One could make the argument that no one in the NFL is “overpaid,” given the incredible physical rigors of the game. The force involved in a single hit in an NFL game is roughly equivalent to crashing a car into a wall at 30 mph, meaning that an afternoon of football is not unlike buying a beater and spending three hours crashing it into a wall a dozen or so times. But, the physical toll on the body is just a small part of an NFL contract. When push comes to shove, no matter how hard the job, you’re getting paid for your performance.
And that can make it very hard to find the right numbers to put in each of those contracts. An NFL general manager is constantly trying to navigate a tapestry of wildly different offensive and defensive systems across the league, judging whether a pro bowler on another team will still be that productive when surrounded by different teammates and while running different plays. And at the end of the day, GMs frequently whiff — signing declining or subpar players to massive deals they soon discover were a terrible mistake.
So, here’s a look at the most overpaid players in NFL history: Some were draft busts; some had a good year, got paid and then crashed, and others couldn’t avoid injury in order to really take off.
Last updated: July 24, 2019
Joey Harrington came out of college ready to make an impact. The smiling Oregon Duck seemed to perpetually be filled with optimism and ability, eager for a chance to prove himself. What a difference four years with the Detroit Lions can make. Over the course of four seasons, Lions fans watched as their purported savior failed to ever complete more than 57% of his passes in a season and throw 62 interceptions to just 60 touchdowns — all on a Lions team that went 18-37 with him under center. So if you take those stats into consideration, that means the third overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft wound up earning roughly $387,000 per interception, as he made $24 million over four seasons.
Granted, you might be able to populate this entire list solely with Lions quarterbacks, but Scott Mitchell’s epic failure as a quarterback can’t be overlooked. Sure, you can’t fully discount his magical 1995 season when he threw for 4,338 yards. But once you remember he was surrounded by elite talent — including hall of fame running back Barry Sanders — it should be clear why Lions fans have mostly spent the last two decades wondering how good that squad could have been with an actual quarterback.
Mitchell’s passing numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. He was brought in on a three-year, $11 million contract to help take the Lions to the next level, but he never made the Lions into a contender. Excluding 1995, Mitchell would throw 42 picks in the other three years where he was the starter to just 46 touchdowns despite having targets that included Herman Moore. All of this made his eventual appearance on “The Biggest Loser” something of a cruel irony for Lions fans.
Daunte Culpepper certainly had times where he looked like one of the all-time greats. Following an epic 2004 season where he threw for over 4,700 yards and was one touchdown short of 40 on the year, Culpepper signed a 10-year, $102 million extension with the Vikings.
At the time, Minnesota clearly felt it wanted Culpepper to be a Viking for his entire career. One year later, Minnesota had changed its mind. After an injury-plagued 2005 campaign, Culpepper was traded to Miami where he started just four games in 2006. Ultimately, Culpepper threw for 4,700 yards in 2004… and just 5,555 over the course of the final five years of his career.
When will people learn? Just because a backup looks pretty good playing under Bill Belichick doesn’t mean they’re going to replicate that anywhere else. In fact, it’s hard to look at the rather stark difference between Matt Cassel’s stats on and off the Patriots without wondering just how good Tom Brady might have been had he been drafted by another team.
When Brady suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the first quarter of the first game of the 2008 season, Cassel took over the same Patriots team that had gone undefeated in the regular season a year earlier and led them to a 10-5 record. Cassel then parlayed that impressive performance into a four-year, $46 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. Unfortunately, Belichick and the rest of the Patriots stayed in New England and the Chiefs went 4-11 in Cassel’s first year as a starter. Kansas City was ultimately 19-28 when Cassel was a starter, which is not what they signed up for at over $11 million a season.
Like former USC quarterback Matt Cassel, other handsome USC quarterbacks have faced a rude awakening when they landed in the NFL. Take Mark Sanchez, for instance. After a wildly successful career at USC, he was drafted fifth overall by the New York Jets — who traded up to get a shot at him — and signed a five-year contract that included $28 million in guaranteed money, over $60 million should he hit all his incentives. His deal represented the richest contract in Jets history at the time. However, all his four seasons with the Jets really accomplished was making him better remembered for the “butt fumble” than for his time at USC.
There are three basic ways to become an overpaid player in the NFL. The first is to be a draft bust who signs a hefty deal before anyone actually sees them play in the NFL, the second is to be excellent but suffer an injury and the last is to be pretty good for a while and then just lose it, either due to age or simply losing your ability. Javon Walker is an example of the third, after building a reputation with the Green Bay Packers, he signed a six-year, $55 million deal with the Oakland Raiders in 2008. Walker, though, would only last two seasons in the Bay — catching just 15 passes over seven starts in 2008 and catching no passes across just three games in 2009.
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Even among the many truly legendary NFL busts to come out of the NFL draft, Ryan Leaf’s story remains legendary. Leaf and Peyton Manning entered the 1998 draft virtually neck-and-neck for the first overall pick in the eyes of many analysts. Indianapolis ultimately went with Manning first overall, leaving the poor San Diego Chargers to draft Leaf with the second pick and sign him to a four-year, $31.25 million deal that included an $11.25 million signing bonus that was a record at the time.
Leaf, though, stank. Right from the start. He completed less than half his pass attempts in 1998, didn’t see a game in 1999 and was out of the NFL by the end of the 2001 season. Leaf’s career stats demonstrate how he would have been overpaid at almost any price: a 4-17 record as a starter with 48.4% completion and 14 touchdowns to 36 interceptions. And if you’re a Chargers fan, do yourself a favor and don’t compare that to Manning’s numbers.
Roy Williams was a disaster in Dallas. Not the defensive back with five Pro Bowl appearances, but rather the wide receiver who signed an extension with the Dallas Cowboys after the team traded four draft picks for him in 2008. Williams — the only one of the three wide receivers the Lions took in consecutive first rounds who wasn’t a complete disaster — was a solid player on a bad team up to that point. However, after signing the five-year, $45 million extension with Dallas, Williams appeared to lose his mojo. He played just three of those five years, never catching more than 40 passes in a single season.
As previously mentioned, Roy Williams was just one of three wide receivers taken in the first round by the Lions in four years. So, while the old adage of “if at first you don’t succeed” has its place, the “try, try again” part was an abject failure for the Lions. Charles Rogers, for instance, was the Michigan State standout who the Lions took in 2002 but had the misfortune of breaking his collarbone five weeks into his first season. Then again in the first game of the next one.
All told, Rogers never really earned much of his six-year, $55 million rookie contract. In fact, he wound up having to pay back $8.5 million of his $14.2 million signing bonus.
Albert Haynesworth gained notoriety for being an absolute beast in the middle of the D-line during his time as a Tennessee Titan. Well, that and stomping on a guy’s face. The astonishing physical specimen played so well that Washington’s professional football team saw fit to offer him a seven-year, $100 million deal after he hit free agency following the 2008 season. Oops. Haynesworth would last just two seasons in Washington, proving one of the biggest free-agent busts of all time.
JaMarcus Russell is yet another example of how a rookie with a successful college career used to be able to sign a huge rookie deal prior to anyone being able to confirm whether they’re actually any good at the next level or not. And the six-year, $68 million deal he signed with the Raiders in 2007 — which included $39 million in guaranteed money — was dubbed the worst contract in NFL history by ESPN’s Darren Rovell back in 2012. In fact, many believe it played a big role in motivating owners to fight for a shift to a rookie contract scale to limit the size of a player’s first deal.
If you paid for a case of beer and only got 12 beers, you would probably be pretty cheesed off. Well, the Case that the Denver Broncos bought for $36 million over two years also appears to be a few beers short. Keenum was impressive as a starter in Minnesota in 2017, parlaying his 11-3 record into the big deal with the Broncos. However, his 2018 season — in which he threw 18 touchdowns to 15 interceptions while Denver limped to a 6-10 record — made Keenum look like he’s making way too much for what he’s producing on the field.
Jay Cutler has become something of a pop culture phenomenon in his own right, from the “smoking Jay Cutler” memes to his marriage to reality television star Kristin Cavallari. But, prior to that, he was the guy Sportscasting dubbed the “most overpaid player in NFL history” in 2017.
A classic example of how being an NFL quarterback is more about not doing bad things than it is about doing good things, Cutler had a cannon for an arm and was really fast for a quarterback. Unfortunately, he just couldn’t stop turning the ball over and ultimately made the Chicago Bears deeply regret the seven-year, $126 million contract he signed with them in 2014.
There’s a certain segment of football fans from mid-Michigan who dearly, dearly love Tony Mandarich. He was an All-American at Michigan State, helping the team win the 1987 Big Ten title. Then, he was selected second overall by the Green Bay Packers, leaving the Detroit Lions to select Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders — who would become the franchise’s most beloved player of all time by a wide margin — with the next pick.
That said, there’s likely an inverse segment of Wisconsin football fans who had to watch Mandarich beat up on the Badgers in college before becoming the worst draft pick in Packers history. And while Mandarich’s four-year, $4.4 million rookie contract seems small by today’s standard, it was pretty big relative to deals at the time. Regardless, it was way too much for a guy who is still known as one of the NFL draft’s biggest busts.
The obsession with “the Bos” was nationwide in the late 1980s, with the big linebacker making headlines for his outsized hits and his outsized personality. And when the Seattle Seahawks drafted him in the supplemental draft, the team then signed him to what was the biggest rookie contract in league history at the time — $11 million over 10 years. That was optimistic, to say the least, as Bosworth was out of the NFL before the end of his third year.
Another guy who experienced an incredible run at USC only to discover the game was a lot harder when you weren’t spending your time beating up on Pac 10 powder puffs is Matt Leinart. He was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 2006 with the 10th overall pick and then signed a six-year contract worth as much as $50.8 million. Leinart, though, would start just 16 games across two seasons and finished his career with 21 interceptions to just 15 touchdowns.
For the majority of his 12-year NFL career, Neil O’Donnell was usually a pretty solid asset on a team. He would ultimately throw for over 20,000 yards and 120 touchdowns to just 68 picks on this career. However, while O’Donnell wasn’t necessarily overpaid for the entirety of his time in the NFL, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t an outright disaster for the New York Jets. The team inked O’Donnell to a five-year, $25 million deal in 1996, but he would only be on the team for two of those years. The Jets lost all six games he started that season and didn’t fare a lot better in 1997, ultimately running O’Donnell out of town.
Cleary, “Neon Deion” was not overpaid for the majority of his career. For many years, he was utterly dominant — redefining his position and leaving offenses scrambling to figure out how to run their offense without ever throwing in his direction. However, “Neon Deion” looked a little more like “Neolithic Deion” during his final contract, a seven-year, $56 million deal with the Washington football team he signed at age 33. Deion would play just one season there before his (first) retirement.
The Kerry Collins who started for the New York Giants across five seasons had the look of the sort of solid if unspectacular quarterback a team could build around. That’s why the Oakland Raiders were ready to sign him to a three-year, $12 million deal to anchor their franchise in 2004. The Kerry Collins that started for Oakland, however, made that deal look laughable. The Raiders went 7-21 in games he started over the next two seasons as he threw 32 interceptions and was off the team before the final year of his deal.
In the case of almost every other player here, the degree to which they’re responsible for being overpaid is dubious. Separating individual statistics from the quality of the rest of the team is especially difficult in football. Unless you’re the kicker — then it’s pretty easy to see just how many kicks you miss.
And this is one “idiot kicker” who didn’t have anywhere to hide. At least not after he signed with Dallas — a three-year deal with the opportunity to be worth as much as $6 million — after his comments about Peyton Manning’s lack of leadership and a big missed kick in the playoffs resulted in his ouster from the Colts. Of course, if Manning’s lack of leadership was an issue in Indy, whoever was playing quarterback in Dallas during Vanderjagt’s tenure must have just been really bad: Vanderjagt went 13 for 18 for field goals as a Cowboy en route to getting midway through his first season.
Jeff George, the journeyman quarterback of the two first names, spent quite a while in the NFL. His career spanned five teams over 12 seasons and included some solid seasons, certainly playing better than his 47-78 record as a starter would indicate. That’s why legendary head coach Marty Schottenheimer ultimately pulled the trigger on a four-year, $14 million deal to sign a 32-year-old George to back up starter Brad Johnson.
When you decide to pay a veteran like George that much money to be a backup, you’re mostly looking for someone who can show poise and consistency. George mustered neither. In two seasons with Washington, he managed to throw nine interceptions in just eight games and was retired soon after.
David Boston was just a season removed from a sparkling 2001 campaign with the Cardinals that produced 98 catches for a league-leading 1,598 yards when he signed a massive seven-year, $47 million deal with the San Diego Chargers. And, if Boston had replicated those numbers, it might have wound up being a decent deal. Unfortunately for all parties involved, Boston produced a decidedly unimpressive 880 receiving yards in his first season with the Chargers, missed his second with a knee injury and ended up getting traded to the Dolphins before his third.
Jerry Porter was arguably underpaid during his tenure with the Raiders. However, his performance there helped him land a six-year, $30 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars where he definitely reversed the trend. Porter produced a paltry 11 catches in his single season with the Jaguars, resulting in him being released just one year into the deal.
Jeff Garcia was a pretty good quarterback in his day. After all, he went to three Pro Bowls during his five years on the San Francisco 49ers. Thus, Garcia signed a four-year, $25 million deal in 2004 to be the new starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. Of course, there may be no phrase in human history that’s proven a more consistent harbinger of doom than “new starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns,” and Garcia did not buck the trend. He ended up starting just 10 games for the Browns, throwing nine interceptions across seven losses.
Boy, Washington’s professional football team is sure on here… a lot. And there’s at least one more drastically oversized contract left to discuss, that of quarterback Donovan McNabb. While McNabb clearly wasn’t overpaid in Philadelphia — the team went to four-straight NFC title games while he was there — the five-year, $78 million extension he signed with Washington at age 33 is a different story. Any amount of statistical analysis is unnecessary in the face of the fact that he was benched in his first year there — for Rex Grossman.
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About the Author
Joel Anderson is a business and finance writer with over a decade of experience writing about the wide world of finance. Based in Los Angeles, he specializes in writing about the financial markets, stocks, macroeconomic concepts and focuses on helping make complex financial concepts digestible for the retail investor.