5 worst NFL wide receiver contracts

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 06: Demaryius Thomas #88 of the Denver Broncos reacts to scoring a touchdown during the first quarter of a game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on December 6, 2015 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The passing game is increasingly the means by which successful NFL teams move the football offensively. With this, finding talent and production at the wide receiver position is as important as it has ever been. The scarcity of resources available to each team places intrinsic penalties on franchises that overspend to acquire talent. Teams can be especially prone to this behavior at the receiver position, where memories of statistics long past can cloud judgement moving forward. Below we give the bottom five wide receiver contracts (with rookie deals excluded). 

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

1. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos

Years remaining on current deal: Four

Average remaining cap hit: $14.2 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2018

No player on the Broncos' offense was affected more by the decline of Peyton Manning than Demaryius Thomas, who went from a player with a top-five wide receiver grade in 2014 to one with the 49th-best (75.8) in 2015. While he’s always been a player with a high drop rate, it worsened last season, plunging to 59th among wide receivers (10.26 percent). The fourth-most targeted WR in the league still flashed the ability after the catch (fifth-best with 19 missed tackles, sixth-best with 492 yards after the catch) that has been his calling card, suggesting some pieces are in place for a rebound in 2016.

On the other hand, the Broncos go into 2016 with substantial uncertainty at the quarterback position, bringing into question the wisdom of having a WR with a top-five contract who will probably not produce at a top-five level. With just roughly $2.6 million in cap room for 2016, the Broncos are also currently in negotiations with edge defender Von Miller for a long-term deal. A major impediment has been how much guaranteed money to give Miller, which has no doubt been affected by how committed they are to Thomas over the next four years. However, the Broncos are projected to receive a significant cap relief next offseason, meaning a coexistence of Miller and Thomas is doable, if not necessarily economically efficient. An interesting question remains regarding how Thomas’ deal coincides with Emmanuel Sanders’ (the 13th-highest graded wide receiver in 2015) future in Denver. Sanders’ first deal (three years, $15 million) expires at the conclusion of the 2016 season, and was signed before he became one of the NFL’s best receivers. In his next crack at free agency, he will probably command a contract with money similar to Thomas’ deal. Are the Broncos willing to allocate that many resources to the receiver position moving forward?

2. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys

Years remaining on current deal: Four

Average remaining cap hit: $15.75 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2018

Much like Thomas, Dez Bryant struggled from inadequate quarterback play in 2015. Also like Thomas, Bryant suffered from a decline in the quality of his own play. After returning from a broken foot in Week 1, he caught just 26 of the 61 passes thrown his way (42.6 percent), with as many drops (six) as touchdowns and missed tackles forced combined. The 42.6 QB rating on passes directed his way was the worst among qualifying wide receivers last season, while his drop rate of 18.42 was fourth-worst. It’s fair to believe that 2015 was simply an aberration for Bryant and the Cowboys, though, as he was a top-five graded receiver in 2014, with a 2.67 yards per route run mark that ranked fifth in the league.

On the other hand, 2014 was Bryant’s only season as a top-five-graded wide receiver—with his drop rates not having cracked the top 25 since 2011. Despite this, his contract is that of a top-five WR, a full $1 million per season and $5 million total above that of T.Y. Hilton, the sixth-highest paid wide receiver in the league. The Cowboys are projected to be over the salary cap after the 2016 season, as big cap numbers for superstars like LT Tyron Smith, as well as that for overpaid players like Tony Romo, are set to coincide with that of Bryant, whose deal offers absolutely no cap relief were he to be released prior to the 2017 season. Given the composition of the Cowboys' roster, they are clearly hedging their bets that the Bryant they got in 2014 will be the Bryant they are getting moving forward. It will be interesting to see if they get that player, who garnered a 121.2 passer rating on throws in his direction that season, including 16 touchdowns.

3. Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Years remaining on current deal: One 

Average remaining cap hit: $12.21 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2016

After three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, Jackson was hampered by injury in his fourth season in Tampa Bay. The 11-year veteran and ninth-highest-paid wide receiver in the league was limited to just 57 targets in his inaugural campaign with Jameis Winston, and those targets were turned into just 543 yards and three touchdowns. These numbers continued a monotonic decline in Jackson’s production since arriving in Tampa Bay, with his yardage totals going from 1,384 (2012), 1,224 (2013), 1,002 (2014), to 543 (2015), respectively. While the deep ball has always been a part of his game, his deep receptions have also fallen, decreasing from 17 (2012) to six (2015) in that timespan.

While Jackson is certainly on the downside of his career, he was arguably more effective than teammate Mike Evans last season, in terms of both drop rate (2.94 to 16.85) and quarterback rating on passes in his direction (92.9 to 71.5). Evans has quite a bit more upside at this point, in terms of efficiency (his 2.37 yards per route run were eighth last season among wide receivers) and age (he’ll be 23 when the 2016 season starts). Luckily for the Buccaneers, Evans is still under his rookie contract and Jackson has just one more season on his, with relatively little in the way of a cap hit should he be released at any point before the season begins. Given the lack of depth at receiver after their top two, the Buccaneers would still be well-served to go into next season with Jackson teaming with Evans, with the caveat being that they may again get production far below what they are paying for from Jackson.

4. Michael Crabtree, Oakland Raiders

Years remaining on current deal: Four

Average remaining cap hit: $8.5 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2017

A fantastic value free-agent signing a year ago, Crabtree settled in nicely as Oakland’s No. 2 wide receiver by catching 85 of 143 Derek Carr targets for almost 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns, earning the 39th-best grade among NFL wide receivers last season (78.8). He didn’t rack up his first negatively-graded game until Week 11, and his 17 missed tackles forced were eighth-best among WRs last year.

Empowered by an offseason in which they had enough money to sign Kelechi Osemele, Sean Smith, Bruce Irvin, and Reggie Nelson, the Raiders handed out a four-year, $34 million-deal to Crabtree, which includes a cap hit of $11 million this season (up from his $3.2 million last year). $11 million is a big number for most wide receivers, but especially one that failed to grade positively in six of the last seven games last year, wherein he dropped five passes and fumbled once. The silver lining in this contract is that the deal contains no dead money after 2016—the mark of a player signing with a team which has a surplus of cash on hand. If Crabtree struggles, he can be released relatively easily in subsequent offseasons. The problem is that if he stays in Oakland, he’ll have to play consistently at or around what has been his career peak to justify the numbers in his contract moving forward, a scenario that seems unlikely given his age (28) and injury history.

5. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals

Years remaining on current deal: One

Average remaining cap hit: $15.85 million ($4.85 prorated for 2017 and 2018, as well)

Year he can realistically be cut: N/A (his contract is automatically voided after the 2016 season, where his entire salary is guaranteed)

Larry Fitzgerald is the perfect case study in the need to weigh the cost of production, as the Cardinal has definitely been productive, even into the twilight stage of his career. His 90.3 overall grade last season was ninth among wide receivers, with his hands (2.68 drop rate, fourth-best among wide receivers) and efficiency (2.19 yards per route run, 12th-best among WRs) defying the effects of age. He even chipped in with the best blocking grade of his career, often serving as something of an additional tight end in Arizona's running game.

With all that said, Fitzgerald’s contract has been, and will continue to be, a burden on the Cardinals’ cap situation. Even though he is not under contract for the 2017 and 2018 seasons, he will still account for $9.7 million in dead money those two years. With Arizona boasting young talent in Michael Floyd, John Brown, and J.J. Nelson on the outside, it appears as though 2016 will be Fitzgerald’s last with the Cardinals. With only so many snaps to go around, it would make sense to ease Fitzgerald slightly from the rotation offensively moving forward. However, such an easement would leave an $11 million wide receiver on the bench. Will those financial pressures keep Fitzgerald on the field? If he continues to play like he did in 2015, will the Cardinals feel compelled to retain him beyond 2016 at a rate similar to this season’s, even if that means fewer opportunities for his heir apparents?

[More: Click here to see the five best wide receiver contracts in the NFL today.]

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