The old saying that "money talks" is especially true in trying to figure out how highly regarded an NFL player is by his own team. While a coach or general manager can spout any number of platitudes and compliments towards his players, his real opinion shines through when he sits down at the negotiating table and puts his job on the line by doling out huge sums of the owner's money to the players who he truly believes in. That belief (or lack of belief) shines through especially brightly when it comes to guaranteed money because that is where the rubber really hits the road.
One of the areas in which the contract details are especially important to parse is when dealing with injury prone players. While football analysis available to the general public by media and bloggers has taken a quantum leap forward, there is still a great deal of information that never makes it from inside the walls of the NFL facilities out for public consumption. The biggest area where outsiders are left guessing while NFL front offices work with detailed information is with regard to detailed medical information. However, it is possible through close study of contractual details to make educated guesses as to what the team's medical reports are saying.
The following players all signed relatively lucrative contracts this offseason and are potentially undervalued in the eyes of fantasty owners. They are recommended targets at their current ADP.
After a Super Bowl appearance, the Broncos faced some tough decisions in terms of trying to retain key personnel. They let some key contributors (Eric Decker, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Knowshon Moreno and others) walk away in free agency and only had enough cap space to target a few areas for outside upgrades. Nearly all of those outside additions were on the defensive side of the ball. The one key guy added to the offense was WR Emmanuel Sanders, who was signed as an unrestricted FA to a relatively lucrative 3 year, $15 million deal with $6 million in first year compensation fullly guaranteed. For a player like Sanders who has had some injury issues and never had a 1,000 yards receiving season, this was a relatively large investment and shows a real faith in his abilities and health. Sanders landed a more lucrative contract than some other high profile free agent WRs like Julian Edelman.
Clearly, the Broncos targeted Sanders at this price point with a plan in place for him to have a large role in the offense going forward, possibly as the number two WR. While he may not equal Eric Decker's 87 catches, 1,288 yards or 11 TDs, it should not be a huge surprise if he approaches some of those numbers as the contract indicates he was signed to be one of Peyton Manning's primary targets. Even at his rising ADP of WR 29, Sanders is a good target.
Rudolph recently inked a suprisingly lucrative new contract making him one of the highest paid TEs in the NFL. There were already some other strong reasons to consider Rudolph as a breakout candidate along the lines of Jordan Cameron in 2013. Norv Turner has been a bit of a TE guru and features the position prominently in his offense. In addition, Rudolph has flashed glimpses of potentially elite talent. The details of the contract recently inked by Rudolph should leave absolutely no doubt that he is a player upon whom the Vikings are going to rely heavily. Rudolph will recieve between $36 and $40 million (depending upon incentives) over the five years of his extension. The deal includes nearly $20 million in guaranteed money and the structure indicates that he is likely to see the full five years and there is no "funny money" with high salaries in the out years that he is not likely to see. In short, this is a legitimate $7-8 million per year deal which indicates that Rudolph will be a big part of the Vikings offense now and in the future and a great target for 2014 at his current ADP of TE 10.
The Cleveland Browns targeted Andrew Hawkins as a restricted free agent from their AFC North rival the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason. Hawkins was a highly respected member of the Bengals and a player the Bengals were expected to keep as the team had the right to match any offer sheet Hawkins signed. All of that changed however when the Browns made Hawkins a huge, front-loaded contract offer that paid him $6.8 million guaranteed and $10.8 million over the first two years of the contract. Hawkins' deal was the rare NFL contract in which the annual average value (approximately $3.5 million per year) actually understated the true financial commitment made by the team. Hawkins' $6.8 million guaranteed is also notable in relation to the other WR contracts the Browns handed out this offseason. Miles Austin received only $300,000 guaranteed and only $2 million total for his one year deal. Nate Burleson received a measly $65,000 guaranteed on his 1 year, $955,000 contract. Based upon the numbers, it seems clear that Hawkins is the one WR on the Browns who is guaranteed to be in the Browns' plans and a featured target for Brian Hoyer. He is a great target at his current ADP of WR 69.
The Seattle Seahawks are going to have a hard time keeping all of their young talent in town as players like Richard Sherman, Percy Harvin and Earl Thomas have already cashed in on huge contracts. Russell Wilson will not be far behind. With cap space at a premium, it was a bit surprising to see the Seahawks reward restricted free agent Doug Baldwin with such a rich extension. With Baldwin already locked up for 2014 for $2.2 million, the Seahawks could have simply let him play out the year and approached negotiations on an extension next spring. Instead, Baldwin was given at least $11 million of new money to lock him up for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The deal also contains realistic incentives that could push the annual average towards nearly $8 million per year.
Baldwin is set to move to the X position recently vacated by Golden Tate and based upon the details of his new contract, the Seahawks expect him to be an important part of the passing offense going forward. He is a nice upside play at his current ADP of WR 62.
With Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead both under contract for 2014 after successful 2013 campaigns, RB was not expected to be a priority in free agency. That did not stop San Diego for quickly moving to give Donald Brown a lucrative 3 year, $10.5 million contract. Brown also received $4 million in guaranteed money, nearly twice as much as a higher profile player in Ben Tate. While it remains unclear exactly what role Brown is ticketed to play in the Chargers backfield, his contract makes clear that he should make an impact. While Brown describes the backfield as a "three-headed monster," he has been an afterthought for fantasy owners who have made Mathews and Woodhead the clear favorites in fantasy drafts. It may be worth re-assessing that view and looking at Brown as a player the Chargers have big plans for. While the RB situation in San Diego is murky, Donald Brown's current ADP of RB 61 makes him an attractive target as he may have a bigger role than many expect when the picture clears.
Maclin is an interesting case. It was widely reported that he was basically forced to sign a one year "prove it" contract. That gives the impression that the only decent offer Maclin was able to procure was a short term deal due to the fact that he missed 2013 with an ACL tear. In fact, Maclin was offered a relatively lucrative five year contract by the Eagles. It was Maclin who turned it down and instead opted for the one year contract that, with playing time incentives will pay him $5.5 million for 2014. While this is not a huge money deal by any means, it is much richer and contains more guaranteed money than the usual "prove it" type contracts. It is almost identical in structure to the contract signed by Seahawks DE Michael Bennett last offseason. While these type of short deals leave some room for interpretation, this deal looks more like a player betting on himself than it does a contract in which the team was not willing to make a long term bet. For that reason, I would recommend targeting Jeremy Maclin at his current ADP of WR 26 without worrying about the short-term nature of his current contract.
players to avoid
Surprisingly low contract figures, with little to no guaranteed money, indicate that the player may not be as highly thought of as many in the general public may perceive or that a player has injury concerns that go beyond what is public knowledge. Those are players fantasty owners should avoid. In addition, these overrated players may overshadow other teammates who are flying under the radar and present great value later in drafts.
There was a perception in March that Ben Tate would be the top free agent RB on the market. It was also assumed that the Browns, with a clear opening at the position and a strong offensive line, were one of the top landing spots for a talented runner. When Tate landed with the Browns it generated a great deal of fantasty excitement. However, based on the details of his contract, it is clear that Tate was not the hot free agent commodity that many assumed. Tate was able to land only a modest $2.5 million in guaranteed money. That includes a $1.5 million signing bonus and his first year salary of $1 million. Compared to other RBs like Toby Gerhart, Rashad Jennings and Donald Brown, Ben Tate's deal comes up short. In addition to the small guaranteed totals, the deal is for a relatively modest 2 year, $4.7 million total that can climb to $6.2 million if Tate plays in every game.
The financial details should be a stark reminder that even the Cleveland Browns have doubts about Tate's ability to stay healthy and be a feature back. The contract indicates that despite reports and speculation to the contrary, the starting RB job in Cleveland is probably still very much up for grabs between Ben Tate and Terrance West. The Browns traded up to jump ahead of the Baltimore Ravens to snag West and he has been regularly impressing observers so far at training camp. Based upon the current Tate's current ADP of RB 23, Terrance West at an ADP of RB 39 may be the better target in the Cleveland backfield.
Brown has been a popular later round target as many assumed that when he inked with Houston in the offseason, that he was clearly signed to be the primary backup to Arian Foster. However, the contract says otherwise. Suprisingly, Andre Brown got no signing bonus and a tiny salary of $645,000 on his one year deal. The contract looks like one that would be seen for a guy who is merely "camp fodder." While Brown may well make the team, the idea that he is the clear handcuff to Foster or that he was a highly sought after free agent is likely inaccurate.
Instead of Brown with a current ADP of RB 53, perhaps fantasy owners should be focusing on rookie 6th rounder Alfred Blue with an ADP outside of the top 82 RBs. The rookie who Les Miles called a "steal" made a strong early impression on coaches and is a great late round target who is barely on the radar of most drafters.