatly compromised them at the negotiating table next season. Not surprisingly this contract is at the center of controversy involving free agent receivers looking to attain this salary while other teams insist it is not a valid contract to consider in negotiation. Teams will never view a contract like this as a viable consideration.
Mike Wallace, Minnesota Vikings (5 years, $60 million, $27 million fully guaranteed)
Of the terrible Dolphins deals that the team signed in 2013, Wallace was nothing more than a high risk gamble that never paid off for Miami and led to the firing of the man who signed him to this $12 million per year contract. This was a hard to fathom contract when it was signed. Wallace had played poorly in his walk year in Pittsburgh, spending more time sulking about the lack of a contract than playing football. Miami took the leap anyway.
Wallace had never really shown an ability to be a true number 1 receiver as a Steeler. He was a deep threat target that played as part of a system rather than a receiver that was the star of the system. There is nothing wrong with that, but at the time that type of player would command a contract on the order of $9 million a season. Wallace was brought in to help Ryan Tannehill grow as a QB, but the two never really clicked as Wallace’s strengths of playing down the field did not mesh with Tannehill’s lack of ability to throw deep. Wallace averaged just 12.8 yards per catch.
Miami finally bailed on Wallace this year trading him to the Vikings where the expectations should be less. He still carries a $9 million salary, $3 million of which is guaranteed while Miami is stuck with $6.6 million in dead money from the signing bonus they paid him in 2013. All told the Dolphins paid him $27 million over just two years to not gain 1,000 yards and be benched by the end of the season for lack of production and a bad attitude. Don’t expect him to make this list next season as the Vikings will likely drop him after the year barring a complete turnaround.
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals (2 years, $22 million, $22 million fully guaranteed)
I’ve spoken at length about the Fitzgerald contracts through the years and how great they were for him while being bad for the Cardinals, but I firmly expected the Cardinals to fix that this year when they had a chance to threaten release and negotiate better terms. Instead the Cardinals rolled over and somehow made a bad deal even worse.
Arizona’s new contract with Fitzgerald did slash his $31.5 million in salary in 2015 and 2016 down to $22 million, but they fully guaranteed the entire contract. To make him fit in their cap this year they included a $10 million signing bonus and then voided the final two years of his contract. From all the restructures through the years that means in 2017 Fitzgerald eats up $9.7 million in cap room despite not being on the team. The Cardinals could have released Fitzgerald this year and taken a flat $14.4 million charge. Now they will take on $36.4 million in cap charges over the next three years.
The salary is incredible for Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s last 1,000 yard season was in 2011 and he’s failed to reach 800 yards in two of the last three years. The best comparable player is Andre Johnson who has been a far more productive player and was released by the Texans this year. The free agent marketplace produced a $7 million per year deal with a $10 million full guarantee. Johnson will earn $15 million in 2015 and 2016, assuming he makes the team next year. Fitzgerald is guaranteed $22 million. This is about as bad as it gets for a team when it comes to contracts.