The Most Underpaid NFL Player at Every Position
Managing the salary cap is an underrated part of finding success in the NFL. This is why it’s important for franchises to find contributors who don’t require a high salary. These underpaid players find themselves in this situation for a number of reasons.
The most common scenarios include players still on their rookie contract, guys who went for long-term security that resulted in a lower average salary, and any player who might have gone undrafted.
All contract information obtained from spotrac.com.
Quarterback: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Current Contract: 4-year deal, $3 million total, average salary of $749,176 per year
Landing a highly productive player in the latter part of the draft is always a positive. In the case of the Seattle Seahawks, they really hit a home run. Russell Wilson not only has a low salary-cap hit, but is also the building block of the franchise.
The fact that the Seahawks are only paying an average of around $750,000 per year for a starting quarterback gives them a lot of flexibility.
One successful season doesn’t make a career, so Wilson needs to continue to develop and fulfill the expectations he set as a rookie. This is another added benefit for Seattle, as the collective bargaining agreement forbids the franchise from renegotiating Wilson’s contract this early in his career.
Running Back: Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins
Current Contract: 4-year deal, $2.2 million total, average salary of $555,775 per year
Alfred Morris was one of the bigger surprises of the 2012 NFL season. His ability to quickly decipher post-snap information and get upfield made him a perfect fit for Mike Shanahan’s running attack.
A lot of attention was placed on the success of Robert Griffin III, but his rookie season was made much easier because of Morris.
Look for Morris to be an even bigger part of the offense this year. The Redskins need to limit Griffin’s carries in order to protect him. Washington isn’t going to get away from the running game, so Morris can expect to get the carries taken away from Griffin.
Wide Receiver: Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Current Contract: 5-year deal, $14 million total, average salary of $2.8 million per year
Demaryius Thomas has always had the speed needed to be a big-play threat, but he developed into a more complete player with Peyton Manning under center. Thomas’ combination of size, speed and leaping ability makes him a matchup nightmare.
Opposing defenses will have a tough time shutting down this Denver Broncos passing game this season. They have to find a way to neutralize a wide receiver combination of Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker.
Thomas is going to have plenty of favorable matchups, and he’s more than ready to take advantage of these opportunities.
Tight End: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints
Current Contract: 4-year deal, $2.5 million total, average salary of $613,785 per year
Jimmy Graham has quickly emerged as one of the more gifted tight ends in the NFL. He has a rare combination of size and speed that helps him attack all parts of the field. He’s a matchup problem because defensive backs lack the size to keep him in check and linebackers aren’t fast enough.
Graham’s numbers should continue to be solid as long as Drew Brees is under center. Brees understands Graham’s talent and looks to take advantage.
His low salary isn’t going to last much longer, as the New Orleans Saints need to consider getting him signed to a long-term deal. It’s possible that extension could come at some point during the upcoming season.
Offensive Tackle: Joe Staley, San Francisco 49ers
Current Contract: 6-year deal, $28 million total, average salary of $4.7 million per year
The left tackle position is so important to an NFL offense that even average players command large salaries. This is why Joe Staley’s contract is such a bargain for the San Francisco 49ers. He’s arguably one of the best left tackles in the league and comes at a very affordable price.
San Francisco’s offense heavily depends on the offensive line to set the tone. Jim Harbaugh loves to establish a power run game and then work some play action. Staley’s presence is one of the reasons the 49ers are able to run this attack.
It’s also important to note that San Francisco has three former first-round picks along the offensive line. Keeping all three in the mix for the long term depends on everyone having reasonable contracts.
Offensive Guard: Alex Boone, San Francisco 49ers
Current Contract: 5-year deal, $7.5 million total, average salary of $1.5 million per year
Last offseason, the San Francisco 49ers held an open competition at the right guard position. Alex Boone won the starting job and went on to have a great season. He was so productive that he even received two All-Pro votes.
Boone’s salary is so low because he signed as an undrafted free agent. The 49ers are fortunate to have a young, productive player locked up to an affordable long-term deal.
However, another strong season by Boone could force the 49ers into looking at reworking his deal. They’d be wise to consider starting the negotiations sooner rather than later. Otherwise, he could become a holdout candidate.
Center: Alex Mack, Cleveland Browns
Current Contract: 5-year deal, $14.6 million total, average salary of $2.9 million per year
Joe Thomas is the most notable offensive lineman on the Cleveland Browns roster. However, Alex Mack has quietly established himself as one of the top centers in the league. He has found a lot of success despite having to deal with massive defensive linemen like Casey Hampton and Haloti Ngata.
Mack is just as important to the Browns’ success as Thomas. He’s the one responsible for keeping pressure out of the quarterback's face and opening running lanes in the middle of the field.
Cleveland needs him to perform at a high level if it has any hope of Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson fulfilling their potential.
Defensive End: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Current Contract: 4-year deal, $11.2 million total, average salary of $2.8 million per year
J.J. Watt has quickly emerged as one of the more dominant defensive linemen in the NFL. The Houston Texans are getting a real bargain with Watt still being on his rookie contract. These savings won’t last for much longer, as Houston will need to start negotiating an extension soon.
Watt’s ability to impact the game in several different ways is why he’s so valuable. He does a good job setting the edge against the run, generating pressure on the quarterback and even batting balls at the line of scrimmage.
It's tough to pinpoint another defensive end who has as much of an impact as Watt.
Defensive Tackle: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals
Current Contract: 4-year deal, $3.2 million total, average salary of $801,363 per year
Geno Atkins slipped to the fourth round of the 2010 draft mainly because he lacked ideal size for a defensive tackle. However, this forced teams to overlook his strong work ethic and quickness off the ball.
Atkins' fall on draft day really benefited the Cincinnati Bengals because they landed a great player and are paying him a small salary. His ability to generate pressure in the face of the quarterback disrupts the timing of the entire offense.
According to Daniel Shirey of US Presswire (via SI.com), Cincinnati knows that it needs to start working on an extension for Atkins. There’s little reason to doubt that his new contract will put him among the highest-paid defensive players in the league.
Outside Linebacker: Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Current Contract: 4-year deal, $14.4 million total, average salary of $3.6 million per year
I went back and forth between Aldon Smith and Von Miller for this spot. However, Smith has been just as productive as Miller and features a lower salary. Both of these linebackers are elite players capable of changing the outcome of a game.
Smith’s ability to generate pressure on the quarterback has helped transform the San Francisco 49ers defense into a dominant force. He has registered an eye-popping 33.5 sacks in just two seasons.
His combination of speed, length and tenacity are the keys to his success. He forces opposing offenses to develop game plans to stop his pressure. Smith is a true difference-maker.
Inside Linebacker: NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
Current Contract: 7-year deal, $46.3 million total, average salary of $6.6 million per year
NaVorro Bowman earns the most of any player I included on this list, but that doesn’t mean he’s not underpaid. Bowman has quietly developed into one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL. He’s so valuable because he can both play the run and hold up in coverage.
Bowman is now only starting to get the credit he deserves. He’s been underrated for so long because he plays alongside Patrick Willis. There are some who believe that Bowman has actually surpassed Willis as a player.
Either way, Bowman is worth every penny he’s paid and then some.
Cornerback: Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
Current Contract: 4-year deal, $2.2 million total, average salary of $555,606 per year
Richard Sherman’s rise to stardom doesn’t follow the usual path. He began his college career as a wide receiver, leading Stanford in receptions as a freshman. However, Sherman made the switch to cornerback after an injury issue.
His lack of experience factored in to his slide to the fifth round of the 2011 draft. This obviously created a bit of a chip on his shoulder and helps create some added motivation.
Finding steals in the latter part of the draft is how a team can find itself in a great salary-cap situation. The Seattle Seahawks have done a good job adding talent where others aren’t looking.
Safety: Stevie Brown, New York Giants
Current Contract: 1-year deal for just over $2 million
In his first season in a New York Giants uniform, Stevie Brown took full advantage of the first consistent playing time he saw in his career. Brown’s eight interceptions were second-best in the NFL.
The Giants have Brown under contract for just one more season. This is a good situation for them, as one productive season isn’t enough to earn a long-term contract.
While I’m sure Brown would love the security of a long-term deal, he should still feel lucky to have a starting job heading into training camp. He just needs to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke and he’ll get paid well.
Special Teamer: Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens
Current Contract: 3-year deal, $1.4 million total, average salary of $480,000 per year
Joe Flacco gets a ton of credit for leading the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl victory. However, Justin Tucker deserves some love for his clutch kicking. His ability to hit field goals with the game on the line provided a lot of confidence for the rest of the team.
Flacco felt comfortable enough to get his team in field-goal position and not take risks in order to put the ball in the end zone.
The life of a kicker has its share of ups and downs, but there’s no reason to believe Tucker’s play will drastically change. He’s already proven to be one of the more accurate and consistent kickers in the league.
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