The NFL's financial landscape is being assessed through awards for the 11th straight year on now that the Super Bowl LVIII matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs is set. These awards differ from the traditional NFL honors because they are from an economic perspective emphasizing 2023 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

Baker Mayfield
TB • QB • #6
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The 2023 season was supposed to be a transition for the Buccaneers with Tom Brady retiring. Being in contention for a fourth straight playoff berth wasn't anticipated with Baker Mayfield taking over for Brady on a fully guaranteed one-year, $4 million deal worth up to $8.5 million through incentives.

Mayfield was up to the task of replacing the future first-ballot Hall of Famer. He had the best season of his six-year NFL career. Mayfield connected on 64.3% of his passes for 4,044 yards with 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions to post a 94.6 passer rating.

A third consecutive NFC South title was won with a 9-8 record. The Buccaneers advanced to the divisional round for just the third time in 21 years with a 32-9 wild-card game win over the Philadelphia Eagles before losing 31-23 to the Detroit Lions.

In the two playoff games, Mayfield threw for 686 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 48 of 77 pass attempts (62.3%) for a 106.3 passer rating. He is the only Buccaneers quarterback to ever throw for 300-plus yards and at least three touchdowns in a playoff game, which 2018's first overall pick did in both contests this postseason.

Least Valuable Acquisition

Jimmy Garoppolo
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Jimmy Garoppolo got off on the wrong foot with the Raiders. The agreed upon three-year, $72.75 million contract (worth up to $74.25 million through incentives) with $45 million in guarantees, of which $33.75 million was fully guaranteed, had to be reworked prior to signing. It became apparent during Garoppolo's physical that the left foot injury he suffered in December 2022 with the San Francisco 49ers required surgery. 

The total value of the deal remained the same while the salary guarantees were modified. The $11.25 million signing bonus was eliminated and the remaining $33.75 million in guarantees became contingent on Garoppolo passing his physical, which he did at the start of training camp in late July.  

Garoppolo was largely ineffective when he was benched in favor of 2023 fifth-round pick Aidan O'Connell once head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler were fired following a Week 8 loss to the Lions. He had a league-leading nine interceptions, despite missing two games because of injury, when he lost his starting job.

To add insult to injury, the Raiders converted $21.335 million of Garoppolo's 2023 salary into signing bonus in early September where voiding 2026 and 2027 contract years were added to create $17.608 million of immediate salary cap room. There will be $28.318 million of dead money, a salary cap charge for a player no longer on a team's roster, to release Garoppolo in the offseason. The $28.318 million could be split into $15.517 million in 2024 and $12.801 million in 2025 with use of a post-June 1 designation.

Runners-up: EDGE Marcus Davenport, Vikings; RB Miles Sanders, Panthers

Offensive Signing of the Year

Joe Flacco
IND • QB • #15
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Joe Flacco came off the street to save Cleveland's season. The 16-year veteran was out of football until Week 12 when he was signed to Cleveland's practice squad after Deshaun Watson's season-ending shoulder surgery. Flacco was elevated from the practice squad the maximum three times before signing a deal for the rest of the season worth $800,000 ($400,000 signing bonus and $400,000 base salary) that included an additional $4.05 million in incentives. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP led the Browns to four wins in his five starts to secure the AFC's fifth seed in the playoffs.

Runners-up: Mayfield; RB Raheem Mostert, Dolphins

Defensive Signing of the Year

Jessie Bates III was brought in to help shore up a shaky Falcons pass defense that ranked 25th in the NFL in yards allowed during the 2022 season. He received a four-year, $64.02 million contract to become the NFL's fourth-highest-paid safety at $16.005 million per year. The deal has $36 million fully guaranteed, which is tied as second-most for a safety.

Bates was arguably the league's best safety this season. His six interceptions, which included a pick six, were third-most in the NFL. Bates also forced three fumbles. Atlanta's pass defense improved dramatically with Bates ranking ninth in the NFL in yards allowed. 

Bates earned first team All-NFL honors from the Pro Football Writers Of America and the Sporting News because of his efforts. The Associated Press named Bates a second team All-Pro and he is a Pro Bowler for the first time in his NFL career.

Runners-up: EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, Ravens; LB T.J. Edwards, Bears

Biggest Steal

Mayfield was the NFL's lowest-paid starting quarterback who wasn't on a rookie contract this season. This excludes veteran quarterbacks who started a majority of the season because of injury, like Gardner Minshew did with the Indianapolis Colts.

The base value of Mayfield's one-year deal with the Buccaneers was worth $4 million. An additional $4.5 could be earned in incentives. 

Mayfield had $2 million of incentives primarily based on his offensive playtime. He had $500,000 for at least 66% playtime. It increased by $250,000 for hitting the 75% and 85% marks. The amount earned doubled with Tampa Bay making the playoffs. Mayfield was on the field for all but three of Tampa Bay's offensive snaps. He earned the entire $2 million.

There was $1.5 million tied to how Mayfield performed. Mayfield had the opportunity to make $300,000 each for ranking in the NFL's top 10 or NFC's top five in the following categories: passer rating, touchdown passes, passing yards, completion percentage or yards per pass attempt. He qualified for $600,000 because of his ranking in passing yards and touchdown passes.

Mayfield also had incentives tied to Tampa Bay's playoff success. Because Mayfield's regular-season playtime was at least 75%, he got $250,000 for each playoff win with a minimum of 75% offensive playtime in the game. These requirements were satisfied against the Eagles.

Mayfield, who earned $2.85 million of his incentives, provided the Buccaneers with tremendous value. According to NFLPA data, the average salary for starting quarterbacks in 2023, excluding those on rookie contracts, was $37,651,853 per year. 

Best Use of Contract Year

Mayfield has gone from one end of the spectrum to the other. He had the Worst Use of a Contract Year in the 2022 Contract Awards. Mayfield's subpar play was an impetus for the Panthers firing head coach Matt Rhule after a 1-4 start. The Panthers released Mayfield several weeks later at his request after he wasn't inserted back in the starting lineup once he recovered from a high-ankle sprain.

Mayfield took a modest one-year "prove-it" deal with a $4 million base value to compete with Kyle Trask to replace Brady as starting quarterback. Mayfield never looked back after winning a training camp battle with Trask. He had a career resurgence with the Buccaneers. Mayfield posted career highs with 4,044 passing yards (ninth in the NFL), 28 touchdowns passes (seventh in the NFL) and a 64.3% completion percentage.

Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles said Mayfield had earned the right to return next season after being eliminated from the playoffs by the Lions. Mayfield would like to remain with Tampa Bay but is interested who will replace offensive coordinator Dave Canales. He left to become the Carolina Panthers head coach. Mayfield also lobbied for wide receiver Mike Evans, whose expiring contract is expiring as well, to be re-signed after the Lions defeat. 

The Buccaneers should be willing to pay Mayfield in the Geno Smith neighborhood at a minimum. The Seahawks signed Smith to a three-year, $75 million contract, averaging $25 million per year with $40 million in guarantees, where $27.5 million was fully guaranteed at signing, in March. The deal is worth as much as $105 million through salary escalators for a maximum average of $35 million per year.

Mayfield may have higher salary expectations than a Smith-type deal. Targeting more than Daniel Jones got from the New York Giants last March wouldn't be too surprising. Jones signed a four-year, $160 million contract, averaging $40 million per year with $104 million in guarantees, of which $81 million was fully guaranteed at signing. At $40 million per year, Jones is tied as the NFL's 10th-highest-paid player. Jones' contract is worth up to $195 million thanks to somewhat realistically achievable incentives and salary escalators for a $48.75 million per year maximum value.

A franchise tag isn't out of the question for Mayfield if a long-term deal can't quickly be worked out. The non-exclusive quarterback franchise tag projects to 14.997% of the 2024 salary cap. The 2024 salary cap is expected to be between $240 million and $245 million. The number should be $36.367 million with a $242.5 million 2024 salary cap. 

Runners-up: OG Kevin Dotson, Rams; EDGE Jonathan Greenard, Texans; OT Austin Jackson, Dolphins; CB Jaylon Johnson, Bears

Worst Use of Contract Year

A tumultuous offseason was a sign of things of come for Devin White. He asked for a trade because of the lack of a contract extension. White reportedly wanted top off-ball linebacker money. That distinction belongs to Roquan Smith, who signed a five-year, $100 million contract, averaging $20 million per year, with the Baltimore Ravens last January right before the playoffs started. The deal has $60 million in guarantees, of which $45 million was fully guaranteed at signing. Since the Buccaneers held their ground on White's trade request and a new deal, he played this season under a fully guaranteed $11.706 million fifth-year option.

White's goal for the 2023 season was to become a complete overall linebacker rather than just a blitzing linebacker who made splash plays. That didn't come to fruition. 

White, who missed three games with a foot injury, was on the field for 79.38% of Tampa Bay's defensive snaps during the regular season. His playtime took a drastic drop in the playoffs to 30.3% because of confidence in K.J. Britt

White could be in for a rude awakening in free agency if his contract expectations remain the same. Only one off-ball linebacker has signed for more than $15 million per year in free agency over the last three years. It is Tremaine Edmunds with the Chicago Bears last March when he received a four-year, $72 million contract, averaging $18 million per year with $50 million in guarantees, of which $36.8 million was fully guaranteed at signing. However, it only takes one team to be seduced by the talent that made White the fifth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Runners-up: OT Mekhi Becton, Jets; QB Ryan Tannehill, Titans

Best Contract Extension (for a team)

Jordan Love
GB • QB • #10
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Rodgers' request to be traded to the New York Jets was granted because of the Packers being comfortable with Love taking the reins at quarterback despite his extremely limited track record. The Packers hedged their bets by signing Love to a one-year, $13.5 million extension worth up to $22.5 million through salary escalators before the May 2 deadline to pick up his fully guaranteed $20.272 million fifth-year option. His 2023 compensation was $7.5 million more in the new deal than he was scheduled to receive in the fourth year of his rookie contract.

Love validated Green Bay's faith in him. He completed 64.2% of passes for 4,159 yards with 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions to post a 96.1 passer rating. Love took a big step forward over the second half of the season. He threw 18 touchdown passes and just one interception in the final eight games while the Packers went 6-2 to secure a playoff berth.

Love was the best quarterback on the field in Green Bay's wild-card game upset over the Cowboys and more than held his own in a divisional playoff loss against the 49ers. The opposing quarterbacks, Dak Prescott (Cowboys) and Brock Purdy (49ers), are NFL MVP finalists.  

Love earned $5 million of the $9 million salary escalator because of his 2023 performance, playtime and Green Bay's success. His 2024 base salary goes from $5.5 million to $10.5 million.

The Packers avoided a situation like the Giants had with Jones with the extension. Jones held all the cards last offseason after his fifth-year option was declined because he finally started living up to the potential that made him 2019's sixth overall pick. If the Packers had gone the same route as the Giants, Love surely would be facing a franchise tag that is expected to be in the $36.5 million neighborhood.

Worst Contract Extension (for a team)

The Saints restructured Cameron Jordan's contract last March to create $10.588 million of 2023 cap space by adding a dummy 2027 contract year to go along with 2024 through 2026 contract years that were already voiding on the last day of the 2023 league year (this March 13). During the preseason, Jordan was signed to a two-year, $26.5 million contract extension running through the 2025 season with $28,482,687 in guarantees. The $28,482,687 in guarantees includes the $13 million Jordan is scheduled to make in 2024, which was fully guaranteed at signing. The new deal raised Jordan's 2023 cap number by almost $1.75 million.

Signing 34-year-old pass rushers to contract extensions is out of the ordinary and a risky proposition. Jordan's two sacks in 2023 were his fewest since his rookie season in 2011. An 11-year streak of at least 7.5 sacks was snapped. Father Time appears to be catching up to Jordan although he was hampered by an ankle injury that didn't require him to miss any games.