While NFL front offices know some extensions and free agent deals will inevitably fail, no decision-maker wants one of his team’s agreements to rank among the worst NFL contracts. But with the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious some pacts have proven to be wastes of money, while others have become total impediments to a club’s salary cap.
The NFL’s Worst Contracts
To be clear, we support NFL players making every dollar they possibly can. Professional football careers are short — given the physical risks players take, they deserve all the cash. These contracts are the “worst” from the team’s perspective.
Let’s go around the league and identify the 10 worst contracts in the NFL. We’ll start in Los Angeles, where a veteran quarterback extension isn’t working out.
10) Matthew Stafford, QB, Los Angeles Rams
After going all-in and walking away with a Super Bowl trophy in February, the Rams began handing out extensions like candy. LA’s leadership group — head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead — received new contracts, as did future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald.
Of course, the Rams couldn’t leave out Matthew Stafford, who they’d acquired from the Lions in exchange for two first-round picks and more the year prior. Los Angeles gave Stafford a four-year, $160 million extension that contains $63 million guaranteed and runs through the 2026 campaign.
But instead of competing for another Lombardi, the Rams have disintegrated. After losing to the Saints in Week 11, LA sits at 3-7 and in fourth place in the NFC West. They’re out of the playoff picture, and it’s not even Thanksgiving.
Injuries have destroyed any chances the Rams had at competing, and Stafford hasn’t been immune. He missed Week 10 with a concussion and left Sunday’s game to be evaluated for another head injury in Week 11. When healthy, Stafford has posted his worst QBR since 2014.
It’s difficult to see how the Rams will get out of this mess any time soon. They’re projected to be $5 million over the salary cap in 2023. Los Angeles can’t exit Stafford’s contract until 2024 at the earliest (and potentially not until 2025). The Super Bowl hangover is real in SoCal.
9) Chandler Jones, EDGE, Las Vegas Raiders
Although the Raiders escaped with a win on Sunday, it’s safe to say not much has gone right in Josh McDaniels’ first season in Las Vegas. While offseason trade acquisition Davante Adams has been incredible thus far, Chandler Jones — the Raiders’ top free agent signing — has not lived up to his contract.
Expected to form a fearsome duo with Maxx Crosby, Jones has posted just a half-sack and six quarterback hits through 10 games. Among 79 edge defenders with at least 150 pass-rushing snaps, Jones ranks only 59th with an 11.3% pass-rush win rate, per PFF.
That’s lackluster production for Jones, who is the NFL’s 10th-highest-paid edge rusher at $17 million annually. His three-year deal included $32 million guaranteed, and the Raiders can’t save any money by cutting him until after the 2023 season, at which point he’ll be 34 years old.
8) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliott signed his six-year, $90 million extension more than three years ago. While plenty of running backs have signed new contracts since, only two — Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara — have topped Elliott’s $15 million average annual value.
That’s a sign of how out of touch the Cowboys were when they extended Elliott. It’s spilled over onto the field, where Dallas had continued to lean on Elliott despite backup Tony Pollard appearing far more explosive.
The Cowboys restructured Zeke’s contract in 2021, pushing money to the future and making it more difficult to eventually release him. However, Dallas didn’t touch his deal this offseason, indicating that he’ll be a cut candidate in the spring. Even then, the Cowboys will take on nearly $12 million in dead money by parting ways.
7) Jonnu Smith, TE, New England Patriots
The Patriots spent $291 million on free agents in 2021, nearly $100 million more than any other team. Some of those additions, such as pass rusher Matthew Judon, have worked out. But most haven’t.
Jonnu Smith falls into the latter category. While he was always a big-play threat for the Titans, the former third-round pick never topped 450 receiving yards in Tennessee. Despite that, New England gave him a four-year, $50 million deal with $31.25 million guaranteed.
Even if your expectations were low, you couldn’t have imagined Smith would be as unproductive as he’s been for the Patriots. Last season, he recorded only 28 receptions for 294 yards and a touchdown. He’s on a slightly better pace this year, but he still has just a 20-194-0 line through 11 weeks.
Third-year guarantees are typically reserved for elite NFL players, but Smith has already secured $6.5 million of his $10 million 2023 salary. Unless the Patriots use a post-June 1 designation, it will cost them more to cut Smith this offseason than to keep him.
6) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Given that he had just won back-to-back MVP awards, the Packers didn’t have much of a choice other than to extend Aaron Rodgers.
But at 39 years old and sans Davante Adams, Rodgers hasn’t looked like the same quarterback and ranks just 23rd in EPA per play.
Moving forward, Green Bay doesn’t have many options with Rodgers. They can’t cut him, as doing so would result in nearly $100 million in dead money from 2023-24. And given his contract and current level of play, the Packers would struggle to find a trade partner.
Instead, the Packers have to hope Rodgers either improves his play down the stretch or simply decides to retire. Green Bay would still incur roughly $40 million in dead money if Rodgers hangs up his cleats.
5) Kenny Golladay, WR, New York Giants
Former Giants general manager Dave Gettleman signed Kenny Golladay as a free agent in 2021, so current New York decision-makers Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll don’t hold any responsibility for this deal.
Injuries limited Golladay to just five games in his final season with the Lions, but the Giants still opted to give him a four-year, $72 million pact with $28 million guaranteed. In 14 games a year ago, Golladay managed just 37 catches for 521 scoreless yards — not exactly what you’d expect from a receiver making $18 million/year.
Things have only gotten worse this year. New York is in desperate need of wideouts, but they’ve still kept Golladay off the field. He’s appeared in six games and caught four passes for 51 yards. Big Blue will almost assuredly cut Golladay in the spring, and a post-June 1 designation seems likely.
4) Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
When the Saints signed Michael Thomas to a five-year, $96.25 million extension in the summer of 2019, he was coming off a season in which he led the NFL in receptions. New Orleans had to feel positive about the deal after the 2019 campaign, too, as Thomas led the league in receptions and yards while winning the Offensive Player of the Year award.
Since then, recurring injury problems have overwhelmed Thomas’ career, as he’s appeared in only 10 games since the start of the 2020 campaign. The Saints placed him on injured reserve earlier this month, and there’s a chance he could retire this offseason due to nagging health issues.
However, New Orleans can’t afford to simply let Thomas retire or cut him. Either transaction would result in a $25+ million dead money charge, which the cap-strapped Saints can’t afford.
Instead, they’ll likely have to get creative. As Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap has detailed, the Saints can look at what the Eagles did with Alshon Jeffery and Malik Jackson in 2021. New Orleans will likely need to slash Thomas’ 2023 salary to the league minimum in order to make an eventual post-June 1 cut palatable.
NFL rules don’t allow teams to use a post-June 1 release on players whose contracts were reworked after the final regular-season game. Thus, the Saints will need to hammer out a solution with Thomas before the end of the 2022 campaign.
3) J.C. Jackson, CB, Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers were the fifth-highest-spending team in 2022 free agency, and most of that money went toward improving a woeful defensive unit. J.C. Jackson was the crown jewel, inking a five-year, $82.5 million deal with $40 million in guarantees.
Unfortunately, things couldn’t have gone much worse for Jackson in his first year with Los Angeles. After undergoing ankle surgery in August, Jackson missed two of the Chargers’ first three games.
When he did enter the lineup, Jackson struggled to adapt to Brandon Staley’s scheme and was repeatedly beaten for touchdowns or explosive plays. He allowed 13.9 yards per target and a 149.3 passer rating, both dismal figures which rank far worse than his numbers with the Patriots. Jackson was ultimately benched before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 7.
Given how fresh his contract is, Jackson will be back with the Chargers in 2023. Los Angeles could conceivably move on after 2023, but a release is more likely after 2024, at which point the Chargers will have paid Jackson more than $54 million over three years.
2) Russell Wilson, QB, Denver Broncos
Through 10 weeks, the Broncos’ trade for Russell Wilson already looks like one of the worst swaps in recent memory. Denver gave up a haul — two firsts, two seconds, and change — for the former Seattle quarterback. Yet, Geno Smith and the Seahawks are thriving, while the Broncos are near the bottom of the AFC standings at 3-7.
Wilson has been dreadful in his new uniform. His adjusted net yards per attempt (7.1) and QBR (32.2) are the worst marks of his career, and the Broncos have scored the fewest points in the league (147). Denver’s offensive performance has been so poor that head coach Nathaniel Hackett could be fired after just one season.
The Broncos opted to extend Wilson sight unseen, giving him a five-year, $245 million deal in early September. After sacrificing a significant package to acquire Wilson, it wasn’t surprising that Denver decided to give him an extension — but that pact may have put the franchise underwater for years.
Wilson is locked in through at least the 2024 season. If the Broncos released him heading into 2025, they’d take a $49.6 million dead money hit, more than the NFL-record $40.53 million the Falcons absorbed when they traded Matt Ryan. Denver could use a post-June 1 cut, but that would spread the money out over two seasons.
The Broncos can release Wilson after the 2025 campaign and clear more than $27 million, but that would come with a $31.2 million dead money charge. There just aren’t a lot of good options here! Throw in that Wilson is already 34 years old and on a steady decline — Denver is in a horrible position.
1) Deshaun Watson, QB, Cleveland Browns
The Browns’ decision to trade for Deshaun Watson while he was facing 24 allegations of sexual assault is an extremely sensitive subject. Cleveland’s decision-makers — including owner Jimmy Haslam and general manager Andrew Berry — haven’t offered any satisfactory answers as to why they felt comfortable acquiring Watson despite the two-dozen accusations, and it’s a choice they’ll have to live with.
Not only did the Browns give up three first-round picks and change for Watson, but they also signed him to a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract upon acquiring him. Watson, who will soon return from an 11-game suspension, had a no-trade clause with the Texans and thus was essentially able to choose his next destination.
Watson had four years and $136 million remaining on his deal with Houston, so the Browns basically gave him an extra $96 million to convince him to come to Cleveland. Remember, the Browns were originally told they were out of the Watson sweepstakes. That probably changed when Cleveland upped the financial stakes.
That no other team was willing to match Watson’s contract offer from the Browns is telling. Clearly, other clubs like the Panthers, Falcons, and Saints were willing to overlook any moral questions about acquiring Watson — but they weren’t open to handing him a fully guaranteed deal.
There may be some contract language that would allow the Browns to escape in the event of further allegations or lawsuits, but they’re otherwise locked in. It’s an astounding contract for any player, let alone one with Watson’s off-field history.