With most sports, the number you see in the press release is the number a player is going to get. In the NFL, though, a contract isn't really a contract. While there has certainly been chatter that the players hope to follow Kirk Cousins' precedent in targeting fully guaranteed contracts more frequently in the years to come, for the moment, NFL deals are a mix of guaranteed money and team options.
As a result, it's often difficult to judge contracts unless you're really paying attention. Even then, there are various ways to gauge a deal's true value. One simple metric NFL teams use for multiyear deals is the amount of money a player is set to take home over the first three years of his contract, at which point organizations are likely to either negotiate a new deal or move on from the player in question.
Naturally, the biggest contracts in terms of raw money and guarantees are going to go to quarterbacks. That's no surprise. If we want to understand who teams actually valued the most with their current deals, though, we have to adjust each contract's value for the position involved.
I've done just that by comparing the three-year value of each player's contract to the 20 largest three-year values at their respective positions. I've compared edge rushers to other edge rushers, cornerbacks to other cornerbacks, and guards to other guards. The resulting list reveals 20 players whose three-year values round up to be at least 30 percent higher than the top 20 values at their position, which I'm considering to be the baseline. It reveals which teams have been too aggressive in locking up talent and which players are actually getting a premium after you consider their position.
Last year's list included players such as Ndamukong Suh, Marquette King and Cordy Glenn, all of whom are no longer on their former teams as a result of cap concerns. This year's list starts with a player who just picked up a very nice raise:
20. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Three-year compensation: $86.4 million (29.5 percent over baseline)
Were the 49ers too generous with their franchise quarterback? General manager John Lynch could theoretically have gone year-to-year with his new starter and paid Garoppolo a maximum of $91.1 million over three years. Instead, the 49ers saved less than $5 million by committing in advance and gave Garoppolo more than the $82.5 million Cousins would later receive from the Vikings as an unrestricted free agent.
I think Lynch & Co. probably could have saved a few million dollars on this extension if they really wanted to push the envelope, but there is one key element to the structure of this deal for the Niners, and it's not for the reason you might think. The 49ers gave Garoppolo a signing bonus of just $7 million, which is paid immediately but spread across five years for cap purposes. They also handed Garoppolo a roster bonus of $28.8 million, which is also paid immediately but is counted entirely on their 2018 cap.
Although you might think the accounting is to use up the 49ers' cap space in a year where they had $100 million available, it's not. The 49ers could just as easily have given Garoppolo a huge signing bonus and rolled their current cap space over into future years. Instead, by paying Garoppolo's roster bonus now, the Niners have some semblance of cost certainty but also retain flexibility to move on if Garoppolo doesn't live up to his first seven NFL starts.
It's almost impossible to imagine that the Niners would move on from Garoppolo after one year. If Garoppolo struggles after two seasons, though, the 49ers could cut or trade him while paying just $4.2 million in dead money. They'll have paid as much as $61.2 million out of pocket to Garoppolo when they could have franchised him twice and paid just over $51 million, but when you want flexibility and long-term stability, that's the cost of having your cake and eating it, too.
19. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
Three-year compensation: $87 million (30.4 percent over baseline)
As a No. 1 overall draft pick under the old rookie system, Stafford entered the league on a six-year, $72 million deal with $41.7 million in guarantees. The deals handed to Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Calvin Johnson were so onerous that the Lions had to restructure Stafford's rookie deal twice and give him a three-year, $53 million extension with three years left to go on that rookie contract. After four years of that contract, the Lions were staring down the final year of Stafford's deal with little leverage and had to give him a five-year, $135 million deal to stick around.
Stafford has made the Pro Bowl once, and that was as a replacement in 2014 for Peyton Manning. He's obviously a good quarterback, and this isn't to say the 30-year-old Georgia product has been greedy or selfish in negotiating with the Lions. Because of where and when Stafford was drafted, though, the Lions have been behind the eight ball in paying him like a superstar for virtually his entire career.
18. Kelechi Osemele, G, Oakland Raiders
Three-year compensation: $36.9 million (31 percent over baseline)
The Raiders took a huge step backward on offense in 2017, but the problems seemed more schematic after the organization replaced offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave with overmatched quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. Osemele might have been surprised to find himself in the Pro Bowl, but the Ravens' product remains one of the best interior linemen.
Worth noting: There was some thought in 2016 that Oakland was signing Osemele as a guard with a view to moving him out to left tackle after Donald Penn eventually moved on, which would have helped justify giving Osemele a larger contract. The decision to draft Kolton Miller in the first round this year will likely keep Osemele inside for the remainder of this deal, which runs through the 2020 season.
17. Reshad Jones, S, Miami Dolphins
Three-year compensation: $33 million (31.3 percent over baseline)
Jones is a good player who got a massive extension stretching into his mid-30s at a position the league hasn't really valued over the past couple of seasons. After signing a five-year, $60 million pact last offseason, Jones responded with the second Pro Bowl campaign of his eight-year career, but the former fifth-round pick has to be a perennial Pro Bowler for the Dolphins to come close to breaking even on this contract.
In a market in which players such as Eric Reid and Kenny Vaccaro are still free agents, Jones is a luxury item for an organization that makes inexplicable moves each offseason. Miami restructured Jones' deal to free up cap space this offseason, which means the organization won't have much flexibility on this deal until 2020 at the earliest. The Dolphins needed the room after cutting Ndamukong Suh, whom the Dolphins restructured in 2016 for similar reasons. Miami will eat $22.2 million in dead money for Suh over the next two years as a result of their largesse.
16. Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers
Three-year compensation: $30 million (32.4 percent over baseline)
After becoming the first tight end to clear $30 million in three years as part of his four-year, $40 million pact with the Saints in 2014, Graham followed by signing a three-year, $30 million contract with the Packers this past offseason. In reality, the contract is more likely to be a two-year, $21.5 million deal, which would be a modest raise for a player who hasn't come close to his 1,215-yard, 16-touchdown season from 2013. As I wrote last week, Graham's 10-touchdown season in 2017 will be tough to repeat, even with Aaron Rodgers at the helm.
15. Jamie Collins, LB, Cleveland Browns
Three-year compensation: $37.3 million (33.1 percent over baseline)
The Browns had to pay an incompetency tax to keep Collins around after trading a third-round pick for him during the 2016 season. Deposed general manager Sashi Brown gave the former Patriots star a four-year, $50 million extension to skip out on free agency, nearly $15 million more than ex-teammate Dont'a Hightower took to return to New England. Collins missed 10 games in 2017 with a concussion and an MCL injury, and in his absence, Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey formed an impressive pairing at linebacker. As a strongside linebacker in a league in which those guys really don't make serious money or play the majority of a team's snaps, Collins might have to show something as a pass-rusher to stick on the Browns' roster after 2018.
14. Ryan Jensen, C, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Three-year compensation: $32.3 million (33.2 percent over baseline)
The Buccaneers made a guy who was a tackle in college and a guard for most of his pro career the highest-paid center in the league this offseason, which is a testament to how desperate they were for offensive line help, and how Jensen looked in his first season at the pivot since high school. The Buccaneers are aggressive about maintaining flexibility in their long-term deals, so this is really a two-year, $22 million deal with two team options at $10 million each, but when teams make a guy one of the highest-paid players at his position after one season in the role, it rarely works out.
Three-year compensation: $13.7 million (34.3 percent over baseline)
12. Justin Tucker, K, Baltimore Ravens
Three-year compensation: $13.8 million (34.8 percent over baseline)
It makes sense to approach Gostkowski and Tucker together as the two kickers on this list. They're also about to reset the market, given that Gostkowski will be a free agent after the 2018 season, while Tucker's contract expires after the 2019 campaign. The Ravens have seemingly annual cap problems, but it's difficult to imagine them letting Tucker leave, given that the former undrafted free agent will only be 30 in 2020. It's more plausible that the Patriots could move on from Gostkowski, given that their long-time kicker turns 35 in January. Bill Belichick let Adam Vinatieri leave in free agency for a big offer from the Colts after the Super Bowl hero's age-33 season.
11. Kevin Zeitler, G, Cleveland Browns
Three-year compensation: $38.0 million (34.9 percent over baseline)
The Browns attempted to rebuild their offense around an expensively assembled line last offseason by signing Zeitler -- who hadn't made a Pro Bowl during his five-year career -- to a five-year, $60 million deal. The Bengals certainly missed their former first-round pick as their line collapsed last season, but Zeitler wasn't able to propel the Cleveland offense forward on his own. The Browns were the league's fourth-best rushing attack in power situations, which suggests the duo of Zeitler and Joel Bitonio were able to carve out running lanes when the other team knew a run was coming.
10. Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia Eagles
Three-year compensation: $47.8 million (36.5 percent over baseline)
Cox's raw statistics are deflated by how the Eagles heavily rotate their defensive linemen throughout the regular season. We saw evidence of that in the postseason. The 27-year-old lined up for only 59 percent of Philadelphia's defensive snaps during the regular season, but when January rolled around, Cox played more than 86 percent of the snaps during the Eagles' run to Super Bowl LII. He also delivered in the playoffs, as Cox's six quarterback knockdowns during the postseason ranked second behind only New England's Trey Flowers.
9. Von Miller, Edge, Denver Broncos
Three-year compensation: $61.1 million (40.3 percent over baseline)
Miller's deal is the closest equivalent to the Joe Flacco situation, given that Miller didn't sign an extension at the end of his rookie deal and then won the Super Bowl before signing a massive extension. The difference is that Miller has mostly lived up to expectations by racking up 23.5 sacks over the past two seasons, which ranks third behind Chandler Jones and Ryan Kerrigan. Miller also made it to double-digit sacks for the fourth consecutive season, a streak only matched among active players by J.J. Watt. If any defensive player in the league is worth more than $20 million per season, it's Miller.
8. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
Three-year compensation: $94.5 million (41.7 percent over baseline)
Julio Jones might want to rip up the final three years of his contract and negotiate a raise, but the precedent set by Ryan suggests the Falcons aren't likely to budge. Atlanta waited until the final year of Ryan's six-year rookie deal before handing him a five-year, $103.8 million extension. Ryan subsequently won league MVP in 2016, and with two years left on his existing deal, nobody would have batted an eye if the Falcons had decided to hand their star quarterback a juicy new contract.
Instead, the Falcons waited a year and re-signed Ryan to a new deal before the final year of his contract began, which is the path they'll tell Jones to follow. For his patience, Ryan was rewarded with a truly massive contract that guarantees him $94.5 million over three years at signing and practically guarantees $117.5 million over four years before the Falcons could even feasibly consider moving on from their franchise signal-caller. Ryan will make $7.5 million more than Stafford over the next three years and $9 million more over Years 1-4.
7. Nate Solder, OT, New York Giants
Three-year compensation: $48 million (45.6 percent over baseline)
Bill Belichick doesn't like to play around at left tackle. The Patriots coach inherited stalwart Bruce Armstrong at left tackle, but after one season, Belichick let Armstrong go and drafted Matt Light, who started on Tom Brady's blind side for 11 years. During Light's final season, Belichick drafted Solder, who moved from right tackle to the left side and started there for the ensuing six seasons. Injuries aside, Brady and Belichick have had two left tackles over the past 17 seasons.
Now you know why the Giants had to pay so much to get Belichick to bow out of the bidding on Solder, who has been consistently above average without ever being in the discussion as one of the best left tackles in football. New general manager Dave Gettleman wants to run the ball and inherited a disastrously bad tackle situation from Jerry Reese, but Solder will make an average of $15.5 million per year at a position in which nobody else had even previously hit $14 million on a multiyear pact.
Three-year compensation: $41.5 million (47.3 percent over baseline)
Former Giants coach Tom Coughlin, now the executive vice president of football operations in Jacksonville, also wants to focus on running the ball, and while the Jags have $120 million of their cap devoted to defense in a league in which no other team is above $100 million, they used some of their remaining space to add a star guard. Norwell was a first-team All-Pro last season and won't turn 27 until October, but it's also fair to note that Norwell hadn't come in for those kind of plaudits before last season. The Panthers chose to re-sign fellow guard Trai Turner and let Norwell leave in free agency after seeing them both for four seasons.
The Jags have basically handed out two-year deals with team options to most of their free agents under Dave Caldwell's reign as general manager, but after handing Norwell a $15 million signing bonus on his five-year, $66.5 million contract, it's clear they expect Norwell to stick around for at least three seasons. His cap hit spikes from $5 million in 2018 to $16 million next year.
5. Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers
Three-year compensation: $52 million (48.5 percent over baseline)
Norwell used to go up against Short in practice with the Panthers when both were making relative peanuts. Just as the Panthers chose Turner over Norwell, though, Carolina made the move to prioritize Short at defensive tackle over Star Lotulelei, who left for the Bills in free agency.
It's hard to fault the Panthers for wanting to keep around a guy who had 11 sacks as a penetrating interior force in 2015, although Short hasn't been quite as impactful since. Short generated those 11 sacks on just 18 quarterback knockdowns, a number that would typically result in about eight sacks. Since then, he has been remarkably consistent -- 17 quarterback knockdowns in 2016, and again in 2017 -- but those 34 hits have only generated a total of 13.5 sacks. The Purdue product is unquestionably a valuable player, and he has racked up 11 tackles for loss against the run over that time frame, but the Panthers have to be hoping for Short's pass-rushing numbers to bounce back in 2018.
4. Marcell Dareus, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars
Three-year compensation: $53.2 million (51.8 percent over baseline)
Former Panthers general manager Brandon Beane spent most of his first year in Buffalo cleaning up the contractual mistakes he inherited. None was more significant than Dareus, who was entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2015. The Bills could have gone year-to-year with Dareus and paid him no more than $61.2 million over four seasons. Instead, they used their leverage to virtually guarantee Dareus nearly all of that -- $59.1 million -- over four years as part of a six-year, $96.6 million extension.
By Year 3, the contract was underwater and Beane had to foist off Dareus on the Jaguars for a sixth-round pick, where he failed to make much of an impact before racking up two sacks during the postseason. The Jags owe Dareus more than $10 million guaranteed in 2018, at which point they'll surely move on from the three years and $39.9 million remaining on the former third overall pick's deal.
3. Zack Martin, G, Dallas Cowboys
Three-year compensation: $43 million (52.6 percent over baseline)
This is what the Cowboys do under Jerry Jones. They draft and develop homegrown talent and then sign those players to massive extensions, routinely handing out longer contracts than anybody else in the league. Only eight players are under contract for the 2023 season; three of them are Cowboys offensive linemen in Martin, Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith. Martin is the only player in the league with a contract for the 2024 campaign.
Handing out long-term deals allows the Cowboys to give their players large signing bonuses without incurring huge cap hits. It also creates flexibility for restructuring deals, which allows Dallas to free up short-term cap space. The problem is what happens when things go bad unexpectedly, which is what happened with Tony Romo's final contract. If the Cowboys had never restructured Romo's deal, they would have been able to move on from their quarterback after 2016 -- ultimately, his final year in the NFL -- while owing just $5 million in dead money, which would have allowed the Cowboys to reap the benefits of having a franchise quarterback under contract for peanuts. Instead, after multiple restructures, the Cowboys were stuck with $19.6 million in dead money on their cap for Romo over 2017 and 2018.
There's nothing wrong with signing Martin, of course, given that the 27-year-old is one of just 27 players since the merger to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons. The Cowboys should want to keep Martin around, and if he stays healthy and productive, they can restructure his deal over and over again and it will work out fine. As we come off a year in which a retired Romo counted for nearly 7 percent of the cap and stalwarts such as Smith and Dan Bailey were rendered ordinary for stretches by injuries, though, it's worth remembering how entropy eventually wins.
2. Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
Three-year compensation: $42.5 million (69.0 percent over baseline)
Year 1 could not have gone much worse for the massive Berry extension, given that Kansas City's star safety shut down Rob Gronkowski for much of the season opener before suffering a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon. Those injuries aren't the death knells they might have been in years past, but at age 29 and with a torn ACL in his past, it would be asking a lot to expect the five-time Pro Bowler to return to form immediately. If he doesn't, the Chiefs will still essentially be locked into a $16.5 million cap hit for Berry in 2019 before they can think about moving on from him.
1. Kyle Juszczyk, FB, San Francisco 49ers
Three-year compensation: $15.5 million (183.6 percent over baseline)
And then, in a stratosphere far away from any other deal, lurks Juszczyk. The Harvard product is making $5.3 million per year at a position in which the second-largest multiyear deal averages $2.5 million per season. The $21 million he's in line to take home over four years is nearly as large as the second-, third- and fourth-largest fullback extensions combined.
As was the case in Baltimore, Juszczyk's season was only superficially a success. He made the Pro Bowl for the second season, which is a product of the league's antiquated roster structure with its all-star game as opposed to excellent work. He contributed nothing as a runner, and while his receiving DVOA narrowly tipped to the positive side at 3.7 percent, whatever impact he had as a receiver was more than offset by the fact that Juszczyk fumbled twice on 38 touches. The 49ers also averaged more yards per carry (4.2) and ran for first downs more frequently (24 percent) when Juszczyk was off the field than they did when he was on it, as those runs produced 4.0 yards per carry and a first-down rate of 19.3 percent.
The 49ers would point out that Juszczyk's versatility in Kyle Shanahan's scheme allows the offense to create mismatches, and it's true that he did have more success once the team acquired Garoppolo. At the same time, though, merely being versatile doesn't mean that Juszczyk is a difference-maker in multiple facets of the game, and the amount he's being paid suggests that he should at least be an impactful receiver or blocker, if not both.
San Francisco also negotiated against themselves to make the Juszczyk signing. If they saw Juszczyk as a player who might be worth $5 million or more per season in their scheme, that should have been an opportunity for them to sign him at a bargain rate, given that no other fullback in the league comes close to his salary.
It's not a huge mistake, but we saw the 49ers do the same thing again this offseason in giving halfback Jerick McKinnon $12 million for 2018 as part of a four-year, $30 million pact. Even if you wanted to pay a premium for McKinnon -- and it's unclear why the 49ers felt like they needed to pay a premium for any running back in a scheme that has generated excellent running backs out of nowhere for decades -- nobody was valuing backs with McKinnon's track record this offseason at anywhere close to $12 million for one year or $7.5 million over four. Organizations that focus on a specific player at a position and overpay him as opposed to trusting their ability to find a player at a position with a particular skill set for the market rate fail more often than not.