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5 worst NFL interior defender contracts

NEW ORLEANS, LA - SEPTEMBER 20: Gerald McCoy #93 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates after a play during a game against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 20, 2015 in New Orleans Louisiana. The Buccaneers defeated the Saints 26-19. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Acquiring interior defenders that can stop the run and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks is of high importance in today’s NFL. However, acquiring such talent at a rate commensurate with production should be the ultimate goal in the league’s salary-cap structure, where high-end dollars are often needed for securing elite production at more prominent positions such as quarterback, receiver, edge rusher, or in the secondary. Below we give the bottom five interior defender contracts (with rookie deals excluded).

[Editor’s note: All cap numbers are from Over the Cap. To see the best five interior defender deals, click here.]

1. Corey Liuget, San Diego Chargers

Years remaining on current deal: Five 

Average remaining cap hit: $9.75 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2017

Despite producing just the 20th-best grade among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014 (and grading negatively in 2013), the Chargers signed Liuget to a five-year, $51.25 million deal in the 2015 offseason. Liuget responded with a mediocre 2015 season, posting the 77th-best grade among interior defenders (68.9). He finished 18th among 3-4 defensive ends in run-stop percentage (8.8) and 40th in pass-rushing productivity (4.6) in 2015, a year after finishing 12th and 15th in the same categories. A foot injury limited him to 451 snaps last season, the lowest total of his career.

It’s difficult to see Liuget ever being able to produce at a level commensurate with his current deal, since he’s currently the seventh-highest-paid 3-4 defensive end and hasn’t yet finished above eighth in that group in terms cumulative grades (and he finished eighth way back in 2012). The San Diego Chargers are not a team with a significant amount of talent up and down their roster (they had the worst total grade of all 32 NFL teams last season), making every dollar paid above production level to a player like Liuget even more detrimental to their cause.

2. Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Years remaining on current deal: Six

Average remaining cap hit: $12.99 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2018

The Buccaneers rewarded McCoy with a seven-year, $95.2 million contract extension midway through the 2014 campaign, and for good reason—he finished second, first, and second among defensive tackles in cumulative grades during his 2012–2014 campaigns. His pass-rushing productivity of 11.1 in 2013 and 9.4 in 2014 finished first and fifth, respectively, among defensive tackles. However, 2015 was a different story for the former top-three pick; he finished 65th among interior defenders in total grading (73.0), and was especially poor against the run (46.6).

There’s always a risk to signing a player to the type of deal McCoy received, and there have been some reports that his work ethic left something to be desired last year (he’s denied said reports). Unfortunately, if the trend continues with McCoy, Tampa Bay has little in the way of flexibility regarding his contract until 2018; if they cut McCoy at any point before then, they are on the hook for at least $13.74 million in dead money. The new coaching staff in Tampa Bay will therefore need to work to get McCoy back to 2012–2014 levels in order to come close to receiving the top-three value his contract represents moving forward.

3. Marcell Dareus, Buffalo Bills

Years remaining on current deal: Six

Average remaining cap hit: $15.86 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2020

Unlike McCoy, Dareus had a good season last year, finishing 17th among interior defenders with an overall grade of 87.6. His run-stop percentage of 10.3 was 12th among defensive tackles last season, helping him to a run-defense grade of 90.5 (seventh among interior defenders). He has graded positively in all five of his pro seasons, and still represents a significant force along the Buffalo front seven.

The problem with Dareus’ situation is that the terms of his contract require him to be as good (or better) than he’s been during the course of his career for the Bills to get their money’s worth, and he showed signs of decline in 2015. His run-stop percentage dropped from sixth and fifth in 2013 and 2014, respectively, to 12th last season. As a pass-rusher, he finished 35th in pass-rushing productivity (5.1) in 2015, which was down from 6.5 (24th) in 2014 and 7.9 (12th) in 2013. He’s currently the second-highest-paid 4-3 defensive tackle, with enough dead money in his contract to make any transaction unlikely until at least 2020. The Bills are surely hoping for a return to 2013–2014 production levels for Dareus. Anything less leaves Buffalo paying for substantially more than it's getting on the interior of the defense—at least until 2020.

4. Desmond Bryant, Cleveland Browns

Years remaining on current deal: Two

Average remaining cap hit: $7.5 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2016

Bryant was better in 2015 than he was the previous two seasons, where he graded negatively both overall and against the run. However, he still finished 54th among interior defenders in overall grade last season (75.0), despite having the fifth-highest salary of all 3-4 DEs. He finished 2015 with the 22th-best run-stop percentage (8.1) of that group, and the 14th-best mark in pass-rushing productivity (8.7).

Bryant’s contract is not a burden on the Browns the way that McCoy's and Dareus’ are on the Buccaneers and the Bills, respectively, as he can be released at any point with minimal repercussions ($2 million or less in dead money over the next two years). That said, there’s little in the way of evidence to suggest that he’ll produce at his current salary’s value for the Browns in 2016 or 2017 (should he stay that long). The Browns no doubt will eventually look to upgrade at the position, with the possibility of packaging a subset of the impressive collection of future draft picks to acquire substantial talent in subsequent offseasons.

5. Earl Mitchell, Miami Dolphins

Years remaining on current deal: Two

Average remaining cap hit: $4 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2016

Playing alongside Ndamukong Suh in 2015, Mitchell struggled mightily, finishing 97th among interior defensive linemen with a 64.1 overall grade. He was especially weak against the run, finishing 60th among defensive tackles with a 4.2 run-stop percentage (for an overall run-defense grade of 34.2). He didn’t grade positively after Week 8 of 2015, accumulating just three stops and four pressures during that stretch.

Like Bryant, Mitchell’s contract is not an onerous one for the Dolphins, as he is due—at most—$1 million in dead money were he to be cut at any point over the next two seasons. That said, Mitchell has never finished higher than 30th in overall grading among defensive tackles during any point in his career, and yet his salary is currently 16th among 4-3 defensive tackles on a per-year basis. With the Dolphins allocating significant resources to Suh for the foreseeable future, it’s probably not the best use of resources to pay Mitchell like an above-average interior defender, especially given that they’re making a similarly questionable move by paying Mario Williams $17 million over two years to replace Olivier Vernon.

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