The NFL's financial landscape is being assessed through awards for the 10th straight year on CBSSports.com now that the Super Bowl LVII matchup is set. These awards differ from the traditional NFL honors because they are from an economic perspective emphasizing 2022 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 who signed restricted free agent tenders since the amounts are set by the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement. A runner-up is named when warranted.
Most Valuable Acquisition
The Titans surprisingly traded 2019 second-round pick A.J. Brown to the Eagles during the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft for 2022 first-round and third-round picks. Brown was rewarded with a four-year, $100 million contract extension containing slightly more than $57 million of guarantees in connection with the trade.
Brown has been the top-flight receiving threat the Eagles have been sorely lacking. The Eagles tied the Chiefs, their Super Bowl LVII opponent, for the league's best record at 14-3. Third-year quarterback Jalen Hurts becoming an NFL MVP candidate this season has coincided with Brown's arrival.
Brown set career highs with 88 receptions and an Eagles franchise record 1,496 receiving yards. His 17.0 yards per catch ranked third in the NFL. Brown also tied for the league's third-most receiving touchdowns with 11. He earned his second Pro Bowl berth and was named second-team All-Pro for the first time in his career.
The Titans' passing game struggled without Brown. He nearly outgained Tennessee's wide receivers by himself. The group combined for 1,595 receiving yards.
Runner-up: EDGE Haason Reddick (Eagles)
Least Valuable Acquisition
J.C. Jackson was part of the massive talent upgrade while Justin Herbert is still cheap for a starting quarterback after barely missing the playoffs last season. The Chargers signed Jackson to a five-year, $82.5 million contract with $40 million in guarantees to shore up the secondary. Ankle surgery during the latter part of the preseason that caused Jackson to miss two games came as a surprise.
Jackson didn't resemble the player who earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors in 2021 before rupturing the patellar tendon in his right knee during a Week 7 contest against the Seahawks. Opposing quarterbacks completed 73.1% of passes (19 of 26 attempts) averaging 19.5 yards per catch when targeting Jackson for a 154.6 passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus. Jackson gave up four touchdowns in five games after allowing just three over 17 games in 2021.
Runners-up: EDGE Chandler Jones (Raiders); WR Allen Robinson (Rams); QB Matt Ryan (Colts)
Offensive Signing of the Year
Signability led to Tyreek Hill's exit from the Chiefs. He was dealt to the Dolphins for five draft picks: 2022 first-, second- and fourth-round picks in addition to 2023 fourth- and sixth-round picks. Hill was given a four-year, $120 million extension, which has $72.2 million in guarantees, by Miami. $52.535 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Hill has the distinction of being the NFL's first $30 million per year non-quarterback with the extension. Realistically, he has a three-year extension for $75 million because of $45 million in 2026, the final contract year.
Hill had a career year during his first season in Miami with 119 catches, 1,719 receiving yards and seven touchdown receptions. He was second in the NFL in both catches and yards. Hill helped turn the Dolphins into the league's most explosive passing offense, averaging an NFL-best 8.2 yards per pass play.
Runners-up: WR A.J. Brown (Eagles); QB Geno Smith (Seahawks)
Defensive Signing of the Year
Haason Reddick was a catalyst in transforming an anemic Eagles pass rush into the NFL's most formidable. Philadelphia ranked 31st in the NFL during the 2021 season with 29 sacks. The total jumped to 70 in 2022, which tied for the third-most ever in a season.
Reddick set a career high with 16 sacks, which tied for the second most in the NFL. He tied for the league lead with five forced fumbles and tied for third among defensive players with three fumble recoveries. Reddick can make a strong case that he's already outperformed the three-year, $45 million contract (worth up to $46.5 million through incentives and salary escalators) with $30 million fully guaranteed he received from the Eagles in free agency last March.
Runner-up: CB James Bradberry (Eagles)
Geno Smith returned to the Seahawks on a one-year $3.5 million contract worth up to $7 million though incentives after the blockbuster trade at the beginning of the offseason that sent Russell Wilson to the Broncos. He won a training camp battle with Drew Lock, who was acquired in the trade, to succeed Wilson.
Smith threw for a franchise record 4,282 yards with 30 touchdowns. He connected on a league leading 69.8% of his passes, and had the NFL's fifth-best passer rating at 100.9. Smith was selected to the Pro Bowl. The Seahawks, who were expected to be in rebuilding mode after trading Wilson, secured a playoff berth with a 9-8 record.
Smith, who earned all of his incentives, provided the Seahawks tremendous value. According to NFLPA data, the average salary for starting quarterbacks in 2022, excluding those on rookie contracts, was $32,036,681 per year.
Best Use of a Contract Year
2022 was a prove-it year for the Giants' Daniel Jones because the new regime of head coach Brian Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen declined to pick up his fully guaranteed $22.384 million fifth-year option for 2023. The decision meant Jones was destined to be a backup quarterback with another team next season if Daboll couldn't get him to start living up to the potential that made him 2019's sixth-overall pick.
Jones easily checked that box. He drastically cut down on the turnovers that plagued him during the first part of his four-year NFL career. Jones' 23 turnovers (12 interceptions and 11 fumbles lost) as a rookie in 2019 were tied for the second most in the NFL. He was tied for fourth with 16 turnovers (10 interceptions and six lost fumbles) in 2020.
Jones had the league's second fewest interceptions with five among qualified passers (at least 14 pass attempts per team's games played) and only lost three fumbles this season. He also had the NFL's lowest interception rate (interceptions/pass attempts) at 1.1%.
Jones posted career highs in passing yards (3,205), completion percentage (67.2%) and passer rating (92.5). He also established himself as one of the NFL's best dual-threat quarterbacks. Jones rushed for 708 yards while averaging 5.9 yards per carry, which was fourth in the NFL.
Schoen has made it clear that the Giants want Jones back next season. If a long-term deal can't quickly be worked out, the expectation is a non-exclusive franchise tag for $32.416 million will be placed on him. A multi-year contract for Jones will likely average in excess of the quarterback franchise tag number.
Runners-up: EDGE Bradley Chubb (Dolphins); QB Geno Smith (Seahawks); LB Roquan Smith (Ravens)
Worst Use of a Contract Year
Baker Mayfield became expendable after the Browns unexpectedly acquired Deshaun Watson from the Texans in March. The Browns held on to Mayfield until the middle of last July before dealing him to the Panthers for a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick.
Mayfield took a slight pay cut from his fully guaranteed $18.858 million fifth-year option to $15.358 million with $3.5 million of incentives being added to facilitate the trade. Cleveland had to eat $10.5 million in a pre-trade salary conversion.
Mayfield beat out Sam Darnold, 2018's third-overall pick, for the starting quarterback job while learning Carolina's offense on the fly. The trade was an opportunity for Mayfield to demonstrate that a disappointing 2021 was attributed to playing most of the season with a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder and solidify himself as a starting quarterback for someone in 2023.
Neither of those things happened. Mayfield's subpar play was an impetus for the Panthers firing head coach Matt Rhule after a 1-4 start. The 2018 first overall pick's 54.9 completion percentage and 71.9 passer rating were last in the NFL at that time.
Interim head coach Steve Wilks didn't insert Mayfield back in the starting lineup after he recovered from the high-ankle sprain he suffered in Week 5 against the 49ers. The Rams claimed Mayfield on waivers after the Panthers released him in early December.
The highlight of Mayfield's season was earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for Week 14 because of leading the Rams to a 98-yard game-winning drive against the Raiders with only 1:45 left on the clock two days after being claimed.
Runner-up: TE Mike Gesicki (Dolphins)
Best Contract Extension (for a team)
Dre Greenlaw was limited to three games in 2021 because of a groin injury requiring surgery. Surprisingly, he signed a two-year, $16.4 million extension (worth up to $17.4 million through salary escalators) with just over $10 million in guarantees early in the regular season. The deal was slightly better than the two-year, $16 million contract Myles Jack signed with the Steelers last March after he was released by the Jaguars.
Greenlaw had the best season of his career. He had a career high 127 tackles, one interception, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown. Greenlaw was one vote shy of second-team All-Pro honors from the Associated Press.
There's a good chance Greenlaw would have priced himself out of San Francisco had he played out his rookie contract. It would have been logical for Greenlaw to target a deal similar to Foye Oluokun's in free agency. Oluokun signed a three-year, $45 million contract (worth up to $46.5 million with incentives) containing $28 million fully guaranteed with the Jaguars last March as an unrestricted free agent.
Worst Contract Extension (for a team)
The Broncos acquired Russell Wilson to provide the stability at quarterback that's been missing since Hall of Famer Peyton Manning retired after a Super Bowl winning 2015 season. The Seahawks received multiple players (tight end Noah Fant, defensive lineman Shelby Harris and quarterback Drew Lock), 2022 and 2023 first-round picks, 2022 and 2023 second-round picks and a 2022 fifth-round pick for Wilson and a 2022 fourth-round pick.
The trade has been a disaster for the Broncos so far. Wilson had the worst season of his 11-year NFL career. He had career lows in completion percentage (60.5%), passer rating (84.4) and touchdown passes (16). Wilson ranked 30th, 27th and tied for 19th in the NFL in these respective categories. Instead of contending for a playoff berth as expected when obtaining Wilson, first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett was fired with a 4-11 record after a 51-14 blowout loss to a depleted Rams team.
The Broncos compounded the situation by giving Wilson a five-year, $245 million contract extension in August shortly after the franchise's sale to a new ownership group led by Walmart heir Rob Walton. Wilson's shocking decline has raised questions about his longevity in Denver.
Wilson's $49 million per year extension runs though the 2028 season because of the two pre- existing contract years for $51 million. Overall, he is under contract seven years for a total of $296 million. The deal contains $165 million in guarantees with $124 million fully guaranteed at signing, which is the second most ever in an NFL contract.
The Broncos could have parted ways with Wilson this offseason without any salary cap consequences if he had not been given a contract extension. Given Wilson's massive acquisition cost, the Broncos probably would have brought him back for the final year of his contract anyway.
The Broncos just hired quarterback whisperer Sean Payton as head coach. It wouldn't be surprising for the Broncos to release Wilson in 2024 if Payton can't resurrect his career next season.
The Broncos would have to contend with $85 million in dead money, a salary cap charge for a player no longer on a team's roster, with a Wilson departure next offseason because his contract has the seldom used double option bonus structure. Option bonuses are prorated on the salary cap just like signing bonuses. Wilson would surely be released before the fifth day of the 2024 league year when his injury guaranteed $37 million 2025 base salary becomes fully guaranteed.
A post-June 1 designation would probably be used so the dead money could be taken over two years. The dead money could be split into $35.4 million in 2024, which equals Wilson's current 2024 cap number, and $49.6 million in 2025. Wilson would be off Denver's books beginning in 2026.