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The 5 Best and Worst Contracts of Early NFL Free-Agency Action

Eric MackFantasy Football Lead WriterApril 1, 2014

The 5 Best and Worst Contracts of Early NFL Free-Agency Action

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    NFL contracts nowadays seem like Monopoly money. They don't seem real. In many cases, they aren't, because the players and teams never see them through the entire life of the terms in this salary-cap era.

    See: Darrelle Revis, who just signed a huge deal a year ago, only to be released for nothing.

    But amid all the mind-numbing numbers thrown around again this March, we can still discern which contracts are bargains and which are dangerous risks—regardless the back ends of these deals are merely dog and pony shows.

    We break down the five best and worst contracts of the early NFL free-agency action, starting with the misappropriated funds. Our slideshow finishes with the top-five signings—one-year, "prove-it" deals, all—teams are going to look back on and wish they could do over again...for all the right reasons.

     

    Note: All contract data is courtesy of OvertheCap.com, unless otherwise noted.

Worst No. 5: SS Donte Whitner, Cleveland Browns

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    Team: Cleveland Browns

    Length: Four years

    Total: $28 million

    Average per year: $7 million

    Guaranteed: $11 million

    This deal would have looked a lot better if T.J. Ward hadn't been a Cleveland Brown and didn't take less money to sign with the Denver Broncos. Donte Whitner is an Ohio product, played college football at Ohio State, so the Browns should have been able to score a hometown discount on a player who sought to return home.

    This deal was full market value, if not a little more for a player who will be 29 next season and very likely in the downswing of a solid career.

    Also, the San Francisco 49ers know defense, and the Broncos are clearly positioned to win. Those two teams chose other safeties. When you are the Cleveland Browns, you have to overpay.

Worst No. 4: CB Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos

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    Team: Denver Broncos

    Length: Six years

    Total: $57 million

    Average per year: $9.5 million

    Guaranteed: $11.5 million

    If you were trying to project which player would be offered the most total dollars this offseason—and were spotted the fact Darrelle Revis, DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers would wind up free agents—how many of you would have said Aqib Talib was going to score the largest deal?

    Not likely a large percentage of you.

    Talib can be a shutdown cornerback at times but ask the New England Patriots how frustrating he can be—particularly with injury. Then ask the Pats whether they are going to miss Talib. They certainly won't miss the potential for an off-the-field mishap or a physical breakdown in crunch time.

    Talib is 28 and has six years experience in the league. He hasn't played a 16-game season in any of them.

    The saving grace on this contract is around a mere 20 percent of it is guaranteed. Odds are very low the Broncos ever have to see this one through to the end.

Worst No. 3: CB Vontae Davis, Indianapolis Colts

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Team: Indianapolis Colts

    Length: Four years

    Total: $36 million

    Average per year: $9 million

    Guaranteed: $20 million, according to Spotrac.com

    Vontae Davis performed like an elite cornerback a year ago and now he is getting paid like one. The Colts had to pony up this deal to retain him, but we wonder what the next best offer was.

    Up until an elite 2013 season, Davis was inconsistent and not worth this kind of money. Because of the high amount of guaranteed dollars, he is going to have to be elite for at least two years.

    Age is on Davis' side—he is just 25—but his erratic past suggests the Colts overpaid for one well-timed contract year.

Worst No. 2: DE Michael Johnson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Al Behrman

    Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Length: Five years

    Total: $43.75 million

    Average per year: $8.75 million

    Guaranteed: $16 million

    The problem with this deal is you figure it would be given to a premium pass-rusher. That is something Johnson is not at this point, particularly coming off just 3.5 sacks last season.

    Now, he did rack up 11.5 in 2012, so if Johnson can generate that kind of pressure over the life of this deal, it will be relative market value. That is a big if.

    The Bucs would have been better off signing Lamarr Houston, a comparable run-stuff defensive end, for less. Houston took almost $10 million less to sign with the Chicago Bears and had almost twice as many sacks last season.

    Finally, the Cincinnati Bengals had tons of cap space and few free agents to try to retain. They could have afforded Johnson if they wanted. They passed, and they know him better than anyone else. They also happen to be a perennial division-title contender, too. That should tell us something.

Worst No. 1: DE Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings

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    Ann Heisenfelt

    Team: Minnesota Vikings

    Length: Five years

    Total: $42.5 million

    Average per year: $8.5 million

    Guaranteed: $19.8 million

    This is easily the most surprising contract of the entire offseason. The Vikings didn't even let Griffen get to free agency, giving him this huge deal. These are the kind of dollars you use to lure a premium free agent into the fold, not offer to a player potentially under your control with franchise- or transition-tag options.

    Yes, Griffen can be worth this money but why didn't the Vikings give him a one-year prove it deal to show it?

    They allowed the aged Jared Allen to leave via free agency and are banking on Griffen to pick up the slack. Sure, Griffen has his arrow pointing up but can you guarantee he is going to be more productive without Allen drawing the attention of opposing defenses now?

    This rates as the worst contract of free agency to date, because it came one year before it had to and reeks of desperation.

Best No. 5: LB Brandon Spikes, Buffalo Bills

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    Winslow Townson/Getty Images

    Team: Buffalo Bills

    Length: One year

    Total: $3 million

    Average per year: $3 million

    Guaranteed: $900K

    Brandon Spikes might have finished last season in Bill Belichick's doghouse, but the Buffalo Bills landed him as a bargain because of that. It took his elder cousin Takeo Spikes, a former Bill, to lure him, according to Chris Brown of the Bills' official website.

    Takeo Spikes told Brown:

    I'm very eager to see how he's going to respond in Buffalo. I know how he's going to respond, but I'm eager for everyone to see how he's going to respond this year knowing what he went through leaving New England.

    Certainly the motivation to beat the Patriots and Belichick will help.

    Brandon Spikes told Brown:

    It just feels great to have a new beginning. The past is the past. I wasn't happy, but I'm happy now and I'm ready to get to work and ready to help. I just want to be part of a winning program and organization, and I saw this place as a great fit for me. I'm in Buffalo now, and I'm just excited about the future. I want to bring that type of mentality and mindset and toughness, that old-school ball and relentless effort.

    So, the Bills paid under $1 million in guaranteed money to get a ticked-off middle linebacker with family ties...on a one-year, prove-it deal. Sounds like a steal to us.

Best No. 4: NT B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Team: Green Bay Packers

    Length: One year

    Total: $4 million

    Average per year: $4 million

    Guaranteed: $500K

    How the mighty have slipped. B.J. Raji is a big name, but he could only muster a one-year deal with $500K of guaranteed money.

    Frankly, he was miscast as a defensive end in the Green Bay Packers' 3-4 defense a year ago. The signing of Raji and pass rush end Julius Peppers can allow Raji to move back to nose tackle, a position that suits his 6'2", 337-pound body. Head coach Mike McCarthy confirmed that to Jason Wilde of ESPN.

    This will be a rebound year for Raji, and the Packers should reap the reward of him being motivated in another contract year after finding lukewarm interest this winter.

Best No. 3: RB Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Miami Dolphins

    Length: One year

    Total: $3 million

    Average per year: $3 million

    Guaranteed: $1.25 million

    The tweet of the offseason came from NFL insider Adam Schefter on March 10:

    "One GM today on free-agent RBs: 'That position needs its own union. We treat our equipment people better than we treat our running backs.'"

    That general manager might have well been referring to Knowshon Moreno, who was left out on the market more than two weeks after that was stated. Moreno, 26, had a career year with 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns. He made it through a healthy full season all the way through the Super Bowl.

    Still, it netted him just a one-year, $3 million deal with a mere $1.25 million guaranteed.

    Now, equipment people don't make that kind of money, but they don't impact the game like Moreno can either...or sacrifice their health in the same way. Every running back is a bargain, perhaps, but Moreno is the best of them all.

Best No. 2: CB Walter Thurmond, New York Giants

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Team: New York Giants

    Length: One year

    Total: $3 million

    Average per year: $3 million

    Guaranteed: $2 million

    This bargain has got to be a function of Thurmond's off-the-field questions. He did serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

    Also, he has had a lot of time off the field, because he hasn't had much time on it. Thurmond played in just eight games between 2011 (six) and '12 (two).

    But, these factors just merely combined to make Thurmond, 26, affordable.

    NFL analyst Louis Riddick told NJ.com's Jordan Raanan:

    If he can stay healthy and out of trouble, it's a tremendous value signing. ...

    You could tell during the year that Walter is special. ... He's a dynamite press corner, who is as good with his technique as [Seattle's] Byron Maxwell, as [Seattle's] Richard Sherman. Walter is very good. He can play in the nickel because he's big enough, because he can tackle, because he's a good blitzer. And he can play on the outside. Not only can he press, he can play them all.

    At the time of Thurmond's signing, he was slated to start opposite Prince Amukamara. Then, the Giants signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, too. Now, it is an embarrassment of cornerback riches for a team that sorely needed them.

    Riddick added to Raanan on Thurmond:

    He's a base starter. He's a base first and second-down starting cornerback who also has tremendous third-down value. He's an all-around corner for all the different disciplines you have to play—press, off, short zone, deep zone, quarter zone, blitz, tackle, he can do all that stuff as good or better than Prince can.

    Read: Thurmond is going to make the Giants look real smart, and he is going to make a lot more money after this cheap, one-year deal expires next winter.

Best No. 1: WR Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts

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    Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sport

    Team: Indianapolis Colts

    Length: One year

    Total: $4 million

    Average per year: $4 million

    Guaranteed: $2.25 million

    If not for a season in which Hakeem Nicks was held out of the end zone, we might have been talking about how rich this wide receiver had become. Instead, we are wondering just how rich he will be after next season.

    Nicks couldn't net the monster deal he has long wanted from the New York Giants this winter, but he did the next best thing: He found an elite quarterback in need of a go-to man and signed up on a one-year deal that will give him another go at a contract year.

    If Nicks proves healthy and motivated, Andrew Luck can make him millions.

    Chuck Pagano told Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star:

    There's only one football. When you have great competitors and great players like we have, they all want the rock at the same time. They all certainly know you only have one football. It's a great situation that we have getting those guys back, getting Dwayne (Allen) back, Ahmad (Bradshaw), Vick (Ballard), Reggie (Wayne) and then adding Hakeem. It's a great situation. ...

    (Nicks has) big, big hands, can make huge plays, physical guy. Everybody is going to get up in your face and play bump and run and make it hard for you to get off the line of scrimmage. He gives you a big physical presence. He'll do a great job against press coverage.

    Nicks is the type of receiver Luck has lacked in his young career. A healthy year out of Nicks—at a reasonable contract rate—can be a match made in heaven, perhaps to the tune of 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns.

    That would surely net Nicks the kind of dollars he thought he had coming to him a few years ago. He was the top bargain in a pricey offseason in which many lesser talents received some outrageous contracts.

     

    Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.

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