Best and Worst Contracts 2021: AFC East

Welcome to our third installment of our summer series looking at the best and worst contracts in the NFL. Each of these is written based on the team perspective rather than the player perspective and is strictly just based on my opinion of the deal. A bad contract doesn’t mean a bad player (in many cases it is a good player who did a great deal for themselves) nor does a good contract mean a great player on the cheap. Let’s take a look at the AFC East this week.

Buffalo Bills

Best: Daryl Williams, 3 years, $24M, $13.8M guaranteed

Buffalo has really done a tremendous job with a number of their contracts which made this one a tough choice but I opted for the recent deal for Williams, who was one of the best right tackles in the NFL last season. While obviously not as young as the players who recently signed the Bills certainly did not give in to any notion that the position should be paid at a higher rate which in hindsight now looks like a major positive for them.

Williams had some question marks around him and those are all protected in the structure of the deal with no initial guarantees in the second year of the contract and just $3.6 million in dead money if they have to move on. The first year cash is $9.75M which is 14th in the NFL and a reasonable number. Basically they have the flexibility if they need to move on or move his salary down next year, which has been a staple with many of the Bills free agent signings.

Worst: Mitch Morse, 2 years, $14M, $4.2M guaranteed

Also a difficult decision and it came down to Morse or Vernon Butler but I opted for Morse not so much because of the numbers on his renegotiated contract but on the original deal that brought him to Buffalo in 2019. That contract was worth $11.1 million per season and even with the lowered salary this year it would make the investment for Buffalo somewhere around $10.5 million per year which is a high number.

This was the Bills falling into the trap of being the team that went big right away at center during free agency. Every year what seems to occur is a number of similar players hit free agency, one cashes in big and the rest struggle and then we wonder why they paid up in the first place. The initial deal was massive with $19.45 million paid out in the first year alone, a number that would still be good for third in the NFL. It didn’t take long to realize their mistake and by year 3 they were already trying to negotiate a pay cut but the big money was already paid out.

Miami Dolphins

Best: Xavien Howard, 5 years, $75.25M, $46M guaranteed

Miami proved to be the last team able to get a top level cornerback contract done utilizing the stagnant market numbers to lock Howard up for just over $15 million a season. Within a year Miami offered Byron Jones $1.5M more per year and $8 million more in guarantees in an effort to power up the secondary. Clearly this has upset Howard who is already looking for a raise just two years after signing the contract.

Nothing about the contract really stood out in Howard’s favor.  He was a franchise player who did not sign a franchise level contract. The term of the contract was long so it is not as if he would have an early re-entry into free agency. Structure wise it was also a home run for Miami with just a $7 million signing bonus that would give the Dolphins an ability for a quick exit if things went poorly. While Howard wasn’t hoodwinked the way some others have been he probably wound up leaving $2 to $3 million a year on the table.

Worst: Jerome Baker, 3 years, $37.5M, $28.4M guaranteed

This was a solid job by Baker to secure this kind of contract extension earlier this year. Baker is a decent linebacker who landed in the top 10 at the position at $12.5 million a year. The deal itself runs just three years giving Baker, if he lives up the contract, the ability to cash in again early on. The $12.5 million in prorated money is top five at the position which at least gives the Dolphins a little pause if they want to move on in 2022.

On a per year basis the guarantees are huge. The $9.5M guarantee per year runs behind only Bobby Wagner, CJ Mosley, and Lavonte David. His full guarantee ranks 6th among multi year deals. I understand that Miami is often doing three year contracts and not changing the terms even though the years are less than others but that just leaves a team with no upside at all. Normally there is some upside with those kind of contracts with a lower up front cost but I don’t see a trace of that. His first year is around $4M more than recent free agents signed in the $10M a year range. The main positive for Miami is they did not have to get to $40M in the three year number, falling $3M short of that figure. Im not sure that is that big of a benefit since he will either receive a raise that year on an extension or be cut because he was a disappointment.

New England Patriots

Best: Stephon Gilmore, 5 years, $65M, $40M guaranteed

I almost feel a little guilty for putting this here because it is pure hindsight analysis but as far as cornerback free agent signings go, I am not sure you will find a better one than Gilmore. Gilmore has been one of the best corners in the NFL for his entire run with the Patriots and will wind up being the rare player who actually finishes out a long term free agent contract. Unlike some other players I would not have said that this was a good deal when it was signed for New England. In fact, I probably would have said it was a poor one with such a large up front salary, but the proof is in the results and the risk paid off.

This style of contract is the perfect result of what happens when you get it right in free agency or on an extension. The numbers that look questionable or top of market a few years ago make a dramatic turn, typically in the 3rd or 4th year of a contract, where the market has so shifted that you now have a bargain cost player on your hands. That bargain cost has made Gilmore unhappy with the deal and he is currently looking for more incentives or an extension to make him happy. This is the risk that is taken on by both sides on a long term deal. A player often gets more money up front, which Gilmore did, but the back end leans toward the team.  Have the Patriots done a great job with the cap charges on this one? Not really but you can not argue that he has been one of the best values for the last few years even if his cap charges are higher these past two years.

Worst:  Jonnu Smith, 4 years, $50M, $31.3M guaranteed

The Patriots 2021 offseason gave us a plethora of bad decisions to choose from but this was the one that I thought was the worst and arguably the worst free agent signing in the NFL this year. This contract was a complete roll over and play dead job by New England. They simply targeted a guy who has never even had 500 yards in a season, decided they wanted him and made him the 3rd highest paid tight end in the NFL.  I’m not even sure if another team would have been within $3 million of this annual value.

The numbers were staggering. The $15 million signing bonus only trails George Kittle among veteran players. The first year salary is tied for second in the NFL. The $31.25M in guarantees is behind Kittle and on a per year basis the two are neck and neck with Kittle at $8M a year and Smith at $7.8M a year. Smith’s guarantee is also fully guaranteed at signing- $6 million more than the next closest player in the league (his teammate Hunter Henry). Smith needs to be a superstar for New England to get any value here.

New York Jets

Best: Morgan Moses, 1 year, $3.6M, $3.1M guaranteed

This was a nice signing by the Jets a few weeks back, grabbing one of the better right tackles in the NFL for a bargain basement price.  Moses was only available because of other moves made around the Washington organization that saw Moses become a salary casualty late in the game. By that point in time there was a very limited market and while there was clearly a game being played to drive up his price the Jets seemed to hold firm and eventually landed their guy at $3.6 million.

This reminds me a bit of the Daryl Williams original contract in Buffalo which came in at $2.25 million two years ago. Williams, who needed to revitalize his career far more than Moses does, played great and landed a three year contract this past offseason. I would imagine the Jets are looking at the same possibility and could look as early as his year to extend Moses and eliminate the chance of losing him in free agency next year.

Worst: CJ Mosley, 5 years, $85M, $51M guaranteed

A parting gift from the short lived Mike Maccagnan/Adam Gase partnership, you can make a strong case that this is now the worst contract in the NFL. It is hard to fathom who the Jets were even bidding against at a price tag of $17 million a year, a number that was around $4 million a year more than the next highest paid player at the time and dramatically pulled up the entire market. The $51 million in guarantees remains the top number in the NFL an incredible $11 million more than Fred Warner’s recent $40.5 million guarantee, which came two years after this deal. The $43 million in full guarantees is $13 million more than any other active linebacker in the NFL.

While bad deals can often be good ones this has been a disaster from day 1. Mosley played about a half a game for the Jets in 2019 before he was injured. The Jets for whatever reason brought him back early and he reaggravated the injury and finished the year with about 10% playing time. He opted out of the 2020 season due to Covid and indicated he needed to “find that flame” again. Mosley still has $14 million guaranteed to him from the Jets and $12.5 million in dead money next year if they have to cut him. The Jets should actively look to trade him but may have to absorb some of the cost to do it.