News & Analysis

5 worst NFL quarterback contracts

By Nathan Jahnke
Jun 27, 2016

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ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 3: Head Coach Jason Garrett and Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys on the sidelines during a preseason game against the Houston Texans at AT&T Stadium on September 3, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys defeated the Texans 21-14. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Today we begin a series on the best and worst contracts in the NFL by position, starting with the most overpaid quarterbacks. For each player named, we give the years remaining on his contract, the average cap hit he has against the team for the remaining years of his deal, and the season in which the team can cut him and have more cap savings than dead money.

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

1. Eli Manning, New York Giants

Years remaining: Four

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $22.3 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2019

At his best, Eli Manning was one of the top quarterbacks in the game, but the time where Manning’s play was elite didn’t last long. In 2011, he was the third-best quarterback in the NFL when you include the playoffs, but his PFF passing grade has been in decline every season since that point. In 2015, Manning recorded an overall PFF grade of 67.4, good for 26th-best out of 38 qualifying quarterbacks. At his best, the Giant was one of the best quarterbacks against pressure, but per Neil Hornsby, Manning has recently declined. He only had an NFL passer rating of 78.3 when under pressure in 2015, and it was even lower in 2014, at 65.4.

Prior to the 2015 season, the Giants gave Manning a four-year extension, which puts him among the top five quarterbacks in average cap hit per year. At that point, he was only playing like an average quarterback. They paid him like a top-tier QB, which looked more like a reward for him leading the team to two Super Bowl wins than paying him for what they expect him to do in future years. Because of that, the Giants are stuck with Manning for at least three more seasons, or will face a higher cap hit than cap savings if they cut him. Manning is 35, and if he continues on the path he’s on, he could become one of the NFL’s worst starting quarterbacks while getting paid like one of the best.

2. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

Years remaining: Six

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $25.1 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2019

Joe Flacco is another Super Bowl-winning quarterback who is getting paid more-so because he won a ring, rather than for how well he’s expected to perform going forward. Early in his career, he was an above-average QB, though never likely a top-10 signal-caller. In recent years, he has been much more unpredictable, with three of his worst four graded seasons coming in the past three years. Flacco recorded an NFL passer rating of 83.1 in 2015, which was the worst for quarterbacks with at least 400 dropbacks. In 2013, he was at 73.1, which was the worst for quarterbacks with at least 600 dropbacks.

Despite the poor recent play, the Ravens put their faith in Flacco by signing him to a three-year extension, which puts him under contract until 2021. The Ravens are stuck with Flacco for four more seasons where his dead money would exceed the cap savings Baltimore would get by letting him go. At least there is some reason to believe Flacco could return to being an above-average quarterback—like he was as recently as 2014—but he has the highest average cap hit per year for any quarterback, and he has never played close to that level.

3. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys

Years remaining: Four

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $23.6 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2018

This is another case of a good-but-not-elite quarterback getting paid like an elite signal-caller. The situation is worse now that Romo is 36, coming off a season full of injury and bad play, and is under contract for another four years.

In six of the last seven games Romo has played in, he’s graded very close to average, and in his most recent game against the Panthers, he was on pace for one of the worst games in the PFF era in just 22 dropbacks. In 2015, even when Romo wasn’t under pressure, he only recorded an NFL QB rating of 93.2, his lowest in the PFF era (since 2007). Romo is one of eight quarterbacks who has a cap hit above $20 million in 2016; in order for him to live up to his contract this next season, he would need to be just as good, if not better, than he’s been in recent years. It’s unlikely that a quarterback coming off an injury-filled season at his age will produce the best season of his career. Realistically, Romo will be overpaid for the next two years, and then the Cowboys could let him go in 2018 or 2019 if his performance declines.

4. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

Years remaining: Two

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $22.3 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2017

Matthew Stafford has produced an up-and-down career, and that continued to be true in 2015. After five weeks of the 2015 season, he was by far the lowest-graded quarterback in the NFL; from Week 6 and on, he was just outside the top-10 in passing grade. If Stafford was able to maintain the momentum he gained from a solid 2013 season, then his contract makes sense, but since then, we’ve seen more bad out of Stafford than good. If he keeps up his recent inconsistency, then he deserves to be paid like an average quarterback rather than a top-10 one—and there’s a big difference between how those two kinds of QBs should be compensated.

Stafford’s contract isn’t as bad as some others at the top of the list, thanks to his very recent good play, his younger age, and the fact that the Lions could cut him next year if they really wanted to, even though it would leave some dead money.

5. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers

Years remaining: Five

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $19.1 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2017

Colin Kaepernick has been on a sharp decline since his 2012 breakout season. In 2015, he was one of the least-accurate quarterbacks in the NFL, with an adjusted completion percentage of 68.3, third-worst in the league. When he was under pressure, he averaged just 3.6 yards per passing attempt. If he doesn’t end up starting for the 49ers in 2016, he will easily be among the lowest values per dollar of all players in the NFL in 2015.

Looking at the future cap hits, it would appear Kaepernick’s contract is just as bad—if not worse—than others. However, compared to Matthew Stafford above him, Kaepernick is making a lot less this year, and the 49ers can cut Kaepernick next year with an acceptable amount of dead money and a lot of cap savings. If the 49ers choose to keep Kaepernick for multiple years, they can release him in 2019 or 2020 and have no dead money from the release. Other quarterbacks on the list have much higher cap hits in future seasons, and their teams would have more dead money if they released their respective QBs.

No Brock Osweiler on the list?

Three weeks ago, colleague Sam Monson named the Texans’ signing of Brock Osweiler the worst move of the offseason, highlighting the gamble Houston is making by giving a QB with such little NFL starting experience that kind of money. Despite that roll of the dice, Osweiler’s contract (averaging a yearly cap hit of $18.0 million for the next four years) was not bad enough to make this list, comparatively speaking.

For one, he outplayed everyone on this list in 2015. His 71.3 overall grade was good for 20th among quarterbacks, while the five quarterbacks on the list were all below 70.0. His cap hit is lower than all five quarterbacks in both 2016 and 2017, and the Texans would be able to reasonably cut Osweiler in 2018. Osweiler is also younger than the quarterbacks on the list, so there is an expectation of an eventual/continued decline for some of these quarterbacks that isn’t there for Osweiler. In order for the former Bronco to live up to his new contract, he would just need to play a little better than he did in 2015. It might not be the most likely scenario, but it’s certainly possible. The likelihood of others on this list living up to how much they are making is much more unlikely.

[More: See the five best quarterback contracts here.]

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