clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Good contract/bad contract: A guide to NFL offseason extensions

Waiting out contract extensions can be an emotional roller coaster for fans. Once the deal is done, how do you know if it's going to be a good or bad one? We're here to help.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

The in-spleen reaction sequence after a major contract extension is announced goes something like this:

Woah, they're giving Joe a lot of money!
This is too much money.
This guy over here says this is too much money for Joe.
But this guy says Joe is worth it.
Shit, he just busted out numbers I've never heard of.
You know, Joe is all right.
Joe is going to thrive under our new scheme.
All hail Joe, for he is great.

And Joe may be great. The universal truth of offseason football is that all players are simultaneously good and terrible until the season starts, at which point the box is lifted and we can confirm where, exactly, Joe falls on the spectrum from Bum to Elite. Unfortunately, this means that unless you force yourself to stop caring altogether, you'll be doomed to suffer this unnecessary internal conflict every year for all eternity.

We're here to help you as best we can, Broncos fan drafting that Facebook post claiming that Peyton Manning made Demaryius Thomas who he is, and you, Dolphins fan who just got drunk at a bar and prophesied the singularity ushered by four consecutive Ryan Tannehill-led Super Bowls. Below is a three-box checklist to determine whether you should actually be happy about that deal your 24-year-old pass rusher just signed.

Performance -- Is he as good as perceived?

Among major professional sports, football players are the most agonizingly difficult to evaluate as individuals. It's almost silly to try -- running backs look better thanks to their offensive lines, wide receivers thanks to their quarterbacks, quarterbacks thanks to their wide receivers (and protection, and running game, and defense, and scheme).

Basketball and baseball statisticians have come up with ways to reduce individuals to numerals -- PER for basketball players and WAR for baseball players -- that give us a handy way to compare players, even if they play different positions. Many do the same for football -- Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value or Pro Football Focus' part science, part voodoo approach, for example -- but their tremendous efforts may never be perfect. They're contending with A LOT of noise. Every position depends on another, and they're all playing a different game -- how a running back understands football is much different from how an offensive lineman understands football, and that's much different again from what a strong safety sees.

General managers have no absolute method for determining who is responsible for what portion of a team's success, leaving them a chicken-or-egg problem that can only be solved by their naked eye. That method works well most of the time. On occasion, it fails so, so horribly.

Bad contract: Trent Richardson was a bad investment by the Browns when they took him with the No. 3 overall pick in 2012. He was a worse investment by the Colts more than a year later, when they gave up a first-round pick for a running back who was objectively bad as a rookie.

And yet in the moment, neither decision seemed that crazy.

The Browns selected a running back higher in the NFL Draft than any back will be selected for some time, against a wealth of evidence that the platoon era is here and that high-pedigree running backs are rarely worth their cost. But Richardson seemed like a transcendent talent at Alabama. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy standings behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, two players who would have been among the best players of any moment in college football history. Richardson averaged 5.9 yards per carry on his 1,679 yards rushing during his final season. He juked an Ole Miss defender into oblivion, and the clip alone may have moved Richardson to the top of draft boards.

So it was understandable that many people tried to find mitigating factors for his awful rookie season. They blamed the Browns' offense and injuries, but neither could account for all-time bad production. Among the 91 NFL running backs who carried the ball at least 200 times as rookies, just seven were worse on a per-carry basis than Richardson at a position that should produce immediate contributors.

Before we drown the Colts in our righteous hindsight, note that Ricky Williams, Travis Henry and Le'Veon Bell were among the seven rookies who were worse than Richardson (as were Ron Dayne, Sammie Smith and Andra Franklin).

So no, the Colts could not have known for certain that Richardson would bust. But Jim Irsay maybe should have held off on the untempered enthusiasm. Just a tad.

Good contract: The 49ers may have come the closest to pleasing all parties of a contract negotiation with Frank Gore. Few players have been as loyal to one franchise, and in 2011, the 49ers rewarded Gore with a three-year, $21 million extension that felt right. It made him one of the higher paid players at his position, though not quite the highest -- DeAngelo Williams signed a five-year, $43 million deal with the Panthers, despite being 20 days older and missing 10 games the previous season.

Gore's contract was friendly to the team if he underperformed due to his advancing age, and friendly to Gore if he got hurt or stayed healthy and produced. For a reasonable price and a reasonable length of time the 49ers got three Pro Bowl seasons, four 1,000-yards-plus seasons and a healthy 4.35 yards per carry, all of which was commensurate with with how he performed during the six seasons prior.

Timing -- Is he going to suck soon?

If you're considering a long-term extension, chances are the player has been pretty good already. There may be concerns about that production, but usually there's something in his history that a general manager can point to as a very real positive.

Fantasy football gives us an exceptional database of information regarding offensive skill players. By quantifying yardage and touchdowns into handy point totals, we get a crude gauge of players' overall effectiveness. Correlating that with age, we can tell when offensive skill players are at their best, and when their talents drop off dramatically.

Position Peak age Cliff age
QB* 33 36
RB* 25 28
WR* 27 34
TE# 29 34

*Using data from Pro Football Focus.

#Using data from FFToday, which makes this problematic because Pro Football Reference's research used data of all players since 1970, while FFToday only went back a decade and change. Still, it paints a unique picture of a position with a long learning curve like a wide receiver and a short window of success akin to a contact-heavy position like running back.

For offensive linemen and defensive positions, it's more difficult to determine where drop-offs occur because their impact is not as easily quantifiable. There are some indicators. The number of significant starts by offensive linemen declines steadily after the fourth year of service (roughly 26-27 years old). Football Outsiders found that defensive ends and defensive backs usually begin declining in effectiveness at 29, linebackers and offensive linemen at 30 and defensive tackles at 31 (though it wasn't confident in those numbers).

So with the exception of quarterbacks, we can comfortably say that the peak age of a football player is somewhere in their mid-to-late-20s, depending on how contact-heavy and/or athleticism-dependent his position is. Not all players fit neatly into those windows, but if your potential long-term signee has declined for a season or two, then maybe pump the brakes on that extension. Sensing the impending drop-off is pivotal.

Bad contract: Larry Fitzgerald is a Cardinals legend, future-Hall-of-Fame inductee and swell human being ... who was much closer to the cliff than many thought when Arizona gave him a seven-year, $113 million extension -- about 1.5 times the salary any wideout had earned at that point. He was just over a week away from his 28th birthday when he put pen to paper, and had gained 1,092 and 1,137 yards in his previous two seasons -- good numbers, but not nearly the level of production one might expect from a player who had been handed one of the richest non-quarterback contracts ever.

The funny thing is, Fitzgerald had a GREAT 2011 season under his new contract -- 80 reception for 1,411 yards for a career high 17.6 yards per reception. Then the bottom fell out after he turned 29. He had just 798 yards receiving in 2012, 954 in 2013 and 784 in 2014 (missing three games). That's one season that lived up to the contract, and three that fell comically short from a numbers standpoint. Fitzgerald has had to deal with awful quarterbacking during this period, but if he can't offset that to some extent then what's the use of paying him that much money?

Good contract: Calvin Johnson is a Lions legend, future-Hall-of-Fame inductee and swell human being ... who has so far lived up to being the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL. The parallel with Fitzgerald is obvious -- he signed a seven-year extension, too -- but the Lions got to Johnson a year sooner into his shelf life, before his 27th birthday, and off a season in which he crushed the competition, leading the NFL with 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns off 96 receptions.

And just like Fitzgerald, Johnson's best season was the first of his new deal, when he broke the NFL's single-season receiving record and fell 36 yards shy of becoming the NFL's first 2,000-yard receiver. Johnson's numbers declined significantly the two subsequent seasons, but he's still performing at an elite, if not superhuman level. He'll be relatively cheap to cut after the 2016 season if he suffers a sudden Fitzgerald-like decline now that the Lions have paid most of his guaranteed money.

Personality -- Is he a jerkwad?

Teams should not sign lazy crybaby jerks, whiners, prima donnas, ass clowns and/or buttholes because they will probably make your team miserable.

Bad contract: Yes, this is where we talk about Albert Haynesworth. He signed with Washington coming off two first-team All-Pro seasons in Tennessee. He was 27 years old when he signed the seven-year, $100 million contract that was the richest-ever by a defensive player by a wide margin.

Then he stopped giving a crap. Haynesworth skipped offseason training, then showed up to training camp and failed his physical. He complained because he did not want to play nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. Years later, tight end Chris Cooley called Haynesworth "an awful human being," and accused the defensive tackle of purposely ripping off his employers by taking his hefty guarantee then trying to get cut so he could cash another signing bonus elsewhere. During his final NFL season, Haynesworth was voted one of the top-five most disliked players in the NFL. Instead of showing remorse he lashed out at his "haters."

The damndest thing is that Haynesworth was good. Maybe not All-Pro, Defensive-Player-of-the-Year good, but he was rated as the No. 3 defensive tackle in the league by Pro Football Focus in 2009, his first year with Washington. He had 37 tackles and four sacks, which isn't terribly far off his 2007 and 2008 numbers if you adjust for the number of snaps he took and the fact that he was playing in a new system.

Year Snaps played Tackles Sacks
2007 568 40 6.0
2008 694 51 8.5
2009 574 37 4.0

But goodness he was insufferable. Haynesworth played just 169 snaps in eight games in 2010, and was suspended late in the season by head coach Mike Shanahan for "conduct detrimental to the club." He split the 2011 season between New England and Tampa Bay, then left football for good. Haynesworth's parting gift to Washington was pathetically poetic.

Good contract: A year after Haynesworth signed his mega deal, Vince Wilfork signed a contract that made him the highest paid nose tackle in football. At five years, $40 million, the extension didn't reach Haynesworth proportions, but Wilfork didn't have the same pedigree. He had gone to two Pro Bowls, but had never been named an All-Pro. He was also a year older than Haynesworth had been the previous year, and his seven sacks over six seasons were fewer than Haynesworth had in the 2008 season alone.

But Wilfork is everyone's favorite one-sixth-ton scamp. He is an erudite interviewee, beloved and respected by his peers. He has mastered eating bone-in chicken sandwichesHe shakes his butt when he's cooking ribsHe once helped save a woman from an overturned car. And when the Patriots opted not to give him an extension, he left about as graciously as any player possibly can.

Not every player who your team signs needs to be a minor folk hero, but it helps if he's someone you can appreciate for reasons other than his ungodly athleticism -- say, his love of meats. Sometimes all the ability in the world can't make up for someone being a dingus.