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Examining the Proven Performance Escalator

The eve of free agency carries with it the promise of new fortune. When the annual spending spree launches in earnest tomorrow, it will bring life-changing pay raises to dozens of younger players. A number of other fourth-year players, meanwhile, will enjoy more modest pay increases in the coming season due to an aspect of the collective bargaining agreement called the Proven Performance Escalator.


Best & Worst Contracts 2014: Arizona Cardinals


We continue our look at the best and worst veteran contracts on each team with the Arizona Cardinals

Best Contract: John Abraham

Only four players from the 2000 draft remain active in the NFL. Three of them—Tom Brady, Sebastian Janikowski, and Shane Lechler—play positions at which longevity for high performers is not unusual. The fourth, Abraham, has been a model of health on the back end of his career, playing in 110 of his teams’ last 112 regular season games at a more physically rigorous position.

Last off-season, Atlanta decided that despite coming off a ten-sack season, and despite 32.5 sacks over the previous three seasons combined, Abraham did not merit his scheduled $7 million in compensation. Several teams showed interest, but he ultimately inked with Arizona for a meager $4.6 million over two years.

For that paltry investment, Abraham put opponent quarterbacks on the ground 11.5 times last year, the fourth-highest sack total of his illustrious career. Despite modest escalation of his 2014 compensation to $3 million plus makeable incentives—and despite a potential suspension due to pending DUI charges—he represents great value yet again if he can dip into that fountain of youth one more time.

Worst Contract: Larry Fitzgerald

Larry FitzgeraldBelieve me when I say that it breaks my heart to pick Fitzgerald in this spot. He was without a doubt the greatest athlete I witnessed as a student at the University of Pittsburgh, and when his NFL career finally winds down, the Hall of Fame surely awaits. Moreover, Arizona has doled out a number of iffy deals over the years, and I’d much rather write about almost any other.

But that seven-year, $113 million extension is too nutso to overlook, and it was from the moment he signed it. At the time, the top of the wideout market touched maybe $11 million per year; Arizona not only reset the bar for the position by nearly half over again, but they managed to create a new class of contracts for all elite non-quarterback players. It’s one thing to do that for a player like Calvin Johnson just entering his prime, and another for a veteran with as much wear on his body as Fitzgerald. It seemed clear at the time that he wouldn’t play out more than a few seasons at best before the dollars grew out of whack with his ability to stay productive.

Yes, he possessed all the leverage in negotiations going back to his ill-configured rookie contract, which led to a no-franchise clause in his robust second contract, which led to the insanity of his current deal. Yes, following the 2010 season he put on display maybe the most dominant postseason performance that I’ve ever witnessed by any player at any position. Yes, he is the best thing to happen to Arizona Cardinals football since the founding of the State of Arizona, the invention of the sport of football, or the evolution of the cardinal. Those details fade when a combination of age and surrounding talent reduce his performance to the merely mortal, and the baggage of his contract looms heavy over the present and future roster composition of his team.

2013’s Best and Worst Cardinals Contracts:

2013 Best Contract: Daryl Washington (facing suspension)

2013 Worst Contract: Larry Fitzgerald (see above)

Click Here to Check out OTC’s other Best and Worst Contracts from around the NFL!




Best & Worst Contracts 2014: Baltimore Ravens


Up next in our look at the best and worst contracts on each roster are the Baltimore Ravens.

Best Contract: Marshal Yanda

Marshal YandaA good contract is often a gift that keeps on giving. Even as the guard market has eroded somewhat, the deal signed by Yanda three years ago affords the Ravens top-level play at a price millions below the top of the positional market. This holds true in terms of this year’s cap cost, cash cost, and average salary per year.

The deal offers a good example of the effect that draft status as a rookie has on later contract negotiations. Yanda, a former third-rounder, hit unrestricted free agency and commanded notably less than his linemate Ben Grubbs—a former first-rounder, but of no greater accomplishment or acclaim—managed a year later.

Worst Contract: Ray Rice

Ray RiceFrom a purely contractual standpoint, quarterback Joe Flacco retains the title of worst contract in Baltimore. All of the circumstances that led to his predictably getting wildly overpaid don’t change just how badly mismatched his compensation now is with the level of play that he routinely provides, nor how handcuffed the Ravens have left themselves moving forward with the structure of the deal. It’s in contention for the worst active NFL contract, period.

But off-the-field circumstances have shed light on another problematic Baltimore contract. Ray Rice was fortunate to sign a new deal seemingly moments before the bottom completely dropped out of the running back market. At the time, he felt that he was being unfairly squeezed to take only $35 million over five years, but in retrospect the deal proved to be head, shoulders, and probably also waist above just about every subsequent contract given out to a running back.

In exchange for what he believed at the time to be a paltry average per year, Rice received an exceptionally favorable payout structure. It has been common among Baltimore’s big deals to front-load the payout via big signing and option bonuses, while back-loading the cap hits, and Rice’s deal was probably the most extreme example. Through a $15 million signing bonus and a $7 million year-two option, the contract paid out more than 71% of its total cash value in the first two years, while accounting for less than 31% of the resulting cap consumption.

Combined with low base salaries throughout, the result is a deal that doesn’t offer a cap benefit to terminate, shockingly, until 2016, the last of the five covered years. Even in year four, $9.5 million in potential dead money looms. This especially poses a problem in a situation like that in which Rice found himself recently, in enough legal trouble to reflect poorly on the organization, but not enough to actually let them off the hook from their contractual obligations to him. Of course they ultimately stood behind him; they couldn’t comfortably afford to cut him, so how much choice did they really have?

2013’s Best and Worst Steelers Contracts:

2013 Best Contract: Marshal Yanda (see above)

2013 Worst Contract: Joe Flacco (still on roster; contract still bad)

Click Here to Check out OTC’s other Best and Worst Contracts from around the NFL!




Best & Worst Contracts 2014: Pittsburgh Steelers


We continue our look at the best and worst veteran contracts on each team with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Best Contract: Heath Miller

Heath MillerIt was very tempting to select the contract of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as the best on the Steelers. A true franchise quarterback making the market rate of six years ago presents an easy target, with only $23.7 million in cash due over the next two years combined. But, a few restructures have bloated the cap hits somewhat in these last years, though they still fall below what has become the going rate for even lesser quarterbacks since that time. And he’s likely looking at a new contract in line with that going rate no later than next off-season.

Mostly, though, it’s just not a very interesting pick. Heath Miller entered this off-season as one of six Steelers sporting a cap charge greater than $9 million, all of whom had to be considered strong candidates for contract adjustment of one sort or another to help Pittsburgh’s tight situation. Entering the final year of the big-money extension he signed in 2009, Miller stood to earn $6.02 million under that existing deal. Not only did he accept a two-year extension at a reduced rate—$4 million per year in new money, compared to $6.75 million per year under the previous deal—he took the deal while receiving no new money in 2014, nor guarantees beyond this season.

Miller played one of his least impressive pro seasons in 2013 as he recovered from an ACL tear suffered in late December of 2012. But as the 2013 season progressed, he rediscovered his rapport with Roethlisberger and cemented his importance to offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s designs. Even so hampered, Miller produced the 14th-most receiving yards by a tight end on fewer targets than any of the 13 players above him. Unlike many, Miller plays a true two-way game, a strong blocker in the Jason Witten mold with soft hands and an ability to get open, and serves as a quiet low-maintenance leader that every team could use.

The Steelers turned his slated $6.02 million base salary into a $1.02 million base, paying the remaining $5 million as a signing bonus over the two new years of the extension. At $4 million in base salary in each new season, Miller’s cap number now hovers around $6 million in all three years. There’s ample reason to believe that 2013 represented a speed bump on his return to form from injury, and at age 31, he stands a strong chance to play out the extension in its entirety as a valued and productive member of the team.

Worst Contract: Jason Worilds

Jason WorildsRush linebacker Jason Worilds enjoyed a good bit of opportunity over his first three years as injuries repeatedly struck the Steelers’ starters, but in those opportunities he produced very little. His few sacks mostly came when the defensive scheme left him uncovered, and he showed woefully little impact versus the run, especially compared to the stout duo of Harrison and Woodley.

Fortune smiled upon him, though, and presented his most extensive opportunity in his contract year of 2013, and he turned in what has handily been the best season of his young career. Moreover, he looked notably more effective on Woodley’s left side than he ever did filling in for Harrison on the right. Still, his performance fell well below the healthy standards of either of those two.

Needing to fill the void left by both of those far more accomplished linebackers, the Steelers elected to place the transition tag on Worilds prior to free agency this year. If you need any evidence how much more the $9.754 million tender offered than Worilds is actually worth, look no further than how quickly he signed it rather than exercise his right to shop himself to 31 other teams. His agent had ample time to feel out the market prior to free agency, and I see no chance that he jumped on the tender with anything like Paul Kruger’s inflated $8.1 million a year available elsewhere.

In my estimation, with just half of a pretty good season under his belt in four years, Worilds was looking at no more than $6.5 million per year on a long-term deal. Now with the leverage of the tender, he has limited incentive to take a reasonable deal, so they’ll likely have to overpay significantly if they want to retain him long-term. And if they don’t retain him long-term, they’ll have overpaid significantly for a single season from a player who has been mediocre at best to this point.

I often hear a sentiment that a one-year deal can’t be all that bad, as it only runs for that short term and offers an opportunity for a clean break. But how much overpayment is that really worth? A long-term deal may have required somewhat more guaranteed dollars, in the range of 150% to double the transition tag amount, but at least such a deal offers long-term upside. A one-year tender only protects against the very worst of possible outcomes: that the player performs so badly that the team wants to cut ties after just a year. In just about any other case, it will prove to have been considerably inferior.

2013’s Best and Worst Steelers Contracts:

2013 Best Contract: Ryan Clark (contract expired; signed with Redskins)

2013 Worst Contract: LaMarr Woodley (contract terminated; signed with Raiders)




LaMarr Woodley Restructures Contract

Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley becomes the latest player out of Pittsburgh to have his contract restructured in an effort to create room under the salary cap for the team to operate. The move was likely prompted in part by the need to account for restricted free agent tenders in the amount of $1.323 million issued to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, and nose tackle Steve McLendon.

Based on the reduction of his scheduled $9 million base salary to $3.6 million, Woodley likely had the difference of $5.4 million converted to a signing bonus and prorated for cap purposes over the remaining four years of his deal. This drops his 2013 cap hit by $4.05 million, to $9.19 million. The cap hits in the remaining years of his deal grow to $13.59 million (2014), $14.09 million (2015), and $11.99 million (2016).

View Woodley’s cap page