Joe Johnson, Michael Vick, And The Biggest Contracts In Atlanta Sports History

A look into the biggest stars in Atlanta history and the cost effectiveness.

When I heard the possible terms for the Joe Johnson contract, after he'd agreed to sign with the Hawks once again for the max deal, I was very curious about where the deal would land among the biggest deals signed by Atlanta Sports stars in history. It's interesting to see how some of Atlanta's greatest stars have been compensated relative to the value that they've brought into the city. I quickly need to extend thanks to all of my co-bloggers who reminded me of deals that I needed to research in order to put this list together.

I have adjusted for inflation for all of the contracts which aren't current-since I can't know what inflation rates will do in the future, I used the base values for every contract which expires after 2010. Keep in mind, there's some differences in the bargaining agreements across each sport (there's no salary cap in baseball, for one) so it's not directly representative of each player's relative profile, but it still paints a rather interesting picture.

1) Michael Vick's 10-year, $130 million contract:  It was close, but it does appear that Joe Johnson's new deal manages to avoid eclipsing this mammoth investment. We remember very well what happened here, of course; two years after signing it, Michael Vick was arrested, spent time in jail, was suspended by the NFL, and his contract was voided, giving this deal a big asterisk since Vick wasn't close to even the halfway point in this deal by the time the Falcons got out of this deal. Without specific details about how the money was structured, it's difficult to be sure how much of the money from this contract that Vick actually pocketed. Given that he kept the $20 million signing bonus, and the rest of the deal averaged about $11 per year, it's probably in the vicinity of $45 million. NFL deals always seem to include things like a "roster bonus" and various other incentives, so only Vick, his accountant, and the Falcons' front office can really know for sure.

There's a lot that can be said about this deal at the present. Given that Vick was given this contract after leading his team to the NFC Championship game, it certainly didn't appear a bad deal at the time, in spite of its historic size. Moreover, drafting Michael Vick electrified an entire fan base. The Falcons went from one of about seven teams facing NFL blackout rules for home games to selling out the Georgia Dome every week and driving up ticket prices, in addition to sales of team merchandise. You could say that deserved this deal, or at least one like it, even though he didn't earn his pay over the course of it. This one didn't work out too well for the Falcons overall, even though they did manage to get out of it after only three years.

2) Joe Johnson's six-year, $123 million contract: Given different cap numbers and valuations, this deal could have perhaps passed Vick's deal as the costliest in Atlanta history. Even without a signing bonus, the deal dwarf's Vick's in terms of average annual amount. Given the fact that NBA contracts are completely guaranteed, it's essentially a done deal that he will clear more of his money than Vick did of his. Even if Joe Johnson pulled a Gilbert Arenas and started brandishing a gun in the locker room, the Hawks are not getting out of this contract. There's still the belief in some circles that Joe Johnson will be traded in the future, but the longer he plays on this current deal, the bigger problem the money becomes, as he'll be declining while his deal continues to increase annually.

Over the course of this deal, it's unlikely that he'll remain the Hawks' best player. You could easily make the case that he's only the second or third best player on the roster right now, and NBA players generally decline after reaching their peak around age 28-29. Even though the aging curve in the NBA is not as defined as in baseball, you can expect that Joe Johnson doesn't have multiple years of peak performance left. Even if it's not the worst contract in  history, it could still be pretty crippling in the last 2-3 years of its term. It's almost certainly going to be larger than LeBron James' since his is a non-Bird max, which is almost comical to contemplate.

3) Chipper Jones' six-year, $90 million contract:  At least, six years, $90 million was what it was said to be worth when he signed it, but it also included a couple of option years on the back end, making it a bit more difficult to gauge the total value of this deal. In addition, Chipper restructured his deal about halfway through to clear up some more money for the Braves' front office to work with -- I'm not counting the recent extension he signed, since it's not really the same contract. The good news is that, thanks to the good people at SABR and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com we can see how much he actually made on a year to year basis. Running a very quick and dirty estimate for inflation, over the eight years he was on this contract he made approximately $116.74 million, putting him just behind Johnson's current deal.

Despite being of the richest deals in baseball at the time, it hasn't been a bad contract for the Braves. Even though they haven't been to the World Series since this deal was signed, and haven't been in the playoffs in the latter half, Chipper has been among the best players in baseball throughout this contract and you could make the argument that's underpaid. This contact hasn't destroyed the organization's ability to maintain payroll flexibility, especially after Chipper restructured his deal to clear payroll so they could resign their free agents. According to FanGraphs' WAR, Chipper has been worth more than he's made every year except for 2003 and 2004. In some cases, substantially more. Over those eight seasons, he went .317/.418/.559 with 219 home runs. He also managed to secure his status as a future Hall of Famer with two excellent years in 2007 and 2008. It's difficult to put a price on that.

4) Dikembe Mutombo's seven-year, $87 million contract: Of course, everything I found at the time said this was a seven-year, $57 million contract, but I think it has to have been misreported. He was paid just a hair over $87 million during the 7 years of this deal. I don't think it's realistic to believe he earned over $30 million in bonuses -- NBA deals just don't include that type of built-in incentives, especially considering that he never reached the finals. His deal was signed when Mutombo was a free agent in 1996 and carried across three different teams. Adjusted to 2010 dollars, he earned $108.89 million during the seven years of his contract.

Mutombo was traded during the 2000-01 season as Atlanta was dismantling everything about its team, doing its best to put together the worst decade in Hawks' history. Of course, the trade had to be made at that time since Deke was aging and still was 2 years and over $30 million. Prior to that season, the Hawks had reached the playoffs in all of his years as a Hawk, twice advancing to the second round. He was among the best defensive centers in the NBA at the time, which is saying quite a bit because it was a different era of NBA big men. Shaq and Tim Duncan were fresh young talents, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing were still just barely past their primes, and Alonzo Mourning was at his peak. Still, there was quite a bit of disappointment as the 1999-'00 Hawks were swept in the second round by the Knicks. That era of Hawks never quite lived up to expectations, despite the best efforts of Dikembe and his wagging finger.

5) Andruw Jones' six-year, $72 million contract:  This deal will always remain a fond memory for me. Andruw Jones bypassed his agent (Scott Boras) to negotiate a deal so he could remain in Atlanta. Andruw was a free agent in 2001 and he didn't want to drive the price up too high for a team struggling with its finances. Instead of marketing his wares to other teams, Andruw simply determined to just iron out a deal directly with the Braves' front office, bringing in his dad to help arbitrate the details. Negotiating on a good-faith basis worked out pretty well for him -- he got a pretty fair deal that reflected his value to the franchise at the time, and was the second highest paid player for the Braves during that era. In 2010 dollars, this deal ended up being worth $84.66 million

This really worked out great for the Braves. Andruw had an MVP caliber season in 2005 where he was dominant defensively -- even more than usual-and had a career high 51 home runs. The Braves needed every bit of Andruw's contributions in order to make the playoffs in 2005 as Chipper was hurt during much of the year, and didn't have his best year at the plate while he was in the lineup. In 2007, right at the tail end of this deal, Andruw's average really started to tail off and some fans began to turn against him -- unfortunate considering that he'd taken less money to remain in Atlanta in bypassing his agent not many years prior. He left town and got his pay raise from the Dodgers as the ability to hit seems to totally have deserted him soon after.

6) Greg Maddux's five-year, $57 million contract:  This is where the inflation adjustments become really important - there was a fairly high inflation rate in the early 2000s, and deals from the late 90s get a significant uptick in 2010 value. This deal was signed in 1998, at the heart of the steroid era, and was at the tail end of Maddux's most valuable years. Once adjusted for inflation, this deal is worth $72.08 million in 2010 dollars.

What is there to say about Greg Maddux? This is the first of two occasions where he took less money to remain in Atlanta. He would work out a one year in 2003 to avoid arbitration as well rather than accepting offers from plenty of other suitors. Maddux could very well have become a Yankee in 1998, but he remained in town to help get the Braves into the playoffs six more times. The Braves didn't win a title, and Maddux didn't win a Cy Young over the course of this particular deal, but as he remained one of the best pitchers in baseball over the course of the deal, he earned every penny.

7)  Matt Ryan's six-year, $72 million contract:  This looks out of order, following the Greg Maddux deal, but since I've made no inflation adjustment on this, it comes out slightly behind in current value. At the time, this was the richest rookie contract in history, immediately making Ryan one of the highest paid players in the NFL. It's part of the curious structure of the NFL where top rookies are compensated better than most veterans.

To be honest, I wasn't very happy when I hard the initial terms for this contract. The Falcons were still taking cap hits from the Michael Vick contract, so giving out a record contract to another quarterback wasn't a very exciting prospect. Matt Ryan took very little time in dispelling a lot of doubters, as you remember, hitting Michael Jenkins on a quick slant that became a 62 yard touchdown on his first professional pass. He provided the jumpstart the franchise needed after an awful and depressing 2007 season, and has helped the Georgia Dome to continue filling to capacity for all Falcons' games. More importantly, he helped lead the Falcons to two consecutive winning seasons for the first time in history, removing a big gloomy subtext from the franchise. Matt Ryan did suffer a bit of a sophomore slump, but there are various different causes for this. He wasn't at peak health during the 2009 season, missing a couple of games because of turf toe. The Falcons' running game wasn't the same in 2009 either, failing to help take the pressure off of Ryan and make defenses respect the thread of play-action. Despite the setbacks, Ryan remains one of the best young quarters in the league, and has justified his deal by quickly becoming the face of the franchise.

8) Joe Johnson's five-year, $67 million contract:  It's either an honor or a dubious distinction that Joe Johnson is the only name that appears twice on this list. The controversial move to bring Joe Johnson to Atlanta, the move that led to a huge civil suit between feuding owners of the team, has been much discussed in Hawks' communities. Two first round picks (which became Rajon Rondo and Robin Lopez) along with Boris Diaw so that the Hawks could sign him to a max deal. The deal, which was signed in 2005, ends up being worth $69.5 million in 2010 dollars-inflation is much less significant since it was a more recent deal.

It's really hard to evaluate this deal, retrospectively. The Hawks did improve markedly over the course of this contract, reaching the point where they've been in the Eastern Conference semifinals in two consecutive years. The improvement has certainly been facilitated by the presence of a great natural scorer like Joe Johnson, but is definitely being driven more by repeatedly having high draft picks and improving young talent. The Hawks' failure to establish themselves as true contenders by winning (or even being competitive in) a second round playoff game is a factor of their current construction around Johnson, who might be better served as a secondary piece rather than a centerpiece for a team with championship aspirations. Still, the Hawks wouldn't have gotten to where they are, 53 wins and a second-tier playoff team.

9)  Steve Smith's seven-year, $50 million contract:  Steve Smith resigned with the Hawks in the same offseason that they acquired Dikembe Mutombo, the summer of 1996. There were a lot of fairly large NBA contracts being handed out at that time, apparent when you see the size of Deke's deal. Stacey Augmon had just left down, and the Hawks were determined to keep Smitty in town as their primary scorer. Adjusting this deal for inflation, it comes out to $63.34 million in 2010 dollars.

Smith would only remain in Atlanta for three seasons after signing this deal. Atlanta did make the playoffs during each of those three years, but Smitty's scoring efficiency dropped down during each of them as he wasn't quite cut-out to being the primary option. He was a great NBA player, a great shooter, but the Hawks' offense at the time just didn't have enough threats to spread the floor and take pressure off of him. He was involved in one of the most infamous trades in Atlanta history, when he went to Portland for Jim Jackson and Isaiah Rider, the deal which ultimately derailed the franchise. Smitty had a couple of very good years in Portland, playing with Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis, and Scottie Pippen on a team that took the Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference finals. In his last season of that contract, he was also a bit player on a Spurs team that won the championship, even if he wasn't living up to his contract at that point. The Hawks certainly didn't get return on his contract, but they did trade him near his peak value and weren't stuck with his contract during his declining years.

10) Derek Lowe's four-year, $60 million contract:  I had hopes that this deal wouldn't make the list because it really does stand out. There's no inflation adjustment on this deal as Derek Lowe is only in the second season of it, but it certainly does seem inflated by something. The Braves were desperate to make a splash in free agency before the 2009 season after having missed out on deals to acquire Jake Peavy and A.J. Burnett. This is the result of panicking over the marketplace.

It's hard to make the case that this isn't the worst contract on the list. It's such a rough deal that the Braves were trying to offload his contract just last offseason, a year after signing it, and couldn't find any takers, even though they were willing to pay up to $3 million each of Lowe's remaining years. Failing to move Lowe forced the Braves to move Javier Vazquez to the Yankees to clear salary, even though they did net a top prospect in Arodys Vizcaino in compensation. In order to prevent Derek Lowe signing with the Mets, the Braves paid him like an ace to essentially  be their fifth best starting pitcher. The Braves will likely try once again next year to move Derek Lowe's contract, even though he's not pitching appreciably better than he did last year.

Other Notables:

Tom Glavine signed a contract in the late '90s, his second free agent contract with the Braves, that was worth $53.69 million in 2010 dollars. It was a four-year deal that included a fifth year as an option.

John Smotlz, just the year prior to that, signed his second free agent contract with the Braves coming off his Cy Young year in 1996. It was very similar to the one that Glavine would sign the following year, four years with an option for a fifth, and it paid about $50.7 million in 2010 dollar values.

Though the Thrashers haven't signed any contracts notable in the greater scheme of Atlanta sports contracts (both due to how salaries are negotiated in the NHL, and due to their ownership caring much more about the basketball side of their operation), Ilya Kovalchuk was offered two different contracts worth $10 million and $84 million respectively, which would have easily put him in the top 10. He declined both.

Roddy White's current deal with the Falcons was the largest of any NFL receiver when it was signed, with incentives making it worth up to $50 million over six years. While it's more than the $40 million contract of Larry Fitzgerald, Fitgerald's contract reportedly includes more guaranteed money.

Peerless Price also signed a seven-year deal with the Falcons worth up $40 million, but since NFL contracts are not guaranteed, the biggest chunk of money that he received was the $10 million signing bonus.

Sources:

Cot's Baseball Contracts, USAToday.com archives, Baseball-reference.com, Basketball-reference.com, Rotoworld.

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