Who are the NFL's most overpaid players? A closer look at the players who have most egregiously underperformed their contracts at each position.
With OTAs winding down and training camp still over a month away, the vast majority of contract negotiations are over, and those that are still unsettled are likely to drag into July or August.
With little threat of a new albatross contract lapping the field, the dog days of the NFL off-season are the perfect time to examine the game's worst contracts. With the help of some interactive visualizations from PointAfter, I’ll lay out the most overpaid players at each position today before examining the best bargains tomorrow.
Players who were signed to be backups won’t be considered in this exercise, but guys who lost their starting jobs over the course of their contract, however, are obviously fair game.
Note: All salary figures are according to Spotrac.
Quarterback: Jay Cutler
Among full-time starters, Jay Cutler's 2014 production relative to his base salary (third data point from the right) lies the farthest under the trend line in the graph below. Even setting aside the turnovers that Cutler can produce in bunches without warning, he still provided the least bang for the buck among every starter in the league with just 254.13 passing yards per game in return for a 2014 base salary of $18.5 million.
Cutler is the only quarterback in the league whose contract tops $125 million in total value, and although he's not likely to see the end of that contract nor most of the performance incentives that drive up its grand total, the Bears' embattled No. 1 quarterback undoubtedly the most overpaid man at his position.
Running back: Jonathan Stewart
Grossly overpaid running backs are becoming a rarity in the NFL, as front offices are understandably cautious in committing big money to a position largely regarded as replaceable.
The contract the Panthers gave Jonathan Stewart in 2012 was one of the last of its kind: a five-year, $36.5 million extension that currently ranks as the fifth-richest deal for a running back. For a player who’s never been a full-time starter in the NFL and has gone on to rush for just 1,325 yards in the three injury-shortened seasons since signing the deal (Stewart has missed 21 games due to injuries), the money Stewart is owed in the coming years is a daunting obstacle for the Carolina front office.
Wide receiver: Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace made a name for himself in Pittsburgh as a dangerous deep threat for the cannon-armed Ben Roethlisberger. The two combined to give defenses headaches, as Wallace averaged eight touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards per season during four years with the Steelers.
But Wallace hasn’t been nearly as consistent since leaving for a five-year, $60 million deal with Miami that made him the second-highest-paid wideout in the game. Citing his atrocious run-blocking and inconsistent connection with Ryan Tannehill, Pro Football Focus had Wallace tied for 53rd in its overall grades for receivers in 2014.
Maybe the speedster will return to his old ways in Minnesota, where he was traded along with a seventh-round pick in return for a fifth-round selection in March, but Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is not known for his downfield throws, which is how Wallace picks up the vast majority of his yardage. For now, there’s no other receiver who can be considered for this title.
Offensive line: Andy Levitre
There are several tackles whose 2014 struggles make a strong case for the honors here, including D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Ryan Clady. But Ferguson’s down year shouldn’t negate a very solid career, and though Clady’s contract looks especially onerous now with another season-ending injury sidelining him for coming season, he allowed only two sacks in '14 despite largely poor grades from PFF.
Titans left guard Andy Levitre, meanwhile, contributed mightily to Tennessee’s struggles in the passing game last season by any measure. He provided little protection for the Titans' revolving door at quarterback, all while raking in $7.8 million, the third-highest salary among guards last year.
Levitre gave up six sacks, tied for third-most among guards, a reflection of the atrocious pass blocking grade (–5.1) from PFF that landed him 45th at his position. The Oregon State product was also flagged a whopping nine times in 2014, tied for the fourth-most among interior linemen.
Although Levitre has four years remaining on the $46.8 million deal he signed in 2013, don’t expect the Titans to have much patience if his poor pass protection jeopardizes the safety of new franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota. With the Jaguars and Colts bolstering their pass rushes in the off-season and Vince Wilfork reinforcing the interior of the NFL’s best defensive line in Houston, things could get ugly for the Titans in divisional play.
Defensive line: Cameron Jordan
After fielding one of the league’s worst defenses last season, the Saints were desperate to upgrade that side of the ball during the off-season. But they might have reached in locking up Cameron Jordan, one of their few bright spots on defense, for five years and $55 million earlier this month.
Jordan has been a fine player since he was drafted in the first round by New Orleans in 2011, compiling 28 sacks and 150 tackles. But he’s no more than a league-average guy who will now be paid $36 million over the next three years. As NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal points out, that’s basically starting quarterback money.
The move was especially surprising since the Saints extended their other tweener in Junior Galette for four years and $41.5 million before the start of the 2014 season. Galette lived up to the pay raise, as PFF ranked him as the fourth-best 4–3 defensive end in the league last year, while Jordan ranked 29th out of the 59 qualifying players.
Linebacker: Donald Butler
It was tempting to give this title to Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, whose extremely promising career has been scuttled by serious injury. Before the 2013 season, Houston bet on Cushing regaining his old form by signing him to a six-year, $52.5 million extension. That has not come to pass, but at least Cushing showcased some value last season through his pass-rushing skills (one sack, nine quarterback hits and 12 hurries). Butler, meanwhile, spectacularly failed in every aspect in '14.
The Chargers locked Butler in with a seven-year, $51.8 million extension before last season, and Butler responded by posting the third-worst season of the 60 qualified inside linebackers in the league, according to PFF. He couldn’t shed blocks while blitzing, and often over-pursued in the run game. The playmaking ability he had often flashed during his first three seasons completely vanished, as he posted fewer tackles than he ever had and failed to record an interception for the first time.
San Diego was smart enough to include an out clause in Butler’s contract following the 2017 season. But until then, the Chargers can only hope he redeems himself in some manner—if they cut Butler before his contract runs out, somewhere between $14-20 million of dead money would be stuck on the salary cap in each of the deal's remaining years.
Cornerback: Patrick Peterson
Peterson eventually got what he wanted: a five year, $70 million contract that made him the league’s highest-paid cornerback at the time (the title now belongs to Darrelle Revis). But Peterson couldn’t put his money where his mouth was in 2014.
PFF ranked him 69th out of 108 cornerbacks. His physical style worked against him, as the former top-five pick was penalized 13 times, the fourth-highest total among corners. When the officials weren't flagging him for an infraction, he gave up eight touchdowns, the third-highest total of any corner.
In short, Peterson came far from justifying his status as the second-highest paid corner in the league. It seems unlikely Peterson will have another awful showing in 2015, but don’t blame Cardinals fans if they’re a little nervous about the five year, $70 million extension that doesn’t go into effect until next season.
Safety: Dashon Goldson
The safety position is rife with some of the league’s most overpaid players. Of the players with the four fattest contracts for the position (Jairus Byrd, Eric Berry, Devin McCourty and Dashon Goldson), only McCourty truly belongs in that group. Goldson is by far the least deserving constituent of that quartet.
Goldson, known for his aggressive style, was a horrible fit in Lovie Smith’s conservative Tampa Two defense last season, yielding a 127.2 rating to opposing quarterbacks, the eighth-worst mark among safeties.
In PFF’s rankings of 87 qualifying safeties last season, Goldson graded out ahead of only former Washington safety Ryan Clark, who retired after the season. So what did the Redskins do this off-season? They acquired Goldson, of course.
It only cost Washington a 2016 sixth-round pick, and they actually got a seventh-round pick in next summer’s draft in addition to Goldson. That just shows how low Goldson’s stock is. With three years still remaining on the disastrous five-year, $41.3 million deal Goldson signed with the Bucs in '13, the Redskins hope they’re acquiring a player closer to the Pro Bowl talent he was in San Francisco than the unmitigated failure he was in Tampa Bay.
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