Every NFL Team's Most Underpaid Player
For each and every overpaid has-been the NFL has to offer, there's an up-and-coming star working his tail off to earn a similar contract.
And depending on the franchise, the NFL's lack of longevity makes it awfully hard to reward a deserving young star without running the risk of hampering your team's chances of success for the distant future.
Whether or not a pay raise shortly awaits them, you won't see a single roster among the league's 32 teams that doesn't contain an impact player whose value severely outweighs his income.
But that's life in the National Football League.
Moving on, the upcoming slides will present you with the most underpaid player (and a few honorable mentions) from each NFL squad.
Enjoy, and feel free to either criticize or commend my selections in the comments below.
All yearly player salaries used in this article were gathered from spotrac.com and are only a base figure. Meaning, no signing bonuses or any other miscellaneous bonuses are included in the yearly figures, only the overall contract amounts.
Stars such as Matt Forte, Mike Wallace, Ray Rice and Brent Grimes—who were all franchise tagged—are not included in this slideshow. Though each of these players (and others) have been severely underpaid in prior seasons, they'll be paid at a much higher rate in 2012 whether they sign their respective franchise tags or agree to long-term deals.
Arizona Cardinals: Daryl Washington, LB
Since he was taken in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft, Washington has served as a consistent bright spot for the Cardinals defense.
The linebacker has tallied 185 total tackles and six sacks over his first two seasons in the NFL, including 107 (95 solo) in 2012 alone.
Washington is currently locked up through 2013, but he's already earned his meager rookie contract—and then some.
According to spotrac.com, the former TCU Horned Frog is currently the 41st-highest-paid player on Arizona's roster and is set to make just $490,000 throughout the 2012 season.
Honorable Mention: Beanie Wells, RB
The $700,000 base salary Wells will earn in 2012 is not very indicative of his contributions on the gridiron, considering the fourth-year back ran for over 1,000 yards and scored 10 TD's in 2011.
Atlanta Falcons: Sean Weatherspoon, LB
Another underpaid linebacker (there's more than a handful), Weatherspoon shined for the Falcons in 2011 and piled up 115 tackles to go along with four sacks.
The third-year pro and former 19th overall selection (2010 draft) took home a nice roster bonus of $3.8 million in 2011, but he's slated to earn just $726,000 for the upcoming season.
The former Missouri product is under contract through 2014, however, so a significant pay raise may not be on its way anytime soon.
Baltimore Ravens: Torrey Smith, WR
The former Maryland product emerged as a much-needed deep threat in Baltimore's offense a season ago, and what a welcome sight it was.
Smith hauled in 50 passes for 841 yards in what was his rookie campaign and found pay dirt on seven different occasions as well.
It's not outlandish to forecast the up-and-coming wideout to break out in 2012, possibly eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in the process.
The Baltimore Sun has already reported a noticeable improvement regarding the speedster's route-running this offseason. NFL.com's Marc Sessler believes Smith is ready to make the leap and become the true No. 1 receiver the Ravens offense has long been in search of.
Those are some high, although justifiable, expectations for a player slated to earn just $529,000 in 2012.
Honorable Mention: Ed Dickson, TE
Dickson, now Baltimore's top tight end, caught 54 passes for 528 yards and five TD's in 2011, but will earn just $490,000 in the final season of a three-year rookie contract with the Ravens.
Buffalo Bills: Jairus Byrd, FS
Byrd has gotten plenty of well-deserved respect for his stellar play in the secondary, but it's yet to come in the form of a shiny new contract.
The fourth-year safety is entering the final season of a four-year, $4.1 million rookie contract signed in 2009, and he's easily the most underpaid player on the Bills roster.
Byrd picked off nine passes in his rookie season (2009), earning NFL All-Rookie Team, Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in the process.
The playmaking safety continues to improve year after year, yet he hasn't been rewarded for his actions.
Bills fans should be begging that the front office gets Mr. Byrd locked up before he decides to spread his wings and take those impressive talents elsewhere.
Byrd's base salary for 2012: $615,000.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, QB
Face it, there's not a single player on the Panthers roster that gave Carolina more bang for their buck than star QB Cam Newton.
The former No. 1 overall draft pick received a signing bonus of $14.5 million as part of his four-year, $22 million rookie deal, but will earn a base salary of just $1.4 million in 2012.
Thanks to the imposed rookie wage scale, the former 2011 first-round pick is slated to be the 33rd-highest-paid QB for the upcoming season.
For a guy who became a 4,000-yard passer that also ran for 14 TDs (21 passing) a year ago, that's kind of pathetic.
Losing out on the Madden 2013 cover competition probably didn't help out his bank account, either.
Something tells me he'll be just fine.
Honorable Mention: Brandon LaFell, WR
LaFell has over 1,000 receiving yards throughout his first two seasons in the NFL, and is a young receiving threat for Cam Newton to grow with for years to come.
The former Louisiana State product will make $540,000 in 2012.
Chicago Bears: Henry Melton, DT
Whether Forte agrees to play under the franchise tag that would pay him $7.7 million in 2012 or finally cashes in on a long-term deal, he's going to get paid.
So we'll now turn our focus to Henry Melton—the next-most-underpaid Bear on the roster.
Melton started 15 games in 2011, recording seven sacks while announcing his plans to become a big piece of Chicago's future on the defensive front.
After being selected in the fourth round of the 2009 draft, the 6'3", 295-pound interior lineman is entering the final season of a four-year, $2.2 million deal. He is on pace to earn $565,000 in 2012.
According to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com, Melton isn't about to let the low rate of pay interfere with his continued improvement.
I'm sure a deal will come soon enough, big guy.
Then again—Forte's situation considered—maybe not.
Honorable Mention: D.J. Moore, CB
The youngster has recorded at least 40 tackles and four interceptions in each of the last two seasons, and will make $565,000 in the final year of his rookie contract.
Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton, QB
He may not have recorded 4,000 yards passing, but Andy Dalton did something Cam "Superman" Newton couldn't in 2011.
Lead his team to the NFL playoffs.
Dalton was, of course, the beneficiary of a better team defense, but it was a promising season nonetheless.
That said, it has to be surprising that the former 2011 second-round pick is set to earn less money in 2012 than 61 other NFL quarterbacks.
The Bengals' lead man will make just $612,000 in 2012.
Honorable Mention: Geno Atkins, DT
Atkins tallied 7.5 sacks in 2011 and has played in every game in the first two seasons of his young and promising career.
He'll be playing for $490,000 in 2012.
Cleveland Browns: Jabaal Sheard, DT
The former second-round pick from a year ago was a delightful surprise for the Browns in his rookie season, racking up a team-leading 8.5 sacks and 55 tackles while starting all 16 games.
The talented defensive tackle looks to get even better with a full offseason under his belt, which is a scary thought for the rest of the NFL.
Playing like a top-10 talent but being paid like the 37th overall pick that he was, Sheard is set to make just $608,000 in 2012 and won't be a free agent until 2015.
Honorable Mention: Greg Little, WR
Another member of the Browns' 2011 draft class, Little came up big last season and looks to play an even bigger role in 2012.
He's set to make $476,250 for the upcoming season.
Dallas Cowboys: Sean Lee, LB
If he isn't already, Sean Lee will soon be one of the better inside linebackers in the NFL.
The third-year pro is excellent at stuffing the run, displays a high level of natural instincts when locating the ball and is also better in pass coverage than some give him credit for.
A year ago, Lee tallied 105 tackles (71 solo) and two fumble recoveries while hauling in four interceptions.
The former Penn State Nittany Lion has a bright future in the NFL, and it shouldn't be long before he cashes in big.
Until then, he's making just $540,000 in 2012. Without a new deal, he won't make much more in 2013 ($575,000), either.
Denver Broncos: Willis McGahee, RB
Despite a lack of touchdowns (four) in 2011, McGahee was more than productive in what was his 10th NFL season.
The 1,199 yards he gained in his first season as a Denver Bronco were just 48 yards shy of the most he's gained in any other season of his career. The former Hurricane posted an average of 4.8 yards per carry on 249 rushes, ranking fourth in the NFL among backs with 200-plus carries on the season.
Denver landed McGahee a day after he was released by the Ravens on July 29, 2011. He isn't making the big bucks like he was in Baltimore (signed a seven-year, $40 million contract in 2007), but the Broncos aren't complaining about the current production they're squeezing out of a two-time Pro Bowl running back who's set to make just $1 million in 2012.
Here are the details on McGahee's four-year, $12 million deal with the Broncos, via spotrac.com.
Honorable Mention: Wesley Woodyard, LB
The 25-year-old linebacker led the Broncos in tackles (97) last season and forced three fumbles as well. He isn't perfect, but Woodyard is undeniably worth more than the $1.5 million he's set to make in 2012.
Detroit Lions: Brandon Pettigrew, TE
A year ago, only Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski caught more passes than the Lions' No. 1 tight end. Altogether in 2011, Pettigrew recorded 83 receptions for 777 yards and five touchdowns.
That said, he isn't even the highest-paid TE on Detroit's roster. That honor goes to Tony Scheffler.
The fourth-year pro is now Matt Stafford's most reliable target not named Megatron. With 184 receptions in his first three NFL seasons (154 in last two), it's shocking to see that Pettigrew is set to make just $1.06 million in 2012.
Green Bay Packers: Clay Matthews, LB
Matthews has made the Pro Bowl roster in each of his three NFL seasons (2009-2011), averaging nearly 10 sacks a season (29.5 for career) in that span.
That makes it excruciatingly difficult to fathom that 84 other NFL linebackers will be earning a higher salary in 2012 than "The Claymaker."
The former 26th overall pick is entering the fourth season of a five-year, $10 million rookie contract and will make a base salary of just $800,000 in 2012.
Honorable Mention: Aaron Rodgers, QB
Arguably the NFL's top passer, Rodgers' base salary of $8 million ranks as the ninth highest of all quarterbacks in 2012. For what he does, that hardly seems fair.
Houston Texans: Ben Tate, RB
He may occasionally get lost in the shadow of Arian Foster, but no player in Houston does more for less than Ben Tate.
The third-year back missed all of his rookie season, but made up for it in a huge way in 2011.
Tate racked up 942 yards on 175 carries, scoring on four occasions as well.
What's even more stunning is that Tate's average per carry (5.4) ranked an entire yard above Foster's (4.4).
But Tate, who has two years left on a cap-friendly four-year, $3.3 million deal, may not get the deal he deserves anytime soon.
Not in Houston, anyway.
At 25 years old, Foster is already one of the league's top backs. And he recently agreed to a five-year, $43.5 million deal that ensures he'll be a Texan throughout the prime of his career.
Even with Foster, Tate is a crucial piece to the Texans offense. And without Foster, he becomes that much more important.
But it won't be easy keeping him around; that's for sure.
Honorable Mention: Connor Barwin, LB
The outside pass rush specialist racked up a team-leading 11.5 sacks in 2011 and now enters the final season of a four-year, $4.1 million contract. Barwin will make $565,000 in 2012.
Indianapolis Colts: Pat Angerer, LB
As bad as they were as a unit, Angerer anchored the Colts defense admirably in 2011.
He'll need to become more consistent to become an elite linebacker in the NFL, but with 236 tackles in two NFL seasons (148 in 2011), there's no underestimating the impact Angerer has already had in Indy.
In one game in particular—a 2011 matchup against the Steelers—the former Iowa product flashed his potential for the world to see. Angerer piled up 21 total tackles in a marvelous run-stopping effort as the Colts held Pittsburgh's running game to a measly average of 2.4 yards per carry on the day.
The third-year pro will make a base salary of just $490,000 in 2012, but there's no doubting he's an integral part of the Colts' future.
Indy fans had better hope the front office keeps this guy around long-term.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew, RB
Scheduled to make $4.4 million in 2012, Jones-Drew is competing for a bit more than just lunch money.
That said, how is it that the heart and soul of the Jaguars franchise is only the 11th-highest-paid running back in the league?
No NFL running back has carried the ball more than Jones-Drew (954) since 2009. Yes, that's an average of more than 317 carries per season over the last three years for an All-Pro back who stands at just 5'7".
MJD totaled at least 1,300 yards rushing in each of those seasons, including a league-leading 1,606 yards in 2011.
Simply put, Jones-Drew can do it all. There aren't many—if any—who do it better.
And he's only 27 years old.
All that considered, Jones-Drew is arguably the most underpaid back in the NFL, when he should be the highest-paid.
And according to Jaguars management, he'll be stuck with his current deal a while longer.
Kansas City Chiefs: Brandon Albert, LT
Despite occupying one of the higher-paid positions in the league, the Chiefs' starting left tackle is set to make just over half the salary ($2.7 million) in 2012 of newly-acquired right tackle Eric Winston ($4.9 million).
Albert (No. 76 in picture), has now started 60 games for Kansas City, and until this year, he hasn't earned more than $841,000 in any one season.
The former first-round pick will be a free agent after this season, so Scott Pioli and Co. may want to have a contract extension in the works sooner rather than later.
Honorable Mention: Tony Moeaki, TE
A breakout performer as a rookie in 2010, the Chiefs' top tight end sat out the entire 2011 season after a devastating ACL injury.
Now healthy, you can expect another big season for the third-year pro that will earn a meager $490,000 in 2012.
Miami Dolphins: Brian Hartline, WR
Hartline has quietly recorded over 500 receiving yards in each of his three NFL seasons thus far and made no more than $480,000 in any of them.
In 2012, he'll be in line for a small salary boost ($1.3 million). But with Brandon Marshall headed to Chicago in a trade, the starting receiver is undoubtedly expected be a key contributor once again.
Honorable Mention: Sean Smith, CB
Despite the fact that he's only making $565,000 in the final year of a four-year, $3.1 million contract, NFL.com's Brian McIntyre believes the Dolphins' starting corner opposite Vontae Davis is on his way to a breakout season in 2012.
Minnesota Vikings: Percy Harvin, WR
Most of us know very well that Percy Harvin is underpaid, and so does he.
In fact, the fourth-year speedster is so unhappy that he recently requested a trade from the Vikings.
Though it's highly unlikely he'll be playing elsewhere anytime soon, Minnesota would do well to offer up a sizable extension to its prized playmaker before too long. More than a couple NFL franchises would love to utilize Harvin's rare skill set and would also pay him generously for the right to do so.
Harvin's base salary in 2012 is just $915,000.
Honorable Mention: Phil Loadholt, LT
Loadholt has been a steady force on the Vikings' O-line since 2009, starting 48 games in three seasons. He'll make just $615,000 in 2012, however—the final season of a four-year, $3.4 million rookie contract.
New England Patriots: Aaron Hernandez, TE
Hernandez may not be the best tight end in New England, but there's no question he deserves a higher paycheck than a good portion of the NFL's other top tight ends.
The talented third-year pro nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark a season ago (910 yards on 79 receptions) and already has 13 touchdowns in 28 career regular-season games.
It'll be tough for Brady and the Patriots to keep Hernandez around long-term, given the money he will certainly demand on the open market.
According to spotrac, Hernandez is just the 64th-highest-paid tight end in 2012, earning a measly $540,000.
New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham, TE
Arguably, the NFL offers no superstar more deserving of a big-money deal than Jimmy Graham.
The Saints' 6'6", 250-pound tight end earned All-Pro honors in 2011, stemming from a breakout campaign in which the former Miami Hurricane hauled in 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In other words, the top receiving threat for a quarterback who just set the NFL record for passing yards is making just $540,000 in 2012.
Given the eight-year, $55 million deal Gronk just signed with the Pats, it shouldn't be hard to gauge how much the equally-amazing Graham is worth.
But if Graham's record-setting QB can't score a well-deserved deal when it's warranted, he shouldn't get his hopes too high.
New York Giants: Victor Cruz, WR
Remembering that Cruz signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2010, it's not shocking to see that the 2011 All-Pro is regarded as one of the NFL's biggest bargains.
Cruz undoubtedly emerged as one of the NFL's top pass-catchers in 2011, hauling in nine touchdowns to go with 1,536 yards. The elusive wideout also played a crucial role in helping the Giants not only reach, but win Super Bowl XLVI.
Despite these valiant efforts, Cruz will make just $490,000 in 2012, the final season of a three-year, $1.2 million deal.
New York Jets: Shonn Greene, RB
Fresh off a 1,000-yard rushing campaign in 2011, Greene is now the face of the Jets' rushing attack.
The fourth-year pro certainly has room to grow, but with the retirement of LaDainian Tomlinson, there is an intense amount of pressure being placed on a player who's making just $615,000 in the final year of a four-year, $2.6 million rookie contract.
In fact, Greene's unproven backup—third-year RB Joe McKnight—is playing under a more player-friendly contract than his own (four-year, $3.1 million).
Oakland Raiders: Denarius Moore, WR
Moore emerged as an exciting deep threat for the Raiders in his first NFL season.
The speedster recorded five touchdowns and 618 receiving yards in 2011, also helping to spread defenses and open the field for the rest of Oakland's offensive skill players.
His value considered, Moore's 2012 salary of $465,000 makes him undeniably underpaid.
Honorable Mention: Jared Veldheer (LT) and Stefen Wisniewski (LG/C)
Wherever Wisniewski lines up in 2012, he'll be a starter and a complete bargain. Same goes for Veldheer, who anchors the O-line as Carson Palmer's blindside protector at left tackle.
Neither big man will make over $500,000 in 2012.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jason Kelce, C
Up until May of 2012, star running back LeSean McCoy would've taken this spot with ease.
After McCoy's well-deserved five-year, $45 million extension on May 17 of this offseason, there aren't many players in Philadelphia that fit the category of "underpaid."
Jason Kelce, however, comes the closest.
After being thrust into the starting center position in 2011, the fast-learning rookie ended up resembling a wily veteran by season's end.
Too bad he doesn't get paid like one.
The former sixth-round pick out of Cincinnati stands to collect just $465,000 in earnings for the 2012 season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown, WR
There's no doubt that star receiver Mike Wallace is overdue for a fat payday, but he'll get his at some point this year.
After a breakout campaign in 2011, it's now fellow speedster Antonio Brown's turn to be severely underpaid.
Not only did the former Central Michigan product join the ranks of 1,000-yard receivers, he racked up 1,062 yards as a potent threat in the return game as well.
Brown has a base salary of just $490,000 coming his way in 2012 and will soon follow in Wallace's footsteps as a restricted free agent in 2013.
San Diego Chargers: Donald Butler, LB
After sitting out his entire rookie season due to injury, the former third-round pick racked up 97 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and even an interception in 2011.
That's a lot of production for such a low level of income.
Butler made just $405,000 in 2011, and it won't increase much ($495,000) in 2012, either.
San Francisco 49ers: NaVorro Bowman, LB
After earning first-team All-Pro honors a season ago, the former third-round pick will earn a base salary of just $490,000 in 2012.
The former Penn State Nittany Lion racked up 143 tackles and recovered three fumbles in 2011, mimicking fellow All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis near perfectly.
The 49er organization has a history of rewarding their players with well-deserved contract extensions, so it's probably safe to assume Bowman won't be the NFL's 155th-highest-paid linebacker for too much longer.
Seattle Seahawks: Kam Chancellor, S
The 2010 fifth-round pick came out swinging in his second NFL season.
Chancellor hauled in four interceptions to go with 97 tackles from the strong safety position—earning NFC Pro Bowl honors in the process.
The hard-hitting defensive back looks to be a mainstay in the Seahawks secondary. But until a more rewarding contract agreement can be reached, Chancellor will make only $490,000 for the upcoming season.
Honorable Mention: Doug Baldwin, WR
The undrafted rookie put forth an extremely solid campaign in 2011 (51 receptions, 788 yards) and is now set to be a main target in the Seahawks' receiving corps for years to come.
St. Louis Rams: James Laurinaitis, LB
Laurinaitis has now recorded at least 114 tackles in each of his three NFL seasons (142 in 2011) to this point.
He's earned no more than $500,000 in any of them.
The fourth-year pro isn't as complete an inside linebacker as the aforementioned Bowman, but he is a fierce tackling machine nonetheless.
The promising youngster becomes an unrestricted free agent after the upcoming season (in which he'll make $620,000), and the Rams would do well to try and lock him up quickly.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Williams, WR
After two impressive seasons, the Buccaneers' top receiver has more yards (1,735) and touchdowns (14) than former USC star and current Seahawks receiver Mike Williams has since he was a first-round pick in 2005.
Tennessee Titans: Jason McCourty, CB
In 2011, McCourty led the Titans defense in both tackles (103) and pass deflections (13).
The rising star will earn $1.2 million for the upcoming season, but had not made more than $480,000 in any of his first three seasons.
McCourty is an unrestricted free agent in 2013, so time is running out if Tennessee plans on rewarding the fourth-year pro with an extension.
Honorable Mention: Jared Cook, TE
Cook isn't at the elite level of Gronkowski or Graham, but his 49-catch, 759-yard season in 2011 claims he's worth a bit more than the $615,000 he'll bring in during the final year of his rookie contract.
Washington Redskins: Roy Helu, RB
The former Nebraska Cornhusker will be making just $465,000 as the Skins' top running back in 2012.
Judging by his rookie contributions from a year ago (1,019 yards from scrimmage and 49 receptions), he's ready to carry the load.
If Helu continues to impress, it shouldn't be long before his yearly salary carries seven figures instead of six.