The true test of whether any given NFL team has spent its money wisely is what the on-field results look like.
Last year’s sack leader-turned-free agent may have commanded himself a six-year deal that includes double-digit millions in guarantees, but that big money needs to equate to continued high-level production in order for his team to have made a good decision. Value is really what teams are after. They’re trying to get the highest on-field performance for low or reasonable money or high on-field performance from those players taking up the majority of the season’s cap space.
With that in mind, let’s examine the best and worst value players in the league through the first half of the season by weighing production versus payday. Here are the players, by position, who are maximizing their salaries thus far.
Best: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (Cap Hit: $545,848)
Worst: Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears (Cap Hit: $17 million)
We all know just what Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has accomplished while veteran starter Tony Romo recovers from a back injury. He has a completion percentage of 66.5 percent, over 2,000 yards passing, 12 touchdowns to two interceptions, while taking only 11 sacks behind Dallas’ strong offensive line. Yes, he came down to earth some against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 8, with a sub-50 completion percentage and throwing his second interception of the year. But he also led them to a come-from-behind victory, their sixth win of the year. And the Cowboys have all this for $545,848, the going rate for a fourth-round rookie selected with the 135th pick.
On the flip side, there’s Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler began the year as the Bears’ starter but a thumb injury sidelined him from Weeks 2 through 8. Brian Hoyer took his place, playing well enough that it seemed even a healthy Cutler couldn’t be able to get back on the field. That all changed with Hoyer heading to injured reserve with a shoulder injury. So far, for $17 million, the Bears have gotten three games, two touchdowns and two interceptions from Cutler, while he’s been sacked nine times in just 77 passing attempts. The silver lining is that it will cost only $2 million for the Bears to cut him next year; a pittance, compared to his $16 million cap hit if they keep him.
Best: David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals (Cap Hit: $708,843)
Worst: Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams (Cap Hit: $3,141,632)
This is a clear example of how draft position can not only drastically alter a player’s payday but also their ultimate perceived value. With Todd Gurley being the Rams’ 2015 first-round pick, the expectations were high that he’d make a significant on-field impact. Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ David Johnson was afforded a bit more patience. Becoming the starter he is now wasn’t a required by-product of his draft standing.
Gurley’s rookie year was strong. He rushed 229 times for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Johnson had 125 carries for 581 yards and eight rushing scores, and another 36 catches for 457 yards and four scores. But their 2016 seasons have taken different turns. Gurley’s 146 carries have yielded only 451 yards and three touchdowns while his average has dropped 1.7 yards. Johnson, though, has exploded through the first half. He has 705 yards and eight scores on 156 carries and has already amassed 407 receiving yards. Though their two salaries are dictated by where they were drafted, so far this season it appears that the Cardinals were able to find a much better value at running back in last year’s draft.
Best: Cole Beasley, Dallas Cowboys (Cap Hit: $3,356,000)
Worst: Allen Hurns, Jacksonville Jaguars (Cap Hit: $9,001,668)
Many times, a wide receiver is only as good as the quarterback throwing to him, and that is the case for these two. The Dallas Cowboys’ Cole Beasley has the benefit of an on-fire Dak Prescott viewing him as his top passing target, while the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Allen Hurns proved a year ago he’s a multi-million dollar talent currently saddled with quarterback Blake Bortles playing terrible football.
Indeed, both Beasley and Hurns are million-dollar men, with the former signing a four-year, $13.6 million deal in 2015 and Hurns receiving a four-year, $40.654 million extension ($20 million guaranteed) in June. But last year, Turns had over 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. This year, thanks mostly to Bortles’ struggles, he has 443 yards, a 55.4 percent catch rate and two scores.
Beasley, meanwhile, is the beneficiary of being in a much better offense, and his 499 yards have him on pace to have the best season of his career. His catch rate is also impressive, at 82.7 percent. Hurns may need an upgrade at quarterback to provide the Jaguars with the kind of production a contract like his would typically reflect.
Best: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Houston Texans (Cap Hit: $860,826)
Worst: Charles Clay, Buffalo Bills (Cap Hit: $6 million)
Stats-wise, there is not much difference between the contributions tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Charles Clay have made for their respective teams. Both have 26 catches, Fiedorowicz for 279 yards, Clay for 274 yards. Fiedorowicz does have three touchdowns, though, and Clay has none. Also, for the amount of money the Bills have committed to Clay, his numbers should be far higher.
Clay signed a five-year, $38 million contract in 2015, a deal that includes $24.5 million in guaranteed money. That was quite a commitment to a player who essentially has had only one great season—2013’s 69-catch, 759-yard, six touchdown season with the Miami Dolphins. Fiedorowicz, on the other hand, is working on his rookie deal, which runs through the 2017 season and appears to have his career on an upswing. He’s nearly doubled his yardage from a year ago and has two more touchdowns than he did in 2015, and the season is only halfway through.
Best: Alex Mack, Atlanta Falcons (Cap Hit: $4.05 million)
Worst: David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers (Cap Hit: $4,870,967)
When is a five-year, $45 million contract with $28.5 million in guaranteed money ever really translate into a value? When it is worth it, which is the case for center Alex Mack and the Atlanta Falcons, who signed the veteran in free agency in March. The quarterback-center exchange is one of the most important components of an offense getting off on the right foot, and so far Matt Ryan is certainly getting the most out of his new teammate.
Ryan has been sacked 22 times this season, but only one is attributable to Mack. It isn’t just coincidence and more comfort with the Kyle Shanahan offense that has Ryan on pace for the best season of his career, having already thrown for over 2,900 yards and 23 touchdown passes to four interceptions. Having Mack as his stable leader on his offensive line has also made a significant difference.
Mack’s talent is evident by the fact that he’s making just $800,000 less this year than starting Green Bay Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari. Bakhtiari has proven his worth to the Packers despite missing time last year, so much so that that the team gave him a four-year, $48 million extension after the season had began, in September. But so far, he’s already ceded two sacks, bringing his four-year career total up to 21.5.
Best: Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles (Cap Hit: $5 million)
Worst: Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets (Cap Hit: $10 million)
Muhammad Wilkerson was one of a handful of players placed on the franchise tag during the offseason and, as is typical for those tagged, did manage to get himself a long-term deal with the New York Jets, where he has spent his entire career. At first blush, his five-year, $86 million contract with $53.5 million in guarantees seemed reasonable. After all, this is a player who has made a name for himself rushing the passer, a high-money skill in today’s NFL. With 12 sacks in 2015, his stock only seemed on the rise.
But so far in 2016, Wilkerson has totaled only 2.5 sacks, and with a $10 million salary cap hit this year, his production is not lining up with his value. Perhaps the second half of the season sees him uptick his ability to reach opposing quarterbacks. But right now, the big value at defensive end is the Philadelphia Eagles’ Brandon Graham.
Graham has four sacks on the season and is Pro Football Focus’ top edge rusher in the league, aided by not just his sack stats but also his overall pressures, of which he had 11 alone in just Week 8. At $5 million — half that of Wilkerson’s payday — he may be not just a value but an out-and-out bargain.
Best: Zach Brown, Buffalo Bills (Cap Hit: $1.25 million)
Worst: Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers (Cap Hit: $15,131,250)
Zach Brown was a defensive fixture for the Tennessee Titans in his first two seasons, starting 27 of 32 games and totaling 9.5 sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles, and 10 passes defensed. Injury derailed him in 2014 and in 2015 he was out of favor in Tennessee, starting only five games. He’s found new life with the Buffalo Bills, with two forced fumbles and three sacks in eight straight starts. On a one-year, $1.25 million deal, he’s in prove-it mode and should find himself a long-term contract, whether in Buffalo or elsewhere, after this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons is also in the final year of a multi-year contract that began as a five-year, $47.7 million extension in 2011 and has been restructured two additional times. These money moves have left him with a bloated deal — over $15 million this year — that is fully guaranteed in 2016. The money would have been justified seasons ago, when Timmons was one of the top coverage linebackers in the league. But his skills have dropped off in the past few years, and he currently has just three passes defensed in eight games. His veteran status may be his only source of consistent value to the Steelers at this point.
Best: A.J. Bouye, Houston Texans (Cap Hit: $1.671 million)
Worst: Darrelle Revis, New York Jets (Cap Hit: $17 million)
“My body’s breaking down,” New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said in late October to Newsday’s Kimberly A. Martin. And it’s evident in his on-field performance this year; Revis is no longer an “island,” a lone cornerback able to shut down an opponent’s best receiver. An example: Not only did Cleveland Browns quarterback Josh McCown target his direction 16 times in Week 8, Revis allowed 10 catches on those targets, for 122 yards. Revis is costing the Jets $17 million — and over $15 million next year — in cap space. There is little value to be had by the man who spent years as the NFL’s top cornerback.
But there are young, up-and-coming cornerbacks willing to take Revis’ place. One very well may turn out to be the Houston Texans’ A.J. Bouye, forced into starting action due to injuries to starters and who has taken to the job well. Bouye has nine passes defensed (compared to two for Revis), one sack and 32 combined tackles, and is making just $1.671 million on a one-year deal. The only catch: Bouye’s performance so far this season is going to make his market rate rise, but he should be able to make good on that money on the field, as he’s just 25 years old.
Best: Josh Lambo, San Diego Chargers (Cap Hit: $526,666)
Worst: Roberto Aguayo, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Cap Hit: $736,830)
It was destined to be a season of scrutiny for rookie Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Roberto Aguayo after the team used a second-round draft pick to acquire his services in the spring. Nothing but perfection out of his leg would suffice, such is the value of the pick the team used on him. Instead, it has been a struggle so far this season. Aguayo has attempted 12 field goals so far, making just seven. He has also missed two of his 15 extra point attempts. While his current cap hit of $736,830 may seem modest, that rises to $921,038 next year, and any move the Buccaneers make to replace him would make them look foolish.
More reasonable is the three-year, $1.58 million deal the San Diego Chargers gave to their kicker, Josh Lambo, in 2015. This year, he is making $526,666 — only five teams are paying less for their kicker — while missing only two field goals and three extra points. His scrutiny level is low, and though his makes or misses can certainly influence the Chargers’ record, it doesn’t feel like the same kind of institutional failure as it does for the Buccaneers when Lambo swings and misses.