Winning in the National Football League is largely about using finite resources to maximize talent on a given roster. Granting large contracts to players is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, teams lock up a franchise player. Other times, that player eats a significant chunk of the team’s cap that is not commensurate to their contribution to the team’s success (or lack thereof). On the other hand, teams look for ascending players that have a good chance to outperform a contract that would be fair at signing.
It is this type of balancing, evaluating, and risk-taking that so often troubles NFL front offices. Below are some of the best and worst bargains in the league, determined by their statistical contributions and advanced analytics.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB – Dallas Cowboys
(Contract – 6 years, $90M – $50M Guaranteed) – 3rd among RBs
Ezekiel Elliott starred in Ohio State’s backfield, leading them to a national championship win against Marcus Mariota’s Oregon Ducks. After the Cowboys selected Elliott with the 4th overall pick, Elliott and fellow rookie Dak Prescott led one of the most potent offensive attacks in 2016. Elliott garnered his one and only All-Pro First Team selection that season after leading the league with 1,631 yards, tacking on 15 scores. Since then, Elliott has been selected to just two Pro Bowls in five seasons and has not matched his 2016 yardage or touchdown output.
In September of 2019, the Cowboys awarded Elliott a six-year contract worth $90M, making him the highest-paid running back in the NFL at the time. Still, three years later, he is in the top three. After all, only Jim Brown averaged more rushing yards per game than Elliott through his first three NFL seasons.
The deal included a $7.5M signing bonus and guaranteed up to $50M. Elliott’s 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022 base salaries of $752,137, $6.8M, $1M, and $12.4M, respectively, were guaranteed, given he stayed on the roster on the 5th day of the previous league year.
Elliott has not led the league in any rushing category in the seasons after his signing. Actually, Elliott has not cracked the top three in either yardage, touchdowns, PFF-season grade, or Approximate Value since his signing. Elliott’s Approximate Value of 8 tied for the 10th-highest among running backs, seven spots below his pay ranking. Per Over the Cap’s 2021 Valuation for Elliott, his performance is worth $8.2M, nearly half of his current $15M APY.
Elliott remains one of the best running backs in the league, but the price tag he carries is too high considering his contributions.
The Cowboys are likely cutting a top WR because they signed Ezekiel Elliott to a contract everyone knew was insane the moment pen hit paper.
— Matt Verderame (@MattVerderame) March 4, 2022
Christian Kirk, WR – Jacksonville Jaguars
(Contract – 4 years, $72M – $37M Guaranteed) – T-13th among WRs
Kirk was one of the surprise signings of the offseason. Although Kirk will earn top 15 money over the next few years, Kirk has yet to put up a 1,000-yard season. In fact, Kirk has not cracked the top 20 in receptions, yards, touchdowns, PFF offensive grade, or PFF WAR (wins above replacement) in any season of his career. Notably, Kirk’s Approximate Value of 10 tied for 12th among receivers this season. Considering the other players to receive a 10 (Chris Godwin, Tee Higgins, and CeeDee Lamb), it may be a fluke.
Over the Cap’s 2021 Valuation of Kirk has him worth $10.4M, about $7.5M less than his four-year APY of $18M. Kirk is also the first receiver in NFL history to be paid more than $11.5M APY without first registering a 1,000-yard season. The Jaguars could look favorably upon this contract a couple of years down the road with the wide receiver market exploding. Nonetheless, Kirk’s relatively unproductive first few years and subsequent lucrative contract rightfully raises eyebrows.
That maximum value of $21M per year makes Christian Kirk the 3rd highest paid WR in the NFL. https://t.co/z7wFlz9SEL
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 14, 2022
Kenny Golladay, WR – New York Giants
(Contract – 4 years, $72M – $28M Guaranteed) – T-13th among WRs
Golladay or “Babytron” enjoyed a career year in 2019 when he led the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and contested catches (26), capping off the year with a Pro Bowl selection. In 2020, Golladay missed 11 games with a season-ending hip flexor injury.
The Giants took a shot on the 2019 Golladay that displayed elite vertical ability, awarding him a hefty contract to replenish a receiving group that lacked playmaking ability since Odell Beckham Jr.’s departure. In Year 1 with the Giants, Golladay did not live up to expectations.
It may not all be Golladay’s fault, but his performance in 2021 was a far cry from the contract he was awarded the prior offseason. Golladay hauled in 37 of 75 targets for 521 yards. Golladay’s yardage and yards per route run ranked 50th among receivers with at least 70 targets. The former Pro Bowler’s 68.3 offensive PFF grade ranked 42nd. The former Northern Illinois Husky logged the 2nd lowest Approximate Value among receivers with at least 75 targets.
most expensive WRs in 2022:
1. Kenny Golladay – NYG – $21.2M
2. Keenan Allen – LAC – $19.2M
3. Cooper Kupp – LAR – $18.7M
4. DeAndre Hopkins – ARI – $18.0M
5. Nelson Agholor – NE – $14.9M
(as measured by 2022 cap hit to team)
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) April 18, 2022
Leonard Williams, IDL – New York Giants
(Contract – 3 years, $63M – $45M Guaranteed) – T-2nd among IDLs
Williams, the 6th overall pick in 2015, quickly made a name for himself in the NFL as a run-stuffing defensive tackle, posting an 86.3 run defense PFF grade in his rookie season (the highest of his career). In 2020, Williams recorded the second-most sacks (13) for an interior defender behind only Aaron Donald. Regardless, Williams has yet to rank higher than 17th in PFF pass rush grade in his career among interior defenders with at least 200 snaps.
The Giants awarded Williams a big contract following his successful 2020 season, giving him an average of $21M a year with almost 75% of the contract guaranteed. Only Aaron Donald makes more money on average a year than Williams; DeForest Buckner is the player tied with Williams’s income.
As a run-defense specialist, Williams was solid, but it is questionable that his performance in this area warranted a contract commensurate to Aaron Donald’s. Following the significant signing, Williams failed to join the top 15 in any PFF Grade nor the top 10 in pressures. Williams tied for 4th in tackles, 7th in sacks, and 8th in PFF’s stops metric. Still, Williams’s Approximate Value of 9 tied for 16th among defensive linemen.
Overall, Williams is the first interior defensive lineman in NFL history to be paid more than $18M APY without first being selected to the All-Pro First Team or multiple Pro Bowls.
The Leonard Williams contract ranks 2nd behind Aaron Donald among interior defensive linemen in APY ($21M).
And it ranks T-4th with Demarcus Lawrence among edge defenders.
— Austin Gayle (@austingayle_) March 16, 2021
Jamal Adams, S – Seattle Seahawks
(Contract – 4 years, $70M – $21M Guaranteed) 1st among Safeties
Adams, like Williams, was the 6th overall pick just two years later in 2017. Adams was a star defender for the Jets before being traded to the Seahawks for multiple first-round picks. Viewed as a “do-it-all” defensive back, Adams impacted coverage and run defense, posting the 7th most tackles, 4th most sacks, and 9th fewest yards among safeties playing at least 820 snaps in his rookie year. Adams followed up a strong rookie season with Pro Bowl and All-Pro Second Team selections in 2018.
The former LSU Tiger enjoyed a career year in 2019 that saw him selected to his second Pro Bowl and an All-Pro First Team selection. Adams was the only safety in the NFL in 2019 to post top seven grades in every defensive PFF Grade category. The All-Pro safety logged seven sacks and 25 pressures, both marking the highest for safeties. To go along with Adams’s pass rush production, he allowed the fifth-fewest yards in coverage.
In 2020, Adams missed four games but still collected 11 sacks, leading safeties in that category for the second year in a row. Despite the sack production, Adams saw a massive performance dip in other areas of his game. Adams allowed a career-high in yards per game in coverage, receptions allowed, and missed tackles per game.
The Seahawks offered him a four-year deal after the 2020 season worth $70M, making him the highest-paid safety in league history. This past season, his first year of the contract, Adams posted a career-worst year in PFF defensive grade, tackle grade, and coverage grade. Adams also did not collect a sack in 2021, the first time in his career he failed to do so in a season. The former All-Pro posted the 8th lowest PFF defensive grade and 2nd-lowest PFF coverage grade among safeties with at least 870 snaps in 2021. Adams also had the 23rd ranked Approximate Value among safeties in 2021. Safe to say, 2021 was not a season that Seattle bargained for when they extended Adams.
The draft picks the Seahawks spent to trade for Jamal Adams, combined with the salary cap space they're using up in the new contract they gave him, make acquiring him one of the worst transactions by any team in NFL history. https://t.co/kcJC42tMAQ
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) December 8, 2021
Charles Leno Jr., LT – Washington Commanders
(Contract – 3 years, $37M – $9M Guaranteed) 18th among LTs
Leno, a former 7th-round draft selection out of Boise State to the Chicago Bears in 2014, has outperformed his draft selection. Leno has played less than 900 snaps in a season just once – his rookie year. In 2020, Leno ranked in the top 20 in all three PFF grades (offensive, run blocking, and pass blocking) among offensive tackles who played at least 1,000 snaps. Following the 2020 season, the Chicago Bears surprisingly cut Leno. Leno then signed a three-year deal worth $37M with the Washington Commanders, making him a top 20 paid player at left tackle and 24th among tackles at large.
In his first season with the Commanders, Leno enjoyed a fantastic season. Leno posted the third-highest PFF pass-block grade among offensive tackles who played at least 300 snaps, behind only Andrew Whitworth and Tyron Smith. Leno’s 87.3 PFF pass-block grade was also good for 5th among all offensive linemen with at least 300 snaps. In terms of Approximate Value, Leno had the fifth-highest among all tackles who played all 17 games. Thus, while Leno is performing as a top-5 pass protector and a top-10 tackle overall, Leno’s compensation is not on par with his performance on this contract so far.
I'm getting the sense that getting rid of Charles Leno and Kyle Fuller so the Bears could have Jimmy Graham and Andy Dalton may have been a bad idea.
— James Neveau (@JamesNeveau) September 13, 2021
Austin Ekeler, RB – Los Angeles Chargers
(Contract – 4 years, $24.5M – $13.75M Guaranteed) 14th among RBs
Ekeler, a former undrafted free agent, has become one of the best dual-threat options at running back in the NFL. Ekeler received a contract extension from the Chargers in 2020 for four years, $24.5M. The Chargers decided to keep him around after playing an excellent role for them, providing a receiving weapon out of the backfield; the lightning to Melvin Gordon III’s thunder.
Ekeler’s 93.6 PFF receiving grade was top in the league among running backs, slightly edging out Christian McCaffrey’s 92.4. Ekeler’s overall PFF offensive grade was fourth-highest in the league among running backs. Ekeler finished the 2019 season with 1550 total yards and 11 total touchdowns.
In 2020, Ekeler was hurt for almost half the season, playing in just ten games. The Western State alum still had the sixth-highest PFF receiving grade among running backs with at least 20 targets. Ekeler continued to produce in 2021, though. Ekeler hauled in 70 receptions, 2nd among running backs. Ekeler turned those 70 receptions into a league-leading 647 yards and eight touchdowns. Not to mention, Ekeler added 911 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. All in all, Ekeler chipped in 1,558 total yards and 20 total touchdowns. Ekeler’s Approximate Value was second only to Johnathan Taylor in 2021.
????????????Air guitars for all!????????????#Chargers reportedly sign restricted free agent Austin Ekeler on a 4 year contract worth 24.5 million.
Ekeler had the highest receiving grades among running backs and 2nd most receiving yards. He was also top 3 in the league in YAC and YAC/Rec. pic.twitter.com/QIGgXCnNn2
— PFF LA Chargers (@PFF_Chargers) March 6, 2020
Per Over the Cap, their 2021 Valuation of Ekeler clocked in at $10.8M, almost double what he actually made in 2021 ($5.75M).
Jordan Poyer, S – Buffalo Bills
(Contract – 2 years, $19.5M – 8.5M Guaranteed) 13th among Safeties
Poyer has been a critical piece of Buffalo’s defensive backfield since he signed on as a UFA in 2017. Poyer, a former 7th-round pick out of Oregon State, was initially drafted by the Eagles before finding a home with the Browns after a preseason cut. In his first season with the Bills, Poyer logged the fourth-highest PFF season grade and third-highest PFF coverage grade among safeties with at least 1,000 snaps.
2018-2020 were solid seasons for Poyer, as he ranked in the top 15 for PFF season grade and Approximate value in all three seasons. In 2021, however, Poyer was elected to his first All-Pro First team, ironically without a Pro Bowl selection. Poyer’s 89.2 PFF coverage grade was second-highest among corners with at least 625 snaps, behind only Tennessee’s Kevin Byard.
The All-Pro also set a career-high in sacks with three. Poyer’s reception rate of 48.1% was the 3rd-lowest among safeties, and his 61 yards allowed were the lowest in the league. The former Oregon State standout also tied for the lead in INTs among safeties with five and allowed the lowest NFL QBR among safeties with a mark of 15.1. Poyer’s Approximate Value of 13 was 44th in the entire league and tied for highest among safeties.
The Bills are paying Poyer a salary that ranks out of the top ten at the position, but Poyer has solidified himself as one of the premier safeties in the league.
With the cap flexibility the Bills have, wondered if the would do something similar for Jordan Poyer. He is IMO the greatest value on the team. https://t.co/GEeiXJnGdc
— Anthony Marino (@AnthMarino) July 28, 2019
Casey Hayward, CB – Atlanta Falcons
(Contract – 2 years, $11M – $6M Guaranteed) 38th among CBs
Hayward, a familiar name for perennial fans, signed a two-year, $11M contract with the Atlanta Falcons after posting the 12th-highest PFF defensive grade among cornerbacks and the fourth-highest PFF Wins Above Replacement Metric.
Hayward provides a veteran presence in the locker room and plays the vital role of boundary corner well. In 2021, Hayward allowed the 3rd fewest yards in coverage and 5th lowest NFL QB Rating among cornerbacks with at least 1,000 snaps. The two-time Pro Bowler also allowed the 3rd lowest completion percent among cornerbacks with at least 55 targets. Over the Cap valued Hayward’s play at $15.29M, nearly triple what he is slated to make in 2022 and 611% more than he was actually paid in 2021 ($2.5M). The Falcons will now have a winning outside cornerback at a fraction of the cost. Hayward should pair well with A.J. Terrell and play the CB2 role excellently.
Casey Hayward Jr allows a 49.3 completion percentage when targeted since 2020
No other CB has under 50% (min 100 targets) ???????????? pic.twitter.com/JZhzlmxVzv
— PFF ATL Falcons (@PFF_Falcons) April 19, 2022
Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
(Contract – 3 years, $21.75M – $7.5M Guaranteed) 30th among CBs
Awuzie, a former Dallas Cowboy and 2nd-round pick, stepped up and performed for the AFC Champions this year. Awuzie struggled in Dallas but seemed to find his footing in Cincinnati. Despite missing three regular-season games, the former Colorado Buffalo allowed a career-low 56.7% reception rate and a career-high 3 INTs. Among cornerbacks with 14 starts or less, Awuzie had the third-highest PFR Approximate Value of 5, behind D.J. Reed and Anthony Averett. Awuzie’s 83.3 PFF season grade was second only to Jalen Ramsey’s 84.5 among cornerbacks with at least 700 snaps. Awuzie’s PFF coverage grade was 3rd among cornerbacks with at least 700 snaps, behind only A.J. Terrell and Jalen Ramsey.
Given that he outperformed Marshon Lattimore this season in many metrics, a cornerback that is set to make $24M in cash in 2022, it is safe to say that the Bengals struck gold when they signed Awuzie. Awuzie is playing at a higher level than his contract would suggest, and he was a key contributor to a surging defense that complemented Joe Burrow’s offense on their way to the biggest game of the year.
Chidobe Awuzie has an 83.4 PFF grade and is arguably a top 10 corner in the NFL.
He’s only 26 and is signed for the next two seasons. Awesome work by the #Bengals.
— Blake Jewell (@BlakeJewellNFL) January 7, 2022