For whatever reason, the NFL is in an epidemic of dead money contracts. When I counted down the 20 worst 2014 cap hits a year ago, it only took $4.5 million to make the list. In 2015, that threshold is up to $5.0 million. And while DeMarcus Ware came in third place last season with a hit of $8.5 million on the Cowboys' cap, he’d rank seventh in 2015.
Some of it has to do with the league’s recent rash of off-the-field incidents. When players exhibit abhorrent behavior (and the media suddenly starts allotting more headlines to such matters), general managers have no choice but to prematurely end contracts earlier than they expected due to reasons beyond their control.
Let’s not let front offices entirely off the hook, though. The vast majority of deals populating the NFL’s 20 worst dead money hits in 2015 were handed out to players whose performances simply haven’t lived up to the paychecks promised to them.
Using PointAfter visualizations and financial statistics from Spotrac, here are the 20 worst dead money deals in the NFL this season, including two holdovers from last year’s rundown. Sometimes, one season just isn’t enough time to erase bad decisions.
Note: Sam Baker and Gosder Cherilus will almost surely be on this list next season, when their respective cap hits of $6.4 million and $5.8 million land on their former team’s salary caps. But their relatively small 2015 dead money amounts excused them from the top 20 this year.
20. Darrelle Revis, former Patriots cornerback
2015 Cap hit: $5.0 million
The Patriots had a big decision to make this offseason regarding Revis — extend his $25 million option for 2016, or cut him loose and eat $5 million of dead money this year. They chose the latter, using some of the money they saved to extend Devin McCourty before he hit the open market and steal Jabaal Sheard from Cleveland on a two-year, $11 million contract that appears to be an absolute bargain.
Sometimes having a little dead money isn’t so bad — especially if it helps you avoid paying a cornerback $25 million.
19. Curtis Lofton, former Saints linebacker
2015 Cap hit: $5.0 million
The Saints made a flurry of offseason moves to rid themselves of a bunch of expensive veterans. Though it probably helped their salary outlook for the long term, they’re being weighed down by the most dead money (approximately $32.6 million) on any NFL payroll in 2015.
New Orleans reportedly saved $4.2 million against the cap by releasing Lofton with two years and $8.3 million left on his previous contract. Lofton quickly signed a three-year, $18 million deal with Oakland, where he’s been a glaring weakness in a generally strong front seven. Pro Football Focus ranks the 29-year-old as the 44th-best inside linebacker out of 56 qualified players this season (subscription required).
18. Miles Austin, former Cowboys receiver
2015 Cap hit: $5.1 million
Seven of the 20 worst dead money hits this season are caused by hefty contracts handed to wide receivers, making it far and away the position featured the most in this piece.
The seven-year, $54.1 million deal signed by Austin in 2010 after just one 1,000-yard season shows how desperate Jerry Jones was to find a top-flight flanker before the Dez Bryant days. After several underwhelming campaigns, the Cowboys released Austin in 2014 and are still footing the bill for a guy who’s now playing for the rival Eagles.
17. Junior Galette, former Saints linebacker
2015 Cap hit: $5.5 million
Galette is the odds-on favorite to be at the top of this list next season. The 27-year-old agreed to a four-year, $41.5 extension with New Orleans in 2014 after emerging as an elite best pass-rusher on a team in dire need of defensive game-breakers. Less than a year later, however, the Saints decided to release him after Galette was involved in two violent incidents.
The first was a battery case against a woman in Galette’s home. Then, over the summer, video surfaced of a full-out beach brawl (warning: video contains disturbing content) in which Galette appeared to repeatedly strike oncomers with a belt.
Weeks later, the Saints cut Galette and were subsequently saddled with a total of $17.6 million in dead money to be spread out over the next two seasons. The $12.1 million cap hit for 2016 is larger than any entry on this list.
16. Brandon Marshall, former Bears receiver
2015 Cap hit: $5.6 million
Marshall’s remarkable seven-year streak of 1,000-yard seasons ended last year in Chicago, when he was placed on injured reserve with three games left due to fractured ribs and a punctured lung.
For a team like Chicago that was stuck in cap purgatory, largely due to contracts afforded to Jay Cutler and the No. 1 entry in this article, it was a defensible decision to trade Marshall to the Jets for a fifth-round pick in March. The Bears saved $7.7 million in cash and created nearly $4 million in cap space with the move.
But the 31-year-old Marshall has proved he’s far from finished in the NFL. He’s already topped his receiving yards total from last season by nine yards in New York, emerging as the long-needed No. 1 WR in the Meadowlands with 730 yards and five touchdowns halfway through the 2015 campaign.
15. Greg Jennings, former Vikings receiver
2015 Cap hit: $6.0 million
When Minnesota traded a fifth-round pick to Miami for Mike Wallace and a seventh-rounder in March, it was clear that Jennings’s days in purple and gold were numbered. Once Aaron Rodgers’s favorite target in Green Bay, Jennings no longer possessed the athleticism needed to elevate the Vikings passing game by the time he made it to Minnesota.
Jennings latched on with Miami in April, but the 32-year-old is buried on the depth chart and has just 10 receptions through eight games.
14. Ben Grubbs, former Saints guard
2015 Cap hit: $6.0 million
Grubbs is the third of four Saints on this list, more representatives than any other NFL team has. It’s pretty remarkable that New Orleans has managed to stay afloat this season despite the fact that four of the club’s eight most expensive players are suiting up for other teams.
13. Dannell Ellerbe, former Dolphins linebacker
2015 Cap hit: $6.4 million
Ellerbe came to Miami as a lauded defensive signing from Baltimore on a five-year, $35 million contract. But as the Ravens have shown time and time again, they know when to cut bait with a standout performer who’s about to become overvalued.
Ellerbe didn’t live up to expectations in Miami and was shipped out as part of the Kenny Stills trade. Ellerbe has only played 169 snaps in New Orleans this season, and is graded by Pro Football Focus as one of the year’s 10 worst 4-3 linebackers of 34 qualified players.
12. Mike Wallace, former Dolphins receiver
2015 Cap hit: $6.6 million
The man who replaced Greg Jennings in Minnesota left some dead money behind at his former haunt, too. Once seen as a bona fide No. 1 wideout, it became clear over Wallace’s time in Miami that he’s better classified as a complementary deep threat, as he was in Pittsburgh. Wallace definitely has his worth, but the Dolphins were a bit overeager in handing him a five-year, $60 million contract.
The club realized its mistake after Wallace failed to reach 1,000 yards in the first two years of the deal, posting his career-worst averages in yards per reception never establishing great chemistry with Ryan Tannehill. The ugly marriage was effectively ended during the Dolphins’ final 2014 game, when Wallace elected to sit out the second half rather than play out the final minutes of another lame-duck season in Miami.
11. Tyvon Branch, former Raiders safety
2015 Cap hit: $6.7 million
For years, Oakland struggled to hold onto its homegrown defensive stalwarts. During his first year at the helm, Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie made it a priority to lock down Branch, a fourth-round pick who blossomed into a key contributor during his first three seasons in the Bay Area. McKenzie endeared himself to Raiders fans by giving Branch a four-year, $26.6 million in the summer before Branch’s contract year.
The returns on the deal initially seemed good, but Branch simply couldn’t stay healthy. He played just 19 games during his final three season with the Raiders, who had no choice but to cut him loose with a potential $9.7 million base salary for 2016 staring McKenzie in the face. McKenzie has been criticized by many for his free agent failings, but the Raiders currently have $15.3 million in cap space, the fifth-most in the NFL.
With Branch being Oakland’s only egregious instance of dead money at the moment, and Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack combining to form a young, exciting on-field product, the outlook in the Black Hole is finally looking bright.
10. Michael Johnson, former Buccaneers end
2015 Cap hit: $7.0 million
Tampa Bay’s decision to sign Johnson for five years and $43.8 million in 2014 was a curious one from the start. He was fresh off a season when he totaled 3.5 sacks with Cincinnati, and although that followed an 11.5 sack output from 2012, it seemed unlikely there were other teams preparing to match Tampa Bay’s generous offer.
Johnson recorded just four sacks in 2014 while battling numerous injuries, and the Bucs cut their losses one year to the day after signing Johnson to save $2 million in cap space this season. The 28-year-old is back with the Bengals now, and has posted two sacks in eight games.
9. Percy Harvin, former Seahawks receiver
2015 Cap hit: $7.2 million
Following Seattle’s stunning decision to trade Harvin to the Jets in the middle of last season, the Seahawks had to swallow $6.9 million of dead money on their cap last year. That figure bumped up a bit in 2015, but it’s doubtful the Seahawks are missing Harvin’s grumpy antics or poor injury luck.
Harvin was placed on injured reserve five games into his stint in Buffalo, and his future in the league is very much in doubt. Buffalo can void the final two years of his contract this offseason, which seems extremely likely given the $9 million base salary he’d be due otherwise in 2016.
8. Andre Johnson, former Texans receiver
2015 Cap hit: $7.3 million
Once the face of the Texans franchise, Johnson requested a departure from Houston after he was told during the offseason his role would be reduced. GM Rick Smith elected to release him, presumably because he couldn’t find a trade to his liking.
That’s not particularly surprising, since Johnson had a salary cap number of $16.1 million and is clearly on the decline — now more than ever.
7. Haloti Ngata, former Ravens nose tackle
2015 Cap hit: $7.5 million
The Ravens were stuck between a rock and a hard place with Ngata during the offseason, similar to the Patriots and Darrelle Revis. Unless they rid themselves of Ngata through a trade or release, the 31-year-old’s $16 million cap hit in 2015 would hamstring the team in free agency.
Luckily, Baltimore was able to trade Ngata to Detroit along with a seventh-round pick, and actually acquired fourth- and fifth-rounders as well as the $8.5 million in saved cap space. Baltimore still managed to sell relatively high on a player who had experienced down years in 2012 and 2013, and who was suspended four games in 2014 for performance-enhancing drugs.
Meanwhile, Ngata’s downfall has continued in Detroit. After Pro Football Focus ranked as the ninth-best 3-4 defensive end with Baltimore last season, Ngata has largely failed to adjust to his new surroundings, ranking 43rd among 70 qualified nose tackles.
6. LaMarr Woodley, former Steelers linebacker
2015 Cap hit: $8.6 million
Woodley, once a core component of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XLIII championship team, represented the 15th-largest amount of dead money ($5.6 million) in the NFL when I did this exercise last year. The burden from Woodley’s old six-year, $61.5 million deal has only worsened in 2015.
Woodley tried to catch on with Oakland last year, but that resulted in an abysmal six-game stint with just five tackles from Woodley. Unlike the Steelers, however, the Raiders were smart enough not to guarantee Woodley any money for 2015.
5. Dwayne Bowe, former Chiefs receiver
2015 Cap hit: $8.9 million
Kansas City’s highest-paid receiver this year isn’t Jeremy Maclin, who represents $3.4 million on the Chiefs payroll. It’s Dwayne Bowe, who inked a five-year, $56 million deal in 2013 with $26 million guaranteed, which made him the league’s third highest-paid receiver in terms of total compensation.
Of course, Bowe didn’t end up collecting all that cash. He only saw out two years of the contract before being released in favor of Alex Smith’s new No. 1 wideout. Chiefs fans have to hope Maclin, whose contract could run for five years and $55 million, doesn’t meet a similar fate as Bowe.
4. Jimmy Graham, former Saints tight end
2015 Cap hit: $9.0 million
Graham represents the most burdensome of the many dead money hits currently sitting on New Orleans’ payroll. Even though the Saints shockingly dealt him to Seattle, who's on the hook for Graham’s $3 million base salary and $5 million roster bonus this season, New Orleans still has to deal with the fallout of making Graham the highest-paid tight end in football with a four-year, $40 million deal last summer.
3. Ray Rice, former Ravens running back
2015 Cap hit: $9.5 million
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome had to release Rice last year following the ugly chain of events that occurred after the former star running back knocked his then-fiance (and now wife) Janay Palmer unconscious in a casino elevator.
The Ravens have not met expectations this year, but you can’t say their running game has struggled since Rice’s dismissal. Baltimore has received far better production from Justin Forsett since he took over as the lead back in 2014.
2. Ndamukong Suh, former Lions nose tackle
2015 Cap hit: $9.7 million
Even though Suh spurned the Lions for South Beach this spring, Detroit has still had to endure a $9.7 million cap hit that would have been on the books regardless of where Suh played in 2015.
Suh’s cap hit is higher than any of the defensive players currently on Detroit’s roster. And Haloti Ngata has been a 330 lbs. of disappointment. Perhaps that’s why the Lions rank in the bottom three in rushing defense.
1. Jared Allen, former Bears defensive end
2015 Cap hit: $11.7 million
Oftentimes, when teams make wide-ranging organizational and scheme changes, players who were previously deemed invaluable become expendable. When the Bears switched to Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defensive scheme during the offseason, Allen was no longer a great fit in Chicago.
The sack artist was dealt to Carolina in late September once it became clear the Bears weren’t going to contend this year. Even if they were in the playoff race, they’d have enough reason to deal Allen, who was due $16.5 million in base salary through 2017 but had just four tackles and no sacks through Chicago’s first three games this year.
As is so often the case with dead money, the Bears traded present cap space for future flexibility. It’s up to the general manager to make sure that flexibility is utilized to the fullest.
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