Fans question why millionaire athletes would put money ahead of the team and ahead of winning. The answer is far from simple. If you could get completely honest answers from any players you wanted, you would likely struggle to find two that had the exact same reasoning. However, it can be cut down to a few simple things.
Without a doubt, a significant portion of it is the simple desire for wealth. The same desire that every person on earth shares. NFL players don't play exclusively for the money though. They play for the glory. They want to be the very best and they want everyone to know it. The problem is that "skill" isn't an easy thing to measure. Stats are one method, but it's a highly misleading one. Production is always dependent on other players on the team. A great player with no surrounding talent will not produce nearly as much as a good player with incredible surrounding talent.
Money is the true measuring stick of importance and value; it's one of its basic functions. It's a way for players to stack up their talent against that of their peers. The difference between $10 million and $10.5 million doesn't sound like much to the vast majority of fans. Both figures are insane amounts and would be plenty to live a comfortable life. But it isn't about that at all. It's about making more than the other athletes at the position.
Someone who excels at their job is not going to accept an offer that pays the position's average. It isn't about simply having more money to spend, it's about the respect that comes along with it. A high salary is a sign that you're great at what you do. Settling for less takes humility. Most people are very prideful, athletes especially so.
Here are the top 20 athletes who are determined to make headlines in 2017.
20 Jason Pierre-Paul
Jason Pierre-Paul is in an interesting situation. His unfortunate accident last year resulted in his right index finger being amputated. The position he plays requires him to be able to haul down people who are 220 pounds of pure muscle. It doesn't sound like a big deal to some people, but missing a finger makes a massive difference.
Only a couple years ago, he was considered to be one of the best defensive ends in the game. Now it's unclear as to whether he can still be an effective player. The Giants have him signed to a one year deal to see if he can prove himself once again. If it works out, he still has a bright future. Teams will pay a lot of money for a 28 year old (in 2017) edge rusher. All that matters is if he can get to the quarterback. Pierre-Paul has to perform first though.
19 Calais Campbell
Calais Campbell is the anchor of Arizona's defense. The 3-4 defensive end has been with team since being drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft. In that period, he has missed only six games. Durability is a valuable trait in the NFL.
Year in and year out he puts up impressive sack totals given his role. He forces opposing offensive coordinators to draw up game plans around him. It takes the pressure off his teammates and allows them to be at their best. Even still, he manages to cause havoc for the opposition. He does everything asked of him and more.
Prior to the 2012 season, he signed a five year contract worth $55 million. He earned every cent of it. Now, he's due for another one. It's hard to imagine him as anything but a Cardinal. Though with the all the new contracts the team has to sign, he may be an unfortunate causality.
18 Emmanuel Sanders
Emmanuel Sanders decided to test free agency in 2014 when his rookie contract with the Steelers expired. He ended up joining the Denver Broncos on a three year, $15 million dollar deal.
The signing worried some fans. Denver had intentions of sliding him into the number two role to replace Eric Decker. However, he posted modest numbers in his final two seasons in Pittsburgh, 626 and 740 yards respectively. They certainly aren't bad, but not something anyone would be happy with from a starting receiver.
As it turns out, he played well beyond all expectations. Over the past two years, he has exceeded 2,500 receiving yards combined as well as 15 touchdowns. Most didn't expect him to be a reliable number two, yet he's produced like a star.
He will be 30 years old next off season, which won't do him any favors while negotiating, but few receivers are able to hit 1,000 yards as easily as Sanders. He will still get a lot of attractive contract offers.
17 Riley Reiff
Riley Reiff has been in the league for four years now. At this point, he has been an average left tackle.
It isn't a glowing endorsement. That doesn't change the fact that he's going to make a lot of money next off season. First of all, it is very likely he hits the open market. Desperate teams will always overpay for adequacy and there is never a shortage of teams looking for a tackle. The average salary for a left tackle is around $6 or $7 million annually. However, it would not be surprising at all to see Reiff earn far more.
Of course, all this is under the assumption that his 2016 season is par for the course. It seems when average players hit their first contract year, they bump up their game to the next gear. Money is a great motivator. If that happens, he may be the jewel of the free agent class, providing he doesn't work out a deal with Detroit.
16 Luke Joeckel
Heading into the 2013 NFL draft, no one was impressed with the overall talent of the class. The first round has only given the NFL a handful of stars and is littered with busts and mediocrity. Because of this, many fans have unfairly written off some of the top selections, notably Luke Joeckel.
That isn't to say that he is a superstar that's just flying under the radar. Rather, he is an up and down player. He usually plays quite well but has a handful of disastrous games in between. But he's still a young player with room to grow. After all, he's only 24 years old with just over two seasons worth of games under his belt. With an improved team and a positive outlook moving forward, this is a great chance for Joeckel to establish himself.
From a contract perspective, he doesn't need to transform into an All-Pro. He just needs to show that he's part of the long-term solution in Jacksonville and he will have a tremendous amount of bargaining power.
15 Markus Wheaton
Markus Wheaton performed well beyond expectations in 2015. He looked like a solid number two receiver, but was forced down on the depth chart due to the talent above him. His numbers were very similar to Bengals wide receiver, Marvin Jones. This offseason, he got a contract with the Lions worth an average of $8 million a year. Wheaton would likely get a more attractive deal given that he was in a reduced role, playing behind both Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.
However, the year-long suspension of Bryant leaves a massive window of opportunity for Wheaton in 2016. He's going to get a chance to prove himself in the full-time starting role. He is a talented young player, now in the number two role, and he has an elite quarterback throwing him the ball. There's a very good chance he has a breakout year. With a new contract on the horizon, it's the absolute perfect time for it.
14 Tyrod Taylor
Tyrod Taylor was a sixth round pick back in 2011 by the Baltimore Ravens. He never got a serious shot there, as the team already had a franchise quarterback in place. In fact, he only attempted 35 passes in four years during regular season games. There was very little tape on him. Though, he was one of the sleeper free agents during the previous offseason as many thought he had quite a bit of potential.
His 2015 season was highly successful. He threw for over 3,000 yards and had 20 passing touchdowns compared to 6 interceptions. On the ground, he had an additional 568 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Franchise quarterbacks get paid serious amounts of money, often taking up nearly 15% of their team's cap space. While this year was about as good as anyone could have reasonably expected, no one is going to commit "quarterback money" to anyone after only one season. Taylor needs to prove this wasn't a fluke. If he can do that, he'll be set for life.
13 Dont'a Hightower
At 6'2"and 266 pounds, Dont'a Hightower is an absolute wrecking ball. He is the perfect complement to his freakishly athletic teammate, Jamie Collins. Hightower is the player that beats up his opponents and wears them down throughout the game. He ensures the Patriots win the physical battle each and every game.
Players of this type are often one dimensional. They can hit but struggle greatly in other facets of the game. Hightower is a complete player though. He has many strengths and minimal weaknesses. He's versatile enough to play many different areas and is one of the more intelligent players on defense.
His value to the team is immense. There are very few players like him in the league. New England has many key players that will need new contracts within the year. You can be sure the team will place a very high priority on Hightower.
12 Kirk Cousins
This pick is very up in the air. On one hand, he could be one of the highest paid athletes of the offseason. On the other, he might end up just getting backup money. Last year was strange, as he showed impressive strengths as well as significant weaknesses. If Cousins can establish himself as a long term solution at quarterback for the Redskins, he'll be drowning in cash.
To do that, he needs to polish off his game. He needs to keep his weaknesses to a minimum and not allow defenses to key in on them. Often young players will look great for a handful of games and then slowly fizzle out because defenses learn to negate their strengths and exploit their vulnerabilities.
One highly visible issue he has is his deep ball. If you never throw deep, the defense can load up the box and easily take away the run or the short passing game. It doesn't have to be a strength, but it needs to be an option. Defenses need to feel threatened by it.
11 Michael Floyd
Michael Floyd's 2015 season was the best of his career. He recorded 100 yards in five of the final eight games, finishing the year with 849 receiving yards. The number would have been far higher had the wide out not suffered a hand injury early on.
At this point, there are some who feel he is the Cardinals' top receiver. Though, others dismiss that, claiming Fitzgerald commands the defenses attention and takes the pressure off. His shortened 2015 season prevented us from getting a good look at him. Obviously he finished strong, but he needs to show that for an entire season.
Heading into 2016, Floyd looks like a solid number two wide out. That status will get him a very nice contract, but he could get quite a bit more. If he can pick up where he left off at the end of 2015, he'll be well on his way to being one of the most coveted commodities of the offseason. That's a big task though.
10 Jamie Collins
The biggest thing that separates college football from professional football is the athletic ability of the players. It's part of the reason that mobile quarterbacks aren't nearly as effective at the highest level. The entire defense is so athletic that it's nearly impossible to get a significant edge over them.
Despite the fact that he's surrounded by players with uncanny physical abilities, Jamie Collins stands out due to his athletic ability. He's truly the best of the best in this regard. He's a linebacker but looks like a defensive end when in the backfield and a safety when he's covering the middle.
When New England gets talked about, Tom Brady dominates the discussion. It's understandable, but New England's defense deserves an immense amount of credit as well. The team had to part ways with Chandler Jones earlier in the year because they have too many young stars and not enough money. One of those starts is Collins and he's going to become one of the highest paid inside linebackers in a very short while.
9 Stephon Gilmore
Stephon Gilmore has lived up to the expectations that came with being drafted at 10th overall. Now, he's about to be paid like it.
2016 is the last year of his contract and the Bills have yet to sign him to an extension. With the exceptional play of rookie corner Ronald Darby, there has been some speculation as to whether the team will elect to keep him. He is going to demand to be one of the NFL's highest paid defensive backs, but has struggled to stay healthy. He hasn't played a full 16 game season since his rookie year. Giving long contracts to injury prone players makes many general managers nervous.
If he hits the open market, you can bet he's going to get quite the contract. Bad corner play is an epidemic in the NFL. Teams will quickly forget any negatives and offer him nearly anything he wants.
8 Chandler Jones
Chandler Jones has been one of the NFL's most impressive edge rushers since coming into the league in 2012 with the Patriots. It came as a surprise to many when the team decided to trade him to the Cardinals earlier in the year. Seldom do teams part with their young stars, but in this case it made sense. New England couldn't afford to keep all of their young defensive talent. They decided to trade one and get a return instead of holding on to him for a year and watching him walk in free agency.
Arizona is a team that desperately needs some young edge rushing talent. Jones has twice recorded double digit sacks and is only 26 years old. He's going to a team with an insanely talented secondary, which means he'll be given plenty of time to get to the quarterback.
Jones is in a great position to succeed. He's going to get quite an offer when the season wraps up.
7 Le'Veon Bell
Le'Veon Bell should be far higher on this list. He is the most talented running back in the NFL right now. There are very few players in the NFL that have such a large impact on both the passing attack as well as the rushing attack.
However, over the past two years, he has been getting into quite a bit of trouble with the NFL. Last year he was handed a three game suspension (reduced to two games after appeal) for violating the substance abuse policy. Now, he's in trouble for missing drug tests. It's unclear what the penalty will be, if there is one at all. Regardless, it's a serious concern for Bell moving forward and an issue that will get brought up when he is negotiating his second contract. A player can have all the talent in the world, but it counts for nothing if he isn't on the field.
LeSean McCoy got a $40 million contract that averaged $8 million per year with the Buffalo Bills. Just over 45% of the money was guaranteed. Bell would have been looking at a similar contract, likely a bit more to reflect the increased salary cap. It's hard to what degree these issues will impact that. They will certainly have an impact though.
6 Eric Berry
Safety is not one of the highly valued positions in the NFL. In the past five years, only one safety has been selected with a top 10 draft pick. Furthermore, safeties only get paid more than punters, kickers, and tight ends. General Managers do not hold the safety position in high regard.
Eric Berry has been the exception to that standard ever since being drafted with the fifth overall pick in 2010. He has been a true stand out player and a key piece on the dominant Kansas City defense.
While Berry and the Chiefs are clashing at the moment over his contract, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which he leaves the team next year. He's too valuable and Kansas City will certainly do whatever it takes to ensure he's there for the long haul.
In all likelihood, Berry is going to be the highest paid safety entering the 2017 season. That means a contract that pays between $11 and $12 million a year, perhaps more.
5 Dontari Poe
Leading up to the 2012 draft, many fans were desperately hoping their team stayed away from Dontari Poe. He shot up draft boards after posting one the best combine results in recent memory. Most fans thought that he was just another workout warrior that was going to get drafted far too early because some coach thinks he can mold him into a something he wasn't. It goes to show that fans should trust their team's scouts a little more.
Poe is a 3-4 nose tackle, which is one of the least glamorous roles in the entire NFL. It is one of the most important though. Having a nose tackle that can consistently draw double teams and still create pressure allows everyone to have an easier time on defense.
Defensive linemen have been getting insane contracts recently. Poe is the next one in line. Unfortunately, Kansas City has a lot of money committed to Justin Houston. In addition, Eric Berry needs a new contract. It's going to be difficult to sign both him and Poe with so much money committed already. There's a chance for Poe to hit the open market. If that happens, he may just become the NFL's highest paid defensive tackle.
4 Trumaine Johnson
The Rams fielded one of the most talented secondaries in the NFL last year. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like they'll be able to say that again this year. They lost their starting corner, Janoris Jenkins, after he elected to sign a massive deal with the New York Giants. In addition, hard-hitting safety Rodney McLeod left to go play for the Eagles. Those two players will leave massive holes in the defense. However, they did at least retain their number one corner, Trumaine Johnson. Though, it was only because they applied the franchise tag to him.
He's going to need a new contract following this season, and they can't let a third talented player leave their secondary in only two years. Johnson will have all the leverage. The team desperately needs him and they will have nearly $50 million in cap space to work with.
If he performs this year, he is going to get anything he wants.
3 Alshon Jeffery
Fans from around the NFL are hoping the Bears let Alshon Jeffery hit free agency. He's a highly talented receiver that everyone wants the luxury of rooting for. Unfortunately for them, that isn't anything more than a pipe dream.
The Bears value Jeffery immensely, especially after trading away their former number one wide out, Brandon Marshall. They certainly won't let him walk away for nothing. He's a young star and the team will have over $50 million in cap space to work with next year.
Earlier in 2016, Bengals' wide receiver A.J. Green signed a four year contract extension worth $60 million. Given that he and Jeffery have had somewhat similar production over their career, fans can expect a similar deal for Chicago's star. Of course, that's provided he can keep up his level of production into the 2016 season. Though, given how much money is on the line, I'm sure there are very few who are concerned about a regression.
2 Kawann Short
Kawann Short is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. He was a mid second round pick in the disappointing 2013 draft. He didn't start during his rookie year and, even then, only managed to start half the games the following season. As a result, he has been flying under the media's radar until very recently.
He has been one of the core players of the Panthers' defense. They know exactly how valuable he is to the team and you can be sure he's a key part of their long term plans.
Defensive tackles have been getting paid this off season. Malik Jackson got a six year deal worth $90 million from the Jaguars after electing to leave Denver. Fletcher Cox recently re-signed with the Eagles on a six year extension worth $103 million. If Short's 2016 season is similar to his last, you can expect to see him getting a deal on par with Cox and Jackson.
1 Drew Brees
Drew Brees can expect to get the most attractive deal in the next offseason by far. That's what happens when you excel at the most important position in sports, even despite being well past your prime.
There's little doubt that the Saints are going to re-sign Brees. Though there are a fair amount of people who think it is silly to commit a significant amount of the team's resources to an aging player when there's little talent elsewhere on the team. The flipside to that is that a team with an elite quarterback will always be within range of the Super Bowl. Ultimately, winning a championship is the only thing that matters and taking advantage of any chance to accomplish that is absolutely worth it.
Drew Brees will receive a contract that pays among the top quarterbacks in the league. We can expect the Saints to commit an average of $22-25 million a year for the foreseeable future to retain their quarterback.