Making it to the NFL is an arduous journey filled with challenges most of us wouldn’t be able to push through. But there are those who reach the platform every year – only to fade away into obscurity shortly after. Those that can sustain that success are the ones who become stars in the NFL and as we all know, they’re compensated pretty handsomely for their efforts. You don’t have to be a household name to make big bucks in the NFL but it certainly doesn’t hurt your vale come negotiation time. Every NFL team has their highest paid player who they dish out a ton of cash for, but have you ever wondered if certain players are really worth the money?
Quarterbacks make up the bulk of this list not surprisingly, as it is universally seen as the most important position in the game. Some are Super Bowl winners, others are serviceable starters and a few are just chumps lucky enough to have been paired with a needy team. That being said there are a good deal of great players from all sides of the field on this list and we’ll be looking at each of them to see if they’re making as much as they should be.
32 Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer, $24,125,000
Carson Palmer came into the NFL with a lot of expectations, as many first overall picks do. Palmer has been a pretty solid passer throughout his career but is quickly nearing the end, as 2017 might very well be his last in an NFL uniform. Injuries and some lackluster years have hindered his career, but he’s bounced back in Arizona and still has enough gas left in the tank to lead the offense for one more go.
Quarterbacks in today’s NFL are arguably the most important position on any NFL roster. Signal callers lead offenses, read defenses and are entrusted with making the right plays and bringing out the best in their fellow teammates. Seeing an aging quarterback like Palmer as his team’s highest paid player isn’t much of a surprise, but given his injury history along with his age, it seems like a risky investment the Cardinals have no choice but to stick with.
31 Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan, $23,750,000
Get used to seeing quarterbacks atop the list for most of these teams because they tend to be the ones that make the most money, regardless of how you’d classify their play. Lucky for Falcons fans, Matt Ryan is one of the best in the business at what he does. Coming off his first Super Bowl appearance, things look good for Ryan’s Falcons despite their meltdown against the Pats. The offense and defense have both improved over the offseason, and with Ryan behind center the team is an immediate favourite to go all the way again.
As previously stated, Ryan is one of the best passers in the NFL today and so, he gets paid like it. It’s a good deal for both sides as Ryan still has a good chunk of his career left where he can play at a high level. The offense around him is fairly young and talented, with some savvy playmakers like Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman headlining the group. Atlanta’s in a position to win so long as they keep Ryan right where he is.
30 Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco, $24,550,000
Coming out of the same draft class as Ryan, Joe Flacco might be the most successful in terms of Super Bowl victories, but you wouldn’t find anyone outside of Baltimore who sees him as the superior player. Flacco is a gunslinger without the huge numbers to make up for it and while he’s a solid starter in the NFL, often ends up hurting his team with his penchant for turning the ball over.
Flacco has never once passed for over 30 touchdowns in a season, nor has he ever had any single digit interception campaigns either. One quick look at his stats will show you that he’s a solid starter who seems to tread the line between average and disastrous more often than not. Considering how much money he commands, along with how milquetoast his passing numbers are, it’s safe to say he’s not worth the cash – despite his Super Bowl ring.
29 Buffalo Bills: Marcell Dareus, $16,400,000
This kind of big money is usually reserved for big name offensive hot shots, but the defensive side of the ball gets some love every now and then as well. Marcell Dareus has proven that he can be a major commodity on the defensive line. Be it as a pass rusher or a run stuffer, he’ shown us early on in his career that he has a nose for getting to the football.
But Dareus hasn’t been as effective as he used to be. These last couple of seasons have been some of his worst, and while his role as a run stuffer hasn’t changed – he’s practically disappeared as a pass rusher. You could chalk that up to him playing the nose tackle position or you could speculate that he’s starting to digress. As it stands, he isn’t worth the price tag.
28 Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, $20,166,666
Another former first overall selection, Cam Newton is one of the most polarizing players in pro football today. The Panthers passer is a threat both with his arm and his legs and is seen as one of the most versatile and explosive at his position. His rare combination of size, speed, strength and elusiveness make him incredibly tough to take down. He’s also shown that he can perform behind the line of scrimmage, though his play on that side of the field has been erratic at times.
Newton’s 2016 campaign was a huge disappointment. Coming off an MVP season that saw him lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl, Newton’s play was wildly inconsistent and it hurt his team. You can chalk that up to injuries to his supporting cast though, along with issues with the offensive line. He’ll have to make the jump in 2017 if he wants to silence his doubters but he’s shown that he’s worth every penny Carolina pays him.
27 Chicago Bears: Mike Glennon, $14,000,000
Mike Glennon showed that he could be a solid backup in Tampa Bay, but didn’t necessarily do enough in the time he served as starter to prove that he was a legitimate option to lead the offense full time. Glennon hit the market this past March and hit it big with the Bears. Chicago gave him a huge contract and for about four or five weeks, he looked like the future of the franchise.
The Bears drafted Mitch Trubisky second overall in this year’s draft and what’s more, traded up to get him. All signs point to Glennon being the immediate starter once the season starts but that’s likely to change down the road. The general consensus was that they over paid Glennon prior to the draft, and their selecting Trubisky only makes the deal seem that much worse.
26 Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton, $15,700,000
The Bengals are one of those teams that haven’t had all that much success in the last couple of decades, but have constantly been on the cusp of being a really good team. So when they found themselves a solid franchise cornerstone in Andy Dalton, they decided to hold onto him. Dalton has showed us flashes of brilliance but has yet to prove that he could be more than a mid-tier passer on a consistent basis.
The Bengals offense is pretty loaded right now, so you’d expect Dalton to connect the dots and make this year’s team a winner. But it could go either way to be honest. Dalton is usually pretty careful with the football so he has that working for him. As is the case with most teams they’re willing to pay big bucks for a solid starter, so this deal makes sense.
25 Cleveland Browns: Brock Osweiler, $16,000,000
Brock Osweiler’s sudden departure from the Denver Broncos last offseason shook the organization and forced them to find themselves a new future at quarterback. Osweiler cashed in with the Texans but his stay in Houston was short-lived and will probably stand as one of the worst free agent pickups in NFL history.
The Osweiler trade this offseason didn’t really catch anyone off guard given his terrible play. The Browns essentially paid the Texans $16 million to get a second round draft choice and a possible placeholder at quarterback. Osweiler will have a shot to start this year and revive his career a year after it seemed so bright. But as far as contracts go this one is a huge waste of cash, no matter how much of it Cleveland can afford to burn.
24 Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant, $17,000,000
Back when Dez Bryant signed his massive contract in 2015, he was coming off three excellent seasons that had really solidified him as one of the premier receiving talents in the NFL. But his last two campaigns have actually seen him digress to such an extent, that some would take him out of that conversation altogether. Now injuries have played a role in that but so have inconsistent play and the emergence of a top tier running game in recent years.
Bryant has caught fewer touchdowns, had less reception and gone for less yards in the past two seasons combined than he had in any of his campaigns between 2012 and 2014. As previously stated, injuries have played a significant role in this but so has sloppy play. It’d be easy to say that he’s just not worth the money at this point, but let’s not forget that the guy can be an absolute beast at times and that potential alone is definitely worth the price tag.
23 Denver Broncos: Von Miller, $20,400,000
Arguably one of the best defensive talents in the NFL today, Von Miller is a premier pass rusher most teams would give anything to acquire. Miller is a sure difference maker on the defensive side of the ball and can single handily turn the tables. His mixture of speed, strength and technique make him the great player he is and he should continue to thrive for the next several years.
Miller is one of the highest paid defensive players in the NFL right now. His kind of production is almost unrivaled in the league and he serves as the lifeblood of the Broncos’ stout defense. There’s no disputing that he’s worth every penny the Broncos are paying him.
22 Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford, $22,000,000
Matthew Stafford took a while to prove himself but there’s no doubting that the Lions quarterback is a top 15 talent in the league. Stafford has a great arm and his decision making has gotten better with each year he’s spent in the NFL. He’s a natural leader on offense and has the talent to guide the Lions deep within the post season.
As we’ve said before, quarterbacks make the most in the NFL whether they really should or not. But in this case you can safely get away with saying that Stafford deserves his pay day. He’s a great passer and proven winner in the league. His career has been solid so far but he’s missing that elusive Super Bowl ring. Once he gets that, his legacy will be solidified.
21 Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers, $20,300,000
By the time it’s all said and done, Aaron Rodgers will probably go down as one of the greatest to ever play the quarterback position. Taking over for Bret Favre after the 2007 NFL Season, Rodgers wasn’t living in the gunslingers shadow for long until creating himself a legacy of his own. Now Rodgers is seen as a sure-fire hall of famer and a one man highlight reel when leading his offense.
You could make the argument that Rodgers is worth any amount of money he commands. His ability to make big plays out of nothing and consistently elude the pass rush in the pocket makes him an incredibly valuable asset for the Packers. The fact that Rodgers isn’t the highest paid at his position is baffling but he seems content with his deal nonetheless.
20 Houston Texan: JJ Watt, $14,500,000
Though they aren’t exactly elite quarterback numbers, JJ Watt is still making a pretty decent amount of money. He’s undoubtedly the most valuable player on his team and would most likely be on any of the other 31 teams in the NFL. Watt is a beast and has shown his versatility on multiple occasions. It’s safe to say that he’s on course to be a first ballot hall of famer when it’s all said and done.
You could say that Watt is actually worth more than he’s making, but that would get him into QB territory and that isn’t likely to happen. Still, Watt is the heart and soul of the Texans franchise right now and he’ll likely finish his career there. If he can curb the injury bug he’ll really help them out in 2017.
19 Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, $19,400,000
When healthy Andrew Luck is one of the best young quarterback’s in the league. His first two seasons were pretty promising and he really broke out in his third season he really showed elite potential. Injuries limited him in 2015 and he quickly bounced back in 2016. Now, the injury bug seems to have bit him yet again and it looks like an immediate return to the field this season isn’t as much of a sure thing as some fans would have hoped it’d be.
It’s not a question of whether Luck is worth the money here, but whether or not he can stay healthy and earn his massive pay. Luck is a true difference maker and can very well lead the Colts to a championship but he needs to be under center in order for that to happen.
18 Jacksonville Jaguars: Malik Jackson, $15,500,000
The hype surrounding Malik Jackson as he entered free agency last season was pretty astounding considering most fans weren’t all that acquainted with the defensive lineman before his Broncos thwarted the Panthers in the Super Bowl. Jackson ended up in Jacksonville with a huge contract and the burden of anchoring the team’s defense. To say that Jackson’s first season in Jacksonville was slightly disappointing wouldn’t be all that far off.
Jackson’s getting paid big money but isn’t really putting up huge numbers. He’s still a solid guy, but has yet to cross the threshold many were expecting him to. That could very well change soon, but as of right now Jackson looks like an overpaid luxury the Jaguars can afford given their cap situation.
17 Kansas City Chiefs: Justin Houston, $22,100,000
We’ve talked a lot about quarterbacks getting the big money in the NFL, and how most players usually don’t make anything near as much. But as with everything, there are exceptions to the rule. Justin Houston is making a monster salary this year and it even outclasses some passers in terms of yearly income.
Houston really broke out a few years ago with a monster 22 sack season, putting him among the very best pass rushers in the NFL. But injuries have greatly limited him since then. He’s an absolute beast on the field and a sure difference maker when he plays, but the key to all of that is his ability to stay healthy. 2014 Justin Houston is worth the price tag, but we’ve yet to see him show that he can regain that level of dominance and consistency.
16 Los Angeles Chargers: Philip Rivers, $20,000,000
The 2004 Draft will probably be remembered as one of the better quarterback drafts in the last couple of decades. Both Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger are Super Bowl winners while Philip Rivers has put together a fantastic career despite having yet to win the big one. Rivers is in the waning years of his career and is looking for that ring.
Though success in the league is often measured by championship wins, Rivers is a well respected passer despite his Super Bowl drought. As he gets closer to 40, Rivers is showing us that he can still play ball good enough to lead his team. He’s definitely worth whatever the Chargers are paying him.
15 Los Angeles Rams: Trumaine Johnson, $16,742,400
If he wasn’t playing 2017 on the franchise tag, Trumaine Johnson probably wouldn’t be on this list. Instead we’d be talking about Tavon Austin. But here we are. Johnson is a solid corner in the league and will likely be looking for a huge payout at the end of the year. Though it all depends on whether or not he’s able to perform better in 2017 than he did last season.
Johnson made a case for himself to be considered as one of the league’s best a couple of years ago but a poor follow-up campaign quickly eased that thought. Johnson will be playing for a lot this season and he’s a bit of a wild card going forward. As it stands though, he shouldn’t be getting top cornerback money until he once again proves himself.
14 Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill, $20,300,000
Nearing 30, Ryan Tannehill has yet to prove that he can be anything more than a serviceable starter in the NFL. The former first round selection’s career has been pretty average and he enters 2017 at a possible crossroads. If things continue this way he might very well have to start watching over his shoulder for a possible successor.
Tannehill is making top dollar for his position and is one of the higher paid passers in the game. Does his play warrant such a deal? Not at all, but he still has it. Tannehill’s career could very well be over in a couple of years – or at the very least his career as a starter. So giving him all this cash is more a formality given the position he plays, rather than any real indication of what he’s worth to the franchise.
13 Minnesota Vikings: Sam Bradford, $18,000,000
Sam Bradford has had a pretty wild career. Initially thought to be the Rams’ savior nearly a decade ago, Bradford’s career in St. Louis was plagued with injuries and inconsistent play. He was soon shipped over to the Eagles where he never really gained management’s trust and was sent over to Minnesota last season after Teddy Bridgewater went down with a freak injury.
Bradford is a reliably guy under center. He doesn’t turn it over all that much and can rally an offense when need be. But he isn’t that big playmaker you want leading the team on every down. He’s only as good as the talent around him, making him more of a complimentary passer than anything else. That’s a lot of money to pay for an average passer.
12 New England Patriots: Tom Brady, $14,000,000
Probably the greatest player of all-time, Tom Brady should really make more than he does. He’s the lowest paid quarterback on this list and that’s baffling. But Brady has been willing to sacrifice a few million off his pay in order to allow the Pats to go out there and get talented players for the better. Though he’s getting close to 40, Brady can still sling it and looks like he can keep going for a long while.
This is probably one of the few entries on this list who deserves more than what they’re currently getting. Brady is a future hall of famer and makes the Pats a contender year in and year out. He’ll take his money and be happy with it but we all know he deserves way more.
11 New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees, $19,000,000
Drew Brees might not have all that much time left in the NFL, but he’s still getting paid top dollar despite his window closing. He might not even be a Saint should he decide to return to football following the 2017 season, and so we could be looking at a major free agency signing in the making. Wherever Brees goes he’ll command a high price and will most likely play at a high level.
Like Brady, Brees is one of the best passers in the game and a sure difference maker on the field. It’s only natural that he makes a good deal of money for his efforts given his track record. Despite his age, Brees still plays at a pretty high level and thus should command the high price.
10 New York Giants: Eli Manning, $19,700,000
Though he has his fair share of detractors, Eli Manning is a Super Bowl winning quarterback and has proven time and time again that he can come through in big moments. While he has had his fair share of struggles with turnovers, Manning seems to have found new life in the West Coast offense the Giants now run and will likely end his career in that system for better or for worse.
Manning has a pair of Super Bowls under his belt along with multiple 4th quarter comebacks and a knack for getting hot in the playoffs. His numbers might not be the best you’ll see but he’s a franchise passer making franchise passer money. Everything checks out here.
9 New York Jets: Muhammad Wilkerson, $18,000,000
Muhammad Wilkerson is a mammoth of a man with a nose for stuffing the run and has displayed some pretty decent pass rushing skills. The Jets are in a bit of a rebuilding mode but they still have solid pieces like Wilkerson to keep them grounded. Though both his and the Jets’ future look to be clouded going forward Wilkerson is still a great talent at his position.
Wilkerson has only reached double digit sack totals twice in his career. As great a player as he is, that doesn’t really command the type of salary he’s making and makes it seem that he’s kind of being over paid in favor of keeping a stout defensive line intact.
8 Oakland Raiders: Derek Carr, $15,556,691
One of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, Derek Carr has certainly done all the right things since being drafted by the Raiders in the second round a few years ago. He’s quickly established himself as a top tier passer and will only get better as the years go on. Carr is an excellent leader and really seems to be the face of the franchise the Raiders hoped he’d be.
Coming off such a huge contract, this might be a little bit of a premature question, but if Carr continues to play like he has been and actually improves then he’s definitely worth the money they’re spending on him. There’s no reason not to pay the man this kind of money given what he’s been able to do so far in his career.
7 Philadelphia Eagles: Lane Johnson, $ 9,843,750
This is one of the more modest payouts we’ve seen so far. The Eagles have a young quarterback under center and are looking to get their offense to be as explosive as it can be – so it only makes sense to keep your best offensive lineman happy. Lane Johnson is one of the better young tackles in the league and is a key part of Philly’s plans moving forward.
The Eagles offense really struggled without Johnson last year. There was a noticeable difference on offense before and after his injury. He might not make big plays but he does his part in keeping the offense running long enough for those plays to happen and that alone is worth the kind of cash he’s earning.
6 Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger, $ 18,200,000
Like Rivers and Manning, Ben Roethlisberger has had himself a pretty stellar career and has taken home some hardware in his time. As is the case with the other two, Big Ben looks to be nearing the end of his career and will look to grab onto another championship till it’s all said and done. His recent flirtation with retirement suggests that that day might come sooner rather than later.
Roethlisberger is a top ten passer in the NFL and a consistent leader in the Steelers locker room. He keeps them in the running year in and year out. But you always have to worry about injuries when it comes to him. His somewhat superhuman ability to quickly come back from devastating injuries shouldn’t be underestimated. All in all this is a solid deal for a great player.
5 San Francisco 49ers: Joe Staley, $11,056,250
The 49ers are certainly rebuilding right now and it looks like that’ll be the case for the next couple years. The team doesn’t early have their franchise passer on the roster yet but they sure have someone who can do a good job of protecting him when the time comes. Joe Staley isn’t getting any younger, and while he might not win a championship in his time as a 49er, he has had a great career since entering the league.
Staley is one of the best offensive tackles in the game right now and provides the 49ers consistency and experience at the position. On a team that needs so much work in so many different areas, having this kind of player is incredibly beneficial – even if you’re not built to win right away. Staley is worth the price tag based on talent alone.
4 Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson, $18,800,000
Coming out of college, Russell Wilson was seen as an athletic but undersized prospect at quarterback and was selected in the third round of the draft as a result. It turns out that Wilson had first round talent and potential though and he’s now one of the top passers in the league. Able to beat you with his legs and arm, Wilson is a natural born leader and serves as the lifeblood of Seattle’s offense.
Quarterbacks get the big money and Wilson isn’t an exception. Like most of the qb’s on this list Wilson has certainly earned his large pay day in how he plays, conducts himself and leads his team. He’s a bit of a low-key star in today’s NFL but you get the feeling that the Seahawks wouldn’t have it any other way.
3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gerald McCoy, $13,750,000
Gerald McCoy faced a good deal of criticism coming out of college. The former top five draft pick was saddled with a ton of expectations and even more detractors. His first couple of years in the NFL did nothing to quiet his critics but he soon came into his own in his third year and has been the Buccs’ leader on defense ever since.
McCoy is one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL and while he is getting older he’s still very much in his prime. His ability to both stop the run and rush the passer have made him an incredible asset the Buccaneers would be crazy to let go. This isn’t the highest pay we’ve seen on this list but it’s a substantial one nonetheless and one that McCoy definitely deserves.
2 Tennessee Titans: Jurrell Casey, $9,688,750
Jurrell Casey recently signed a four year extension to stay in Tennessee, only adding to his riches and securing his spot as a career Titan. Casey is one of the better 3-4 defensive linemen in the league and is an incredible asset to the Titans defense, so it makes sense that the team would want him locked up in the long term.
Though he’s only gone over double digit sack numbers once in his career, Casey is still seen as an asset at his position. Stats aren’t everything. Casey is dominant off the snap and can move through offensive linemen with ease. At just under $10 million this is a solid deal for both sides.
1 Washington Redskins: Kirk Cousins, $23,943,600
Washington’s top two paid players are Kirk Cousins and Josh Norman. Whether or not either of them are worth their massive salaries is up to debate but we’ll take a look at Cousins for now as he remains the team’s highest paid talent after once again signing his franchise tag tender. Cousins is already pretty darn rich and he should cash in with a huge deal after this year. Whether it’s with the Redskins remains to be seen.
Whoever does decide to pull the trigger on Cousins will be overpaying for an average but reliable starter. That’s no surprise given the position he plays. Most who show a glimmer of ability and talent at quarterback in the NFL tend to have decently long careers and even deeper pockets. Cousins might make the jump to elite levels of play this season but until he does, he just isn’t really worth the massive salary he’s bound to get.