Value is an important word to the NFL. Teams are constantly trying to maximize the value of their rosters, whether via finding players in the draft to replace higher-priced veterans or determining the best price to pay for their own or other teams’ impending free agents.
No one wants to overpay for a player who ultimately underperforms—no, the goal is to pay exactly what a player is worth, or, ideally, slightly less. Getting the most for their salary cap dollars is of the utmost importance; while the cap keeps rising, the money an NFL team has to spend on its players is finite.
So, whose contracts accurately reflect the value they supply to their teams on the field and who are even outperforming their paydays? Here are 10 of the best value contracts in the NFL right now.
— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) January 3, 2016
QB Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills
Tyrod Taylor spent his first four years in the NFL as a backup quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens before being signed as a free agent by the Buffalo Bills in 2015. The deal was incredibly modest, worth a maximum of $3.35 million over three years. It was a contract that seemed to indicate Taylor would remain a backup in his new home, until he ultimately ended up winning the starting job in a three-way quarterback battle last summer.
He went on to start 14 games for the Bills in 2015, compelling 63.7 percent of his passes, for 3,035 yards and 20 touchdowns thrown to just six interceptions. He also rushed 104 times for 568 yards and four scores and took the Bills to the precipice of the playoffs. For all his success, however, the Bills have balked at giving him a contract extension that would pay him a starting salary. He’s set to make just $3,133,333 for 2016 in combined salary and bonuses, the lowest payday for any starting quarterback in the league and far lower than most backup contracts, which run around $7 million in average per-year value.
Taylor may not like his situation, though another year performing well could force the Bills to open the wallet and give him the money he deserves next year. But while he spends 2016 auditioning to be the face of Buffalo’s franchise, the Bills get a capable starter for a fraction of the typical price.
LB James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison is the NFL’s elder statesman, heading into his 14th season at age 38 to reprise his role as a leader and quarterback menace on Pittsburgh’s defensive front. And while one would expect a player of his age to shrink into the scenery, Harrison did anything but in 2015.
Though he technically started only one game, he appeared in 15, and had 40 combined tackles, five sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 29 hurries, an interception and two forced fumbles. While he was expected to be on a snap count for the year, and limited to around 25 plays a game, he averaged more like 40 or 50, simply because he was playing so well. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked Harrison 14th among edge defenders for the season.
He is also doing so for a pittance. When the Steelers brought him back in 2015, he signed a two-year, $2.75 million deal that earned him $1.25 million last year and will net him $1.5 million this year. Once briefly retired, Harrison is now outperforming much younger players who are being paid far more than him.
RB Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
It took three seasons for New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram to live up to the potential everyone saw in him when the team drafted him in Round 1 of the 2011 Draft. But he finally put everything together in 2014, rushing 226 times for 964 yards and nine scores and catching 29 passes for 145 yards.
Though his rushing total in 2015 dipped to 769 yards and six scores, he was more involved in the Saints’ passing game, catching 50 passes for 405 yards. Now that Ingram has shown his versatility and has found a niche in the Saints’ offense, the four-year, $16 million extension he signed last March seems like a relative bargain.
Or at least it is a bargain for now. Ingram restructured his contract during the offseason to convert $2.235 million of his 2016 salary into a prorated bonus to clear cap room for the Saints. That gives him a cap hit of just $2.51 million for 2016, or around $50,000 less for the season than Steelers backup DeAngelo Williams is set to make.
This cap figure rises to a Jamaal Charles-like $5.245 million in 2017, though it does appear by the way Ingram’s contract is structured that another restructure will come and will extend his deal beyond its current 2019 expiration. Given that Ingram won’t hit 30 years old until 2020, this extend-and-restructure cycle isn’t a shortsighted move by the Saints. And as long as his production remains stable, spending $2.5 million a year on a back like that is not a bad way for the Saints to use their funds.
DT Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
The beauty of rookie contracts is that, even if a player is a first-round pick, the per-year cost to teams is relatively low, thanks to the reworked rookie pay scale put in place with the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. That’s how the Los Angeles Rams manage to have one of the league’s very best defenders for a fraction of what he would cost were he a sixth-year player instead.
Aaron Donald had an impressive rookie year in 2014, totaling nine sacks and 47 combined tackles. But he made an even bigger impact in 2015, with 11 sacks, 26 quarterback hits and 42 hurries along with 69 combined tackles and a 40-yard fumble recovery. And he’s giving all of this to the Rams while working off of a four-year, $10,136,500 rookie contract that will pay him $2,764,500 in 2016.
There is a massive payday looming for Donald, whether the Rams try to get it done before his first contract expires, or after they (inevitably) lock him down on his fifth-year option. At some point they will have to pay handsomely for Donald’s considerable production and ability to disrupt quarterbacks. But that day isn’t going to be and doesn’t have to be today; the Rams can sit back and know that they have a $90 million man on their defensive line for pennies, comparatively.
— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) December 6, 2015
WR DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
This is the last true value year for the Houston Texans and top wideout DeAndre Hopkins; 2016 marks the fourth year of his rookie contract and the Texans have already agreed to pick up his 2017 fifth-year option, which will cost them $7.915 million. But that doesn’t mean they cannot wrest as much value as possible out of Hopkins in 2016 and savor the last time they won’t have to pony up significant cash for the privilege of his services.
Hopkins has shown steady improvement over the last three seasons. He averaged 50.1 yards per game and a total of two touchdowns in 2014. Both rose in 2014 and 2015; the former went up to 75.6 and then 95.1 and the latter, six and then 11, in 2015. He saw 192 passing targets last season and caught 111 of them, for 1,521 yards in a shaky quarterback situation.
That situation should stabilize this year with Brock Osweiler brought in to serve as starter. And Hopkins may not find himself subject to so many double-teams by defensive backs, with the drafting of Jaelen Strong and the signing of free agent Cecil Shorts. Hopkins and the Texans are careening toward long-term contract negotiations and a much bigger payday, but for 2016, he’s still set to be a player who outperforms his payday.
RB Charcandrick West, Kansas City Chiefs
When Kansas City Chiefs starting running back Jamaal Charles went down with a torn ACL in Week 5 last season, it seemed that the Chiefs’ formidable run game would take an irreparable hit. While it certainly did not produce the 1,500 yards that Charles has proven capable of, single-handedly, in the past, it definitely remained productive with Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware handling most of the duties.
West saw the majority of the touches in Charles’ absence, rushing 160 times for 634 yards and four scores and catching 20 passes for 214 yards and another touchdown. The Chiefs were happy enough with West that they re-signed him in the offseason to a three-year deal worth $4.2 million. This will earn him $958,333 this year and, if he’s still on the roster on Day 3 of the 2017 league year, another $1,858,333 next season.
West’s deal is a value for a few reasons. One, is that it’s simply not that expensive of a contract, even for a backup running back. Two, is the status of Charles. Charles will remain the starter for the Chiefs this year, but this is the second time that he’s torn the ACL and he turns 30 years old this year. And though his contract runs until 2018, there is no more dead money attached to his deal. He’s making over $5.3 million this year and then $7 million in 2017, but if West continues to impress the Chiefs’ brass, the team can move on from Charles next year, save $7 million in salary cap space and have a starter in West who is earning nearly four times less than that.
QB Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Everyone seemed to balk when the Cincinnati Bengals gave quarterback Andy Dalton a six-year $96 million extension in the summer of 2014. But a closer look at the numbers reveal a contract full of value for the Bengals. This deal is of a new breed of quarterback contracts that include both appropriate compensation for high-level performance as well as an out for the team to prevent it from overpaying or being stuck with someone who is not meeting expectations.
Just $17 million of Dalton’s deal was fully guaranteed upon signing—$12 million in signing bonus and $5 million in roster bonus. Another $4 million in guaranteed roster bonus hit on the deal by being on the roster on Day 3 of the 2015 league year. There are also workout bonuses that began taking effect last year as well, worth $200,000 per year. But in terms of salary guarantees, Dalton’s contract has none. Thus, the Bengals will only be on the hook for his remaining prorated signing bonuses for 2017 and 2018 should they cut him. Additionally, there are no dead-money charges to the Bengals’ cap in 2019 and 2020 if they move on from Dalton then.
Further, if the Bengals don’t move on—and based on the progress he’s made every season as their starter, they don’t presently seem likely to—Dalton’s cap charges for the next five years are extremely manageable, especially considering that teams are routinely handing out $20 million in per-year value to quarterbacks. He’s costing just $13.1 million against their cap this year and at the contract’s most expensive, in 2020, his cap hit is $17.7 million. Now, there are escalators in his contract tied to playing time and playoff performance, but even then it’s a maximum of $1.5 million for the following years (for playing 80 percent of regular-season snaps and then reaching the Super Bowl). Dalton gets to be very fairly compensated, based on his position, while the Bengals protect themselves should he significantly regress in the coming years.
LB Jabaal Sheard, New England Patriots
Linebacker Jabaal Sheard was put through the wringer in his first four seasons in the NFL, which he spent with the Cleveland Browns. Constantly-changing coaching staffs meant Sheard’s role on the defense was always shifting, from defensive end to linebacker and back again. His production kept dipping as his starts began dwindling. But things changed drastically for him in 2015, when the free agent was picked up by the New England Patriots.
Though Sheard had just one start in his 13 appearances, he was a force at defensive end, with eight sacks, eight quarterback hits and 16 hurries. He had four forced fumbles and led the team with 11 run-stuffs (or stops in the run game made at or behind the line of scrimmage). H also had four forced fumbles and 38 combined tackles, all while working on a two-year, $11 million contract.
Though his cap hit rises from $4 million in 2015 to over $6.8 million for 2016, that’s still a value. Pro Football Focus named Sheard their seventh-best edge defender for 2015, and he heads into 2016 making less than 15 other outside-linebacker rushers and 11 4-3 defensive ends. Of the latter group, that includes Chandler Jones, the Patriots’ former starting right defensive end who the team traded to the Arizona Cardinals. Now, that job is Sheard’s and for a million fewer dollars in Patriots’ cap space. Though Sheard could cost twice his yearly price when he is again a free agent in 2017, the Patriots are going to get major bang for their buck with Sheard serving as a starter this season.
LB/DE Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders are yet another team benefiting from the value of a talented player working off of his rookie contract, this time with edge rusher Khalil Mack. Mack, the No. 5-overall draft pick in 2014, is in the third year of a four-year $18,767,999 contract that also includes a fifth-year option for the 2018 season. He’s set to cost just over $5 million on the Raiders’ salary cap this year and just under $6 million in 2017.
The low price has not led to low production, though. Mack had only four sacks in his rookie year but that does not include the numerous other ways he pressured opposing quarterbacks. And he really came into his own in his sophomore professional season, with 15 sacks, 77 combined tackles, two forced fumbles and at least five quarterback pressures in 12 of his 16 games played.
But it wasn’t just his pass-rushing skills that made Mack stand out—he’s also a brilliant run defender as well as relatively strong when asked to work in coverage. As such, he was Pro Football Focus’ top edge defender of the 2015 season. The Raiders will have to start hoarding money soon to be able to afford what is certainly going to be a high-paying second contract for Mack. But for 2016, they possess a true defensive beast for a beauty of a price.
RT Mitchell Schwartz, Kansas City Chiefs
Mitchell Schwartz hasn’t yet played a single snap for the Kansas City Chiefs, but his contract compared to his performance looks like an impressive value for the team. Schwartz, who spent the last four years as the Cleveland Browns’ right tackle, comes to the Chiefs to take on the same role. And in 2016, at least, he’s doing so for a mere $2.4 million salary cap hit, a relative steal given his talent.
In four years and 64 starts in Cleveland, Schwartz has allowed just 33 sacks and has been penalized 14 times. He not only pass-protects and run-blocks well, he also does so consistently. There is little variance in his game, which is always played at a very high level. As such, Schwartz was tied for sixth among tackles (both right and left) by Pro Football Focus for 2015.
Schwartz’s average-per-year of $6.6 million is high for right tackles in today’s NFL, but the value is more than appropriate given the way he plays. And though his cap hit rises significantly to $6.9 million in 2017 and as high as $8 million for 2019 and 2020, that doesn’t mean the Chiefs are stuck spending all that money out if things don’t go as planned.
Schwartz is destined to stay in Kansas City through the 2017 season, given the dead-money charges to cut him next year total $10.5 million. But after that, the only guarantees that would count against the Chiefs’ cap are in the form of his prorated signing bonus, worth $1.4 million a year. That means they can cut him in 2018 for $4.2 million in dead money, in 2019 for $2.8 million and in 2020 for just $1.4 million. Schwartz is getting more than a fair-market value in his yearly payday while the Chiefs get more than just a market-rate tackle to boost their offensive line.