The reality of the situation is that the majority of star National Football League players are vastly underpaid when you consider how much revenue the league generates each year and also that every player risks his health and well-being for at least 16 times a season, assuming he remains healthy for four straight months. Whenever somebody says that an NFL player is overpaid, the individual offering that hot take probably means that the athlete is overvalued as it pertains to salary cap space. The hard salary cap used by the NFL often results in massive contracts restricting what front offices can do in any given year. It’s a reason why big-name stars hit the market each spring.
Because of the nature of NFL contracts players sign upon entering the league, younger game-changers, particularly those who play the quarterback position, are underpaid compared to many others inside of locker rooms. At the opposite end of the spectrums are veterans, some of whom have won Super Bowl rings but who are also overpaid when one considers what those players can offer clubs as of the fall of 2018. It’s often said the NFL is the ultimate “what have you done for me lately” sports competition. Owners and general managers understandably share that opinion, which is why fans shouldn’t begrudge any player who wants to do right by No. 1 and earn as much guaranteed money as possible.
24 Overpaid: Saquon Barkley
This is not at all a knock on Saquon Barkley, the New York Giants rookie running back who has all-generational talent and could become one of the faces of the franchise even before the conclusion of his debut season. The Giants grabbed Barkley with the second overall pick of this year’s draft, which resulted in the team owing him over $31 million in guaranteed money. That is a ton of cash to pay to any young talent, regardless of skill, who can only do so much when those tasked with opening running lanes for him don’t do their jobs with any consistency. In time, Barkley may be a stud. For now, the 21-year-old is overpaid.
23 Underpaid: Ezekiel Elliott
Unlike with Saquon Barkley, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is on a slightly more team-friendly contract. The 23-year-old Dallas back is also more of a proven product who can, when the team’s offensive line is healthy and things are going according to plan, lead the league in rushing and, potentially, be the best ball-carrier in the business. His deal has a fifth-year option for the 2020 campaign, but things could get a little murky, similar to what happened with the Pittsburgh Steelers and that team’s top running back when Elliott decides that he wants some long-term stability and money he feels is owed to him.
22 Overpaid: Justin Houston
The Kansas City Chiefs may be running out of patience with pass-rusher Justin Houston, as the days of the 29-year-old being an elite defensive force may be over, especially if a hamstring problem costs him a handful of games in the fall of 2018. Houston’s cap hit goes from $20.6 million to over $21 million for the 2019 campaign. That would be an issue even if he was still the same guy he was all the way back in 2014. That’s not the case, and the Chiefs cannot count on him to ever get back to that level and remain healthy. These two will probably go in different directions come next March.
21 Underpaid: Carson Wentz
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz probably would have won MVP for the 2017 campaign had he not suffered a torn ACL late in the season. The 25-year-old is back in the lineup and on the field, and he could once again compete for personal honors if he is able to lead the Eagles back to the postseason and maybe even to a division title. Wentz is signed through 2019, and the inexpensive rookie deal includes an option for 2020. He looks every bit the part of a franchise QB, and the Eagles will pay him as such, probably before the decade comes to an end.
20 Overpaid: Larry Fitzgerald
It should give nobody any pleasure to see wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a sure-thing first-ballot Hall of Famer, mentioned as one of the most overpaid players in the NFL. Unfortunately, the 35-year-old is not going to be part of the rebuilding process affecting the Arizona Cardinals in the fall of 2018, and that harsh reality makes his $16.85 million cap hit way too expensive for this particular franchise. Fortunately for the Cardinals, Fitzgerald and the Cardinals will go in different directions come January. If Fitzgerald is serious about wanting to retire as a member of the Cardinals, we may only have a couple of months left of seeing Larry Legend play in the NFL. The league will miss him.
19 Underpaid: Deion Jones
Injuries have been downright cruel to the Atlanta Falcons in 2018. Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones was lost to a foot injury in the season opener, and it’s possible he could miss the entire campaign if he is not able to take the field come mid-November or the holiday season. The 23-year-old continues to be a bargain, when healthy, as he is on his cheap rookie contract for one more season. Unlike a handful of others spotlighted in this piece, however, Jones can test free agency after the 2019 campaign. As long as he is able to play and looks like the same star who took the field in 2017, the Falcons will want to keep him around past one more year.
18 Overpaid: Tyrod Taylor
It made sense that the Cleveland Browns would want to sign a veteran such as Tyrod Taylor to serve as the bridge quarterback behind a rookie that the team was going to pick with the first overall selection of the 2018 NFL Draft (more on him later). Midnight quickly came for Taylor’s Cinderella comeback story, though, and he is now a rather expensive and overpaid backup signal-caller who may be traded by the Browns even before you read this sentence, depending on what happens in October. Taylor will hit free agency next year, and there’s little, if any, chance the Browns would bring him back for a second go.
17 Underpaid: Baker Mayfield
Literally, no reasonable person can blame passionate Cleveland Browns fans for falling in love with rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield after even a couple of starts. The first overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft has impressed for a side that has been looking for a real franchise QB since 1999, and those who have followed the Browns their entire lives are hoping Mayfield is the answer for more than just half a season. Whatever happens before the end of the 2018 campaign, Mayfield will be on a cheap contract up through 2021, and the Browns also have his rights for 2022. He’ll be underpaid if he wins even six games for the Browns this year.
16 Overpaid: Nick Foles
Fans of the Philadelphia Eagles will forever be grateful for all that quarterback Nick Foles did for the franchise after the previously mentioned Carson Wentz went down to injury late in the 2017 campaign. The Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl MVP did not reclaim that same form in September 2018 as Wentz was still working on returning to the field, however, and Foles is now an overpaid backup who carries a cap hit of $13.6 million. Sure, the Eagles would have been better off getting something for Foles in a trade earlier this year, but what’s done is done. These two will go in opposite directions in 2019.
15 Underpaid: Tyreek Hill
It is not all that hard to believe that Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill may consider holding out for more money so long as he remains healthy and continues to be a home-run hitter for the team’s offense throughout 2018. After all, the electrifying 24-year-old only has one more season on his deal, and he probably will not want to enter a contract year without knowing that he is taken care of beyond 2019. The hope among KC fans is that the franchise and player will come to terms on an agreement that benefits both parties. If that doesn’t happen, however, the Chiefs may need to make a difficult decision about his future.
14 Overpaid: Sam Bradford
Of course, nobody should be surprised that the Arizona Cardinals giving journeyman quarterback Sam Bradford $15 million in guaranteed money ahead of the 2018 season ended poorly for the club. The 2010 Offensive Rookie of the Year hasn’t been a long-term franchise QB for the majority of his career, largely because of injury woes, and he lost his job to rookie Josh Rosen even before the third game of the current season came to an end. As Christian D’Andrea of SB Nation explained in September, the Cardinals can save some money by dropping Bradford down the depth chart, but that alone shouldn’t remove the QB from this list.
13 Underpaid: Deshaun Watson
Those who may be quick to criticize Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson should remember that the 23-year-old suffered a torn ACL in November 2017, meaning it has not been a year since that setback cost him the second half of the campaign. Watson’s contract carries minimal cap hits for a starting QB up through 2020, which gives the Texans a good amount of time to see how he evolves and develops. It’s possible health problems could limit what Watson is able to achieve under center. He could also become a valuable commodity who needs to be paid and who causes the Texans to cut ties with a different star.
12 Overpaid: Jerick McKinnon
The San Francisco 49ers have been unlucky as it pertains to injuries since early September. However, the signing of running back Jerick McKinnon to a contract that guaranteed the 26-year-old $18 million was a decision heavily scrutinized even before he suffered a torn ACL during a workout that occurred before the start of the regular season. McKinnon never rushed for even 600 total yards in any one of the four campaigns he spent with the Minnesota Vikings. He was a fine running back with the Vikes, but the Niners overspent for his services. The club can only guess what he’ll be in 2019 when he is ready to play.
11 Underpaid: Alvin Kamara
What’s better than drafting an Offensive Rookie of the Year? Adding that player to a stacked offense that features a Hall of Fame quarterback, and doing so via a third-round pick. Running back Alvin Kamara is a versatile weapon and also one who is set to be on a cheap contract through the 2020 season. Even at that point, his cap hit won’t be more than $1.5 million unless the Saints sign an extension that includes a pay-raise before then. The 23-year-old will want to get his before that, of course, but the Saints control his rights at a good price for at least one more year.
10 Overpaid: Nate Solder
It really wasn’t all that hot of a take at the time that left tackle Nate Solder put pen to paper on his contract with the New York Giants that Big Blue overspent and overpaid to add him to the team’s offensive line. New York didn’t have much a choice, as Ereck Flowers was such a disaster at the position that the club elected to release the former first-round pick in October 2018 rather than hope to get something out of him before the end of the season. Flowers’ weaknesses don’t make giving Solder $34.8 million in guaranteed money all that great of an idea, especially since the Giants aren’t all that close to contending this fall than the team was a year ago.
9 Underpaid: JuJu Smith-Schuster
The Pittsburgh Steelers are usually praised for being a respectable and well-run organization, but there is plenty wrong within the franchise as of the fall of 2018. Winning often cures such issues, however, and it’s possible Pittsburgh will be able to right the ship before December. There’s nothing wrong with what wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is able to provide the offense playing alongside quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Sure, it may bother pockets of fans that the 21-year-old often seems as concerned with expanding his brand as he is with winning. Remember that his contract is worth slightly more than $1 million per year as it exists today. He is grossly underpaid.
8 Overpaid: Josh McCown
We are sure that New York Jets backup quarterback Josh McCown, a veteran who has seen just about everything during his lengthy NFL career, is a tremendous mentor for rookie Sam Darnold. Darnold is the starter, as he should be, meaning that the Jets are paying McCown $10 million in guaranteed money to play the role of big brother inside of the Gang Green QB room. This isn’t all that big of a deal in the long run, of course, since McCown will likely retire and accept a role as a coach or coordinator after the 2018 season comes to an end. As it pertains to money, however, he is among overpaid players in the NFL.
7 Underpaid: Aaron Rodgers
No, it doesn’t matter that the Green Bay Packers gave quarterback Aaron Rodgers an extension that could be worth up to $180 million total when all is said and done. The 34-year-old is still underpaid, when he isn’t dealing with a knee problem or other physical setback, because he is the best in the business playing the single most important position in North American professional sports. There will come a time, years down the road, when Green Bay fans realize the Packers did not do enough to surround this all-time great signal-caller with adequate talent during his career. Rodgers can’t play at this level forever.
6 Overpaid: Eli Manning
The music stops for every future Hall of Famer, and that may soon be the case as it pertains to the relationship between the New York Giants and two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. At 37-years-old, Manning is clearly slowing down even though he has shown glimpses of still being able to make all of the throws in 2018, and it seems almost a guarantee that the Giants will look to move on from him after the current campaign. Manning’s cap hit rises to over $23 million after 2018, which is an absurd number for somebody who is no longer a top-ten player at the position.
5 Underpaid: Jared Goff
Don’t get too used to seeing Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff listed among the most underpaid players in the NFL. The 23-year-old has been a revelation since the franchise acquired Sean McVay to serve as the team’s head coach, to the point that the signal-caller could compete for MVP honors up through the second half of the 2018 campaign. The fifth-year option on Goff’s contract allows the Rams to keep his rights for another two full seasons before the club has to pay him. Don’t expect the team to wait all that long to keep Goff happy and in charge of the offense.
4 Overpaid: Jimmy Garoppolo
Some would say that it is an overreaction to add quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the list since nobody could have known that the former New England Patriots backup would tear his ACL early into the 2018 campaign. Let’s not forget, though, that the San Francisco 49ers gave the 26-year-old a contract that includes over $71 million in guaranteed money. Jimmy G is still young enough to return from that injury and be as good, if not better, than ever. If he isn’t, however, he may serve as an example for why teams and front offices should not overreact to a handful of games as it pertains to paying somebody hoped to be an offense’s CEO for years to come.
3 Underpaid: Tom Brady
In July 2018, Scott Davis, Jenny Cheng and Cork Gaines of Business Insider wrote about how New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has “sacrificed at least $60 million in his career with discount contracts to keep the Patriots competitive.” Obviously, nobody needs to worry about the 41-year-old, as the all-time great signal-caller is doing just fine, financially speaking, and won’t have much to worry about when he decides to ride off into the sunset. Brady is literally the league’s most valuable player as of the typing of this piece, though. He will probably continue to be underpaid up through the conclusion of his career.
2 Overpaid: J.J. Watt
You don’t have to watch All-22 video footage to understand Houston Texans defensive superstar J.J. Watt is worth the six-year contract that could be worth up to $100 million when he is fully healthy and on the field, and he’s shown that to be true during the first one-third of the 2018 campaign. The problem, as was written about by multiple individuals earlier this year, is that having so much money tied up on a defensive player only really works if that same team can save some cash on a quarterback. Eventually, the Houston Texans will have to pay Deshaun Watson, among others. It will be interesting to see if Watt is with the Texans by 2020.
1 Underpaid: Patrick Mahomes
It’s anybody’s guess if Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes will continue playing at an MVP level up through the final week of the 2018 regular season. What’s clear is that the 23-year-old possesses the skills and confidence to be the real deal and a championship winner as soon as February 2019. Mahomes’ contract is not only a discount, as it pays him less than $16.5 million in guaranteed cash. It allows the Chiefs to keep his rights on the cheap up through the 2021 season. At this rate, Kansas City will happily show Mahomes the money before his future is remotely in doubt, but the front office doesn’t have to pull the trigger on that decision soon.