Best and Worst Contracts 2021: AFC West

Welcome to our first installment of our summer series looking at the best and worst contracts in the NFL. This year I plan on breaking contracts down by division with a new post each week looking at a different division. 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. Today we will start with the AFC West and next week we will have the NFC West up.

Denver Broncos

Best: Von Miller, 6 years, $19.1M, $70M guaranteed

While most people probably think it is crazy to put a contract this big on a list like this, when you have a player that actually is going to play all six years of the contract I think you have a pretty exceptional contract. It is so rare to have players work out on contracts this size. The contract that was the precursor to this was Ndamukong Suh who played for three years before his release. Justin Houston lasted four. Plenty of others have quickly faded from prized signings to “when can we release them” players.

The Broncos were able to keep from being the first team to hit the $20 million per year number even though Miller as a prolific pass rusher should have received a big raise from the Suh contract. While they did set a new high for injury protection they fell way short of the Suh full guarantee. Considering that Miller was franchised at the time those are pretty solid numbers for the Broncos. Until injury last year Miller had been very productive for the team, more than living up to the big contract.

Worst: Ronald Darby, 3 years, $30M, $19.5M guaranteed

This selection came down to two contracts (the other was Melvin Gordon) and I opted for Darby because I thought the value was too high given his past history. Darby is a good player but has already had two runs in free agency, neither of which really went well. Darby signed for 1 year and $6.5 million in 2019 and then 1 year and $3 million in 2020. While he was healthy for the first time in his career last year and should have been due for a raise I’m not sure that much separated him from other players who wound up signing one year deals.

The numbers here are pretty big for a player who has struggled in free agency and has an injury history and there is little in the way of per game protection if the injury bug strikes back in 2021. They fully guaranteed year two of the contract so they don’t have a way to bring the number down next year if he is off the field. There is certainly upside for Denver in their secondary but this was one where they should have been able to save a few more dollars before signing.

Kansas City Chiefs

Best: Patrick Mahomes, 10 year, $450M, $141M guaranteed

There is probably no better contract in the NFL for a team than the Mahomes contract for the Chiefs. The Chiefs locked Mahomes up for the 12 total seasons on this 10 year extension which is just an amazing contract in this day and age. The current rate for QB extensions is four years which means most players will have an opportunity to sign two extensions while Mahomes is still playing on this contract. While the overall number is massive, the QB market quickly reached $40 million a year after Mahomes signed this one and unless the rest of the NFL is able to maintain a block on raises due to this deal for some time it is likely that the market will exceed $50 million a year within the next few seasons.

This deal should create a similar type of advantage that we saw New England gain for years while working closely with Tom Brady on his contracts giving the Chiefs the ability to maximize the roster around a star QB rather than be forced to minimize the talent due to the QB expenditure. The Chiefs ability to pull this off should give them such a significant advantage against the field where the field pays up for good but not great play and winds up compromising their ability to surround the QB with great players to help bridge the gap created by the difference in QB quality. All in all this is a perfect contract that I never expected to see again in the NFL.

Worst: Anthony Hitchens, 5 years, $45M, $25M guaranteed

There were two other contracts I considered for this but this Hitchens deal is one that I never really cared much for. Though the price doesn’t look as outrageous now that some of the linebacker salaries have really grown, this was one of the contracts that set the wheels in motion, in my opinion, for those larger salaries. At the time I think most viewed Hitchens as a solid 50%-55% type snap guy which at the time was worth around $5 to $6 million a year. $9 million a year with $25 guaranteed was a pretty big jump up.

Structure wise the deal wasn’t great. The team went with a $14M signing bonus to keep the first year cap numbers low and then compounded that with another $5.7M salary conversion for cap relief in the second year of the contract. That really bloated the dead money and cap number for Hitchens last season where he had the 4th highest cap number in the NFL among linebackers. He has the 5th highest number this year if the Chiefs do not look to bring his salary down over the summer. Cutting Hitchens would cost the team over $8 million in dead money though it would be split across two years at this point.

Los Angeles Chargers

Best: Chris Harris, 2 years, $17M, $11.5M guaranteed

Harris’ signing is probably a better example of a good process than a deal that worked out but I always liked what the Chargers did here when they signed Harris to a two year contract last season. The Chargers read the market perfectly, waited until the right time, and swooped in and grabbed a good veteran corner from a division rival. Though Harris is on the older side he came with reasonable upside and perhaps still has a chance to help the Chargers make a playoff push this year.

The contract structure itself should have given the Chargers and ability to renegotiate down a bit if they wanted to in 2021 but I am assuming they did not do that since they have the room with a rookie QB and want to surround him with as much talent as possible. Overall though this is still a reasonable number for a player who two years ago many considered one of the top corners in the NFL and one who has a chance to get back to that level this year.

Worst: Keenan Allen, 4 years, $80.1M, $50M guaranteed

The Chargers don’t really have many deals that standout as negatives and I am sure that it looks odd for Allen to be listed here since he is such a good football player, but of all the contracts on the team I thought this was the one that the team got pulled up on more than they may have needed to be pulled on. Allen was the second player to cross the legit $20 million a year mark at the position and that was a line I don’t think the Chargers needed to cross. In hindsight it probably looks even more so that way with so many receivers struggling to get big numbers in free agency.

There are good features with the contract- in particular the three year cash is under $20M per year and they utilized a bloated final year salary to hit the number needed to sign him but his guarantees run through 2022 so if there happened to be a decline in play this year they would not have an out at all other than via trade. Going the franchise tag route probably would have been messy but they may have been able to peg the two year new money to the cost of two tags rather than a few million extra they wound up doing.

Las Vegas Raiders

Best: Darren Waller, 4 years, $29.8M, $16.5M guaranteed

Give the Raiders credit for finding a gem in Waller who had struggled with off the field issues in his career but found a home with the Raiders after they poached him from the Ravens practice squad. Waller was well on his way to a 1,000 yard season when the team made the decision to extend an offer to Waller worth just a hair under $7.5M a year rather than playing out the RFA process (including the RFA tender the contract would still be an affordable $8.8M a year).

This was a good case of scouting out the market and understanding that even though the tight end position had been rather stagnant that there were contracts on the horizon that would change the market, notably the pending free agency of Austin Hooper and Hunter Henry along with the possibility of a George Kittle extension. Waller wound up with back to back 1,000 yard years and would have been in line for a contract worth upwards of $13 million a season, which probably would have seen him leave Las Vegas. Instead he will be the best non-rookie bargain at the position in the NFL for the next few years.

Worst:  Carl Nassib, 3 years, $25M, $16.8M guaranteed

The Raiders have purged themselves of most of their bad deals which left the Nassib as the one that stood out the most on the roster. From an average value standpoint I would not really consider this that out of line with the market for a secondary rusher but the guarantee is what tipped this one into the negative column.

67% of Nassib’s entire contract was protected for injury, a number that currently ranks 12th among all edge rushers on multi year contracts while the 55% full guarantee ranks 17th. To put those numbers a bit more in perspective his annual value ranks 28th. While it is common to try to bump guarantees in return for a better contract, this one really didn’t fit that bill as the contract itself is pretty much in line with market and they certainly didn’t gain any upside in length had Nassib had a stronger season. This is a general approach for the Raiders on many of their deals but this is the one that stood out the most.