Potentially the hardest part of running an NFL team is the cap-maneuvering that it requires. There are a lot of players on an active roster and only so much money to go around. In addition, the pool of NFL players is so much greater than that of any other professional sport and the talent level is diluted; for every above-average quarterback there are 30 others that won’t play more than two years in the league and will never manage the magical combination of skill and smarts that creates a professional quarterback.
All this is to say that the allocation of money is one of the most difficult, yet most important, responsibilities a general manager has. People aren’t perfect, and GMs will swing and miss on guys they thought would be perfect for the team or the system, but for one reason or another ultimately burned out. Some swing bigger and miss worse than others. Here are the five worst contracts in the NFL right now.
Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers (5yrs, $137.5m, $41.7m guaranteed)
It’s easy to say a contract is bad when injuries are the reason for it. If injuries were the only reason this contract looked bad, then I would hesitate to include it. But it’s not the only reason. In his five games as a Niner before signing the extension, he tossed seven touchdowns and five interceptions with 1,560 yards at a 67.6 percent completion rate. Pretty good numbers, no doubt, even if the interception count is bad. In the two-and-a-half games before he tore his ACL in 2018, Garoppolo threw for 718 yards, five touchdowns, and three interceptions with a 59.6 completion percentage. Not as great.
The Niners are locked in to Garoppolo for the next three years, and while it’s easier for them to get out of the contract after this season, they can’t do anything about the $40 million in guarantees Garoppolo is owed. It’s the third-largest contract out of any NFL QB, and all Garoppolo has shown so far is a tendency to throw for a lot of yards and a lot of interceptions. John Lynch gave Garoppolo this contract with the expectation he’d be a top-five QB in the NFL, and so far he hasn’t even come close. There’s plenty of time for Garoppolo to prove Lynch right, but as of now, it’s a huge contract for a middling QB.
Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings (3yrs, $84m, fully guaranteed)
Speaking of middling quarterbacks on gigantic contracts, welcome to the gauntlet, Kirk Cousins. Cousins became the first NFL player ever to receive a fully-guaranteed contract after several years of contractual cat-and-mouse with Washington, and the Vikings believed he would take them to the promised land after reaching the NFC Championship Game the year prior.
Well, that didn’t happen. The Vikings were so average they missed out on having a .500 record because they tied a game. Cousins and all of his guaranteed money threw for 4,298 yards and 30 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Decent enough numbers, but the stats don’t tell the whole story. He was just not good. He was hesitant and regularly lost his cool under pressure. He fumbled an absurd nine times, usually at the worst moment. Minnesota could be trotting out someone worse than Cousins, to be sure, but to fork over the most guaranteed money in NFL history for this is not what Mike Zimmer was looking for. Similar to Garoppolo, there’s time left on the clock here, but so far, not so good.
Olivier Vernon, Cleveland Browns (5yrs, $85m, $40m guaranteed)
Vernon was one of the New York Giants’ free-agent splashes back in 2016, and hadn’t lived up to the bill before getting sent to Cleveland. While he may improve as a Brown with Myles Garrett opposite him, Vernon hasn’t been anywhere near the difference-maker that he’s paid to be. He’s notched all of 13.5 sacks over the last two seasons and missed nine games in that time span. Fine numbers, but not those of a player with these kind of contract guarantees.
For comparison, the only pass-rushers with more guaranteed money in their contract are Von Miller, Khalil Mack, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Frank Clark. Miller and Mack are in a category of their own, while Lawrence and Clark notched 10.5 sacks and 13.0 sacks last year, respectively. Vernon? A mere 7.0. The Giants paid him to be one of the league’s best pass-rushers, and he’s struggled to be anything more than mediocre. It remains to be seen if he can change that in Cleveland.
Josh Norman, Washington Redskins (5yrs, $75m, $36m guaranteed)
Speaking of large contracts given out in the summer of ’16, Washington gave Norman big-time money after his ugly divorce with Carolina to be their No. 1 cornerback, and indeed the best cover guy in the NFL. He has not been that over the last two years, and it’s hard to see that changing. He had three picks and nine passes defended last year, which are respectable numbers. But for getting the most guaranteed money out of any cornerback in the league, they just aren’t good enough.
It’s not entirely Norman’s fault. Washington hasn’t really played to his strengths; he’s an elite, physical corner who does his best work against big, physical receivers. Yet he consistently finds himself on crossing patterns against smaller and quicker guys who leave him in the dust. Norman is still a good enough cornerback, but for the money Washington is paying him, he just hasn’t lived up to the expectations.
C.J. Mosley, New York Jets (5yrs, $85m, $43m guaranteed)
Yes, reader, you would be correct in your initial outrage that Mosley hasn’t played a snap for the Jets and therefore hasn’t been given a chance to live up to the contract. That’s a valid point. But consider this: Mosley is making $43 million guaranteed, good for 16th in the entire league. Even if Mosley plays better than he did as a rookie (151 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions), it’s just hard to justify paying an inside linebacker that kind of money.
The Jets needed someone in the center of their defense, and paid Mosley according to need, not market value. But they gave him $19 million more at signing than Bobby Wagner, who had a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. It’s $14 million more than the next-closest inside linebacker (fifth overall pick Devin White at $29 million). Mosley’s peak as a player comes as a versatile linebacker who won’t embarrass himself covering backs or tight ends and can play the run as well as any ‘backer in the league. That’s just not worth more guaranteed money than Von Miller or Odell Beckham Jr. They’ll be regretting this contract sooner rather than later, even if Mosley ends up playing as advertised.