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: Jason Hatcher
Dallas took a rare cautious approach to re-signing one of their own when they came to terms with Hatcher in 2011 after he could not find another home in free agency. Hatcher played out 2010 on the RFA tag and had the potential to be a decent rotational player on a team filled with high priced talent. Dallas more or less matched the production with his salary, guaranteeing him $1.8 million over three years on a $6 million dollar contract. Hatcher would expand his role in 2011 after signing his deal and show flashes of being a very vital player in their defensive scheme.
At a $2.1 million dollar cap charge in 2012 Hatcher was priced very reasonably, especially for a veteran starter. It paid huge dividends as Hatcher started 16 games and was arguably the best defensive player on the team, turning him from a reasonable value to one of the best bargains in the league. Had Hatcher never grown into the starting role Dallas was protected with just $1.2 million in dead money charges and $900,000 in cap savings, one of the few contracts on their team with failsafe provisions. His $2.6 million dollar cap charge in 2013 remains one of the best bargains in the NFL for a starter.
Of course the tricky part with Hatcher will be what Dallas does if he continues to excel. Dallas wisely only signed him for 3 years on this past deal, locking him up thru his 31st birthday, but they have to be cautious beyond this season no matter how good he may look. Hatcher does not have a lot of wear and tear on his body, but sometimes just age alone can begin to break a player down. The last thing the Cowboys need is one of the best deals on their team becoming one of the worst, a subject we will talk about in the next section.
Worst Contract: Jay Ratliff
There are a number of places to go with this pick, but of all the bad, player friendly deals on the Cowboys none was worse than 2011 contract extension given to Ratliff. The extension of Ratliff typifies the good of Jerry Jones the owner and the bad of Jerry Jones the GM. As a player there is little worse than outperforming your contract, seeing inferior players getting paid, and knowing there is nothing you can do to help the situation. Jones doesn’t hold his players to those deals, generously opening the wallet to compensate his players for their performance. It is why players like playing in Dallas so much and why they will always be an attractive destination for free agents. Unfortunately in a salary cap league a GM that operates that way does nothing but dig a hole for his team that gets deeper and deeper every season, culminating in the bubble bursting and having a Raiders like purge of $50 million in dead money.
At the age of 30, Ratliff still had two seasons of cap friendly dollars left on his contract. The rule of thumb for a team in that situation is to have the player play out the contract and then begin to enter into a series of short term lower cost contracts when the player is 32 years old. This is the same strategy the Dolphins are likely employing with Randy Starks. At most you would give a token short term extension that gives the player a small raise without greatly affecting the cap. The Cowboys stunned the football world by paying Ratliff $8 million a season, with $17.5 million guaranteed, that would keep Ratliff in Dallas thru the age of 36.
Since 1970 only 22 DT’s have made a Pro Bowl over the age of 31 and only six were named All Pro. Since 1986 it has only been eight and two. Dallas should have prepared for the inevitable much in the way the Patriots never touched Vince Wilfork’s contract as he approached 30. Ratliff’s deal was more or less cap neutral in 2011 and 2012 but made it impossible to cut Ratliff in 2013 and would have left the team with $4 million in dead money in 2014 when they moved on.
Ratliff struggled throughout 2012 his body breaking down and his owner questioning why he was not on the field. Making matters worse Ratliff was arrested in early 2013 for a DUI. Yet somehow despite all of that the Cowboys went deeper in on Ratliff, converting $3.66 million of his salary into a prorated bonus. Dallas saved $2.928 in cap dollars in 2013 with the move, and increased his dead money to $6.928 million in 2014 making the pain of cutting him next season that much worse. Ratliff’s 2014 salary cap charge is now $8.232 million. Had the Cowboys played things by the book Ratliff would have been gone already and some of the Cowboys cap pain would be alleviated. But they didn’t, and they will continue to scramble to adjust cap charges to maintain their roster next season.
Check out Our Other Best & Worst Contract Articles
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants (July 13)
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.