Looking ahead: 10 best and worst contracts for 2023

Ken Walker

The value of a contract can have far-ranging effects on a franchise’s operating budget. If a contract is favorable, it can open up a wealth of options for that franchise to spend a little money on high-priced free agents. However, if a contract is deemed expensive, it can severely hamstring a team’s payroll and leave them grasping at straws.

To put it another way, contract value can determine whether a franchise will be buying high-end merchandise at Nordstrom, or nosediving for bargains in the $5 bin at Walmart.

The following is a look at the perceived best and worst contracts entering the 2021 season — or, at least, at present during the offseason.

The Best

Grading the best contracts of the future is a lot different than assessing ones from the past. With past contracts, there is concrete data on which to base your judgment. With future ones, there is far more subjective reasoning. The following contracts were judged among the best due to their low dollar amount paired with expected output.

10. Trevor Lawrence, QB/JAX (Papua New Guinea Pigs) — $1.3

Trevor Lawrence made some nice strides in his second season in the league, his first with a new head coach. There’s good reason to believe he will continue his upward trajectory and have a shot at surpassing the QB8 he finished at last year. With a paltry salary of just $1.3 million, the Pigs don’t have to spend big at the quarterback position and can afford to allocate that money elsewhere. Of course, the team could still place the NFT on Josh Allen, and a tag-and-trade remains a possibility.

9. Calvin Ridley, WR/JAX (Kazakhstan’s Very Nice Team) — $1.4

We haven’t seen Ridley play football in more than a season and a half. After ditching his team to deal with his mental health issues in 2021, he was suspended for the entire 2022 season for gambling, hence the reason why he came so cheaply for the Very Nice Team. This ranking presumes that Ridley hasn’t completely lost his touch and will still know how to go out and play football like it’s riding a bicycle. He doesn’t even have to be as explosive as he once was, given his cheap $1.4 million price tag. If he finishes the upcoming season as a WR3, or even slips into the WR2 picture, his salary is well worth it.

8. Justin Fields, QB/CHI (Peru Gurus) — $1.6

Fields has a second gear that isn’t often seen from quarterbacks. Even players like Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts, who are shifty in their own right, have failed to show the breakaway burst that Fields did multiple times in his record-setting season. Now, his performance was just one season, but there’s reason to believe he can get even better given that his own team bottomed out and has nowhere to go but up. Fields finished as QB6 last year, and even finishing in the Top 12 this coming season would make his salary a great one and give the Gurus the flexibility to spend more elsewhere.

7. Dallas Goedert, TE/PHI (Australia Blue Heelers) — $2.5

Finding a reliable, consistent tight end is every franchise’s pilgrimage. Sometimes teams have to shell out unsightly gobs of cash just to get a good one to come play for their franchise. In the Blue Heelers’ case, they got a very good one in Goedert, who finished as TE12, but missed five games. He averaged 11.8 points per game, good enough for fifth at his position, and he has an extremely affordable and team-friendly deal at just $2.5 million.

6. Chris Olave, WR/NO (Australia Blue Heelers) — $3.6

Olave was one of the first offensive rookies to break out in 2021 as he hit the ground running immediately out of the gates. There’s a good chance he is his team’s No. 1 receiver in 2023, which is a good sign for the Blue Heelers. He has big-play ability and he seems to have a floor as a WR2, with major upside if he gets a quarterback to throw his way.

5. T.J. Hockenson, TE/MIN (Colombia Capybaras) — $3.5

Hockenson has always been a strong pass-catching tight end since he entered the league. His problem was always a poor offense and a frustrating injury history. Last year, he got to play in a good system and stayed healthy and played the entire season, and he finished as the TE2 because of it. Will he continue to finish at that ranking? Hard to say. The odds aren’t great, but he should definitely finish in the Top 6, should he stay healthy. And having that kind of tight end at the $3.5 million price tag is an excellent commodity to possess.

4. Garrett Wilson, WR/NYJ (Papua New Guinea Pigs) — $4.8

Wilson has such great traits, is smooth out of his breaks, makes effortless catches and glides around the field like a gazelle. If he had a good quarterback, he’d be a Top 10 prospect at the position. I’m banking on his team finding an upgrade at quarterback — which shouldn’t be hard to do with Zach Wilson as the baseline. The Pigs should get excellent production from him and have him at a terrific cost.

3. Rhamondre Stevenson, RB/NE (Ireland Shamrocks) — $3.0

Stevenson made the 2022 list of best contracts and he projects to have one of the best 2023 deals as well. Stevenson owned his backfield and — pun intended — took the ball and ran with it. Is he going to consistently be a Top 10 running back? I don’t know, that’s hard to say. It’ll depend on what the team does to help strengthen the offense. But you cannot argue with a $3 million salary for a back with RB1 talent.

2. Tony Pollard, RB/DAL (Colombia Capybaras) — $2.5

Pollard finished as the RB8 last year and will be making the same amount of money this year that he did in 2022. There’s a decent chance his team tags him, but he could also earn a big pay day and become a featured weapon elsewhere. Whatever the case may be, the guy will be in demand this offseason giving the Capybaras a great weapon for 2023 at an affordable cost.

1. Ken Walker, RB/SEA (Bolivia Llamas) — $3.6

Walker had to bide his time at the start of the season, waiting patiently behind Rashaad Penny until the latter stubbed his toe and missed the remainder of the season. (Okay, it was an ankle injury, but if you didn’t know any better you would’ve believed that, wouldn’t you have?) The rookie Walker stepped right in and carried the load as if he was a seasoned pro. I’ve seen rankings already list him as high as fifth at the running back position. While I’m not ready to go hog wild on the ranking, he does play for an offense under a coach who has done nothing but consistently run the football for years and is one of the last remaining coaches who isn’t afraid to give his running back a workhorse role. All of that to say, $3.6 million is a bargain for him in 2023.

The Worst

Grading the worst contracts is as difficult a proposition as assessing the good ones. You can use past performance as a guide, but only to a limited degree. You can also use a player’s price tag as an indicator, but the market value of each position will dramatically change when the league conducts its Auction. Thus, the following contracts are deemed among the worst at the present moment, due to a mixture of the aforementioned criteria.

10. Dalton Schultz, TE/DAL (Greece Trojans) — $5.0

I like Schultz a lot and I think he was an integral part of his offense and is a reliable tight end. He battled some injuries in 2022 and his future is uncertain. Those are the only reasons why he appears on this list, as it’s unclear how much teams are willing to pay this year’s crop of free agent tight ends, and $5 million is currently third at the position.

9. J.K. Dobbins, RB/BAL (Papua New Guinea Pigs) — $6.7

Poor Dobbins. He has just suffered a brutal start to his professional football career due to a rash of injuries. He has played in just 23 games in three seasons — missing the entire 2021 campaign. The guy has a wealth of talent but a relatively high price tag for a player who can’t stay on the field.

8. Travis Etienne, RB/JAX (Peru Gurus) — $9.5

There’s no doubt that Etienne is an explosive playmaker. But he might never be a workhorse running back. Only five times last year did he attempt more than 15 carries, and he’s not quite the pass catcher that everyone was expecting, either. That being said, he’s entering Year 2 of this new offense and there is always room for growth, especially since he missed his rookie season. But at this point in the offseason, before the DFL auction, he is the sixth-highest paid running back. Once other running backs are signed, this contract will look a lot better.

7. Russell Wilson, QB/DEN (South Africa Ballstrikers) — $5.0

Everybody knows the disappointing story of the Denver Broncos offense by now, so we don’t have to relive that. But Wilson will turn 35 next season and looks a long way off from some of his Pro Bowl days. Now, he just got a great offensive mind to be his new coach, so there’s always a possibility he rebounds. For now, though, he’s highly paid for his production last year and we’ll have to wait and see how the quarterback market plays out in the DFL this offseason.

6. Kyle Pitts, TE/ATL (Italy Emperors) — $15.0

Pitts is currently the highest paid tight end in the league, by a country mile, and yet he’s coming off one of the most disappointing seasons for a highly-touted player in quite some time. His only saving grace is that he is extremely talented and plays at a premium position with limited options. But as it stands right now, he has a long way to go before his contract becomes even reasonable.

5. Jerry Jeudy, WR/DEN (Peru Gurus) — $12.5

Jeudy has yet to reach his status as a first-round pick in three seasons in the league. He has certainly shown flashes, which has been very encouraging at times. But he has definitely underperformed his contract and leaves a lot to be desired. Between injuries and poor quarterback play — and some bad drops — he needs to up his game heading into a pivotal 2023 season.

4. Courtland Sutton, WR/DEN (South Africa Ballstrikers) — $10.0

Sutton, like Wilson and Jeudy, was part of an extremely poor offensive showing last year. His contract, despite being cheaper than Jeudy’s, is probably worse because his performance was a lot worse. He’s also older than Jeudy and there is more concern about him ever rebounding to his Pro Bowl level of play again.

3. Deebo Samuel, WR/SF (Kazakhstan’s Very Nice Team) — $18.0

Deebo earned a huge pay day last offseason because of his incredible 2021 season. But that all might have been smoke and mirrors. Part of the reason he was so good in 2021 was because he ran the ball more than he did last year, plus scored 8 rushing touchdowns. They took the burden of the heavier rushing load off him and his receiving yards were cut by more than half as well. In fairness, he missed three games, but that $18 million price tag looms large. He can do Kazakhstan a favor by staying healthy and running the ball more, and his team can do him favors by getting a quarterback that can throw the ball.

2. Javonte Williams, RB/DEN (Italy Emperors) — $16.0

Williams was projected by many to be as high as a Top 5 running back last year. People were expecting big things from him. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury in Week 4 last year and never was able to reach his potential. Coming off a major knee injury is never easy to do and he is getting paid handsomely to do it. He is currently the third-highest paid running back in the league before tags and free agent signings, and he’s a long way away from that rank.

1. Breece Hall, RB/NYJ (Italy Emperors) — $18.0

Hall, like Williams, blew out his knee last year and now he’s the second Emperors running back working his way back from that type of injury. Hall’s contract is $2 million worse than Williams and he suffered his injury later in the season. Hall was looking pretty good before he went down and he finished as the RB7 in points per game. But as the second-highest paid running back at the moment, he has a long way to go before that contract looks palatable.