Who Are the NFL's Most Grossly Overpaid, Underpaid Players?
From an economic standpoint, every player in the NFL is worth what someone is willing to pay him. That doesn't mean particular players' performances live up to what their respective teams are willing to pay them, however.
On the flip side, there are players who are worth more than their going rate. And oftentimes, underpaid players are never properly compensated for their underappreciated skill sets.
So with the start of training camp less than a month away, let's take a look at the NFL's most grossly overpaid and underpaid players heading into the 2014 season.
For the purposes of this discussion and due to the ramifications of the collective bargaining agreement, we will ignore the players who are currently playing on their rookie contracts. Obviously, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is grossly underpaid at his position, but due to the collective bargaining agreement, he can't do anything about it.
Overpaid: Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
Average Salary: $16.25 million
When the New York Giants inked Eli Manning to a six-year, $97.5 million contract extension in the summer of 2009, the three-time Pro Bowler was one year removed from his first Super Bowl victory and was playing at an unprecedented level.
The bad news is Manning is no longer playing at an unprecedented level, and the Giants have failed to make the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
According to Pro Football Focus, Manning amassed a minus-4.5 overall grade on 1,002 snaps in 2013. Based on PFF’s passing metric, his minus-4.5 was the 30th-best grade at his position.
Manning’s lowly rating positioned him behind signal-callers like Jake Locker, Kellen Clemens and Matt Flynn.
It’s hard to believe a two-time Super Bowl champion has fallen that far, but the numbers he tallied last season were atrocious. In 551 pass attempts, Manning tossed 27 interceptions, recorded a quarterback rating of 69.4 and completed 57.5 percent of his passes.
New York is hoping Manning can rebound in 2014, but it looks like his better days are now behind him.
Underpaid: Terrance Knighton, DT, Denver Broncos
Average Salary: $2 million
At the start of the 2013 season, Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton proved his less than impressive season in 2012 was nothing more than a down year.
Why? Because from Week 1 through Week 8, Knighton turned in five positively graded games, two sacks, four quarterback hits, 11 quarterback hurries and nine defensive stops, per Pro Football Focus. This, in turn, meant he was on pace for 10 positively graded games, four quarterback sacks, eight quarterback hits, 22 quarterback hurries and 18 defensive stops.
For a player who was primarily known as a run-stuffer, one would have to believe the Broncos would have been incredibly happy with those types of numbers.
Fortunately for Denver, Knighton exceeded expectations and ended his fifth NFL season (playoffs included) with five sacks, six quarterback hits, 27 quarterback hurries and 30 defensive stops.
Considering Knighton’s late-season push, it’s evident he played a huge role in helping the Broncos reach the Super Bowl.
At 27 years of age, the third-round pick out of Temple will have no problem garnering a larger contract once he hits the open market at the end of the 2014 season.
Overpaid: Mike Wallace, WR, Miami Dolphins
Average Salary: $12 million
With the help of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Mike Wallace made the most of his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In four seasons (2009-12), the 195-pound speedster caught 235 passes, scored 32 touchdowns and registered two 1,000-yard seasons.
Numbers like that don’t just fall out of the sky, which meant he was the most coveted free-agent wide receiver prior to the 2013 season.
In an effort to improve their passing game, the Miami Dolphins signed Wallace to a five-year, $60 million deal. For a one-trick pony, $12 million a year seemed like a lot of money. Yet, it was clear that former Miami general manager Jeff Ireland was desperate for a true No. 1 receiver.
The only problem was that Wallace wasn’t a true No. 1 receiver. His route tree was limited. He wasn’t a skilled pass-catcher over the middle of the field. And he dropped way too many passes.
Coincidentally enough, the three downfalls mentioned above showed up in his game last year. Despite tallying 930 yards receiving, Wallace was PFF’s 78th-best wideout. He also dropped 11 passes and averaged a measly 1.44 yards per route run.
Obviously, the Dolphins' problems on offense run deeper than Wallace, yet one has to wonder if Miami has buyer’s remorse when it comes to the 27-year-old wide receiver out of Mississippi.
Underpaid: Demar Dotson, OT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Average Salary: $1.5 million
In recent years, teams around the NFL have started to realize that right tackles are just as valuable as left tackles.
For a case in point, take a look at some of the big-money contracts that have been handed out to right tackles as of late. Prior to the 2013 season, San Francisco 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis signed a $33.2 million extension.
During that same time frame, former Detroit Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus signed a five-year, $35 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts.
However, that's not to say every deserving right tackle has struck it rich. In fact, one of the most deserving right tackles in the game is severely underpaid.
Per PFF, Tampa Bay Buccaneers right tackle Demar Dotson was the 14th-best offensive tackle in the league last year. In 16 games, the undrafted free agent made a name for himself as he only surrendered five sacks and two quarterback hits.
Additionally, Dotson created huge rush lanes for Tampa Bay’s run game. When the Buccaneers rushed the ball off his back side, they averaged 4.3 yards per carry.
Even though Dotson is under contract through the 2016 season, don’t expect his low salary to last much longer. The Buccaneers front office will do everything in its power to redo his deal before it expires because the team knows sound offensive line play is hard to find.
Overpaid: James Laurinaitis, MLB, St. Louis Rams
Average Salary: $8.3 million
If I told you St. Louis Rams inside linebacker James Laurinaitis has a higher average salary than Daryl Washington and Derrick Johnson, you would surely laugh.
Well, get ready to laugh, because Laurinaitis does in fact make more money on a yearly basis than both Washington and Johnson.
It doesn’t seem plausible since Laurinaitis finished the 2013 season with 13 missed tackles and an awful run-defense rating of minus-5.7, but that’s what happens when an organization overpays for a mediocre player.
At the time of Laurinaitis’ $41.5 million extension, the team was starved for playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Furthermore, the Rams didn’t have a player to fill his shoes in the middle, so their only choice was to keep him.
If Laurinaitis wasn’t a total liability against the run, St. Louis could justify his bloated salary. But that’s simply not the case. Don’t be surprised when the Rams move on from him at the end of the 2014 season.
By cutting Laurinaitis prior to the 2015 season, St. Louis would save $3.225 million.
Underpaid: Captain Munnerlyn, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Average Salary: $3.75 million
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn held the Carolina Panthers secondary together last season.
In 1,055 snaps (including the playoffs), Munnerlyn secured two interceptions, registered seven passes defended and held opposing quarterbacks to an 85.6 rating in his coverage area.
Moreover, he only allowed one touchdown and scored two of his own.
Yet, for whatever reason, his career year went largely unnoticed, and he was vastly underpaid as a free agent. No, a $3.75 million yearly average isn’t peanuts, but it isn’t exactly breaking the bank, either.
If Munnerlyn performs under head coach Mike Zimmer the way he did under head coach Ron Rivera, the sixth-year corner will strike it rich in 2017.
The key for Munnerlyn over the next three years will be to play with consistency. That’s something he failed to do early in his career. In Years 1 and 2, he would have a few games where he would be lights-out. Then he would have a few games where he would absolutely tank.
Overpaid: Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Average Salary: $7 million
As good as running back Ray Rice was early in his career, he was downright appalling in 2013.
In addition to finishing with the worst overall grade at his position, Rice forced a mere nine missed tackles and averaged just 3.1 yards per carry and 1.5 yards after contact.
For the sake of comparison, in 2012, Rice forced 26 missed tackles and averaged 4.3 yards per carry and 2.3 yards after contact. It’s incredible that the 27-year-old back fell that far in a year’s time.
Tailbacks are known to struggle later on in their careers, but few could have predicted Rice’s sharp decline in 2013. It’s possible that a bounce-back season is in order, but it wouldn’t be wise to count on it.
Rice has had his fair share of problems off the field, Bernard Pierce appears to be the favored back in the Baltimore Ravens backfield, and the franchise used one of its fourth-round selections on Lorenzo Taliaferro.
With an annual average salary of $7 million, head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome need to find a way to alleviate themselves of Rice’s hefty salary.
Underpaid: Junior Galette, OLB, New Orleans Saints
Average Salary: $2.1 million
Coming out of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the only team that wanted to give outside linebacker Junior Galette a shot was the New Orleans Saints.
In spite of being an undrafted free agent, Galette quickly became a fan favorite because of his energetic play. Yet, his preseason performances didn’t help him find the field right away.
Shoot, Galette struggled to make the team in 2010. But as the years rolled on, his improvement encouraged the Saints coaching staff. And in 2013, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan made him a full-time starter at outside linebacker in his 3-4 scheme.
In hindsight, naming Galette a starter was one of the best moves Ryan has made during his time as a defensive coordinator. At the end of the 2013 season, the 258-pound edge-rusher concluded the year with 12 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries.
Not to mention, the folks at PFF awarded him with a pass-rushing productivity rating of 10.2. Galette’s 10.2 rating was the ninth-highest at his position. He finished ahead of players like Terrell Suggs, Mario Williams and Trent Cole.
Based on Galette’s star-studded numbers, the Saints were wise to lock him up when they had the chance, considering his three-year, $6.3 million contract makes him look grossly underpaid.
Overpaid: Brandon Carr, CB, Dallas Cowboys
Average Salary: $10.02 million
Much like Manning, cornerback Brandon Carr was at the top of his game when the Dallas Cowboys signed him to a lucrative long-term deal in March of 2012 (five years, $50.1 million).
Nevertheless, after a solid season in 2012, the wheels started to fall off in 2013. On 68 receptions, opposing wide receivers torched Carr for 936 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
To make matters worse, Carr allowed 351 yards after the catch and missed 15 tackles. For a guy who carries a cap number of $12.217 million in 2014, the last thing the Cowboys want to see is a declining player.
Carr has all the ability in the world, but he has to revert back to his 2012 form. If he doesn’t, Dallas will be paying for its mistake (signing Carr) until the end of the 2015 season.
The second-to-last year of Carr’s contract says the Cowboys can cut him and save $6.383 million against the cap. That’s great, but 2016 is a long ways away.
Can Dallas really afford to put up with Carr's unsatisfactory play for two more seasons? That's the multi-million-dollar question.
Underpaid: Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers
Average Salary: $4,366,667
Even though Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson will never be in the Hall of Fame, we can all agree that he is an underappreciated player who will belong in the “hall of great” when he retires.
Since Nelson was drafted in 2008, he has shown the masses that he is one of the league’s best route-runners. Not only is he excellent at getting in and out of breaks, but he attacks the defense by tracking the ball well on deep routes.
On the surface, Nelson may not come off as a deep threat, but it’s apparent he is when you look at the deep passing numbers. Per PFF, the seventh-year pass-catcher was targeted 19 times on throws 20 yards or more downfield.
Of those 19 targets, Nelson caught 13 of them for a catch rate of 68.4. His 68.4 catch rate was the second-best catch rate in the league on deep passing targets. The only player who had a higher catch rate was Santonio Holmes of the New York Jets.
The good news is Nelson is more than just a deep threat. He can run any route on the route tree and is deceptively fast, which has helped him quietly emerge as one of the best go-to receivers in the NFL.
With an average salary of $4,366,667, Nelson is ridiculously underpaid.
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