2014 NFL Free Agency: Which Contracts Will Teams Regret Most?

Erik FrenzSenior Writer IMarch 18, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agency: Which Contracts Will Teams Regret Most?

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    NFL teams have handed out approximately $2,713,900,602 in total contracts and $932,125,382 in guaranteed money to a total of 159 free agents since the start of the new league year.

    Business is booming and money is flowing, but owners and general managers may wish they had been a bit more frugal with their funds a few years down the line.

    There's always a lot of talk about how much each free agent is going to contribute to his new team and how certain players have put certain teams over the hump. At what point, though, does the cost become too great? When has the balance of value and need reached its tipping point? 

    Some of these contracts could be the bane of a GM's existence in a couple years' time.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all contract and salary cap information provided by Spotrac.

Paul Soliai's Five-Year, $32 Million Contract with the Atlanta Falcons

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    Paul Soliai (above) is already on the wrong side of 30. Where will he be after five more years?
    Paul Soliai (above) is already on the wrong side of 30. Where will he be after five more years?J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Falcons went all-out to improve their run defense with the signings of Chiefs defensive lineman Tyson Jackson and Dolphins nose tackle Paul Soliai.

    Switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense can be a costly move, because the team must then bring in the appropriate personnel to execute that scheme. The Falcons learned very quickly just how expensive it would be, and they will spend an average of $6.4 million per year and $11 million total in guaranteed money for a nose tackle.

    Soliai has been playing out of position in a 4-3 defense for the past two years, and he will be playing more to his strengths with the Falcons. He's already on the wrong side of 30, though, and the Falcons are stuck with Soliai for the next two years, for better or worse, and they can only recoup $2.7 million in cap space if they want to cut ties with Soliai after that point. 

Aqib Talib's Six-Year, $57 Million Contract with the Denver Broncos

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots wanted to bring back Aqib Talib but once they saw the contract he signed with the Denver Broncos, they probably felt much better about the decision to let him walk.

    The Broncos gave Talib $26 million guaranteed, the most ever for a cornerback. Talib has been considered one of the best cornerbacks in the league, but that's a lot of dough for a cornerback with a history of hip and hamstring injuries, as well as off-field issues that have subsided in recent years.

    The 6'1", 205-pound cornerback was deployed all over the field for the Patriots in 2013, mainly covering a team's No. 1 receiver wherever he went on the field, even using his unique size to cover New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. That being said, he's far from perfect, and he has holes in his game as exposed by Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon and Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.

    The Broncos can cut ties with Talib after the second year of the deal and still get back most of his cap hit, according to Spotrac, but they are paying him $11.5 million for 2014—just $500,000 short of Darrelle Revis with the Patriots—and if they cut him after the first year of the deal, they will owe him $4 million in dead money in 2015. That would essentially account for $16 million in one year.

    Bottom line: They paid 100 percent of top dollar for a player who has played 80 percent of the games in his career (missing the rest with either an injury or a suspension) and who hasn't played a full 16-game season in any of his six years in the NFL.

Cortland Finnegan's Two-Year, $11 Million Contract with the Miami Dolphins

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    The details of Cortland Finnegan's contract with the Miami Dolphins have begun to trickle out, and it's not pretty. Finnegan will make $5.5 million guaranteed in base salary alone in 2014, with $2 million of that coming in a signing bonus, according to Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald

    It was believed that Finnegan would compete with young cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis for a starting job. For that kind of money, Finnegan should not only be competing for the starting job, he had better earn it, or else he'll be paid a lot of money to be a part-time player.

    The problem is, he has allowed over 63 percent completions and over an 80 passer rating in each of the past four years, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). His 136.0 passer rating allowed in 2013 was the third-highest for any cornerback to play over 25 percent of his team's snaps.

    Signing Finnegan would have made a lot of sense on a prove-it deal, but this just looks like irresponsible spending for a player who is on the wrong side of 30 and hasn't played any semblance of good football in over two years.

Sam Shields' Four-Year, $39 Million Contract with the Green Bay Packers

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    Would Sam Shields have received such a lucrative contract on the open market? It's a fair question. The Packers have a young and improving secondary but a lot of their hard work would have been thrown through a loop had they lost Shields. 

    One other concern: Shields has never played a full 16-game season in his four-year career, missing an average of 2.75 games per season. He has dealt with injuries to his shin, ankle, knee and a concussion. 

    The risk is limited to the 2014 and 2015 seasons, when Shields will count more in dead money if cut than he will in cap space if retained. The 2016 season presents the Packers' first real opportunity to get out from under Shields' contract, and they would still lose out on over half of his cap hit that season.

    Shields is a fine player, and the Packers have plenty of money to waste at $24,010,511 in cap space as of Monday evening. They'd better hope there are no major future ramifications for re-signing Shields to such a big-ticket contract.

Charlie Whitehurst's Two-Year, $4.25 Million Contract with the Tennessee Titans

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    The Titans didn't have to spend an arm and a leg to get a backup quarterback. Comparatively speaking, though, Charlie Whitehurst's average of $2.125 million per year makes him the 10th-highest paid backup quarterback in the NFL.

    He might even climb up the scale a spot or two, depending on whether the Jets cut Mark Sanchez ($13,491,667 cap hit) and whether the Texans draft a quarterback to usurp Matt Schaub ($15.5 million cap hit).

    Make no mistake; at least two other teams have had enough confidence in Whitehurst to employ him as their top backup quarterback. There's even the possibility that new Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt saw something in Whitehurst during meetings in their time together with the Chargers that gave him confidence in Whitehurst's potential.

    It's not much money in the grand scheme of the NFL salary cap but for a quarterback who has completed fewer than 55 percent of his career passes, has thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three), has a passer rating of 64.6 and has started a total of four games in his career (1-3), it sure looks like the Titans could have invested their money elsewhere and still been able to find a quarterback of similar talent for a lower price tag.

Michael Oher's Four-Year, $20 Million Contract with the Tennessee Titans

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Michael Oher, known mostly for his inspirational story which inspired the movie The Blind Side, has become known around the league for his inability to live up to the potential in his massive frame.

    Titans quarterback Jake Locker has not handled pressure well in his career, and he has had a passer rating below 50 while under pressure in each of the past two years, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    It's puzzling that the Titans would invest such a hefty sum of money in an offensive tackle who has so clearly struggled with quicker, more agile edge defenders. Oher ranked 48th out of 58 qualifying offensive tackle in pass-blocking efficiency, per PFF.

    Make no mistake; Oher is a solid road-grader on the right side, but his average of $5 million per year makes him the eighth highest-paid right tackle in the NFL. With so few options available remaining at offensive tackle at the time of the signing, the Titans were likely trying to make sure they came away with something. Too bad they overspent in the process.

Emmanuel Sanders' Three-Year, $15 Million Contract with the Denver Broncos

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    A little over a month ago at the scouting combine, Broncos GM John Elway alluded to the contracts coming due for wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, and tight end Julius Thomas, as the reasons they were letting Eric Decker hit the open market. 

    Now that they've invested an average of $5 million per year in Emmanuel Sanders, it looks like they have no problem investing in multiple pass-catchers. Granted, they lost Eric Decker to the New York Jets, and the Broncos will be paying Sanders over $2 million less per year than the Jets are paying Decker. 

    Sanders entering the fold means Welker is likely to hit the open market next year, unless the Broncos can get him back on a cheaper contract than the one he signed initially. So maybe this addresses a future need, but the Broncos still have concerns after losing running back Knowshon Moreno, guard Zane Beadles, linebacker Wesley Woodyard, cornerback Champ Bailey and others.

    The money could have probably been spent elsewhere, but the way the Broncos have been spending this offseason, Sanders' contract will likely not prohibit them from paying other free agents they deem fits.

Tyson Jackson's Five-Year, $25 Million Contract with the Atlanta Falcons

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    John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

    Defensive lineman Tyson Jackson was a reach with the third overall pick in the 2009 draft. Five years later, the Falcons became the second team to reach on Jackson by giving him a massive contract.

    Jackson has developed into a solid player, and he had the best season of his career in 2013 (four sacks, 18 hurries, 19 stuffed runs), but he still hasn't lived up to the hype that led him to be taken so high in the draft. Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) points to Jackson's lack of pass-rushing productivity as the biggest problem with the signing:

    Eleven 3-4 defensive ends got more pressure in 2013 than Jackson has generated in five years in Kansas City. He has posted just 38 pressures in his pro career. To put that into some perspective, J.J. Watt notched 85 last season alone, more than twice as many.

    Plugging Jackson next to Soliai on the defensive line will make for some tough sledding for teams trying to run against the Falcons but with limited options on the market to help the Falcons build their new defensive scheme, it became necessary to overspend on the players that fit.

    In a passing league, spending big dollars for two run-stuffing defensive linemen looks like backwards logic.

     

    Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.