The NFL’s financial landscape is being assessed through awards for the seventh straight year on CBSSports.com with the regular season in the books. These awards differ from the traditional NFL honors because they are from an economic perspective emphasizing 2019 veteran acquisitions.
Players acquired by trades or in free agency can have a tremendous impact on an NFL team‘s fortunes. Rookies weren’t given any consideration because their salaries are a function of draft position and the rookie wage scale. The same applies to players on restricted free agent tenders since the amounts are set by the NFL‘s Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Most Valuable Acquisition
The Titans were going nowhere fast with a 2-4 record before inserting Tannehill into the starting lineup. Tannehill along with a 2019 sixth round pick was acquired from the Dolphins for a 2019 seventh round pick and a 2020 fourth round pick during the offseason in case Marcus Mariota suffered another injury or faltered. To help facilitate the trade, Tannehill took a big pay cut in a contract renegotiation that saw his 2019 compensation drop from $18.75 million to $7 million, of which the Dolphins paid $5 million. The new deal allowed for Tannehill to make as much as $12 million because of incentives while also deleting his 2020 contract year for taking the pay cut. Tannehill earned an additional $3.175 million in incentives.
The Titans made the playoffs as an AFC wild card by going 7-3 with Tannehill as starting quarterback. Tannehill led the NFL with a 117.5 passer rating and 9.6 yards per pass attempt. He finished third in the league with a 70.3 completion percentage. The 117.5 passer rating is the fourth best single season mark in NFL history.
In the 10 games Tannehill was under center, Tennessee averaged 30.4 per points per game, which was the NFL’s fourth best during that time. The Titans were 28th at 16.3 points per game when Mariota was starting. Offensive yards also increased dramatically from 290.5 per game, which was 27th in the NFL, to the league’s third best at 406.2 yards in the games Tannehill started.
Tannehill was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for December. In five December games, Tannehill connected on 90 of 132 passes (68.2 completion percentage) for 1,322 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating was 124.6.
Least Valuable Acquisition
The Raiders gave the Steelers 2019 third and fifth round picks last March for arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver. As a part of the trade, Brown got an upgraded contract. He received an $11.2 million raise over the three remaining years of the four-year, $68 million contract extension he signed with the Steelers in 2017. He was scheduled to make $50.125 million over the three years with the potential of an additional $4 million through incentives in the new deal. The adjusted contract had $30.125 million fully guaranteed. The guaranteed money was Brown’s $14.625 million 2019 base salary, $14.5 million 2020 base salary, $500,000 2019 workout bonus and $500,000 2020 workout bonus. The $1 million of workout bonuses was treated like signing bonus for salary cap purposes and prorated over the three years because of being fully guaranteed at the signing of the adjusted deal.
Brown wore out his welcome in Oakland with his off-the-field antics before ever playing a down for the Raiders. He was released a day before the regular season started because of multiple breaches of his contract, which allowed the Raiders to void $29.625 million of guarantees. NFL contract guarantees void for a laundry list of reasons (suspensions under a league policy or by the team for conduct detrimental, failing or refusing to play, practice or report to the team, etc.). The conditions vary depending on team convention, the attention the agent pays to the language and his/her leverage in negotiations. In some cases, fines can trigger the voiding of guarantees.
Brown filed multiple grievances against the Raiders to collect the salary guarantees, one week’s salary of $860,294 and approximately $215,000 in fines he was assessed while in Oakland. The grievance is expected to be heard during the upcoming offseason. Brown’s best chance for a favorable decision is with the one week of salary because his release occurred after the close of business on Tuesday that week.
The Raiders currently have a 2020 salary cap charge of $666,667 from the workout bonus proration. Assuming the expected outcome of the grievances where the arbitrator rules in favor of Brown for the one week payment, the Raiders should come out with a $139,706 credit on the 2020 salary cap. There should be a $333,333 credit for the 2019 cap charge relating to the workout bonuses. Brown didn’t earn the first $500,000 because of a lack of participation in the workout program. A $666,667 credit should also be given for the existing 2020 cap charge.
Brown’s implosion led to a chain reaction of events at wide receiver. The Raiders were forced to rely on Tyrell Williams, who was slowed by a foot injury, and 2019 fifth round pick Hunter Renfrow more heavily. The duo combined for 91 catches, 1,256 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. That type of production would have been a “down year” by Brown’s standards. The Raiders gave up more draft capital during the season to try to improve the wide receiving corps. Trevor Davis was acquired from the Packers for a 2020 sixth round pick. A 2021 fifth round pick was given to the Bills for Zay Jones.
It’s impossible to know how the Raiders’ draft plans would have changed without trading for Brown. Wide receivers A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf were still available when cornerback Trayvon Mullen was selected in the second round with the 40th overall pick. The third round pick sent to Pittsburgh was the 66th overall pick. The Redskins took wide receiver Terry McLaurin 10 spots later.
Offensive Signing of the Year
Ingram left the Saints after eight years to join the Ravens on a three-year, $15 million deal with $6.5 million fully guaranteed. He became an excellent complement to quarterback Lamar Jackson, the presumptive 2019 NFL MVP, in Baltimore’s historic rushing attack, which set a single season record with 3,296 yards.
Ingram and Derrick Henry are the only two players to rush for at least 1,000 yards (1,018) and have at least 10 rushing touchdowns while also averaging five yards or more per carry this season. He had five other scores on receptions to rank fourth in the NFL with 15 touchdowns. Ingram was named to the Pro Bowl on the original ballot for the second time in his career this season.
Runner Up: John Brown (WR)-Bills
Defensive Signing of the Year
Second year Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst revamped Green Bay’s defense by being much more aggressive in free agency than Ted Thompson, his predecessor, ever was. Outside linebackers Za’Darius and Preston Smith, who are known as the “Smith Brothers” although unrelated, were signed to four-year deals worth $66 million and $52 million respectively to provide a pass rush. The Smith Brothers combined for 25.5 sacks, a Packers single season record for a duo. Za’Darius had 13.5 sacks to rank sixth in the NFL while Preston wasn’t far behind with 12, which was eighth. They are the only pair of teammates to each hit the 12 sack mark this season.
Runner Up: Tyrann Mathieu (S)-Chiefs
The Buccaneers got the NFL sack leader for a one-year deal worth $5 million including incentives. In all fairness, nobody could have foreseen Barrett having 19.5 sacks. The 2014 undrafted free agent produced a total of 14 sacks in his previous four seasons with the Broncos.
Runner Up: Ryan Tannehill (QB)-Titans
Best Use of a Contract Year
Barrett’s bet on himself with a one-year, $4 million deal (worth up to $5 million in incentives) is going to pay big dividends. He earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for September with nine sacks in the first four games. The nine quarterback takedowns also tied an NFL record for the most sacks through four games. Although Barrett couldn’t sustain his early season pace, he led the NFL with 19.5 sacks.
The Buccaneers have made it clear that Barrett isn’t going anywhere. Absent a long term deal, Barrett will be given a franchise or transition designation. The 2020 linebacker franchise and transition tags are expected to be approximately $15.975 million and $13.75 million respectively with a salary cap in the $200 million neighborhood. Barrett’s breakout season should put him in position to at least get a long term deal comparable to the five-year, $90 million contract ($18 million per year) with $56 million in guarantees Trey Flowers got from the Lions in free agency last March.
Runners Up: Matthew Judon (Edge)-Ravens; Justin Simmons (S)-Broncos; Ryan Tannehill (QB)-Titans
Worst Use of a Contract Year
Mariota, who has been playing under a $20.922 million fifth year option, was benched for ineffectiveness six games into the season. He was completing 59.1 percent of passes, averaging 196.5 passing yards per game and had been sacked a league most 25 times when he lost his starting job. The Titans would have likely made a long term commitment to Mariota worth upwards to $30 million per year if he had lived up to the potential this season that made him 2015’s second overall pick.
Mariota’s days with Tennessee are clearly numbered. He will be looking to become a starting quarterback or an opportunity to complete for starting job in free agency. Those opportunities may be few and far between because the veteran quarterback supply is probably going to exceed demand this offseason. Mariota may have to settle for the best backup situation that could eventually provide him a chance to play should the starting quarterback struggle.
Runners Up: Nelson Agholor (WR)-Eagles; Devin Funchess (WR)-Colts
Best Contract Year Extension (for a team)
Parker renegotiated his $9.387 million fifth year option into a two year, $10 million deal worth up to $13 million through incentives last March. The Dolphins probably would have released him rather than have the option become fully guaranteed.
Parker’s long anticipated breakout season finally occurred this season. He caught 72 passes for 1,202 yards with nine touchdowns. Parker tied for fourth in the NFL in touchdown receptions and was fifth in receiving yards. His 16.7 yards per catch was ninth best in the league.
Parker, who turns 27 on Jan. 20, signed a three-year, $30.5 million contract extension containing $22,367,647 of guarantees with a couple of weeks left in the regular season. The extension is worth up to $34.5 million because of realistically achievable incentives. After signing the extension, Parker had his way with Patriots first team All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who has been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by The Professional Football Writers of America, in the regular season finale. The soon-to-be 27 year old caught eight passes for 137 yards with Gilmore primarily covering him.
The timing of the extension is curious for Parker. There shouldn’t have been any urgency on his part because he had a 2020 contract year. By signing during the season, Parker doesn’t get to reap benefit of any wide receiver deals done in free agency or possible contract year extensions for Chris Godwin (Buccaneers), Kenny Golladay (Lions), Cooper Kupp (Rams) or JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers). If this season isn’t an anomaly, he’ll likely come to regret signing an extension running through the 2023 season for good number two wide receiver money rather playing out his contract.
Runner Up: Marcus Peters (CB)-Ravens
Worst Contract Year Extension (for a team)
The Colts renegotiated Brissett’s contract in a pre-emptive strike after quarterback Andrew Luck surprisingly retired during the preseason. Brissett was scheduled to play out his rookie contract with a $2 million base salary remaining when he signed through the 2020 season for a total of $30 million over the two years. That makes Brissett’s deal a one-year extension for $28 million, which is a fair approximation of the 2020 non-exclusive quarterback franchise tag.
Brissett didn’t do anything this season to convince Colts general manager Chris Ballard he is the long term answer at quarterback. In fact, Ballard recently said the jury is still on Brissett, who ranked 26th in the NFL in both touchdown passes (18) and completion percentage (60.9), and 27th in passing yards (2,942) this season. He was without wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, the top weapon in the passing game, and tight end Eric Ebron for several games because of injury.
The Colts would have had an additional $28 million of salary cap room to play with in the offseason to help find a veteran quarterback in free agency or via trade if Brissett had played out his rookie contract. Cap space isn’t an issue though. No NFL team should have more than the nearly $92 million in cap room the Colts are expected to have.
$8 million in cap space would be saved by releasing Brissett rather than keeping him on the books with a $21.5 million cap number. That’s unlikely to occur since the plan is to bring in someone to push Brissett. Whether that’s through the draft or free agency remains to be seen.
Runner Up: Jared Goff (QB)-Rams