A few weeks ago Jason LaCanfora published a list of best and worst contracts in the NFL so I thought it might make a good idea for us to do the same here at OTC, with a team by team approach. I’ll try to be a bit more analytical in terms of why money was paid and how it fits in the market, but the general premise is the same. The one key difference is outside of restructured rookie contracts under the old CBA we will only use veteran contracts as there is a big difference between best draft picks and best contracts. Please note that there is a difference between a bad player and a bad contract when discussing some of the selections. Clicking on a players name will take you to his salary cap page.
Best Contract: Daryl Washington
This is another difficult team to find contracts that stand out in a positive manner. The Cardinals have overpaid a number of players for years and have not gotten great results from those players. Calais Campbell would be an example of a player who has lived up to the price tag, but can you call a contract with high cap charges and very high dead money throughout the deal a good contract? Probably not.
Suspension notwithstanding, Daryl Washington has been a good player for the Cardinals and the Cardinals acted early and extended him after just two seasons in the NFL. This allowed them to give Washington a fair value contract while lessening the cap charges that would have hit the team had they waited until his rookie contract was up. The contract also left the Cardinals a very quick out in the event that Washington was injured or regressed terribly in 2012.
The Cardinals only paid him a $2.5 million dollar signing bonus in 2012 with the larger bonus coming in 2013 in the form of an option bonus. The option was worth $10 million but was unprotected , meaning there was no fee attached if they failed to execute the option. He also had no guaranteed salary in 2013 meaning the Cardinals could have walked away with just an additional $2 million in dead money if they needed to cut ties with him. This was in stark contrast to the contract signed by Aaron Hernandez in 2012, which was for less total money and represented a player signing after just two seasons, where there was no protection and after 1 year the Patriots were hit with a $10 million dollar cap charge for walking away.
The Cardinals had until the end of the 2013 season to invoke the option but decided to move the decision date for salary cap purposes to the first day in 2014. While that can save Washington some money, since option bonuses can be attacked if a suspension occurs in the year the option is invoked, the Cardinals have maintained a two year evaluation period for a young player with potential. It is a much more cautious approach than most teams have taken when they extend their younger players. With rookie players under the new CBA able to renegotiate their contracts following this season I tend to think more teams will look at the Washington contract construction as a method to extend their talent and avoid holdouts while also keeping many financial options open to themselves if the player fails to develop once shown the big money.
Worst Contract: Larry Fitzgerald
I guess it’s worth pointing out right away that worst contract doesn’t always mean a bad player. Fitzgerald is an exceptional talent that is completely wasted because the team has failed to find a Quarterback after Kurt Warner retired from the NFL. This really should be exhibit A as to why a team should never overspend on a WR thinking it will fix a QB. For as great as Fitzgerald is he couldn’t fix Kevin Kolb or make the other folks, who didn’t belong in the NFL in the first place, even look passable.
Fitzgerald’s series of contracts with Arizona are arguably the finest player friendly deals ever negotiated by an agent. Fitzgerald was drafted in 2004 with the 3rd overall pick in the draft and received a contract that was essentially worthy of the 1st pick in the draft. The contract was a masterpiece as most highly drafted rookies were going to be tied to their rookie contracts through the 5th season and many through the 6th. Fitzgerald has excessive balloon payments in those last two years, with cap charges over $16 and $19 million that essentially made his contract a 4 year contract. By 2008 Fitzgerald had signed his first extension at the age of just 25.
The extension was more of the same carrying a void year and high enough cap charges to make the team consider extending again. After just three seasons the Cardinals gave Fitzgerald his third contract, an almost unheard of occurrence for a player just 28 years of age. The next deal was a complete game changer- 7 years and $113 million dollars for a Wide Receiver at a time when the top of the market was in the realm of $10 million dollars. Over $50 million in new money would be paid to Fitzgerald over the first three years of the extension, with significant bonuses being placed into the contract that would lead to excessive amounts of dead money in the contract.
Though Arizona added de-escalator clauses to the contract in 2017 and 2018, the deal was structured to include cap charges of $18 million in 2014 and $21.25 million in 2015, making the 2016 through 2018 seasons virtually meaningless. What that means is that Fitzgerald will likely be in a position to receive his 4th contract in 2014 or 2015 when he will be 31 or 32. If Fitzgerald plays his contract thru 2014 he will have earned about $115 million dollars from the Cardinals. Eli Manning, who was selected first overall in that same draft, is a two time Super Bowl MVP and plays a premier position in one of the biggest media markets in the country, will have earned just $18.4 million more. For a WR to earn that kind of money is almost unheard of. It’s a series of bad deals for the Cardinals but an absolute masterpiece of a contract for Fitzgerald.
Check out Our Other Best & Worst Contract Articles
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams(July 30)
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.