Money Matters: Four Contracts to Watch (Fantasy Football)
I started this series with an exploration of the ins and outs of football finance; the last article looked at some important money trends over time, and how they impact fantasy. In this installment, I’ll be identifying specific contracts that are worth keeping an eye on. Data is from Spotrac, the gold standard for sports contract information.
Much has been made about the Bronco QBs’ mega-contract: the $124 million guaranteed at signing ranks third highest in the NFL. Don’t ask the Broncos’ front office how they feel about the return on their investment…Russ threw 0.7 TDs and 0.5 INTs per game from Weeks 1-13. Thanks to the prominence of the player, the stature of the franchise, and the size of the contract, it was one of the most memorable ‘bust’ seasons on record.
Fantasy managers took notice. Russ dropped from the late 6th round in last year’s drafts all the way to the tenth round in current redraft ADP. And his age — 35 in November — isn’t helping the dynasty outlook. Most ADP lists have Kenny Pickett ranked ahead.
So let me preface what I’m about to say. I don’t think that Russell Wilson will return to 100% of his former glory. I do think that he will be better than last year, especially with Sean Payton in town. There was some evidence of a late-stage rally: he finished the season at a 20.1 PPG clip in his last four games. Most importantly, though, I think he will be in a Denver Broncos uniform for some time to come.
Russ’ massive contract means that the Broncos would take on $107 million in dead cap (money owed to a player no longer on the roster) if they cut him. This is a massive, ridiculous, basically fanciful number: Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons currently hold the dead cap record for about a third of that total ($40 million), and it doesn’t get much better next season: the dead cap hit would still be $85 million, more than double Matt Ryan‘s total. There are options to spread that dead money around across years (check out this article for an awesome deep dive into Russ’ contract), but the cost is still brutal.
Even three years out, the numbers still don’t look very rosy. In 2025-2026, the dead cap drops to about $50 million, and then the Broncos have a potential out in 2026 for $31 million in dead cap. So, as the contract situation currently stands, cutting Wilson in any of the next three years would incur the greatest dead cap hit in the history of the NFL.
This means that, despite his play for most of last season, Russell Wilson will probably be a Bronco for the next few years. Let’s say he suits up in Denver for three more seasons: that’s a (former) perennial QB1, on a team with Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, and Javonte Williams, coached by Sean Payton, for three seasons in your dynasty league. Not the worst thing for a player who is barely a QB2 in dynasty ADP. Honestly, the landing spot around him is enough to make a solid argument for an unproven rookie!
After a mostly good, but also up-and-down season (four top-10 weekly RB finishes, and yet four outside of the top-40), Miles Sanders finds himself a Carolina Panther. His contract is sneakily large: $11 million guaranteed at signing, good enough for the tenth most ‘practical guarantees‘ among running backs in the NFL.
The Panthers have an out in two years: they can cut Sanders, who will be 28 years old for the 2025-2026 season, for a $3 million dead cap hit. But…they will have a harder time cutting him before then. His dead money is $11 million this year and nearly $8.5 million next season. What’s more, the Panthers don’t really need cap space: they are third in the NFL in terms of breathing room. And, perhaps most importantly, the only other running back on the roster is Chuba Hubbard, who carries just $350,000 in dead cap this season (and is an unrestricted free agent in 2025).
Put simply, the Carolina Panthers made a surprisingly significant financial investment in Miles Sanders for the next two seasons. They don’t have a pressing need to renege on that financial commitment, and they have basically zero investment in any other player at the position. I wouldn’t bet that Sanders is starting in 2025-2026, based on the market demand for 28-year-old running backs, but in the meantime, he will dominate a backfield for two full seasons. Not too shabby for a player going as a low-end RB2 in dynasty.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel so optimistic about Sanders’ replacement in Philadelphia. The ‘eye test’ tells us he’s one of the most talented RBs in the league when he’s on the field, and he landed in run-heavy Philly. That’s great, right? Right?
I have a hard time believing that the Eagles believe in D’Andre Swift. His remaining contract is just for one year and $1.7 million, a far cry from the large investment you want to see teams making in players. Philadelphia made a similar commitment to Rashaad Penny (one year, $600,000 guaranteed), and they still owe Boston Scott $1 million for another season. Did I mention Trey Sermon, whose two-year, $2.4 million contract they also picked up (although he can be cut for no dead cap hit)?
It’s just a very muddled RB room in Philly, and it doesn’t help matters that Jalen Hurts vultured 13 touchdowns on the ground last season. It’s certainly possible that if D’Andre Swift plays well, the Eagles sign him to a long-term deal, especially with the other backs entering free agency. But do you want to bet on a team — who just locked up $179 million in guaranteed money for their franchise QB — signing a 25-year-old running back to a long-term deal?
I certainly don’t. And yet, Swift is going ahead of Miles Sanders in most dynasty drafts. The Swifties are strong…but will they be rewarded for their faith?
The tight end landscape is a difficult one to navigate, which is why it can be tempting to target a post-hype sleeper like Darren Waller. The former Raiders TE made a splash by signing a three-year, $55 million contract in Las Vegas…only to be traded a season later to the New York Giants for a third-round pick.
So the G-men pick up Waller’s contract, which pays out a $1.1 million base salary this season. That non-guaranteed base, though, jumps all the way to $10.5 million in 2024, then $11.5 million, and $13.5 million after that. If they cut Waller after this season, they only incur a $7.9 million hit to the dead cap: that’s the amount of guaranteed money on his contract they would have to pay. There’s a good chance it’s worth it to avoid those $10+ million base salaries (if they aren’t restructured) in the next three years, especially because the Giants have the fourth-lowest salary cap space in the NFL.
The Giants, of course, are no stranger to cutting receiving options, even if it means paying out significant dead money: Kenny Golladay‘s release incurred nearly $15 million of dead cap this offseason. I have a sinking feeling that this could be the path after the 2023-2024 season; Waller turns 31 in September and has missed 14 total games these last two seasons. ‘The Walrus’ is currently a low-tier TE1 in dynasty leagues. I would much rather roster a younger player with more upside — and more financial legroom — to try to capture some upside at the position.
Are there any other contracts you would like to me analyze? Let me know on Twitter!