Best and Worst Contracts 2021: NFC West

Welcome to our second 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 NFC West.

Arizona Cardinals

Best: Chandler Jones, 5 years, $82.5M, $53M guaranteed

This was such a great contract for the Cardinals. The team traded a 2nd round pick for Jones and subsequently had to use the franchise tag after his first year in Arizona. Jones was a dynamic pass rusher at that point with back to back double digit sack seasons and had developed into a 90% playtime player with the Cardinals. Basically everything really was going his way and somehow he ended up on a contract that failed to jump past the contracts of either Olivier Vernon or Justin Houston and was millions less than Von Miller’s top market contract. Even the guarantee structure here was a win for Arizona giving the team all kinds of protections if he did not work out.

Just one year later the ceiling on the position was shattered by Khalil Mack’s $23.5 million per year contract and the whole market jumped. Jones, in the meantime, was even more productive. He was named an All Pro in two of the first three years of his contract and notched 49 sacks in those first three years before being injured last season. Jones is hoping to sign a new contract this summer but he probably missed his best opportunity when he did this deal.

Worst: DeAndre Hopkins, 2 years, $54.5M, $49.4M guaranteed

This was the exact opposite of the Jones situation. The team gave up a decent pick for Jones and had to use a franchise tag to keep his rights. Here the team traded much less for Hopkins who had three years remaining on his prior contract that he signed with the Texans. Arizona in many ways rolled over and played dead signing him to a new contract that added over $27M a year in new money to the deal, about $5 million more than the next closest player at the position.

In fairness to Arizona they clearly valued this as a five year contract and not a true extension which puts the number at a more reasonable $18.8M per year. Still the terms were great considering Hopkins had zero leverage.  The first year cash of $29M was second only to Michael Thomas. His three year of just over $60 million was also second in the NFL. The signing bonus was huge- $27.5 million- tops among all wide receivers and they threw in a second year option bonus because, well why not. That put Arizona in for $36.5M in prorated money at signing which I believe was tops in the NFL (Julio Jones had received $36 million). Hopkins negotiated this deal himself and it was a homerun any way you slice the contract up.

Los Angeles Rams

Best: Andrew Whitworth, 2 years, $17M, $6.5M guaranteed

Whitworth has been terrific for the Rams since they made the decision to sign him in free agency back in 2017. Even then the team did a very good job of signing a high quality left tackle for a reasonable price most likely being able to use his age as a reason to keep the cost moderate. Whitworth finished that entire contract out and the Rams convinced him to stay for less money and then this past year after he was injured came to a new agreement that was also incredibly reasonable.

A lot of this I would guess is due to the relationship the team has built with Whitworth who, at 40, is likely not looking to jump around the NFL. But this is a position where teams often have to pay up for talent or draft a player near the top of the draft if they want a good left tackle. The Rams have been able to kind of be an outlier by having a reasonably priced veteran who has been pretty outstanding, basically getting the best of both worlds with Whitworth.

Worst: Jalen Ramsey, 5 years, $100M, $43.7M guaranteed

The Rams have largely purged themselves of the bad deals that they had on the books so I opted for Ramsey mainly because the Rams set a new market high which represented a pretty big raise from the prior high. I’m sure the Rams will argue that because this is a trade the numbers are not really as high as reported but I think most around the league certainly see this as a $20 million a year contract.

The bigger reason to put this here is the current structure of the deal. Ramsey was great last year and I am sure the Rams expect him to be great for the next few years but cornerback play is often not very consistent and converting $16 million of his salary to a bonus this year really turns the cap numbers upside down if things go bad. In a two year span the Rams added $41 million in prorated dollars to Ramsey’s contract which is a huge figure. With a favorable vesting schedule for his guarantees the Rams are likely stuck with $20M+ cap hits until 2024 at which point they would be able to consider a release. If he plays as well as an Aaron Donald this won’t be a concern but they do not have much flexibility if his play drops in the next two seasons.

San Francisco 49ers

Best: Jason Verrett, 1 year, $5.5M, $4.5M guaranteed

This was a nice contract for San Francisco with Verrett coming off the first semi healthy year he has had in ages. Sometimes in the NFL when we see players with name value and ability that have had a rough injury history all it takes is one year to make the market dramatically change. San Francisco did not do that. While the $5.5M represents a big raise from where he was before, the price is that of a third corner and Verrett clearly has the upside of a two if he is healthy.

Some may say that one year is too short to truly benefit but the one year timeframe protects the 49ers from injury implications and still leaves them in a good position to negotiate further. Verrett is making the turn to 30 and at this position in particular that can really hurt your future leverage. Basically even if he outplays the deal whatever gain is realized from that will potentially be offset by his age giving the team a good opportunity to get another year at a value somewhere between this and the market for a number two.

Worst:  Jimmy Garoppolo, 5 years, $137.5M, $74.1M guaranteed

This always stood out to me as one of the strangest decisions the 49ers ever made. It wasn’t as if Garoppolo had this long history of success. He didn’t even have a season of success. He had a total of 7 starts in the NFL and was about as much of an unknown as any random second year player with a 2nd round draft grade would be. He was the perfect case for either trying to come to a reasonable long term deal or using the franchise tag to see what would happen if he played 16 games. While it wasn’t as bad as the Rob Johnson decision about 20 years before this, the decision to make Garoppolo the top paid QB in the NFL was surprising.

The 49ers did a unique thing with the contract by frontloading most of the cap charges in the first year to make Garoppolo easier to manage on the cap if he was good and easier to cut if he wasn’t. A lot was made of that strategy of effectively placing the dead money in an active contract year but when they failed to pull the trigger when Tom Brady was available and still have Garoppolo on the roster after drafting a QB high in the draft what benefit really was there to it? I’m not sure what the team is chasing beside the slim hope that he pulls out a miracle this season, but this is a mistake that should have been corrected already.  

Seattle Seahawks

Best: Duane Brown, 3 years, $34.5M, $16M guaranteed

Seattle traded for a disgruntled Brown in 2017 and have really gotten a lot out of the relationship. They gave him a moderate raise as part of the extension in 2018 and overall got very good terms at a position where players often command top dollar regardless of age. The contract built on another solid veteran player contract mentioned above- the original Andrew Whitworth contract- but never did anything to reflect changing the veteran market the way that Trent Williams was able to this year with the 49ers, matching the top valued deals despite being on the wrong side of 30.

Seattle has always had a few high priced stars on their team but the addition of Brown gave them a chance to have a top tier player but not at a superstar level price. The breakdown of the contract was steady with the cap numbers slightly rising as the cap was expected to rise and the Seahawks were never in a position where they had to touch it for cap relief and being forced into an early extension. A really solid contract all the way around.

Worst: Bobby Wagner, 3 years, $54M, $40.3M guaranteed

Wagner is a terrific player but I thought the Seahawks really came out on the shorter end of this deal. Wagner likely benefitted greatly because of the Jets decision to pay a linebacker $17 million in free agency, but Seattle went far and above just matching that deal. Wagner’s contract was second among all linebackers in first year cash at the time of signing, had the largest signing bonus, and three year cash figure. Wagner was 29 at the time of signing and hit all of these top numbers despite being compared to younger players.

I think that the thing I disliked the most here was just the three year term. If you are going to go this high aim for a fourth year. This has the feeling, as long as Wagner stays healthy, of having a situation in 2022 where Wagner looks for another extension. He will be 32 at that point which ups the risk for the team and will make this deal worth way more than $18M a year if he gets that third extension. That should have been a safeguard here as they gave up more than enough in the contract breakdown to have been able to offset a longer deal.