NFL News & Analysis

Analyzing the highest-paid contract in NFL free agency at every position: Was it worth it?

We saw numerous massive deals handed out in NFL free agency the last couple weeks, but how many of those deals were actually worth it? With the help of PFF's advanced database used by all 32 NFL teams, let’s break down the highest-paid contract handed out at every position.

(Note: This does not take into account players who were not free agents and just extended on their current contract or were traded and extended, like Kirk Cousins and DeForest Buckner. Highest-paid contract is determined by total guaranteed money in the contract.)

QB – Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans

Contract: Four-years, $118 million ($62 million guaranteed)

Was it worth it? The improvement made by Ryan Tannehill was unlike anything we have ever seen since PFF’s inception in 2006. With the Miami Dolphins in 2018, Tannehill owned a 42.4 passing grade, which was among the three worst we have ever recorded in a single season. He was subsequently traded to the Tennessee Titans in the offseason and became the starter in Week 7 of the 2019 season after poor play from Marcus Mariota. Tannehill finished the regular season first in PFF passing grade at 91.0 — that’s a plus-48.6 difference in passing grade from 2018 to 2019. For perspective, there has only been a plus-31.0 difference one other time in the PFF era.

Regression seems inevitable for Tannehill. His positively graded play rate with the Titans was nearly double what it was with Miami the year prior. Tannehill has always been a relatively accurate quarterback, but his play on the field has shown to be dependent on those around him and the play-caller/scheme. It worked for Tennessee in 2019, and we thought it would be a great idea to bring Tannehill back for another season — but on the franchise tag to prove he can produce the same once more, not necessarily on a deal like this one. 

RB – Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

Contract: Four-years, $24.5 million ($15 million guaranteed)

Was it worth it? Everyone knows this by now — we at PFF don’t believe you should ever break the bank for a running back, nor should you ever tag one (cough, cough Derrick Henry). That being said, if any running back in this free agency class was deserving of receiving the most guaranteed money, it was Austin Ekeler, who was a restricted free agent this offseason. Ekeler was an undrafted free agent out of Division II Western State Colorado back in 2017 and has clearly exceeded expectations on the field. Ekeler has produced the third-best overall grade at his position since 2018 and second-most WAR per snap. 

The biggest reason why we believe Ekeler is more deserving of any other free agent running back to receive the most money is because he actually brings value in the one important area of a running back's job: as a receiver. No running back has recorded a higher receiving grade the last two years than Ekeler. He has averaged an NFL-high 10.2 yards after catch per reception in that span and generated 2.44 yards per route run, nearly half a yard more than anyone else. Getting Melvin Gordon off their books and sticking with Ekeler was the way to go. It was actually one of many great decisions made by the Chargers this offseason.

WR – Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys

Contract: Five-years, $100 million ($40 million guaranteed; goes to $60 million in event of injury)

Was it worth it? Very few wide receivers have been as good as Amari Cooper has been with the Dallas Cowboys the last two seasons. Since he was traded to Dallas midseason in 2018, Cooper has been one of PFF’s 10 highest-graded wide receivers and has proven to be an elite deep threat. Cooper’s deep receiving grade with the Cowboys is the seventh-best in the NFL, and his route-running has shined on such routes. Cooper has seen 58% of his 20-plus targets with a step or more of separation in the same span, which leads the NFL and is nearly 20% above the average.

Cooper has been the Cowboys’ third-most-valuable player the last two years behind only Dak Prescott and Byron Jones. He plays a valuable position at an elite level — that is worth paying for.

TE – Austin Hooper, Cleveland Browns

Contract: Four-years, $42 million ($23 million guaranteed)

Was it worth it? Austin Hooper is a reliable tight end who is a weapon underneath on a quick out-route. In fact, he’s produced the second-highest receiving grade and yards on such targets since he came into the league, ranking behind only Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph in each category. That, however, is part of the problem with Hooper’s massive contract. Very rarely was he tasked with winning one-on-one, and Hooper’s play dropped off significantly when he was. Hooper ranks 32nd among 40 qualifying tight ends since 2016 in PFF receiving grade against single coverage. Hooper will have great production in Kevin Stefanski’s scheme, but there’s no value in paying a tight end that much who can really only produce on underneath routes.

T – Jack Conklin, Cleveland Browns

Contract: Three-years, $42 million ($30 million guaranteed)

Was it worth it? Injuries derailed Jack Conklin's 2018 season — starting with a torn ACL at the end of 2017 — which resulted in the Titans declining his fifth-year option and allowing him become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Based off his 2019 campaign, they probably wish they had that one back. Conklin finished the year as one of the 10 highest-graded and most valuable tackles in the NFL. Cleveland’s right tackle last year, Chris Hubbard, was the sixth-lowest-graded tackle of 2019 and actually performed below a replacement-level player. Throw in the fact Conklin owned the sixth-best zone run-blocking grade last year, which fits Kevin Stefanski’s rushing attack to a T, and this move becomes that much better.

iOL – Andrus Peat, New Orleans Saints

Contract: Five-years, $57.5 million ($33 million guaranteed)

Was it worth it? This contract came straight out of left field. When splitting time between left tackle and left guard in 2015, 2016 and 2017, Peat was an average offensive lineman. He performed at his best when at tackle, as he owns a career grade at that alignment of 72.5. Peat then moved to solely left guard in 2018 and put up back-to-back season grades below 50.0, en route to a two-year grade that is dead last among offensive guards. Peat’s total WAR in that span among guards is the second-lowest and far below replacement-player level. No left guard had ever received $33 million guaranteed in a deal until Andrus Peat. That’s pretty remarkable.

DI – Javon Hargrave, Philadelphia Eagles

Contract: Three-years, $39 million ($26 million guaranteed)

Was it worth it? Playing alongside guys like Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave has flown under-the-radar and become one of the league’s most undervalued players. His PFF overall grade over the last two seasons is among the 10 best for an interior defensive lineman. In 2019 specifically, Hargrave really took his pass-rushing to new heights. He posted a 76.8 pass-rush grade, ranking 10th at his position, and a pressure rate of 14.2%, which ranked behind only elite players Aaron Donald and Chris Jones. With the Eagles signing Hargrave, they now have the ninth and 11th most valuable interior defensive linemen and the 11th-most-valuable edge defender on their defensive line. That’s going to be one of the most ferocious matchups for any offensive line in 2020, and this wasn’t a bad price to pay for it.

EDGE – Arik Armstead, San Francisco 49ers

Contract: Five-years, $85 million ($48.5 million guaranteed)

Was it worth it? Arik Armstead saw limited action in the first three seasons of his NFL career from 2015-17, playing fewer than 400 snaps each year and performing pretty average as a pass-rusher. His pass-rush grade in that stretch sat right at the 50th percentile. Armstead then went on to rank 35th of 101 edge defenders in pass-rush grade in 2018 and 27th of 106 in 2019. Armstead is a good player and tremendous athlete, but he is now getting an average $17 million per year — among the 10 highest-paid edge defenders — yet he hasn’t proven to be an elite pass-rusher. He’s a safe, reliable player you’d want on your line, but not for that kind of cheddar.

LB – Cory Littleton, Las Vegas Raiders

Contract: Three-years, $35.25 million ($22 million guaranteed)

Was it worth it? Run-stuffing off-ball linebackers are not what you want to pay for in free agency. Off-ball linebackers who are great in coverage are what you want to pay for and that’s precisely what Cory Littleton has been these last two seasons. Littleton’s two-year coverage grade ranks behind only Lavonte David for the best at the position, and he's made more plays on the ball than anyone. As an added bonus, Littleton is perhaps the best tackler at his position, missing just one of his 126 tackling attempts in 2019. The Raiders got a good one in Littleton and formed one of the best linebacker tandems in the league with the signing of Nick Kwiatkoski.

CB – Byron Jones, Miami Dolphins

Contract: Five-years, $82.5 million ($57 million guaranteed)

Was it worth it? Byron Jones was good but not an elite safety in the NFL during the first three seasons of his career from 2015 to 2017. He then moved to the outside in 2018 and has been the NFL’s second-most-valuable cornerback behind only Stephon Gilmore. Brian Flores lives and dies by man-to-man coverage — a philosophy taken from his previous coaching staff in New England with Bill Belichick. Miami’s man coverage usage rate is actually among the three highest in the NFL, and they got themselves arguably the best press-man corner in the league in Byron Jones.

Jones has played more coverage snaps in press-man coverage than anyone else and posted the third-best coverage grade on such reps the last two seasons. Among outside cornerbacks to line up in press at least 250 times since 2018, Jones ranks second in yards per coverage snap. He’ll receive nearly $10 million more guaranteed than any other cornerback in the NFL, and considering the positional value as well as how great of a player he has been, Byron Jones is fully worth it.

S – Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers

Contract: Three-years, $28.5 million ($17 million guaranteed)

Was it worth it? After missing well over half of his career games due to various injuries and never producing a coverage grade above 70.0, Jimmie Ward had a huge prove-it year ahead of him in 2019. He then went on to produce an 80.9 coverage grade and rank as the 10th most valuable safety on the season. Ward bounced all over the place prior to 2019, spending some time primarily at outside corner, then some time primarily in the slot before finding the perfect balance in 2019 between deep safety, the box and the slot.

When fully healthy last season, Ward allowed minimal big plays in any single game. He never allowed more than 30 yards in a single game nor did he allow any more than two catches. His athleticism was put on display when healthy, locking down the middle of the field and flying in on catches. Ward certainly proved his worth in 2019 and is a great player to bring back given the value he brings to the table.


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