Top-shelf talent at bargain-basement prices is a necessity, but teams must get impact from the players they've determined are worthy of premium contracts. A team can handle one or two bad contracts. Too many of them, however, can set back a franchise for years.
In that light, here are the five players who underperformed their contracts. This list is based solely on performance in 2013 among the 17 players with cap charges of at least $2 million.
No. 5: Clay Matthews — This designation, of course, is all about Matthews' broken and rebroken thumb.
When healthy, Matthews was, well, Matthews. He led the team with 7.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits, even while missing five games and being a total nonfactor against Philadelphia when he returned to the lineup after a four-game absence. He matched his career high with three forced fumbles.
Strangely, the Packers were 4-2 (including playoffs) when Matthews was sidelined. Without him, the sack rate was about the same; the quarterback-hit count actually increased. Still, his absence was obvious in the playoff loss to San Francisco, when the Packers were simply outmatched athletically.
Matthews, the league's highest-paid linebacker, pocketed a $20.5 million bonus as part of his new deal this past offseason. His cap number was $6.7 million this season; that was the ninth-highest among 3-4 outside linebackers. It soars to $10.94 million in 2014, $12.7 million in 2015, $13.75 million in 2016, $15.2 million in 2017 before falling to $11.4 million in 2018, the final year of the contract.
No. 4: Brad Jones — With a cap figure of $5.2 million, A.J. Hawk's cap charge was more than twice as much as Jones' $2.5 million. At least Hawk was healthy and made some plays. Jones, who garnered a three-year contract (with a $3 million bonus) after piling up 100 tackles, two sacks, one fumble recovery and six passes defensed in 10 starts in 2012, had a bad year in 2013. In 12 games, Jones made 98 tackles and added three sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and two passes defensed. The every-down inside linebacker in 2012, he lost that role to the coverage-challenged Hawk in 2013.
It's not like Jones signed a budget-busting deal. His cap charge ranked 17th among 3-4 inside linebackers. The Packers will have to determine whether Jones is worth his upcoming cap charges of $4 million in 2014 and $4.75 million in 2015 or if they can get more bang with less bucks through the draft. Or, asked differently, is there any point in having a combined $9.1 million of the cap eaten up by Hawk and Jones for 2014?
No. 3: Derek Sherrod — OK, we're cheating on this one, since Sherrod's cap number was just a bit more than $1.8 million in 2013. This is more of a career-achievement award. Or, to make up a word, a career-un-achievement award.
The Packers' first-round pick in 2011 received a signing bonus of about $5.33 million. For that money, the Packers have received 121 offensive snaps. Just about all of those came in 2011, when he played 115 offensive snaps when the Packers' line was slammed by injuries. A broken leg sustained at Kansas City that season put him on the shelf for all of 2012 and turned 2013 into the equivalent of a redshirt season, with Sherrod limited to just the six offensive snaps he played at the end of the blowout at Detroit.
It's hardly Sherrod's fault that the leg has been such an issue. The Packers are a draft-and-develop team; Sherrod's hardly been healthy enough to develop. Next year will be his final season under contract. At this point, the Packers simply don't have a clue if Sherrod can play.
No. 2: Morgan Burnett — In 2011 and 2012, Burnett was the only safety in the league with back-to-back seasons of 100 tackles and two forced fumbles. In 2012, according to ProFootballFocus.com, Burnett ranked fourth among safeties in run stops (impact tackle on a running play) and 14th in tackling.
Seen as an ascending player and a building block on defense, the Packers handed him a $24.75 million contract in July, which included an $8.25 million signing bonus. For that, the Packers didn't get nearly enough return on investment. Burnett again ranked fourth in run stops but he fell to 21st in tackling. His pass breakups fell from 13 to eight. He went without an interception or a forced fumble after picking off five passes and forcing four fumbles in 2011 and 2012.
Burnett's cap number in 2013 was a manageable $3.19 million, which ranked 22nd among safeties. Including a $1.5 million roster bonus that will be paid on the fifth day of the league-year, Burnett's cap figure will be $4.9 million in 2014 (16th among safeties), $5.15 million in 2015, $6.05 million in 2016 and $7 million in 2017.
No. 1: B.J. Raji — Raji's performance in 2013 was inexplicable. With a big payday in sight, Raji simply vanished. By the coaches' count, Raji has gone from 66 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2010, to 43 tackles and three sacks in 2011, to 46 tackles and no sacks in 2012, to 32 tackles and no sacks in 2013.
Raji's tackle rate of one for every 17.2 snaps was below his career mark of 14.6 entering the season and was the second-worst of his career. He's gone 35 consecutive games without a sack, a preposterous number, even if the scheme limits his pass-rushing opportunities.
Raji's cap number of just less than $6.6 million ranked seventh among 3-4 defensive ends. Of the 45 3-4 defensive ends who received 25 percent playing time, Pro Football Focus ranked Raji 43rd.
Raji is heading toward free agency. Raji, who was born in New York City, resides in New Jersey and played collegiately at Boston College, will be courted by New England, a source said.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.