Stacking NFL's highest-paid players by position after free agency

March, 20, 2017
Mar 20
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Andrew LuckAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe Colts signed Andrew Luck to a record deal in June 2016, which included $87 million in injury guarantees.

The big money, by now, has largely been spent on the 2017 free-agent market. If you see significant multiyear deals popping up in the coming months, chances are they are going to players still under contract to prevent them from testing free agency in 2018 or 2019.

How can we assess the impact of the 2017 class? One way is to look at how the contracts ranked among the most lucrative at each position. What follows is an attempt to do just that, using average per year (APY) as the benchmark while also including money that is guaranteed for injury, skill or both.

Quarterback

1. Andrew Luck, Colts ($24.594M APY, $87M guaranteed)

2. Drew Brees, Saints ($24.250M APY, $44M guaranteed)

3. Kirk Cousins, Redskins ($23.944M APY/guaranteed)

4. Joe Flacco, Ravens ($22.133M APY, $62M guaranteed)

5. Aaron Rodgers, Packers ($22M APY, $54M guaranteed)

6. Russell Wilson, Seahawks ($21.9M APY, $61.542M guaranteed)

7. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers ($21.850M APY, $64M guaranteed)

8. Eli Manning, Giants ($21M APY, $65M guaranteed)

9. Philip Rivers, Chargers ($20.813M APY, $65M guaranteed)

10. Cam Newton, Panthers ($20.76M APY, $60M guaranteed)

Someone missing? Yup. Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady's perennially team-friendly contract ranks No. 22 on this list. His current deal with the Patriots, which expires in 2019, included $30 million in guarantees and averages $15 million per year in this reckoning. The other missing name here is the Falcons' Matt Ryan, whose APY ($20.75M) falls just $10,000 short of Newton's. One player to keep an eye on is the Lions' Matthew Stafford, who is in position for a contract extension that should put him in the mix for this list. It also will be interesting to see when the Packers approach Rodgers about his deal, which has three more years on it. Cousins is on the franchise tag and, barring a major regression this season, it will keep him on this list whenever he signs a longer-term deal.

Running backs

1. Le'Veon Bell, Steelers ($12.083M APY/guaranteed)

2. LeSean McCoy, Bills ($8.01M APY, $26.55M guaranteed)

3. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers ($7.3M APY, $23M guaranteed)

4. Doug Martin, Buccaneers ($7.15M APY, $15M guaranteed)

5. Lamar Miller, Texans ($6.5M APY, $14M guaranteed)

6. Chris Ivory, Jaguars ($6.4M APY, $10M guaranteed)

7. DeMarco Murray, Titans ($6.375M APY, $15.25M guaranteed)

8. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys ($6.239M APY, $24.956M guaranteed)

9. Kyle Juszczyk, 49ers ($5.25M APY, $9.75M guaranteed)

10. Giovani Bernard, Bengals ($5.167M APY, $5M guaranteed)

This list provides a visual look at what we already knew: The 2017 class of running backs didn't cash in. Bell received the franchise tag, but the only other recent deal was for Juszczyk -- a fullback whom the 49ers say they will use as an "offensive weapon." McCoy's deal, renegotiated in 2015, is increasingly an outlier. Stewart's contract, meanwhile, was agreed upon five years ago. Elliott's high guarantee was a function of his draft slot as the No. 4 overall pick in 2016.

Wide receivers

1. Antonio Brown, Steelers ($17M APY, $19M guaranteed)

2. A.J. Green, Bengals ($15M APY, $15M guaranteed)

3. Julio Jones, Falcons ($14.25M APY, $47M guaranteed)

4. Demaryius Thomas, Broncos ($14M APY, $43.5M guaranteed)

5. Dez Bryant, Cowboys ($14M APY, $45M guaranteed)

6. T.Y. Hilton, Colts ($13M APY, $39M guaranteed)

7. Doug Baldwin, Seahawks ($11.5M APY, $24.25M guaranteed)

8. Keenan Allen, Chargers ($11.25M APY, $24.156M guaranteed)

9. DeSean Jackson, Buccaneers ($11.167M APY, $20M guaranteed)

10. Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos ($11M APY, $26.9M guaranteed)

Brown set the market by re-signing with the Steelers, but the only free agent to sign a top-10 deal with a new team was Jackson. That's a rarity for a player of Jackson's age -- he will turn 31 during the 2017 season -- but NFL player tracking last season revealed he hasn't lost much, if any, of his high-end speed. The next-highest paid free agent to change teams was Alshon Jeffery, whose one-year deal with the Eagles is worth $9.5 million for this season (ranking him at No. 17 overall).

Zach Bolinger/Icon SportswireThe Patriots dealt a fourth-round draft pick to Indianapolis for tight end Dwayne Allen and also received a sixth-round pick in return.

Tight ends

1. Jimmy Graham, Seahawks ($10M APY, $20.9M guaranteed)

2. Travis Kelce, Chiefs ($9.368M APY, $20.017M guaranteed)

3. Jordan Reed, Redskins ($9.350M APY, $22M guaranteed)

4. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots ($9M APY, $17.92M guaranteed)

5. Zach Ertz, Eagles ($8.5M APY, $21M guaranteed)

6. Charles Clay, Bills ($7.6M APY, $24.5M guaranteed)

7. Greg Olsen, Panthers ($7.5M APY, $12M guaranteed)

8. Jason Witten, Cowboys ($7.4M APY, $19M guaranteed)

9. Dwayne Allen, Patriots ($7.35M APY, $16M guaranteed)

10. Coby Fleener, Saints ($7.2M APY, $18M guaranteed)

The Patriots acquired Allen via trade from the Colts and now have two of the NFL's highest-paid tight ends. Otherwise, the big takeaway is that none of the free agents who changed teams this spring -- and there were many -- cracked this top 10. That list includes Martellus Bennett (Packers), Jared Cook (Raiders), Dion Sims (Bears) and Rhett Ellison (Giants).

Guards

1. Kevin Zeitler, Browns ($12M APY, $31.5 guaranteed)

2. Kelechi Osemele, Raiders ($11.7M APY, $25.4M guaranteed)

3. Kyle Long, Bears ($10M APY, $30M guaranteed)

4. David DeCastro, Steelers ($10M APY, $16M guaranteed)

5. T.J. Lang, Lions ($9.5M APY, $19M guaranteed)

The market for guards, long considered a secondary position, has exploded in recent years. Two players, Zeitler and Lang, jumped into the top five this year after Osemele set the bar in 2016. Two other free agents, Ronald Leary (Broncos) and Larry Warford (Saints), cracked the top 10. So did Joel Bitonio (Browns) and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (Chiefs), who both signed extensions to existing deals.

Centers

1. Travis Frederick, Cowboys ($9.4M APY, $28.162M guaranteed)

2. Alex Mack, Falcons ($9M APY, $28.5M guaranteed)

3. Mike Pouncey, Dolphins ($8.95M APY, $22M guaranteed)

4. Rodney Hudson, Raiders ($8.9M APY, $20M guaranteed)

5. Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers ($8.827M APY, $13M guaranteed)

No one from the 2017 class came close to the top of the market. The closest was JC Tretter, whose APY of $5.583 million ranks No. 10 among NFL centers. Generally speaking, teams work hard to keep their starting centers because it is such an important leadership position.

Russell OkungIsaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY SportsThe Chargers brought in left tackle Russell Okung to protect Philip Rivers' blind side.

Offensive tackles

1. Russell Okung, Chargers ($13.25M APY, $25M guaranteed)

2. Trent Williams, Redskins ($13.2M APY, $41.25M guaranteed)

3. Terron Armstead, Saints ($13M APY, $38M guaranteed)

4. Tyron Smith, Cowboys ($12.2M APY, $21.118M guaranteed)

5. Eric Fisher, Chiefs ($12M APY, $40M guaranteed)

6. David Bakhtiari, Packers ($12M APY, $16M guaranteed)

7. Riley Reiff, Vikings ($11.75M APY, $26.3M guaranteed)

8. Cordy Glenn, Bills ($11.573M APY, $36M guaranteed)

9. Joe Thomas, Browns ($11.5M APY, $29.5M guaranteed)

10. Andrew Whitworth, Rams ($11.25M APY, $15M guaranteed)

Left tackles were the biggest winners in the 2017 market, with Okung, Reiff and Whitworth all securing top-10 deals. The Panthers' Matt Kalil was not far behind. The Lions, meanwhile, made Rick Wagner one of the highest-paid right tackles with a deal that averages $9.5 million per year. When you consider the left tackle and guard markets together, you realize how motivated some teams were to upgrade their offensive lines. Concerns about the transition from college offenses, as well as the depth of the 2017 draft class, were contributing factors.

Defensive tackles

1. Ndamukong Suh, Dolphins ($19.063M APY, $59.955M guaranteed)

2. Fletcher Cox, Eagles ($17.1M APY, $63.299M guaranteed)

3. Marcell Dareus, Bills ($15.850M APY, $60M guaranteed)

4. Malik Jackson, Jaguars ($14.35M APY, $14.35M guaranteed)

5. Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers ($13.6M APY, $51.5M guaranteed)

The top of the 2017 class largely stayed home, without cracking the top five of this sub-group. Kawann Short signed his franchise tag with the Panthers. Brandon Williams received an APY of $10.5 million and guarantees of $27.5 million to return to the Ravens.

Defensive ends

1. Muhammad Wilkerson, Jets ($17.2M APY, $53.5M guaranteed)

2. Olivier Vernon, Giants ($17M APY, $52.5M guaranteed)

3. J.J. Watt, Texans ($16.667M APY, $51.976M guaranteed)

4. Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants ($15.5M APY, $60M guaranteed)

5. Calais Campbell, Jaguars ($15M APY, $30M guaranteed)

This list includes both 3-4 and 4-3 defensive ends. Campbell, 30, received a pretty extraordinary deal for a player his age even if the guarantees were lower than some others in this group. The Giants' commitment to edge pass rushing, meanwhile, is pretty clear based on this list. Pierre-Paul's numbers are approximate given his recent agreement. Pierre-Paul was never available on the market after receiving the franchise tag and, in truth, the NFL's best pass-rushers rarely reach free agency.

Dont'a HightowerEPA/CJ GUNTHERDont'a Hightower is returning to New England, getting $19 million guaranteed on a four-year deal.

Linebackers

1. Von Miller, Broncos ($19.083M APY, $70M guaranteed)

2. Justin Houston, Chiefs ($16.833M APY, $52.5M guaranteed)

3. Chandler Jones, Cardinals ($16.5M APY, $53M guaranteed)

4. Melvin Ingram, Chargers ($14.55M APY/guaranteed)

5. Clay Matthews, Packers ($13.2M APY, $20.5M guaranteed)

6. Jamie Collins, Browns ($12.5M APY, $26.4M guaranteed)

7. Luke Kuechly, Panthers ($12.359M APY, $34.363M guaranteed)

8. Nick Perry, Packers ($12M APY, $18.5M guaranteed)

9. Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins ($11.5M APY, $23.788M guaranteed)

10. NaVorro Bowman, 49ers ($11M APY, $15.3M guaranteed)

Most of this list is composed of 3-4 outside linebackers, who are pass-rushers and thus the most valuable. Again, elite players in that role rarely are exposed to the open market. Jones, for example, was traded from the Patriots to the Cardinals and then given the franchise tag before he agreed to terms. Collins' recent deal stands as a bit of an outlier given his production relative to this list, but the Browns have had to pay above market at several positions to retain or acquire talent. Dont'a Hightower was the best player at this position to hit free agency, and he wound up returning to the Patriots at an APY of $8.875 million.

Cornerbacks

1. Trumaine Johnson, Rams ($16.742M APY/guaranteed)

2. Josh Norman, Redskins ($15M APY, $50M guaranteed)

3. Patrick Peterson, Cardinals ($14.01M APY, $48M guaranteed)

4. Richard Sherman, Seahawks ($14M APY, $40M guaranteed)

5. Joe Haden, Browns ($13.5M APY, $45.078M guaranteed)

6. A.J. Bouye, Jaguars ($13.5M APY, $26M guaranteed)

7. Stephon Gilmore, Patriots ($13M APY, $40M guaranteed)

8. Janoris Jenkins, Giants ($12.5M APY, $28.8M guaranteed)

9. Darius Slay, Lions ($12M APY, $23.1M guaranteed)

10. Dre Kirkpatrick, Bengals ($10.5M APY, $12M guaranteed)

Whether or not it is true, NFL teams generally operate as if there is a massive shortage of cornerbacks. Big money goes to above-average players. Johnson's status as a consecutive franchise player is one example. So is the deal that the Jaguars gave Bouye, who is a promising player but didn't become a regular starter until 2016. It didn't make this list, but the deal that brought Logan Ryan to the Titans -- $10M APY, $16M guarantees -- was also strong.

Safeties

1. Eric Berry, Chiefs ($13M APY, $40M guaranteed)

2. Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals ($12.5M APY, $35M guaranteed)

3. Reshad Jones, Dolphins ($12M APY, $33M guaranteed)

4. Harrison Smith, Vikings ($10.25M APY, $28.578M guaranteed)

5. Earl Thomas, Seahawks ($10M APY, $25.725M guaranteed)

6. Devin McCourty, Patriots ($9.5M APY, $28.5M guaranteed)

7. Malcolm Jenkins, Eagles ($8.75M APY, $21M guaranteed)

8. Tony Jefferson, Ravens ($8.5M APY, $19M guaranteed)

9. Tashaun Gipson, Jaguars ($7.2M APY, $12M guaranteed)

10. Kam Chancellor, Seahawks ($7M APY, $17M guaranteed)

Jefferson, the top safety to hit the market, got a deal that cracked the top 10 from the Ravens. But it didn't come close to what the Chiefs gave Berry, who spent last season under the franchise tag but vowed not to do it again. (Johnathan Cyprien got $6.25M in APY and $9 million to move from the Jaguars to the Titans.) Meanwhile, the Dolphins re-signed Jones a year before he would have been in position to replace Berry atop this list.

Steven HauschkaAP Photo/Stephen BrashearSteven Hauschka is signing with the Bills on a four-year deal.

Specialists

1. Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots ($4.187M APY, $10.1M guaranteed)

2. Justin Tucker, Ravens ($4.076M APY, $10.8M guaranteed)

3. Mason Crosby, Packers ($4.025M APY, $5M guaranteed)

4. Sebastian Janikowski, Raiders ($3.775M APY, $8M guaranteed)

5. Dustin Colquitt, Chiefs ($3.75M APY, $4.95M guaranteed)

Kickers are paid better than punters in the NFL. The best free-agent contract of this offseason has been the deal Steven Hauschka received from the Bills. Hauschka received $4 million guaranteed and an average of $2.95 million per year, ranking him 10th among kickers at the moment.

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