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Dead Weight: Whose Salaries Are Holding Teams Back Most Heading into 2017?

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutAugust 7, 2017

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 1:  Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens throws a pass during the first quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on January 1, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Assembling a successful NFL team requires a combination of talent evaluation, the understanding of group dynamics and a fluid financial acumen. Team executives must have a clear picture of when it's time to cut bait on an expensive player and when to invest in the future with your key assets.

At times, teams will sign players to massive contracts based on past achievements, failing to note trends in performance over time. When that happens, teams can find themselves with "dead weight" players—those roster certainties who are only certain because they'd be more expensive to release than they would be to keep around.

And when that happens, everything is affected. Players desired by the team in future years may not be signed because the salary cap is negatively affected. The specter of negative value for the player forced upon the franchise by his onerous contract can cause a divide in the locker room. And the front office must find ways to work around that dead weight.

It's a rough go for any team, but here are five players who could put their teams in this uncomfortable position in 2017 and beyond.

   

Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Flacco signed a three-year contract extension in March 2016 that gave him $66.4 million in new money, a $40 million signing bonus, $44 million in fully guaranteed money and $62 million in injury guarantees. This despite the fact that he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 11 of the 2015 season, missing the Ravens' final six games and throwing just 14 touchdowns to 12 interceptions.

It's understandable that any NFL team would go above and beyond to retain the services of a player it believes to be a true franchise quarterback, but Flacco hasn't really lived up to that designation since 2014, when he threw 27 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. And even then, 27 touchdowns isn't exactly Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees territory, though Flacco's money is.

The 2016 season was highly problematic in other ways. Former NFL1000 Quarterbacks Scout Cian Fahey detailed the issues in a recent article for his Pre-Snap Reads website and in his Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue. Only Sam Bradford threw a higher percentage of short passes that season than Flacco, and Flacco's receivers weren't to blame for his failed completions anywhere near the league average. Colin Kaepernick, who is currently out of the league for some debatable reasons, was more accurate to all fields than Flacco in 2016, according to Fahey's charting.

This season has not started well. Flacco suffered a disk injury in his back in late July and is expected to miss three to six weeks, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero, which would eliminate most or all of training camp and the preseason for him. If he's not able to turn his recent inefficiencies around in 2017 and beyond, the Ravens are on the hook for what then looks like the worst contract in the NFL.

Flacco carries a $24.55 million cap charge in 2017, and things get worse after that. The cap charges increase to $24.75 million in 2018, $26.5 million in 2019, $28.25 million in 2020 and then $24.25 million in 2021. Moreover, the Ravens would take an enormous cap hit if they decided to release him in the next couple of years—there would be $47.3 million in dead money that would accelerate this season, $28.75 million in 2018 and $16 million in 2019. Essentially, they're stuck with Flacco until 2020, when the dead money would only be $8 million. Baltimore could save a bit of money by designating him as a post-June 1 release in any of those years—the dead money goes down to $18.55 million in 2017 and $12.75 million in 2018—but the numbers make releasing Flacco prohibitive over at least the next couple of years.

And if Flacco plays the way he's played in each of the last two seasons, there's no other way to put it: He's a giant albatross around the franchise's metaphorical neck.

   

Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, New York Jets

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Wilkerson broke his right leg in the Jets' final game of the 2015 season, and he never really looked right in 2016 as a result. Head coach Todd Bowles recently said that Wilkerson "gutted it out" in 2016, and it showed. He put up just 4.5 sacks in 15 games after amassing 12 the year before. He had a decent year as a run-stopper with 50 run stops (defined as tackles that prevent a successful play), according to the Football Outsiders Almanac, but with those 4.5 sacks, just seven quarterback hits and 19 hurries (again, per FO), more will be expected. It's entirely understandable that Wilkerson's performance would decline with injuries as a factor, but now the money is a pressing point.

The Jets signed the former first-round pick out of Temple to a five-year, $86 million contract extension in June 2016, and they're on the hook for an $18 million cap number for him in 2017. If things don't go well this season, there's a $9 million dead money cap hit if he's a pre-June 1 cut, and $3 million as a post-June 1 cut.

So, the Jets can get out of the deal pretty easily if they so choose. But what if Wilkerson has a decent season—nothing earth-shattering, but good enough to keep him aboard? The Jets would have to commit a $20 million cap hit in 2018 as things currently stand, and given the bad contracts general manager Mike Maccagnan gave to Darrelle Revis (released in February after a horrible 2016 season and given $39 million guaranteed) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (released in February after a horrible 2016 season and given $12 million guaranteed), it's possible that an early exit by Wilkerson could also seal Maccagnan's fate.

      

Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami Dolphins

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

It's not that Suh had a bad season in 2016, his second in Miami after five years in Detroit. He had five sacks, and according to the Football Outsiders Almanac, finished 16th among all pass-rushers regardless of position with 35 quarterback hurries. He's also become a fine run-stopper with the Dolphins after the defensive staff stopped trying to make him play two-gap defensive tackle.

However, the tape doesn't show a truly transformative player at this point, and given Suh's money, that's a problem. Few players could live up to Suh's current contract—six years, $114.4 million with $60 million in guaranteed money. The Dolphins converted $20 million of his base salary to a signing bonus in 2016 to provide cap relief, per OverTheCap.com, but that move added $4 million in salary cap charges to each contract year.

Suh's cap hits and dead money numbers are pretty staggering. He has a $19.1 million cap hit in 2017, $26.1 million in 2018, $28.1 million in 2019 and $22.375 million in the contract's final season of 2020. In 2018 and 2019 alone, Suh will account for almost 15 percent of Miami's entire estimated salary cap. And if the Dolphins want any sort of cap relief from those numbers, they'll have to wait a while.

Suh's dead money is an astonishing $41.285 million in 2017, $22.2 million in 2018 and $13.1 million in 2019, which is the first season in which a release would be financially reasonable, unless they designated him as a post-June 1 cut. Then, the dead money would be $9.1 million in either season. It's not his fault for taking the money; more the Dolphins' fault for overvaluing him, trying to defer the cap charges after the fact and hamstringing themselves along the way with increased dead money.

   

Matt Kalil, LT, Carolina Panthers

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Kalil missed all but two games for the Minnesota Vikings last year with a hip injury, and it was the final season in what turned into a monumentally disappointing tenure for the former No. 4 overall draft pick. Injuries and mechanical regressions had rendered Kalil incapable of dealing with quick rushers around the edge or matching inside stunts from bigger pass-rushers. He gave up one sack, three quarterback hits and five quarterback hurries in just 69 snaps last season, and that was on par with the level of pass rush he allowed in recent campaigns when he was healthy and on the field most of the time. According to Pro Football Focus, Kalil allowed 23 sacks and 160 total pressures over the last four seasons, adding 28 penalties to the mix.

That the Panthers decided to sign Kalil to a five-year, $55 million deal with $25 million guaranteed is curious at best. Perhaps the thought process is that he can turn it around on the same line with center Ryan Kalil, Matt's older brother, but as the younger Kalil hasn't shown anything approaching consistent league-average pass protection since his rookie season of 2012, the level of financial commitment is severe. Kalil should most likely have been on a shorter contract full of incentives, but the Panthers are now on the hook for far too much money over the next three seasons if things don't work out.

Kalil's cap hit is just $3.4 million in 2017 and $6.9 million in 2018, but things accelerate heavily from there—a $12.9 million cap hit in 2019, $15.9 million in 2020 and 16.4 million in 2021. If the Panthers want to move on completely over the next couple of years, they'll have to pay a steep price. Kalil's dead cap number in 2017 is $24 million, it's $20.6 million in 2018 and $14.7 million in 2019. If Kalil stays relatively healthy but his performance stays where it's been over the last few years, the Panthers have painted themselves into a bit of a corner. To have openly invited themselves into that scenario is a real head-scratcher.

   

Russell Okung, LT, Los Angeles Chargers

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 11:  Russell Okung #73 of the Denver Broncos watches from the sideline during a game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on December 11, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The Seahawks' first draft pick of the Pete Carroll and John Schneider era in 2010, Okung has played pretty well through his career, but he's struggled to stay on the field—his only 16-game season came in 2016 with the Denver Broncos, and in that year he allowed four sacks, four quarterback hits and 50 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. Not exactly top-shelf play.

Still, the Chargers saw fit to give Okung a four-year, $53 million deal in March, making him the NFL's richest tackle in per-year total money. Okung received $25 million in guaranteed money, fourth-highest among left tackles in the league.

And if Okung doesn't work out, the dead money penalties are steep, whether he's a pre- or post-June 1 cut. He's got a $6 million cap hit in 2017—not bad—but that shoots up to $15 million in 2018 and $16 million in both 2019 and 2020. The dead money is $25 million this year and $19.5 million in 2018. Even as a post-June 1 cut in 2018, Okung would cost the Chargers $14.5 million in dead money if they released him then.

This is a guy who played on a deal with no guaranteed money for the Broncos last season, and while the $8 million he got was chump change for a starting left tackle—even if he's playing at an average level—the Chargers seemed intent on making up for the great deal Denver got.

           

Doug Farrar covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @BR_DougFarrar.

All salary cap information courtesy of OverTheCap.com unless otherwise specified.