The NFL offseason is when we see a flurry of trades, signings, and veteran movement. The salary cap spurs the majority of moves as teams look to dodge large cap numbers for declining veterans. The 2023 offseason will see another set of splurges as teams enter an arm’s race to improve their rosters.
However, as salaries have swelled and franchises have gone all-in, some teams got reckless with the way they structured and restructured contracts. The cap can be heavily manipulated by changing base salary numbers into signing bonuses, but those moves can be costly in later years if a veteran isn’t performing. In other cases, teams did a poor job of creating early outs for mediocre talents.
We’ve scoured the worst deals across the NFL as we head into the 2023 offseason. Each of these contracts is difficult to get out of due to the dead cap charges associated with them, and in general, these players haven’t been worth the payday they received. Let’s dive in.
Worst NFL Contracts Heading Into 2023 Offseason
1) Russell Wilson, QB, Denver Broncos (Five years, $245 million)
I don’t think anyone thought Wilson’s first season with the Broncos would go as poorly as it did. Once a brilliant playmaker who married explosive plays with low turnover rates, and someone who was as dangerous as anyone outside of the pocket, Wilson’s skill set looked greatly diminished this past season. Though Wilson’s always appeared to have a hefty build, his foot speed in the pocket was gone in 2022.
The 34-year-old finished the year with a career-low in completion rate and touchdown rate and a near-career-high interception rate. If the Broncos could move on from Wilson right now, they surely would. The only bright spot in his year came in the final month, where Wilson had two games with three touchdowns.
However, the Broncos are unquestionably stuck with Wilson for the foreseeable future. Moving on from Wilson via release or trade would cost the Broncos enormous cap hits prior to June 1, 2024. Because of his contract bonuses and high guaranteed money, the Broncos literally couldn’t afford to field a roster if the money was accelerated onto their cap sheet before then.
The first time Denver can really escape his deal is next offseason, as they can designate him a June 1 release. Still, they’d incur a massive $35.4 million dead cap hit and wouldn’t see any savings until the 2025 offseason. Their best hope is their next head coach can come in and rehabilitate Wilson, along with self-realization from the veteran that he is the root of his own problems.
2) Matthew Stafford, QB, Los Angeles Rams (Four years, $160 million)
The cost of winning a Super Bowl is massive, but it’s fitting that arguably the most leveraged team in NFL history immediately paid the heavy price in the following season. The Rams proudly broke the mold of what most teams do, trading every first-round pick from 2017 through 2023 in a multitude of deals. They also rode dangerously close to the salary cap line in order to build an extremely top-heavy roster.
It worked, and their Super Bowl 56 win brought the franchise eternal glory. The aftermath led to gigantic contract extensions for head coach Sean McVay, quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Unfortunately, injuries caused each player to miss a significant number of games in 2022.
Stafford’s contract was egregious from the start, putting him among the top handful of quarterback contracts despite leading the NFL in interceptions in his first year with the Rams. Stafford played well when it mattered the most in the playoffs but was a weak point throughout the second half of the 2021 regular season as he compounded mistakes on top of each other.
A neck injury ended his 2022 campaign prematurely, but he was playing terribly before suffering a concussion and spinal cord contusion. The Rams are hoping he bounces back, not only to persuade McVay to continue coaching into future years but also to get some return on his mammoth cap hits that are coming soon. His cap number swells from $20 million in 2023 to upwards of $49.5 million in 2024.
The Rams can escape Stafford’s deal next offseason with a June 1 designation release, but it’ll cost them $18.5 million in dead cap hits through 2026.
3) Jonnu Smith, TE, New England Patriots (Four years, $50 million)
It’s a little difficult to put a tight end with the third-worst contract in the entire NFL, but the structuring of this deal is absurdly bad even before we consider the Patriots had signed another tight end to a similar deal in the same offseason (Hunter Henry).
Smith’s been a complete bust in New England, totaling only 55 receptions for 539 yards and one touchdown. He had produced only 448 yards in his final season in Tennessee, but the Patriots were seemingly tricked by his eight scores.
Blaming Smith for his lack of involvement probably isn’t fair to him. New England has given him a washed-up Cam Newton and young Mac Jones to play with, and both a former special teams coach and defensive coordinator were calling the offense this past year. Still, the Patriots are stuck bringing Smith back once again for 2023.
Releasing Smith with a June 1 designation this offseason would save the team $4.5 million in 2023 and $12 million in 2024 but count as a $12.655 dead hit this year. His deal was poorly constructed from the start, given that most free agent contracts have a relatively clean out after Year 2. Only elite players get bonuses into their third year and beyond, so New England has to be kicking itself over the structure of this one.
4) Chandler Jones, Edge, Las Vegas Raiders (Three years, $51 million)
I was shocked at how poorly Year 1 of the Chandler Jones signing went in Las Vegas this past year. Jones has been one of the most dynamic pass rushers in the NFL throughout his career, producing 19 sacks in 2019 and 10.5 in 2021 before landing in Vegas on one final big contract. Outside of an injury, I didn’t think Jones could possibly be a bust considering he was playing across from Maxx Crosby on a Patrick Graham-coached defense.
Unfortunately, things went horribly wrong in 2022. Jones finished with 4.5 sacks in 15 games, with three of those coming in one game against the Chargers in Week 13. He was completely invisible in most games, and turning 33 this offseason, appears to be at risk of a massive drop-off.
The Raiders can’t do much, even if they’re concerned about a repeat performance in 2023. Releasing him this offseason would net less than $1 million in cap space, meaning it’s more worthwhile to bring him back and see if a new year brings better results. At least they can cut him next offseason and deal with only $2.4 million in dead cap from 2024 through 2026.
5) J.C. Jackson, CB, Los Angeles Chargers (Five years, $82.5 million)
Injuries are the worst part of any sport but are also inevitable. The Chargers spent well over $100 million last offseason to help fix their woeful defense, but cornerback J.C. Jackson couldn’t help their efforts. He played in just five games before tearing a patellar tendon and landing on injured reserve.
Jackson was magnificent in New England prior to joining the Chargers, snatching 25 interceptions and breaking up 53 passes in four seasons. However, as soon as he took the field in Brandon Staley’s defense, he looked completely lost and ineffective. He was even benched prior to the injury.
I blame some of that on Staley, who is clearly in over his head in his current position. But the reality is the Chargers are stuck with Jackson until the 2024 offseason regardless of his health and who is to blame. Releasing him with a June 1 designation this offseason would only net a $17 million dead cap hit, but next offseason would open over $14 million in cap from 2024 through 2026 with a $5 million dead cap hit each year.
6) Taysom Hill, TE, New Orleans Saints (Four years, $40 million)
We’ve never seen a contract like Hill’s, as it was initially set. New Orleans had built an elaborate deal that could’ve grown to a total of $95 million had he proven to be a franchise quarterback. Instead, Hill ended up being an extremely expensive gadget player who occasionally runs some wildcat plays.
Former Saints head coach Sean Payton had a weird obsession with Hill, putting him all over the field and rewarding him as if he could competently take the job of several other players.
Hill is a phenomenal athlete but not more qualified than minimum contract players who could be on special teams and play tight end, quarterback, and running back. He finished last season with 652 total yards and nine touchdowns.
The Saints are stuck with Hill this year, as a June 1 release nets them zero cap relief. They can release him next offseason with a June 1 release to open $10 million in cap space in 2024 and 2025 with $4 million dead hits each year. He counts for a whopping $13.925 million this year.
7) Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints (Five years, $96.25 million)
After setting a Hall of Fame-type warpath in production throughout his first four seasons, Michael Thomas has simply been unavailable. He’s played in only 10 games over the last three years due to a bizarre ankle injury from 2020 through 2022, and then he had a toe dislocation this past season. In that time, he’s caught only 56 passes for 611 yards and three scores.
Thomas showed this past season he’s still capable of playing at a quality level when he’s on the field. But he’s a complete wild card as to whether he’ll ever be consistently healthy. Turning 30 this offseason, the Saints recently restructured his contract so that they can release him with a June 1 designation soon.
Even with the team’s best efforts to reduce the cap ramifications, the Saints will be paying for their massive investment into Thomas. A June 1 release of Thomas would trigger a total dead cap charge of $26 million over the next four years but would also open $1.365 million in cap space this year and $6 million in 2024. The team did what they could to salvage the best of an awful situation.
It’s possible Thomas rectifies his career, either in New Orleans or with another franchise. He’s one of the most gifted possession receivers in the NFL, thanks to his versatility and polish. A fresh start is likely needed, and hopefully, he’ll be able to re-establish himself once again in the near future.
8) Allen Robinson, WR, Los Angeles Rams (Three years, $46.5 million)
The Rams’ decision to move away from Robert Woods and Odell Beckham Jr. in favor of Allen Robinson was surely partially due to the health of their former receivers, but there was also a stylistic factor here. Robinson couldn’t replicate the quickness of his predecessors, leading me to believe we’d see Stafford favor throwing more back-shoulder, vertical routes that he used to thrive on in Detroit. Instead, Stafford never really looked Robinson’s way and instead heaved prayers to Kupp regardless of what coverage favored.
Robinson produced a career-low 10.3 yards per reception across 10 games played before being shut down with a foot injury. It was the second-straight season he failed to catch more than 38 passes and log more than 410 yards. I didn’t think the tape was bad for Robinson, but he’s never been a receiver who wins with stellar separation and therefore relies on the trust of his quarterback to produce.
Stafford and Robinson have to get on the same page in 2023. With the veteran wideout owed $18 million and no contractual escape until the Rams can June 1 release him next offseason, there’s no other choice. The Rams can open $15.75 million in cap space next year while incurring just $2.8 million in dead cap from 2024 through 2026 if Robinson doesn’t break out this coming season.
9) Kenny Golladay, WR, New York Giants (Four years, $72 million)
It’s hard to think of a bigger recent free agent bust than Kenny Golladay. Smith is up there alongside him, but at least some of Smith’s lack of production has to do with his surrounding cast. Golladay could barely get onto the field for two coaching staffs even as the team was ravaged by injuries over his two seasons in New York.
With only 43 receptions for 602 yards and one touchdown in 26 games played, Golladay has been the butt of jokes since signing his massive deal with the franchise. The sad thing is, he was one of the better vertical threats in the NFL in 2018 and 2019, proving to be an acrobatic sideline artist. The Giants were justified in signing him to help their woeful passing game, but the structure of his deal was awful.
Golladay signed a deal with three years’ worth of guarantees despite hitting free agency after missing 11 games due to hip flexor and hamstring injuries. That was reckless, especially considering the astoundingly high yearly average. Last year, DJ Chark got almost half what Golladay did and had a similar resume, and that was on a one-year deal.
Even if the Giants cut him with a June 1 designation this offseason, they’ll be hit with a $7.9 million dead hit this year and $3.4 million in dead cap hits in 2024 and 2025. Expect to see that move soon as the Giants can open up $13.5 million in 2023 and $18 million in 2024 with that move.
10) Jamal Adams, S, Seattle Seahawks (Four years, $70 million)
It was jarring when the Seahawks traded two first-round picks for a safety and then handed him the largest contract at the position. The Seahawks were never a safety away from winning a Super Bowl, especially a safety who is best as a blitzer and had forced only two interceptions in three seasons. Adams is good but has never been a dominant playmaker.
Since landing in Seattle, Adams has missed at least four games in every season. He suffered a quad injury in Week 1 of this past season, bringing his total games played with the franchise to only 25 of a possible 50. In that time, he has 173 tackles, 9.5 sacks (that all came in 2020), and two interceptions.
The good news for Seattle is they can cut bait this offseason with a June 1 designation. Releasing Adams would leave them with a $7.1 million cap hit over each of the next three seasons but open between $11 million, $16.5 million, and $17.5 million, respectively. Given Adams’ body seemingly breaking down and the diminished returns over his tenure, it’s time to cut bait.