As much as the NFL is about playing the greatest sport on the face of the earth (yeah, I said it, Europe. Come get me), it's also—as we're constantly reminded by the players, coaches and owners—a business.
The NFL is a multibillion dollar conglomerate, but as 32 separately acting businesses (sort of) and a salary cap in place, salaries of players and working contracts becomes just as much a strategic necessity as being able to draft and acquire talent.
Pay the wrong guy too much money and it can set your franchise back for years to come. Refuse to pay a guy what he's worth, and it could create the type of contentious atmosphere that sends a guy packing and completely reshapes the face of a franchise.
Every team in the league has that one guy who is so vastly overpaid beyond his production, and one who is in line for a hefty payday at some point in the near future.
Team by team, let's see who those players are.
Most Overpaid: Kevin Kolb
The Cardinals reworked Kolb's deal so he'll only have a base salary of $1 million in 2012, but they did pay him a $7 million roster bonus in March, so for all intents and purposes, he's making $8 million this season.
And that doesn't even include the boatload—seriously, I think they had to deliver it by boat—of money he has already made off the team and will continue to make as Kolb has a base salary and $9 million in 2013 and $10 million in 2014.
Most Underpaid: Daryl Washington
An athletic freak. By far the team's best linebacker. An incredibly bright future that could put him among the elite defensive players in the league.
Washington will make a shade under $500,000 in 2012.
Underpaid? Yeah, I'd say so. However, I don't think that's going to last past this season.
Most Overpaid: Michael Turner
With a base salary of $5 million, Turner is getting paid like one of the better backs in the league, but certainly does not fit that bill through the first three weeks.
Turner is running like he has weights on his ankles and might have hit that proverbial wall that bruisers like him eventually hit. He looks to be a shell of his former self and likely won't stick in Atlanta past 2012.
Most Underpaid: Sean Weatherspoon
Weatherspoon is still playing on his rookie deal, but is starting to play like that fact is a slap in the face.
It took him a little time, but Weatherspoon has come on strong under Mike Nolan's tutelage and is a big reason why the Falcons defense is as good as it is so far.
Most Overpaid: Bryant McKinnie
Cut by the Minnesota Vikings for being overweight and out of shape, the Baltimore Ravens decided to take a chance on McKinnie's obvious talents and bring him in. Unsurprisingly, they too considered cutting him for his weight issues.
McKinnie agreed to a pay cut to avoid getting flat-out cut, but a cap number of $4.2 million is an awful lot for a backup tackle.
Most Underpaid: Dennis Pitta
This would have gone to Ray Rice, but the Ravens paid him before the season. So instead, this tight end gets this dubious distinction. Although, to be fair, he wasn't underpaid until he started producing this season.
Pitta, along with Ed Dickson, was part of a duo of tight ends drafted early by the Ravens in the same year, and Pitta has obviously separated himself as the starter. He's also a favorite target for Joe Flacco, and that alone will make him more deserving of the $490,000 he's making this year.
Most Overpaid: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Since the day he signed the deal, Fitzpatrick has seemingly gone out of his way to show everyone he was not worth even half of the $59 million.
For a brief moment in his career Fitzpatrick has looked like a legitimate starting-caliber NFL quarterback, and not the journeyman backup he really is. I expect the Bills to find a way to recoup some of their losses and move on from him shortly.
Most Underpaid: Andy Levitre
Levitre is a steady presence on the interior of the line and is arguably one of the best pass protectors in the league.
Yes, even as a guard.
He and center Eric Wood are a productive and solid tandem, making Levitre a steal at only $965,000.
Most Overpaid: Chris Gamble
With a cap number nearing $10 million, Gamble should be producing like one of the top corners in the game. But ask anyone to start listing their top 10 corners right now, and I give it a 95 percent chance Gamble doesn't show up anywhere.
Gamble is a lower-level starter and is definitely a pay-cut candidate.
Most Underpaid: Brandon LaFell
A single person didn't really jump off the list as obviously underpaid, so I went with LaFell because of the flashes he's shown and the fact that he's a starter making $745,000.
In an era when everyone, especially the skill positions, are overpaid, the Panthers have an incredibly cheap starting option.
Most Overpaid: Devin Hester
Hester's progression as a wide receiver has leveled off somewhere in the area of "mediocre." Combine that with the fact that he's no longer even the primary return man and there's no way the Bears can justify him counting for over $7 million in cap space.
Most Underpaid: Henry Melton
Some guys move around a lot, but few move from offense to defense to offense and back. That's what Melton has done in college and the pros, but he's finally found a home as a defensive tackle and looks very impressive.
Melton is set to earn just under $700,000 and will be in line for a raise shortly.
Most Overpaid: Andre Smith
The former No. 6 overall pick has made strides since he was drafted (hopefully wearing a shirt most of the time), but overall has been disappointing. His $4.5 million cap number is not overly excessive for a starting offensive lineman, but he has yet to show he can play consistently enough to earn such a figure.
Most Underpaid: Andy Dalton
As a former second-round pick, Dalton is costing the Bengals just over $600,000 in 2012. Given his status as the starting quarterback and his impressive rookie season, Dalton is obviously worth and deserving of much more than that. However, teams must wait until three years after a player is drafted to rework their contract.
When that time comes, Dalton will get a hefty payday, but for now he is quite obviously underpaid.
Most Overpaid: Juqua Parker
Parker, a rotational defensive end, is currently costing the Browns $3 million toward the cap. Parker brings them only limited production and does not start, which is exactly what they should have expected out of an aging defensive end. Ever agreeing to pay him so much money is inexcusable for the Browns front office.
Most Underpaid: Buster Skrine
Skrine is a guy who looks ready to step up and really make a name for himself. Sheldon Brown is getting to that age where the Browns might decide to move on, so Skrine could become the permanent guy across from cornerback Joe Haden in short order.
If that happens without a pay raise, Skrine will be severely underpaid at just over $500,000.
Most Overpaid: Tony Romo
This season, Romo has a base salary of $9 million. Given his postseason success, I would argue he's overpaid on that number alone. But when we consider the $18.5 million he's really counting against the cap, it's clear Romo is the most overpaid player on a team that makes giving guys undeserved raises a hobby.
Most Underpaid: DeMarco Murray
Murray is bringing in just a shade over $500,000, but since he's the workhorse of that Cowboys offense, it's easy to argue he's worth at least 10 times that amount. Without Murray, the Cowboys offense would be in a lot of trouble, and I think owner Jerry Jones knows that.
Hopefully, that means he's going to open the checkbook for this kid.
Most Overpaid: Elvis Dumervil
This isn't to say Dumervil doesn't deserve to be paid well. He's a top-flight player and deserves to be paid as such, but the $14 million he's bringing in this year is a little off the wall. The best defensive ends are making right around $12 million, and Dumervil has not shown he can earn that money with his hand in the ground.
Most Underpaid: Zane Beadles
I wouldn't call Beadles anything special, but he is a starting offensive lineman and he's only making right around $1 million. That's backup pay for starter quality and clearly a deal for the Broncos.
Most Overpaid: Cliff Avril
Avril turned his first real good NFL season into a franchise tag this season that is paying him over $10 million. It's undeniable that Avril looked good last year, but certainly not enough to warrant that type of money. Especially for a guy who looks like he might have turned it up just to get paid.
Most Underpaid: Titus Young
As mentioned previously, players must be in the league for three years before they can have their deal reworked. That being said, the Lions are getting a real bargain until that time comes with Young. He's shown flashes of becoming an extremely explosive player and is worth about $1.1 million as it stands.
Most Overpaid: A.J. Hawk
For the first few years of his career, Hawk looked like a woeful bust. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he began looking like he might be a starter—and a steady one at that. The Packers overreacted, however, and gave him an extension to pay him like an established veteran when he's really been the opposite.
The $6.5 million he's costing them was likely not a sound investment.
Most Underpaid: Randall Cobb
Cobb is a lot like Titus Young in both play style and contract situation. The Packers could not rework Cobb's deal at the moment if they wanted to, but it's pretty clear he has outplayed his rookie deal and is someone they will not allow to walk, even if it means a big contract.
Most Overpaid: Antonio Smith
Smith was signed when the Texans had to overpay free agents to come play for them. They also were a 4-3 defense back then. Now Smith's contract has inflated past the point of ridiculous at $8 million and he's out of place in Wade Phillips' new 3-4 scheme.
Most Underpaid: Ben Tate
It's hard to shine with a guy like Arian Foster in front of you, but Tate finds a way. His hard-nosed, bruising style is the perfect complement to Foster's one-cut style and wears a defense down to allow Foster the big plays he makes weekly. Tate might not want to stick around as Foster's backup, but he's in for a big payday somewhere.
Most Overpaid: Dwight Freeney
I'm not the fan of Freeney that most are. For me, he's a lot like Simeon Rice in that he has one very obvious weakness: the run game. Everyone knew the way to beat Rice was to run right at him, and the same holds true for Freeney. Elite guys making the big bucks do not have such clear and obvious weaknesses in their game.
Most Underpaid: Donald Brown
Brown is certainly a flawed back used best in a 1-2 punch and preferably as the second guy. But he's starting for the Colts this year and making only $1.3 million—a bargain for any starter.
Most Overpaid: Laurent Robinson
I figured some desperate team would overpay Robinson, and my prediction came to pass. Robinson is costing the Jaguars a hefty $4.7 million and has yet to show up. Teams should also use caution when paying that journeyman who suddenly explodes on the scene.
Most Underpaid: Eben Britton
The Jags are currently paying Britton $1.2 million in the final year of his contract, and while he's nothing more than a middle-of-the-pack starter, having an offensive tackle they can count on at such a low price makes Britton underpaid.
Most Overpaid: Matt Cassel
If anyone should have actually known better, it was Scott Pioli. The New England Patriots scheme was extremely quarterback-friendly at the time and, while Cassel looked good running the offense, he had a lot of help. The Chiefs are paying Cassel $7.5 million this year, but have given him an insane amount of money over the life of his current contract.
Most Underpaid: Tony Moeaki
Moeaki has seen his production decrease since his rookie year, but a lot of that is the team around him more than it is an indictment of his talent. This guy has made some freakish circus catches already and would likely approach Pro Bowl numbers on a halfway decent team.
Most Overpaid: Karlos Dansby
Dansby has been a good player for his entire career, but the linebacker is raking in over $10 million from the Dolphins this year. I don't think he's ever been worth that type of money, but he's definitely not worth it now.
Most Underpaid: Sean Smith
Smith has not become the player the Dolphins thought they were getting, but the defensive back is good enough to start in this league and is currently making $800,000. That's underpaid for a starter at nearly any position, even if their potential might not be realized.
Most Overpaid: John Carlson
Carlson's $5 million salary is not just starter money for a tight end; that's closing in on Pro Bowl money. Carlson is nowhere near that and is quite clearly the second-best tight end on the team behind second-year man Kyle Rudolph
Most Underpaid: Kyle Rudolph
As mentioned above, Rudolph has taken the starting job from Carlson, but makes only one-fifth what Carlson makes. The CBA makes it impossible to pay him more until after next season, but hopefully the Vikings are stashing some away for him.
Most Overpaid: Logan Mankins
Mankins is a very good guard, but $7 million might be a bit much. That said, there really are not a ton of guys to pick from on the Patriots because they do such a good with contracts and controlling the salary cap. So Mankins gets the wrath of my nitpicking.
Most Underpaid: Julian Edelman
For a guy who has seen his snaps increase on offense, plays special teams and even chips in on defense, it's got to be difficult making only $635,000—a number a team might pay to a guy having trouble even dressing on game day.
Most Overpaid: Roman Harper
Today, elite safeties usually pull in around $8 million per season. In 2012, Harper will make $6.3 million and I'm not even sure the biggest homer in New Orleans would rate Harper as even a very good safety. He's serviceable, no doubt, but getting paid far too much when he has so many deficiencies.
Most Underpaid: Darren Sproles
Sproles is without a doubt their most dynamic weapon. In fact, after Drew Brees and Jahri Evans, there's a good chance he's the best player on the team. That's why his $4.2 million salary is below what he deserves in relation to what he does for the team.
Most Overpaid: David Diehl
Diehl had a few good seasons and proved his worth by bouncing all around the offensive line. As of late, however, Diehl has been a disaster on and off the field. He's making $4.5 million this season, which is too much for a guy who likes to pick and choose when he'll show up.
Most Underpaid: Andre Brown
Perhaps this isn't fair since Brown really only came on last week, but if he keeps up his current pace he will severely outplay his $465,000 salary. I've never been a huge fan of Ahmad Bradshaw and think the time could come this season where he's playing second fiddle to Brown.
Most Overpaid: Mark Sanchez
For a guy who looks like he belongs on the sideline holding the clipboard an awful lot, Sanchez is certainly raking it in this season as he collects nearly $8 million from the Jets. It's entirely possible the man formerly known as "The Sanchize" doesn't make it through the season as the starter and winds up earning starter's money on the bench.
Most Underpaid: Austin Howard
Howard is a guy who can play both tackle positions and play well in a pinch. There's also a good chance he's better than Jason Smith at this point, so comparing Howard's $540,000 salary to Smith's $4 million just makes it even worse.
Most Overpaid: Tommy Kelly
Kelly is known more for flapping his gums than he is for playing good football at this point. So knowing he's making almost $9 million must be eating at new general manger Reggie McKenzie. In no situation is Kelly worth that type of money.
Most Underpaid: Marcel Reese
One of the most versatile—and underutilized—players in the game is making a measly $540,000 this season. Because he's listed as a fullback, Reese likely won't ever get the pay he deserves, but this is a guy who could be used in the same manner as Aaron Hernandez in New England—and likely with similar results.
Most Overpaid: Michael Vick
Vick has not looked great so far, but that's not really why he's the most overpaid. It's the fact that he's making nearly $14 million and would have to look incredible to earn that type of money. This is a rare instance where the Eagles overspent on a guy when it wasn't necessary.
Most Underpaid: Akeem Jordan
Jordan has always been underappreciated. The Eagles keep trying to replace him, but the linebacker continues to prove he belongs as a starter. He is starting once again this year, and is making only $540,000 in the process.
Most Overpaid: Troy Polamalu
Many will disagree with this, but I think Polamalu is incredibly overpaid. He's making over $9 million to get hurt, stand on the sideline, or gamble and cost his defense when he's out of place. Polamalu will make a lot of big plays, but he gives up just as many. Those bad plays are forgotten when he makes the good ones, so he'll continue to be overpaid.
Most Underpaid: Emmanuel Sanders
Sanders could be the team's second-best all-around receiver behind Antonio Brown, yet he makes just under $700,000. He is in the last year of his contract and will be compensated during the offseason. While Mike Wallace mopes about his deal, there's a good chance he's the Steelers' third-best receiver.
Most Overpaid: Robert Meachem
Meachem really doesn't have an extensive resume, so I was a little surprised when the Chargers gave him a four-year, $25 million deal. In the first year of that deal, Meachem is making $3.3 million, but is finding far less success in San Diego than he did with the Saints.
Most Underpaid: Aubrayo Franklin
In the 3-4, Franklin is a forced to be reckoned with. The defensive tackle holds his ground about as well as anyone, but isn't even making $900,000 for the Chargers. For all his talent, there must be a side to Franklin that rubs people the wrong way.
Most Overpaid: Michael Crabtree
There's a lot of hype surrounding Crabtree, but not a lot of production—past or present—to back it up. The former first-round pick will make over $5 million this year, but has done little to earn it.
Most Underpaid: Navorro Bowman
One half of the best linebacker tandem in football makes only $665,000 this season. That's in large part due to where he was drafted and isn't eligible to get paid until this upcoming offseason, but for now the 49ers have one of the best linebackers in the game for what amounts to pennies.
Most Overpaid: Matt Flynn
Flynn has to be the best-paid backup quarterback in the league right now at the handsome sum of $4 million. Flynn was a nobody backup behind Aaron Rodgers but, after looking good in one game, got a huge check in the offseason from the Seahawks just so they could start a third-round rookie.
Most Underpaid: Russell Wilson
If Flynn is vastly overpaid, then Wilson is ridiculously underpaid. Again, because of where he was drafted and the CBA, there's nothing that can be done. But the team's starting quarterback is making less than a lot of special teams guys around the league.
Most Overpaid: Sam Bradford
Before sanity came to the NFL draft and there was no rookie wage scale, Bradford made out like a bandit. He's pulling in over $15 million this season for what has been only average play to this point in his career.
Most Underpaid: Danny Amendola
Amendola is Wes Welker from five years ago. The guy runs absolutely beautiful patterns and catches everything that comes his way. For those efforts, he'll make less than $2 million this season.
Most Overpaid: Josh Freeman
Well, there was a glimmer of hope for his career, but that is fading fast. Freeman is back to looking lost, scared and totally confused. But because he's on the back end of his deal, he's making nearly $8 million this season.
Most Underpaid: LeGarrette Blount
Well, maybe he's not underpaid given how much the Bucs use him. Or, rather, how little they use him. Blount has a 1,000-yard season under his belt, is certainly of starting caliber and is only making $540,000 this year. But that's the way it goes for undrafted free agents for a while.
Most Overpaid: Chris Johnson
He's averaging around two yards per carry and making over $10 million. Sort of speaks for itself, doesn't it?
Most Underpaid: Alterraun Verner
He won't be going to any Pro Bowls soon, but Verner has shown starting ability in the past. The Titans are currently only paying him $670,000. He doesn't deserve the big bucks, but even backup corners are getting double that.
Most Overpaid: Trent Williams
Williams has been an above-average tackle during his short time in the league, but thanks to his high draft status he's currently making an eye-popping $14 million. The very best left tackles don't make that type of money, and Williams has only ever found himself on the verge of being a good player.
Most Underpaid: Alfred Morris
The Redskins stole Morris late and are paying him just a hair over $400,000 to be their starting running back. Morris is playing very well for Mike Shanahan and will cash in if he can keep this up for three years. But regardless, as it stands, the Redskins are getting an incredible bargain on their starting running back.