The 2020 NFL season has ended, and as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wrap up the celebration from their win in Super Bowl LV, the attention of all 32 NFL teams has already turned to 2021.
With no scouting combine this year (thanks a lot, COVID…again), the next big leaguewide event will be the beginning of free agency in March. Even with the salary cap set to decline in 2021, hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent to either bring veteran players to town or keep them there.
Some of those signings will play key roles in a successful season for their respective teams (see Brady, Tom). However, each year there are signings that teams wind up regretting—big-money deals that just don't pay off.
Just about every team has at least one on the roster.
Well, in this article we're going to let those teams hop into the old wayback machine. Hitch a ride on the Hindsight Express. We're going to highlight the one deal all 32 teams wish they could wipe off their ledger.
Arizona Cardinals: DL Jordan Phillips
Contract Details: Three years, $30 million, $18.5 million guaranteed
There are several players on the Arizona Cardinals roster with bigger contracts than defensive linemen Jordan Phillips. But whether it's edge-rusher Chandler Jones, linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Budda Baker on defense or wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins on offense, those players are key contributors for the team.
That's not the case with Phillips, at least not yet.
When the Cardinals signed Phillips in free agency last year, the 28-year-old was expected to add some pop to the pass rush up front. The six-year veteran was coming off easily the best season of his professional career—31 tackles and 9.5 sacks in 2019 with the Buffalo Bills.
That Phillips had just 5.5 sacks in the four years preceding that breakout should have been a (Cardinals) red flag.
It looks like that huge 2019 campaign may have been an aberration, as Phillips' numbers regressed substantially in his first year in the NFC. He had 11 tackles and just two sacks in an injury-shortened season.
If Phillips can't turn things around in 2021, it's unlikely he'll see the final year of this extension.
Atlanta Falcons: EDGE Dante Fowler Jr.
Contract Details: Three years, $45 million, $29 million guaranteed
Given the trade rumors surrounding quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones, some might expect to see one of those veterans listed here. The cap hit for that duo in 2021 checks in at over $63 million.
But Ryan and Jones are the best players at their respective positions in franchise history. One season into his tenure with the team, edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. appears to have just been a massive waste of cash.
When the Falcons handed the 26-year-old Fowler a $14 million signing bonus last year, he was supposed to provide them with some desperately needed pass-rushing help. The six-year veteran was coming off a career-best 11.5 sacks with the Los Angeles Rams. The light bulb appeared to have finally come on for the third overall pick in the 2015 draft.
After getting a big payday from the Falcons, Fowler responded with his worst season as a pro. He managed just three sacks in 14 games…a career low.
Unfortunately, there's not much Atlanta can do in 2021 besides hope that Fowler rebounds. Releasing him as a post-June 1 cut would mean eating a dead-cap charge of $10.7 million.
Baltimore Ravens: CB Tavon Young
Contract Details: Three years, $25.8 million, $13 million guaranteed
The Baltimore Ravens aren't known for handing out bad contracts, and there are no shortage of franchises that would gladly take on a deal that averages $8.6 million a year as their "worst."
But with the benefit of hindsight, Ravens GM Erik DeCosta likely wishes the team had passed on extending slot corner Tavon Young—a regret that is reinforced by the fact that the team has already restructured the deal once since it was agreed to in 2019.
When the deal was signed, Young was coming off a 2018 campaign in which he played in 15 games despite battling a sports hernia, making 37 total tackles with an interception, three forced fumbles and a passer rating against of 111.8.
The problem hasn't been performance. It has been injuries.
In 2017, Young tore his ACL in OTAs and missed the entire season. After inking his extension in 2019, Young injured his neck in training camp and missed that entire season. Last year, Young made it two games into the season before suffering another ACL tear.
Of 80 possible regular-season games over his five-year career, Young has played in just 33.
Buffalo Bills: EDGE Mario Addison
Contract Details: Three years, $30.5 million, $15.3 million guaranteed
As Marcel Louis-Jacques reported for ESPN, Bills general manager Brandon Beane recently made an interesting statement regarding Buffalo's current salary-cap crunch—a crunch borne out of an anticipated decrease in the cap for 2021.
"It's one of those things you wish we knew that a year ago," Beane said. "Maybe we wouldn't have made every move we did. Maybe we wouldn't have been as aggressive in some areas."
When the Bills signed 33-year-old edge-rusher Mario Addison a year ago, the plan was that he would boost Buffalo's middling pass rush. Addison had been one of the more consistent edge-rushers over the past several years, notching at least nine sacks in four successive seasons from 2016 to 2019—including an 11-sack 2017 campaign.
But whether it was due to advancing age, the switch to a new team or a combination of multiple factors, Addison's sack production dropped precipitously in 2020—his five sacks for the Bills were his lowest total in that category since 2013.
If there's a bright side for the Bills where veteran edge-rusher Mario Addison is concerned, it's this: If they want to make his contract disappear, they can cut bait for a manageable dead-cap hit of $4 million.
Carolina Panthers: QB Teddy Bridgewater
Contract Details: Three years, $63 million, $33 million guaranteed
It's not all that hard to figure out which contract the Carolina Panthers would most like to be rid of.
The offseason has yet to even officially begin, and the Panthers are already attempting to hit the reset button at the quarterback position. Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, the team offered the eighth overall pick in the 2021 draft, a fifth-round pick and veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford.
The Lions traded Stafford to Los Angeles, but that offer makes it clear that Carolina is looking to upgrade under center just one year after signing Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million pact.
It's not a shocking move by the Panthers given how Bridgewater played in his first season as the team's starter. The 28-year-old threw for 3,733 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions with a passer rating of 92.1 in winning four of his 15 starts.
However, unless the Panthers can find a taker in a trade, player and team are likely stuck with one another for at least one more season. Even if Carolina designated Bridgewater a post-June 1 cut, he would still carry a dead-cap hit of $15 million.
Chicago Bears: EDGE Robert Quinn
Contract Details: Five years, $70 million, $30 million guaranteed
There's a running theme developing here.
2020 was not a good year to spend big money on free agents.
After the Chicago Bears handed edge-rusher Robert Quinn $30 million in guarantees last year, he was supposed to pair with All-Pro Khalil Mack to form one of the best pass-rushing duos of the year. Quinn was coming off his best season in years with the Dallas Cowboys, recording 34 total tackles and 11.5 sacks.
What the Bears got was arguably the biggest free-agent bust in a year filled with them. In 15 games (and 13 starts) Quinn managed just two sacks—the lowest total of his decade-long NFL career.
General manager Ryan Pace told reporters that he believes Quinn can turn things around in 2021.
"You know, as you go back Robert is a player that has had consistent pass-rush production throughout his career in our league," Pace said. "Of course we would have wanted more production this season. I know he's really hard on himself and he feels the same way."
"I think there are a variety of reasons why maybe that didn't happen," Pace added. "He sets really high standards for himself. We expect him to rebound."
Of course, there's not much else for Pace to say. The team's first realistic "out" with Quinn isn't until 2022.