NFL contracts are fickle in nature due to the discrepancy in guaranteed and non-guaranteed deals. The difference between the two also cause many fans to misinterpret the meaning of “dead money” on their team’s salary cap.
Bleacher Report’s Tyler Raborn did a good job of thoroughly explaining the concept here. In short, dead money refers to the amount of cap space taken up by players no longer on the roster, whether they retired or were cut or traded.
Not all dead money is bad, because if the players were still on the roster, their cap hit and contracts would likely be substantially worse. It’s more of a symbol that a team’s front office screwed up, and as a consequence have less money to throw at free agents. For some zealous executives (ahem, Jerry Jones), that’s probably not a bad thing. But too much dead money can prevent teams from being active in the free agent market, a death knell if they can’t combat the lack of salary flexibility by developing young talent.
Research engine FindTheBest used statistics from Overthecap.com to compile the 20 worst dead-money contracts in the NFL.
20. Chris Snee, former Giants guard
2014 Cap hit: $4,550,000
Snee earned four Pro Bowl berths from 2008-2012 and was a part of two Super Bowl teams in his career with the Giants. He then underwent two hip surgeries and an elbow surgery in the last two years, and retired in July after he was slow to recover from the elbow injury.
Snee is still taking up just over $4.5 million on New York’s salary cap, but that’s not too much of a burden considering his past contributions.
19. Mark Sanchez, former Jets quarterback
2014 Cap hit: $4,800,000
In March 2012, eight months before “butt fumble” became an integral part of America’s lexicon, Sanchez signed a three-year, $40.5 million extension with the Jets. The move was confounding at the time – even more so two weeks later, when New York acquired Tim Tebow, simultaneously bothering Sanchez and sparking a media circus (more than 200 reporters attended Tebow’s introductory press conference).
The constant coverage didn’t relent until Tebow was released the following April. Sanchez followed him out the door this past spring, and is now serving as Nick Foles’ primary dietician -- er, backup, in Philadelphia.
18. Steve Smith, former Panthers wide receiver
2014 Cap hit: $5,000,000
Smith was surprisingly cut -- not traded -- by Carolina in March after spending 13 years with the Panthers. He signed a three-year contract with Baltimore soon after, but still represents a $5 million cap hold for Carolina.
The prideful veteran made his former team figuratively pay for their decision in Week 4 this season, hauling in two touchdowns on seven catches and 139 yards in a 38-10 Ravens victory. He already has as many touchdowns as he did the last two seasons for Carolina, and is on pace for 1,350 receiving yards – his highest total since 2011.
17. Carl Nicks, former Buccaneers guard
2014 Cap hit: $5,357,000
Nicks was one of the best guards in football for the Saints during their Super Bowl campaign in 2009, then earned Pro Bowl berths the next two seasons. He cashed in with a five-year, $47.5 million deal with Tampa Bay in March 2012, but ended up only playing in nine games across two seasons for the Bucs after a toe injury led to a nasty MRSA infection.
Nicks, 29, announced he would “step away from the game” in July. He accounts for nearly all of Tampa Bay’s $6.6 million dead money total.
16. Antonio Cromartie, former Jets cornerback
2014 Cap hit: $5,480,000
Despite earning Pro Bowl selections in the past two seasons and helping New York reach the AFC Championship in 2011, Cromartie was released by the Jets in March. Cromartie was a textbook cap casualty – he would have taken up $15 million of New York’s cap space had he stayed on the roster, so GM John Idzik elected to swallow $5.4 million and create $9.5 million worth of room.
That’s left a gaping hole in the Jets secondary, however. Former first-round pick Dee Milliner tore his Achilles tendon in Week 6, ending his season with just three games played, and the current starting tandem of Antonio Allen and Darrin Walls has been one of the weakest in the league.
15. LaMarr Woodley former Steelers linebacker
2014 Cap hit: $5,590,000
Woodley suffered the same fate as Cromartie, as the Steelers released the injury-plagued sack specialist in March to save approximately $8 million on the cap. Pittsburgh will have to allot $8.58 million of their cap space in 2015 for Woodley’s old contract, which was originally supposed to pay him $61.5 million over six years. Instead, he only stayed in Pittsburgh for half of that span.
Woodley, now playing for Oakland on a two-year deal, suffered a season-ending bicep injury in Week 7 against Arizona. He only mustered six tackles in five games for the Raiders, and has just nine sacks over the past three seasons.
14. Ray Rice, former Ravens running back
2014 Cap hit: $6,161,765
The Ravens don’t actually owe Rice any more cash after he was released last month following his highly-publicized domestic violence incident with Janay Palmer. But his contract will stay on the cap this year and in 2015, when Baltimore will absorb $9.5 million of dead money.
13. DeSean Jackson, former Eagles wide receiver
2014 Cap hit: $6,250,000
After Jackson turned in his best statistical season (1,332 receiving yards, nine touchdowns) in 2013, it seemed he’d be in Philadelphia for at least the final three years of his five-year, $51 million contract. Instead, the Eagles abruptly released Jackson this offseason just a half-hour after NJ.com published an article alleging the team was worried about the wideout’s possible gang ties.
Those supposed ties have yet to yield any tangible incidents involving Jackson, and the NFLPA said soon after his dismissal that they’d investigate whether the Eagles leaked those rumors to justify his release. Jackson, meanwhile, has easily slid into Washington’s offense and got a taste of revenge against his former team in Week 3.
12. Levi Brown, former Cardinals tackle
2014 Cap hit: $6,514,191
Back when rookies were paid a boatload upon being drafted, Brown signed a six-year, $62 million contract with Arizona in 2007 as the No. 5 overall pick. That contract proved to be disastrous, so the Cardinals restructured his deal in 2012. That eventually still wasn’t enough to sway the team from simply swallowing a $6.5 million cap hit instead of keeping Brown on their roster – the Cards traded him to the Steelers last October for a conditional late-round draft pick.
Brown ended up tearing his biceps in pregame workouts and never played a snap for Pittsburgh – or any other team, up to this point.
11. Trent Richardson, former Browns running back
2014 Cap hit: $6,670,836
It’s hard to decide which of Cleveland’s two first-round choices in 2012 have been more disappointing. Both Richardson and Brandon Weeden, who barely missed a spot on this list, were sent off by the Browns new front office and combine for $10.9 million of dead money on the team’s payroll this year.
Despite his heavy frame (5-foot-9, 225 lbs.), Richardson has continued to show a baffling inability to get into the endzone this year (two touchdowns on 101 rushes). It’s not inconceivable to think that the Colts might soon lose patience with him, too.
10. Jeremiah Ratliff, former Cowboys defensive tackle
2014 Cap hit: $6,928,000
Ratliff, who formerly went by “Jay”, was once a dominant nose tackle for Dallas and reached four consecutive Pro Bowls for the Cowboys. Ratliff inked a six-year, $40 million extension through 2017 with Dallas in the middle of that run, which quickly came to a halt in 2012 after Ratliff succumbed to a litany of injuries.
His contract was eventually terminated in October 2013, and Ratliff signed with the Bears the following month. He played well enough the rest of the season to earn a two-year, $4 million deal this offseason – though Chicago gave him just $600,000 in guaranteed cash, perhaps learning from Dallas’ mistake.
9. Percy Harvin, former Seahawks wide receiver
2014 Cap hit: $6,929,412
The Seahawks saved $7,117,647 in base salary pay by trading Harvin to the Jets, according to the News Tribune, but also swallowed about $7 million worth of dead money on their cap and are seemingly left without any top-notch talent at wide receiver. Seattle deemed those acceptable by-products of shipping away Harvin, who reportedly fought with several teammates and never really fit into the team’s offense as well as expected.
8. Ryan Fitzpatrick, former Bills quarterback
2014 Cap hit: $7,000,000
Leading up to Fitzpatrick’s first season as Buffalo’s full-time starter in 2011, he had compiled a mediocre 32-25 TD-INT ratio across two years as the Bills part-time first-stringer. But when he helped the downtrodden franchise jump out to a 4-2 record, Fitzpatrick was handed a six-year, $59 million extension midseason.
Buffalo won its next contest to improve to 5-2 – then lost seven in a row to fall out of playoff contention, piling onto the woes of Bills fans. After another lackluster 6-10 campaign the following season, Fitzpatrick was released four years before his contract was due to end. He’s still managed to find starting jobs since in Tennessee and Houston, though neither franchise has found themselves as smitten by Fitzpatrick’s near-perfect Wonderlic score nor his fearsome beard as Buffalo’s front-office evidently was.
7. Michael Huff, former Raiders and Ravens safety
Combined 2014 Cap hit: $7,208,750
Huff is actually being paid by two of his former employers. He was purged from Oakland’s roster in March 2013 when general manager Reggie McKenzie tried to clear cap space following longtime owner Al Davis’ high-spending ways. McKenzie made the move even though Huff is still on Oakland’s cap at $6.2 million.
Pundits were surprised at the time, but Huff didn’t even make it through October with Baltimore last season before he was cut just months after signing a three-year deal. The Ravens have $1 million less in cap space this year as a result. No team tendered him a contract this summer, and his Twitter bio says he’s a stay-at-home dad.
6. Aaron Hernandez, former Patriots tight end
2014 Cap hit: $7,500,000
The Patriots are simultaneously lauded by analysts and loathed by rivals for their remarkable player evaluation record. But handing Hernandez a five-year, $40 million extension in 2012 that was originally supposed to run through 2018 undoubtedly constitutes one of the worst signings in NFL history for reasons completely unrelated to football.
Hernandez allegedly shot and killed Odin Lloyd just weeks before inking the contract, which is taking up $7.5 million on New England’s cap this year. The deal won’t affect the Patriots’ payroll after this season, however, since Hernandez automatically forfeited his 2015-18 salaries as a result of his arrest.
5. Jon Beason, former Panthers linebacker
2014 Cap hit: $8,000,000
Beason became the highest-paid middle linebacker in the NFL after agreeing to a five-year, $50 million extension with the Panthers in July 2011 – and everything went downhill from there. His once-promising career in Carolina was derailed by a bevy of injuries, as he played in just five games over the next two seasons.
The Panthers traded him to the Giants after three games last season, and Beason temporarily redeemed himself by racking up 93 tackles in 12 games for New York. His comeback earned him a three-year, $16.8 million contract from New York, but it proved to be just a temporary respite from the injury bug -- on Monday, Beason announced he’d undergo season-ending foot surgery. He could be off the books again if Jameel McClain or rookie Devon Kennard play well in his absence.
4. Julius Peppers, former Bears defensive end
2014 Cap hit: $8,366,668
Peppers, 34, has impressively maintained solid play late into his NFL career – but he wasn’t dominant enough for the Bears to keep fully paying the $91 million contract they gave him in 2010.
Peppers was due to take up nearly $18 million on Chicago’s payroll this year, but his release in March opened up about $10 million in cap space that the Bears utilized to sign a pair of free agents in end Lamarr Houston and safety Ryan Mundy. “Pep” signed a three-year deal with Green Bay and has four sacks through eight games.
3. DeMarcus Ware, former Cowboys defensive end
2014 Cap hit: $8,571,500
Ware is another aging sack artist who became a cap casualty last offseason after his team simply couldn’t afford him anymore. The Cowboys, who at over $25 million have more dead money on their cap this season than any other NFL team, released the franchise’s all-time sack leader in March after he posted career-lows in games played (13) and sacks (6.0).
Also like Peppers, Ware signed a three-year contract that could be worth up to $30 million after being cut. He’s experiencing a solid bounce-back season in Denver with seven sacks, tied for fifth-best in the league.
2. Stevie Johnson, former Bills wide receiver
2014 Cap hit: $10,225,000
Even after a few clashes with former Bills head coach Chan Gailey, Johnson’s future with Buffalo seemed bright after signing a five-year, $36.25 million deal with the team in March 2012. He went on to have another stellar year, becoming the only player in franchise history to record three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving campaigns.
But things quickly deteriorated last year, as Johnson caught just 52 passes out of the 100 thrown his way for 597 yards. The Bills drafted Johnson’s heir, Sammy Watkins, in the NFL draft in May before trading Johnson to the 49ers just one day later for a conditional mid-round pick in 2015.
Amazingly, two of Buffalo’s top three highest-paid players (Mario Williams, Johnson and Fitzpatrick) don’t even play for them anymore.
1. Matt Schaub, former Texans quarterback
2014 Cap hit: $10,500,000
With Arian Foster and J.J. Watt on their roster, the Texans could be a phenomenal team this year if only they had someone else besides a journeyman in Ryan Fitzpatrick leading their aerial attack. Of course, their front office is partially hamstrung by the contract of a man who for a long time was anointed as Houston’s franchise quarterback.
Despite making two Pro Bowls, Schaub never developed into the long-term superstar the Texans envisioned when they made him their starter in 2008 and signed him to a four-year, $62 million contract after just one game in 2012. Schaub actually had more than passable numbers until last season, when a 10-14 TD-INT ratio in 10 games had Texans fans memorably cheering his injury.
Unsurprisingly, Houston traded him to the Raiders in the offseason for a sixth-round pick in this summer’s draft that became running back Alfred Blue. Even though he’s the highest-paid Raider, Schaub lost the starting job in Oakland to rookie Derek Carr. His first pass attempt occurred on Sunday, and it went about as worse as it could have possibly gone.
Schaub still causes the third-highest cap hit on Houston’s payroll, which lends itself to some amusing arithmetic (or annoying, if you’re a Texans fan). His $10.5 million figure is more of a burden on Houston’s cap than Arian Foster by $2 million and costs the Texans about $7 million more than J.J. Watt.
His cap hit alone also represents virtually the same amount of dead money averaged by NFL teams, and makes up more than half of Houston’s dead money total of $18.1 million this year, which ranks fourth in the NFL. But as mentioned earlier, lots of dead money doesn’t always correlate with on-the-field blues – just look at the Cowboys, who are leading the NFC East despite Jerry Jones’ best efforts to constrain the team’s salary flexibility.
Of course, overcoming bad contracts is exponentially easier when you have DeMarco Murray on a rookie deal.
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