As important as it is to find the right players, signing them to the right contracts can be just as crucial. General managers Dave Gettleman and John Dorsey were both shockingly let go in recent weeks from Carolina and Kansas City, respectively. The reports surrounding each firing suggested contractual missteps were involved. Every team wants to build its roster around cheap rookies and veterans who are making less than market value, but what is market value, anyway?
Let's try to define that today, and in doing so, we can figure out which teams often hand out deals that exceed market value and whether they're right to do so. I've gone through every multiyear contract I could find since the new collective bargaining agreement was signed in July 2011 and measured each deal's three-year value, which is the actual money a player would take home if he stayed on the roster for three seasons without departing or renegotiating his contract. Several NFL organizations use this metric as a simple measure of a contract's value.
The NFL's biggest three-year contract belongs to Andrew Luck, who will take home $75 million over that span in his extension. That's useful information, but it's not very helpful in setting the market for a right tackle or a punter. So I built a baseline three-year value for each position by taking the average of the top 20 contracts during this time frame at each spot. This includes both active and inactive contracts signed since 2011, because the latter still play a part in defining the market. In some cases, the biggest contracts at a position are ones that are no longer on the books. The top five running back contracts (led by Adrian Peterson) and top two wideout deals (Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald) aren't currently active, but they're used here to help set the baseline value.
Those baseline values range from $57,757,933 for quarterbacks to $2,904,166 for long snappers. (I lumped centers and guards as interior linemen, combined defensive ends with pass-rushing outside linebackers as edge rushers and mixed coverage linebackers with inside linebackers.) Luck's deal might be the biggest in the game, but once you account for the amount quarterbacks get paid, his three-year compensation falls in line as 29.9 percent above average.
As it turns out, Luck's deal comes in as the 26th-largest active contract after adjusting for positional value. Let's run through the 25 other deals and see what it tells us about the teams that signed them.
25. Mason Crosby, K, Packers
Three-year compensation: $12.5 million (30.8 percent over baseline)
Ted Thompson does an excellent job of keeping his contracts at or below market value; this is the only active Packers extension that even sniffs this list. Aaron Rodgers' contract, which paid out $60.8 million over its first three seasons, ranks 10th among quarterbacks. The Packers will likely extend Rodgers no later than next offseason, a spring that could also include new deals for Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
24. Kelechi Osemele, G, Raiders
Three-year compensation: $38 million (30.8 percent over baseline)
The Raiders gave Osemele a $58.5 million, five-year deal during the 2016 offseason, then followed it up by paying Gabe Jackson $56 million on a five-year extension this summer. Oakland's starting guards will have a combined cap hit of $24 million this season, which sounds incredible until you realize that the Browns have committed more than $29 million to their guards. Nobody else in the NFL tops $20 million.
23. Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers
Three-year compensation: $48.91 million (30.9 percent over baseline)
Brown's deal is the only wide receiver contract on this list. The market is skewed by virtue of the fact that the two largest post-CBA deals are from 2011 (Larry Fitzgerald, $51 million) and 2012 (Calvin Johnson, $51.755 million). Each of those contracts maxed out in excess of $113 million, but the biggest active wideout deal is the five-year, $71 million contract given to Julio Jones. It's not clear those deals worked out. The Cardinals have needed to restructure the Fitz deal twice and will owe $4.9 million in dead money on their cap after Fitzgerald hits free agency this offseason. Brown's deal seems far more likely to work out.
22. Cordy Glenn, T, Bills
Three-year compensation: $41.25 million (31.2 percent over baseline)
The Bills are the only team in the league with three players in the top 25, and a fourth (Patrick DiMarco) just narrowly misses the list at 29. All four of those contracts were handed out under the tenure of general manager Doug Whaley, who did not lack for largesse before being fired in April. Consider that the Bills gave Glenn $5.3 million more than the Vikings gave 2012 classmate Riley Reiff, who signed one year later and as a true unrestricted free agent. Glenn is a good player, but this is a huge deal for someone who has yet to make a Pro Bowl.
21. Gerald McCoy, DT, Buccaneers
Three-year compensation: $44.7 million (34.4 percent over baseline)
There are six defensive tackles in the NFL who make far more than the rest of the league's interior linemen and crash this list. McCoy got paid first, signing his deal in October 2014, when the former third overall pick was nearly two seasons away from requiring a franchise tag, let alone hitting unrestricted free agency. The Bucs structured McCoy's old CBA rookie deal with a small sixth year, which always made it likely McCoy would negotiate a new contract before that final season, but McCoy has the smallest contract of the big six because he took his money first.
20. Reshad Jones, S, Dolphins
Three-year compensation: $33 million (34.6 percent over baseline)
You can understand why the Dolphins wanted to re-sign Jones, a good safety who was entering the final season of the four-year, $28 million extension he signed in August 2013. At this price, though, Jones is probably overpaid. He's made one Pro Bowl in seven seasons and hasn't sniffed a first-team All-Pro nod. Eric Weddle is older, but he's been more successful and got less money in true unrestricted free agency. Devin McCourty is younger than Jones, has played cornerback and free safety, and the same is true for him. The Dolphins had a year of contractual control and still gave Jones more than the Ravens handed to Tony Jefferson, who could negotiate with 32 teams and is more than four years younger. Jones' deal is also structured in such a way that the Dolphins are basically guaranteed to pay him through 2019. He's not going to suddenly be bad, but this is a top-three contract for a player who just hasn't been a top-three safety.
19. Kevin Zeitler, G, Browns
Three-year compensation: $38 million (34.7 percent over baseline)
After Osemele reset the guard market during 2016 free agency, Zeitler's new deal raised the bar by an additional $1.1 million exactly one year later. The first $40 million guard is on his way. It could be Carolina's Trai Turner, who has made back-to-back Pro Bowls and just turned 24 in June. If Turner doesn't get there, star Cowboys guard Zack Martin will surely do so when he negotiates an extension to stay in Dallas, which could come as early as this summer.
18. Malik Jackson, DT, Jaguars
Three-year compensation: $45 million (35.3 percent over baseline)
While unquestionably talented, Jackson is a far less accomplished player than McCoy. Jackson is nearly two years younger, but he had been a starter for only one year in Denver before piecing together a hot playoff run. He has never made a Pro Bowl. McCoy has made five consecutive Pro Bowls, was a first-team All-Pro nod in 2013, and is a better pass-rusher, which teams pay a premium for from interior linemen. But because Jackson hit unrestricted free agency 15 months after McCoy signed his deal, Jackson's three-year contract is bigger.
17. Marquette King, P, Raiders
Three-year compensation: $10.75 million (36.7 percent over baseline)
The second of two Raiders on the list, King is arguably the best-known punter in football. The extension King signed to stay with Oakland in 2016 soars past the baseline three-year mark of $7.9 million. The results since? After King and the punting unit ranked fourth in field position gained per Football Outsiders' statistics in 2015, the Raiders tied for 22nd in the same category last season, even as King averaged 4.1 additional yards per punt.
16. Charles Clay, TE, Bills
Three-year compensation: $29 million (37.5 percent over baseline)
There might not be a worse contract in football than the five-year, $38 million deal Whaley used to extricate Clay from the Dolphins as a restricted free agent. The Bills gave Clay a $10 million signing bonus in Year 1 and a $10 million roster bonus that the team converted to a signing bonus in Year 2 for cap reasons. As a result, the Bills ensured they would be keeping Clay on the roster for four years, given that they won't realize any cap savings by cutting or trading Clay until 2019, when they'll owe $4.5 million in dead money.
At his best, Clay was a useful tight end, but he has played through knee injuries since arriving in Buffalo that aren't going away. This is the exact sort of downside risk teams try to avoid by keeping guarantees within the first two years of contracts. The Bills signed themselves up for that risk and ended up with a contract that was almost immediately underwater. It's a reminder of how bad organizations trick themselves into making foolish decisions.
15. Luke Kuechly, LB, Panthers
Three-year compensation: $34.76 million (38.4 percent over baseline)
Kuechly, on the other hand, was the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and made it onto the All-Pro first team three consecutive times before missing the final six games of 2016 with a concussion. His deal would be even bigger if it weren't for the fact that he signed virtually two full years away from free agency. The Panthers still paid a premium to lock him up; they could have gone year-to-year with Kuechly and paid just $27.7 million from 2015 to 2017 to keep him in tow. They even could have franchised Kuechly twice and paid him $45.2 million for four years, not much more than the $42.7 million he'll actually make from the first four years of his extension.
14. Trent Williams, LT, Redskins
Three-year compensation: $43.91 million (39.3 percent over baseline)
This compensation figure reflects the $6.5 million base salary Williams was expected to receive in 2016; the Oklahoma product saw his pay slashed by $1.6 million and his 2017 guarantees voided after being suspended for four games. Williams will end up receiving his 2017 pay in full anyway, resulting in a massive deal, with more than $20 million in bonuses over the first two years alone. Williams is an excellent player -- he has made five straight Pro Bowls -- but the left tackle has just two full, 16-game seasons to his name in seven years as a pro.
13. Dustin Colquitt, P, Chiefs
Three-year compensation: $11 million (39.9 percent over baseline)
Under Andy Reid, the Chiefs have placed a premium on special teams, a unit led by coach Dave Toub, almost universally regarded as the best special-teams coordinator in the game. One of the first things they did after Toub arrived was lock up Colquitt on a five-year, $18.8 million extension. Colquitt's $4.9 million cap hit in 2017, the final year of the deal, is the largest for any punter in the league. Colquitt has delivered, though, leading a Chiefs punting unit that has ranked in the top five each of the past three seasons.
12. Josh Norman, CB, Redskins
Three-year compensation: $51 million (40.7 percent over baseline)
Norman hit unrestricted free agency well after the signing period had begun, which usually means a smaller contract, simply because there aren't many organizations -- or much money -- left to bid. The former Panthers star is an exception to that rule. His five-year, $75 million deal guaranteed him $36.5 million at signing, and the $51 million figure blows away any active cornerback deal. The second-biggest active cornerback contract is Stephon Gilmore's pact with the Patriots, which pays him $41,968,750 over its first three seasons. Washington can bail on the Norman deal after two seasons and $37 million if it goes really poorly, but it would still owe $9 million in dead money on its 2018 cap.
11. Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks
Three-year compensation: $30 million (42.2 percent over baseline)
This is a contract handed out by notable Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who might have dominated this list as recently as 2015. The Graham deal was a product of necessity. Even after the tight end's grievance to be classified as a wide receiver for purposes of the franchise tag was denied, New Orleans still wanted to find a way to reduce Graham's 2014 cap hit while locking him up to a long-term contract. As always, the Saints just elected to push their cap problems down the line, as they would do with the contracts handed out to the likes of Junior Galette and Jairus Byrd. Graham's deal was a record average for tight ends at $10 million per season, and by settling for a four-year contract, Graham will be a free agent again after this year, his age-30 season.
10. Von Miller, OLB, Broncos
Three-year compensation: $61.1 million (42.5 percent over baseline)
Pass-rushers get paid more than anybody else in football besides quarterbacks these days, so it's really telling that Miller makes it this far up the list. The second-largest three-year figure for a pass-rusher is $54 million, which both Muhammad Wilkerson and Olivier Vernon hit when they signed contracts last offseason. At minimum, given its structure, this is a four-year, $78.6 million contract. It set the bar for edge rushers, and unless someone else of Miller's caliber is willing to wait until the sixth year of his career (or the fifth year for a non-first-round pick) to sign a long-term deal, $61.1 million is going to be a difficult number to top.
9. Stephen Gostkowski, K, Patriots
Three-year compensation: $13.7 million (43.3 percent over baseline)
I'll get to Gostkowski in a moment.
8. Fletcher Cox, DT, Eagles
Three-year compensation: $47.8 million (43.7 percent over baseline)
The next member of the big six, Cox made his millions by developing as an interior pass-rusher. The Mississippi State product was underperforming as recently as 2014, racking up just seven quarterback hits despite playing 921 defensive snaps. Cox turned things around in 2015, leading the Eagles with 9.5 sacks and 20 knockdowns, and he followed that up with a solid 6.5-sack, 14-hit season during Jim Schwartz's first year in town. Schwartz relies heavily on getting pressure with his front four without blitzing, making his hay with interior disruptors such as Albert Haynesworth and Marcell Dareus in years past. It's not hyperbole to suggest the Eagles build their entire defense around Cox.
7. Justin Tucker, K, Ravens
Three-year compensation: $13.75 million (43.8 percent over baseline)
I don't think anybody would argue that Gostkowski and Tucker are among the best kickers in football, although their divergent 2016 seasons show how difficult it can be to ensure reliable kicking, even by spending serious money. Tucker had an incredible year, going 38-of-39 without missing an extra point. He was worth more than twice as much as any other kicker in football. Gostkowski had a frustrating -- and uncharacteristic -- league-average season, although he got better as the year went along and made all eight of his field goals during the playoffs. He was also excellent on kickoffs, but teams aren't paying a premium for kickoff specialists given the league's current rules.
6. Jamie Collins, LB, Browns
Three-year compensation: $37.5 million (49.3 percent over baseline)
Collins' representation likely knew Cleveland was desperate to re-sign him after acquiring him from New England for a third-rounder. He was able to extract a very generous deal from the talent-needy Browns as a result. Both Collins and former teammate Dont'a Hightower picked up four-year deals this offseason, but Collins got $50 million with $37.5 million spread over the first three seasons. Hightower will stay in New England for $35.5 million, with $27.4 million coming due over Years 1 through 3. Even accounting for the likelihood that the Patriots got some sort of discount with Hightower and the lowly Browns have to pay a premium to attract talent, there's an enormous financial gap between those two deals.
5. Kawann Short, DT, Panthers
Three-year compensation: $52 million (56.3 percent over baseline)
4. Marcell Dareus, DT, Bills
Three-year compensation: $53.15 million (59.8 percent over baseline)
The bronze and silver medalists of the big six, Dareus finishes ahead of Short only on paper thanks to the four-game suspension he incurred during the 2016 season. Dareus lost more than $3.3 million as part of his suspension, but again, the Bills couldn't have known that Dareus would miss a drug test and offer them a partial refund.
These two deals ended up similar, but they shouldn't have. Dareus signed his contract nearly two years before Short, which suggests the Bills star should have a smaller deal for reasons of cap inflation alone. Dareus was also entering the fifth year of his rookie deal, while Short was about to enter his first season under the franchise tag, meaning Short was one year closer to free agency. If these two teams went year-to-year with their respective stars, Buffalo would have owed Dareus just $37,618,082 during the first three years of what became his extension, while Carolina would be on the hook for paying Short $52,902,304. Doug Whaley wasn't a bad player evaluator at all, especially given the bevy of street free agents who came into their own in Buffalo. But he consistently failed to properly value players.
3. Eric Berry, S, Chiefs
Three-year compensation: $42.5 million (73.4 percent over baseline)
The rest of these deals are each huge leaps upon the previous contracts in the rankings. If Zeitler reset the guard market, Berry built a brand new market altogether. Outside of the aforementioned Reshad Jones, no other safety in football has a three-year value in excess of $30 million, let alone the $42.5 million mark Berry hit in his new deal with the Chiefs. Berry made a Joe Flacco-esque bet on himself and won, turning down smaller contracts before delivering the best season of his career. He's certainly the best safety in the AFC when healthy and could push Earl Thomas for the nod as best safety alive.
Is it a good deal? It depends on what your definition of a good contract is. The best NFL contracts provide surplus value, which is why it's so incredible to have an above-average quarterback such as Dak Prescott on the cap for $635,848 when he would easily get $25 million a year in free agency. There's no way the Berry deal can return surplus value. Even at his best, as was the case in 2016, Berry wasn't so much better than any other safety in the league as would be needed to justify this sort of contract. In terms of locking up great talent, the Chiefs have retained a guy with a legitimate Hall of Fame case in the prime of his career. The injuries are a concern, but players like Berry almost never hit free agency ...
2. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Dolphins
Three-year compensation: $60 million (80.4 percent over baseline)
... I say almost never because of Ndamukong Suh, a future Hall of Famer who hit the free-agent market at 28 by virtue of the Lions' being bad and amassing useful top-five picks at a time when those picks cost an exorbitant sum of money. Suh had grown to be such a burden that the Lions ended up paying $9.7 million in dead money on their 2015 cap, which was Suh's first season in Miami. Even now, Suh makes as much as two star pass-rushers on other teams. You can fit the first three years of the extensions handed to J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus combined under $60 million with room to spare.
If you want to get a sense of what top-tier talent is truly worth in the NFL, though, Suh is the best example we have of how dominant players are underpaid. His deal is way above even the other members of the big six -- and the Dolphins built the contract knowing they would restructure it in a dangerous way -- but Suh is as good of a bet as anyone in football. Even if Suh has lost some explosiveness, he's still good for 20 quarterback knockdowns and a run at the league lead in run tackles for loss on a near-annual basis. Suh also hasn't missed a game via injury as a pro, having sat out only two games in 2011 for stomping on Evan Smith. This is market value for a superstar.
1. Kyle Juszczyk, FB, 49ers
Three-year compensation: $15.45 million (202.4 percent over baseline)
Just a tiny rise in the percentage for our most expensive contract. For context, Andrew Luck has the biggest three-year quarterback contract at $75 million; to have a deal 202.4 percent higher than the quarterback baseline, he would need to become football's first $38 million quarterback and rack up nearly $117 million over the first three years of a contract. Juszczyk's contract is on a planet by itself.
I wrote about why Juszczyk hasn't been a notably effective fullback as a pro in March, but even if he were the best fullback in the league, this deal would be nuts. Only one other fullback, Marcel Reece, had previously received a deal worth $10 million over its first three seasons. Juszczyk is nearly $5.5 million past Reece's previous high-water mark. Kyle Shanahan's former fullback in Atlanta, Patrick DiMarco, signed a four-year deal with $6.6 million spread over the first three seasons. Juszczyk doubles that with room to spare. Could he really be that much better?
To be fair, there's a reasonable chance Juszczyk doesn't see $15.5 million. The 49ers can get out of this deal after two years and $10.8 million, which would be less impactful, if still nuts. Shanahan has suggested that he'll use Juszczyk as some sort of transcendent offensive weapon, but even if he were, the 49ers were negotiating against a league that would have valued Juszczyk as the fullback he's been. The risk here isn't enormous -- the 49ers aren't contending in 2017, with or without Juszczyk -- but it's something to look out for as the combination of Shanahan and John Lynch make more meaningful decisions in the years to come.