We take our first look at a playoff team with the Green Bay Packers
Best Contract: Jordy Nelson
Usually you can look up and down the Packers roster and find a number of good contracts. Even on the high end of the scale, such as the contracts of Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews which rank as the highest paid players at their positions, the Packers are locking their talent into more team friendly contracts and reasonable salary cap charges during the contributing years of the contract. However there is no contract better than the one signed with Jordy Nelson in 2011.
Whether it was bad luck on Nelson’s part or the fact that he was locked into a low cost rookie contract, the Packers convinced Nelson that it was important he sign a deal just three weeks into the 2011 season. The Packers understood where the situation was likely headed anyway. This was a passing team that was about to begin a turnover of sorts with the roster. Tight end Jermichael Finley was set to be a free agent in 2012 and veteran Donald Driver was on his last legs. On top of that Greg Jennings was two years away from free agency and was likely not in the future plans for Green Bay.
Nelson looked like a secondary target, big play threat. In the 16 weeks prior to signing (he played 15 games) he caught 49 passes for 730 yards. He was also steadily improving. In his final two games of 2010 and first three games of 2011 he caught 16 passes for 364 yards, which would prorate out to 51 and 1164 over a full season. These were more or less proven number 2 numbers with an upside of a low level 1, especially since his opportunities were set to grow in the offense.
The Packers jumped in with an offer that was very low end number 2/high end number 3 money rather than seeing Nelson gain more leverage with the big year they expected. It certainly paid off as over the next 13 games Nelson caught 58 passes for 1,062 yards. It didn’t matter because the Packers had him signed for just $4.2 million a season. That’s less than Julian Edelman, Riley Cooper, Emmanuel Sanders, and a long list of players who were under contract at the time to be number 2 receivers. Last season Nelson had over 1,300 yards, and that came in a season where seven games started by Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien, and Seneca Wallace
Had Nelson not panned out the Packers were in good shape. Every extension year would carry $200,000 in roster bonuses that were only earned if Nelson was active for a game. The use of this mechanism saved the Packers $50,000 in 2012. With no guarantees in the contract outside of the signing bonus Green Bay could have walked away after the first year if they absolutely needed to and at worst they would have been stuck with his contract thru just 2013, at which point he could have been released with $1.75 million in dead money.
Nelson will be a free agent after the season and it remains to be seen if he will jump in on an early extension again during the summer. Maybe he won’t be the great bargain his is now when that happens, but at this moment he is one of the best bargain players in the entire NFL.
Worst Contract: Sam Shields
One can criticize the Packers lack of activity in signing players who were not retained by their own team, but it’s very difficult to criticize them for the contracts they do actually sign. But there are always going to be mistakes made and even Green Bay can sometimes misread the landscape of the league, which is exactly what happened when they re-signed cornerback Sam Shields to a contract worth nearly $10 million per season this offseason.
Shields is a decent player who had typically graded out as a mid grade corner equivalent to the Sean Smith’s and Keenan Lewis’ of the world. Those players earn in the ballpark of $5 million a season. But the Packers had a difficult time with defense in 2013 and Shields was one of their better players and perhaps they were afraid of losing him. The 2014 free agent class was loaded with talent that included Aqib Talib, Alterraun Verner, Vontae Davis, Brent Grimes, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and others.
The thought may have been that as teams missed out on choice A they would drop down the list and eventually target Shields. With the increase in salary cap to a very unexpected $133 million, two teams felt that this was a sign that there would be a great deal of increased spending around the NFL. The Packers were one of those teams (Minnesota was the other).
Rather than seeing the price tag inflate and then losing the player the Packers offered $9.75 million a year and a $12.5 million signing bonus guarantee. Shields will receive $15 million in the first year of his contract and $21 million over the first two years. The large signing bonus virtually guarantees him of the $21 million take and likely another $9 million in 2016 as he carries over $6 million in dead money, a number the Packers would almost never decide to take on under any circumstances.
Once free agency began it was clear that the money was never going to come close to these numbers. Shields ended up earning the biggest contract of the free agents. His $15 million year one salary obliterated the market- the next closest free agent was Talib at $12 million (even Darrelle Revis following a release earned $12 million in 2014). His $21 million was $1 million more than Davis’ contract with the Colts. The next closest to his $30 million take over three years was $27 million.
About the only benefit the Packers received in the contract was the per game roster bonuses that total $500,000 each year. Everything else favors Shields. The value of the contract. The structure of the contract. The yearly cash flow of the contract. It’s all a benefit for Shields. Maybe the deal works out great and he proves to be an upper echelon player, but the Packers went to a salary level they never needed to go to in order to get this contract done.
2013’s Best and Worst Packers Contracts:
2013 Best Contract: Jordy Nelson (See above)
2013 Worst Contract: AJ Hawk (Remains starting LB at $5.1 mil cap hit)
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.