Each year, NFL general managers throw around money and fill up cap space with reckless abandon during the free agency period. Occasionally, it’s to get above the salary cap floor. Other times, GMs just prefer to build through free agency rather than trust the “crapshoot” nature of the draft.
But is handing out millions of dollars to veterans actually a safer strategy than selecting college football's best? As the Cowboys and Raiders have learned in recent years, shelling out cash to players who are nearing their thirties can end up backfiring in spectacular fashion.
That being said, it’s unclear how the Dolphins will look a few years down the road after they made Ndamukong Suh the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. If he can help Miami become the league’s best run defense, as he did in Detroit, then it’d give credence to the notion that committing major cash to the undisputed prize of free agency isn’t such a bad idea.
To research that hypothesis further, PointAfter examined the highest-paid free agents dating back to 2005 and examined whether they matched their previous production after signing their enormous free-agent deals. We won’t be counting quarterbacks who signed massive contracts to stay with their original teams, who often have no choice but to re-sign the face of their franchise.
Note: Guaranteed salary figures were not always available for each contract.
2005: Walter Jones, Seattle Seahawks
After several years of slapping Walter Jones with the franchise tag, the Seahawks finally committed to the pillar of their offense with a seven-year, $52.5 million contract in 2005. That netted Jones a $16 million signing bonus and freed Seattle to give the tag to Shaun Alexander (we’ll get to him in a second).
1997–2004: Five Pro Bowls in eight seasons
2005–09: Four Pro Bowls in five seasons
Jones hung up his cleats in 2010 and was elected into the Hall of Fame in '14 during his first year of eligibility.
However, even this best-case scenario comes with a caveat. Jones retired before the 2010 season because of a knee injury, which saved Seahawks $15 million in cap space, according to Spotrac.com. If Jones hadn’t decided to fade gracefully into retirement, thus forfeiting the last two years of this contract, his cap hold could have hamstrung Seattle’s payroll for a couple seasons.
2006: Shaun Alexander, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks followed up arguably the best signing on this list with one of the worst. Seattle reached Super Bowl XL with Alexander churning out 1,880 yards and a then-record 27 touchdowns behind an offensive line led by Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson.
The team then had to decide whether to keep Alexander or Hutchinson, both of whom were free agents, and the Seahawks chose Alexander, signing the reigning MVP to an eight-year, $62 million contract with $15.1 million guaranteed. The Vikings swiped Hutchinson, and Alexander was never the same player.
Note: You can hover over each year on the graph below to see individual stats for the corresponding season, or click through to see the player’s extended profile on PointAfter.
2004–05: 723 carries, 3,576 yards, 43 touchdowns, 4.95 yards per carry
2006–07: 459 carries, 1,612 yards, 11 touchdowns, 3.51 yards per carry
Alexander was released just two years after inking the eight-year deal—forcing Seattle to carry $6.9 million in dead money on the salary cap—and was out of football by 2009.
2007: Nate Clements, San Francisco 49ers
Nate Clements earned a reputation as a ballhawk early in his career with Buffalo, returning an interception for a touchdown in five of his six seasons in upstate New York. He wasn’t considered a top-tier cornerback, however, earning just one Pro Bowl berth (in 2004) during that span.
Regardless, the 49ers were somehow convinced into making Clements the highest-paid defensive player (eight years, $80 million, $22.6 million guaranteed) in NFL history at the time, setting a record that would frequently be broken in the years to come.
Clements wasn’t bad for the Niners, and in fact was voted the team’s MVP during his first campaign in the Bay. But he never made the Pro Bowl again, and San Francisco couldn’t justify keeping him on the payroll for more than half of the length of the deal, cutting the former first-round pick in 2011.
2001–06: 434 tackles, 23 interceptions (five returned for touchdowns), 84 passes defended, 13 forced fumbles
2007–10: 272 tackles, 10 interceptions (zero TDs), 40 passes defended, seven forced fumbles
2008: Asante Samuel, Philadelphia Eagles
Unlike Clements, Asante Samuel was a consensus elite cornerback when Philadelphia signed him for $57 million ($20 million guaranteed) over six years. He had just made his first Pro Bowl with New England, and promptly earned selections to the NFC squad in his first three seasons with the Eagles.
2003–07: 233 tackles, 22 interceptions, 77 passes defended
2008–11: 135 tackles, 23 interceptions, 62 passes defended
Once again, however, the back-end of the contract proved to be too expensive for the Eagles to see it through. With Samuel due to make $21.3 million over the last two years of his contract, Philadelphia traded him before the 2012 season to the Falcons for a seventh-round pick.
2009: Albert Haynesworth, Washington Redskins
Widely recognized as the worst free agent bust in NFL history, Albert Haynesworth was an albatross the moment the ink dried on his seven-year, $100 million contract ($41 million guaranteed) with the Redskins.
Newly minted as the highest-paid defensive player in the league, the monstrous defensive tackle refused to come to offseason activities and couldn’t even pass a basic conditioning test once training camp started. The world witnessed the implications of that as soon as the season started.
2007-08: 14.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, 91 combined tackles in 27 games
2009-10: 6.5 sacks, 53 combined tackles in 20 games
Haynesworth lost his starting job during his second season in Washington, and was released the next offseason.
2010: Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears
When the Carolina Panthers made it known that they were letting homegrown star Julius Peppers test the market in 2010, the Bears pounced on the future Hall of Famer. Chicago offered him a six-year, $91.5 million contract with $42 million guaranteed—quite a sum for a player who was on the wrong side of 30, but Peppers came darn close to justifying the contract.
2006–09: 188 tackles, 42 sacks, three interceptions
2010–13: 176 tackles, 38 sacks, three interceptions
Peppers helped Chicago open up some cap space by restructuring his contract in 2013, but the Bears released him a year later after his production decreased to seven sacks.
2011: Charles Johnson, Carolina Panthers
Charles Johnson immediately filled the gap left by Peppers by racking up 12 sacks in his first season as a starter. Carolina locked up the 24-year-old pending free agent, which they weren’t willing to do with the aging Peppers a year earlier, by signing him to a six-year, $76 million deal with $32 million guaranteed. At this juncture, it looks like the Panthers overestimated his potential.
2008–10: 112 tackles, 22 sacks
2011–14: 154 tackles, 40 sacks
Johnson’s pre- and post-signing numbers look encouraging, but the Panthers could find someone who can average 10 sacks per season for less than Johnson is owed over the next couple years.
The former third-round pick would cost Carolina $14 million in dead money this year and $4 million more in 2016 if he was cut. But it’s an option worth considering, since it might be better than paying Johnson the combined $35 million he’ll net over next two seasons if he stays on the roster.
2012: Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills
Many pundits were suprised when the Bills signed Mario Williams to a record-breaking six-year, $96 million contract with $31.4 million guaranteed. Williams was coming off a season in which he suffered a torn pectoral and only played five games for the Texans. It was unclear how he’d respond in Buffalo.
Well, Williams is halfway through his megadeal, and it doesn’t look all that outrageous.
2007–11: 194 tackles, 48.5 sacks, 10 forced fumbles
2012–14: 126 tackles, 38 sacks, five forced fumbles
With Buffalo touting plenty of explosive weapons on offense for new head coach Rex Ryan to use, the Williams signing looks like a shrewd move that established the franchise’s renewed commitment to winning.
2013: Mike Wallace, Miami Dolphins
Miami’s last attempt at signing the marquee free agent on the market didn’t turn out so well. The Dolphins signed Mike Wallace for five years and $60 million ($30 million guaranteed) with the hopes of giving Ryan Tannehill a consistent weapon outside. Instead, Wallace clashed with coaches and failed to log a 1,000-yard season during his two years in Miami before he was traded to the Vikings, along with a seventh-round pick, for a fifth-round selection in the 2015 draft.
2010-12: 196 receptions, 3,286 yards, 26 touchdowns (16.8 yards per reception)
2013-14: 140 receptions, 1,792 yards, 15 touchdowns (12.8 yards per reception)
2014: Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos
A lot can happen between now and the conclusion of the 2019 season, when Aqib Talib’s six-year, $57 million contract ($26 million guaranteed) is due to expire. And handing out big contracts to cornerbacks has provided mixed results in the recent past.
However, the early returns on Denver’s commitment to Talib were quite good in 2014. He and DeMarcus Ware helped vastly improve the Broncos’ pass defense, and Talib was rewarded with the second Pro Bowl selection of his career.
2013: 41 tackles, four interceptions, one forced fumble
2014: 63 tackles, one sack, four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), one forced fumble
It’s far too soon to tell whether Suh will end up earning the tens of millions dollars he’ll be paid, as Jones, Samuel and Peppers did, or whether he’ll go the way of Alexander and Haynesworth.
But over the last 10 years, not one of the annually highest-paid free agents of the offseason have completed their colossal contracts with the teams they originally signed. Johnson doesn’t look likely to buck that trend, and who knows how valuable Williams will be to the Bills in Ryan’s scheme.
Can Suh continue to consistently dominate offensive lineman for the next six seasons and push back against a decade of history? The Dolphins have to hope so.
More from Will Laws:
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