NFL front offices want to get the best value they can for any of their players. This should seem obvious, but it's something that is difficult to do in an era where player contracts are so inflated and there is a salary cap imposed on the league. Sure, you can play top-dollar for an elite talent, but doing so inherently limits what you can do to improve other areas of your team. The question is, when is it worth it, and when is it best to stay clear?
Some of this is offset by the relatively new CBA-mandated four-year rookie deals (with a 5th-year option for 1st-round picks), which essentially allow teams to keep their drafted players under contract at a reduced price. What this means is that if a player becomes elite within the first four years of their career, then the team is getting a star player for next to no cost.
In short, both overpays and great rookie values are extremely common in the modern NFL landscape. So, which teams are getting the best deals, and which ones aren't getting the necessary bang for their buck?
Ranked below are the 10 best and 10 worst contracts currently in the NFL, and the players they belong to.
20 Jeremy Maclin (Best)
The Ravens caught a break this offseason when the Chiefs decided to move on from Maclin, who was far and away their best wide receiver, and figured to be for the 2017 season. He may have suffered some scattered injury trouble in recent years, but he's still a high-quality player, and a veteran presence in the locker room. Baltimore needed receiver help, and this came along at just the right time.
Overall, an $11 million over two years is a very favorable contract for such a good player, at a position of need no less. Had Maclin hit the free agent market in March like everyone else, this number would have likely been much higher, and therefor the value wouldn't be there. The Ravens are definitely getting a steal here, so long Maclin stays on the field.
19 Brock Osweiler (Worst)
Granted, it's true that the Browns didn't actually give Osweiler his massively inflated contract, which now seems like one of the worst decisions in recent NFL history. That would be the Texans. Instead, Cleveland was able to trade for him and eat his salary because of their excess of cap space, and for a team that needs to find an option at quarterback, it wasn't a terrible move on it's face.
But that doesn't mean that it's a good contract, either. In fact, it's one of the absolute worst in the game, and to this day who knows what Houston was thinking when they decided to give a backup quarterback with a few starts on a Super Bowl-winning team under his belt, that kind of contract.
18 Aaron Donald (Best)
One of the confirmed best defensive tackles in the game today, there's no doubt that a new contract is coming down the pike for Donald. It isn't here yet however, and the Rams still have him on his rookie deal. It's a four-year deal with $10 million guaranteed, which is phenomenal considering his status as an elite player. As long as he's player under this deal, it's one of the best values in the league.
However, L.A. may opt to give Donald a new contract well before other players under their rookie deals would get theirs. He figures to be a cornerstone of their defense for years to come, and it's best to lock him up as soon as possible. They could technically keep him under team control for two more seasons after 2017, but it's best just to get it out of the way.
17 Jermaine Gresham (Worst)
Gresham is a sub-par tight end, mediocre at best, who is making the kind of money that dictates he be a consistently good player. He was that guy with the Bengals a few years ago, but it's clear that he hasn't been living up to the four-year, $28 million deal that he signed with the Cardinals prior to the 2015 season. It may not be a complete disaster, but it's definitely been a waste of money any way you cut it.
They have little recourse but to keep him at this point, and hope he can find some kind of late career resurgence. It's not the worst tight end contract in the league, but it's close, because Gresham has been nothing short of a disappointment during his time in Arizona. Don't hold out hope for any kind of a turnaround.
16 Jay Ajayi (Best)
Emerging last year as one of the best young running backs in the game, Ajayi is on his rookie deal and is a phenomenal value for the Dolphins at the moment. He's exceeded the expectations as a 5th-round pick, and defied the odds to become a major cog of the Miami offense as a whole. Because making less than $1 million per season at this point, expect him to be resigned after this season, if he can prove that 2016 wasn't just an anomaly.
There's a good chance that he accomplishes that this season. Now sporting Jay Cutler as their interim quarterback due to the Ryan Tannehill injury, it has to be figured that the Dolphins are going to run the ball. Ajayi is first in line for carries with next to zero competition, which should signal another good season, running behind a winning offensive line.
15 Marvin Jones (Worst)
The Lions threw a ton of money at Jones hoping that he, at least in part, would be able to fill the void left by Calvin Johnson's retirement a few years. Jones may have gotten off to a torrid start last season, but leveled off, and at times disappeared completely during the season. A five-year $40 million contract simply hasn't been proven to be worth it for him yet.
We'll see how Jones attempts to improve in year 2, but we can assume that he won't just turn into a juggernaut overnight. His contract is indicative of just how much the wide receiver market has inflated over the past few seasons, as he is being paid in a tier above what he should be. Jones will need to do more in 2017 to prove that he is worth the money, or it will be Detroit's loss.
14 Jamison Crowder (Best)
A former 4th-round pick, Crowder went above and beyond last season to prove that he's one of the best slot receivers in the league. Now, with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon gone, he might be the best receiver on the Redskins team in 2017. Still on his cheap rookie deal, this is a great value, and it might end up being the continuous piece of the Washington offense that allows them to succeed in 2017. Incredibly valuable.
It will be interesting to see how much Crowder commands for a new contract, and how much Washington is actually willing to pay him. Slot receivers are generally considered more replaceable than outside ones, and he'll need to have a stellar 2017 yet again to prove that he's worth shelling out for. For now, it's undoubtedly a great deal for the Redskins.
13 Coby Fleener (Worst)
Simply a laughable contract for a JAG tight end. The Saints shelled out for Fleener prior to the start of 2016, inexplicably so considering he was coming off a down year with the Colts. Last year he proved why that was a bad decision. He racked up a pedestrian amount of yardage, and was hardly a touchdown threat for the entire season. New Orleans may have needed a starting tight end, but there were cheaper options available who were just as productive.
They're locked into Fleener for 2017, but there are avenues they could take to cut ties after the season, if they wanted to go that route. No question that five years and $36 million can't be sitting too well right now with the New Orleans front office, considering the return. Fleener will need to have a very good 2017 to remain in good standing with the team, and finish out the remainder of his contract in it's entirety.
12 Jordan Howard (Best)
Perhaps the lone bright spot on the Bears' offense from last season, Howard was the most dynamic rookie running back in the league not named Ezekiel Elliott. The 3rd-round pick out of Indiana made the Pro Bowl, and was impressive for the entire season, racking up big numbers. It was a relief for Chicago, knowing that they had an offensive player that they could feasibly build around.
They won't have to pay Howard real money for the next few seasons, as his rookie deal is expectedly cheap. It's a downright steal at four years and $25 million, and they'll be able to keep it at that rate for the next couple of years. Look for Howard to be among the league's best runners once again. He's an unexpectedly dynamic player who could be the saving grace for the Bears.
11 Brian Cushing (Worst)
Cushing's been an overall very good player for the Texans defense for seemingly forever, but hasn't lived up to his sizable contract for the past few seasons. Six years, $52 million is the bill for Houston right now, and Cushing hasn't registered more than 63 solo tackles since 2013, bottoming out at a low of 38 last season. For a middle linebacker that's pretty concerning, and Cushing seems to have taken a step back.
Houston will really need to debate whether it's worth keeping Cushing on the entirety of his contract. The 2017 season will play a huge role in that decision, and there are no guarantees either way right now. He's been a great player for them in the past, but sentimentality doesn't win games in the NFL. Cushing's contract is a liability until he plays better.
10 Leonard Williams (Best)
The former 6th-overall pick came into his own in 2016, one of the lone bright spots on the Jets' roster last season. He established himself as a premier defensive lineman, and at the age of 22, he's got his entire career ahead of him. Still on a rookie deal with a 5th-year option, Williams is under team control in New York for the next few years, and he'll be one of the best players in the league under that circumstance.
One would have to think that the Jets will make a big effort to resign him. Despite beginning an arduous rebuild, he is undoubtedly one of the players they'll want to keep. Williams could see a complete breakout season in 2017, and drive the price tag up even further however. They'll have a big decision on their hands in a few years, but for now it's a great deal.
9 Tavon Austin (Worst)
Perhaps the most ill-advised move of the Jeff Fisher era for the Rams (and that's saying something), Austin was an underwhelming former 8th-overall pick, whom they saw fit to give a premium contract. It simply made no sense. His production as a receiver is middling, and while he has tremendous athleticism, that only goes so far. At four years, $42 million, it's an absolutely terrible value.
More than likely, they'll try to get out of the contract at some point, given that Fisher is now gone. Still, the money basically confirms that he'll be in L.A. for the next couple of seasons at least, so it's just a bad situation all around. Austin is useful in some situations, but not nearly enough to be worth this kind of coin.
8 Michael Thomas (Best)
Emerging last season as new frontline receiver for Drew Brees to throw to, Thomas had one of the most impressive rookie campaigns of anyone in the 2016 draft class. There's little doubt he'll match what he did last year, and likely will improve, which will make him a confirmed upper-tier receiver in just a pair of NFL seasons. Needless to say, having him on his rookie deal is a huge advantage for New Orleans right now.
It allowed them to deal Brandin Cooks to the Patriots for a 1st round pick, and they now feel comfortable with Thomas as the go-to target in the receiver corps. Being a 2nd-round pick, there is no 5th-year option for Thomas on his contract, but he's going to be resigned well before that would come into effect. One of the best young players in the game right now.
7 Joe Flacco (Worst)
It's true that you need a franchise quarterback to consistently compete in today's NFL, but at what cost? It's debatable whether or not Flacco really makes the Ravens a contender, but what's undeniable is that his contract is massive. A three-year, $66 million deal for a quarterback that some would say runs hot and cold. He's still trying to shake the notion that his defense carried him and the Ravens to a 2012 Super Bowl victory.
I guess Baltimore doesn't have much of a choice right now. They're reliant on Flacco for their offense to execute properly, and they don't have the elite defense that they once did. Injuries have plagued Flacco this offseason, so we'll see if he's able to get healthy, and elevate his play.
6 Marcus Peters (Best)
Peters is well on his way to becoming one of the best cornerbacks of his generation, and the Chiefs are benefitting right now. Still on his rookie deal, Peters has racked up a whopping 14 interceptions in the past two seasons. He's been one of the certified ball-hawks in the league, and there's little that says he's due to suffer a regression.
He'll get a new contract long before he's eligible for the 5th-year option on his rookie deal, and probably be a mainstay in the Kansas City secondary. There are few corners in the game right now who are bigger playmakers than Peters is. It's an outright steal at 4-years, $9 million.
5 Marcell Dareus (Worst)
The Bills gave Dareus perhaps what was the worst contract for a defensive lineman in the past five years. It just hasn't paid the dividends that they were hoping for. Coming off a 10-sack season in 2014, Dareus then dropped off with his pass-rushing production. For truly premium money, a six-year, $96 million deal, this is really a letdown for Buffalo.
There aren't many reasons why Dareus has suffered such a disappointing couple of seasons. A scheme change was brought in with Rex Ryan, but now he's gone as well. Dareus will have to do a lot to prove that he's worth this monster contract, and right now he's facing an uphill battle.
4 Marcus Mariota (Best)
The 2nd-overall pick in 2015, Mariota is going to be the Titans' quarterback of the future, and he's already showed great ability in the league so far. Despite not having a surplus of offensive weapons, he's excelled most of the time he's been on the field, and really had a statement season in 2016. Having a quarterback this good on a rookie deal is an automatic advantage.
The Titans are looking to maximize the personnel around him, so that a playoff run is possible right now. Smart thing to do when he's coming at such a cheap price. Mariota will be in Tennessee for the long-term, no questions asked, but right now when he isn't costing much, other aspects of the team can be addressed for immediate success.
3 Allen Hurns (Worst)
The Jaguars may have a ton of cap space to their credit right now, but there's no excuse for such a poor contract that was given to an average receiver like Hurns. Outside of one quality season in 2015, he's been mostly a so-so talent. Just because cap space is available doesn't mean that it's worth using it on questionable talent. In all, four years, $40 million is a pretty hefty price to pay for a player like Hurns.
Considering the struggles that Blake Bortles has shown thus far, Hurns won't have much help in turning the corner this year. Not a problem for him, but for the Jags it's not the most ideal situation. They'll have to be smarter with how they allocate their cap space if they want to turn into a contender.
2 Jameis Winston (Best)
Winston has lived up to the hype when he was drafted 1st-overall out of Florida State in 2015. A shaky immediate beginning to his career has been replaced by quality play, and a penchant for making the big play. He's everything the Buccaneers can hope for right now in a franchise quarterback, and he projects to be there for the long-term. Having him on the rookie deal only helps the Bucs build a championship-caliber roster in the interim, before they have to pay him.
It's the best current contract situation for a young player in the league, because Winston is already helping formulate a dynamic offense in Tampa Bay. Free agents want to sign there, and they've massively upgraded the personnel on that side of the ball as compared to when they drafted him. Winston will get paid, but right now his contract works to the Bucs' advantage.
1 Kirk Cousins (Worst)
The most drawn out contractual negotiation sage of the 2017 offseason, bar none. Cousins will now play on the franchise tag for the Redskins for the second year in a row. That has never happened for a quarterback in the history of the league. Washington is caught between a rock and a hard place of not being able to sign him long term, but not having anybody to replace him. You can pretty much guarantee that Cousins will not be playing in a Redskins uniform for the 2018 season and beyond.
This is bad for Washington because now they'll likely set themselves up in a position where they won't have a premium draft pick in 2018, with no hope of resigning Cousins. Their negotiations have gotten them to a stalemate where they need to pay him almost $24 million for 2017 alone.
Just a horribly botched situation by the Redskins brass. Cousins will likely opt for free agency in 2018, and now they'll have to find a new franchise quarterback well into Jay Gruden's tenure as head coach. Not ideal at all.